There is much in what my hon. Friend says. I do not want to digress too much, but we are talking about taxation: the Bill gives away money and forgoes tax revenue. The Government could have kept that money, or at least given it away in a different manner. Although VAT in this country is not as regressive as it is in other European Community member states, it has certain regressive aspects.
The proportion of our national income that is taken in tax has risen from 34.75 per cent. In 1978–79 to 37 per cent. in 1991–92. In 1978–79, a married couple on typical earnings paid 30.9 per cent. of their income in tax; now, they pay 34.9 per cent. There is no doubt that the burden of taxation has risen, although there may be arguments across the Floor of the House about the reasons for that rise; and the fact is that the Conservatives are the high-tax party.
I cannot argue that, because the Government are giving back a little tax, we should vote against the Bill, and I shall not urge my hon. Friends to oppose its Second Reading—although we retain our right to examine the amendments carefully. None the less, I wish that the Government had presented us with a different Bill, and that the taxation that is being forgone was being forgone in a better way.
It is clear that the Conservative party is rattled, for it has changed its philosophy. At one stage, they say that we should not interfere with the market; at another stage, they say that we should. I think that I have demonstrated that the Bill is an election gimmick, and that after 9 April—or is it 7 May?—it will be speedily forgotten.
Perhaps it is not too late for the Government to propose an adjournment, so that we can return to the Bill next week or at some other time. Perhaps they will change their mind, and incorporate some of our suggestions. Labour's programme is eminently sensible. We propose, for instance, that local authorities be enabled to acquire properties selectively on the private market. Why was not something done? Why was a deal reached quietly, with building societies and banks saying, "We will not go so heavy on repossessions if you—the Government—forgo taxation in the form of stamp duty, and also insist that DSS money is forwarded directly to us rather than being given to home owners"?
Why did not the Bill contain a provision enabling local authorities to acquire properties? Housing associations could and should be encouraged to enter into deals with local authorities enabling them to manage temporary accommodation on authorities' behalf; authorities could be enabled to acquire buildings and convert them into short-stay hostels for homeless people; social landlords could be urged to adopt "living above the shop" initiatives, which have been pioneered in Cambridge and elsewhere. Local authorities could he encouraged to speed up the letting of their empty properties; the Housing Corporation could monitor the number of empty properties that each Department has, and the information would be passed to the relevant Secretary of State and the National Audit Office. That would exert pressure on Departments to bring their empty properties swiftly into use.
The Bill could have launched a real attack on the appalling state of housing in this country, and on the crisis that we face. Nothing in it, however, remotely suggests that the Government are thinking along those lines, or intend to present the House with another Bill in the future. Local authorities could have a right to acquire derelict private properties. Housing association and local authority homes which are unjustifiably left empty for long periods could be given to other social landlords to be managed more effectively. Moreover, it could be made more cost effective for local authorities to lease decent homes from the private rented sector for use as temporary accommodation.
In addition, there is the Labour party scheme to turn mortgage interest repayments into rent. There would be a part mortgage repayment and a part rent repayment, if people got into difficulties. I understand from my Front Bench Environment colleagues that the Opposition have been talking to the Council of Mortgage Lenders for some time about these matters, yet the Government have not seen fit to do anything positive to try to get round this terrible crisis.
This is an election gimmick proposal. Interest rates are at a record level. In 1979 the Conservative party promised to keep mortgages below 10 per cent. but they have been below 10 per cent. on only one or two occasions. If anybody looks at interest rates under the Labour party in the 1970s and compares them with the interest rates of the Conservative party in the 1980s, he or she will see the great difference between the interest rate policies of the two parties. I have every confidence that after the next election the Labour Government will pursue the same policy of low interest rates.
The number of mortgage repossessions represents an all-time record. Figures provided by the Lord Chancellor's Department show that 33,778 families were served with mortgage repossession orders in the first six months of 1991. The figure for the whole of 1991 will he about 80,000 properties repossessed, yet the Bill does nothing whatsoever to make that figure 77,999 even. Not one house that has been repossessed will be affected by the Bill.
There is a record shortage of affordable housing. More than 1.25 million homes have been sold, yet very few of those homes have been replaced. The total number of homes built by local authorities in 1990 was a mere 13,000 compared with 92,000 in the final year of the last Labour Government.
Finally, we have record levels of homelessness. In 1990, 145,800 households were accepted as homeless by English local authorities, compared with 56,000 in 1979. That is the legacy of 13 years of wasted Conservative Administration: more repossessions, more homelessness, higher interest rates and a disdain about doing anything for the average human being in this country who, through no fault of his or her own but as the result of the Tory party's policies, has suffered the effects of persistent high unemployment. It is a terrible indictment that has not been lost upon the voting public.
The Bill will help none of those unfortunate people. It will not help the economy. It will not kick-start anything, but the Government will, no doubt, continue to kick everything. However, it will not be long before we have a Government who will do something about the current appalling housing crisis. That will be the Labour Government who will take office after the next general election—when this Government dare to call it.