We talk a lot here about housing policy, but we need to be clear what and who matters in social housing—that is council and housing association housing. It is the tenant, the customer—people —who matter. Often it is the tenant who knows best. The basis of the Government's approach to social housing is flexibility, quality of service, choice wherever possible and, above all, tenant involvement. The best way to achieve involvement is to give the tenants the opportunity to make clear what they want. People know what they want. They also know that they do not want to be told what is best for them. They want to exercise their power to choose and we want to make sure that they have the power to choose. That is a message which the citizens charter sends loud and clear. As the Prime Minister has said:
the Citizen's Charter is not a recipe for more state action; it is a testament of our belief in people's right to be informed and to choose for themselves.
If I may finish this point, the hon. Gentleman may have some comment to make on what I am about to say.
I am glad to say that it is not just the Government who have realised that people should have a right to be informed and the right to choose for themselves. In an interesting "Newsnight" exchange the other day during a half-hour investigation into why the Labour party lost the general election, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who is, of course, shadow spokesman on the environment, said that it was the Labour party's
perhaps old-fashioned tendency to treat people in large groups as welfare recipients and I think people don't see themselves in those terms any longer. They see themselves as individuals exercising choice, freedom and power and they want to be able to be empowered to do that. That's the role of Government.
We all say alleluiah to that.
Will the Government introduce a right for tenants to take over the management in the same way as they have a right to buy and, in some circumstances, to acquire freehold? My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and I advocated six years ago in Committee when we were housing spokesmen that tenants should have the right to take over the management. It was resisted then by the Government. Will the Government give that right, which cannot be vetoed by a public housing authority?
I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments because, if he bears with me, he will hear some good news about the right to management.
I want all local authority landlords to accept that tenants have a right to be involved in the running of their estates. More than that, I want all tenants to have the opportunity actively to participate. There is a clear link between quality of service and tenant involvement. Of course tenants, as customers, should command the highest standards of service, but large numbers of tenants are not content with that—they want more. They see participation as a way of taking a lead in transforming the quality of life for their community.
Although tenant participation in management need not involve the transfer of ownership of estates from local authorities, tenants have a greater say in the decisions made about their own homes and their own lives. To be successful, that requires information and the empowerment of tenants. Tenants have a statutory right to be consulted.
Consultation is more than merely talking to tenants; it is about tenants actively participating in the management of their estates—the point that the hon. Gentleman just made. Enlightened local authorities see tenant participation not as a threat but as an enhancement of service delivery to their customers. This is happening at an increasing pace; 47 tenant management organisations have so far been approved by the Secretary of State, with a further 44 in development phase.
Allocations policy must be for the local authorities to decide. In areas such as the borough that the hon. Lady represents, what gives rise to concern is the number of units of accommodation that the local authority is having difficulty in allocating because they are lying void, or are occupied by unlicensed occupiers, about which I shall say more later.
Tenant management is not an easy option for tenants. Management of council estates is a complex business which requires specific skills. That is why the development of a tenant management organisation may take up to two years. It is clearly important that the training of managers is seen as a priority. We are providing funding for the development of the Institute of Housing's new national certificate in tenant participation. Aimed at housing officers and tenants, it is geared towards increasing the number of trained tenant participation workers. We are also promoting the national housing and tenant resource centre which, when it opens in 1993, will be the first residential training centre in the United Kingdom specifically dedicated to housing management.
Although the task of tenant management may be daunting, the rewards are immense and measurable; void rates reduced, vandalism reduced, litter and graffiti reduced and repair rates improved. All these are matters of concern to tenants and all are being tackled head on by local, highly motivated managers. I might mention, for example, the achievements of the tenants of Maiden lane in Camden. They wanted real influence over a wide range of concerns. They wanted a more active economy and a better life for their children and young people on their estates. While they were still working up their estate management board, which has recently been approved, the tenants on that previously depressed estate became actively concerned about youth provision and successfully sought Prince's Trust money.
Another commendable example of tenant management is Action 5 Tenant Management Co-operative. Those visiting the Meadow Well estate in Newcastle after last year's disturbances will see the people who run that co-operative patiently picking up the threads of their community. Alderwood is a developing tenant management co-operative in Middlesbrough, where the tenants have demonstrated an eagerness and drive to become more involved in making their own decisions. The South Bank Estate Management Board within Langbaurgh on Tees is a developing estate management board, near to approval, where tenants want to take control of lettings, repairs, maintenance and the estate budget.
Practically every week we hear of new initiatives for tenants who want to become involved in the running of their estates. This week's edition of Inside Housing makes it clear that there are distinct benefits for councils seeking to change and that a growing impetus is coming from tenants. Working together has reached a point where there is no going back. As one tenant resident said in Kirklees:
The council officers were very arrogant towards us at first but once they realised we were here to stay they completely changed and now it's a matter of working together as partners.
Another resident in Leeds observed
We are full of praise for the benefits the association's new relationship with the council has brought not least in overcoming some older tenants' fears that to tackle the council is to invite the wrath of a faceless bureaucracy.
Could the Minister be more precise about the definition of tenants? He talked about the benefits and advantages which derive from tenant participation and involvement, including bringing void properties back into use, and all hon. Members would agree with that. However, all his examples relate to local authority tenants. Does he accept that many private sector tenants face serious problems? What do the Government intend to do to encourage greater opportunities for participation by those tenants to help bring back into use many privately owned empty properties?
The thrust of my speech is about tenants of local authorities and housing associations. The relationship between private tenants and their landlords is contractual. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made clear during the general election campaign, there is concern about private tenants, and I suspect, that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn) and others will mention the large increases in registered rents, especially in London.
We undertook to review the guidance given to rent officers and rent assessment committees. I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) and my hon. Friends that we shall shortly publish a paper inviting submissions on the issue to be made to us, and we shall give hon. Members who are concerned about the matter the opportunity to make detailed representations.
I welcome the conversion of Opposition Members to participation.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but not so long ago the Labour party was generally hostile to the concept of participation. When the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was director of the Child Poverty Action Group he referred to the "serfdom" of the council estate. During the last Labour Government, in a report entitled, "Do we need council housing?", he observed:
some people will argue that municipal housing as such is a very good thing. That certainly does not tally with my experience of being on a council for 4 years when we were not receptive to the needs of many ordinary families.
No, in the late 1970s. The transition has been caused by the Conservatives taking forward philosophy and thinking, which the Opposition have had to keep up with. The National Consumer Council at the time described many council tenancy arrangements as "one-sided, primitive and incomprehensible". In an attempt to catch up, the Labour party began to publish many consultation and policy papers, one of which, as recently as 1989, provoked the comment from the liaison officer of Sheffield's federation of tenants' and residents' associations—one cannot get a greater monument to corporate socialism than Sheffield—
Labour clearly hasn't spoken to the users of the service. To be honest, most of what I see here
in the policy review
is paternalistic garbage. It still boils down to 'we know what's best for you'.
I am delighted that that is no longer part of Labour party philosophy, but we brought about that transformation as a result of driving forward initiatives.
Let us get back to reality. Today's debate is about tenants' rights and participation. It refers not to council tenants, but, presumably to all tenants. Do tenants in the private sector have rights? I want to hear what those rights will be.
I have a specific question for the Minister. Until the general election, it was the Government's clear policy, explicitly stated by previous Secretaries of State, that councils should no longer be providers of housing. Do the Government still pursue that policy?
The answer is straightforward. Tenants in the private sector have rights. They are clear, statutory rights set out in legislation.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman's second question is also very clear. I understand that he was the Labour party's housing spokesman in the previous Parliament. He will have been involved in considering recent legislation. He will know that we see local authorities as being enablers of housing provision and as landlords. As enablers, they should liaise with housing associations to provide housing. It is a matter of concern that many local authorities and elected councillors do not appreciate that their role is an enabling rather than a providing one.
That is a dodge with a vengeance. The former right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury and all his predecessors as Minister made it clear that the Government's policy was to end the councils' role as providers of housing. Everyone has always agreed that they have an enabling role, too—there has been no argument about that. The issue is whether they should be providers. Is it still the Government's view that they should cease to be providers—yes or no?
The answer is that local authorities are enablers and they, together with housing associations and others and the private sector, should provide. Their principal role, however, is as enablers. It is surprising that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, who was doubtless involved in Standing Committee debates in the previous Parliament, finds that concept difficult to understand. The primary role of local authorities is as enablers. Of course, they still will have—and many do have—a responsibility as landlords. It is of concern to us that many of them, in exercising their responsibility as landlords, are failing in that duty to themselves and to their tenants. However, their primary responsibility as enablers is to make things happen.
In answer to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), my hon. Friend made it clear that the Government policy has not changed in that respect and that local authorities are not envisaged as providers. Therefore, the new build programme in local authorities is very limited. Will my hon. Friend's speech cover the Government's policies for ensuring that housing associations are able to build in every local authority area. I am particularly thinking of those in the south and south-west where there is a considerable shortage of low-cost housing for rent. Will my hon. Friend ensure that housing associations are able to take on those tasks effectively and speedily? He will be aware of the campaign waged by The Western Morning News in the south-west on releasing more capital assets to enable local authorities to build more houses. If local authorities cannot do that—some of us accept that that may have to change— housing associations must be able to do it.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. We have substantially increased this year's budget for the Housing Corporation to nearly £2 billion, which will substantially increase the number of units that it can build —up to 55,000 for each year in 1993 and 1994. Within that budget we expect it to allocate resources according to need, including allocating resources to rural areas. The Housing Corporation has a special housing programme for rural areas, in addition to the moneys that it would normally advance to housing associations in those areas. We also want to ensure that those moneys reach the smallest villages. It has a special rural programme for that purpose. We have made available special capital allocations to rural local authorities to assist them. Ensuring that there is an adequate and good supply of housing in rural areas is just as important as making adequate provision in urban areas. We must never forget that.
In response to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), my hon. Friend suggested that the main thrust of his speech would concern the tenants of local authorities. Some of us are concerned about the way in which the tenants of some housing associations are being treated on matters such as repairs and prompt service. Will my hon. Friend deal with that during his speech?
I hope that I have made it clear that I am concerned for all tenants—tenants of local authorities and housing associations—and what we want to promulgate in all our policy is best practice. I will say something about extending best practice to the tenants of housing associations.
For some years, widening choice for tenants and giving them more say in their housing has been a major policy initiative of the Conservative party and the Conservative Government. With the citizens charter, tenants' choice and involvement will be further reinforced through strengthened rights to repair and improve, estate action, housing action trusts, right to buy, rents to mortgages and leasehold reform.
In January, we launched the new council tenants charter. It shows tenants how they may get better value for money and higher standards of service from their landlords, what to do if things go wrong, and, most importantly, how they can take a more active role in running their housing. It provides examples of best practice and it is a framework of action by tenants and landlords for the future. The charter strengthens existing rights. In particular, we intend to introduce legislation for an improved right-to-repair scheme in the Housing, Land and Urban Development Bill this autumn. It will give local authority tenants a simpler and stronger right to repair than they have now for the most urgent minor repairs. Tenants would contact approved contractors direct when their landlord has not carried out a repair covered by the scheme within a specified target time and the local authority would pay the contractor direct.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall the mid 1980s when the original right-to-repair scheme, was introduced? Perhaps his hon. Friends would like to help him remember. At that time, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils went to the Government and said that the scheme would not work, that it would be a bureaucratic nightmare, that it would be impossible to operate, that no one would use it and that no one would benefit in getting better repairs. We in the local authority associations offered a much simpler, alternative scheme that the Government of the day turned down. Will the Minister tell us whether the proposed right-to-repair scheme is the one that was turned down by Ministers at that time? Is he intending to reintroduce it?
The scheme that we intend to introduce will give local authority tenants a simpler and stronger right to repairs. That is what we wish to be achieved. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and Labour-controlled associations, such as the AMA, will be keen to co-operate to ensure that the tenants' right to repair is upheld and that the most urgent minor repairs are dealt with as speedily as possible.
We promised in our manifesto to give tenants a new right to improve. Currently, secure tenants of local authorities and housing associations can carry out improvements to their properties with their landlord's permission. When the tenant moves on, the landlord may decide to pay the tenant compensation reflecting the investment made in the property, but he may not. Few tenants of local authorities or housing associations take advantage of their right to improve and many local authorities do not use their powers to pay compensation. That is why we have decided to extend and improve the existing scheme.
We propose to place on landlords a duty to pay compensation to tenants who have made improvements to their properties. That will give tenants the necessary security to proceed, in the knowledge that they will receive proper recompense if they move to another dwelling. We are drawing up detailed proposals and will consult all interested parties later this year.
I am afraid that there are still many manifestations of bad housing management in the local authority sector, such as high void and arrears rates, long turn-round times between lettings, squatting, vandalism on estates and slow processing of right-to-buy claims. I note that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) has left the Chamber. Practically every week one reads of fresh difficulties being experienced by local authorities in carrying out their proper role as landlords.
This week's Municipal Journal reports that Southwark, which is London's largest housing authority, with nearly two thirds of its population as council tenants, estimates that 20 per cent. of its stock is illegally occupied. It is difficult to have an allocations policy if 20 per cent. of one's stock is illegally occupied.
Southwark's new housing chairman, Mike Gibson, is reported to have warned that Labour could lose control of the borough if the illegal occupation of council homes was not sorted out. He claimed that up to one in five council homes could be illegally occupied in the borough, he called for an immediate clampdown on freeloaders who did not deserve a council home and, with 55,000 homes on Southwark's books, Councillor Gibson said he believed that up to 11,000 homes could be illegally occupied. When it is borne in mind that there are currently 15,000 people on the council's housing waiting list, the fact that 11,000 homes are illegally occupied, in the largest housing authority in London, must be a matter for concern.
That is why we are introducing performance indicators. Those indicators are central to the improvement of housing management. I hope that the residents and tenants of Southwark—indeed, of other local authorities which have high void rates—will make it clear to their elected councillors that such conduct by them as landlords is no longer acceptable.
It should be made clear that the phrase "illegally occupied" means, in that context, that the person whose name is on the rent book may not be the person who is occupying the property, even though that person is paying the rent. It is not the same as squatting—[Interruption.] I recognise that it is a real problem, but the Minister should be fair about it. If we were to get rid of people whose names were not on the rent book, we would have an equally difficult housing problem. I am not saying that we should be complacent about it, but the Minister should not give the impression that these are void or vacant properties or even properties that are not occupied by people in housing need.
I hope that Hansard will record with care what the hon. Gentleman said and that all my hon. Friends who represent London constituencies will make sure that his words are carried far and wide in London. The hon. Gentleman is advocating that it is fine if one is an illegal tenant or occupant so long as one pays the rent. One can buy the keys from whoever one likes—if the caretaker is flogging off keys—providing one pays the rent. In that case one is okay. It is no wonder 20 per cent. of Southwark's housing is illegally occupied if elected representatives to this place seem to see no difference between illegal occupation and squatting, the only difference being that someone is paying the rent.
I find that staggering. I am sure that many people living in London and waiting for tenancies will find such complacency absolutely staggering. I hope that that will be made clear to everyone living in boroughs where there is housing stress, for it is little wonder that their local Labour councils find it difficult to cope with voids and illegal occupation when their elected representatives are so complacent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) was not advocating anything. I hope that the Minister will read carefully in Hansard what he said because he will note that it is a complicated problem rather than a nice simple one—[Interruption.] I urge him to read the Official Report, though I accept that the Minister may need some advice to understand the position. Indeed, to understand it one must know something about the housing and legal problems involved.
Will the performance indicators that apply to local authorities also apply to the Government, who have 16 per cent. of their housing stock empty, which is far higher than even the worst local authority anywhere in the country?
Hon. Members need not read Hansard to know what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said. He was clearly saying that it was perfectly all right to have illegal occupation, providing someone was paying the rent.
That is a recipe for selling keys and for increasing the numbers in illegal occupation. We shall all be able to read his comments in the Official Report, and I hope that his words will be read widely abroad.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It will be within the recollection of the House that I asked the Minister to give a factual description, and I said that there was no case for complacency. I used words to the effect that there was no complacency over these matters. It is a courtesy of the House, if one hon. Member misrepresents what another hon. Member has said, to give an opportunity for the hon. Member concerned to counter the allegation, which in this case was wholly wrongly based in relation to what I said.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly, after I have answered the question put by the hon. Member for Hammersmith about performance indicators, but we must make progress.
The Government will set themselves high standards in seeking to reduce voids in Government properties. We are determined to do that and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the targets that we shall be setting ourselves will be as tough as, if not tougher than, any target we set for local authorities.
The performance indicators are central to the improvement of housing management. Authorities are now required to reply annually to tenants on their performance on a wide range of housing management functions, such as their repairs and maintenance services, levels of rent arrears and empty properties. We are currently evaluating the first reports. Councils are now more accountable to their tenants as their customers, so tenants are able, for the first time, to judge the service being provided by their landlord, to compare it with others and to participate more fully.
One of our undoubted success stories has been the estate action programme, which aims to transform rundown local authority housing estates into places where people want to live. As well as physical improvements to estates, the measures that estate action promotes are intended to involve tenants in their management as well as providing them with choice in housing and opportunity for economic and social development and employment. The success of estate action is underpinned by the development of an effective partnership between the authority and tenants.
I am also glad to say that we now see the results of other Government initiatives to involve tenants, such as the success of the housing action trust programme. Two HATs have now been established in Hull and in Waltham Forest. The ballot of tenants in Liverpool will start on 20 July. With more than 5,000 tenants in Liverpool eligible to vote, it could be the largest HAT to date and could bring extensive improvements in housing in Liverpool. We are also discussing further HAT proposals with the local authorities in Birmingham, Brent and Tower Hamlets and it is hoped that the tenants in each of these areas will be given an early opportunity to vote for a HAT.
As a consequence of the citizens charter initiative, tenants have now been given the opportunity to propose HATs for their own estates and we hope that many will do so. By ensuring their participation in making crucial decisions, HATs will guarantee a sense of pride and ownership among tenants of some of the most rundown estates.
We have also been active in promoting the interests of housing association tenants. Under new powers in the Housing Act 1988, the Housing Corporation has issued "The Tenants' Guarantee". It sets out basic performance standards for housing associations and gives important rights and expectations to new housing association tenants. The Housing Corporation has also issued housing associations with detailed performance criteria and has introduced a regime of key performance indicators to assess how well associations are measuring up to the task.
The Housing Corporation's new "Strategy for Tenant Participation" sets out five objectives to encourage greater tenant involvement in the management of housing association stock. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington will be keen to know that the package includes revised performance expectations to encourage more housing associations to give greater say to their tenants, increasingly through delegated management, co-operation with the Housing Corporation to deliver our manifesto commitment to set up an independent ombudsman to handle tenants' complaints, targeted revenue grants to support major investment schemes with substantial tenant involvement, backed up by national investment targets for tenant-controlled developments, an emphasis on extending the range of participation options open to tenants and three-year regional tenant participation strategies which set out targets and resources required.
We are, of course, still committed to helping all the tenants who want to buy their own homes. The introduction of a statutory rents-to-mortgages scheme will offer a valuable new route into home ownership for tenants who are financially secure but cannot quite afford the full right-to-buy price.
