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Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I must say that it is a great shame that debates of this kind take place at this time of night. This is really just an extension of the drip of legislation by the back door--through statutory instruments provided for in the primary legislation, the detail of which Ministers were unable to fill in when the legislation was going through its various stages.

As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said, these regulations contain some improvements. The changes that will ensure that tenants get better information are welcome. Nevertheless, there is still not enough information about the reality of the Act, about the effect that privatisation will have on tenants over the years. I am

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thinking in particular--this has been mentioned already--of circumstances in which people find that they have been tricked, conned or bought into making a bad decision. The landlord-- supposedly squeaky clean--is taken off the Government's list of acceptable landlords, but the tenants have to put up with him indefinitely. Individual tenants can do nothing about the malpractices that they are suffering. Many of them will not have voted for the system, but the abstention vote will ensure that, so far as the Government are concerned, those people's hands were raised to show that they were in favour of the system. Thank goodness we do not, as yet, have voting by show of hands in this House.

Part IV provides that, if a tenant in a block votes against a new landlord, that tenant has the right to stay with the council. The landlord is enabled to let that particular flat back to the council, which can sublet it to the tenant. That is an improvement. The thing that will lead me to vote against these regulations--I understand that there will be a vote--is the procedure under part V which prevents the council, during the bidding process, from letting a council property on the estate in question.

Almost every other provision in this instrument is concerned with detail. In most cases the detailed provisions are unlikely to affect what is happening, but this provision relates directly to people's ability to have their housing needs met--to be certain of a roof over their heads, to be certain of a home for their husbands, or wives, and children. It is about the most basic of things. In my view, this procedure will deprive people of the security of a roof over their heads, simply because of the bureaucracy of a voting system. It is a system which should not be taking place in any case, but which, in this case, will ensure that at least some individuals suffer. As has already been said, the Government repeatedly criticise councils for not housing people when there are properties in which they can be housed. Without any question, some councils are better at it than any others. The Government are worst of all. These regulations put into the rules a system that ensures that the accommodation cannot be properly used. That is not only an error but fundamentally and morally wrong. They should be opposed tonight if for no other reason than that they will keep out on the streets yet more people without the permanent security of housing for them and their children.

10.40 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Like many hon. Members, I have a surgery in my constituency, in my case every Friday. Every week, the greatest number of problems concern housing. People come to me asking me what can be done. Some live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Some are single-parent families. Some have lived in Newham for many years. Some are in unsuitable private rented accommodation, and others want transfers. Last Friday, about 70 per cent. of all the cases that I saw concerned housing. What can we offer such people? On many occasions, I have said that I only wish that Ministers, and in particular the Prime Minister, would come to my surgery to see how enormous is the housing problem in my area, and how that is mirrored throughout London and in no doubt in other cities.

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If the Housing Act 1988 from which these regulations flow had done anything to address the housing crisis, I would have been most encouraged. I would also have been amazed, given the Government's record. The Act has nothing to do with building one single unit of the accommodation that is so desperately needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said, it is all to do with ideology, and the drive to force local authorities out of providing housing. It is about petty, party political, ideological objectives rather than housing.

It does not take a great statistician to work out that there must be something wrong when homelessness in London has doubled since 1979 when the Government came to power. The number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has reached astronomic proportions. In 1983, Newham was spending £50,000 a year on bed and breakfast. This year, it will spend £5 million. That cannot be right. While the queue of people wanting accommodation keeps growing, the Government cut the resources that local authorities need to build new houses. The Minister will correct me if I have got it wrong, but if I remember rightly, since the Government came into power, the housing investment programme has been cut by 80 per cent. in real terms. That is why homelessness has doubled. It is not because there are no good landlords waiting in the wings to come along and give people decent accommodation in which to live : it is all because the Government have cut, cut and cut again against the resources that local authorities need to spend on housing.

