Rent levels are already far too high, and the Bill will continue the substantial increases in rents that have already taken place. Those increases in rents result from the elimination of housing subsidies and are not the fault of the local council, certainly not mine, which recognises that much of the rent increases has been unjustified, but has simply no alternative, like every other local authority. These substantial rent increases have been aggravated by the substantial reduction in housing benefit. The phasing out of transitional benefit—a benefit which came about only as a result of the outcry, particularly by Opposition Members—will mean that many of those who will be expected to pay full rents will not be in a position to do so.
I receive many complaints from constituents about rent levels. They come to see me at my surgeries and show me the amount of rent that they are paying out of a relatively small income. I can hardly believe that they can be paying so much in rent. As one would expect, I write to the housing department, but it is nearly all in order in most cases. Usually there has been no mistake and the responsibility falls on the Government who, since they came to office 10 years ago, have deliberately pursued the policy of making life more and more difficult for local authority tenants.
One of the reasons why rents have gone up, apart from the substantial reduction in housing subsidies, is the Government's wish for council tenants to buy. They are pressurised to buy. They are told, "Why remain a council tenant? It is easier to buy." In many cases they have no wish to buy the property in which they live. The ring fencing that is included in the Bill will ensure that tenants who are certainly not well off, but who are somewhat better off than others, will subsidise poorer tenants. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said, the poor will subsidise the very poor.
We have not heard much from the Minister about the private sector. He would be boasting if there were any justification for boasting. We know the junior Minister's record before he came to the House. He is a fanatic about the privately-rented sector. He and other Ministers told us that there would be a revival of that sector, that that would solve much of the homelessness and the difficulties experienced by so many people.
I wonder how many more rented accommodation has come about in the private sector since the new legislation was put on the statute book—not much. That demonstrates what we said at the time—that the revival would not come about for all the reasons that we gave at the time. We are confronted by an acute housing crisis, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said.
I shall give an illustration. Some constituents of mine, who are not in the worst housing plight, came to see me last Saturday. They are a young couple who have been married for two or three years and have one child. They live with the wife's mother. The situation in the household is tense. They are high on the waiting list, but every time they go to the local neighbourhood office, they find that other people are higher. That is understandable because, presumably, other people are considered to be in greater housing need.
The couple have been married for nearly three years and they have never had any accommodation of their own. They told me that, about 18 months ago, they considered buying a place but it was not possible then, let alone now. Theirs is not the worst case—far from it—but it illustrates some of the problems of people who are being punished and penalised, day in and day out, by the Government because they cannot afford a mortgage. What can they do? They can wait for years to be rehoused by the local authority. I am not exaggerating. Housing associations cannot help them, and it is a joke to mention the private rented sector to the people who come to my surgeries and who write to me about their housing problems.
Why should our fellow citizens be penalised because they do not have the income to buy? I accept that they are a minority, but they are a sizeable minority. If we leave the main building here and turn right, we will find that a vigil is taking place opposite Downing street. It is a vigil for the homeless and I understand that it has been organised by Shelter. This Christmas, there will be more homeless people than in any year since the end of the war. That is certain. There will be more families in bed-and-breakfast hostels this Christmas than ever before. Imagine what it must be like to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the Christmas holiday and not to know when one will be rehoused.
The Prime Minister likes photo-opportunities and she likes to be photographed in favourable circumstances. Will she visit a bed-and-breakfast hostel on Christmas day? Will the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State go to a hostel and see their fellow citizens living in squalid conditions because of the Government's policies? Nowadays one cannot go to a main line railway or Underground station in central London without seeing young people with boards saying, "I am homeless". They are begging. They do not appear to me to be social victims in the sense of being drunkards. In the main they are young people who are encouraged to come to London by the Government. Once they are here, even if they find a job, they have no means of finding accommodation. That is the crisis that we have to deal with and to which the amendments refer.
Many accusations can be made against the Government. One of the worst is that they have shown a callous disregard for people who are not able to solve their housing problems by buying. They have shown a callous disregard for people who desperately require rented accommodation. Had I been told before 1979 that there would be a substantial reduction in the rented sector, I would have found it almost unbelievable. I shall not go into the argument about whether it is right for local authorities to sell houses, as it is not a part of this debate, but it is only right and proper that when accommodation is sold it should be replaced. Yesterday, in a parliamentary answer, I was told that the number of local authority starts last year was approximately 13,000 and that it is likely to be even less this year. That is disgraceful and scandalous.
I do not apologise for the fact that I have raised these issues in the House before and I shall continue to do so because the Chamber of the House of Commons is the right place to raise them. There is not much concern on the Conservative Benches. Ministers are well off. None of them has ever suffered the indignity of being without accommodation. None of them understands what it means not to be able to resolve housing difficulties. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) may mutter as much as he likes—Ministers do not understand the problems that I am trying to explain to the House.
I say again that it is scandalous that our fellow citizens should have to spend Christmas or any other time in the conditions that I have described. That is why we are right to object to the Bill. It is the duty and responsibility of Labour Members to explain what is happening at every opportunity, in the House and outside, and to point out the indifference that the Government show to the homeless and near-homeless in Britain.