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Column 419far worse, because the level of poverty to which the people of Newham have been reduced by the benefit changes is absolutely appalling.
Council housing had an honourable beginning. Among the Victorian philanthropists Octavia Hill was a person whom we might have expected the Victorian moralists of today to admire. It is sad to see that council housing has come to a sordid end, mauled by lesser men who do not understand what they are doing. If they did, their sins would be unforgivable.
The Bill is petty and mean minded. It has been put together by a megalomaniac whose only concern seems to be control of local government, without regard to individual merits or faults. I ask my local government colleagues to hang on. In two years' time they will be free from the clutches of this vicious, nasty, mean-minded Government because a Labour Government will set local government and local democracy free. I look forward to the day when I shall greet them from the Government Benches where I shall hold a place of honour, although unfortunately I shall probably still be at the back. 9.6 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : I should like to comment on what was said by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) towards the end of his speech. It contained few facts and it is a great pity that he grievously misquoted a great figure. Miss Octavia Hill opposed the building of council houses. She said that London county council was wrong to build council housing--that there were other ways of providing housing for people. She believed that housing associations ought to do it. If the hon. Gentleman had ever bothered to read her very interesting and important writings, or the biography written by her nephew, he would know that she said that the classic mistake was to mix up the collection of rents and the collection of votes. It is an outrage that the hon Gentleman has had the cheek to misrepresent that great lady.
My experience in local government, and of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, has led me to believe that the Labour party collectively does not understand that there is an important difference between councillors and officers of the council. The Labour party has sought to smudge the dividing line in all the amendments that they have tabled and in all the arguments that they have used. The Opposition have proved beyond any shadow of doubt that it is they who have poisoned the well and made it necessary for the Government to introduce this measure.
It is not surprising that some of the clauses in a 164-clause Bill have not been discussed. As far as I can remember, clause 145, which came out of Committee as clause 155, has not been discussed at all. That is the clause which relates to race relations and the code of practice.
I congratulate the Government on producing clause 155 which will do so much to widen the scope of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Department of
Column 420the Environment in laying down codes of practice. I apologise if some hon. Members have heard my arguments before but I think that they bear repeating, particularly in the light of some of the remarks in the Chamber during the early hours of this morning.
I do not believe that we know the size of the problem of racial abuse. Some tenants who face harassment report it only when it gets out of hand. Clause 155 will enable a much clearer picture to be produced. The report published last year by the Commission for Racial Equality, entitled "Living in Terror", states that it is not enough to have a vague notion of certain estates where harassment is a problem. When a code of practice has been produced, authorities will need to focus more clearly on the estates where it is happening and ascertain clearly when and where incidents occur. Local authorities should work out a plan of action. They should talk to their tenants, find out where the abuse is coming from and why it happens and decide what to do about it.
I will quote the London borough of Newham, which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West knows much more about and which has been mentioned several times in connection with these matters. Every hour there is an abuse of a black household, and one in four black residents in Newham faces abuse over a 12-month period.
Abuse is not restricted to inner London or to the London borough of Newham. Far too many cases of racial abuse in the London borough of Harrow are reported to me. The problem needs to be tackled, and I am genuinely delighted that the Government have produced clause 155, which will enable them to go further than they could last year. Last year, during the passage of the Housing Bill--now the Housing Act 1988--the Government wanted to go further but were restricted by the long title of the Bill. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), who was then the housing Minister, said in Committee : "I am signalling that the Government are considering the possibility-- positively, we shall want to cover all housing I give a commitment today to put the CRE in a position to produce a code with all the implications referred to by my hon. Friend."-- [Official Report, Standing Committee G, 15 March 1988 ; c. 1626.]
The Minister was referring to me. I am very grateful to the Government for sticking to their word.