I hope that, if the Minister's bag carrier has just got the figure for the number of voids in Newham--I am sure that that is what I lipread--he will bear in mind the fact that we have about 1,100 voids because they are in unsafe tower blocks. They are those Taylor Woodrow Anglia tower blocks. No doubt the Minister remembers the name of Ronan Point. There are 110 of those unsuited tower blocks. In the drive to sell off units of accommodation, there are not many takers for tower blocks in Newham. Boroughs have been forced to sell off the best properties. Tenants have been left in the worst, and they have little chance now of ever moving out of them.

The problems of homelessness in London and elsewhere stem from the constant denial of resources to local authorities to build houses that people so desperately need. In the 1970s, we were building, about 25,000 units of accommodation a year in London. We are down now to fewer than 2,500. Building in the public sector is at a lower level now than it was in the 1920s. It is a scandal. The Minister and the Government generally are presiding over an obscene disgrace. In 1989, there are still tens of thousands living in conditions that no Member of this place would be prepared to tolerate for five minutes. At 10.45 pm we are discussing measures that have nothing to do with the problems of homelessness and nothing to do with building new homes. Instead, they are all about party political spite and ideology as the Government try to drive local authorities out of the provision of homes.

The regulations against which we are praying make the already fundamentally flawed policy even more problematic. They display disregard for the interests of tenants. They work against genuine efforts to find satisfactory tenant-based solutions to housing problems. They introduce the imposition of intolerable administrative and financial burdens on councils. The time scale for consultation is woefully inadequate. If the objective is to

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allow genuine discussion among tenants and their advisers to enable satisfactory solutions to housing problems, the time scale is nonsense.

I understand that 14 weeks is the maximum period for consultation, and it could be much less. The applicant landlord could effectively stifle debate by issuing the final offer only at the end of the first seven-week period. The belated concession of seven to 10 days for the council to respond is completely inadequate. There is then four weeks in which to vote, but that could be done on the first day, with only two weeks to follow up. Real debate could be restricted to only two weeks in the middle of the process. It is the opinion of the Association of London Authorities that 28 weeks is the minimum period for real debate and discussion.

Perhaps the Minister will argue that there will be debate during the preliminary phase, but few details are available about that. I hope that the Minister will tell us in greater detail what the consultation period will involve. As the procedure is non-statutory, an applicant landlord will not have to make a final offer. That means that details of rents, for example, will be missing. Genuine consideration of all the facts can take place only within the statutory consultation process, and under the regulations that could be limited to a mere couple of weeks.

Housing is far too important for these procedures to be acceptable even to the Minister. The provisions of only one vote for joint tenants will cause major problems. At the very least, we maintain that two signatures should be required to prove that the vote is acknowledged by both parties. The regulations are inadequate for meeting the needs of tenants whose first language is not English. That is a matter of major concern in a borough such as Newham. Regulation 16, schedule 3, states that,

"Where there is significant foreseeable demand"

material, should be translated. That provides too many loopholes for applicant landlords.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is all well and good for Ministers to sit and laugh and chatter through his excellent and carefully judged speech? If they had the week-in and week-out experience of London Members in dealing at their surgeries with people who have been in bed-and-breakfast hostels for years and who have had to bring up small children in that accommodation--in other words, if they had to deal with the victims of their housing policies--they would not be quite so glib and quite so happy. The regulations will do nothing to help the homeless and the poor and everything to aid and provide profits for property speculators.

Mr. Banks : There are times when I find it difficult to work out whether the Government are vicious or ignorant. I have come to the conclusion that they are both. There can be no doubt that they are certainly vicious, but I also

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believe that many Conservative Members are also ignorant of the problems. Although some Conservative Members know what the problems are, because of the party whipping system they are prepared to turn their minds away from the realities. Many of those who know the realities absent themselves from these debates and come in only to vote, because if they have not heard the arguments their consciences will perhaps not trouble them in quite the way that they should and they can stagger home to bed, if not with easy consciences, at least with consciences that have not been troubled with having to confront the reality of life for so many of our citizens in London and elsewhere.

