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Column 115Nellist, Dave
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Quin, Ms Joyce
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Reid, Dr John
Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N.
Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Wise, Mrs Audrey
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Martyn Jones and
Mrs. Llin Golding.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read a Second time and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
Queen's recommendation having been signified--
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Dock Work Bill, it is expedient to authorise--
(a) the extinguishment of liabilities of the National Dock Labour Board to the Secretary of State in respect of loans made under section 3(3) of the Dock Work Regulation Act 1976 or section 4 of the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act 1946 ;
(b) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence of the provisions of the Act.-- [Mr. Lightbawn.]
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing (Change of Landlord) Regulations 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 367), dated 6th March 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th March, be annulled.
This statutory instrument, which is unusually large, is the sort of legislation to which we are becoming accustomed under a Government who legislate by statutory instrument or order of the Secretary of State, as we pointed out to the Minister a number of times in Committee during consideration of the Housing Act 1988.
I concede that the regulations make one or two changes for the better. The Government have clearly responded to some of the requests that we made in the Committee that considered the Housing Act. I welcome those small improvements. We still have a system, which the Government introduced, of "pick a landlord", which should more appropriately be named "pick a tenant". The regulations refer to the way in which, having made a bid for a group of properties, the applicant--as the new landlord will be called--can begin to acquire those properties and the information that must be given by the local authority about the tenants who live in the area, voting and consultation periods.
It would be nice if I were able to say that this is a genuine "pick a landlord" scheme that would enable the tenant of a latter-day Mr. Rachman or Mr. Hoogstraten to go to his town hall, housing association or local housing co-operative and say, "I am fed up with being harrassed by this landlord and want to change to a better or different one." That will not occur. The regulations apply only to local authority tenants.
The Government allege that local authority housing is unpopular. That is a strange argument when one bears in mind the fact that local authority waiting lists of people desperate to obtain council houses have increased dramatically under the Government and currently stand at 1.25 million people. The Government's view was soundly put down by the Glasgow university study carried out at the request of the Department of the Environment. It showed that, by and large, councils are good landlords and compare favourably with housing associations. The regulations are a one-way ticket because there is no possibility of changing one's mind if one gets a bad landlord. Again, it is not "pick a landlord" but "pick a tenant". An outside landlord makes a bid, and once it is accepted tenants are stuck with him until the landlord chooses to dispose of them. Tenants are unable to vote to change their landlord.
The object of the measure is to squeeze the public housing system further, to push people out of it and into the public sector. Perhaps predictably, that policy is not working as well as the Government would like. The harsh reality for the Government is that the majority of tenants who are voting under the rigged system, whereby abstentions are counted as yes votes--a system that would be satisfactory to a third-rate dictator--are voting it down and saying no. Some of the alternative landlords have been quite good housing associations with good reputations. Tenants are doing so because the Government have terrified many of them, especially older ones, with their drive to push them into the private sector.
Column 117Many tenants, especially older ones, remember that they tried to get out of the private sector. Government reports clearly show that private rented housing is the most unpopular form of rented housing. Some council landlords and some housing association landlords are bad, but the worst of them cannot compare with the worst private sector landlords, which include the Mr. Rachmans and Mr. Hoogstratens of this world. When the Government say that such things cannot happen and--as they tried to tell us during the passage of the Bill--that landlords will not exploit the new assured tenancy that makes it easier to evict, I demonstrated how wrong they are.
The new business expansion scheme pushes people who have never been landlords into providing accommodation. Brochures from companies--some quite respectable--are circulated which say that the companies will convert the properties into three and four-bedroom residential flats, let them on an assured tenancy, and shortly before the end of the business expansion scheme takes effect--the five-year period when tax is paid--they will convert them into one-bedroom flats, prior to selling them. The brochure continues :
"Carrying out major renovation work on such accommodation is grounds for compulsory repossession"--
the nasty word "eviction" is not used--
"under the 1988 Housing Act."
That was how I was able to predict--sadly, with accuracy--that such legislation and the assured tenancy would be abused. The evidence is there to see for all who have eyes.
