Housing Market

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 13th June 1995.

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Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson , Coventry North West 6:57 pm, 13th June 1995

I have no doubt that, as the Secretary of State is so committed to that issue—it is important and I am with him on it—he will do better research to find out what the true figure is.

I shall come to another matter in a moment, because "sophistry" is an in word at the moment and the Secretary of State was indulging in a great deal of it in his speech. However, I challenge the right hon. Gentleman, in his heart of hearts, to give us the terms of the policies that will be underwritten, which will give a cast-iron guarantee to people who have mortgages that, in the event that they lose their job, they will be able to cash in the policies and prevent a repossession. I do not believe that it is possible, and it is a cruel hoax on the people to put it as a realistic proposition.

Then the Secretary of State said that the policy would pay for itself—that that would come from the margins because the Skipton building society was offering free insurance to gain a competitive advantage. Correct. He then said, "But of course all the others will follow suit". I say that there is no competitive advantage once the whole market is covered and all mortgage lenders are doing the same thing.

If the Secretary of State, who is the arch apostle of market forces—the one who believes in supply and demand, the profit motive and so on—believes that, once a pattern of behaviour is established for all providers in a given service, they will continue to do that out of their own margins, he lives in cloud cuckoo land. Obviously, mortgage lenders will pass on the costs. It would be worth doing if it could be done properly, but all it will do, in the meantime, is depress the market further by making the cost of borrowing more expensive.

That brings us to the nub of the Opposition's case—the timing of these perverse proposals. When the market is flat on its back, one does not go on kicking it. When one is in a hole, one does not go on digging. When a company or an industrial sector is in difficulties, one does not clobber it further. That is the golden rule for anyone who wants to handle pragmatically and constructively problems that inevitably arise in various sectors and at various times in the economy.

Instead of doing that, the Government, for a reason that I cannot understand, have chosen to tackle insurance, social service provision for mortgage interest and tax relief on mortgage interest. At the very time when we need measures to revive and sustain the market, the Government have chosen to indulge in those perverse measures to depress it further.

It is equally inane to pretend that no crisis exists. Some figures were mentioned earlier, but we know that sales of existing housing are down. We know that starts on new houses—I heard the figure today—are at an all-time low, lower than since the second world war.

We know that prices are down. The Halifax building society's figures say that they are 1 per cent. down on a year ago, and 10 to 15 per cent. down on a few years ago. There are 1 million people in negative equity and the number is increasing.

The construction industry is the next example that I give the House. I read today, sadly, in the "Companies & Markets" section of the Financial Times, that a major provincial house builder had issued a profit warning. The chief executive said that the company was being clobbered because it was the first house builder to announce a profits warning, and that the company felt it right that it should let its shareholders know the way things stood. However, he says—it is clearly quoted in the Financial Times—that the company is only the first in a series of similar companies in the house building industry that will announce severe profit warnings.

If that does not amount to a crisis, I do not know what does. Moreover, we all know it. I do not want to indulge in describing the problems that we have in Coventry, but it is simply incorrect that in Coventry, the private sector is replacing the houses that the public sector no longer builds—to take another argument from the speech of the hon. Member for High Peak. The private sector is not nearly replacing what we have lost from the public sector's building programme.

We are in crisis, and we need remedial action from the Government. It is no good trying, as the Secretary of State, perhaps smugly, has done today, to sneak out of the debate on the narrow issue of insurance and to say, "We shall now have a nationwide programme put in place to deal with that"—first, because he knows that, in all probability, it will not work and, secondly, because he knows that, in itself, it will not be remotely enough to solve the major problem in the housing market.

It is not for me necessarily to say what I think should be done, but the Government could do two things. Obviously, I do not speak for Labour Front-Bench Members, but I wish not to speak to them or for them. I want to speak to the Government and persuade the Government to do something; they are the people who can do it. They are the people who suffer most from the instability in the market. They are the people who suffer most from the pervading sense of insecurity that the job position is creating, which now also permeates the housing market.

The Government could do two things, one of which is Labour policy. They could allow a phased release of the housing capital receipts in the possession of local authorities, to be spent on affordable rented accommodation. If the Government were not ideologically blinkered against that, they would realise that it is the obvious thing to do. The resources are there. That is within the borrowing requirement already as they are capital receipts. I know that it can be argued within the Treasury and within Departments whether we need to increase the public sector borrowing requirement. In my opinion, it need not be treated in that way.

The second thing that the Government could do—which would, in all probability, involve a further increase in borrowing and in the PSBR—would be to help first-time buyers. That proposal has been made from the Government Back Benches and it merits Government consideration. The alternative is to sit the whole thing out and say, "It will get better; we do not have to worry. If we simply sit back, the thing will recover in the normal course of events." No doubt it will. Perhaps it will. But how many more people will have their homes unnecessarily repossessed as a result of that laid-back attitude?

I am sure that every Conservative Member would have a different attitude if it were their house, their mother's house or a family house that was going to be repossessed. Let us think about it for a second in that context. If it was so, Conservative Members would have a totally different attitude.

One might sit back and say, "Let's leave it to the market," but how many more people do we needlessly have to put through that hoop, and how much longer do many people who need housing have to wait, simply because the Government believe that the market will right itself in the fulness of time? I will be second to no one in subscribing to the usefulness of market forces. But the point of government is to reinforce market forces and to make them work effectively through Government action when it is required. I put it to the Secretary of State that it is one of those occasions in the market at this time. If he could get beyond his narrow ideological focus and come closer to the real human suffering involved, I believe that he would take action to deal with the problem.