I return to the issue of translated material. As I have said, there are too many loopholes for the applicant landlord when dealing with tenants, many of whom do not have English as their first language. Surely, if tenants are to exercise choice, which is the Government's stated aim, those tenants must have understandable information before them. There is nothing in the regulations to say how demand is to be assessed or what constitutes "significant". We maintain that if a single tenant does not understand, it is significant to him or her. I hope that the Minister will say a little more about translated material.

It appears that spoilt ballot papers will count as abstentions. Under this voting system, that means they will be votes in favour of transfer. That is nonsense, but under this Government, we are getting used to nonsense in voting procedures in these regulations. There is no question of democracy. The Government do not worry about concepts such as democracy, because it means whatever they want it to mean--

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : Or whatever they can get away with.

Mr. Banks : Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) says, democracy means whatever the Government can get away with. However, that may not work. The tenants may vote against those landlords because they are not coming in to do a good job : they are trying to strip out the assets. It is no good the Minister saying, "Oh well, only approved landlords will come from the Housing Corporation," because it will be quite possible to pull the wool over the eyes of the Housing Corporation. If the corporation gets it wrong, there is no question of it saying, "We'll take those properties away from that stinking lousy landlord" ; all that it will say is, "Sorry, you can't have any more people to exploit, but you can carry on exploiting the ones you've got."

Let us face it--this is a developers' charter, an asset-strippers' charter. It has nothing to do with finding housing for the people who desperately need it. Until we get rid of this stinking, rotten Government who could not care a monkey's toss, the housing crisis will just get worse and worse. No doubt the only thing that we shall get from the Minister are his laughs and sneers. That is all that the homeless can expect from him.

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10.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : I assume that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was trying--as he so often does--to draw a laugh from Conservative Members. He is often genuinely funny. However, he was not all that funny today. Indeed, the comments made by Opposition Members generally did not show anything new or innovative over the arguments that they have tried to advance in the past on this part of the Housing Act 1988 which refers to tenants' choice. There were simply the regurgitated arguments that I have heard so many times because, for some reason or another, the Opposition seem to be worried about the legislation. I genuinely cannot guess why they are so worried, unless it is for purely party political purposes and they are concerned that we are moving into the heartland of the Labour party--

Mr. Battle : That is what this is all about--very interesting.

Mr. Trippier : We are not only offering, as we have done since 1979, an opportunity to tenants to exercise their right-to-buy ; we are now offering them an extension to that--the opportunity to choose an alternative landlord

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose--

Mr. Trippier : I shall gladly give way in a moment.

How on earth can the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) suggest to the House that instead of choosing a new landlord, the legislation means choosing a tenant or, to use his precise phrase, it means "pick a tenant"? The hon. Gentleman knows--although his right hon. and hon. Friends may not- -that the council house tenant has the right to veto his council house being sold over his head. The council house tenant can, by registering that veto, remain with the registering landlord, which will be the local authority. The hon. Gentleman knows that, and he probably suspects that the vast majority of his right hon. and hon. Friends--because they have not taken the time and trouble to read the regulations--do not. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were putting fear into the minds of tenants. If anyone is doing that, it is the hon. Member for Hammersmith and his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Winnick : It is not difficult to expose the Government's hypocrisy. Why is the right to decide that is given to council tenants not extended to private tenants? The Minister says that the regulations are all about giving choice. Does not the Minister know that many private tenants under pressure and suffering intimidation would gladly choose the local authority as their landlord?

Mr. Trippier : I have not heard such bunkum for a long time. As a result of the policies of previous Labour Governments, and of former Conservative Governments with which I personally would not have agreed, there has been such a substantial increase in the public sector housing stock that we have, I am ashamed to say, the highest percentage public housing stock in the whole of western Europe, and the lowest percentage--8 per cent.--of private rented accommodation in western Europe. The situation is so out of balance that there is no fair alternative.