Rents-to-mortgages has been successfully piloted in the new towns of Basildon and Milton Keynes. The evidence from those pilots is that some tenants who would not have been able to become owner-occupiers under the right to buy were able to afford to purchase on rents-to-mortgages terms. We intend to introduce legislation this autumn, as promised in our manifesto, so that this new low-risk route into owner-occupation is also open to local authority tenants.
We are also concerned to empower tenants in the private sector. To assist leaseholders who wish to take over the freehold of their block and have a greater say in its management, we have decided to give long leaseholders in residential flats the right to enfranchise. They will be able to purchase collectively the freehold of their block at market value or collectively agree to nominate a third party purchaser.
No, because I have given way a lot.
It is our intention and commitment that a decent home should be within reach of every family. Our policies for social housing are designed to provide the improvements in standards and opportunities for tenants to control and influence their own housing. We are fast moving away from the old municipal paternalism whereby tenants were told what was best for them and we are moving fast towards arrangements that give people more choice and encourage fresh ideas and solutions to management problems. The measures we are taking encourage tenants to take control not just of their own lives but of the environment in which they live. In this way, we are reversing neglect and mismanagement and substituting sensitive local management directed at the needs of tenants rather than the needs of some distant landlord.
There is increasing awareness of the need to treat the customer and people with respect, to consult, to deliver effective service, to report on performance and to respond to the signals the customer sends. With this Government, people matter, tenants matter.
We are committed to securing a better deal for council tenants. We will introduce more choice, improve management of estates and create new rights as part of the tenants charter. Our aim will be to give tenants a choice of landlord wherever possible, and to make management of both council and housing association stock more responsive to the needs of tenants.
We will improve the way in which council housing is managed by bringing in new private sector providers operating on contract to the local authority. We will introduce more competition and choice, thereby improving services to the tenant and increasing accountability; and we intend to give council tenants new opportunities themselves to improve the flats or houses in which they live. In short, we are determined to give tenants all possible rights and opportunities for participation in their own housing.
I am sad to say that the Minister's speech was very depressing. It is the same old story. The Government propose a debate on
Tenants' rights, opportunities and participation
and it turns out to be a Minister's speech knocking local authorities. It is pathetic.
When the Minister talks about rights, does not he understand that he can go only a few hundred yards from the House and find homeless teenage children who have the "right" to live in a cardboard box? The reason is that the Government have taken away social security benefits from 16 to 18-year-olds unless they are on a recognised educational or Government-approved course. As many have family backgrounds that do not permit that, they are unable to go on such courses.
For the first time in the experience of people under 60 years old, we now see homeless British children begging on British streets. I was brought up to believe that that was a problem for developing countries. The problem is here now, but it need not have happened. I should have been far more impressed by the Minister if he had said that the new Tory Government would bring in a right to rent. Would not that have been an imaginative step forward? Even The Daily Telegraph would have been on the Government's side, because it suggested such a scheme last week.
The real issue is that the Government have got rid of 2 million homes from the rented sector since the 1979 election. Some I million homes went from the council sector and 1 million went from the private rented sector which has collapsed and is only just beginning to revive because of the price freeze in the housing market—which will not last long.
As the Government have got rid of 2 million homes from the rented market, it is not surprising that the Government-appointed Rural Development Commission says that rural homelessness is now a desperate problem. It says that there are youngsters who cannot leave home, although their parents are well housed, because there is nowhere affordable for them to rent or buy. Is it any surprise that there are people in boxes on the streets? Is it any surprise that there are families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for up to three years? The Minister should try to bring up his own children in bed-and-breakfast, for heaven's sake. He should try to understand what the medical profession and the social work profession are saying to the Government about the need to provide affordable rented accommodation to improve the health, education and social skills performance of young people who are in temporary housing for many years.
The Minister should understand all those points. His speech was something of a black hole, because the content was smaller than the speech itself so that everything that went into it disappeared. What has the Minister said today? He has said, "I do not like council housing. I am not quite prepared to say what my predecessor said about bringing an end to council housing as soon as possible, but I am going as near to that as I can, as we might have to change policy because we are embarrassed by our policy on homelessness."
The hon. Gentleman has made some fair points, especially on the 16-year-olds—a subject to which I hope to return later in the debate if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, the hon. Gentleman also seeks to put all the blame on the Government for not providing houses. He will be aware that under this Government, there are 2 million more homes than there were before. He will also be aware that there are 83,000 empty council properties nationwide. Those 83,000 dwellings would overnight solve the problems that he and I seek to solve.
The hon. Gentleman forgets an important point. I urge him to read not only the Audit Commission report, but other reports on the matter. The average void stock for local authorities is 2·5 per cent., which is better than the figure for housing associations, significantly better than the figure for the private sector and massively better than the figure for the Government sector.
Two points follow from the Audit Commission report. First, some local authorities are far better than others and some have much bigger problems than others. Secondly, there is a need to have some flexibility in the system. If the rate drops much below 2·5 per cent. there is not much flexibility for the system to move.
The Minister spoke about naughty local authorities which cannot manage their stock. The issue is that housing associations, the private sector and the Government cannot manage their stock. The Government own 36,000 empty properties, not all of which are defence properties. Tomorrow morning, or even today, the Minister could stop selling those properties on the private market, because selling them reduces prices in the housing market and aggravates our economic policies. In Swindon 24 beautiful, Government-owned houses are being dumped on the open market and Swindon has people in bed-and-breakfast acccommodation. There are thousands of other examples all over Britain.
We should stop talking about good and bad local authorities and good and bad government and focus on housing management. The Government have fallen into the trap that they have accused us of falling into. They are worried about ownership. I am not. I am worried about good management, affordable rents and tenants' rights in the private and public sectors and in housing associations. Should a tenant of someone such as Van Hoogstratten or someone who has been convicted of harassment or who has a record of persistent bad management have the right to challenge that landlord? Of course he should.
When I intervened during the Minister's speech, he said that private tenants have rights. He should read the Age Concern document and one or two of the other publications sent out by those who are worried about tenants' rights. Age Concern says that 56 per cent. of private sector tenants are elderly, and such people often suffer most at the hands of private landlords. Most private landlords are good, but when they are bad they can be extremely bad. Under the 1988 Act the tenant has a right to take court action and have the landlord sent to prison. Isn't that great? A tenant who is lucky enough to overcome the problems of legal aid and take his landlord to court and who, with even more luck, gets a conviction will find himself in the attractive position of facing a landlord who has spent three months in prison. That person will not be the landlord's most popular tenant.
Tenants who suffer from persistent bad management or harassment in any housing sector should have the right to transfer the ownership of their homes to another sector. That could be done by due legal process. As I have said many times, we need a proper charter of rights for tenants. We must increase the supply of affordable rented accommodation and we need a body that will act as the tenants' policeman in all sectors. Before the general election I said that we should consider the possibility of a housing bank to perform the banking role presently carried out by the Housing Corporation. It would channel private money into the housing associations, possibly to local authorities and possibly even to private renting landlords as long as they are prepared to meet the requisite criteria.
The Housing Corporation could become the tenants' policeman and could step in to deal with persistently bad landlords in the private sector, the council sector or the Government sector. The corporation could take steps to transfer those properties and, through the normal process, it could compensate the private sector. That is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. Perhaps the corporation could take the 24 houses in Swindon and transfer them to Swindon council which, as I think the Minister will agree, is a good manager, or to a housing association. Families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation could be given those homes. That would improve tenants' rights. It would make hon. Members feel that we had achieved something for the real world outside.
The Minister should think radically in that way, instead of allowing himself to be trapped in the jargon of the past where he sees only the bad local authority, raises his horns and charges bellowing down the field. The Minister's argument is pathetic nonsense, because the majority of local authorities are good managers and that is borne out in reports by the Audit Commission and by other reports. When they are bad they can be very bad, but at least they are never as bad as the worst private landlords such as the Van Hoogstrattens of this world.
The 1988 Act, combined with housing shortage in the rented sector, means that it is only a matter of time before there are more Rachman-type cases. As house prices begin to rise, people who have let accommodation in order not to have to sell at the bottom of the market will want to evict their tenants. Hon. Members forget too quickly that Rachman was not really a bad landlord, although he was not a nice person to have as a landlord, but his prime interest in life was property development. He wanted to buy cheap with tenants in and sell dear with tenants out, and a house market with prices moving up at a time of housing shortage and tenants with restricted rights is a recipe for that sort of future development.
My concern is to ensure that all local authorities have the standards of the best. It seems that a certain amount of policy is being made on the hoof. What should happen to the rights of private owners? As I understand the hon. Gentleman, he says that in certain circumstances private owners should have their rights of ownership taken away. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify that, because if people are to have their property confiscated by the state we ought to know in what circumstances it will happen.
We certainly share the concern about empty private sector properties. That is why we are sensibly ensuring that the Housing Corporation can nominate a housing association in every region as a managing agent for any owner who wishes to let his property through a housing association. That is a responsible way to bring properties back into use and to generate an income for their owners. That is different from confiscation.
For years I have been saying that housing associations and councils should be able to manage for the private rented sector. There is no dispute about that. The Government addressed the ownership issue in, I think, the 1987 Act and have therefore made a limited amount of movement. It is not a matter of compulsory purchase, although that can be done within laws that were supported by the Conservative party.
The right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), the Secretary of State for the citizens charter —if that is his title—was one of 13 or 14 housing Ministers for the Conservatives. The Government have had a success rate akin to a short-let tenancy of six months. The right hon. Gentleman was in the job for about a year and he built on his predecessor's idea of a register of landlords who could be struck off if they were performing badly. Unfortunately, both he and his predecessor abandoned that idea. That was sad and retrogressive. If normal court procedure allowed such landlords to be struck off, the more normal process of the compulsory purchase order by which the property is transferred or sold to a council or housing association could be followed. That could be done under existing law, which is fully supported by the Government. If the Minister does not agree he must tell us what he would say to a tenant whose front door has been nailed and who has the dogs brought round to him now and again.
Let us assume that the tenant is brave enough and well resourced enough to go to court, to get a conviction and to put the landlord in prison for nine months—it could be longer, but that is unlikely. Then, the landlord comes out of prison and the tenant is still his tenant. What does the Minister say to such people? What rights do they have? We should be talking about tenants' participation. The Minister will give nothing to such tenants and that is the failure of the Government's policy.
My criticism of the Government is that they have never had a housing policy. They have tried to push owner-occupation as though that is the answer to everything, while inflicting the highest interest rates on record, with resulting mortgage repossessions leading to people going into bed-and-breakfast accommodation from home ownership. These people are then rehoused by the council, or sometimes kept in bed and breakfast by the council because it does not have sufficient housing. And that is supposed to be right.
It depends on the complaint that the private tenant has against the private landlord. The hon. Gentleman must know, as I know, because I have used the system, that a private tenant can go to the local authority and, through the environmental services department or whatever, can get an instruction to the landlord to have the repairs done to put the property back into habitable use.
The hon. Gentleman is right. He puts the Minister on course to understanding that there are state powers to intervene. I advise the hon. Gentleman to read the Age Concern document, which, among other things, examines this problem of private tenants who cannot get effective intervention by the council. Very often, it is because local authorities do not want to intervene. Most inner city local authorities are quite good about this. Kensington, for example, was good at trying to get Mr. Van Hoogstratten dealt with.
Interestingly, after the passage of the 1988 Act and in response to one person's difficulties, Kensington was not the only body trying to do something about the problem. I wrote to the Prime Minister, to the Home Secretary—on the ground that some police action was necessary—to the Secretary of State for the Environment and to the Lord Chancellor. The reply from all of them was, "I'm sorry but I can't do anything about it." The challenge to the Minister is what he is going to do about it.
Apart from a housing policy that delivers affordable housing and does not cut it back in the dramatic way that the Government have—as is amply exemplified by the Duke of Edinburgh's figure of 2 million properties lost from the rented sector—we should focus on a charter of rights. I agree that this will have to be marginally different for the three sectors—the housing asociation sector, the council sector and the private sector.
Let us also focus on what should be the key points underpinning our policy—good quality management, affordable rents and tenants' rights. Let us not worry about ownership; I do not care who owns the property. If we get that right, we can move on.
We need a charter of rights, but it must be a real charter rather than this pathetic, dressed-up affair that the Government have produced. It is vital that tenants in all sectors are able to form co-operatives. It has been alleged that the Government are dropping their proposals for a commonhold procedure for leaseholders. If they have not, that should be made clear because there is a rumour going round that they have. I accepted that this could not be done in the first year of the new Parliament and presumed that that was why such a measure was not in this year's Queen's Speech. The Government are at least introducing proposals for extending leases and that is right and proper. Do they intend to continue developing commonhold and will they legislate in the next three years?
I shall try to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, so as not to incur your wrath this time. The hon. Gentleman has only to read our manifesto to see what we intend to do during the lifetime of this Parliament. I have every confidence that the Opposition will be helpful in ensuring that we take through all our manifesto commitments just as quickly as possible.
It is always one of my regrets in life that, being a Member of Parliament, I do not have much time to read fiction. I am pleased to hear what the Minister has said and I welcome it, because there was some anxiety.
Commonhold is a form of co-operative. Therefore, I suggest that we need a co-operative tenure—probably with a couple of basic models of tenure, just as there are in the private sector—that would allow not only co-operatives to develop in their own right but councils and private properties in the commonhold system to move into a co-operative. Co-operative housing is well used in a number of sectors and well developed. There are ownership and management co-operatives and we should be developing this trend.
The very worst landlord in my constituency among the housing associations is the Co-operative Development Society. It treats its tenants like dirt. It ignores arbitration findings. If that is the sort of system that the hon. Gentleman is arguing for, I want none of it.
I have already said that I am not worried about ownership. I am worried about management and that is why I talk about the need for a tenants' policeman. Whatever the problem, in whatever type of housing—co-op, private, housing association—someone should be able to step in and protect tenants. That is why I suggested taking away the funding role of the Housing Corporation and giving it to a housing bank, which would be much more sensible in terms of investment in housing. That would release the Housing Corporation, allowing it to develop into an effective housing policeman that could deal with such cases, regardless of ownership. The logic of that is so compelling and simple that I cannot believe that the Government will not say, "Okay, we haven't got a housing policy. We are concerned only with encouraging people to buy and slanging off councils, and we should be developing a housing policy and ensuring tenants' rights."
Most local authorities are good. I have often cited the case of York. York has limited resources, but there are other councils with even fewer resources, and they could not follow its example. What York does is brilliant. It tells tenants that they have a certain amount of money to spend on their houses and that it is up to them how the money is spent. One tenant wants one thing in his house while another wants something completely different in his. Tenants choose the changes and improvements that are made to their houses. However, the Minister did not mention this example of good practice, which is followed by many Labour local authorities.
One can pick on Labour local authorities with bad practice and on those with enormous problems such as Lambeth and Southwark and make them into scapegoats, but that will not solve any problems. If the Government pursue the policies that they have been pursuing for the past 13 years, we shall continue to have homeless kids begging in our streets, families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, reports from Government agencies such as the Rural Development Commission showing that there is desperate homelessness in rural areas, reports such as "Faith in the City" and "Faith in the Countryside" from the Church criticising Government housing policy and reports such as that from the Duke of Edinburgh pointing out the collapse of the rented sector and the need to reform housing finance.
I warn the Government that if they turn the remaining bits of council housing into ghetto housing, we shall have the problems associated with ghetto housing, including a high crime rate, particularly the brutal crime that we see in the United States. The more people are made hopeless as well as homeless, or are forced to group together in poor circumstances, the greater those social problems become. That is what the Government do not understand. Without a housing policy ensuring tenants' rights—let us start with a right to rent, so that we can get rid of the shame of children begging in our streets—everything that the Government have said today will be hollow, empty rhetoric.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak in the debate, I wish to make it clear that many Members are anxious to make a contribution. I think that it should be possible to accommodate them all, providing that those who take the Floor are not, to put it bluntly, long winded.
I have taken careful note of what you have just said, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It was entirely reasonable for my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), the Minister for Housing and Planning, to give my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the opportunity to open the debate. He made a most encouraging speech and I look forward to the development of the policy that he has enunciated.
It is a great personal pleasure that my hon. Friend the Member for Acton has been reappointed Minister for Housing and Planning. We were in the Department of the Environment together and he was a first-class Under-Secretary of State with responsibilities for housing. I do not believe that there is anyone who is better qualified in terms of experience and ability to discharge the housing portfolio. I very much welcome my hon. Friend's reappointment.
I shall comment on three aspects of tenants' rights and opportunities. First, there is the Government's welcome development of the original right-to-buy scheme and its extension into the rent-to-mortgage scheme. The right-to-buy scheme is acknowledged, certainly by Conservative Members, to be one of the most important and beneficial social changes that any Government have ever put on the statute book. It has brought about an extension of opportunity to private individuals in a way that could not otherwise have been achieved. The benefits of the scheme have been derived throughout the country. It is significant that within the lifetime of the Government the implacable opposition of the Labour party to the right-to-buy concept has been turned by means of a screeching U-turn into support for the policy, and that we welcome.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a U-turn. Does he recall that when he was a Minister and was encouraging local authorities to pursue the right-to-buy scheme he did so by saying that they would be able to use their capital receipts for reinvestment? Will he comment on the restrictions that now prevent authorities from using the receipts to provide desperately needed new homes?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, local authorities are able to use a proportion of their capital receipts. When I was a Minister, the proportion was 100 per cent. for land receipts and 50 per cent. for housing sales receipts. As the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House will know, there is no geographical relationship between where the receipts arise and where there are housing needs. A balance has to be struck between the proportion of the receipts that are placed in the centrally distributed national totals and the proportion retained by local authorities. It is reasonable that in the housing investment allocations the local authorities with the greatest needs receive the greatest share of the moneys that are available.
In his opening remarks my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State forshadowed the valuable rent-to-mortgages scheme in terms of housing legislation that will be presented in the autumn. We look forward to that. I do not know whether he is able today to give us more details. At the moment we have simply a name of a scheme. As far as I am aware, none of the key or essential parameters has been announced. It would be interesting to know, for example, whether there is to be a period during which tenants have to qualify before they can fall within the scheme. It would be interesting to know also what proportion of rent will be commuted into mortgage. Equally, it would be interesting to know at what point tenants will have to assume a degree of financial responsibility for repairs. That, of course, is part of the move towards owner-occupation. These are essential financial parameters and if my hon. Friend were able to give us more details today, it would be of great interest.
A specific matter which I wish to pursue with my hon. Friend the Minister, because I have a constituency interest, is the question of which tenants are to be eligible. The Conservative party manifesto stated that the scheme would extend to council tenants. I wish to know whether housing association tenants will be able to benefit from the scheme. In my view, it would be highly desirable in principle that they should be able to do so. There may be some complications arising from charity law for charitable housing associations, but I do not believe that there will be basic difficulties for housing association tenants who are living in non-charitable housing association property.
