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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : I had not intended to comment on the speech made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) because I always found him to be a reasonable and fair member of the Committee who always had interesting things to say, but when he declared his interest as a consultant to the Association of British Chambers of Commerce--a fine organisation, in my experience, and I have no bones to pick with it--it occurred to me that there was a strong element of hypocrisy in the hon. Gentleman rising to declare his interest and to thank the Government for the concessions that they have made in that direction, while supporting the provisions in the Bill that would take civil liberties away from many people who work in local government. Can the hon. Gentleman not see that there is a direct parallel between the power that he is exercising as a Back-Bench Member of the governing party and the powers being taken away from ordinary individuals who do not seek to peddle any influence, but simply to serve their political beliefs and to serve in local government? I am sure that it was unintentional, but it was hypocritical and mirrored the stinking hypocrisy of what the Government are doing.
Mr. David Nicholson : I do not accept that point at all. Would the hon. Gentleman have preferred me not to declare my interest? In doing so, I was paying a tribute to the role played in this matter by his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).
Mr. Howarth : I was anxious not to make a direct attack on the hon. Gentleman and prefaced my remarks by saying so. I was simply saying that the hon. Gentleman has the freedom to stand up in the House of Commons and to declare an interest in the Association of British Chambers of Commerce. I respect the fact that he made such a declaration. However, he was able to do that at the same time as the House is taking democratic rights away from members or would-be members of local authorities who happen to serve in local government.
The Government seem to have got themselves in an extraordinary mess. They have not sat down rationally and said, "What are we to do about local government? What reforms are necessary? What shall we do about housing policy? What are the problems and how should we proceed?" The Government seem to indulge in policy making not by rational analysis but by the pursuit of prejudice. That prejudice permeates every part of the Bill and all that the Government have done in the past two to four years or in some cases their whole 10-year period in office. That is what I find most alarming and that is why in the long run--it is already starting--the electorate of the British people will decide that they should like something more rational than a Government who operate purely on blind prejudice instead of by serious consideration of any given set of problems. What we would have liked to see in the Bill, but which does not appear, is a systematic, logical and coherent look at the powers and functions of local government in a modern society. We would have liked consideration of all
Column 407the things that are happening in housing policy and an objective look at the housing needs of the country. But no, there was nothing of the sort. What we got instead were lurid examples from the Minister of State. I notice that he is not in his place--no doubt he has something else to do.
The basis of the provisions on twin tracking did not proceed from any great national outrage or even national concern about what was happening in local government. They proceeded because of a handful of examples of which the Minister of State painted a lurid picture and on the basis of which he then sought to justify his legislation. At no time in our Committee discussions of the relevant clauses did the Minister of State ever give any rational or thoughtful justification for what the Government were doing. It came down to the half dozen individuals in local authorities around the country who the Minister of State, or those who were winding him up, felt should be controlled by legislation. It is extraordinary that a Bill should be placed before Parliament merely because certain people--including the Minister of State--are concerned about what is happening in half a dozen places because of half a dozen people who happen to be local government officers and who happen to serve on local authorities at the same time.
The Bill does not proceed from a consideration of the real problems. It reflects the prejudice not only of the Under-Secretary of State and the Minister of State, but of those other members of the Government who are more vocal and who paint an even more lurid picture than those Ministers do.
I want to speak mainly about the provisions relating to housing. I sat through three and a half months of deliberations on the Housing Act 1988 as it passed through the House and came back from the House of Lords. I recall rising on Third Reading to say that the then Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), knew--as did his civil servants and the Secretary of State--that the Bill was irrelevant and would make no difference to any of our housing problems. I spoke again last week on a clause which made exactly the same point about this Bill. The 1988 Act has made no difference whatever to our housing problems. The Ministers know, as their Back Benchers, civil servants and all the experts know, that that Act has been a complete and utter flop. So what did the Government do? Having once legislated on the subject, instead of saying, "Perhaps we got that a bit wrong and should now look at it this way", they are piling on more legislation which is even more defective and which is adding to the problems created by their previous legislation. I hesitate to think where we shall end up. Bad legislation will probably be added to and added to again until ultimately we have a morass of appalling housing legislation.