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The 1988 Act is designed to encourage the development and growth of the private rented sector--not by reincarnating Rachman, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith suggests, but by expanding the housing association movement. I remind the hon. Member for Newham, North- West, that a housing association is highly likely to be the alternative landlord putting forward proposals to the tenants, rather than the kind of private landlord that he suggests. The hon. Gentleman should make it clear to his hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) that housing associations are non-profit-making bodies.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : The Minister visited my constituency and knows that it has a very large private rented sector. What does he have to say to those of my constituents in the private rented sector who want the choice he intends giving public sector tenants?

Mr. Trippier : I have never been on an official visit to the hon. Gentleman's constituency during my time as a Minister with responsibility for housing. However, I shall be only too pleased to visit it and to see whatever the hon. Gentleman wishes to show me. The matter in question has arisen on several previous occasions. Our responsibility is clearly to give public sector tenants an alternative. The private rented sector is tiny. Tenants who are dissatisfied with their private sector landlords can go to law. The changes we introduced in the 1988 Act ensure that the kind of rent previously charged in the public sector--which had a considerable effect on rents generally--can move up to being more of a market rent. The alternative available to the tenant should be fairer than in the past.

Mr. Winnick : Why does the Minister not answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and by me? It is a very simple question : if, as he claims, there is a choice for public sector tenants, why is there no choice for private tenants? However misguided they may be, why not allow them to choose whether to become local authority tenants?

Mr. Trippier : If they wish to become local authority tenants, they can exercise that right by applying to the local authority. [Interruption.] Of course they can. As a result of changes in the 1988 Act, however, a number of tenants will choose to move into the private sector. Rather than choosing to exercise the right to buy--they may not be in a position, financially, to do that--they will move into accommodation owned by housing associations. There is clear evidence of that in recent surveys by the Department of the Environment. Some 40 per cent. of tenants consulted during the Professor MacLennan study said that they were prepared to pay a higher rent for a better service from the landlord. If we are to debate these matters seriously, let us examine the facts.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme) : May I take up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher)? What about the former National Coal Board tenants in both our constituencies who have to put up with disgusting conditions now that their houses have been sold off to landlords whom they can never find, and who do not care about repairs? Can they go to the local authority and ask to be taken on?

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Mr. Trippier : Earlier today, on a regional visit to the east midlands, I met representatives of the East Midlands housing association, which, I understand, has made bids for former Coal Board properties. [Interruption] I do not think that this is a new case, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) knows a great deal about the east midlands.

Mr. Battle : That is a slur.

Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman usually casts slurs from a sedentary position. If he wishes to intervene, I shall be happy to give way.

Mr. Battle : Would the Minister kindly answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle under Lyme (Mrs. Golding) about the circumstances of people whose homes have already been sold over their heads, rather than talking about new circumstances in which negotiations are in progress with the housing association? Will he also not assume that Opposition Members know nothing about such matters?

Mr. Trippier : If the hon. Gentleman would open his ears instead of his mouth, a whole new world would be opened up to him. I was answering the question put to me by the hon. Lady. If housing associations are to bid for properties formerly owned by British Coal, it is up to them to produce an alternative better than what has been experienced by the tenants of those properties. That is what I learnt today.

Certainly tenancies that were the responsibility of British Coal may not have been handled properly ; I have no way of knowing unless I am told. What concerns me is that such properties are improved by their alternative landlords. In this case and, I understand, in many other parts of the country, the landlord will be a housing association. But I do not want to be diverted on to a specific point about British Coal properties, or the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will be the first to accuse me of ducking the pertinent questions that he asked.

Mr. Soley : The reason the Minister is falling into a trap is that he is trying to answer a separate question. The question was : what will happen to the Coal Board tenants whose houses have already been sold to bad landlords? Does he not realise that many of those landlords cannot even be traced? Does he not know that the tenants drove down in a coach, only to find that the "registered office" was an empty house? Following the "World in Action" programme about a lady who was driven out of her home by Mr. Hoogstraten, I have written to the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Housing, Environment and the Countryside. That lady is still out of her home, and all those Ministers say that nothing can be done. Where is the law to protect such people? Where is the choice of a different landlord?