I recognise that it is not easy to put together a code of practice that will work. It is not easy to find out the source of the serious racial abuse to which I have alluded. It is not easy to work out the best solution. Now we have started a process whereby we can start looking seriously at these things and make sure that we do something to help the many black and Asian people who suffer abuse daily on housing estates, in private housing and in owner-occupied property. Secondly, I wish to discuss the housing revenue changes which seek to prevent councils using ratepayers' or community charge payers' money to underwrite rent arrears or to subsidise artificially low rents. The Labour party has suggested that we are overrating the problem and that it is not happening. I should like to prove that the Bill is necessary and that something has to be done by alluding to what was said by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) in the Standing Committee considering the Local Government and Housing Bill.
"In the cities it is just not Labour councils that make rate fund contributions"--
Column 421"Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Harrow, Barnet"--[ Official Report, Standing Committtee G, 18 April 1989 ; c. 936.]
The hon. Gentleman was challenged about this, but stuck to his guns.
Let us look at the facts behind the hon. Gentleman's allegations. He said that Kensington and Chelsea makes a rate fund contribution. That is not true. Figures produced by the Department of the Environment show a blank in this area ; that council makes no rate fund contribution.
The hon. Gentleman sought to put Barnet and Harrow in the same league as Labour councils, which I shall mention in a moment. In Committee, the hon. Gentleman was told that Barnet made a £20,000 rate fund contribution. What we did not know at the time was that Harrow's contribution was much bigger--£24,000, hardly a significant sum.
I want to talk about councils which are milking the system--councils in London which are misusing their power in two ways. Let us examine some examples of the budgeted rate fund contributions to the housing revenue account in 1989-90. Camden contributed £39 million, Hackney, £27 million, Islington, £46 million, Lambeth, £32 million, Southwark, £23 million and SLD-controlled Tower Hamlets, £24 million. Brent council contributed £9 million.
Alongside some of these rate fund contributions goes the inability, in some cases, to collect rate arrears. Southwark is the winner in this league, with arrears of £19 million. How can these people say that they seek to make a genuine contribution to good housing in their areas when they run their housing revenue account so badly and milk the ratepayers for a problem that does no good for the provision of decent housing?
In the context of the combination of the housing parts of the Bill with those which implement the Widdicombe report, it is interesting to consider the case of the vice-chairman of Lambeth's housing committee, Miss Josie Byrne. In her case, what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West describes as the gutter press has done a good job. On 8 June she was reported as owing £2,000 in rent arrears, having claimed £20,000 in expenses as a councillor during that year. Magically, within days of the report, she discovered that she could repay those arrears. The Today newspaper did a good job in exposing this classic example of the Labour party's misuse of its position to run council housing empires which can be described--I have done so before--as evil.
The Bill will ensure that every council concentrates on running council housing well and on making a contribution to good housing, so that housing will not be merely a political toy of the Labour party. I welcome the Bill.
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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : I agree with the first part of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes). He deplored racial abuse and attacks. I and all my right hon. and hon. Friends agree with that. The sort of poisonous rubbish that was heard in an outburst last night from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) disappointed a number of Conservative Members--I do not know whether a majority--and outrages all Opposition Members. We on the Labour Benches are wholly opposed to racism in all its
manifestations. Whether that stance is electorally popular at any given moment makes no difference. We have made our principles clear and we shall stand by them all our lives, in the House and outside it.
This is in essence a thoroughly bad Bill which again shows the malice which the Government feel towards large sections of the community, such as council tenants. One of the Bill's main purposes is greatly to increase council rents. That is the purpose behind the ring-fencing of the housing revenue account. The Secretary of State's statement last week again showed how right we were when we talked of large rent increases to come. They will not come all at once. They will come over a period, but there will be substantial rent increases because the objective of the Government so far as possible is to bring council rents to the level of market rents in the privately rented sector.
