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Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman at least acknowledges that the material exists. I hope that he will denounce it publicly. It never is anything to do with the Labour party. I shall come back to that point in a few moments.
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South) : I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way, as Nottinghamshire has been mentioned. That material might not be technically or legally issued by county or city, but the House must know, and the Minister will confirm, that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)--I am sad that he is not in his place-- has been the greatest peddler of the terminological inexactitudes to which the Minister has just referred.
Mr. Heffer : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard the Minister say that it was Nottinghamshire county council that put out the leaflet. Now he says that it may not have been. He had better withdraw, because it is wrong for a Minister to come to the House and accuse Nottinghamshire county council and then not admit that he is wrong. I ask the Minister to withdraw that now.
Mr. Trippier : I shall, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if I am wrong and if Nottinghamshire county council never played any part in producing the leaflet, I shall be the first to apologise for that mistake, as I always do. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hammersmith should not open his mouth at this precise time because I am about to refer to other things that he said he would do but has not done. Having sent two letters to me within one week prior to Christmas, he has not yet replied to my latest letter. It was probably lost in the Christmas post. When he challenged me to debate these issues in public--I cannot think of a more public place than this--in the media or on television, I was happy to accept. I repeat that acceptance now. I am happy to debate the issue with him or with any of his colleagues anywhere, at any time.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has realised his mistake. I call on him seriously to condemn unreservedly the literature which is going round. If he does not wish to be associated with it--he clearly does not--let him
Column 419condemn it, say what is wrong in it, and spell out to the House what he does not agree with so that the House and the country may know.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith does not accept that some tenants may vote to pay slightly higher rents in return for better management and repairs. A recent survey by Glasgow university showed that almost 40 per cent. of tenants would be prepared to pay higher rents for a better service. Some may not, but it is their choice. It is not the Official Opposition's choice. It is not the Labour council's choice. It is not the choice of the wider Labour party or any one of its many divisions, and it has many divisions. It is not even the choice of the National and Local Government Officers Association. It is the tenants' choice. They, and they alone, should decide.
But when fantasy, imagination, and deception fail him, the hon. Member for Hammersmith has recourse to amateur theatricals. It would be laughable were it not clearly intended to prevent legitimate debate. The way that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) tried to sabotage the wind-up speech in the recent Second Reading debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was a disgrace. I fear that it was all too typical of the way some Opposition Members are bringing on to the Floor of the House the deceitful scaremongering tactics used by their Left-wing activists against tenants. But in truth they resort to those tactics because they have nothing else to say, and because they are desperate to appease the bully boys who are no doubt crucial to their own reselection.
Behind the Labour party's banner stand those who want to scare tenants into believing that only the council can provide for them ; those whose power is threatened by tenants' freedom ; and those whose inefficiency will be exposed by tenants' choice.
The Labour party protests so much, as it has throughout my speech, because it is frightened at the prospect of competition for its municipal fiefdoms- -
Mr. Battle rose--
Mr. Trippier : I will not give way. I have given way many times. I have just referred to the tactics deployed by Opposition Members, to which the hon. Gentleman is very much a party. He should sit down and listen.
Mr. Battle : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think it ought to be on the record that if the Minister casts slurs and calls that a speech, and if he makes statements that are not true, hon. Members should have the opportunity to interrogate those statements. It is part of our duty--
Mr. Trippier : We have just had a first-class example of the type of tactics that I was talking about. The hon. Member for Leeds, West simply does not listen. That is the tactic with which we are all too familiar in the House and outside in matters concerning housing, and particularly housing association trusts, which the hon. Gentleman does not know much about, but which exist in his city. That tactic is deployed there. The reason why it is deployed by him, and by the hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Copeland is that they are frightened of giving tenants a
Column 420choice. They are frightened of competition for their municipal fiefdoms. They are frightened because it is the last bastion of the Labour party-- [Interruption.]
