Let me declare a potential interest immediately: I am trying to buy a flat in London. My real interest, however, relates to constituents who are inadequately housed, and whose lives have been blighted by that. From the point of view of my constituents, we are discussing the right subject; it is a pity that the Bill does not allow us to address the real housing problems of many thousands of people.
In the short time available, I shall confine my remarks to the local authority aspects of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) ably demonstrated, the rent-to-mortgage scheme shows the Government's obsession with housing tenure above all else. Instead, we should be discussing the right of everyone in the country to a decent home, and the way in which, collectively, we can improve the quality and quantity of our housing.
Unfortunately, in the Government's terms, the quality of housing seems to he related to persuading people to become owner-occupiers—as though that would somehow magically improve the properties in which they live. Their idea of quantity is related solely to the percentage of the population who become owner-occupiers. The real issues —homelessness, and the time for which people must wait for a home of any kind—are not addressed by the Bill.
On behalf of my constituents, I am upset by the complacency of Conservative Members—Ministers as well as Back Benchers. Surely some of them must have in their surgeries the sort of severe housing problems that Labour Members have every week. And we have to offer people no hope because the resources to deal with them are simply not there.
One can take the homeless crisis in this country on a national scale; the figures are there; or one can take a particular case. In 1976, when I joined the Sheffield city council, we rehoused 100 homeless families a year. This year, 2,000 homeless families will be housed. That is the scale of the problem as it has grown under this Government. One can take the homeless crisis on the particular scale not only of individuals sleeping in cardboard boxes, because the homeless legislation does not touch them in any way, but of families that probably do qualify waiting in every housing department in the country to prove themselves homeless. What greater degradation and humiliation could be inflicted on people than to put them through that sort of process, and not to care about it?
Many older people in Sheffield tell me that when they were younger, just after the war, seeking to get a home of their own for the first time they used to have to live with their in-laws or their parents, often parted from their prospective partners, waiting for a home. When I joined the council, people used to thank goodness that those days were gone and that after two or three years on the waiting list one could get a nice little home in which to start a family. I thought that this Government believed in family values, but the house that they could get in 1976 after three years on the waiting list they now have to wait at least 10 years for.
We could blame the Germans in the 1950s for the housing crisis. I do not think that even this Government can manage to blame the Germans in the 1990s for the housing crisis in all our major cities.
The answer is in the Government's hands. We have a building industry which is largely out of work and many unemployed building workers with the necessary skills. Local authorities have capital receipts and it is time the Government addressed the situation. It is nonsense to have a situation in which by selling an asset and replacing it with another asset the borrowing requirement is increased. Only the British Treasury, with its peculiar detached view of economic reality, could manage to come up with such a solution.
When the right to buy was brought in the Government promised Conservative local authorities that the capital receipts could be spent on building homes. But it is not just a matter of building homes. Conservative Members criticise Labour local authorities for not repairing houses, ignoring the fact that many of those capital receipts were used by Labour local authorities, through a loophole in the legislation in the 1980s, to reroof and rewire homes and generally improve them. The Government closed that loophole in their later legislation and stopped those repair schemes going ahead. It is not Labour local authorities that are to blame.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith rightly said, it is not just a matter of capital receipts. We also have to address the borrowing allocations, which are down to one third of what they were in 1980, because some of the receipts are not in the hands of authorities that would naturally spend them on housing needs. Some of the authorities with the worst housing needs do not have the greatest amount of capital receipts.
We need to redefine the public sector borrowing requirement and take local authority borrowing out of the PSBR. We need to sort out the difference between current expenditure for revenue purposes and capital expenditure on long-term investment. We need to have regard to the differences in the PSBR in other European countries. That will certainly have an impact under the Maastricht treaty and we must recognise and take account of it.
I have no time to answer all the attacks that were made on Labour local authorities—some of my colleagues have already done that—but authorities such as Sheffield were introducing right-to-repair schemes and compensation-for-improvement schemes because of their commitment to tenants' rights and their belief in those rights before this Government ever thought of them and brought them into legislation out of political expediency. Their commitment to tenants' rights was shown to be skin deep by the fact that in one piece of legislation they brought in the right for tenants to choose their landlord and in the next piece of legislation they suddenly found that the right of their friends in the private sector to tender for the work was more important than the rights of the tenants. That shows how deep their commitment to tenants' rights is.
If the Government really want tenants to get the benefit of the right to repair and right to improvement compensation, they must talk to the local authority associations and to their own colleagues who run councils and get a scheme that will work and deliver practical benefit, not simply produce a piece of paper that they can wave around as showing that they have fulfilled their manifesto commitment.
Finally, it is a question of assisting economic recovery, rather than merely getting housing circumstances right. Let us put the building industry back to work. Let us assist economic recovery by allowing local authorities to build the homes that people need. I appreciate that that would require the Government to eat a few words, do a few U-turns and even some somersaults, but we all know that these days they are getting good at all those tricks.