There is a group of housing association tenants which I believe has the most important claim to being a beneficiary of the scheme. I refer to the tenants of housing associations that have been formed at the request of the Government and, indeed, with the Government's strong encouragement. They have taken receipt of what was formally local authority housing stock, which has been transferred en bloc to housing associations. I believe that about 20 local authorities have taken that route—they have been urged on by the Government—including the local authority within my constituency of Tonbridge and Mailing. These former local authority tenants have become housing association tenants within a relatively short time. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that it would be wrong and indefensible that local authorities that have responded to the Government's wish that they should transfer stock en bloc to housing associations should see their previous tenants denied access to the rent-to-mortgages scheme.
In answer to a question that I tabled, my hon. Friend the Member for Acton said that the Government were consulting on the extension. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has anything further to say about that which is positive. I wish to make it clear to him that I—I believe that this will be mirrored by other hon. Members, perhaps on both sides of the House, who have tenants in the position which I have described—attach the greatest importance to ensuring that former local authority tenants who are now housing association tenants are able to benefit from the rents-to-mortgages scheme.
Secondly, I refer to the tenants charter. My hon. Friend the Minister was historically entirely correct in what he said about it in his opening remarks. It is right that the Government, a Conservative Administration, have put the tenants charter legislation on the statute book.
The Labour Government had successive years in office and they could have put the necessary legislation on the statute book. For years and years there was intense debate within the Labour party. The paternalism of the Labour party at local authority level and nationally caused delay after delay. The Labour party has only itself to blame for the fact that by the time that the Labour Administration lost office in 1979 the necessary legislation was not on the statute book. The Conservative party took things forward, as it was committed to do by its manifesto, and the Conservative Administration put the legislation on the statute book by means of the Housing Act 1980.
I am delighted that since then we have further developed the tenants charter. The charter can in many ways be said to be the forerunner of our subsequent charter initiatives. We have introduced the citizens charter, the patients charter and the parents charter, for example. These initiatives demonstrate the key importance that we attach to ensuring the rights of individuals when dealing with large public sector bodies.
I welcome the 1992 edition of the tenants charter booklet. I congratulate my Front-Bench colleagues and officials in the Department of the Environment on the excellent presentation that is to be found in the new council tenants booklet. It is a model of clarity. There is an imaginative use of colour coding. The areas in which there are existing statutory rights are shown in red. In blue there are rights that are subject not to statute but to good practice. In green there are the rights that are to be made available. It is an excellent document and I hope that it will be in the hands of millions of tenants throughout the country.
Two matters arise from the booklet and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he can give me some more information. As I understand it, the Government envisage that the council tenants charter document of the Department of the Environment will be supplemented by each local authority producing its own local authority tenants charter, which will be based on updated or new legislation. That is an excellent initiative. Can my hon. Friend the Minister say how much progress has been made by housing authorities throughout the country in producing their own versions of the tenants charter booklet, setting out their own practices in relation to the statutory legislation?
My hon. Friend the Minister said, in respect of the green sections in the council tenants charter booklet, that the Government will introduce this autumn welcome legislation to enhance the right to repair and to improve. However, he did not mention an aspect to which I attach great importance. I refer to the Government's commitment to introduce a new form of court to deal with housing cases that will not require the services of a lawyer.
That excellent initiative addresses the difficulty, for cost reasons, of tenants being able to maintain and to uphold their legal rights. I am delighted that in housing at least the Government are looking for a clear way forward, to give individuals a more effective means of standing on their legal rights against local authorities. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies, he will give an assurance that that commitment to establishing a means of allowing an individual tenant to take a local authority to court without using a lawyer will be enshrined in this autumn's legislation.
In 1979—for the first time since 1945—the Government produced a comprehensive and determined approach to difficult-to-let and rundown estates. I remember as a Minister how sobering it was to receive submissions from officials requiring ministerial authorisation to blow up council blocks that had become impossible to let and dangerous in security terms. One of the blocks was only 10 years old, which shows the downward spiral that can be created if there is no management control.
The priority estates programme launched by that first Conservative Government has mushroomed and has attracted substantial public expenditure and development into the action estates schemes and housing action trusts. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies, he will be able assure us that dealing with difficult-to-let priority estates will be a central issue during the lifetime of this Parliament. It is all very well for right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to debate tenants' rights and opportunities, but in such estates that is empty talk. Many tenants seek only the right to get out of those estates and to transfer elsewhere.
Our excellent collection of manifesto proposals presented further radical and progressive housing measures that are properly balanced between tenants who aspire to home ownership and those who want to continue to rent. I wish the Government every success—not least in their negotiations with the Treasury—in implementing quickly and effectively the policies which they presented to the electorate and which the electorate endorsed.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on an extremely important issue—my first opportunity to do so since my re-election to the House. This is not my maiden speech, because I delivered that in 1986—when I also addressed the subject of housing. On that occasion, I reviewed the current situation and expressed alarm and concern at the extent of unmet housing needs. Sadly, the position has deteriorated since then.
We have seen a further tragic increase in the number of homeless people. The official total is now 150,000 households a year in England—three times the level when the present Government took office in 1979. That is only the tip of the iceberg, because the records do not include large numbers of single people who do not qualify under the priority group categories, and those who are turned away because they are deemed intentionally homeless. They include many who lost their homes because of mortgage default, who are judged to have brought misfortune upon themselves—though, heaven knows, the Government's interest rates policy is the prime cause of the misery suffered by so many of those people.
Housing stock condition is also a terrible problem not just in local authorities, but in the private and housing association sectors. It is a problem compounded by inadequate investment and improvement grant policy that, although it seeks to target assistance at areas of greatest need, has brought improvement activity to a complete halt in many areas. Many of us want an urgent Government review of the present restrictions on improving older homes.
One must consider also the Government's tragic record of decline in new home construction in both the public and private sectors. As a consequence of the recession, the private sector construction industry is still in real difficulty, and the same is true in respect of the public sector. The Government's continued vendetta against council housing has reduced the number of new council homes built from an average 100,000 a year in the 1970s to virtually nil today. People are left with no prospect of obtaining a new home—and little or no prospect of having improvements made to their existing properties.
The Government talk about one aspect of housing policy, where their ambitions may be laudable. Few of us dispute the case for extending tenants' rights, though many would like to see a more even-handed approach, with an extension of rights to all tenures. The Minister gave a most evasive reply to the question that I put in my intervention. I remind him that leaseholders are not the same as tenants, and that the extension of leaseholders' rights does nothing for many private sector tenants who suffer inadequate service from their landlords.
We accept the case for the further development of tenants' rights, but that will become a reality only if there is an adequate supply of housing, the prospect of the inadequately accommodated obtaining better housing, and the exercise of some choice. Sadly, that is not the case today.
The Government ignore the gaping hole in their own policy that was so decisively exposed by the Audit Commission's recent report, which should be compulsory reading for all Conservative Members and ought to receive the Minister's urgent attention. Does the Minister propose to respond to the commission's critique, which makes it clear that there cannot be an effective housing policy without a Government assessment of the extent of housing need? Why have not the Government published estimates? Why are they so coy about the Audit Commission's evidence that, even on the most optimistic forecasts of housing association output, there will be a shortfall of 14,000 homes a year?
Because an insufficient number of affordable new homes is becoming available, more and more people will be left in inadequate accommodation. Why was there no reference in the Minister's speech to the Audit Commission's work, which exposed the gaping hole at the centre of Government policy? Without action, talk about rights will be pure rhetoric and will have no foundation.
How can someone who has no prospect of being transferred from an old, cold, and miserable home, because the local authority cannot provide sufficient new accommodation or modernise its unsatisfactory stock, feel that he or she has rights?
Meanwhile, we are faced with a nonsensical position whereby a local authority's large capital receipts could be used, if only the Government would abandon their blinkered and foolish restriction allowing authorities to use only 25 per cent. of receipts from council house sales for reinvestment. In my local authority area, the London borough of Greenwich, over £20 million is currently available. Many council estates are desperately in need of new windows, for example.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. No doubt you will have heard reports that devastating cuts are to hit London hospitals—cuts which will threaten patient services and also the future of medical research and education. We fear that worse is to come, not only for London but for hospitals and health services throughout the country. Can you tell us, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether the Secretary of State for Health—who is imposing the cuts—will come to the House today to answer for the consequences?
On a related but different point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Throughout the morning, it has been reported in the media—on the radio, for example—that plans are afoot for Government cuts affecting London hospitals. There is a good deal of concern among my constituents, some of whom are patients at Bart's and University College hospitals. We must have some information from the Government.
I am sorry, but that point relates to one with which I have already dealt. There is no point for the Chair to consider; besides, we are already debating a matter that is very dear to the hearts of those present.
You have been here long enough to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is difficult to get Ministers to make statements about anything on Fridays. This is only a part-time Government and many of them have left. We all understand that, and the same has applied to other Governments of different political descriptions—
The point that I am coming to is this. No health Minister is available at present. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, there have been occasions—rare though they may have been—on which Ministers have come here at 2.30 pm. It is a scandal that two hospitals close to this building, St. Thomas's and the Westminster hospital, are being denuded of staff. What would happen if someone in this building took ill? I am not talking about Members of Parliament; I am talking about the 2,000-odd real workers who are employed here. You have a duty, Madam Deputy Speaker—as Madam Speaker's representative—to take some action.
I have already explained the position very clearly. The hon. Gentleman has been here as long as I have and he knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair. The point has been made and we must now resume the main debate.
On a related point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) has rightly spoken of London's housing crisis. Many of the people whom he has described depend on good hospital services and the alarming news of cuts at the Whittington hospital will greatly concern my constituents. It really does demand a statement from the Secretary of State for Health.
Order. Hon. Members must understand that the Chair is responsible only for certain matters and that the point that has been raised is not the Chair's responsibility.
Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. You have been in the House for many years and you know that the duty of the occupant of the Chair is to protect the interests of Back Benchers. A number of hon. Members have commented on a certain issue and two and a half hours of parliamentary time are still available. If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, sadly do not have the authority to take up the points that have been made, I hope that the Government Whip who is present will do his duty and make hon. Members' concern known to the appropriate Minister. That concern should be felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House, because all of them may be affected.
I have already dealt in some detail with the points that have been raised, and Conservative Front Benchers have doubtless heard what has been said. I cannot take the matter any further this morning and I must protect the rights of those who wish to speak in the debate.
Let me tell my hon. Friends who have rightly raised the issue of threats to London hospitals that many of the people whom I have described—people living in old, cold properties without adequate heating—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was simply responding to the Government Whip—who, as you know, by tradition should remain mute.
Many people suffering cold and miserable conditions may well face a "double whammy" from the Government: they may not only have no decent home in which to live, but find that there is no hospital for them to go to if poor housing conditions affect their health.
There are other problems, however. People cannot hope to exercise any rights if they have no homes to go to because of the inadequate supply of rented accommodation. Many of my constituents live in properties that are old and in poor condition and they want them to be modernised. Housing associations are keen to introduce a rehabilitation programme, but cannot do so because the current total cost indicator—TCI—rules and the grant regime make it impossible for them to provide affordable homes.
As the Minister probably knows very well, the rehabilitation programme has been halted in many inner-city areas as a result. He may shake his head, but he is wrong. He should be receiving evidence that many of the best housing associations in the country are now saying that they cannot do their job, because the Government's current financial regime has made it impossible for them to provide decent homes at affordable rents.
The problem of affordability is also denying many tenants the opportunity to move. They cannot afford the rents that they would have to pay under the Government's new subsidy arrangements. Many others will feel deeply cynical about a Government who, while claiming to be interested in tenants' rights, force those tenants to pay part of the cost of their neighbours' housing benefit. The current subsidy regime forces up some tenants' rents in order to subsidise others. That cannot be fair. What if such logic were applied in the owner-occupied sector? There would be an outcry if well-off home owners were asked to contribute a levy on their mortgage payments to meet the costs of income support for poorer home owners.
All those measures are making a mockery of a programme that talks of extending rights and choice. Rights, choice and tenant participation cannot be extended while current Government policies continue, causing inadequate housing provision and—through the subsidy regime—forcing rents beyond a reasonable level.
Although Opposition Members welcome the principle of extending tenants' rights, we must express the gravest cynicism about the Government's actual policies. Like many tenants, we know that, in the previous Parliament, this same Government introduced a grotesquely ill-titled scheme called "tenants' choice", which was supposedly about extending tenants' choice, but which, in practice, was about extending opportunities for landlords to take over certain council housing estates. The Government know only too well how tenants throughout the country reacted to that policy: they said that it was a sham and a fraud. They knew that anyone who came up with a scheme under which any tenant who did not vote would be assumed to be in favour of opting for another landlord was up to no good. It is hardly surprising that tenants have voted decisively with their feet against having anything to do with that discredited scheme.
The Government's intentions are, sad to say, revealed in their previous record. They are not about the interests of tenants and the extension of their rights; they have an ideological programme, based on a deep hostility to council housing. Until the Government recognise the misguided nature of their policy, start to think seriously about housing needs and pay heed to the words of organisations such as the Audit Commission, which has showed up the inadequacy of the Government's policies, we cannot expect there to be a real extension of tenants' rights and real opportunities for participation.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to address the House for the first time. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). I have read many of his articles, always with pleasure. However, having reached the end of an article, I have often, regretfully, had to disagree with him.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Sir Robert McCrindle, who served with great distinction the people of Brentwood and Ongar, and its predecessor constituencies, in the House. He was rightly regarded by his constituents with great affection. He spoke with great authority in many debates, particularly those on financial services and aviation. His first speech was typically a battle on behalf of his constituents with regard to compulsory purchase. His last speech was, again typically, a battle on behalf of Brentwood and Ongar. He told the Government in no uncertain terms that the people of Brentwood and Ongar do not want the M12, which is blighting my constituency. As you may know, Madam Deputy Speaker, Sir Robert did not enjoy the best of health during his last few years as a Member of Parliament. Therefore, I am sure that the whole House will be pleased to know that Sir Robert is now in very good health. I am confident that both he and his wife Myra will enjoy many happy and healthy years of retirement from politics.
Brentwood and Ongar is situated about 20 miles to the north-east of this House, in the county of Essex. Since my adoption of Essex, it has become clear to me that the people of the country are divided into two—those who come from Essex and those who wish they came from Essex. For a Yorkshireman to say that is true praise indeed.
My constituency straddles the two main conurbations of Abridge and West Horndon. It has played a curious and significant part in the nation's history. According to Robert Graves, it was the scene where a singular battle over sovereignty was fought—not over the treaty of Rome but over the treaty of the Roman legions. It was the place where the Emperor Claudius met the ancient Britons. The residents of Brentwood and Ongar were the first to see elephants on these shores. Our association with elephants continued for 2,000 years. The East India Company decided to set up its training school for elephants in Brentwood. It was there that the first, second or even third sons of the landed gentry met those huge quadrupeds for the first time. Stories still abound among my constituents about these bewildered members of the aristocracy losing themselves in Brentwood and Ongar.
The site of that elephant training school is now the headquarters of Ford UK and Ford Europe. Many international and national companies are to be found in my constituency. Rhone Poulenc, a French pharmaceutical company, has based its research facility in Brentwood and Ongar. It is also the headquarters of Amstrad, the computer company which has done so much to ensure that ordinary people have the opportunity to own personal computers. While retaining its traditions, therefore, Brentwood and Ongar is a constituency which looks to the future. I am proud to represent it here.
About 80 per cent. of Brentwood and Ongar's housing stock is now in owner-occupation. The two district councils are the largest providers of rented housing for the remaining 20 per cent. In Brentwood there has been a decline of about 3 per cent. a year in the public rented sector, largely as a result of right-to-buy. There have been more than 2,000 sales since the scheme began. That is a remarkable achievement.
Public housing was largely responsible for the forming of my own political views, contrary to the political tradition of my family. I was brought up on a council estate in the West Riding of Yorkshire where my parents ran a small corner shop. As I looked at the style and condition of the houses occupied by my friends and neighbours, my conviction grew that they deserved a better landlord. I served for many years on a local authority and do not want to paint all local authorities black, but, even when they are at their most benign, they do not make good landlords. They are cumbersome and bureaucratic. Pavements remain cracked for want of inspection; window frames remain unpainted for want of a form. Brave is a tenant who decides to take matters into his own hands. To me, there is no such thing as a golden age of public housing.
Any reasonable housing policy must be based on quality, diversity and choice. Above all, it must be based on what people want. People simply want to own their own homes. According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders and a recent BBC survey, 77 per cent. of the population believe that to own their own homes is the ideal tenure. I have heard hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber argue that the British obsession with wanting to own one's home is wrong. That message is particularly hard to swallow when it is given by people who come from families who are second, third or even fourth generation owner-occupiers. Perhaps my socialist ancestors would approve of what I think about those sentiments: what is good enough for the toffs is good enough for the workers. People have the right to own their own homes. We have an obligation to ensure that they can do so.
I welcome the Minister's reference to the rents-to-mortgages scheme. I understand and fully appreciate that it will not have the same impact as right-to-buy, but it will enable people, just one or two steps down the housing ladder, to own their own homes. I expect more people thereby to achieve their goal of home ownership. Nevertheless, I recognise that, for reasons of mobility and disposable income, some people may not want to buy. To offer diversity and choice represents a great challenge to both the Government and local government. It is a reflection of the greater challenge that faces the Government, which is to ensure that choice, freedom and opportunity are taken further down the social and economic ladder.
I am especially pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the concept of empowerment, which is the key to tenants' rights. We need to ensure that there are methods other than purchase by which tenants can exercise choice and enjoy freedom.
The more tenants are involved in the running of estates, the better those estates will be. And the more officials are removed from their air-conditioned towers and work and manage from estates, the better the estates will be. When I talk to housing officials, I sometimes feel that they regard estates as distant colonies—that there is a new form of colonialism, with the inspector going round once a month. If people have to drive past graffiti, cracked paving stones and holes in the road, those problems suddenly assume the importance that they should and suddenly the council gets round to doing something about them. I believe that the area management of estates is vital—just as important as the tenants charter.
I welcome the promise that, in the autumn, the right to repair will be improved, because at present the provisions are a little cumbersome and difficult to understand. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give his attention to, and perhaps also give us some further details on, the right of improvement? If people are to have the opportunity to use their own homes as their own homes, we must ensure that, when they decide to leave them, they are financially compensated for the improvements that they have made. If anything, the present right of improvement poses more difficulties than the right of repair and I should welcome a commitment to improve that right in the legislation.
I believe that council housing is now moving into a different age. Too much energy has been wasted on trying to find ways round regulations, on trying to prevent tenants from buying their own homes and on trying to stop housing action trusts coming into being. If just a quarter of that effort and vitality had been put into ensuring that tenants had a better deal and more opportunity to decide the way in which their homes, environment and estates were managed, the stock of public housing would be materially better than it is today.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his maiden speech. He spoke fluently and with passion. It may seem a little strange that a former resident of Yorkshire should represent an Essex constituency, but, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we have a Lancastrian representing the city of Bath. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's contributions in future.