The Government are proud to be the champion of greater freedom, of consumer choice, of more competition and of greater efficiency. Our response to the challenge of today is to trust in people's judgment and their self- reliance, and to let the consumer rule.
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Towards the end of the excellent opening speech by my hon. Friend the Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), twice in my hearing, accused my hon. Friend of lying. He should not use remarks like that in the House simply because he does not like what is being said. He should withdraw.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Within my hearing no hon. Member accused anyone of lying. They used other words but they certainly did not accuse the Minister of lying. I have very good hearing. That is not a point of order.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sitting nearer to the hon. Gentleman. I accept that you may not have heard it, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Leeds, West will be honest enough to admit to the House that that was precisely what he said.
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : Anyone listening to the Minister's speech who had a housing problem would be appalled at what he had to say. One would think from his speech that there was not a housing problem. I wish to deal with various matters, including some raised by the Minister, but first I will make two other points. First, I want to be as tight with time as I can because it is a short debate. Secondly, I apologise to the House because I will have to leave half an hour early for a meeting on the poll tax at which the Secretary of State for the Environment and I are speaking. I would not like him to be without the advantage of the guidance and the assistance that I may be able to give him from time to time.
The point that we are making strongly, and with increasing support from across the political spectrum, is that there is a growing housing crisis. Every time the Government try to duck it by referring to the past or to individual local authorities or councillors, they bring shame on themselves because they cannot face up to the problem. What is it? It is a crisis of mortgage rates and market rents. It is a catastrophe of escalating homelessness. It is a lack of low-cost accommodation for rent or sale.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer's disastrous reliance on interest rates has clobbered home owners with a vengeance. We should never let anyone say that the Conservative party is the party of the home owner. [Interruption.] Yes. The Labour party did far more with start-up schemes and with mortgage relief for first-time buyers than the Conservative party. Let us hear the facts.
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South) rose --
Mr. Soley : Let the hon. Gentleman hear the facts first; then he may intervene if he wishes. I want to limit interventions. From January 1988 to January 1989 is just 12 short months. Someone on the average mortgage in Britain is now paying £81 per month more than in January 1988. In the south-east the payment is £112.44 per month more ; in inner London it is £135.06 per month more.
Mr. Sumberg : The hon. Gentleman said that the Labour party is the friend of those who wish to buy their homes. Will he tell the House exactly what the Labour party did for council house tenants who wished to buy their homes?
Mr. Soley : It is a point that we have been making over and over again. I will repeat it for the hon. Gentleman, who missed it. There is nothing wrong with the right to buy, but it has to be matched by a duty to replace property in housing stress areas. If people are merely given a right to buy, with no duty to replace, the best houses go first. People become trapped in high-rise, grotty, rundown houses from which they cannot be transferred. Waiting lists and homelessness go up.
Mr. Trippier : If the hon. Gentleman is going to make a comparison with the one particular year on which he has focused, will he compare it with what people paid during the last year or two of the last Labour administration, when inflation was running at 27 per cent?
Mr. Soley : I cannot supply them off the top of my head, but I shall supply them. I assure the Minister that he will be able to get them from my own source, the Building Societies Association. If the Minister looked at the figures and other evidence held by the BSA and other organisations, they would tell him something that he should already know.
When house prices begin to stabilise after house price inflation as a result of interest rates remaining high over a sustained period, homelessness goes up owing to mortgage repossessions. The fastest growing area of homelessness is now due to mortgage repossessions. One in every 10 families is going to the local authority and asking for housing under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. They have been made homeless because they cannot pay their mortgages. [Interruption.]