Another aim of the Bill is substantially to reduce the existing public sector, which has been reduced substantially already. Normally when we say that Conservative Members laugh and say that that is not their aim. I remind the House of what the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, when responding to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) :
"First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has advised such people that they should have exercised the right to buy and that they can still do so, thereby avoiding the trap of paying rent for a lifetime and ending up owning nothing".--[ Official Report, 14 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c. 175.]
In other words, the right hon. Gentleman wants a substantial reduction in council dwellings and no replacement by new building. In my borough there has been no new council house building for 10 years, and the same applies to most parts of the country.
Council tenants are to be punished because they wish to remain in that position. The Government say in effect to them, "If you do not like what we are doing, and if you do not like substantial rent increases, the remedy is in your hands. Buy the dwelling." Labour Members say that there will always remain a need for a sizeable public rented sector. There will always be a large number of people--a minority, but a large number nevertheless--who will not be in a position to buy their dwellings, and they have every right to decent accommodation. That can come only from the public sector and genuine housing associations.
Another aspect of the Bill which we find offensive is the part of the ring- fencing of the housing revenue accounts which is designed to ensure that housing benefits, rebates, for poorer council tenants come from the higher rents of other council tenants. The poorer elements will subsidise the even poorer ones, and that is totally offensive to us. The relief of poverty should come of course from central Government. Why should some council tenants pay much higher rents to ensure that those who are less well off are assisted by those higher rents?
Column 423The Government refuse to recognise that there remains an acute housing shortage. If it is said that that is only propaganda on the part of Labour Members, consider what was said on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), who also spoke today. He said :
"Last Saturday, half my surgery cases had come to me because of housing problems. That was the highest proportion I had encountered in my 18 months as a Member of Parliament. I am finding that it is increasingly difficult to accommodate the housing needs of my constituents--for example, young people, perhaps with a baby, who are living with their parents." [Official Report, 14 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c. 220.]
I think I see the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) nodding in agreement with that sentiment. At my surgeries, on the first and last Saturdays each month, the majority of my constituents who come to see me do so over housing problems. The majority of letters that I receive from my constituents are about housing matters. That shows that this is not Labour propaganda or mischief-making. As I said, many people are desperately in need of housing, but as a result of Government policy, with no new council houses being built, we are witnessing a substantial decrease in the public rented sector. Our fellow citizens in acute housing need are being penalised. That is why we are so opposed to the Government's housing policy. We make no apology for the fact that we believe that we have a duty and responsibility to voice the concern and anger of our constituents with housing difficulties who, as I have said at other times, have as much right to decent accommodation as any hon. Member. If they cannot buy a home because they are on small incomes, why should they be unable to obtain adequate rented accommodation? Why should they be punished?
I am also totally opposed to discrimination against those people employed in local government who, because they earn £13,500 or more, will no longer have the right to be elected to another local authority. That undermines civil liberties. I accept that there can be abuse from time to time ; there is no aspect of life, I suppose, in which abuse does not sometimes occur. However, that is no reason why everyone who falls into that earnings bracket should be penalised. I do not wish to defend the indefensible, and if abuse occurs on either side it is wrong. However, I do not want to take away people's democratic rights. As I said only last week, one of the main functions of the House is to defend people's civil liberties. From time to time Conservative Members make remarks about civil liberties. However, I doubt whether a single Tory Member will tonight rebel against the taking away of the democratic rights of large numbers of people. Perhaps it is wrong to suggest that this would happen to large numbers of people, but the figure does not matter. The important point is that they will no longer be entitled to exercise their democratic right because they happen to work in local government. That is basically wrong. This policy change comes from a Government who have given jobs to all their sympathisers and supporters up and down the country. In the past 10 years, people have been appointed merely because they are members of the Conservative party or closely connected with it.