Mr. Trippier : Even if what the hon. Gentleman says were true, it has absolutely nothing to do with tenants' choice, for which provision is made in section 4 of the 1988 Act. He knows that perfectly well. I am prepared to discuss that or any other matter with him or any other hon. Member, but it has nothing to do with the regulations. It is vital that I should respond to some of the questions that have been asked.

Mr. Abbott : Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Trippier : I shall give way on one more occasion. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington has already intervened, so I shall give way to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay).

Mr. McKay : The Minister is not putting his mind to the question. By one means or another, the Government intend to do away with local authority housing. We have known that for a considerable period. Should not the tenants of British Coal have, as of right, the choice to become local authority tenants because local authorities are the best landlords?

Mr Trippier : I am talking about the new regulations. We have taken as many steps as we think are necessary to provide for tenants a better alternative than the one that they have now. I maintained that the right of tenants to exercise a veto over their homes being sold to other landlords is a sufficient safeguard to ensure that our proposals are fair. In the vast majority of cases where there is a choice for tenants, I believe that they will choose a housing association rather than a private landlord. Opposition Members have been scaremongering. The Opposition are frightened of the proposals, so they have chosen to attack the publicity that the Government--more particularly, the Department of the Environment--have provided on the proposals.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) concentrated on a leaflet that we have debated at great length. We tried to debate the matter in the media, but it was overtaken by events and it was never broadcast. As a result, however, of the publication of this--a copy of which he has had because I sent it to him, although he did not mention that fact--we have made the position clear. It is more suitable for him ; it contains more pictures so he will probably be able to understand it a little better. We have coloured the pictures so that no mistake can possibly be made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith about what we are saying.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. The Minister ought to identify, for the benefit of Hansard, what it is that he referred to as "this."

Mr. Trippier : I am grateful for the chance of a commercial, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is entitled "Tenants' Choice." It is a recent Department of the Environment and Welsh Office publication. We have gone to extreme lengths to make the alternatives abundantly clear. The hon. Member for Hammersmith claimed that the effect of not voting is not made clear in our leaflet. We say :

"If the transfer happens Special arrangements apply to commercial tenants and flat-owners but otherwise if you voted yes--or did not vote at all--you will transfer to become a tenant of the alternative landlord ; if you voted no, you will stay"

a tenant of the council.

I have no doubt that from time to time the hon. Member for Hammersmith will raise this matter in future debates on housing and that he will attack the leaflet line by line and word by word and say that it is not abundantly clear. This evening he asked, "Will the Government be honest about the one- way ticket?" We have been very honest about that, too. Page 17 of the booklet deals with the question

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"Can I change my mind after the vote?"

The answer is :

"No. If the transfer goes ahead and you have either voted yes' or not cast your vote, you will not be able to stay with the existing landlord or opt to go back to it later."

I fail to see how we could make that any clearer.

Mr. Soley rose--

Mr. Trippier : Is the hon. Gentleman going to change his tack? He either wants the position made clear or he does not, surely.

Mr. Soley : If the Minister listened to what I said about the previous leaflet and put it right in the present leaflet, I am pleased. Does the present leaflet make it clear that people who chose to stay with the council will, in certain circumstances, have to pay rents set by the new landlord, or that they will have to pay all the service charges and so on? Does it make that clear?

Mr. Trippier : If the hon. Member reads his intervention in Hansard, he will realise that he has made an absolute "Horlicks" of it. He asked whether I would make it clear what would happen to tenants who stayed with the local authority--that there might be substantial increases in rents and service charges. I think that he was referring to the fact that the alternative landlord--the private sector or housing association landlord-- would then be in a position to increase rents and service charges. It would be the responsibility of the housing association, before the vote was taken, to make it clear to the tenants what the alternative actually meant to them. The alternative landlord would have to spell that out and make it abundantly clear--as anyone would have to--that it was prepared to offer a better service than the service being provided by the local authority. If the housing association could not persuade tenants that it could offer a better alternative, tenants plainly would not vote for it as an alternative landlord, so the situation simply does not arise.