Another reason why the Government's system is failing is that housing associations object to being used as the stalking horse for the Government. They do not like being pushed into taking over council properties because they are aware that, if they do so, they will take on large management problems which, in many cases, they are not equipped to meet. The Government, in their desperation to increase the supply of housing, are asking them to start building more of their own properties, and their management problems become even more complicated. The associations have to increase the supply of built properties and take on other existing properties from local authorities. The majority of housing associations do not want to get into that game. Only the bigger, richer and longer- established councils can do so, which is what is happening.
Part V of the regulations relates to section 101 of the Housing Act and prevents local authorities from making secure a tenancy on a property which becomes vacant during the application. From time to time the Government have accused councils of keeping properties empty unnecess-arily. I have pointed out time and again that local authorities have a better record in this matter than housing associations or the private sector, and an infinitely better record than the worst of all landlords, the Government, of whose properties almost 6 per cent. are empty.
Under the regulations, local authorities will have to keep additional numbers of houses and flats empty because they cannot let them during the period of the takeover--which can last for six months--unless they do so on a temporary basis. The properties cannot be let on a secure tenancy.
How can the Minister justify this in terms of good housing management? How can a local authority manage its stock well if, during the period of a takeover, it cannot
Column 118let properties which become vacant--even to people who are homeless? The local authority may still have to put such people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation even though empty property exists in the takeover area. I challenge the Government to say that they will allow local authorities to put people into vacant properties and give them a secure tenure and a vote.
Regulation 13 does not allow a tenancy to become secure automatically when section 101 of the 1988 Act ceases to apply. Will the Minister address this topic when he winds up? Why cannot the property automatically become a secure tenancy? The right and logical thing to do would be to allow it to revert to being a secured tenancy. Under section 13, that would not happen- -but if I am wrong, I will be glad to be corrected.
Schedule 3 says that the information
"shall be written in clear and straightforward language". I welcome that ; it is a good change, but I hope that it will not be the so-called straight language of the Government's propaganda leaflets, such as the so-called "Tenants' Choice" leaflet put out by the Department of the Environment, which did not state in clear and unambiguous language that people who do not vote are counted as having voted in favour of a new landlord. That was rightly described as inertia selling by the National Consumers Council. The Minister continually ducked giving the council the leaflet so that it could give its informed view on the matter.
I welcome the fact that the new landlord will have to specify the difference between a new tenancy on offer and a secured tenancy. That is one of the most interesting and welcome moves in this otherwise squalid little regulation. For some time now, tenants have been offered a pig in a poke, often by organisations that have been well-intentioned. I have seen leaflets put out by people seeking to take over--I am thinking in one case of a management buy-out which implied that the tenancies that tenants would get if they voted for new landlords would be as good as secured tenancies. They might have been, but nobody knows, because no agreement of any sort was in existence when the propaganda was being put out. Tenants were being asked to make decisions without knowing the facts. So it is an important and welcome step forward that tenants should be told the specific difference between the new tenancy they are being offered and their present secured tenancy. If they are offered an assured tenancy, it will be much weaker than their present secured tenancy, because, as I have already said, people can be evicted on the grounds of the necessity for major repairs or of being more than three months in arrears with their rent.
I hope that the Government, who abuse the English language regularly, will tell tenants in straight language that they cannot change their minds. I hope they will tell them that, if they vote for a new landlord who turns out to be bad, all that the Government will do will be to tell the landlord that he cannot be an assured landlord any more--but his tenants will have to stay with him. They will not be able to vote on the matter--no "pick your landlord" this time. This is a one-way ticket, often into an unknown future. That is why so many elderly people are frightened about the change. The Government are bullying them into the private sector, and that is unacceptable and unnecessary.
Section 16(6) suggests that it is the tenants' duty to tell applicants that they may be absent from their address for some time--an interesting innovation. It means that, if a
Column 119tenant goes off to serve in the armed forces --perhaps to the Falklands--for a long time, unless he remembers to tell the applicant that he will be away for a long time, he will return to find that ownership of his home has been transferred over his head. People who go to prison or to hospital or who become seriously ill at home and who cannot care for their affairs in the usual way will also be vulnerable in this respect.