What does this legislation actually do about the country's housing problems? Over the past 10 years the amount of investment in our housing stock, irrespective of tenure, has reached record low proportions. I grant that the Government have made some alterations in the way in which improvement grants are to be administered and that they have marginally improved the way in which the capital allocations to local authorities are to be
Column 408administered. I hope that my constituents will see some benefit from that because I am obviously concerned that there should be some benefit for areas such as Merseyside.
There is no strategy, no framework and no logical approach in the Bill to putting right the major problems of our aged housing, such as the problems that have been stored up because of the system-built techniques of the past. We have major problems of disrepair in our local authority stock because of historical difficulties over repairs, which were largely if not completely to do with resources. The Bill does nothing about the disrepair problem nor about the straitjacket of tenures which is almost unique in Europe and is not to the benefit of those in housing need.
The financial provisions which are supposed to help people are so unequal that tenants get stuck in a tenure type. Any pretence that there is choice in the system goes out of the window. The Government cry freedom, but choice in housing is circumscribed. There is no equality between tenures, nor even within a tenure type. Housing finance should have been reformed. Instead of going along that road, the Government are placing even greater penalties on council tenants. The inevitable consequence will be rent increases because the Government have to make part IV of the 1988 Act work. To do that they have to make council housing ever more unpopular. Unfortunately, that is what it is all about. They have made a mistake and now they have to make somebody pay for it.
What does the legislation do about providing for the homeless? The answer is that it does nothing. We can walk through any major city, not least the capital, any night of the week and see the appalling spectacle of young people sleeping in cardboard boxes under railway arches. Yet we are almost at the end of the 20th century, not in Victorian or Dickensian times.
Mr. Howarth : I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have strayed, but I think that I have made the point effectively. The Government have got themselves into a mess on housing. They have offered no solutions to the real problems. They have merely piled predjudice on existing prejudice. The Bill is cheap, shoddy and useless.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : I welcome the Bill. Having listened to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) one would think that everything was fine in the garden and that there was no need for legislation on the conduct of local authorities. Part I of the Bill has already had quite an effect on some local authorities in regard to representation on committees.
Column 409The hon. Member for Normanton told us that basically the Bill said that anything that local government did was wrong and anything that the Secretary of State did was right. If that were the case, we would have needed only a one-clause Bill. In fact, we have a Bill with 164 clauses. We believe in local authorities and in the structure of local government. We want local government to operate fairly under the law.
Some local authorities are deliberately excluding opposition parties from committees. That cannot be justified by anyone, and no one should attempt to justify it, whether it be a Tory or a Labour authority. I want reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister on clause 15 and the duty of a local authority to allocate seats to political groups.
My hon. Friend may not know that since the county council election in May, Derbyshire county council still refuses to allow any Conservatives to sit on the police authority. I want an assurance from my hon. Friend that when the Bill becomes effective that will not be possible. A Labour-controlled county council should not be able to say that no Conservatives will serve on a police authority. That assurance is important for my constituents and for the people of Derbyshire.
Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak) : I wish strongly to support what my hon. Friend says. It is a disgrace that a police authority does not represent all political parties and all the people. That is the function of the authority.
Mr. O'Brien : In view of the comment by the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins), will the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) confirm that the views of Tories and other parties can be represented through magistrates who serve on those committees as co-opted members?
Mr. McLoughlin : I am amazed by that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to justify that there should be no elected representatives of minority groups on a police authority. That is absolutely disgraceful. We are talking about elected members of a county council. The intervention by the hon. Member for Normanton portrays the attitude of the official Opposition. He tells us that the Opposition believe in the role of local government. Yet they are justifying the refusal of a local authority to allow minority group representation on a particular committee. I am amazed because I would have thought that there was common ground on that. Obviously there is not. I thought that it was a minor, uncontroversial point, but clearly it is not. Therefore, I am glad that I made it and I hope that I get reassurance later from my hon. Friend.