I also congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your new role. This is the first time that you have been in the Chair when I have spoken in the House and it is thus my first opportunity to congratulate you. I also offer you the best wishes of my predecessor, Sir Charles Irving. As I know that your appointment brought him great pleasure.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I do so in my capacity as housing spokesman for my party and as a local councillor with some experience of the problems.
People who rent, and the problems of people who rent, often fail to receive publicity, yet millions of families live in unfit accomodation or are on long waiting lists. Many of them suffer from health problems and stress as a result, and many were severely punished when the poll tax was introduced without any reduction in rent. It is on their behalf that I intend to speak this morning.
There are a number of ways of being a tenant and I believe that tenants should have basic rights irrespective of the form of tenure that they take. The Liberal Democrats would support any scheme that improved and enhanced the rights of tenants in both the public and the private sector.
One of the best ways to guarantee better standards of repair and protection from harassment is to give local authorities suitable powers. Even the Association of District Councils, which used to oppose the concept of additional duties, now supports the idea of placing a duty on local authorities to inspect houses in multiple occupation. Outside the family, the employer and landlord have the greatest influence on individual well-being. Employers are bound by restrictions, and landlords, too, should conform to a code of behaviour.
I hope that the Government will give the tenants charter real teeth. The charter should give tenants the right to have essential repairs carried out within a certain time limit. It should enhance the powers of the courts to award damages to tenants in cases of harrassment or illegal eviction and it should improve access to legal aid. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) referred to that question and I have received a number of representations from solicitors in my constituency, who are concerned that the legal aid system is underfunded and that poorer people are thus being denied the right to suitable legal representation. Finally, the tenants charter should require local authorities to ensure that housing, public health and fire regulations are observed in private rented housing.
In discussing rights, we must include those who live on state benefits alone. They are citizens of this country, too. Although the absence of cheap rented accommodation is the principal reason for homelessness, the barriers preventing the homeless from obtaining accommodation have increased remarkably in the past three years.
It is essential to improve the delivery of housing benefit and I agree with what the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said about the system of funding that benefit. In my own constituency of Cheltenham, the local council will pay about £6 million in benefits this year and only £1·9 million is to be provided by the Government. That means that rents will increase more than they should.
It is vital that the emergency interim payments of housing benefit, which are supposed to be available within 14 days, are delivered on time. We must also have much closer inspection by central Government to ensure that local authorities are performing properly. At the moment, neither the Department of Social Security nor the Department of the Environment inspects their operations. Housing benefit changes in 1988 made one third of all homes in multiple occupation users worse off.
Students represent a growing proportion of the residents of privately rented housing, especially in Cheltenham, where the Cheltenham and Gloucester college of higher education expects to increase its student population from 5,500 to 8,500 in the next few years and where we may shortly have our own university. That puts enormous pressure on rented accommodation. In 1990, the Government decided to remove from students all entitlement to housing benefit—and this at a time when student grants have been frozen. I strongly believe that that policy should be reversed and that those who opt to stay in education should at least be able to do so without incurring huge debts.
Safety, too, is important. A report issued by the National Consumer Council last September showed clearly why tenants should be given basic rights. It predicted that if action is not taken, over the next 10 years we must expect more than 1,500 people to die and 25,000 to be injured in England and Wales as a result of fires in houses of multiple occupancy. Yesterday, I talked to the chief fire officer of Gloucestershire, Mr. Malcolm Eastwood, who told me that he is very worried at the state of some HMOs in Cheltenham and in Gloucester, which he regards as tinder boxes.
The first opportunity that tenants must have is to be a tenant in the first place—and at an affordable rent. We have heard this morning of the gap between the amount of social housing or rented accommodation that is available and the number of people who need that rented accommodation. The rented sector has an important role to play in meeting the needs of certain people, often those who do not wish or are unable to buy. One in three families in Britain cannot afford to buy their own home.
The lack of rented accommodation forces many people into owner-occupation that they cannot afford. We have all had cases of people who bought their council house at the top of the market, lost their job, had their home repossessed and went back on the local council's books. I had one particularly distressing case of a family who were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 56 weeks because they took up the chance to buy their home and it all went wrong.
The stock of available rented accommodation has shrunk during the past 70 years. That trend must be reversed. An increase in supply would widen choice for potential tenants, increase competition and put pressure on landlords to reduce rents. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioned participation, which is vital if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided. The form of participation selected by tenants should include several basic principles.
First, tenants should be closely involved from the start with any decisions affecting their homes. Secondly, tenants should have a full range of housing options from which to choose. They should be able to control the management and maintenance of their homes, either directly through a management co-operative or estate management board, or by using an external agency such as the local authority or a housing association. In Cheltenham the residents of the St. Paul's area have voted to set up an estate management board in an attempt to tackle their problems. That move is strongly supported by the local Liberal Democrat councillors who represent the area.
There must be long-term investment in the rented sector. The hon. Member for Greenwich mentioned the capital assets that have been raised from the sale of council houses. In his reply, will the Minister tell us what are his intentions for those capital assets? In Cheltenham we have £11 million locked away in a bank account which we would like to use to help to solve the problems of homelessness in the area. Councils should be allowed to use the £6·5 billion raised from council house sales to initiate housing schemes to benefit the less well off.
There is evidence that housing benefit claimants are penalised in their search for rented accommodation. Income support should be paid to claimants in advance. The duty of local authorities to provide housing should be extended to 16 to 18-year-olds. Surely 16 to 18-year-olds should have the right to be housed when they have the legal ability to get married and have children.
The current financial and legal framework does not meet the needs of either landlords or tenants. The rent-a-room scheme detailed in the Conservative manifesto is welcome so far as it goes, but ultimately the supply of rented accommodation must be increased. I hope that the Government will take on board some of the ideas that I have outlined.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). Not only did he pay a gracious tribute to his predecessor, who was a great friend of all Conservative Members, but he clearly marked out for himself a role, along the lines of the elephants, of trumpeting the cause of his constituency. We hope that his record in Bradford of trampling socialism under foot will continue. That is what our housing record is all about.
I begin by tackling a point raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones). There is a great myth about housing capital receipts and it is an easy bandwagon for people to jump on. Those receipts are not sitting under someone's bed. They are either lent on the market or used as an alternative to external borrowing. If all the receipts were spent at once, the inevitable consequence would be pressure on interest rates to rise. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) made some comments on the effect of interest rates on housing. I find it extraordinary that, at the same time, he should support a policy that would push up interest rates still further.
It is almost nine years since I delivered my maiden speech on housing. We were then extending the right to buy through the Housing and Building Control Act 1984. I have followed closely our Government's record on tenancy matters, which is second to none. The right to buy, the right to repair and some of the proposals contained in our manifesto are excellent ways of enfranchising tenants who, in the past, were so often treated like feudal serfs, usually by socialist, although not always socialist, authorities.
However, there remain those who are disenfranchised. For example, the tenants of charitable housing associations are denied the right to buy. They were denied it in another place by people who in many cases owned not just one but two, three or four houses. Those people denied to ordinary working-class people who were tenants of charitable housing associations the privilege which they themselves enjoyed as owner-occupiers.
We have had a chance to reverse the disenfranchisement of tenants and to extend the right to buy. The extension of the right to buy to tenants of charitable housing associations is not on the agenda at present, but I hope that the Government will return to it in due course. However, we could make it clear to the Housing Corporation that no further grants will be given to charitable housing associations until they are prepared to extend the opportunity to buy to their tenants where public money has financed the building of the estate. For example, the Sutton housing association estate in my constituency was funded 98 per cent. by the taxpayer. Only 2 per cent. of the money came from the charity to pay for landscaping. How can such a body deny its tenants the opportunity that we have given to local authority tenants?
I also wish to deal with the tenants of housing associations—not only charitable but non-profit-making. At their best, housing associations perform extremely well. I welcome some of their initiatives in both specialist housing and providing greater mobility. However, it is a sad fact that some housing associations do not measure up to that standard. I have had battle after battle with the Metropolitan Housing Trust, which has an estate in my constituency, the pedigree of which goes back to the socialist local authorities of north London. I referred earlier to the abominable record of the Co-operative Development Society, which has several houses in my constituency.
I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about performance indicators and the adoption of a new, robust line by the Housing Corporation. But we must all judge that entirely on the basis of the performance of the Housing Corporation. The subject will not simply go away if tenants of housing associations continue to receive bad service for repairs in particular and have to take their landlords to court, as has happened in my constituency on several occasions. It is remarkable that the Housing Corporation did not step in straight away in those cases.
The issue of tenants' rights and responsibilities is extremely broad and it would be impossible to touch on every aspect. I wish to put into the debate some points that have not been addressed so far. On waiting lists, the Government's figures and those of the building societies reveal clearly that the aspiration of the huge majority of our people is to become a home owner. Among the youngest age group, the figure is between 80 and 90 per cent. So how is it that when they need housing and go along to their local authority, the only thing that they can do is put their name down on the list to rent? The only exception is in Wandsworth, but I do not know whether that scheme is still running.
People should he asked their preference when they seek housing. Local authorities should be obliged to keep a list of people who want to buy or share in ownership, as well as those who want to rent. That would provide some useful statistics to determine planning authorities' policies. It would also mean a guaranteed list of people who could be approached over joint participation schemes, which have been so successful, and would offer an opportunity for those involved in speculative building in the private sector to tailor their building to suit those wanting to buy in an area.
Alternative waiting lists are important and we shall also have to bite the bullet and decide whether waiting lists should be means tested. Some people who could well afford to buy put their names on the waiting list. I remember receiving a letter from two constituents who said that they could afford to buy a house costing £50,000, but wanted to go on the local authority waiting list because they did not see why they should spend their money. That is fair enough from their point of view, but, from the point of view of the community, I would rather that the money was used to help people in need.
The points system used by most local authorities causes people to worsen their housing conditions because they know that they will receive extra points only if they live in overcrowded conditions, if the property is in a poor state or if they have children before they want to. That is a crazy system and has been criticised by the university of Bristol, which has done a lot of research. It is time that public sector allocations encouraged families who do not have the opportunity to buy because of low incomes, rather than giving all tenancies to people who have not planned their lives as effectively.
Many hon. Members are worried that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, places an unfair burden on local authorities such as Hillingdon, which contains London airport. I have always been amazed that whenever I suggested an overhaul of the 1977 Act, the local authority associations said that it was working satisfactorily, although all the evidence points the other way. During this Parliament I hope that we shall have a comprehensive review and I promise my hon. Friend the Minister that if I am a Member of the Select Committee on the Environment again it will be one of the matters to which we shall want to pay particular attention to.
Finally, as it is unfair to take up too much time when so many hon. Members want to speak, I stress that the Government have a proud record on this issue and have done more than any other Government to enfranchise tenants. They were responsible for much of the switch by traditional working-class Labour supporters to the Conservatives in 1983, 1987 and at the last general election, and long may we continue to work in their interests.
Although I agreed with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), I did not agree with his views on the way in which the Government have tried to enfranchise tenants. I am sure that, from his point of view, the right to buy had some purely political merit, but he and the Minister, who opened the debate with a singularly partisan speech, were extremely unfair to Labour local authorities, especially as we all regret the paternalistic attitude of local authorities of any party.
There is no doubt that if the 50,000 or 60,000 people in the Principality of Wales who are waiting for council houses or the 20,000 homeless people in Wales were given a choice between a paternalistic landlord or no house, they would choose the landlord.
The most significant omission in the Minister's remarks was that he did not tell us what will happen to tens of thousands of people in Wales and hundreds of thousands of people in the country who have no hope of getting a council house or a housing association property.
I pay tribute to the work of the tenants' organisations in the Principality and especially to the Welsh Tenants Federation, the Tenant Participation Advisory Service (Wales) and the Valleys Tenants and Residents Forum. It is significant that, whether they are Labour, independent, Liberal or Conservative local authorities, they are paying more attention to their tenants' wishes.
It is interesting that the Tenant Participation Advisory Service and the Welsh Tenants Federation were officially represented at the annual conference of the Welsh Institute of Housing, and that the Welsh Federation of Housing Associations symposium had tenants on its board and was subsidised by Housing for Wales, or Tai Cymru, as it is known in Wales.
More local authorities and housing associations are keen on tenant participation and 85 tenants' groups are affiliated to TPAS (Wales), a figure which I am sure is also reflected in England and Scotland.
When looking at the work by local authorities in Wales, of whatever political colour, in dealing with tenants' rights and responsibilities, the picture is pleasing. In Aberconway, there have been considerable consultations with tenants over redevelopment proposals. In Colwyn, where there have been major flooding problems in the past two years, there have been consultations with tenants, and there is an excellent tenant service in the capital city of Wales, with a full-time tenant participation officer, who works well with our largest local authority housing provider. Similar work is being carried out in Taff Ely and in Ynys Môn.
The Swansea tenants federation has done sterling work, with the help and co-operation of the local authority in that great city. There have been surveys of tenants, development work with tenants in rural areas, and people have been trained to work with tenants throughout the Principality. We are assured that future developments will include reference to special needs, and the production during the next year of a number of publications by the bodies to which I referred.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on the Front Bench referred to the need to consult tenants more widely on the construction and design stage of housing, the management of estates and the membership of committees that run houses, whether owned by housing associations or by the local authorities, and the need to consult them on setting reasonable rents, tackling repairs and on major capital works. Those are all properly the responsibility and interest of tenants, whether private tenants of housing associations or local authority tenants in Wales and England.
I fear that much of what the Minister said about tenants simply homed in on the problems of the right to buy. That is an aspect of tenants' rights, but it is not the only one. In the previous Session of Parliament the Government tried to deal with tenants' rights in another way—by transferring them en bloc from local authorities either to private landlords or to housing associations. That was a gigantic flop in the Principality. It made no headway and Tai Cymru, which was charged with the responsibility, would be the first to admit that from beginning to end it was a notable disaster.
In exactly the same way, the Government think that, as a result of the forthcoming legislation on rents-to-mortgages, all will be well with the provision of housing for social need. That is not the case in the one instance in Wales when that ludicrous scheme was undertaken in Montgomeryshire. The scheme operated there by the Development Board for Rural Wales has been a failure, just like the scheme in Scotland. There is nothing in such initiatives for tenants. The problems go much deeper.
Many people have no desire to own their own homes. They want to rent because they do not want the burden or the responsibility of home ownership, particularly as millions of people, especially in the south-east of England are suffering because of the problems of the property market. The Government should re-examine some aspects of their housing policy from their own point of view and from that of tenants.
I do not expect the Minister to answer my specific points on Wales, but two practical steps could be taken to help tenants. The first relates to the new town in Montgomeryshire established by the Development Board for Rural Wales—it is effectively the last new town in Wales; the other is in my constituency in Cwmbran. The housing assets in those new towns were transferred from the development corporations to local authorities. Most previous transfers went relatively smoothly and, in Cwmbran, it went successfully. However, the Development Board for Rural Wales in Montgomeryshire does not take the same attitude towards such a transfer as that of other new towns in England.
I hope that not only will the tenants of the Development Board for Rural Wales be consulted, as the Government have promised, but that the results of the consultations will mean that their wishes will be abided by if they specifically ask to become the tenants of local authorities. If they wish to become tenants of a local authority or of a housing association they should have that right, and I hope that the wishes of the tenants in Montgomeryshire will be respected by the Welsh Office and by the Government. I hope that the tenants' position will not be determined by Government ideology, but as a result of meeting the genuine wishes of those who live in the houses.
It is a scandal that Tai Cymru, Housing for Wales, which has responsibility for the development of housing policy, particularly social housing, in the whole of the Principality, does not have on its board one member who represents local authorities. That is a sign of the way in which the Government treat local authorities, particularly housing authorities. The Minister said that he saw local authorities only as enablers. The people of Wales also see them as providers. Local authorities combine those roles, but, whatever they are, as the Minister said, they are certainly landlords. The landlord of hundreds of thousands of people in Wales is their local authority. It is wrong that not one representative of the local authorities in Wales is on the board of Tai Cymru. I hope that the Government will change their mind on that.
Similarly, it is proper that, as is the case in England, a representative of the tenants should be on the board of Tai Cymru—a representative either from the Welsh Tenants Federation or from the Tenants Participation Advisory Service (Wales). The views of tenants on all aspects of housing, but particularly on housing associations, would be valuable when Tai Cymru discusses its affairs.
Tai Cymru is only one of a number of non-elected bodies in Wales—quangos as we call them—which increasingly run public life in the Principality. I am concerned because although the overwhelming majority of the Welsh people, at least, have rejected the Government, the people who are placed on those boards to run public affairs are extremely partisan and belong on one side of the political fence. For that reason, I was troubled by the Minister's remarks. The Government have had their majority reduced substantially from 100 seats to 20 and I thought that they would adopt a more consensual role. I had hoped that in those parts of the country with their own Government Departments—Scotland and Wales—there would be an attempt to move away from confrontation towards consensus, especially on those bodies responsible for housing.
Unless we reach that consensus, I fear for the whole process of democracy in the Principality and in Scotland. I had hoped for some humility from the Government, rather than the arrogance that we have witnessed this morning.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make my maiden speech. It is fitting that you should be in the Chair, because you represent my neighbouring seat. You have been very helpful to me since my arrival in the House.
There is a variety of ways in which hon. Members arrive in this place. Some take the fast route, others the slow one, but I believe that I may have arrived by the trap-door. It was on 22 February only that we knew that my predecessor did not intend to stand again. On 10 March I was selected for the seat and it was on 11 March that the Prime Minister called the election. Such a process is not designed to help the heart or the nerves, but as the admen would say, "It takes the waiting out of the wanting". It is a special privilege for me to represent the constituency in which I have lived and worked for many years.
My predecessor, Alan Clark, was well known in the House. He was a learned and well-respected person who represented Plymouth, Sutton for 18 years. He had a distinguished career in the Ministry of Defence and in the Department of Trade and Industry. Of his many fine qualities, I believe that perhaps the finest was his ability to speak his mind, irrespective of others' reaction. That is a rare and important gift in any democracy. He will be sadly missed in the House and elsewhere.
Plymouth is well known to hon. Members, many of whom will have spent at least one holiday in Devon and Cornwall. No doubt, on a wet Thursday in August, they came to Plymouth to do their shopping in our excellent city centre. Hon. Members will be aware that Plymouth is located in a most beautiful part of the world, with the stark majesty of Dartmoor to the north, the rolling hills of South Hams to the east, the beauty of Plymouth sound and the English channel to the south and Cornwall to the west. It is free to get into Cornwall over the Tamar bridge, but one must pay to get back into Plymouth—a price well worth paying.
Plymouth is the home of the Plymouth Brethren, Plymouth gin and, perhaps most importantly, Plymouth Argyle. It is a city with a proud history and a great potential. There is another side to it, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a city of considerable need. It has a population of 250,000 and, today, 12·3 per cent. of our residents are unemployed, against a national unemployment average of 9·6 per cent. In the past 12 months unemployment in Plymouth has risen by 5·4 per cent.—the largest rise in the country. That may take hon. Members by surprise, because people think of Plymouth as an attractive, leisure city—but we have real needs.
The local authority still owns 20,000 council houses, many in poor condition. We have a growing housing waiting list and, for the first time in many years, homeless people on the list are now in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is of particular concern to me. The city also has a growing crime rate and a drugs problem. Many of my constituents are worried about crime and I shall come back to that problem in the coming days, months and years.
