What is clear to everyone except the Government and the Minister is the sheer scale of the housing crisis which has been rejected by the Government. Britain is far from being able to claim to be "a well-housed nation". Every Conservative manifesto at the past three general elections has made that claim—it is far from the truth.
Why is it that everyone now, except the Government, accepts that this country faces an unprecedented and increasing housing crisis? The crisis affects people who face the extremities of homelessness on our streets, the people who are waiting for decent and appropriate housing conditions and the people who live in conditions of severe overcrowding. There is the pressure on families to split up, and on young parents who are imprisoned in high-rise blocks. There are pensioners without proper heating who are living in damp and cold homes, who now face VAT on fuel. That is the reality.
The speeches in the debate have highlighted the fact that there is a distinct difference of approach to housing between Labour's positive strategy for tackling the housing crisis and the Conservative Government's complacency and neglect. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) spoke of the need to address not the symptoms but the causes. He pointed out that there has been a loss of 2 million homes from the rented sector under the Government, and that that was one of the primary causes of the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) spoke of how demand has outstripped supply, and of how Manchester city council has been deliberately starved of resources by the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) spelled out how the Government's policy of competition at a local level has turned people into winners and losers, and has pitted the badly housed against those who are housed in even worse conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) suggested that we ought to support co-operatives more positively. However, the Minister has undermined support for co-ops and has cut housing budgets for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke of the actue shortages that people in desperate need are facing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) has carried on a sterling campaign to try to persuade the Government to do something about empty Ministry of Defence homes in his constituency. Yet the Government have done practically nothing about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) spelled out what was right at the heart of the Government's policy. Here is a Government who claim to support the private sector, but what did they do in the Budget last November when they were faced with the problem of bad conditions? They undermined the renovation grants which enable local authorities to tackle the problem.
As for Government Members, the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) called for a real free market in housing. She wanted the abolition of planning constraints and of the homeless persons legislation. "Let's get rid of all the distortions in the housing market," she said.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry)—the chairman of the all-party homelessness group—told us that there could not be a problem with homelessness because not many homeless people are writing to him. We then heard what was perhaps the most revealing remark of all from the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who said that he was previously the chairman of Wandsworth's —perhaps appropriately named—disposals committee. He said that the homeless people he meets on his way home are there of their own volition. May he stand condemned from his own mouth. That is the real Tory view shining through again: it is not the Government who are the problem; it is always the people who are to blame.
It is crystal clear that the Conservative party's policies still pull towards the notion of owner-occupation for everyone and leaving housing to the free market. In stark contrast, we argue for tackling the causes of the housing and homeless crisis. We campaigned for national policies and strategies that increase the number of desperately needed decent and affordable homes to rent. We demand that the Government call off their petty vendetta against local councils and allow them to play a positive role in housing provision.
Under each of the four Conservative Governments in recent years, housing investment has taken the brunt of Budget cuts. The amount spent on housing is down from 4·7 per cent. of gross domestic product in 1979 under Labour to a mere 1·5 per cent. In the Chancellor's November Budget last year the housing budget again was hammered. Little wonder that the amount of empty accommodation has increased by seven times under the Conservative Government. Little wonder that the number of homeless families has trebled since 1979. Yet the Government's Treasury press release on Budget day positively crowed that housing was a key area of "significant savings". That is what the Treasury had to say.
The Housing Corporation budget was cut by £313 million. As a result, it will approve between 10,000 and 13,000 fewer homes in the coming year. The Government and the Minister are pulling the plug on housing associations as the providers of affordable housing for rent. At a Budget stroke, local authorities have had £193 million, or 11 per cent., cut from their plans for capital investment next year. The reimposed restrictions on capital receipts will mean a loss of £500 million of housing investment resources next year. Yet yesterday the Government's own figures from the Department of the Environment pointed out that construction orders in housing for local authorities and housing associations showed a 13 per cent. drop—a further loss of another £500 million of housing investment.