I also seek reassurance on schedule 1, page 147, line 29, which refers to national parks committees. Derbyshire county council appoints eight people to the Peak Park national planning board. Only one is a Conservative. I want an assurance that there will be greater sharing of the representation.
Column 410appointed by the county council, only one lives in the area of the national park? I do not think that that is a good way of having local representation on the planning board. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me of any other planning authority in the country where a person can serve on the planning authority without being a resident in the area that is covered by that authority?
Mr. Hawkins rose--
Mr. Hawkins : Again I wish strongly to support my hon. Friend. He has brought up a most important point that I have raised in the House several times. There are a number of national parks where there are very few residents. It is right that a national park is seen as a national asset and that people from outside the area of the park should be on the planning authority. The Peak district national park has a very large population, and it is the planning authority controlling people's day-to-day lives. It is the major planning authority in many areas of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin). It is greatly resented that there are so few local representatives on that board.
Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) explained his position on the representation on the board. We both share national park areas and we both know how important this issue is to our areas. I hope that when the Bill becomes an Act it will not be possible for such a small minority representation to be given to opposition parties, and that there will be a fairer distribution.
I do not disagree with everything that the Labour party is saying about local government. This is one area in which I would depart from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), because I agree with the Labour party about something that it has announced in one of its policy documents. The Labour party did quite well in the county council elections in May. The Labour party is so horrified about the antics which its councils get up to in local government that, understandably, it wants to abolish the county councils. I agree with it on that.
Mr. David Nicholson : I believe that what inspires those Opposition parties, who are hostile to county councils--I believe it is also true of the Liberals or whatever they call themselves--is that they would like to establish a structure of regional government. Will my hon. Friend tell me from which regional capital he would like his constituency to be governed?
Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend tries to send me down an avenue which, I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, will cause you to call me to order. I do not support the setting up of regional councils, but I would like to see devolvement down to district councils. I believe that district councils are far better and far more accountable to their local areas.
A number of points in part I of the Bill should really have received the almost total support of the House. It is with great regret I say that that they have not. I believe that the structure of local government, and local government operating under certain guidelines, is important for the future of local government. We do not need any lectures about the future of local government and its importance. I go along with the future, the structure and the importance of local government. I do not go along, however, with its abuse.
I was surprised when the hon. Member for Normanton rejected my idea that councils should sit in the evenings. He said that, if councils met in the evenings, the chief officers would not be at their desks the next day, because they would have to take time off in lieu. However, if the councils meet in the day time, those same chief officers will be away from their desks and not available to the public. Some district councils already meet in the evenings and some meet in the mornings. I do not see any difference in the kind of service that they provide to the public. More district councils and county councils meeting in the evenings would mean that many people could stand for local government election who are currently barred from doing so. It is a great shame that there is not a clause in the Bill which positively encourages that to happen.