Plymouth is a city not just of leisure and beauty; too many of my constituents are out of work, do not have homes and do not have hope. I have committed myself to speaking on their behalf in this place. I shall do that in the years to come in the way that you have done, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I should like to put down two markers on behalf of my constituents, the first concerning crime. My constituents believe, and I agree with them, that we must punish much more severely those who commit crimes against the person. People who burgle, batter or rape must be locked away for a long time, not simply to deter others but to remove them from the streets so that they cannot commit the same crimes against other people. Our first approach when thinking of punishment must be the protection of innocent victims.
My constituents are fed up with hearing excuses about why people commit crime. They want us to talk more about the victims and what we will do to protect them. The Conservatives have an excellent record on funding the police force. Unfortunately, the nature of society today is causing crime to be on the increase. The present situation will not do.
As well as aiming to protect the innocent victims of crime by stiffer sentences, we should be examining the causes of crime and seeking to rediscover in society what I would call the traditional Christian values by which people learn at an early age to respect law and order, authority, other people and others' property. We must rediscover the importance at a young age of the family unit and of parental discipline. We have tended to turn our backs on those matters in the past 30 years. We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind.
My second marker is about Devonport dockyard. The future of Plymouth as we know and love it will be decided in the next six months by the Government, because in that time they will decide whether DML, the private firm which runs Devonport dockyard, will be successful in winning the nuclear refit work on the Trident boat.
Hon. Members will know that Plymouth has grown over the years by being centred on the royal dockyard and the naval base. We have lost 7,000 jobs in the dockyard in the past seven years. If we do not win the nuclear refit work on the Trident, the dockyard will close and the naval base will be under great threat. It will be like tearing the heart out of Plymouth. Part of my job is to ensure that the Government make the right decision, as I am sure they will. I shall return to that issue time and again.
I appreciate that today we are debating tenancy matters, so I am grateful to the House for its indulgence in enabling me to refer in my maiden speech to other matters. I believe in home ownership, because it enhances one's sense of responsibility and self help. That is in the interests of every citizen. So we are right to encourage people to buy their own homes. The right-to-buy policy has been a success and I am sure that the rents-to-mortgages policy will be an equal success. I look forward to debating that in the months ahead.
However, I also recognise that there is a significant minority of people who do not wish, or are unable, to buy their own homes. That minority may be about 20 per cent. of the population. Many, though by no means all, of them are on modest incomes. The Government are right, in their approach to social housing problems, to concentrate on housing associations as the main provider of new affordable social housing. They are housing specialists and are free from the ideological and political baggage that many local authorities carry around with them in their approach to housing. Again, the Government have been right in their approach to that matter.
The figures are revealing. Although we have had housing associations for at least 20 years, there are still 4·2 million local authority dwellings in England and Wales, and I apologise to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), on the Opposition Front Bench, for not having the figures for Scotland. Against that figure, there are 645,000 housing association homes —83 as against 13 per cent. The difference in scale is enormous.
It is clear, whether we like it or not, that local authorities remain the major provider of social housing. That may not be the position 10 years from now, but we must review the situation as it exists. If tenants are to get a fair deal, and if we are to concentrate on tenants' rights and responsibilities, we must tackle the problems of the local authority management of housing. As a former housing chairman of Plymouth city council, I have some experience of that issue. Tenants are getting a raw deal all over the country from their local authority landlords and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that it is virtually impossible for a local authority to be a good, efficient and cost-effective landlord. By nature—one might say by culture—it is almost impossible.
When I was a law student at King's college, just along the water from here, in the late 1970s, I worked for three weeks in an Easter vacation for Southwark borough council on an agency job. My task, which I was privileged to do, involved my spraying bed bugs in council high-rise flats. That opened my eyes to the situation. I wonder how many other Conservative Members have worked for Southwark borough council. It was not a pleasant experience. I feel now, as I felt then, that there must be a better way to own and manage local authority housing. The answer is to diversify and to give opportunity and choice.
I admit that our approach in 1988 to provide tenants' choice has not proved an unqualified success. We have not seen wholesale voting by tenants to choose a new landlord. That should have happened, but it did not. A simile may be made with cases of battered wives, who, my partners in my law firm tell me, return time and again to their husbands. Nobody can work out why that happens. Or it is like the neglected child who clings even more closely to an uncaring parent? There is a bond and security in the relationship. It is fear of the unknown, perhaps best expressed by the expression "Better the devil you know than the one you do not know".
Whatever the reason, tenants have not voted in a wholesale way to choose a new landlord. My experience as housing chairman in Plymouth while the process was being debated was that the 1988 legislation drove tenants closer to their landlords in an effort to fend off what they saw as an unattractive policy. It has been unfortunate, but if tenants have chosen to stay with their landlord, we must respect that choice and approach the issue on another basis. [Interruption.] I think I hear cries of, "Hear, hear" from the Opposition Benches. That is not a distinguished start for a maiden speaker.
If tenants do not choose another landlord, it behoves the Government to change the way in which local authority landlords do their business. The answer is to cut housing departments free from local authorities in every management sense and convert them to what I would call semi-detached housing boards. In the way that we have created bus companies by the Transport Act 1985—by creating companies or boards of a semi-detached nature, owned by the local authority but enjoying a fresh approach to management—we must do the same in housing, creating a mean, lean management, but still owned by the local authority and largely free of local political interference. I have come to the conclusion that no real purpose is served by political interference at local level in housing management. It is just another encumbrance.
The boards should comprise senior housing officers, one or two councillors at the most—they should be sensible ones—and, most importantly, tenants' representatives and representatives from the business, finance and property sectors. Such boards should employ few people directly, but should buy in every service they need when they want it from the right source, at the right time and at the right price. That is the way in which to give an effective service.
Having served on a local authority for about six years, my conclusion is that it is difficult to reform a local authority from the inside out because local authorities have a culture that has gone on from generation to generation. The fresh start for housing management would be to create the new boards which could then buy in what they wanted, cut free from the culture and baggage of local authority control.
Local authority housing departments today suffer from on-costs from all sorts of other council departments, such as treasury services, repair and maintenance services and the town clerk's department. Would not it be better if the housing boards could buy in legal, financial, repair and maintenance and even allocation services from people who were specialist, lean, mean and able to do the job?
What would be the result of my suggestions? We should have public sector ownership of houses, which tenants appear to want, with all the benefits of the private sector, including efficiency and the cost-effectiveness. There would be massive savings if we cut housing departments free from the baggage that they currently have to endure. Those savings could be spent on improving the housing stock and the service delivered to tenants. At the end of the day, we are here to serve the tenants. Those savings could be spent on delivering excellence rather than on keeping traditions alive.
The most important part of any approach to housing management is tenants' participation, and other hon. Members have made that point. From my time as housing chairman, I recall that we spent a lot of time with tenants, listening to and learning from what they said, and entering into full and frank discussions. One of the most interesting discussions I had with tenants' groups concerned a forthcoming rent increase. It was a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, but we sat down, we talked the issue through and we reached a consensus. Tenant participation is absolutely critical and it is part of the way forward.
Some people may say that it is not necessary radically to reform the local authority management of housing. I know that it is. I shall never forget my deep sense of shock when I learned, after three months of being chair of housing in Plymouth, that if any of our tenants needed a new bath, it took five different tradesmen, who were members of the engineer's department, to install it. The biggest shock of all was that the officers sought to justify that to me as being in the tenants' interest. Can one conceive of such a thing in the private sector? One goes to the right person and gets the job done. One does not need such numbers of people to get the work done. We are dealing not only with reforming an institution but with changing a culture.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take two brief points into account. First, will he do something about the fact that many Labour-controlled local authorities are sitting on empty housing land? In the same localities, there are housing associations which pay market prices to buy land on which to build. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing measures to force Labour-controlled authorities to transfer that land at nil cost to local housing associations so that more houses can be built at affordable rents for local people? Secondly, in the great capital receipts debate, will my hon. Friend consider, if there is to be any release of capital receipts, only authorising local authorities to transfer capital receipts to housing associations so that they can use the money to provide social housing far more cost-effectively than local authorities can?
We now have a real opportunity to shake up housing management. if we are to tackle the problem of social housing, bearing in mind that 4 million families are still local authority tenants, we must be radical in our approach to housing departments. They will not reform themselves, so we must do that job for them. We must set up streamlined housing boards which can buy in the services they want when they want them. In that way the tenants who, after all, we are here to serve, will get the deal that they deserve.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) on his maiden speech. It is obvious that he will take up his constituents' concerns and I am sure that we shall hear a great deal more from him in the years ahead in this Parliament.
I have found the debate in general a depressing experience. We have heard many times from Conservative Members the ideological opposition to local authority housing and the obsession with owner-occupation. It is a peculiarly British obsession: few other countries in Europe believe that everyone should aim for owner-occupation or that renting has an inferior status. The obsession with owner-occupation seemed to dominate speeches by Conservative Members.
What tenants want—indeed, what the majority of people want from housing, whether they are tenants or not—is security. They want to be able to live in a property which is suitable in size and in location. They want to be able to repair the property or to have it repaired, and they want to be able to live in a property that they can afford, whether through rent or through mortgage. Those aspirations do not vary much among owner-occupiers or among tenants.
In recent years, it has become far more difficult for owner-occupiers to meet those aspirations; one has only to ask the people whose homes have been repossessed in the past few years to realise that. It is even more difficult for tenants to meet those aspirations. I found it depressing that there has been no recognition in the debate of the fact that there has been a diminution of tenants' rights and an increase in the difficulty of renting.
Many tenants with private landlords have considerably less security than they had two or three years ago, with shorthold tenancies and altered succession rights. Many private landlords now refuse to accept as tenants people who are on benefits. Rents have been forced up in the private sector and in the public sector because of the withdrawal of subsidies. The Government should be seriously concerned about the housing association sector, where payment of rent relies increasingly on housing benefits. If the rents were fixed at market levels, few housing association tenants would be able to afford them.
I will deal mainly with tenants' choice and with the reality of what "choice" means for many people. I shall hold an advice surgery this evening in my constituency and I know what I shall find when I get there. There will be a queue of people with housing problems and there will be people who are on local authority waiting lists.
For many authorities, waiting lists might as well not exist because no one is being rehoused from them. How much choice do people have? Many local authorities—certainly many in London—operate a one-offer policy of a suitable flat or house. That applies even to direct offers and not only to offers of bed and breakfast.
Transfers of existing tenants in my local authority and in many others have virtually ceased because authorities are struggling to keep their heads above water in dealing with homelessness. It is not good enough to blame local authorities. My local authority, Waltham Forest, has less than 2 per cent. empty stock. It does not use bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families and has worked hard to keep out of that. Meetings with the Department of the Environment on housing investment programme applications have resulted in the Department praising the authority's record on management.
No new houses are being built and investment is being cut. As a result, local authorities cannot cope. I am in favour of tenants having the right to repairs and improvements. The vast majority of people agree on that, but a right to repair means little to someone with four kids in a two-bedroomed flat on the 19th floor of a tower block. It does not mean much to the private tenant either. An elderly private tenant in a property which is in bad condition will not be impressed by talk about the right to repair, because it is far from easy to get the necessary action through environmental health officers. Tenants' rights and choices cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the housing policy. When we have a housing strategy that does not address supply, new building and large-scale improvement, it is pointless to talk about tenants' rights.
Hon. Members have spoken about consultation and power. We all accept that in the past local authorities have been paternalistic. That would have been a fair accusation against many local authorities 20 or 30 years ago, but in recent years—certainly in the case of many Labour authorities—that is no longer the case. The Minister mentioned a housing action trust in my constituency in the context of tenants' rights and of tenants being able to choose. That housing action trust is in Waltham Forest and it is instructive to look at its history.
The trust started when the local authority looked at what could be done on run-down estates. The authority produced schemes in conjunction with tenants and involved tenants in the redevelopment of the estates, but the Government refused to sanction the loans necessary for the work. The Government were then asked whether they would permit the setting up of a tenant-controlled company which would take over the management of the estates and do the work. That, too, was refused, and we ended up with the housing action trust. During the setting of the trust, the then Minister made some concessions to tenants. He said that he was willing to give guarantees about future letting policies and rent levels and the ability of the tenants to choose their landlord on the expiry of the housing action trust. However, none of that was translated into legislation, and if the HAT board chose to do so it could ignore those guarantees. If the Minister means what he says about being interested in tenants' rights he should seek to embody in legislation the guarantees given to the Waltham Forest housing action trust.
My hon. Friend may be aware that my constituents are watching carefully what is happening in Walthamstow. They have been offered a HAT and have been told that they can eventually be asked to be taken back under council control. When they asked whether there was a guarantee that the council would take them back, they found that there was no legal requirement for that. They know that under council control they have security of tenure—a matter which was raised by Conservative Members. They cannot be put out under one pretext or another and their rents cannot be raised sky high. They would probably favour the improvements to run-down properties that a HAT would bring, if the Government would give the guarantees that they seem unwilling to give.
I agree. Those issues were raised during the setting up of the Waltham Forest HAT. At that time, Ministers said that such guarantees should be given. As I have said, however, those guarantees have never been backed by legislation and it would be possible for the HAT board to ignore them. That seriously worries tenants, and I hope that the Minister will consider it.
It is instructive to look at the history of the tenants who were involved in the setting up of the Waltham Forest HAT. The local authority encouraged tenants to become involved, but the Government set up a HAT board on which they were not prepared to have a tenant majority. If tenant power and consultation mean anything, they should mean being prepared to give real power to tenants, allowing them to form a majority on a board and to make real decisions about the management of their properties and expenditure on them. Often that is where the line is drawn. Tenant consultation is allowed so long as it does not involve real decisions or the ability to spend, but the right to manage and to choose must include the right to control and spend money.
Time and again, the Opposition have said that real rights and choices for tenants must be explained and incorporated in an overall housing strategy which addresses supply and the value of rented housing. The Government must not simply adopt policies that allow for social rented housing to be run down, but that is the reality of what is happening.
It is not surprising that the Government have tabled this motion, because they have lots to crow about. I understand why they want an outing of praise and I am pleased to give it. Paradoxically, many of the more socially progressive, liberal ideas that the Labour party was proposing 30 years ago—about the last time that one could discern any thought from the Labour party—have been delivered over the past 10 years by the Conservative Government. They have been delivered by pursuing the tenets of capitalism and variety of choice rather than by the centralising force of socialist bureaucracy that was the dream in the 1950s and 1960s.
In my constituency there is a wide variety of housing provision, all of it successful. I am lucky in that there are more housing associations in my constituency than there are in any other part of the country. This enormous variety provides, for example, for ethnic minorities, single mothers, single women, those who wish to ensure that their homes belong not to just to them but to succeeding generations, those wanting short-term stays or people who are being rehabilitated into society. This wide variety is the essence of Conservative philosophy.
This debate on tenants' rights involves something far greater than just tenants' rights. Tenants can now have a real say in framing their destinies. In my constituency, this means more than just passive rights. Tenants are not just being consulted; they are putting together plans for the architecture of the estates on which they live, for the security of those estates and for the rents that they will pay in future. I know that when the North Kensington city challenge bid comes to the Department of the Environment, one of the factors that will most recommend it is that it is not a bid in which tenants have just been consulted—it is a bid in which they have led.
Then there is leasehold reform. That campaign sprung more often from the Back Benches than from the Front Benches. Many of those Back-Benchers, on both sides of the House, who started the campaign are no longer with us, which only shows that a successful campaign can take generations of Parliament to achieve. Now, reform will be undertaken in this Session and commonhold, as the Minister kindly confirmed, will follow on within the lifetime of this Government. It is hugely appreciated that we have all aspects of leasehold reform firmly on board.
The greatest change in housing provision is the thriving condition of the private sector. That is very visible in the centre of London, where more and more people are turning to private rented accommodation. My borough has supported a business expansion scheme to provide assured tenancies for its staff. That is a perfect example of how capitalism can achieve fairness and equity in the housing market in a way that socialism never can.
Against this blue sky of success, it might seem churlish of me to dwell for a moment on a cloud of worry—the position in London of statutory tenants. Let me at once declare an interest in that I am myself a statutory tenant, although none of the concerns on which I shall elaborate apply to me. Over the past two or three years, statutory tenants in the centre of London have been getting rent increases that are clearly out of kilter with other increases. They are not two or three times the rate of inflation, although such increases would imply a real change of resources out of people's private incomes and into the housing costs. They are not increases of five, six or seven times the rate of inflation, which would be punitive and which the Government would not endorse. Regularly, rent increases for statutory tenants in the centre of London are 10 times the rate of inflation, and this is causing considerable social cruelty.
This distortion in the market is a result of the fact that, in the centre of London, the comparison of rents made by the rent assessment board when looking at statutory tenants is not with a genuinely free market. It is, rather, one distorted by the overwhelming demand for business accommodation rents and by the presence of foreign tenants. Thus it is that in whole mansion blocks in my constituency of Kensington, indigenous tenants are being forced out by rent increases. They make way not for other residents but for business lettings, where the tenants may be wholly transitory, or for foreign tenants who may visit for only one or two months a year. Many mansion blocks stand almost empty while every year indigenous tenants, as a result of rent assessments that take place every two years, are being forced out by rent increases of 30 or 40 per cent. It is clear that it is not the Government's intention that that should happen.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, being the intelligent and sympathetic man that he is, has very much taken the matter on board. That is why some weeks ago he made a public commitment to examine the problem. In an open letter he wrote:
The size of increases in some parts of London has been somewhat higher than elsewhere in the country given the generally higher level of rents which are being achieved in the assured tenancy sector in these areas where foreign demand is an important factor. We will therefore review the guidance to rent assessment committees to see whether any special consideration needs to be given to these particular factors which are affecting rent levels.
That commitment attracted much publicity at the time and was widely welcomed by my constituents. This morning my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said, even before being pressed, that the Department was about to take public advice. The decision to open up the matter for public consideration is an enormously welcome step forward.
We all realise, as did my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning when he made the commitment, that to change instructions to rent assessment committees so that they take account of business lettings and foreign lettings will require a degree of primary legislation. It might require about 10 lines in the housing Bill that will come before the House in the autumn. It is with the intention of forming the appropriate clause that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has said, to my delight, that he will be accepting evidence from the statutory tenant sector and from others who are interested in the problem.
As I have said, I am talking only of a cloud, but it is an important one for those of us who represent central London constituencies. Against an otherwise blue sky—it is ever more apparent to the public and in the provision of housing throughout London that the Government are doing so much in housing matters—this one concern shows up much more darkly than it need. I welcome the Government's initiative in putting matters right by accepting evidence over the next six to eight weeks. I shall welcome the relevant clause in the housing Bill that will come before the House in the autumn, which will put the matter to rights. I trust that it will give statutory tenants the protection that the Government have always said that they deserve. That will be not only a legal protection but protection from being bankrupted out of their own homes.