The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup--I am sure that Government Members know to whom I am referring--recently said that the way in which the
Column 424Government conducts their press office is corrupt. How right he is. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West referred to the role of Mr. Ingham. I doubt whether there has ever been a Government chief press officer who has so abused his position, and with the direct encouragement of the Prime Minister.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : The House is often given the impression that the only twin tracking which this Bill seeks to eliminate is the kind of outrageous abuse seen in some London boroughs and, occasionally, in Liverpool and one or two other places, but I believe that the abuse is more widespread. In the last county council elections two employees of Nottingham city council were successful. I wish them good luck in their Labour seats on the county council. Will the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) comment on the fact that the Labour city council has given consent not just for normal leave to attend to their duties at county hall, but has said that they can have as much time off as they like to carry out whatever length of duties on however many committees of the county council? That permission was granted on the ground that the city would be proud for them to do so. Surely that cannot possibly be right.
Mr. Martlew : I was a county councillor for 15 years and I was given as much time off as I liked to carry out my duties, which included two years as chairman of the county council. I worked for a company in the private sector.
Mr. Winnick : My hon. Friend's intervention effectively answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo). My hon. Friend also implied that those in the public sector should not be given worse treatment than those in the private sector. Even if the hon. Member for Nottingham, South were right, there is no reason to take away everyone else's political rights because of alleged abuse. There is no justification for that. The Bill helps to explain the deep feeling of revulsion that was demonstrated in last Thursday's vote. Many people believe that the Government have abused their office and that they are completely out of touch with the lives of millions of ordinary people and with the matters that affect them--council rents, the poll tax and many other measures. If Conservative Members do not understand that deep feeling of revulsion, which has brought about such great Labour success in the European elections, I suggest that they study the Bill and much of the other legislation passed in recent years, because it explains only too well why people have come to the conclusion that enough is enough.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : I was somewhat surprised when the Minister said that one of the main objectives of the Bill was to strengthen local government. He used that phrase several times. Either he does not understand what "strength" means because he has the wrong dictionary, or he is taking too much note of the current political advisers at the Department of the Environment. The Government are pushing through legislation which curtails the activities of local government and local government employees, but they are doing the opposite with their own Departments.
Column 425More political appointees are working in Government Departments than ever before, dealing with matters such as water privatisation and the regulations that will result from the Bill. No other Government have done this to such as extent. We all know the amount of money that the Government are spending on publicising their programmes under the vague notion of public information. Yet when a local authority does the same such information immediately becomes political.
This is another Bill in a long chain of legislation to shackle local government. Ever since they were elected in 1979, the Government have said that they would give freedom to local government, but all that they have done has been to put shackles on local government with legislation such as this and with financial restrictions. The Minister fails to recognise that democracy and freedom in local government are important to many who serve in local government as officers and to local councillors, whether Conservative, SLD or Labour. The Government should recognise the importance of local government.
Because of the way the Bill has been timetabled, last week we had only two days to debate Report stage. It would have been better to have three days, because we could then have had a shorter Third Reading debate. The difficulty with the debate on Third Reading is that we cannot refer to the amendments, whether Government or Opposition, we had insufficient time to debate last week. We can refer only to the Bill as it stands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said last week that the debate on some important issues was a sham because there was not sufficient time to discuss them. We all know that on Wednesday evening a major debate on the dog registration scheme took place in the early hours of the morning. I hope that the other place will reconsider that issue, because the Government got it wrong. Many other items put into the Bill by amendments and new clauses forced through by the Government have not been properly debated. My hon. Friends have already mentioned the problems of ring-fencing. The main purpose of some aspects of the Bill is to force people either to buy their council homes or to opt out and thus enhance the private rented sector. Another purpose is to encourage the growing business expansion scheme. While the Bill might, in certain areas, deal with certain problems, it is nevertheless the wrong way to try to solve the housing problems. Rather than giving tax incentives, the Government should make the necessary funding available to deal with the problems.