The Minister makes the mistake, as he shouts from his sedentary position, of supposing that the problem relates only to individual mortgage companies such as the Nationwide Anglias of this world. However, it does not, because it affects many other lenders, including banks and other organisations. Many people have mortgages on which their payments are more than six months in arrears. I shall give the Minister the figures. In 1979, the number of mortgages that were more than six months in arrears--the Minister is fond of talking about arrears, and I shall return to that point--was 8,420. In 1986, the figure was 66,930. In 1979, the number of repossessions was 2,530 and in 1986 it was 20,020--
Mr. Trippier rose--
Mr. Trippier : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He must have heard me give a statement at Question Time last week when I said that the Building Societies Association had made it clear that mortgage repossessions had actually dropped, and that Mr. Boleat had made it clear that there was no direct correlation between higher interest rates and mortgage repossessions.
Mr. Soley : Why does the Minister not listen before he intervenes? I said to him--to be correct, to a Conservative Back Bencher--that it was no good looking at just the building society figures, because building societies are not the only lenders. He must look at the figures of banks and other organisations that lend money. It is not an accident or imagination that one in 10 families has been made homeless as a result of mortgage repossessions. Most of the building societies and a significant number of banks are quite good on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and I conducted a survey which showed that almost all banks and building societies were worried about their customers' ability to pay and were trying to find ways of making it easier for them. A common theme that came out of the survey was the need to ensure that people sought advice as early as possible. Otherwise, they would inevitably run into trouble.
Mr. Bennett : Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how the homeless, the residents and the ratepayers in his own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham will be helped by the Labour-controlled council's gambling in the City, in which it lost £50 million?
Mr. Soley : That intervention is an absolute gift and I shall tell him right now. If, as suggested, it is ultra vires, and the council has to freeze its position, it will walk away with £13 million profit. There will be no loss to the council--the figure in The Independent is wrong. The council would gain £13 million. But it pales into insignificance in the face of the problem that the Secretary of State has created for the Labour and Tory boroughs that have carried out such activities, by his refusal to introduce a proper system of local government finance. He tells local authorities to use business practices. Hammersmith and Fulham used them successfully and made £13 million profit. [Interruption.] It is questionable whether it is illegal.
We know one thing for sure : if a private company had acted in the same way, everybody would pat it on the back and say how well it had done. It would have been strictly legal in the private sector ; it is only local authorities who must not trade in that way.
I must stick to the point about which the Government are increasingly worried. The Government are blind to the problem being caused by those seeking to buy. A couple of weeks ago the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said :
"Mortgage rates show no correlation with difficulties over arrears or repossessions".--[ Official Report , 26 January 1989 ; Vol. 145, c. 117.]
Column 423Let him tell that to the people who are being made homeless, or those 20,000 people whose payments are in arrears.
Do the Government think that money grows on trees for those people? The dream of home ownership is turning into a nightmare of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for increasing numbers of people, and the Government know that.
The other day, The Daily Mirror presented the case of Mr. Soussa--one of the many growing examples of the Rachmanite and Hoogstraten-type experiences about which we have warned the Government. The Daily Mirror said that a family of three--two adults and a child--paid rent of £161 per week for one room and a shower which they shared with 10 other families. Their meal times were limited to half an hour a day in the dining room and there was no fire escape.
When that story appeared in The Daily Mirror , Mr. Soussa gave the family two hours notice to quit and put them in the street. The council--which was not Labour--had to use other bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Other local authorities--including
Conservative-controlled Southend--told the Minister that they could do nothing other than resort to bed-and-breakfast accommodation for such people because of the Government's housing cuts.
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman has made a silly mistake that he could have avoided if he had done a little more homework. He would then have found that the family to which he referred was the responsibility of Slough-- [Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman knows that Slough is a Labour-controlled council.
Mr. Soley : The incident occurred in Windsor. The Minister does not understand that the accommodation is in Windsor and other local authorities use it. The argument is not about which councils place such families in bed -and-breakfast accommodation. Is the Minister really saying that Conservative councils do not use bed-and-breakfast accommodation? The argument is quite simply that local
authorities--whether Labour, Tory or Liberal--are forced to use inadequate and inappropriate bed-and-breakfast accommodation because of the Government's policies.