I am pleased to be able to speak about tenants' rights, opportunities and participation, which are extremely important subjects for my constituents. Cambridge city council was mentioned in the housing investment programme as being one of the top 50 councils that were well ahead of the field, especially in terms of tenants' participation. I welcome the debate and I am pleased to be able to draw to the attention of the House the success of Cambridge city council in the schemes in which it has participated. The relevant schemes have been in existence for three years and have been well developed.
Two tenants sit on each of three housing subcommittees—development, management and policy. Although the law prohibits voting by tenants, they have a right to speak, to take part in discussions and to influence decision making at the end of the day. Tenants in the private-rented sector do not have those rights.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that local authorities will continue to have a role as providers as well as enablers. Cambridge city council demonstrates well that local authorities can be good providers and that should not be forgotten. There are good and bad providers in every sector and it should be recognised that local authorities can be good and that there are impressive examples, especially in Cambridge.
There is some anxiety in my constituency about forthcoming legislation on compulsory competitive tendering. Some of the progress made with tenant participation in Cambridge may be eroded if tenants cannot choose their contractors. If the selection must be made as the result of competitive tendering, rather than on the basis of the best quality, that may limit choice. Will the Minister take that into consideration? I am aware that a paper on competitive tendering is to be published soon.
Although the proposed legislation is welcome, the Government are still fiddling while Rome burns. The Audit Commission report clearly showed that insufficient housing investment is creating problems of real concern to many of my constituents. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) mentioned the importance of making land available for social housing. I support that approach, and ask the Minister to consider carefully a plot of land on the edge of Cambridge known as Clay farm, which could accommodate 900 houses. The city council intended to develop that site with housing associations in the provision of social housing for the people of Cambridge, which would have contributed a great deal to alleviating the housing shortage in my constituency.
Unfortunately, that land was put into the green belt by the Conservative and Social Democrat groups on the county council, whose decision was later ratified by the Secretary of State for the Environment. That issue should be reopened and the decision reconsidered, because that land is desperately needed. It is difficult to see how additional housing can be provided if it remains out of use.
Hon. Members in all parts of the House stressed that the lack of capital building has caused an increase in the number of homeless families. The 16 and 17-year-olds whom one sees on the streets are the visible face of the housing crisis, but other aspects are visible to those of us who represent local communities as Members of Parliament or councillors. I refer for example to the increasing number of families who find themselves in inappropriate housing.
About 70 families in my constituency are waiting to be transferred to more suitable accommodation. Raising a family should be a joyful and rewarding experience, but for many of my constituents it is a fraught and stressful one. Few male Members of Parliament have spent time at home being economically inactive and looking after children. I am glad to be one of the new women Members of Parliament who can speak from personal experience of the stresses imposed on family life when conditions are less than adequate.
Children and adults need space. Boisterous youngsters need room to play, let off steam and to fight if necessary. If they do not have it, it can create intolerable family stresses that manifest themselves in all sorts of ways.
When a family is marooned in a one or two-bedroomed flat on an upper floor of a block, with no lift or access to a garden, everyday living becomes something of a nightmare. Many of the young mothers to whom I speak feel themselves trapped when going to the shops, hanging out the washing or collecting a prescription—activities which any of us would consider a normal part of everyday life. However, if one is a young mother with a baby and toddler, and has to carry both of them and a pushchair down two flights of stairs, and the toddler wants to take his trike as well, they become almost impossible tasks. Coming back is even worse, because the children are tired and so is the mother. The other day, I spoke to a young mother who had been faced with a choice between leaving her baby at the bottom of the stairs and leaving her shopping there. When she returned for the shopping she found that it had disappeared: it had been stolen.
The problem is difficult to describe, because it is largely invisible in the streets; it is a problem, nevertheless, and it is increasing rapidly. To my distress, I find that as a new Member of Parliament I can offer little hope to constituents who come to me—often in desperation, even tears—because I can see no way out. Unless the Government are prepared to change their policy and make more housing available, I fear that the situation will become worse and worse.
I urge the Government to put real power into people's hands. I urge them to give some self-respect to young mothers and to return some real choice to their lives—to liberate them from the stresses imposed by their own families, whom they should be able to enjoy. One of way of doing that would be to release capital receipts, thus allowing councils to build more houses. That would not only help homeless families, but have a tremendous effect on the families whom I have described.
My constituency is as relevant to the debate as any other—although it may not be as obviously relevant as the constituency that I fought in the 1987 election. Glasgow, Central is still emerging from a form of feudal Stalinist oppression in regard to housing.
North Colchester is such a diverse constituency that, if the Government have a problem relating to a particular issue, it is likely to affect that constituency. The garrison, for example, is the pride of the town, but it now faces the perceived threat of the "Options for Change" proposals. The university—one of the fastest-expanding universities in the United Kingdom, particularly in the field of research —is under strain in connection with a capital programme, but, despite its youth, it has already fathered some distinguised alumni. My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) is its first Cabinet Minister; its first chief constable is the Warwickshire chief constable, Mr. Peter Joslin; and, believe it or not, another alumnus is the President of Costa Rica, Essex university's first Nobel peace prize winner.
North Colchester contains every type of education. It has grammar schools, comprehensive schools, a higher education institute and an excellent adult education college. That, too, represents a potential problem for a Minister. It also contains nearly every type of agriculture —even fishing, which is under threat of marine gravel extraction and the building of the new London airport, Marinair, in the Thames estuary. I assure the House that the supply of oysters will continue uninterrupted, however.
All types of industry and commerce are represented: heavy and light industry, retail and services. We have an excellent football team, the U's, which has just got back into the league, but is in difficulties over its stadium. We also have an extensive heritage. Colchester was the Romans' first capital of England, and the largest Norman keep in Europe was subsequently built there. It became Britain's oldest recorded town and witnessed a grim seige in the civil war—reminding us how hard fought were our present Parliament's precious powers. There is much to preserve and treasure there.
Today, the constituency stretches from a thriving commercial centre to the almost unaltered landscapes, under huge open skies, which so inspired so many of Constable's paintings. At times, it may be difficult to remember that North Colchester is in the same county as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess)—where a Constable seems more often to be the man who asks you where you got all those televisions in your garage. Now, however, we must revise our preconceptions of Basildon, which has thrown off the socialist yoke.
Naturally, there are all types of housing and housing-related problems in North Colchester.
That diversity of character was most ably and sensitively represented by the former Member of Parliament for North Colchester, Sir Antony Buck. I do not know whether I am in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you may have spied him in the Serjeant at Arms' Box.
Experience of the civil war made Colchester a town of religious and political tolerance and diversity. It has become a town where a man can come from, for example, Northern Ireland, and few will worry whether he be a Catholic or a Protestant. Sir Antony taught me not merely that it would be a privilege to sit here but that it would be a privilege to represent all the people of North Colchester —of all classes, colours, creeds and politics. That was in the tradition, I might add, of my noble Friend Lord Alport, also a former Member for the town. They have set me a fine and difficult example to follow. The people of North Colchester hold them both in remarkable affection and esteem. Sir Antony also distinguished himself here, in that after years of argument and controvery over defence, for example, it is due to people such as he that we can now look socialists in the face with pride and say, "You now subscribe to our views."
My succession, however, was not universally acclaimed. North Colchester overlaps two boroughs, Colchester and Tendring district, which are both Liberal Democrat-controlled. Colchester borough council welcomed both me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Colchester and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) with a somewhat barbed congratulation to work
in a spirit of partnership to overcome the Borough's worsening housing crisis".
How bad that crisis is is a matter of opinion, but they may be surprised; I am most happy to oblige the councils of both Tendring and Colchester and to work, as is my duty, in that spirit alongside them.
I invite them to examine with me the possibilities of working to expand the role of housing associations in the area, which currently represent only a tiny proportion of the overall housing stock. In particular, I invite them to explore the possibility of seeking large-scale voluntary transfers of council housing stock to the private sector —some 12,500 homes.
In Colchester borough's motion, councillors call for the release of local authority capital receipts. Under this Government, or in reality, any Government, that is a blind alley, leading back to the general failure of councils as providers of housing, let alone to all the public expenditure implications. Therefore, I urge them, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to put aside all party differences. Let us see what we can achieve to help the people whom we are all elected to represent.
There have been many exciting developments in housing during the last 12 years, or even longer. When Sir Antony Buck was first elected to the Colchester division in 1961, home ownership was already reasonably high, at 48·4 per cent. Today it is well over 70 per cent. Tenants' rights in the public sector and, to a certain extent, in the private sector have been dramatically enhanced. We see exciting opportunities for mobility in housing between the rented and owner-occupied sectors through schemes such as rents-to-mortgages.
The real test of Government policy, however, whether local or national, is how well opportunities can be made to match the aspirations of the people who most need to improve their circumstances, whether the urban or the rural poor. Let us not talk merely in materialistic terms. Great visions are based upon great values. People's well-being depends as much upon the ability to control their own destinies, to make choices, as upon bricks and mortar and state handouts. We need to raise aspirations as much as funds.
I was delighted by the Minister's comments and urge him to continue his mission to increase tenants' rights—not just for council tenants but for housing association and private tenants. There is something of a paradox in urging north Colchester's council tenants to move to the housing association sector given that future tenants—not so much existing tenants—may have fewer rights than they would enjoy in the public sector at present. There is a need for a level playing field between public and private sector landlords.
The early large-scale voluntary transfers can really only be described as 50 per cent. successful. Many of them were far too large. In Colchester and Tendring, let us look for small multiple voluntary transfers and let us try to preserve and to enhance the rights of existing and future tenants in the process. Nor should we ignore the public expenditure consequences. There is some concern that voluntary transfers of public housing stock can have bad consequences for taxpayers generally.
It has become a cliché to say that an Englishman's home is his castle, but I invite all councillors in North Colchester to work together to that fundamental and, indeed, democratic end. It will be a rewarding privilege to help them to pursue that end in this citadel of democracy, this sovereign Parliament, and to continue Colchester's historic development, not least as an important gateway to Europe. I am reminded that, not long after the Romans left Colchester, the Danes arrived. Long may that partnership also thrive.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) on his maiden speech, which was well and clearly argued. He gave an interesting resumé of the history of his constituency and paid proper tribute to his predecessor, who is clearly held in respect and affection in the House.
We must examine tenants' rights in the overall context of the Government's housing policy—I am tempted to say, "the Government's lack of housing policy", as the lack of investment in housing in Britain is all too apparent. There is a shortage of homes and a consequent growth in homelessness. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) mentioned the appalling plight of young people living in cardboard boxes, not only in the capital, but now in other major cities throughout the country.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, it is not only visible homelessness on the streets that we have to worry about, but hidden homelessness. Young couples who cannot get homes of their own and who have been living with their parents for several years come to our surgeries and tell us of the resulting pressures and tensions of family life.
We hear much from Conservative Members about the right to buy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith rightly mentioned the right to rent, which if implemented which would bring us to the right of everyone in the country to a decent home. For far too long in the 1980s we debated tenure and nothing else. The Opposition are not against owner-occupation. We are in favour of home ownership, but we recognise that people have the right to choose not to be home owners if they want instead to have a home to rent. Many people prefer to rent. Younger people often need to be mobile—to move around the country—because of the requirements of their employment. Older people may not want the responsibility of repairing and looking after a property; they may prefer to rent because it suits their circumstances. Moreover, some people—the unemployed and poor—cannot afford to choose to buy. Those people should have the right to choose to have a home to rent. That is the only alternative open to them.
During the 1980s there was a massive decline in investment in public sector housing. If the Government could show that there had been a corresponding increase in investment in private sector homes, perhaps they could argue that by restricting investment in the public sector they had allowed a growth in the private sector and that the total number of homes provided was the same, but that is not the case. We have seen a decline in the public sector, but there has been no consequent comparable increase in the private sector.
In Sheffield the local authority's borrowing allocation has fallen by more than a third since 1979. Early in the 1980s, we were promised by the Government that all the resources from council house sales would be made available to local authorities to spend on providing new homes and improving existing ones. It is not simply that local authorities cannot spend accumulated past receipts. To put it in numerical terms, the city of Sheffield has £21 million of receipts from sales of capital assets this year which it cannot spend. At the same time, we have growing waiting lists and disrepair and houses are in need of improvement.
In 1979 a person could go to Sheffield housing department and virtually get a key over the counter. One could get a key to a desirable property within two years. It now takes 10 years on the waiting list to obtain the same property. In 1979 the number of homeless families rehoused in Sheffield was 150. The number has increased more than tenfold during the past 13 years.
The city of Sheffield and its authority are not against other forms of rented housing. We have developed plans with housing associations. We have supported cooperatives. There is a successful newly built co-operative in my constituency in the suburb of Darnall. We have supported management co-ops. Recently we transferred some properties in Hyde Park in Sheffield to a management co-op. But all those extra new initiatives should be in addition to the local authority's role in providing houses, not instead of it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith was right when he said that housing associations have a higher vacancy rate than local authorities. They also have higher management costs. I am not sure that Conservative Members have thought through the costs or whether the Treasury would be prepared to bear them, as the Government gradually transfer more houses out of the local authority sector.
Tenants' rights are not merely about the right to opt out of local authority control. Tenants' rights have been negotiated and agreed between tenants and local authorities over many years, long before the Government legislated. I shall list just some of the rights that have been available to tenants in Sheffield by agreement and negotiation.
There is a proper tenancy agreement. It is not merely a one-sided list of dos and don'ts for tenants, but a proper agreement negotiated between the tenants and the local authority many years ago. The agreement included a right to repair far in advance of what the Government introduced in their legislation. No tenant is prepared to use the right provided by the Government because it is so cumbersome and bureaucratic.
There is also a consultation agreement between tenants and the local authority in Sheffield. It has been properly drawn up and implemented by negotiation between the two parties. The consultation arrangements include the right for tenants to sit on area committees as part of the decentralisation of housing management. In Sheffield we agreed that the tenants on those area committees should have the right not merely to speak but to vote. But what happened? The Government legislated and took the right to vote away from tenants on matters that affected their homes. Where are the rights of tenants in that Government policy?
By negotiation, we gave tenants the right to compensation for improvements that they carried out. That is already policy in Sheffield. We have given young people the right to register on the housing list at 16, although we recognise that in many cases it is a hollow right because when people go on the list the length of time that they have to wait grows because there is a shortage of accommodation.
We gave tenants the right to inspect their files and obtain information. For all the knocking that Ministers like to give Sheffield, this year Sheffield city council won a national award for the quality of the information that it provided to tenants and the way in which it was presented.
Every tenant in Sheffield had the right to have central heating installed, through a leasing scheme. What happened? When the Government changed the capital rules, leasing was caught up in capital controls and tenants no longer have that right.
The workings of the public sector borrowing requirement rule make an absolute nonsense. Two couples may live side by side in a semi-detached property—one couple has bought their council house and the others are still council tenants. The couple who have bought their council house can ask the gas company to install central heating and then pay for it in monthly instalments on their gas bill. That is an acceptable investment in the private sector, and the Government support it. The gas company borrows the money for the investment from private sector institutions. The tenants next door may not have chosen to buy their house, or perhaps cannot afford to do so. They could ask the local authority for central heating, offering to pay for it in extra rent each week, and the local authority could borrow money from the same financial institutions as the gas company. But that cannot happen because of the restrictions on capital expenditure that the Government have imposed on local authorities and which they tightened up in the most recent legislation. There is discrimination against tenants and in Sheffield a tenant's right to central heating has been removed.
In Sheffield, tenants had the right to proper planned maintenance schemes, but the last set of capital changes introduced by the Government removed a local authority's right to spend all its capital receipts on non-prescribed expenditure.
There has been a lot of talk in the House about partnership. We also had a partnership scheme in Sheffield, which involved the city council, housing associations and private builders, but the Government introduced legislation to prevent local authorities from poursuing such partnership schemes. That is how the Government have treated the provision of decent rented accommodation and tenants' rights to enjoy such accommodation.
It is not merely a question of the right to opt out and to transfer. Opposition Members are not denying that tenants should be allowed to choose a different landlord, if they so wish. It is a question of creating a level playing field for opting out. The Government's housing policy seems to have allowed tenants the right to opt for another landlord, but has tried to encourage them to do so by starving local authorities of capital resources and by switching resources to schemes such as housing action trusts. Tenants are tempted to choose a different landlord, not because they want to, but because they are presented with no alternative as the resources are not available to improve and modernise their homes properly within the local authority sector.
We hear much about tenants' rights in the council sector, but what about rights for private sector tenants? When will the Government give those tenants the right to buy? Why will they not do that? What about giving private tenants the right to transfer into local authority tenure, instead of the other way around? No local authority tenants in Sheffield, offered the right to be the tenants of private landlords, are taking the offer up, but if private sector tenants in Sheffield were offered the right to become tenants of the local authority, there would be a queue a mile long outside the town hall tomorrow morning of people wanting to exercise that choice—if the Government were prepared to offer it.
Ministers often talk as though every council estate is a shambles, in a state of massive disrepair with a poor environment, and as though tenants were clamouring to get off all council estates, but that is not true. There are many high-quality council estates in my constituency where tenants are very satisfied. They want the right to repair and to call the local authority to task if the standards of service laid down are not adhered to. They want a proper complaints procedure, and proper consultation. But they do not want to change their landlord. They want a decent housing service, but they do not necessarily want to run it. They want the local authority to have the resources to do the job properly.
We can talk about quality all the time. It is interesting that at the last AMA conference which I attended, the then Secretary of State for the Environment came along and talked an awful lot about quality in local government. I think that he mentioned it 12 times in his speech, but he never referred to resources once. By themselves, resources do not ensure quality. I do not believe in simply throwing money at problems, but we need resources if quality is to be delivered.
The Government's commitment to tenants' rights is only skin deep. It is a camouflage to cover up their failure to invest properly in our housing stock by providing new homes and repairing and modernising existing homes. What about the fundamental rights of those people with no home? Perhaps it is because so many Tory hon. Members own three or four homes that they have no compassion for those who have no home at all.
The Government have failed to meet the genuine aspirations of the people for decent homes and have failed to deliver the fundamental right of everyone to have a decent home. That right must be one of the bases of a civilised society, but the Government have failed to meet it.
It is a pleasure to congratulate those who have made their maiden speeches, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), who brought fluency and ability to our proceedings. Like many other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches, he established a balance between making relevant and powerful political points and following the necessary conventions of the House by describing, with considerable interest, his constituency and by paying tribute to his predecessor Sir Antony Buck, who will be remembered with affection and respect by the whole House. His parting shot about the influence of the vikings in 1992 will not have gone unnoticed.
I apologise to hon. Members and to the Minister because I will be unable to be present during the wind-up speeches. As far as it is relevant, I declare an interest as an adviser to the Building Employers Confederation. The subject of right to buy has featured significantly in the debate and there is no doubt that it has considerably enhanced the lives of individuals. However, another factor has not been covered adequately—the influence of the right-to-buy scheme on neighbourhoods and communities. There is no doubt that, when a fair number of houses are transferred to the private sector under right to buy, the improvements that the new home owners bring to their homes will enhance the whole neighbourhood, first by contrast and then by example and encouragement. I have seen that happen in east and north Taunton where there were previously heavy concentrations of council accommodation on the Halcon and Lyngford estates.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) about some of the rasher talk on the release of capital receipts. In some cases, such as with my local authority in Taunton, the Liberals are even more extreme in that regard than the Labour party. Undoubtedly, if all that money were to be released, it would have serious economic effects, particularly when central Government are now making such a great demand, through the borrowing requirement, on available resources. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West and other hon. Members have said.
