My right hon. Friend makes a strong point with which I absolutely concur and which I understand well. It works like this: a family is in receipt of local housing allowance, and the landlord puts the rent up way beyond what the allowance enables them to pay; they do not have enough other income—either from a low-paid job or from other benefits—to make up the difference, so they have to move. There is no possibility of their getting another private rented property in the same community, so the council is forced to do its best by hassling various agents all over the place to try to find somewhere for them to live—my council does that all the time, and Camden council does much the same thing. The family is perhaps found somewhere to live in Enfield, Barking or wherever. They are there for six months, they have the temerity to complain about the conditions, the tenancy ends, and they get moved again. The children either have to be uprooted from one school to another in another borough, or make a long journey to return to their original borough—such as Camden or Islington—and try to maintain themselves at the same school. What kind of life is it for a seven or eight-year-old child to be dragged on a bus or train for an hour every morning to get to primary school and has to change time and again? Ask the teachers how the kids suffer because of that.
My borough is doing its best to provide as much council housing as it can. My hon. Friend Emma Reynolds kindly visited our borough last week, and she will have seen the excellent quality of our new build. Indeed, it is rather better quality than the current private sector new build: larger rooms, better accommodation, and more energy efficient—very good quality stuff. It is difficult to find land to build it on and expensive to do, but the social investment is enormous, as is the return for the whole community.
The message from the Government is that we should increase council rents to 80% of market value. That would be totally unaffordable for people who live in our existing council properties, and would mean that they could not accept even if they were offered them. We must maintain the social rented model and address the problems of housing in this country, essentially by building a lot more council houses.
Some 200,000 or more new households are created every year, and the number of new properties being developed in the country is around 100,000 per year. We are all into the science of managing shortages. Councils are doing that, as is everybody else, and the only safety valve is the private rented sector. The only safety valve in that is ever-increasing rents and the huge profitability that exists within that sector. We therefore need to do two things; the first is to support local authorities to build council housing.
I do not support the sale of council houses or big discounts on their sale, particularly in areas with enormous housing shortages, not because it makes a lot of difference to residents, if they remain living in them, but because later the properties might be sold on or rented in the private rented sector. The highest rent I have come across so far—there might be more in the pipeline—for a former council flat is £660 per week. For the person living next door in an identical council flat—possibly even in better conditions, because the council tends to look after things quite well—the rent would be about £100 to £120 per week. How can anyone possibly justify that discrepancy?
I support the Opposition Front-Bench team’s proposal for the regulation of letting agents and for the enforcement of much better conditions and much longer tenancies. In areas of very high housing demand—in London and other cities such as Oxford and York and in the centres of other cities—rent rises are huge. I have no idea where the Residential Landlords Association gets its figures from, but it claims that in the 12 months to March 2014, the rent increase in London was 1.4%. I tried this figure out on people in my community, but I only got as far as “1.4” before they started laughing. They said, “That must have been last week’s increase.” I have no idea where these figures come from, but these things are very important.
We seem to be presiding over a cowboy mentality among some, although not all, letting agents who think it okay to stick some scruffy piece of paper in a window saying, “No DSS allowed here”—they are a bit out of date: the Department of Social Security was abolished a long time ago and is now the Department for Work and Pensions; perhaps they should be educated about that. However, should anyone be allowed to say, “If you’re on benefits, you’re a second-class citizen and you cannot even apply”? Also, the “Panorama” programme has exposed the racial profiling that goes on, presumably under pressure from landlords saying they do not want any Muslims, blacks, Jews—or any other group they care to identify. To his credit, the Minister correctly agreed with me that this is criminal activity, completely wrong and has to be outlawed. I hope there will be serious prosecutions where it can be proved, as a lesson to others that we will not accept race discrimination in the housing market.
I hope that the House will support the motion. I do not know whether the Government will support it—I seriously doubt it—but I hope we can have not just the regulations outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East but even longer tenancies. I also think there is a case for rent controls, particularly in areas of very high housing demand such as London. If we do not manage the private rented sector, control rents and build more housing in London, it will become a totally divided city: a city divided between those lucky enough to get social housing through councils or housing associations, those rich enough to buy and become owner-occupiers, and the rest, who will be spending all their earnings and savings on excessive rents. It will lead to labour shortages and economic decline in our big cities. We need regulation and a determination that we, as a nation, will solve the housing crisis and give all our kids somewhere decent and safe to live.