The leader of the Conservative group in Hammersmith, Councillor Peter Prince, has some interesting suggestions. He says that there is nothing wrong with paying £100 rent per week for a two-bedroomed flat--and that it is all right. Can hon. Members say how ordinary people on average incomes are supposed to pay £100 per week rent for a two-roomed flat? He said something far worse, which I should like the Minister to think about.
In Hammersmith and Fulham, 19 people from Belfast who were threatened by the Provisional IRA have suddenly turned up. Two of the children had been kneecapped, one in both knees, with similar treatment to elbows and ankles. Quite rightly, Hammersmith and Fulham council put those people into bed-and -breakfast accommodation. It had experience of other cases, knew the dangers of sending them back and realised that it must help them.
However, Conservative Councillor Peter Prince said they should be sent back to Belfast. That was not only inhumane but also seems effectively to be saying to the
Column 424Provisional IRA that it can carry on policing Northern Ireland because it is doing a good job. That is what the Conservative party is saying.
I have encountered people in Hammersmith who are not in council accommodation but are running from both the Provisional IRA and the Unionist paramilitaries. What do I get from the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office? He says :
"Hence, while I have every sympathy for the problems faced by local councils"
in cases of this kind, he cannot help. As a result of the crisis in Northern Ireland, local authorities in Britain must either provide bed-and- breakfast accommodation, send the people back or provide housing out of their own stock. What will the Minister do about that?
I have argued for many years that the Northern Ireland Office needs a policy to deal with people who are driven out in that way. I have every sympathy with Southend council, which has the same problems as Windsor, Slough and others. Indeed, Southend and the
Conservative-controlled London Boroughs Association and Association of District Councils say that they cannot cope without using bed-and-breakfast accommodation--because of the Government's policy. How does the Minister think that a family copes with education, health and family stress when they have to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and when the Government have no policy on homelessness? In 1978, a total of 53,110 homeless families were accepted. In 1987, the figure was 118,710. The sharp end of the problem is something that I never dreamt I would live to see in this country : men, women and children sleeping in cardboard boxes in the streets and parks of our towns, in both Tory and Labour areas. If the Minister and his hon. Friends really believe that that is the Labour party's fault, let me tell them that no one else believes it. Other people know that the housing crisis has been caused by the present Government. The Minister should not try to dodge that by blaming local authorities for the existence of empty properties.
Let us get the figures nice and clear. At present 2.5 per cent. of local authority properties are empty, compared with 3.1 per cent. of housing association properties. Both those figures are pretty good, and should be treated with a degree of flexibility. The figure for the private sector is 4.2 per cent. And who is the worst offender of all? The Minister. Nearly 6 per cent. of properties owned by the Government are empty. Houses and flats with three, four and five bedrooms, valued at £150,000 to £200,000, have been empty for up to nine years. The Government, who have known about it for years, are to knock them down to make way for car parking and landscaping around Wormwood Scrubs prison.
One in five police houses is empty, as are prison houses, defence houses and houses owned by London Regional Transport and other regional organisations. What the Minister likes to do is blame local authorities--to starve them of cash, undermine their morale and erode local democracy and to try to pretend that that solves the problem. He knows very well, however, that the problem lies at the Government's door.
Horsham council actually gave an empty council house to none other than the Horsham constituency Conservative party to use as an office. I understand that it
Column 425had to offer something because this was part of an improvement area--but an empty council house as an office? Are we joking? Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) rose--
Mr. Hughes : I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman has said about empty properties owned by the Government, and I think that the Departments responsible need to clean up their act. As he says, it is a scandal.
Would the hon. Gentleman comment on another scandal? According to figures produced by the London borough of Hackney, some 300 housing units have been empty for more than three years so that minor repairs can be carried out. How can that be justified in an area of such stress?
