First, I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to her new position, in which she is responsible for housing policy. I very much welcome that and look forward to hearing what she has to say. Having been in the House even longer than I have, she is well aware of the enormous pressures and needs that exist in relation to housing. They come up in every advice surgery, which MPs hold regularly.
I want to make a number of points, but I shall start with a general observation. In this country, there is a national obsession with home ownership that does not apply to any other country in Europe. Government policy, banking policy and everything else is directed towards home ownership. The assumption was that with home ownership, people automatically made themselves richer throughout that period—and through most periods since the second world war that has been the case. Now, for most of the country, it is certainly not the case.
We treat rented accommodation, whether council, housing association or private rented, as an inferior form of living, and those who live there are condemned by people who say, "Well, do you know they still rent their own home?" or "They're still in casual housing." We need to get away from that mindset and those attitudes. We need to ensure that everyone has somewhere decent and affordable to live, and we must try to reduce the use of that kind of language.
It is no accident that both Islington Members are here this afternoon. We represent inner-city communities, which have an interesting combination of people. Some in our boroughs are extremely rich—they have the image of being wealthy, aspirant people. The reality, however, is that the majority of people are not wealthy. Unemployment is well above the regional and national averages, and the housing crisis is acute and serious for many. In common with other London MPs, we have the phenomenon of very poor people living in grossly overcrowded accommodation literally next door to someone in a £1 million house. That sort of social division is getting worse across the piece.
My advice surgery, like those of my hon. Friend Emily Thornberry and others, is dominated by people who live in appalling conditions. People living in grossly overcrowded accommodation or in private rented accommodation have a sense of hopelessness. Although some policies suggest that they should move away from crowded inner-city areas and live somewhere else, it is not as simple as that. If they have family connections, if they wish to look after older relatives or if they have education or careers to follow, it is not that simple to move. We must ensure that public policy operates in a way that provides housing for those who desperately need it.
There are three general housing matters that I want to mention. My community, like others, has seen a big increase in the number of private rented properties over the past 10 to 20 years. The number of places offered for social rent either by the council or by housing associations has consistently fallen throughout that period, mostly as a result of right to buy, although demand for right to buy has more or less disappeared of late. There has been a slight increase in social rented accommodation, entirely through housing associations, although I welcome the fact that my local authority is, for the first time, about to build 100 council homes in the borough.
The one sector that has increased phenomenally is the private rented sector. In my constituency, roughly one third of the population own their own properties; the rest are a combination of council and housing association or private rented properties. Private rented accommodation varies between the good, the adequate, the awful, the truly appalling and a national disgrace. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some hope on the latter types.
Many people living in private rented accommodation come to my surgery, and even if they are on housing benefit, I always ask what rent they are paying. Some people do not know, so I have to dig through the paperwork and find out from their housing benefit papers. The highest that I have come across is £425 a week for a former local authority property, but the local authority property next door is rented every week to a local authority tenant for about £110 a week. As my hon. Friend Mr. Betts said, who gets the difference? The private landlord is making £300 a week. Frankly, he does not deserve it. The place is not particularly well managed. It is an outrage. We are paying £300 a week, an excessive subsidy, to someone who was fortunate enough to be able to buy the property under the right-to-buy scheme. It is immoral.
Then one moves into the private rented sector. Victorian houses have been bought up by landlords at various times and converted into three, four or five flats to absolutely minimal standards—just enough to get through building control regulations—and with no energy efficiency measures and so on. The landlords do not bother too much with maintenance, because they know perfectly well that the local authority is no longer housing new applicants in local authority or housing association properties. Local authorities have introduced an arbitrary date—in my borough it is 2005—and said that after that date people will be allocated housing only in the private rented sector.
As a result, families are placed in private sector rented flats. The rent could be anything from double the local authority equivalent to three or four times that sum, depending on what the landlords can get away with. The condition of many of those places is disgusting. They are rat-infested, mice-infested, and there is a lack of repairs and so on. The tenants, many of whom are vulnerable, are frightened. They are frightened to contact the landlord, and they are frightened to argue because they do not know what will happen as a result. We are paying the rent through housing benefit, and we are subsidising the worst sort of spiv landlord, whose tenants are living in disgraceful conditions. What is going on is plain wrong.
Then I think, "Hang on. For £300 a week I could get a very large mortgage." Instead, we are throwing the money down the drain and into the private sector. Because the mindset of public policy is inadequate, there is no investment in housing for people in desperate social need. I would be grateful if the Minister were to acknowledge the problem—I am sure that she will—and acknowledge the need for greater control on the condition of those properties.
We also need an examination into—I must choose my words carefully—the over-convenient relationship between local authority housing departments and local letting agencies. The local agencies may get in touch with the housing department and offer 50 flats. It is easy for the housing departments to say, "Okay, we'll take your 50 flats," and not bother to examine them too closely. It is the tenants who lose out. We need some changes.