Mr. Tony Banks : Suppose that a potential new landlord says, "We can offer you a better service," but does not mention rents, then gets hold of the properties and sticks the rents up 12 months later. Is the Minister saying that the new landlord will not be able to do that? Does he really believe that that situation will not arise, and will he assure us that, if it does, he will do something about it?

Mr. Trippier : On the latter point, of course we will, but the situation would not arise. Having suggested, rather stupidly, that the purpose of the legislation was to "strip out" local authorities' assets, which is palpable nonsense, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West went on to dismiss what he thought would be the Government's response to his speech, which is pretty clear : we have to approve the landlords through the Housing Corporation. [Interruption.] To be fair, the hon. Gentleman touched on that. I would not in any way undermine the power that the Housing Corporation has in that regard and its responsibility for policing the 1988 Act. The landlords have to be approved and the housing associations will certainly be regularly monitored ; they are at the moment, and that will continue. It is rather silly to suggest that tenants would vote for an alternative landlord if they did not know what the alternative rent regime would be. That would be stupid, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion stretches credulity to breaking point.

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Mr. Banks rose--

Mr. Trippier : I want to be fair to the hon. Gentleman's colleagues by trying to answer their questions.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) suggested that there was not sufficient information about the Government's proposals. I have dealt to some degree with the recent publication that we have made available. I accept entirely that much more needs to be done to increase tenants' awareness of precisely what the 1988 legislation means for them. We have made it clear time and again that we are not attacking local government in the round. But in many cases the housing stock that local authorities have to manage is so enormous that they could not possibly manage it effectively or efficiently. We believe that their tenants should have the opportunity to exercise the right to choose an alternative landlord.

As a result of the legislation, there has been a considerable degree of deathbed repentance on the part of a number of local authorities that I would consider inefficient. If I were to select examples, I might be able to carry the hon. Member for Truro with me and we would agree that a particular local authority was inefficient. Many local authorities are trying to win back the favours and affections of their tenants. As I have suggested, it is a little late. If they improve their service as a result of our introducing the legislation, it should be welcomed on all sides of the House.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : Will the Minister explain why so many local authorities in rural areas have rather little housing stock and are probably not on the Minister's list of local authorities that cannot run their affairs properly? Torbay is such an example where the Minister has turned down a request for transfer. By deathbed repentances, is he referring to the fact that in Torbay dead people were counted as having voted in favour of a transfer?

Mr. Trippier : I have yet to see any evidence that such people were counted. Although I have heard it from the hon. Member for Truro and the hon. Member for Hammersmith, I have seen absolutely no evidence that that ever occurred. In regard to the legislation, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those who have the opportunity to vote will be not only very much alive, but even if they are at sea, or even under the sea in submarines, to quote the hon. Gentleman's favourite example, it will be the responsibility of the electoral officer to ensure that they are reached. It is perfectly possible for someone serving with Her Majesty's forces abroad to be contacted in the preliminary period, through the normal British forces post office system, and that will be the responsibility of the electoral officer.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West about homelessness, there is an unmistakeable connection between the number of empty properties under local authority management in London and the number of homeless families. It shows the degree of inefficiency of housing management in local authorities such as his own, and particularly in Brent, that they have not turned round those empty properties and brought them back on to the market.

Mr. Banks : This one always comes up. I received an answer from the Under-Secretary of State for the

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Environment, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), who is not altogether dead ; indeed, I understand that he is still alive. I asked him :

"what average percentage of the total housing stock of (a) councils, (b) housing associations and (c) private landlords was vacant at the last recorded date."--[ Official Report, 13 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 664. ]

The Minister's reply was that the average vacant dwellings as a percentage of stock of local authorities was 2.4 per cent., the figure for housing associations was 2.5 per cent., and the figure for private rented dwellings was 4.1 per cent. The fact is that in the local authority areas the percentage of vacancies is lower than in any other housing sector and considerably lower than in the Government's own housing sector.