The current difficulties in both the public and private housing sectors will not be solved by the Bill. The Government are not prepared to allocate sufficient funds to deal with the problems. We are arguing for funds not just for the public sector, but also for the private sector, which suffers from the same problems. The unavailability of land has led to a deterioration of housing standards. The Minister has only to look around his constituency and the neighbouring constituencies in north-east Lancashire, such as mine, to appreciate the problems of decline in the private sector. People cannot improve their homes because their value is so low that they cannot obtain loans. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) mentioned defective housing. There are problems with Spooner houses in my area. They are of a wooden frame structure--not all that old-- and because of problems with the ties the gable ends need to be rebuilt. Those who bought their council houses in good faith under the right to buy cannot
Column 426afford to repair them. Building societies will not lend them any additional money because of the low value of their houses. I hope that the Minister will seriously take on board the problems with housing in north-east Lancashire.
I wish briefly to discuss part I of the Bill and the implications of Widdicombe. They have rightly been dealt with already at some length because the Bill goes far beyond what is required to deal with the minor problem of political involvement by certain key officers. The Bill is a serious erosion of people's rights and civil liberties and of democracy. It moves in the wrong direction and the Government are treading a dangerous path. The arbitrary figure of £13,500 is nonsense and the Government should think again.
Even more important, the Bill gives yet further powers to the Secretary of State to act through regulations. We have been given no idea what will be contained in those regulations, especially the provisions relating to council employees. Will canvassing be forbidden? Will they be prevented from putting up election posters? It is wrong that, time and again, half- baked legislation is pushed through the House without the Government providing crucial information. When the Government introduce regulations they do not allow sufficient time for debate. Of course, they do not want them to be debated, but if they have to be debated they make sure that that happens at a time when they will not receive any publicity. Not only do the Government not believe in local government democracy--they do not really believe in parliamentary democracy.
The Association of District Councils has expressed concern about economic development and discretionary expenditure by local authorities, which is covered in part III. It says :
"The Association wishes to ensure that restrictions to be included in Regulation are kept to a minimum and do not inhibit sensible, constructive and imaginative initiatives."
Again, the association is referring to proposals that will be introduced through regulations, and which are not specified at this stage. The association makes the point that the proposal could result in around 40 per cent. of the 333 non-metropolitan district councils being prevented from giving crucial help to start-ups of small and medium businesses, as they do at present.
Another crucial concern is the companies owned by local authorities and run by local authorities. The Minister is well aware of what I believe is valuable work carried out with Lancashire Enterprise. Many aspects of part III give rise to serious concern about whether the local authorities will be able to continue to provide money and to do all that they wish for such developments.
The Minister for Local Government spoke of the Bill "strengthening" local government. I believe that it will weaken the powers of local government. It could be his swansong as a Minister at the Department of the Environment. Year after year, we have had Bills on housing or local government. Every year, when the Government come back with the next Bill, a different Minister comes forward. Some Ministers have gone sideways, some have gone upwards and some have just gone. Let us hope that whether he goes upwards or not, the present Minister will go and that the Minister who takes his place will look at local government in a more positive and constructive manner.
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Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : In the past 10 years, a decade of this Government, we have had 50 Bills on local government. Like the others, this Bill does nothing to widen genuine local democracy and local choice for working people. The twin areas of greatest concern in the Bill are the proposals leading to further substantial rent increases for tenants and the draconian restrictions, about which my hon. Friends have spoken, on the freedom of council workers to participate in political activity. We understand that about 70,000 council workers will be affected, but we do not yet know. The regulations to enact that aspect of the Bill will, undoubtedly, come some months hence in the dead of night. We shall have an hour and a half's debate, as we had a couple of weeks ago when we discussed 96 pages of poll tax regulations.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) intervened when my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was speaking, again along the theme of so-called jobs for the boys. He made unsubstantiated allegations about councils in London and the council in Liverpool. He was on very thin ice. He supports a Government half of whose supporters are not just Members of Parliament, but have one, two or 10 other jobs, who often pick up thousands of pounds a year for each of those jobs and for whom Members' wages become pocket money. In the last Parliament, the former right hon. and learned Member for Hexham, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, was a Member of Parliament, a Queen's counsel and a director or chairman of 45 companies. I will never know how he ever had time to come into this Chamber. The voting record of many of those Tory Members is 10 per cent., 12 per cent. or 15 per cent. In the words of the good book, the hon. Member for Nottingham, South should take the beam out of his own eye before worrying about the mote in somebody else's eye. When it comes to twin tracking, Tory Members in this Tory Government have got it down to a fine art.