This is not a proper democratic system : it is a disgrace. I have yet to meet a Conservative Member of Parliament who has been able to justify this appalling system on a public platform. I have to hand it to the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) who, speaking at a meeting with me, put the Government's case perfectly. He said that they choose the electoral system that suits the occasion, and by God he was right. He said, "As long as we can win it, we shall fix it in whatever way we can." What a definition of democracy. What a definition of what we think is necessary in a modern democratic society.
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-East) : The hon. Gentleman has taken totally out of context what I said at that meeting. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that they always take such remarks out of context when it suits the occasion. He may remember that the meetings that he and I addressed together were largely sympathetic to the general view that tenants should have some choice in the matter, however it is determined.
Mr. Soley : The Conservative councillors who were present were more in favour of what I said than what the hon. Gentleman said. That is why the Association of District Councils and the London Boroughs Association were so opposed to this rigged voting system. It would be hard to take what the hon. Gentleman said out of context, because he was asked a specific question. He may remember that the whole of the proceedings were tape- recorded, and the tapes are still in existence. If he wants to listen to the tapes and say how his remarks were taken out of context, I should be delighted to see his response in print. The system is pretty grim. Part VII makes no mention of arrangements for outstanding loan debts. Perhaps the Minister will address that in his winding-up speech. That might well leave the local authority carrying debt for properties that have been transferred. When I hear the Government talking about how concerned they are about the ratepayer, I think of Thamesmead. I think of an estate valued at about £200 million that was knocked down for £25 million because the company taking it over said it could not afford it. That was £400 a house. What happened to the outstanding debt charges of £120 million? They were dumped on London ratepayers, who will go on paying them for many years.
Mr. Soley : The hon. Gentleman would not ask that question if he knew the latest news. The rate increase of 3 per cent. in Hammersmith and Fulham is one of the lowest in the country. It is far lower than rate increases in Conservative areas and far lower than that in the area of
Column 120the Minister for Local Government. The rate increase in Suffolk, Coastal was one of the highest in the country. What a shambles. The Government try to fix local authorities so that rates have to go up, and they get it so wrong that Conservative councils have to put up the rates. Labour councils still manage to provide decent services while keeping rates within bounds, which is just about possible under this system.
I look forward to hearing interventions by the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) when he complains on behalf of his constituents about the poll tax. He will say to the Minister, "I am worried about the poll tax. It is hitting families in my constituency very badly. Each child over the age of 18 in a family has to pay the poll tax." We shall see a different look on the hon. Gentleman's face when he talks about local government finance then.
As I have said, part VII does not mention what is to happen to debt. Can the Minister tell us whether outstanding debts will be dumped on the ratepayers? We want to know, and so do ratepayers. Under part VII, applicants can proceed even if initially they are unable to come up with the full price. I am deeply worried about that, because some housing associations and other associations, many of which had good intentions, are getting into difficulties after taking over properties because they have not assessed as they should have assessed the financial consequences. That is why we have seen rents going up so much in areas that have been transferred.
There may be debates about the causes of rent increases in ex-GLC seaside homes. When rents go up to 40 per cent. of the net income of two pensioners who are above housing benefit level because they have two occupational pensions, they will not survive for long without suffering acute economic hardship. It is unnecessary and cruel for the Government to put them in that position.
These regulations should not have been laid. They are based on a premise that makes them unnecessary. For some tenants this is a one-way ticket out of the public sector ; it is not "pick a landlord" legislation. I should love it if tenants of a bad landlord could change their landlord, but they cannot. This is all about trying to get local authorities to give up their housing without providing anything in its place. That is why the housing crisis in this country is no longer just an inner-city crisis or a crisis in the rented sector, but one that goes to urban and rural areas and hits people who are buying as well as people who are renting. This Government's housing policy is a failed policy, and these regulations are a small part of that failure.