We are moving towards the point at which owner-occupation in this country may reach a ceiling. Owner-occupation in Britain is much higher than in many other similar countries. In west Germany, for example, nearly 50 per cent. of housing is in the private rented sector. In Britain it is only 8 per cent. We have an enormous amount to do to encourage development of the private rented sector, which in many respects is a more desirable way of meeting housing need, particularly for single people, than is council provision. In west Germany and Canada, less than 5 per cent. of the housing stock is publicly owned. The private sector plays a powerful role in those countries, though not through owner-occupation. The proportion is similar in Australia and New Zealand.
As I said, owner-occupation in Britain may be reaching its ceiling. There are many advantages of owner-occupation and I have mentioned some of them. In the past 20 or 25 years there has been no doubt that buying and owning a home has been probably the best investment a person could make. It has improved the position, certainly financially, of many individuals, primarily because of the strange fluctuation of house values in Britain.
The ceiling may now have been reached. We have seen a considerable slipping back in house values in recent years and we are unlikely to see the house price spirals of the past 20 years continue in the next decade or so. An organisation of economic and regulatory analysts based in St. James's has considered Britain not as a home ownership economy but as a home borrowership economy and has said that the three conditions that are required for the smooth operation of a home borrowership economy are not likely to be present in the next three years. Those conditions are rising nominal house prices, rising incomes and affordable interest rates.
Present economic circumstances militate against each of those. In addition, the Government's requirement of low inflation—which, I believe, through our membership of the ERM and other factors, will be attained—plus the number of vacant properties now available in the private sector, will affect the value of house prices in the next few years.
We must also consider accommodation for those who are not able, or do not wish, to buy in the private sector. I, too, wish to refer to a recent report by the Audit Commission, a body which has not been hostile to the Government or to Conservative principles. There is much in the report that my hon. Friends and I can welcome in terms of the use of the housing stock by local authorities which do not use it effectively. The Minister referred to such abuses and I will not enlarge on those points.
The director of the Audit Commission, Howard Davies, sums up the report by saying:
Under the present system, the supply gap is unbridgeable and there is little evidence of fresh initiatives to overcome the investment shortfall.
I referred earlier to the campaign being conducted in the south-west by The Western Morning News on the whole issue of low-cost housing provision related to capital receipts. That newspaper has revealed that almost 40,000 households in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset are on council house waiting lists. Although some councils could improve their performance by letting properties faster and by evicting squatters, that is not an option in Taunton Deane, because the stock is effectively used at present.
The Audit Commission considers that an average of 74,000 new homes will be needed yearly during the 1990s to meet the demand, but it expects that housing associations and councils will only have enough cash to build 62,000. In expressing concern on the matter, I believe that I can count on the support of a number of my hon. Friends in the south-west, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and, from his earlier remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter).
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton made the valid point that capital receipts should be transferred to housing associations for use by them. I do not say that councils should continue their traditional role and that they should be responsible for new build. However, I believe that action must be taken to meet the considerable problems and needs that exist in the south-west and across the south generally. If the councils cannot do the job, more must be done to enable the housing associations to do it. In that respect, I welcome the way in which The Western Morning News has highlighted the problem raised by the Audit Commission.
I referred to the success of my local authority, Taunton Deane. I referred to the enhancement of the Halcon area of east Taunton through right to buy and through a continuing modernisation and general refurbishment programme on the pre-war estate. However, there is a problem. I am told that the council has been forced to cut the number of dwellings that it planned to complete under the programme during the current year because it is concerned about the high expenditure needed for house renovation grants under the scheme that has been in operation for the past two or three years. Only £742,000 was identified for the specified capital grant for private sector renovation purposes. The housing advice centre in Taunton predicts a renovation grant expenditure in the current financial year of between £1·3 million and £1·5 million. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address that point, if not in his reply, in subsequent correspondence.
There are other problems in Taunton. There are now 366 households in priority need, an increase from the figure of 307 in 1987–88. However, the resources are effectively used. Despite a considerable demolition programme for non-traditional stock, only 0·84 per cent. of the housing stock was vacant in April 1992. That is a small amount bearing in mind the demands of the demolition programme. Taunton's practice compares well with the practice of the family of local authorities of which it is a member.
The enhancement of the ability of tenants to move is another issue which has a wider application throughout the country. They may move for employment reasons, to join their families or for other social reasons. I am afraid that many of the housing problems in my constituency have been caused by family break-up. There is often a need for mobility in conjunction with other local authorities.
It is suggested that as the economy recovers, job mobility will become a pressing national requirement. It has always been important, but becomes even more so during a recovery. It is said that, at present, it is not given a particularly high priority by designated officers in local authorities. I hope that the Government will do more to encourage local authorities and housing associations to give higher priority to mobility, possibly asking them to set aside a specific proportion of their housing stock for mobility purposes.
As I have said before, mobility should be a right and should be incorporated in the citizens charter. Every tenant should have the right to be told within about three weeks whether he is to be given a nomination for another local authority. He should also be told of his priority category and should have the right to know from the local authority or the housing association in the area to which he wishes to move whether he is likely to be accepted within about three months. It appears that if a tenant is not accepted in three months, he is unlikely ever to be accepted. However, there is a temptation to keep him on the list in the hope that something will turn up.
I hope that more will be done to encourage local authorities to introduce computer facilities for registering tenants for mobility purposes. A recent survey by the housing section of the London School of Economics shows that some local authorities and, indeed, the London boroughs, which have been criticised in many other respects, make extensive use of computer facilities but that a surprising number do not and express some reluctance to come on line.
I hope that my remarks on mobility, on the general concern about housing provision and the meeting of housing needs, which I have pressed since my maiden speech five years ago and on several occasions since, will be noted by the Minister. I am glad to see that there is increasing interest and support from my hon. Friends in the south-west and elsewhere on those matters. I shall return to them. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and I hope that he and the Minister for Housing and Planning will address these matters urgently.
I am pleased to speak in this debate. The most important right for any person is the right to have decent accommodation that offers security and warmth and in which people can take pride and feel that it is a home. Underlying all the talk about tenants' rights, participation and responsibility is the great need for affordable homes.
Before I turn to the more general theme of the debate, I draw the Minister's attention to the special difficulties of older people. As he probably knows, 45 per cent. of council housing and 56 per cent. of private unfurnished accommodation are occupied by households of one or two people who are aged 60 or over. Age Concern believes that older people have a right to appropriate, high-standard housing which can help them to retain their independence and dignity as members of the community for as long as possible.
I am sure that the Minister has studied Age Concern's charter, its list of recommendations. I urge him to study it again with a view to including it in the citizens charter. The first demand is that people should have the right always to remain council tenants. Age Concern says that any council tenant who wishes the council to remain as his landlord, even though a majority of tenants have voted for a block transfer to another landlord, should be allowed that right. That is especially important for the elderly, who often succumb to worry more easily than other people and who are especially fearful of change. That is quite understandable. If one has lived on the same estate and had the same landlord all one's life, any change can be traumatic. Age Concern is worried about this.
Tenants should have the basic and fundamental right to have essential repairs carried out within a specific period. Council tenant's rights to be consulted about proposals affecting their homes have to be strengthened. The charter should specify the issues on which, and the stages at which, tenants must be consulted and give a time limit for repairs. Age Concern has pointed out that it is important that that consultation is carried out in a user-friendly way that encourages elderly people and any other tenants who may not be confident about giving their views.
Another element of the Age Concern charter is succession rights for carers. Legislation on this must be more sensitive to the situation facing the many thousands of carers who may have given up their own homes, or the chance of having their own homes, to care for a relative in council property. Adequate and appropriate housing play an important part in enabling our older citizens to live full and independent lives. Housing will also be crucial in the proper implementation of care in the community. I draw the Minister's attention to those elements, among many more, of the Age Concern charter.
I shall now examine more specifically tenants' participation and rights. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) made a speech which showed an understanding of housing investment. Like him and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I feel that it is important to point out the lack of public investment in housing. The visible signs of homelessness are obvious in my constituency, because it includes the bull ring at Waterloo. Many of the people still living in the bull ring are suffering severe mental distress and there is a need for a political initiative for this area alone.
Putting people into hostels does not solve long-term problems. All that happens is a silting up of that accommodation because there is nowhere for people to move on to. Vauxhall also has many invisible homeless people. Thousands of people are on the transfer list because they live in severely overcrowded conditions. Three children sharing a bedroom is common. At my weekly advice surgery I see people to whom, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said, we can offer absolutely no hope of a move to decent accommodation and a place of their own.
Increasingly, families are turned against families because people believe that others have been given housing ahead of them. This often applies to people in bed and breakfast, the other sector of the invisible homeless. Many with young children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation have to wait many months before they are eventually made an offer. Because of that shortage, even if Lambeth council —which has got a great deal more stick than the borough of Sheffield for the way in which it has dealt with housing—were to fill every single empty property, the problem would not be solved. In the past year, housing administration has improved and the numbers of voids and squatters have reduced enormously. Much has been achieved because of the pressure that has been mounted by tenants and tenants' associations.
Even if every void were filled—many of the properties are in a bad state of disrepair and would require a great deal of money to be spent on them before tenants could move in—there would still be insufficient housing for all the people who are waiting for accommodation. When the Minister examines the bids that will be made for estate strategy money and other initiatives, I urge him not to punish the people of Lambeth and Vauxhall on the basis that he and the Government generally may not like the politicians of those boroughs. I hope that he will give urgent consideration to the large sums that need to be spent on housing estates.
When, as a nation, will we recognise the long-term problems that the housing shortage is causing? There is mental distress, a high cost for the national health service, and truancy from schools. These problems are to be found throughout our society. If people have a decent place in which to live, a home of which they can be proud, I believe that in the long run the costs facing the country generally would be much less. We need a crusade for housing.
There is concern about housing among Members on both sides of the Chamber, but for some reason decent housing has not become a major political objective. It seems that it never reaches the top of the priorities of the Department of the Environment. The fact that it is part of the amorphous grouping of the Department is part of the problem. Housing is so important to those who are inadequately housed that we should have a separate Department of Housing to focus more clearly and effectively on the issue.
I support wholeheartedly tenant involvement and participation in the management of estates, and there have been welcome developments in Lambeth during the past year or 18 months. Many tenants, housing estates and tenant associations are moving along the road to housing management co-ops and other forms of control over estates. Progress was slow at first and no doubt there was some reluctance among local authority staff and politicians to follow the route. That has changed, however, and there have been good steps forward.
There have been some excellent initiatives in Vauxhall. I have in mind Cottington close and Cottons gardens. Things are starting to happen at Penwith Manor, an estate which will be very dependent on the Government in terms of their giving it high priority for estate action money. Stockwell Park estate is the heart of Brixton. Four or five years ago it was known as an estate where no one wanted to stay. Gradually, with the involvement of residents, there has developed a new attitude. Some money has been found to refurbish the worst blocks and to redesign them. A new community spirit is developing on the estate and that augurs well for the future.
I ask the Minister to clarify the Government's policy on housing co-ops. I refer to wholly owned co-ops and not housing management co-ops on housing estates. Where do the Government stand on the funding of the co-op movement? The Housing Corporation has announced that there will be an increase of less than 1 per cent. in the funding of co-ops as part of its overall approved development programme. It is a very small increase, especially when, as we all know, demand for affordable homes far exceeds supply. What is the Minister's attitude to a rational funding system for co-ops, and what will the Government do to ensure money for training for co-op and tenant participation schemes?
In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), I should like right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to get away from the sterile debate about tenure—about whether one is a council, housing association or housing co-operative tenant. We must move in the European direction, where the kind of housing one has does not matter. What matters is that people should have a real choice, and they will not have that unless there is an adequate supply of housing. I am pleased at today's opportunity to debate tenant participation, but we should not forget that the most crucial point is that there should be more affordable housing.
I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House for the first time as the Member of Parliament for Langbaurgh—particularly in a debate on tenants' rights and participation. Those matters are of great importance to many of my constituents, as I shall explain later.
I am the third Member of Parliament to represent the great constituency of Langbaurgh in the past 10 months. However, I assure the House that I shall make the most earnest endeavours to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members are spared another maiden speech by a Member of Parliament for Langbaurgh for some considerable time to come.
It is appropriate to pay tribute to the tremendous example shown by my two immediate predecessors—Dr. Ashok Kumar and the late Richard Holt. During Dr. Kumar's brief stay in this House, he gained a fine reputation for the methodical and thorough way in which he dealt with constituency queries.
I have been reminded by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House of the way that Dr. Kumar discharged his duties with great courtesy and charm—which are perhaps not the first two objectives that spring to mind when describing the late Richard Holt, who represented Langbaurgh with vigour, determination and unswerving loyalty from 1983 until his untimely death last September.
Richard Holt always said that he would put Langbaurgh on the map, and he most certainly did. He was quick to pounce on anyone who dared to mispronounce the name of his beloved constituency, which is of course pronounced "langbath". He once told one of his great friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), that he of all people should know the difference between a bar and a bath. Such was his manner.
Thousands of people in my constituency would acknowledge that Richard Holt ruthlessly pursued their problems and obtained solutions, and would never take no for an answer. Above all, Richard Holt was a character, and one who will be sadly missed by us all. If it were possible to create a synthesis of my two immediate predecessors, I would have the perfect example to follow during my tenure as Member of Parliament for Langbaurgh.
At the time of last year's by-election, one newspaper described my constituency as "Little England". I could not offer the House a more pleasing or appropriate description. Langbaurgh has the traditional ironstone mining communities in east Cleveland of Carlin and Howe, and Liverton mines. It has also the prosperous suburbs of Middlesbrough, Marton, and Nunthorpe. It has beautiful coastal beauty to the north, surrounded by Saltburn and the spectacular cliffs at Bouley, and to the south the North Yorkshire national park, whose pleasures many of us so frequently enjoy.
Langbaurgh also embraces the thriving market town of Guisborough. Above all, it is a constituency of contrasts—between the inner city housing estates of Park End and Easterside in Middlesbrough, and the great rural swathes beyond Guisborough and Skelton.
Leon Brittan represented the constituency when it was known as Cleveland and Whitby. On 7 May 1974, he told the House in his maiden speech that many parts of it contained more sheep than people and went on to say—with characteristic wit—that he did not wish to speculate whether, if the franchise were extended to the sheep, his majority would be increased or diminished.
The principal industries served by my constituency are represented by ICI and British Steel. British Steel especially has secured a meteoric rise in its fortunes over the past eight years—one which is worthy of note. Before British Steel was returned to private hands on Teesside, it used to manufacture 1·5 million tonnes of steel per year; it then had 25,000 employees. Today, it manufactures 2·5 million tonnes with 5,000 employees. It has almost doubled its output with one fifth of the previous number of employees.
Because of the huge amount that British Steel has invested in new technology, it is now recognised throughout the world as a leader in the manufacture of quality steel. It is bringing extra investment and jobs to my constituency in the securing of orders such as the Hong Kong harbour bridge, which was successfully completed last month.
Such employment changes bring with them great challenges. During the early 1980s, when painful alterations were taking place, unemployment rose; but it is testimony to the ingenuity, optimism and dynamism of people in my constituency and the surrounding areas of Teesside that unemployment, which in 1987 stood at just over 16.1 per cent., now stands at just over 10 per cent. That is due to the huge expansion of small businesses, encouraged by the Teesside training and enterprise council, the Teesside Development Company and the Northern Development Company, working in partnership to sell the benefits of the marvellous Teesside area to business. They have sold it as a gateway to Europe for the future, benefiting from its port facilities.
Many of my constituents long for a university and I am delighted to learn that—following changes in legislation in one instance and Government funding in the other—Teesside will have not one but two universities by the end of the year. It is very pleasing that Teesside is starting to build a reputation as an academic centre, as well as building on its proud industrial heritage.
We have heard a number of excellent and informative speeches today. As I have said, the subject is very important to my constituency; it must have participated in just about every scheme going. There is the estate action scheme, for instance. In the past three years the amount received by Langbaurgh has doubled and the amount received by Middlesbrough has tripled. There is the right-to-buy scheme; more than 10,000 people in both areas have exercised the right to have a stake in their future. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) was kind enough to mention the estate action boards. They, too, are gaining new dimensions and making new options available to tenants. There is also the city challenge money. Middlesbrough succeeded in gaining that money last year and I hope that Langbaurgh will do so this year. A large proportion of the money has gone into improving housing stock, which is most welcome.
As one who has spent his entire life in the north-east, in and around many of the council estates, I know at first hand about the human misery that is all too often seen on them. I know about the heartache and the despair. It is a tragedy that so often, however well intentioned people are, the very concept of creating great swathes of public housing in our cities has brought about problems. Many of them are now used as social dumping grounds for the non-payers, for problem families, for people who would not fit into other estates in the suburbs. That has led to all sorts of social problems. The opportunities that have been referred to today will, I believe, break down the barriers that have existed for far too long in the inner cities.
This country is unique in terms of the amount of public housing that it provides; 25 per cent. of the housing stock is in municipal hands. In Canada, New Zealand and Australia, however, only 5 per cent. of the housing stock is in municipal hands. When we are lectured, therefore, on the European example, we must bear that fact in mind. We must remember, too, that the private rented sector in west Germany amounts to almost 50 per cent., whereas our private rented sector amounts to only 8 per cent. I am delighted that there will be opportunities to expand our private rented sector.
If there is a challenge for all those who support what has been put forward so eloquently today, it is this: that just to state that people have the right to improve or to repair their homes, or just to state that there is choice for tenants or a tenants charter remains just words, unless those words are heard clearly by the people whom they are designed to help. We must all accept that challenge. We must ensure that the message that there are new rights and responsibilities and that there is an invitation to participate gets across to council tenants so that they can take advantage of it. That is a great challenge, particularly as the messengers who are responsible for carrying the good news are often less-than-sympathetic local authorities.
The changes that are built upon the Housing Act 1980 and the Housing Act 1988 will, I believe, bring to an end the socially engineered inner city council estate as we know it. In future, opportunities will be offered to tenants by councils, housing associations and the private sector. An increasing number of people will take a stake in their future by purchasing their own homes, whether through the right to buy or the rents-to-mortgages schemes. In years to come, this will be seen as making the concept of the power to own and the right to choose a reality in our inner cities, where it is most needed.
It is a great pleasure to follow my new hon. Friend the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates). He paid an elegant tribute in his maiden speech to his predecessor, Ashok Kumar, whose company we enjoyed during a brief sojourn in the House, and to the robust participation of Richard Holt who was with us for rather longer and whose departure, sadly, was very sudden. My hon. Friend's eloquent maiden speech will, I am sure, stand him in excellent stead. We greatly enjoyed his contribution and we shall look forward to his future contributions. Whether we shall get quite right the difference between the "bath" and "bar" of Langbaurgh, I leave for him to judge as his hon. Friends attempt to pronounce the name of his constituency.