Mr. Soley : I do not want the hon. Gentleman to suggest that it is the Department's fault. It is the Home Office Minister's fault. I took the Wormwood Scrubs case to him about a year ago, but the properties are still not being used. Admittedly the junior Minister said that we could use four of them on a short-life basis, and a housing association is trying to do that, although it will be difficult to use four properties on such a basis. The other properties are not going to be used at all.
Unfortunately, the examples that we give--including some that I have given about the Government--are irrelevant to the main cause, which is a drastic drying-up of the supply of low-cost accommodation for rent or sale. When the Minister opened the debate he revealed his naivety and inadequate grasp of the problem by saying that the country now contained more houses than people. In a technical sense, what he said was true, but it nevertheless showed a complete misunderstanding of the mismatch of properties to people.
Having said that he recognised the problem of linking people and properties, the Minister did not go on to say how he would deal with it other than through the private market. The Government are saying that the private sector will provide, whereas local authorities cannot. What they are doing constitutes one of the nastiest forms of bullying that I have seen for many a long year. I attend meetings up and down the country which are packed out, with up to 400 people present. Many are very elderly--in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They go to the meetings because they are scared. [Interruption.] If they are scared, it is not because of me. I attended meetings organised by people from the Minister's own council.
Rochester upon Medway council in Kent has put out a leaflet. People who went to a meeting in the area wanted to know what would happen to them, as the leaflet mentioned no agreement other than one that might result at the end of the day. They were worried because they were being told to vote for an arrangement under which they would have no contract. I beg the Minister to recognise
Column 426that many elderly people do not understand that housing associations are not just like any old private landlord. When a leaflet about a housing association takeover drops through their letterboxes, they see a return to the 1930s.
Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway) : The hon. Gentleman has already referred to what is happening in my constituency, where tenants are to be given a choice. I consider it, to say the least, slightly less than ethical for an Opposition Front Bencher to try to frighten the lives out of tenants when they have not even held the contract in their hands yet. Perhaps he would like to mention the scheme that my city council hopes to introduce. When the scheme is completed and the tenants know the details, they will have a choice.
Mr. Soley : Let me tell the hon. Lady what I told the people at the meeting. I told them what I always tell them: "There may be cases in which you want to transfer to a different landlord, but first you must know the facts." What scared people about the leaflet was that it said that an assured tenancy was the same as a secure tenancy, which it is not. When I read it, my knowledge of such matters led me to believe that what the organisers meant--and I suspect that their intentions are quite good--was that they would try to make it the same by drawing up a legal contract, but there is no legal contract here. If the hon. Lady took the leaflet along to a solicitor and asked "Should I buy this?" would he advise her to sign? Of course he would not. What is so wrong with her approach is that bullying and frightening people is unnecessary.
The Minister talked about Nottinghamshire. I eventually got hold of a leaflet published by the Notts Housing Bill Campaign--not by the Labour party. Why did it take so long to find? Because it was published about a year ago, when the Bill first arrived. Much of it is accurate. [Interruption.] It is difficult to see that it is inaccurate. There are some points which are incomplete. [Interruption.] It is not a new word. It is relevant to the case, because the Government's Bill had only just been published. As we all know, that legislation--with constant changes to it--went through on the hoof with a vengeance.
Of course, the Minister dodged the real challenge that I put to him. My challenge was not for him not just to debate it publicly but for him or me, if we came across any misleading information--which we could not agree on as being misleading and therefore have it put right--to put it to an independent organisation. The two organisations I suggested were the National Consumer Council and the Institute of Housing. However, the Minister has refused
Mr. Soley : Can I have a clear statement from the Minister? I pointed out 10 or 11 serious inaccuracies in the leaflets put out by the Minister's Department. I said that the leaflet entitled "Tenants' Choice" should go to the National Consumer Council or the Institute of Housing for an independent view. He has refused to do that. Mr. Trippier rose --
Mr. Trippier : I know that one has to tell the hon. Gentleman something about 13 times before he is on to it in a flash, but I must make it clear to him again that I am prepared to debate that isue, and the contents of any leaflet in front of anybody in the public or the media. I am prepared to appear on any occasion--even for no money.