We do not know whether exactly 70,000 council workers will be affected, but we understand that it is those who are at present working for local authorities who will be prevented from holding office in political parties, from canvassing at elections--and we can understand that after Sunday's Euro results--or even from commenting publicly on matters of party political controversy, including through letters to newspapers. We can imagine the scenario when a council worker, just as the member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Sutton Coldfield some years ago, has a knock at the door from two Special Branch officers because of a letter written to a local newspaper. That is what the Bill will introduce.
As drafted, the Bill gives the Secretary of State--a single individual--the power to prevent 70,000 people in this country from exercising their democratic rights. The Bill is fundamentally anti-democratic. It will not only apply to those people who earn more than £13,500 per year-- incidentally, we understand that that figure will be frozen for the future so that more and more people will be caught year after year--it will also apply to many lower-paid council workers who give advice to the council or to its committees or who talk to the media.
The Government are taking the road of Stalin. While ostensibly criticising the lack of democracy in China, Cuba and eastern Europe, they are taking precisely the same powers politically to determine the opinions that this
Column 428country's working people can hold or, if they do not hold opinions favoured by the Government, the jobs that they are allowed to hold. I turn now to the clauses relating to housing. The Bill is called a housing Bill, but it does nothing for the housing crisis that has developed in the past 10 years. There has been a 17 per cent. fall in the completion of new houses over that period from 244,000 down to 202,000. Local authorities have a 75 per cent. fall in their completions. Furthermore, at today's prices, local authorities have seen their investment budgets cut from £5,000 million in 1978-79 to £1,000 million in 1988-89. One million council houses have been sold, but over the period 1983 to 1987 the waiting list for those council houses grew by 70 per cent. from 0.75 million to 1.25 million people. Yet this Bill does nothing to redress the problems either of the people who want a house or of those who want their home repaired, improved or modified in some way.
Shelter estimates that 150,000 single young people are homeless in this country. In central London, where this Parliament is situated, over 40,000 young people sleep rough. That is a topic to which I intend to return on an Adjournment debate when I shall refer also to the Vagrancy Act 1824.
Like the Housing Act 1988, this Bill does not mention homelessness, but it will cause it-- [Interruption.] I am doing my best to ensure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, can hear what I am saying even if Tory Members are patently not interested in the homelessness of young people or of any other age group, especially the Minister who seems to have much better things to do than to listen to a speech about homelessness. Perhaps I could have his attention for a moment or two.
Part VI will cause homelessness. The housing finance sections of last year's Housing Act did nothing to help. That legislation was an enabling Act. In my six years in this madhouse, I have become less and less worried about enabling Acts and I can see more and more merit in giving a future Labour Secretary of State for Industry an "Industry Bill" to give him the power to nationalise companies and then, at 10 o'clock at night, night after night, I can see no problem in bringing forward the names of the companies that will be taken into public ownership. I have learnt from Bills such as this that enabling legislation gives Ministers powers which are then enacted in future orders.
As my hon. Friends have said, part VI deals with the ring-fencing of housing revenue accounts and receipts from council housing rents to stop cross-subsidisation with the general rate account. In 1987-88, £122 million nationally went from rents into the general rates account and £382 million went in the other direction, from councils' general rate fund accounts towards keeping down rents. I am quite happy for the Government to bring in a law to stop Tory councils from making profits out of council tenants and to stop them from transferring profits from rents into the general rate accounts. The Government have not, of course, given the major reason why rent and housing revenue accounts have been affected and why rents have doubled in the past few years. The reason is the Government's cut in rent subsidies.
