I understand that Grant Shapps is visiting my constituency tomorrow. He will be welcome in the beautiful town of Colchester. I am delighted that he is coming to Essex. On an Opposition day, not one of the 13 Conservative Members representing Essex constituencies has bothered to turn up for a very important housing debate.
I rely on the hon. Gentleman to put that right. He will find an inspirational Liberal Democrat-led local authority whose housing policies in a very difficult time have won awards for their ways of trying to deal with the housing crisis and homelessness. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is going to the night shelter where those who are in desperate straits are accommodated, and he will find a town where we have the mayor's project, the YMCA foyer, a women's refuge and so on. What we do not have, unfortunately, is a house building programme such as we had 25 or 30 years ago.
It is important that we look back in order to learn the lessons so that we can go forward. It is to the credit of successive Labour and Conservative Governments in the middle 50 years of the 20th century, bypassing the war, that there was mass house building of family houses which meant that by 1980 there was no such thing as homeless people in my town. Families could be guaranteed a family home within six months of going on the waiting list. It is not good enough for the Government to try to blame the previous Government for the shortage of housing. If one looks back, one finds that the record shows that Conservative Governments built more council houses in towns, cities and villages than Labour Governments over that period.
There was a time when there was municipal pride—both Labour and Conservative—in providing housing for those in need. It might come as a bit of a surprise to the Minister to hear that one of the reasons I was driven out of the Labour party in 1981 was that I did not object to the principle of the sale of council houses, although I objected to the way it was rolled out with huge discounts. I find it quite astonishing that I was driven out of the Labour party because of my stance in support of those who wished to buy their home, only to find new Labour further to the right than the Conservative party of 30 years ago. I do not have any desire to return to Labour—certainly not as it is today.
Short of failing to defend the realm, the biggest sin of any Government is to fail to house their people. In my constituency, the number of names on the housing register is nudging 4,000, and more people are involved than those who are named. I am sure that in my constituency and in others there are empty dwellings. I want to see the Government and Opposition parties of the day trying to reach consensus on how we could look at the housing stock in its broadest sense and maximise its use. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr. Wright, will have heard my intervention on the Minister for Housing. In my constituency the Government are responsible for more than 200 dwellings, and are paying rent on them, yet they are standing empty. That cannot be right. I am sure that there are other examples of empty dwellings around the country, some publicly owned but predominantly, I suspect, privately owned.
If the Government can fund an arguably illegal war in Iraq and can bail out the bankers, why can they not fund the housing sector, as suggested by Sir George Young, so that housing can come through the system? Not only would that provide work for unemployed building workers and the supply industry—including those involved in fitting the property out with carpeting, furniture and so on—but, above all, it would provide decent family accommodation for hard-working families and their children. The Government have failed the children miserably when it comes to providing housing. If the children are not housed, a whole generation of dispossessed people is created.
Mr. Raynsford mentioned the new quango. My constituency—I cannot believe it is the only one—has about 100 acres of land zoned for housing, but nothing is happening. Why can the left hand of government and the right hand of government not come together, release that land and get unemployed building workers to build the houses to house those who are homeless? It strikes me that that is what government should be doing: government should be about considering the broader picture and it should be joined up. Housing should be provided for the Government's people.
The Government have failed, but that is no surprise. I challenged the former Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time, the former Deputy Prime Minister when he was responsible for housing, and the Prime Minister on this point. I have been banging on about it for about 12 years. We can blame the last Conservative Government for their failures, but the Thatcher Government built considerably more council houses than this pathetic Government have done in 12 years.
Those are the facts and the numbers, but we can have the emotion, too. We are all housed. If we are running our advice bureaux and surgeries properly, we all know from the people who come through our front door, seeking our help, that there is a shortage of housing. If a post-war Labour Government—a real Labour Government—could build housing for homeless people in need in the aftermath of war, why, after 12 years of new Labour, do we have a housing crisis that is the worst we have had in 100 years?
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