Mr. Soley : I am not talking about appearing or debating. I am saying that where we cannot agree on what is misleading, we should put it to an independent organisation, which is what the Minister is refusing to do. [ Hon. Members-- : "He did not."] Of course he refused.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : The leaflet that has been mentioned affects my constituency. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that that leaflet may be a year old, but we have suffered such literature--press releases and public statements--in our city ad nauseum, month after month, and the majority of it is the most spurious nonsense and disgraceful literature I have ever read. In my constituency there is an estate of 9,000 homes and many old people have written to me saying, "The Labour party locally are saying that our houses will be sold to private landlords ; is that true?" That is what is happening in our cities, and it is time that the hon. Gentleman repudiated it.
Mr. Soley : I will not do it now, for the sake of Back Benchers who want to contribute, but I would be happy afterwards to go through this leaflet with the hon. Gentleman to pick out any inaccuracies. I would say to him that at the time it was written it was basically accurate.-- [Interruption.] Since then, the Bill has gone through Committee and has been changed thanks to our amendments.
We want to know also from the Government whether they intend to change the rigged voting system that has so frightened people that they know that their only solution is to group together as tenants and community groups to fight the Bill. One good thing, however, about that wretched Housing Act is that it has managed to create a sense of community in those areas, because they are so appalled by what is happening.
I ask the Minister whether the Government will spend the money that they promised on the housing action trust areas now that they know that they have lost the argument there, too. Effectively, all the tenants have said no to their proposals since they rumbled the Government's other dishonesty. They discovered that the real aim of housing action trusts, according to the report prepared for the Government, was
"to successfully transfer the properties to the private sector." That was something that the Government never told the tenants. That is the dishonesty and the deceit which causes the tenants to be fearful and makes me say that the Government are guilty of bullying tenants.
What will the Government do about the new towns? The new towns will not even get a proper vote until in some cases they have waited two years to see how the new system works. Terrific: we will have a new government now ; see how it works and then we will have a vote on it.
Column 428How about that? Wht sort of democracy is that? Even some cheap dictator would not accept that as a form of democracy.
The housing statistics tell the grim story. In 1987 there were 30, 000 fewer completions in all sectors compared to 1980. I warn the Minister of that, because that is what he was talking about when referring to public sector investment. Throughout the 1970s, housing investment was high when compared to European standards. Even investment in our worst year, which was 1979, was good compared to other European countries. What is significantly different now is that we are at the bottom of the heap--as we are with the National Health Service. Next year there will be a decline in the private building sector again, because of interest rates. The Government know that. In 1975, local authority completions were 103,000, in 1988 they are estimated to be 15,000 and in 1992 they will be 6,000.
The Government have suddenly turned to housing assocations as the way out, but housing association completions are only about 2,000 above what they were in 1975. Somehow the housing associations are supposed to swallow local authority housing and build more at the same time. The management implications of that are appalling. In addition, there is the disaster of market rents in the private sector. We must remember that the rented sector has declined by 1.2 million houses, more than half of which are from the private rented sector. That decline has been caused by the Government's public expenditure. The Minister dodged my question about mortgage income tax relief. If he is prepared to accept someone on £7,000 per year getting a subsidy of about £300, but someone on £25,000 per year getting about £760, he had better work out where his priorities lie with Government expenditure. That is now up to nearly £6 billion. The nightmare about market rents is that they will approximate to what people pay to buy, which is why the private rented sector is declining. Mr. Rachman, Mr. Soussa--not really Mr. Soussa--and Mr. Hoogstraten are not really bad landlords ; they are bad property developers. They want to sell with vacant possession, which means getting tenants out, and that is what the 1988 Bill is designed to make much easier.
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) rose--