I warmly welcome the Bill and hope that it gets a Third Reading. 8.33 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : The Bill is entitled "Local Government and Housing Bill", but our debate on housing, as happened the last time round when we discussed what became the Housing Act 1988, has become marginalised and buried in the rest of the detail of the Bill. After embarking on the major debate on housing last week, we were interrupted by, admittedly, an important debate on dog registration. Just before that debate on dog registration, however, there was a brief debate on shared ownership in rural areas. I believe that the Secretary of State's comments then reveal how out of touch and far off the ground he really is. The Secretary of State was keen to emphasise the principle of shared housing. He said : "we should allow shared ownership housing in certain rural areas to be retained as low-cost housing for future generations of local people." --[ Official Report, 14 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 1032-33.] He also agreed that we need a way to retain shared ownership housing as low-cost housing once the beneficiary has moved on. In the Secretary of State's efforts to persuade us that the Government were making arrangements for the passing on of low-cost housing, he produced a sheet of sample calculations which he said would show a typical case. The only problem was that, in real terms, the typical case that he presented was based on a house price exchange value of £174,900, which can hardly be described as a low- cost house. Under that scheme, the new resident's 40 per cent. share would be at least £69,960. The Secretary of State has a fundamental problem. Committed as he is to market values, it is not easy to square basing everything on market
Column 412values with subsidising and supporting low- cost initiatives. There is an essential conflict between the market and, as at last the Secretary of State is beginning to acknowledge--under pressure from his Back Benchers in rural areas--the need to treat rural housing as a social policy in Britain. People need decent homes in which to live at prices that they can afford. I believe that that comment was echoed by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). It showed that the Secretary of State has no concept of how to square a theory of the free market with the need of people for housing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) said that here is another Housing Bill--for example, parts V, VI, VII and VIII and 59 clauses--that does not address the issues of homelessness, the absolute shortage of housing for families, house price inflation, and people's problems in having paying their mortgages. It does not improve the chances of people renting a council house, if they are not already in one, but rather it intends to ring-fence. The Minister said that that would strengthen local authority housing. The word "strengthen" should be replaced by the words "squeeze and strangle", because that will be the reality. We can see how that ring-fence account will, as we spelt out last week, include some housing benefit--the rebate payments too--and, that therefore, some of the poorer tenants will have to pay the rent of the poorest through the housing benefit system. Council rents will be forced up and people will be priced out of the right to rent. They will then have to move out of the expensive council housing and into the private deregulated sector in which the landlords have far more power as a result of the 1988 Act to gain repossession and then put up the rents to what the Secretary of State has referred to throughout as "market levels". In the middle of the debate last week the Secretary of State had the effrontery to make under clause 71 a major statement. He introduced his capital value rents formula, which will again force up rents. He did not grant us the courtesy of a proper statement at the Dispatch Box and at the proper time ; he tagged it on to his comments in response to clause 71. His message to council tenants was "Buy or get out, because you will not be able to afford to rent." The only option will be to move into the private rented sector. The Government have been exposed in their attempt to deny people the right to rent. People will not be allowed to rent ; they will be priced out by the market. It may come as a surprise to Conservative Members that some people choose to live in council housing. Every week, people visit Opposition Members in an effort to move into council housing. Some of us remember council housing as a dream means of getting out of the appalling and highly priced private rented sector of the past into a decent and affordable home with an inside lavatory and bathroom.
Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South) : It is not often that I have any kind words to say about my Labour-controlled Nottingham city council housing department, but in all fairness to it I must ask whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that a well-run local authority housing department, where there is proper and reasonable maintenance and all the other things that the hon. Gentleman would seek, with a housing revenue account that is in balance, not subsidised, like Nottingham's will be forced falsely and unnecessarily to raise its rents as a result of the Bill. The inquiries and the assurances that I have received show that that will not be the case and that the
Column 413formula exists only for those councils who, in some way or another, are trying to draw in subsidy in order to charge falsely low rents. Rents in Nottingham do not require that subsidy, so the council will not be forced unreasonably to raise its rents.
Mr. Battle : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. What he says is a remarkable contrast to those Conservative Members whom I have heard refer to council housing as evil empires. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about Nottingham. He is willing to acknowledge and boast about the situation there. However, I advise him to re-read the Secretary of State's statement because he is introducing capital value rents. Four years ago the Secretary of State said that every council rent in Britain should be at least £35 a week. He has now produced a formula which will nudge rents in that direction.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : The hon. Gentleman should have listened more carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon- Bravo). It is clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was talking about a formula to be used in calculating the new housing subsidy which will play a major part in balancing the equation with regard to the ring-fencing of the housing revenue account. In the specific circumstance referred to by my hon. Friend, it is highly likely that rents will remain exactly the same. It is even possible that in his authority, or in some others, they will fall. Surely the hon. Gentleman will not use the scaremongering tactics that we are so used to from the Labour party to suggest that rents will increase substantially. He will look pretty stupid if the rent demands that go to tenants do not substantiate that suggestion.
Mr. Battle : In time the truth will out. We have heard the same on property price values, mortgages and private sector rents. The same arguments were put forward for the Housing Act 1988. It was said that private sector rents would not go up, but they are doing so‡. The Minister's colleagues in the Department of Social Security know that and they are watching them with interest.