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), whose attention I am seeking to gain, attacked cross-subsidisation and said that it represented bad running of the housing account and that it was the equivalent of milking the ratepayers.
Column 429You have been here longer than I have, Madam Deputy Speaker. You can remember that prior to this Government every Government accepted the general premise that support of the poorer sections of the community was a charge on national Governments, not on individual local authorities. It was central Government that had to bear the burden. That premise was established by the battles of councils such as Poplar, and tested in later years by Clay Cross and Liverpool. The Bill will force councils to fund rent rebates from housing revenue accounts. In Coventry that means that two thirds of council tenants who get housing benefit will have that funded by the one third who do not get housing benefit. That will mean massive rent rises in Coventry and for 5 million council tenants nationally. Rents will rocket to such an extent that the Government's true aim in the Bill will come about and council tenants will be forced to try to buy their homes so that they may get public subsidy--that is, mortgage interest tax relief, which amounts to £5.5 billion nationally, or they will have to accept that their homes be sold to another landlord.
This is where all the legislation starts to be tied together. The Housing Act 1988, which brought in so-called tenants' choice, was extended by the Rent Office (Additional Functions) Order 1989, laid in February and debated on 21 March. It will take effect when part VI of the Bill gets Royal Assent. Part VI will force tenants to consider selling their houses to another landlord, probably a private landlord. When they do so, they will lose the protection of council rents. Their rents will become market rents. If the market rents are different from what the council's rent officer says that the council is allowed to pay, they will lose housing benefit.
I want to give a few examples. Recently we have had 300 cases in Coventry, some of them in my constituency. For a first-floor flat in Hugh road the asking rent is £35 and the market rent assessed by the council rent officer is £23. For a first-floor rear room in North street, just outside my constituency, the asking rent is £51.96 and the assessed market rent is £31. For board and lodging accommodation in Warwick road, in the constituency of the junior Education Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), the asking rent is £100.42 and the assessed market rent is £60.
What the 1988 Act, the rent offices order and this Bill, taken together, mean is that my council, in the last example, where the asking rent is £100.42, can claim 97 per cent. of the housing benefit from the Government on the £60 of assessed rent for which it pays housing benefit. It can claim nothing on the £40.42 of the asking rent which is above the assessed rent. The council has two choices. If it does not pay the person claiming for private accommodation the extra money, the result will be that the person will be made homeless. Let us not forget clause 138, as it was when the Bill went into Committee ; it discharges all local authorities from having any duty to provide housing. People will be made homeless by the provision. The council's alternative is to pay the extra housing benefit and get nothing from the Government. What will the Minister do? What will his gaffer, who is sitting next to him, do? He will rate-cap Coventry. Coventry would be going outside the regulations. It would be paying housing benefit that the legislation says it should not pay.
I have gone into some detail on the examples because the matter has not been referred to so far in the debate. Hundreds of people in Coventry and tens of thousands
Column 430nationally could be made homeless because of part VI of the Bill. Councils will not want to risk being rate-capped by the Secretary of State. The Bill does not provide for the building of more houses or for the release of houses for people to rent. It does nothing about the appalling and tragic waste of life on building sites. It is not about housing. It is about further privatisation, shoving up rents and removing the democratic rights of council workers. It is a thieves' charter. The Secretary of State is stealing the democratic rights of 70,000 council workers, and he is stealing too the housing benefit and the very accommodation of tens of thousands of tenants in council and private sector housing. The House should treat the Bill with the contempt that it deserves by kicking it out on Third Reading.
