The Government have put themselves into difficulties because the right-to-buy policy has always been one legged. There is nothing wrong with the right to buy, be it for ordinary housing, housing for the disabled, housing for the elderly or housing for charitable associations, if it is matched by a duty to replace, and there is a financial structure that enables housing associations, be they charitable or not, to do so. The Government are in trouble —they faced criticism in another place, which has been repeated by the hon. Member for Taunton—because they cannot effectively replace properties that are bought under the right to buy.
In the debates over the past few years, including our debates yesterday, my hon. Friends and I have been drawing attention to the growing housing crisis. At the sharp end, there has been a diminution of the supply of affordable houses or flats for rent. The entire country is affected and the reason is not hard to find. Leaving aside the collapse of the private sector, which is not germane to the debate, well over 500,000 council houses have been sold. There would have been no problem if those houses had been replaced.
The Labour party made it clear that the right-to-buy policy could continue if it were matched in housing stress areas with a duty to replace. That duty could be achieved in a number of ways. It could be fulfilled by allowing the local authority or housing association to build another property. I shall deal with financing later. It could be achieved by the authority or association buying another property from the private market. It could be achieved also in a way that I would consider most appropriate, by the authority or association having the right to buy back when the house is put up for resale for the first time. I note that there is a nod of support from at least one Conservative Member, and probably two.
By simply allowing the right to buy without any duty to replace, in rural and urban areas alike, the Government have cut off the supply of affordable rented houses. It has dropped by at least 500,000 in the council house sector alone, and with housing association and private sector losses the total would be well above 1 million. The Government would not have found themselves in so much difficulty in Committee or in another place—they were forced to accept amendments there, and these changes are a result of that fait accompli—if they had originally introduced what the Labour party has always said was essential—the duty to replace. Their failure to do so has caused all these problems.
Why do the amendments relate specifically to the elderly? It is because, having introduced the right to buy, the Government suddenly found that the elderly and the disabled also wanted to buy. The same applies to the charitable housing associations. If the elderly and the disabled were given the right to buy, houses that had been specially converted for them would be lost to the rented sector and would not be available for future generations of elderly and disabled people. It has become clear that there would be a growing shortage of such accommodation. To prevent that, the Government would have to say that the elderly and the disabled should not have the right to buy —and consequently the right to buy would not, in effect, be a true right to buy. Indeed, we all know that it is not a fundamental human right; it has been limited to certain groups, and specifically to council tenants in certain types of accommodation.
Had the Government said initially that the right to buy should be matched by a duty to replace, and had they provided a housing finance system to support that, the position would be very different. The Government could then have said that the elderly and the disabled should have the right to buy. but that the local authority or housing association must replace. That could be done in any of the three ways that I have already suggested. However, if the Government were serious about doing that, the finances would have to be there to support it. That is why I urge on the Government the need to reform housing finance.
If a tenant is given a discount that comes from local authority funds, there is no way that that authority can replace—not even by buying back, or at least not without losing a great deal of money. The way around that problem would be directly to subsidise the person wanting to buy, but the Government have chosen not to do that. They do not really want to help people to own their homes; they want people to buy their council houses at the expense of other people in that area who are both paying for those houses and in the queue waiting for those houses.
That means that elderly people who want to move into specially converted accommodation are now less able to do so than previously. As the hon. Member for Taunton and the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) know, because there are fewer places available, those people cannot move into that sort of accommodation. That means a growing problem with elderly people having to stay in inappropriate housing while they wait for the right accommodation to become free, but it is not becoming free because it has been bought and is not being replaced.