The Minister may be able to stand at the Dispatch Box now and pledge that rents will not necessarily go up. We shall have to wait to see what happens, but since the Secretary of State said that he would base rents on capital values, what other option is there when the average value of property is rising? Conservative Members want to finish off council housing. That is the real agenda. The Secretary of State is on record as saying that councillors should not manage local authority housing.
We should reflect on the roots of council housing. Where did it come from in the first instance? My city of Leeds had the highest number of back-to- back houses--172,000. There were unique reasons for that, not least that the fields were sold off in strips for house building and houses were built along the river. The blocks were then connected and the midden block with the toilet facilities was connected to the drains of the local inns and pubs round about. In other words, corners were cut on sanitation. The result was typhoid and tuberculosis.
Then we had public health legislation which suggested that there should be public housing to give people space, light and sanitation. That was the real history of public housing. The private landlords failed to deliver and everybody suffered. What surprised the councillors--they
Column 414were not loony Left councillors at the turn of the century--was that the tuberculosis germs did not observe the city boundaries and remain in the poorer areas downtown, but rather moved up the hill on the wind. At that point they decided to introduce legislation to build council housing.
The Government are seeking to price out the public housing sector and send the tenants back to the landlords, weakening conditions and tenants' protections against eviction and repossession. We are entitled to ask why they are so determined to re-run history. Why are they so determined to put the clock back?
The Government have promised a major amendment on standards in the other place. We could not debate that amendment on Report, but a 10-point habitation standard was spelt out. Before the Minister tells us that we were asking for gold taps and the rest, let me say that housing standards were set in the 1930s and we need new standards now to take us into the next century.
The 1986 English house condition survey showed that there has been little improvement in disrepair in recent years. At best the situation is static. There are still well over 1 million unfit houses and houses in a serious state of disrepair. Our housing stock, whether private or public, should not be allowed to deteriorate. The Minister might do worse than to look at a report published by the Royal Institute of British Architects which says that the Government's drive to get value for money and to achieve private sector funding
"totally disregards achieving the required standard cost in use or long- term maintenance The increase in the number of households has not met with a corresponding increase in house-building. An ever-increasing number of people are being forced into poorly-built or badly-converted accommodation."
We have a long way to go on home improvements before the Government adopt a system of standards. The standards that we set out in the other place should be welcomed and would go some way to tackling the backlog. It remains to be seen whether the Government are committed to improving housing or whether this is simply another tag on to a local government Bill.
The Government may be having second thoughts on the National Health Service, the poll tax and the water proposals. I urge the Government to think again on these proposals in the Local Government and Housing Bill. Some of us remember that in 1983 the Tory party's election manifesto said :
"Our goal is to make Britain the best housed nation in Europe." That rings hollow now, not only in the light of the Government's significant failure in Europe but their failure towards the nation's housing, witnessed by the hundreds of thousands of people in Britain who are homeless or likely to be homeless because they currently live in overcrowded conditions with no hope for the future.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : I want to make a few brief remarks about a subject which was debated in this House last week, and which I think received as much if not more publicity than anything else that has been debated on this Bill and on which I believe the Government intend to introduce further amendments later on in another place--that is the subject of dogs.
For a long time I have favoured a registration scheme, but no longer.
That is the text to which I refer.
One of the paid offices that would most merit being made by local authorities would be that of a dog warden. Any dog warden so appointed should be appointed on the basis of merit.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to amuse us with a very lively speech, but I am serious in suggesting to him that other right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak to the Bill, and he must do likewise.