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : In the early hours of last Thursday I thought that the longest day had become 14 June, but as today's debate has worn on I realise that this is really the longest day of the year. Coverage of the Bill by the media last week concentrated on dog registration. Much as I have a commitment to that subject and care deeply about it, I hope that the coverage of today's proceedings by the media tomorrow, especially the BBC, which did not cover the debate last Tuesday at all in "Yesterday in Parliament", will acknowledge that what is happening to people's democratic and civil rights, to economic and industrial investment in companies, to the capital investment in our infrastructure and to rents and housing, have some importance even if those who frequent the portals of the Palace of Westminster do not always feel that those matters impinge on them immediately. One day some of those issues will catch them up.
The Minister has an ironic sense of humour which I did not know he had until we were in Committee and he started cracking little jokes. On 28 February, he said :
"We are introducing the Bill because of our commitment to democracy."
In the same debate, he said :
"I am committed to local government".--[ Official Report, Standing Committee G, 28 February 1989 ; c. 95.]
In his cheeky little way, he said that again tonight--that he supports local government. Like Dracula offering a blood transfusion, he offers local government a quick way out of what was previously accepted by all parties as local democracy. The purpose of the Bill is clearly to undermine our commitment over generations to the kind of local political democratic system that people have respected. When the Bill was first introduced, it was described as the 50th Bill dealing with one or more aspects of local government. The Government boasted that it would be their last major local government Bill. I can promise the House that local government is not dead and that it will fight back against the Bill, as it has fought every other major measure introduced by the Government. There is life there, and we shall support our colleagues in local government in retaining and maintaining their commitment to their local electorate. Only one thread unites the disparate and miscellaneous elements--albeit they are important- -encapsulated in the Bill. That is the Government's obsession with replacing representative political democracy with the laws of the market place. The Government are intent on market forces dominating all our lives. That is not the free market, but
Column 431a distorted and specially manipulated market that will ensure that the Government's values and ideology are implemented in place of those decided by local people for local people. That is why we are opposing a whole range of measures in three major areas.
First, there is the restriction on basic civil democratic rights. The Government believe that we can have impartiality only if people hide their true political feelings. We believe that independence and impartiality can never be achieved by suppressing the expression of honest political opinions. Democracy can never be safeguarded by undermining basic democratic rights. If, as we said last week, those rights have to be sustained by appeal to the institutions of Europe, people will have to take that road in order to secure, as was described in the House on Monday night, the freedoms that the Government are only too prepared to take away.
It is obvious that anyone who seeks to take away the democratic rights of more than 130,000 people--the rights to speak or to canvas on behalf of a political party--cannot believe in democracy. The Government cannot take away existing rights and replace them with restrictions and at the same time claim that they believe in democracy. That is simply not possible. [Interruption.] I understand why those Conservative Members who are braying believe in doing that. If one does not believe in representative political democracy, and if the laws of the market place and the value of one's bank balance are more important than people obtaining their will through the ballot box, one will feel contempt for those institutions and practices which implement that democracy. That is why Conservative Members jeer and show contempt for such rights. It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
That, at this day's sitting, the Local Government and Housing Bill and the Ways and Means Motions may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
Local Government and Housing Bill
Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Mr. Gummer : Is it democratic for the chief executive of a local authority, who advises all parts of a local council and who is duty bound to give impartial advice to all members of that authority, also to be chairman of the local Labour party?
Mr. Blunkett : The Opposition made it clear in new clauses 2, 3 and 4 that we were in favour of a code of practice which differentiated between, first, the restrictions that should be imposed on senior council officers standing for other authorities--what is generally known as twin- tracking--as we made clear again tonight, and, secondly, how people should maintain probity and sensibility in undertaking their tasks outside their working life in pursuing their democratic rights. We said that such a code of practice should be tried for one year.
Many of us would consider it inappropriate for a chief executive to hold a high-profile political position in a political party, but we would not seek to legislate to
Column 432remove the rights of 130,000 people in order to prevent that happening. We do not believe in dealing with the worries about the few by removing the rights of the many. That is what we are talking about. [Interruption.]