There has been a quartet of splendid maiden speeches by my hon. Friends. There have been references to elephants. I am relieved that, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), I have no elephants in my constituency, so no references to "girths" are necessary.
We heard of the arrival in Colchester of the Danes. I should point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) that he represents part of my family, so I shall watch his Danish connections with great interest. The Romans also came through Battersea, along Stane street, but we had a later invasion by the French Huguenots, which may perhaps give our outlook a slightly different slant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) has apparently come to us via the Southwark bed bug department—through a trap-door, I think he said.
All four maiden speakers made excellent speeches. We welcome them and look forward to hearing them in future.
We are considering the rights and responsibilities not only of tenants but of landlords and freeholders—those on the other side of the equation. This has been a good debate. We are considering the provision of housing for rent, the upkeep of such housing and the need to ensure that it is in an environment that is tolerable to tenants, and the right to buy, whether for council or housing association tenants. It is right that we should have crossed the boundary between the private and public sectors in the debate.
The Opposition have been quick to point out that resources are crucial to better provision, and that is right. I suggest, however, that it is the proper use of those resources that will ensure that good-quality housing is available to tenants. The Opposition are perhaps a little mean when it comes to the Government's contribution. This year, the Government will spend £7·8 billion on public housing. That is no small amount and is in addition to the £2 billion that is to go to the housing association market.
People who say that housing is disappearing are misleading us in two ways. First, rented housing which moves to owner-occupation does not disappear: those who occupy it merely have different opportunities. Secondly, we must remember that, during the Government's period in office, the number of dwellings has increased by 2 million. When we came to office, there were 17·6 million houses; at the last count, taken earlier this year, there were 19·6 million houses. That increase of 2 million should meet at least some of the extra demand for housing.
The Audit Commission report has been referred to. We need to look carefully at the figures in such reports. It is clear that that report, which referred to the number of dwellings available, overestimated, by a factor of 50 per cent., the number of properties to be demolished and rebuilt by councils. The practice has changed somewhat, and more houses are being refurbished and brought back into use than are being demolished. If one takes into account corrections such as that, the picture looks rather better.
A lot of Government money has gone into refurbishment. My constituency has benefited enormously from the early days of estate action. Some £1 billion has already been spent and this year £1 million a day will be spent on estate action schemes.
Hon. Members have referred to people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. A further £300 million is to go to provide opportunities for people living in such accommodation to move to permanent housing. That will help some 16,000 families.
Reference has also been made to people living rough —the roofless—and it is right that we should be concerned about them. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) referred to those in Waterloo. I know that, on a number of occasions, Lambeth council has tried to persuade them to move into some sort of accommodation. On one occasion I remember the fires burning because the rough sleepers resisted the delights of being housed by Lambeth. They thought that it was their right to live in that way. Nevertheless, we must examine ways of encouraging such people into hostels and on into permanent accommodation. Again, another £100 million scheme has been introduced this year to help the rough sleepers in London.
Since 1979, some 7 million people have become first-time buyers, 1·5 million of whom benefited from the right-to-buy scheme, so a great deal has been done by the Government and by local government. Too often in debates such as this we seek to blame the other side of the equation for what it has not done instead of looking at our side of the equation, for which we are responsible, to see whether it could provide more opportunities.
There are many empty properties in all sectors, but I ask Opposition Members to examine their Labour local authorities and to do what they can to persuade them to bring back into use the 83,000 council dwellings to which I referred in an intervention, which could provide homes for people in need of housing.
Reducing the number of empty properties is a matter of efficiency. In 1978 when Wandsworth was a Labour borough we had 500 properties vacant long term and 662 vacant short term. At the end of last year in Conservative Wandsworth, the short-term figure had fallen to 248 and the long-term figure had fallen to 26. That is efficient use of resources. That is the result of a drive to put the assets of the community back into use.
There was an argument across the Chamber with the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) about squatted properties. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) corrected him later by pointing out how, as a result of pressure not from the Labour party or the leaders of the council but from tenants, Lambeth was doing something about its squatted properties. Again, that is right. It can be done. In my borough of Wandsworth, no more than nine properties are squatted—yet 800 are squatted across the border in Lambeth and 1,200 are squatted in Hackney. Goodness knows what one would find in Southwark. I suspect that the figure is worse still. One can see how badly the assets are being managed. They need to be brought back into use.
I share the views of some of my colleagues about the homelessness criteria. We need to re-examine them. I am aware that there has been a review, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to keep the criteria under constant review to determine whether there are better ways of assessing housing need. Too often I see people in real housing need having to wait behind someone who meets the criteria because there is a baby on the way or whatever. It is a difficult judgment, but we are not necessarily using the right criteria.
I also ask that the problem of refugees coming into London be examined. One of the reasons for our housing problem is that the number of people seeking asylum has increased from 3,000 to 50,000 a year. That is why we are introducing an asylum Bill. Most of the refugees who enter Britain seem to be deemed refugees to London instead of to Britain as a whole. The whole country should help to provide housing for refugees rightly accepted into Britain.
I said earlier that I would refer to 16 and 17-year-olds —the young, single homeless who fall between all the gaps in the woodwork because of the benefit rules. I understand why the benefit rules were changed. It was to ensure that young people did not sit idle, which is not in their interests. We sought to ensure that they took what job opportunities were available and if none was available, went into education or training schemes. But there is a Catch-22. Many young people leave home, for good reasons. They cannot get onto training schemes unless they are based at a house or dwelling—a permanent address. Of course, they cannot begin to afford that, because they do not qualify for benefit and therefore do not qualify for housing benefit. They cannot begin to afford private sector rents. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider that carefully with his colleagues at the Department of Social Security?
Will my hon. Friend the Minister also consider the question of deposits? Naturally, many private sector landlords expect a deposit as a form of insurance to protect their property and also rent in advance. Perhaps the Housing Corporation or some other organisation could establish a fund to help people with deposits, which would be repaid to the corporation at the end of the tenancy, as that would help young people.
When considering schemes for housing young people, I hope that we shall not think of hostels. The young people I am talking of are not vulnerable, or they would have been picked up by society, but they could become vulnerable if they are put into the wrong sort of hostel. I should like more schemes to provide houses for between six and eight young people, with someone to oversee, help and advise them, but not a resident warden. We have done this in half-way houses for people leaving care. That would enable young people to become responsible tenants and, we hope, future home owners.
We should look more to the private sector. It is true that a vast number of private sector properties are empty and could be used. So often they are empty because the landlord is worried about the rent laws or about non-payment of rent. Perhaps local authorities could be encouraged to place some of their people in housing need—especially those on housing benefit—in private sector residences. The housing benefit could be paid direct to the landlord, who would be guaranteed an income, and it would help someone into housing—a form of housing where more mobility is possible than in the public sector.
Much has been said about a bigger say for residents, and I welcome that and the Government's new version of the tenants charter. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) asked whether the charter was being pursued down the line. I have here a copy of Wandsworth's housing charter which was published in 1991. I hope that with its information and names and numbers it will be a pattern and that other local authorities are also producing charters. The charter is a good way to help people to participate in running their estates and to give them the same rights as home owners—for example the right to decide when and what quality of work is required, to decide whether they want a new roof or new decoration this year, and whether they only want work done to a certain standard to allow for some landscaping too. If tenants are brought in at the planning stages, much more can be done.
We must also try to plan crime out of our estates. That has not been mentioned. An enormous amount of work can be done, for example, on the ideas of Alice Coleman, among others, by getting rid of walkways and creating gardens around ground floor flats. I shall not dwell on the subject, but tenants can be brought in at the planning stage.
I also ask for action in two other areas: first, on dogs in estates, because I receive many complaints about dogs which should not be living in tower blocks. They frighten people and can cause disease. There should be a registration scheme for dog owners in council properties, with a third-party insurance scheme attached to it, so that only a fit and proper person in a fit and proper house or flat will be permitted to own a dog.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) wishes to speak, but I must also mention noise, which is one of the curses of modern living, with mega-decibels in the night and ghetto blasters in our streets.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State represents Banbury and there is a rhyme about that town. I suspect that its real meaning has never been assessed. I believe that a tenant from Battersea, escaping from the mega-decibels there, rode that cock horse to Banbury, and was extremely cross. Having got there, she complained about the ringing in her ears, which went down to her finger tips, and the ringing of bells, which went down to her toes, saying that she could not escape that wretched music "wherever she goes". My hon. Friend should bear in mind that Banbury cross is the cross that the tenants of Battersea have to bear and that we need some action on noise very swiftly. The issue was not dealt with in the Queen's Speech, but I hope that my hon. Friend will consider it urgently because it is the curse of the modern age.
I concur with my hon. Friends who referred to home ownership, particularly as it relates to those people who have been allocated to housing associations by local authorities. Those people are being denied the right to buy, which is open to every other local authority tenant. I ask the Minister and his colleagues to consider that problem. When the new rents-to-mortgages scheme is introduced, it should cover such tenants as well as other public sector tenants.
We have covered a tremendous amount of ground in the debate, so I shall move from the grand design to a couple of more detailed points.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the tenants charter with its due attention on the improved rights to repairs. However, it should be pointed out that that charter applies to homes and not to common areas and outside amenities. Tenants' associations can consult and participate, but sometimes they do not have enough bite to get their problems remedied, for example, if the grass needs cutting or litter needs to be collected.
I visited a housing estate in my constituency, Shanklin village, in which the playground was worn down, but, instead of being repaired, it was fenced off and the key was thrown away. That left local parents with no safe place for their children to play. The tenants' association tried to take the matter up with the council, but the problem was not remedied because the council has no legal obligation to remedy defective common areas within a set time limit. Such remedies are put back because of endless bureaucratic procedures and because they are tossed between departments within the council. I suggest that the Minister should take another look at the guidelines issued by the Audit Commission and amend them to ensure that such repairs of common areas are completed within a specified time.
I also wish to consider the tenants' rights of the homeless living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. A year ago, for a television programme, I spent a trial week in a hotel for the homeless in Haringey. That hotel was adequate, but many of the others that I visited round the corner were most definitely not. They had poor plumbing, old furniture, damp rooms, inadequate lighting and bathrooms and lavatories that did not function. Bed-and-breakfast tenants have the same right as everyone else, but they are depressed and they are often unable to improve their conditions or complain effectively. As far as I could see, the council authority, Haringey, turned a blind eye to the problem and I almost wondered whether it might even have been colluding with the landlords. There should be much greater vigilance over which hotels are given the plum tenancies of bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
A code of guidance issued to local authorities under section 1 of the Housing Act 1985 called for acceptable standards of accommodation in bed-and-breakfast hotels and insisted on close liaison between the housing and environmental health departments. As we can see, it seems that that code does not work. The Minister should consider appointing independent inspectors to run a monitoring programme to ensure that bed-and-breakfast tenants get a decent deal. They may be poor, homeless and desperate, but they deserve to be treated in a decent and honourable fashion.
With the permission of the House, I will comment on the debate before the Minister replies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) extends his apologies for not being in his place for the close of the debate. He had a long-standing engagement. We have listened to four excellent maiden speakers, all of which have been exemplified by fluency, wit, humour and a great deal of expertise on the subjects on which they chose to speak.
The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), whose reputation was known before he arrived here, spoke with great humour and I am sure that he will be among us for a long time. When I was last with the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), in Middlesbrough at the famous by-election some months ago, the weather was very inclement. Today, his tribute to his immediate predecessor was extremely generous and my hon. Friends and I were grateful for that.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) is obviously rooted in his constituency and town. His experience as chairman of Plymouth housing committee will carry much weight as he brings his expertise to bear on future debate on housing and local government matters.
I knew the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) before he entered the House, through a mutual interest in foreign affairs. We welcome him here. He had a distinguished predecessor as the representative of his constituency, but he also had a distinguished father, who I am sure will be delighted to know that his son made his maiden speech on a subject about which his father knew a great deal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) made a sort of second maiden speech. It enabled the House to be aware of his great expertise on housing issues. It was a distinguished speech and we look forward to reading the Official Report of it. His expertise will clearly be of great help in our future deliberations.
It is interesting to note that my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), for Can:bridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for Greenwich represent constituencies which were all Labour victories at the general election. I am sure that the housing issue and its related problems in their areas contributed to their fine wins.
My hon. Friend the Members for Walthamstow and for Cambridge had distinguished careers in local government, and their knowledge will be of great use to us in the years ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) apologises for not being in his place for the close of the debate. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) made important pleas on behalf of people in housing difficulty in our great cities.
All the hon. Members to whom I have referred, and others, contributed to what has been an extremely useful debate. They pointed out not only the problems that tenants face but the need to extend their rights, and it is clear that those extensions are favoured by hon. Members in all parts of the House, including the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) who spoke on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
Considerable reference has rightly been made to the report of the Audit Commission and its references to housing and the need for the Government to look at the whole provision of housing. Ultimately, whatever the rents and rights of tenants and whatever future they may have with housing associations, local authorities or in the private sector, it all boils down to whether they have homes. The most significant point to be made time and again in the debate has concerned not only the right of people to buy or rent but for them to have the right to a home at all.
We have enjoyed an excellent debate which has included four extremely good maiden speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) and for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates).
There has been clear agreement in the House that tenants should have the opportunity of the greatest possible participation and choice. We are agreed that housing is about people and participation, but that it is also about resources. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) said, we are devoting considerable resources to social housing, amounting to over £7 billion this year.
We are determined to increase our investment in social housing. We are determined to increase the resources that we make available to affordable social housing. That is why we are increasing the amount available to the Housing Corporation to more than £2 billion in 1993–94, which will enable it to increase substantially the number of units it completes in that year, from 43,000 to 51,000 we anticipate. We are increasing investment because we are determined that every family should have a decent home.
Not surprisingly, there have been comments today about capital receipts and I am sure that we shall continue to have comments about that. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) made clear in the general election campaign, after there had been some confusion in the Labour party about the use of capital receipts, one does not make new resources by changing definitions.
Although it is right that the Government continue to invest resources in social housing, it is also right that we expect local authorities to perform properly and to deliver decently in their role as landlords. The Audit Commission report should be compulsory reading for everyone concerned about housing. However, that report also made it clear that if local authorities deliver efficiently and effectively under their obligations, it would be straightforward to increase, for example, the number of available new lettings by 37,000 over the next two years. They would not need to do anything fantastic. They could achieve that improvement simply by ensuring that standards were brought up to a reasonable level in terms of reducing the number of voids and of reducing illegal occupation.
I found the comments of the hon. Member for Hammersmith slightly depressing in that he seemed to be making up policy on the hoof. We shall all have the opportunity to study Hansard. He also seemed to have a particular hostility to the private rented sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) made clear, we need to encourage the private rented sector. In the previous Parliament, we stopped the long decline in the private rented sector. We brought new landlords into the market and increased choice for tenants as a consequence. We have also increased rights to private tenants—statutory rights. We have strengthened the law against harassment with higher penalties.
I will now comment on four excellent maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar made a splendid maiden speech. I shall never be able to look at an elephant again without thinking of him. He rightly made clear the aspiration of many to have the right to own. Understandably, he welcomed our rent-tomortgage proposals. He made clear the watchwords of Conservative policy: quality, diversity, choice, freedom, opportunity and empowerment. He specifically referred to the right to repair and to the right to improve. We will legislate on right to repair to introduce a simpler and stronger right. We intend to introduce a new duty on landlords to pay compensation to tenants who have made improvements to their properties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton had a speedy selection and a speedy election. Having heard his speech today, I am sure that he will make speedy progress in the House. He is clearly a strong advocate of his constituents' best interests. He made it clear that local authorities have to perform properly as landlords. Local authorities have large housing stocks and many will continue to have such stocks. All have a duty to perform at the standard of the best. My hon. Friend made it clear that in performing at the best, local authorities have a duty in terms of the most efficient housing management. I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend and the House that the consultation paper on compulsory competitive tendering will be published shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North made a very good maiden speech. He made it clear that he was committed to ensuring that the local authorities in his area fulfilled their role as enablers which is, of course, their proper role. M y hon. Friend is clearly committed to working in partnership with all who can help to ensure the best welfare of his constituents. I am sure that he will be an excellent champion of their best interests.
My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh made a telling and fluent speech. In view of what he said about the number of Members who have represented that constituency in the past 10 months, I am sure that we all hope that he will represent it for many years. He gave an excellent description of his constituency, its opportunities and challenges. I am confident that he will be an excellent champion for Langbaurgh and Teesside. He made clear the real benefits that our housing initiatives such as estate action will bring to his area and gave a graphic description of those initiatives.
I can tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) that we intend to make the rents-to-mortgages scheme available to all tenants who presently have the right to buy. That will include secure tenants of non-charitable housing associations. We intend to consult the new landlords of tenants who have opted for large-scale voluntary transfer about the possibility of making the rents-to-mortgages scheme available, because that might affect the basis upon which private finance for the transfer was raised.
My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor will want to consult as soon as possible on the housing court. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing may rest assured that we intend to continue to target resources at some of the worst run-down estates. We shall do that by initiatives such as estate action and city challenge. In reply to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey), we shall judge every city challenge application on its merits.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing spoke about the tenants charter. We have been impressed by the quality of some local authority charters, such as that from Wandsworth about which my right hon. Friend spoke. Over the next two or three months I hope to visit many local authorities, and one of the issues that I shall discuss is the information that they give to tenants in their tenants charters.
The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) also spoke in the debate. It is rather inelegant to talk about retread speeches, but clearly this is a subject about which he knows a great deal. I have no doubt that he will continue to make worthwhile contributions to housing debates for some time. He poured too much scorn on tenants choice, which is an excellent example of a policy which gives tenants the opportunity to initiate action. The scheme gives most council tenants the right to choose a new landlord for their existing homes. The landlord might be a housing association, a tenant-controlled group or a commercial organisation. Two tenants choice transfers have taken place in Westminster and Merton and, following successful ballots, there have been five more formal applications to start the statutory transfer process. I hope to see more transfers in the near future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) rightly said that the debate was not simply about local authority performance but also about the performance of housing associations. For that reason, we shall closely watch how the Housing Corporation monitors its strategy for tenant participation. My hon. Friend spoke about the waiting list. It is interesting to note that the Audit Commission report states:
The waiting list is a very inaccurate measure of needs.
My hon. Friend also spoke about what local authorities and others could do by diverting demand. The Audit Commission report contains a long list of actions that
local authorities could take to divert demand by sensible schemes such as housing advice, staying-put schemes and cash incentive schemes. That must be seen as part of the total picture.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) will, I hope, excuse me if I draw his specific comments on housing in Wales to the Minister who has responsibility for housing in the Principality. I am sure that he will respond robustly in writing.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) mentioned the Walthamstow housing action trust. The tenants in Walthamstow whom I have met have expressed considerably greater enthusiasm for HATs than did the hon. Gentleman, but it is our clear intention that HAT tenants will be able to return to local authorities as landlords, if they wish, when work on their properties is complete.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) entertained the House to a long treatise on—
It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.