Mr. Marlow : I hear what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker. Briefly, I believe that my right hon. Friend is quite right in seeking to bring forward amendments at a later stage in another place, which he suggested the other day. There has been a lot of talk about registration on this subject, and I believe that the powers that my right hon. Friend is going to give to local government with regard to this particular nuisance will solve the problem that we are all seeking to solve. I believe that that is the right way to proceed. It gives powers to local people to insist that those powers are used, and it will at a later stage enable the country to be rid of a great nuisance which has been afflicting us and affecting us for a great deal of time. I believe that on this issue my right hon. Friend has got it right.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I shall come straight to the point. I do not like the Bill. It is like the Secretary of State--brutal, graceless, and almost a complete waste of space. Typical of its kind, it is yet one further turn of the screw in what appears to my right hon. and hon. Friends and me to be the liquidation of local democracy and accountability.
The Bill is also an unholy mess. Any right hon. or hon. Member who sat through the Committee or Report stage will realise just how much of a mess it is. It is the legislative equivalent of a blunderbuss. The only coherence that seems to run through its clauses is one of unalloyed nastiness to local councillors, councils and council tenants. In its generality, the Bill will deprive tens of thousands of council officers of their civic rights. I suspect that that provision will be tested elsewhere, in the European Court of Human Rights. The Bill will also deprive a significant number of councillors of their ability either to earn a living or to remain councillors. It seeks to extend further into the
Column 416day-to-day running of local authorities the choking embrace of centralisation, giving ever more powers to the Secretary of State and the faceless grey gnomes of Marsham street.
I am still waiting for a clue from the Minister as to the political activities that will be off limits to council officers earning more than £13,500 per year. We do not even know how that figure will be calculated, and whether it will include allowances, bonuses or overtime.
The ban on political activities takes no heed of the work that council officers do in giving advice to elected councillors and to the public, and decisions about those activities will be left to the adjudication officer, who will have to exercise the judgment of Solomon. The House is entitled at least to a clue as to the matters that the adjudication officer will take into account when deciding whether or not a council officer's work places him in the category of being a political eunuch.
It is typical of the Government to set a cash limit--democracy with a price tag of £13,500 or more. It is typical of a Government of free market spivs to understand much about money but nothing about values.
The Government say that they are taking this action with the backing of Conservative Members to end so-called abuses in local government, but their evidence is anecdotal. Even Widdicombe, after all the inquiries, could not come up with hard evidence of political abuse in respect of appointments. Much of the anecdotal evidence that Ministers trot out is largely culled from the pages of Right-wing tabloids written by grubby and mendacious hacks.
One appreciates how hypocritical the Bill is, coming as it does from a Government who cannot refrain from abusing power. I refer, for example, to political appointments to public bodies, which are full of Tory stooges these days. The great and the good have been replaced by the stooge, the hack and the lickspittle--all of whom subscribe to Tory values. Such people pack every body to which Ministers have the power to make appointments.
The phrase used by the Government is "Jobs for the boys in local government." Perhaps you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will pardon that sexist phrase. Perhaps it does not bother you, but it does bother me. Such an accusation defies logic. In terms of giving jobs to the boys, local government is like a bunch of political virgins by comparison with this Government of sybarites. When it comes to jobs for the boys and political abuse, no one can teach the Government anything. Nothing in local government remotely approaches the level of political abuse that the present Government practise in public life. The Government demand a whistle -blower in the town hall. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House--many Conservative Members have served in local government--agree that our local government system is remarkably free of corruption by comparison with those of other countries, and by comparison even with our own Civil Service. Yet there are to be no statutory whistle- blowers in Whitehall, where there would be a considerable amount of work for them to do--in respect of everything from the overpricing of Ministry of Defence
Column 417contracts to the Property Services Agency and the out and out corruption of the common agricultural policy. The hypocrisy of the Bill is of staggering proportions.
Ministers speak of the need for impartiality in council officers, but that comes from a Government who have done more than any other in living memory to politicise the Civil Service--to the point where the Government's own information officers protest about the way in which they are used to do party political dirty work on the instructions of Ministers and of No. 10 Downing street. One need only think of Bernard Ingham. Who would retain him once the present Government have gone? My right hon. Friend the next Prime Minister would be mad to retain Mr. Ingham, who has been behaving like a deputy Prime Minister for so long. In view of the things that information officers were getting up to over the Westland letter, how can Conservative Members talk of the abuse of political power in the town halls? How can they talk like that when we can point to their own terrible record? Conservative Members have mentioned ratepayers' money being used for council newsletters and publicity campaigns. That is a bit much, coming from a Government who spend some £150 million a year of taxpayers' money on politically motivated, party-politically inspired campaigns under the guise of public information.