Mr. Trippier : What else does the hon. Gentleman expect? There are literally thousands of private sector landlords who have varying sizes of stock. How would the hon. Gentleman, as a constituency Member of Parliament --forgetting his party affiliation--expect to chase within his constituency individual private landlords to ensure that the private rented sector is turned round and brought on to the market? I am sure that he and I agree that it would be pretty difficult. I know that the hon. Gentleman is fair in this respect. The further difficulty the hon. Gentleman would have is persuading Newham--this is a darn sight easier problem--to improve the efficiency of the local authority and ensure that the empties are brought back on to the market and used to provide accommodation for those who are genuinely homeless.

Conservative Members are sick to death of the Opposition trying to claim that they have a monopoly of concern for the homeless--[H on. Members :- - "We do."]. They do not. It is clear that bringing the empty properties back on to the market would relieve the pressure that the homeless are putting on the local authorities. If only one Opposition Member would admit that it is a sign of inefficiency that local authorities are not bringing those empty properties back on to the market, their claim would at least be credible. They do not turn round to their local authorities and say that they are inefficient. There is one exception. He is a well-known Socialist but he is not a Member of the House. The leader of Liverpool city council, Councillor Keva Coombes, has been extremely fair recently in admitting publicly and with me in a debate on a radio programme, that Liverpool city council is inefficient in two regards. The first is in bringing empty properties back into use and the other is in not chasing effectively its rent arrears. Because someone such as that is prepared to admit that improvements can and should be made, it is beholden on Opposition Members also to admit that the performance of many Socialist- controlled local authorities is not up to scratch. Professor Maclennan did not do what the hon. Member for Hammersmith said. He confirmed that the efficiency within housing associations was eminently superior to local authorities.

Tenants' choice is a new opportunity for tenants of which the Government are proud. The Opposition did not like the Government giving tenants the right to choose to buy their own homes. They do not like us giving them the right to choose an alternative landlord. We have also built in the provision enabling tenants to stay with the local

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authority. Therefore, the Opposition find it extremely difficult to attack our proposals. I urge the House to support our measures and I commend them to the House.

11.23 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : The Minister said that he was ashamed of the total number of local authority dwellings in Britain and that he considered that there were too many. The Minister should instead be concerned about and ashamed of the acute housing crisis in Britain, about the number of families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and about the fact that only five minutes away from here many poeople, not all of whom are beggars--many are young people who have come from the north--will have to sleep in the open air by the embankment tonight. The Minister has expressed no shame or concern about that, so what kind of Housing Minister do we have? My hon. Friends have, in the main, referred to the housing crisis in London--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I have taken a relaxed view of the scope of the debate, but it is now turning into a general debate on homelessness, which cannot be permitted.

Mr. Winnick : I was referring to the Minister's replies to questions, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

If local authority tenants are to be given a choice of landlord, it is only proper that private tenants should be given the same choice. My hon. Friends referred to former tenants of British Coal, who are unaware who their present landlord is-- [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) will try to control herself--

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : I wish that

Labour-controlled authorities would fill the empty dwellings under their control.

Mr. Winnick : The hon. Lady should perhaps have asked my permission before intervening.

My hon. Friend referred to tenants being unaware who their landlords are. Why should they not be able to choose to remain with private landlords or become tenants of a local authority or housing association? The regulations will certainly give no rights to those tenants.

We are discussing only the public sector, and the Minister gave the game away when he described it as the Labour heartland. He is concerned not with housing or tenants but with party politics. He wants to undermine the public rented sector because of the long Tory vendetta against council housing.

The voting system is crooked. Anyone who abstains is regarded as voting in favour. The Minister proved tonight what we have said all along--that he is concerned not about housing, or the acute distress being caused to so many families, or the fact that people who cannot afford a mortgage and cannot obtain local authority dwellings are living in abysmal conditions, but about undermining councils and harming and penalising public sector tenants.

Mr. Soley : Given the way in which the Minister dealt with the subject, he ought to be known as the hon. Member for used car sales. He refused to answer the question about the regulations keeping properties empty during the takeover because councils will not be able to let

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them. He keeps answering questions that were not asked because he cannot answer the difficult questions. That is why he should be selling cars.

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