Finally, let me deal with the aspect of the Bill which will directly affect my people in Newham, especially council tenants. The combining of the rate fund subsidy, rate rebate subsidy and Housing Act 1980 subsidy places that single subsidy wholly within the control of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has tried to argue that the inconsistency between the rents of one authority and those of another was an overwhelming argument for them to be evened out. Despite what the Minister has said, we know what will happen. The level will rise rather than fall. I shall be the first to apologise to the Minister if that does not happen, but history points to rents going up rather than down.
There is a simple reason why one local authority should have lower rents than another. Some authorities, at the instigation of their residents, decided to build houses for rent at an early stage. That was a wise investment decision. They did not know that the Secretary of State would come along and expropriate, without compensation, their prudently acquired capital assets. I should like to see what Conservative Members would say if a Labour Government decided to expropriate private resources and assets without compensation. Indeed, I should very much like to see a Labour Government do precisely that.
Public housing was first built and let out for rent to supply a need that could not be met in the market place. Even in Victorian times, homes were needed for the working-class families of those who drove the trains,
Column 418worked the docks and built the sewers ; yet London then, as now, was a high-demand area, so the philanthropists of that age built housing for low rents. Now nurses, cleaners, social workers and teachers cannot afford to buy property in London, and it seems that soon they will not be able to rent it either, because they will always be squeezed out of the market by richer people.
What has become of the Government's economic policy? Countless people are attracted to London by the prospect of work, thus creating a high-demand area, but those are the people least able to afford the higher rents or house prices produced by the Government's proposal to allow rents to reflect house prices--for that is what this proposal amounts to.
Council housing was meant to step in and break the force of the market--to ensure that people were allocated homes according to need rather than ability to pay. That was one of its essential objectives--to ensure that poverty in housing was not passed from one generation to another, and that the poverty of the parents did not mean that the children had to live in squalor, in overcrowded conditions without basic amenities. With this one proposal the Government are twisting the original pure aims of council housing--to house those in greatest need--into a grotesque reflection of that grotesque animal, the house purchase market. No one who has watched with horror the spiralling prices of the past two years--up to August last year, when it became less and less possible for anyone on a modest income to buy the smallest broom cupboard--which displaced people in the cheaper areas such as Newham could possibly wish this to happen to council rents.
The movement of rents towards capital values has an even more dangerous impact on areas such as my borough of Newham, where incomes are lower than the average. Housing benefit is received by 67 per cent. of council tenants in Newham, and 60 per cent. of those tenants are on full income support. The people of Newham suffered significant losses as a result of the changes in the social security regime in April 1988. There were 7,800 transitional payments and, as we all know, only certain categories were entitled to receive transitional protection.
The proposal to move rents towards the market place takes no account of the poverty trap being created and deepened by the significant increase in rents that is likely to ensue. It presupposes that tenants in high-demand areas are likely to be in work, with the benefit of wage increases. What about people on fixed occupational pensions? What about single parents dependent on a mixture of maintenance and low-paid work? What about the unemployed who want to take a job--any job--but find that they are worse off because rents are so high and wages so low? They might be willing themselves to take the risk of being worse off for a time, but can they risk that for their families?
Rent arrears are related purely to poverty and to the level of rents. Despite what we are told about local authorities not collecting their rents, in 1987-88 Newham collected more than 100 per cent. of its rent roll. Rent arrears dropped in that year by 5.6 per cent., but following the massive drop in incomes and the increase in rents that was forced through by the Government, rent arrears inevitably increased in Newham, as elsewhere in the country. In Newham the increase was 30 per cent. It is to the credit of the people of Newham that the increase in rent arrears--from 5.6 per cent. to 30 per cent.--was not