|Previous Section||Home Page|
It is because we believe that in a democracy there is nothing more fundamental than the right to express a view openly that we are putting forward our view that the Bill is unacceptable. What could be worse than someone asking a fellow member of the council to put a poster in a window, knock on a door or write a letter, only to be told that it is more than his job is worth and that he will be sacked for exercising his democratic right?
The vindictiveness expressed against local authority officers applies equally to councillors. The only suggestion as to how local councillors should carry out their duties under the new regulations is that they should have more evening meetings. Some Conservative Members may have carried out their duties as councillors effectively and understood that, in order to be in touch with their electorate, to have surgeries and to take part in their own political party, they should have evening meetings, while running cities, counties and boroughs during the day. Councillors should be given time off to do that, and they should be properly remunerated--not the £51,000 per year that the chairman of the Yorkshire water authority reaps, nor the £57,000 that the chairman of the London residuary body reaps, but a small and reasonable remuneration to ensure that they can do their job.
We see the same restrictions and market forces implied in respect of economic development, joint companies and capital investment. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) for his comments, but he must not be under any illusions. Last week's Government amendments leave very much in the balance joint partnership ventures, economic regeneration and investment in the future. Local authorities will not easily be able to enter into partnerships with the private sector, and voluntary bodies are under threat. The arts lobby is very concerned that the very act of being associated with and receiving investment from local authorities will bring it and the local authorities within the ambit of the Bill's restrictions.
The Bill contains many pernicious provisions, but that which outstrips all the others is the Government's attack on the public rented sector. In Committee, the contribution made by the Minister--I was intrigued to discover that he is a warm-blooded being after all--was to inform right hon. and hon. Members that he did not need central heating because he could wear a woolly vest. That was the Minister's contribution to the issue of public sector housing. Tonight we have debated the proposition that if market forces do not achieve Government ends, they should be manipulated until they do. The cost of housing in a particular district and the average value of council sales, bearing in mind that the properties being sold are the most expensive, will be interpreted in fixing rents from the centre. The Government will determine rents, and when they have done that they will determine subsidy. When income from rents goes into surplus and the local
Column 433authority makes a profit, that money must be used to meet the cost of paying housing benefits for other council tenants. The poor will be made to pay for the very poor. Private sector tenants and owner-occupiers enjoy subsidy and tax relief for which we all pay, but local authority tenants will be subsidised by their neighbours and the people on the street.
That twisted logic, which The Times described on 3 February as social engineering, will ensure that in high-cost areas rents will increase still further. By increasing rents and, as the Secretary of State described it last week, bringing them in line with the market, the Government will contribute to higher house prices as well. People seeking housing will not be able to afford to rent or to buy. If they are just above the poverty line they will pay full rent, but if they obtain a mortgage they will be hit by the Chancellor's high interest rates. Young people will be hit whichever way they turn. If that is social engineering with the aim of pushing people out of the south-east, the electorate will have none of it.
We want to see a return to affordable, attainable housing so that people can have a decent roof over their heads. Tonight we shall vote on whether we believe that distortion of the market and Government intervention to implement Government values is acceptable to the country, or whether people should determine for themselves local politics, economic development and investment, and be able to ensure affordable rents. We shall vote on whether such matters are to be decided through our system of political democracy or whether the restrictions and laws of the market place should be imposed on everyone from the centre.
Last week we saw the electorate's decision in respect of the European elections. In next year's local council elections and in the next general election, the Bill's provisions will contribute to the downfall of the Conservative Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : Let me begin by saying to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) that I am relieved not to have experienced a repeat of the last occasion when there was a major rail strike. The Bill was in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman will recall that at 10.30 am the Conservatives had a full house, while the Opposition Benches were completely empty.
I felt compelled to jump on to the other side of the Committee, because the hon. Member for Brightside felt a little lonely and I knew that he needed some help and advice. Now the hon. Gentleman has the temerity to accuse Ministers responsible for the Bill of being vindictive. When he stood alone and we bailed him out by delaying discussion, I do not think that our behaviour was vindictive. We could have completed the remaining stages of the Bill in 20 minutes, which would have been a record by any standards ; but we chose not to do so.
Column 434Having heard the contribution of his hon. Friends tonight, I bet that the hon. Gentleman wishes that some of them had stayed away today as they did then. In particular, I do not think that he would have missed the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) : indeed, I do not think that anyone would miss them.
We have heard from the Opposition the usual mix of exaggeration, half truths and downright misinformation. Of course, they have a huge problem. Apart from the proposals outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, which stem from the independent Widdicombe committee, the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) has come up with the revelation-- which will be on the record for everyone to see--that the Labour party believes in political chief executives. There is a direct conflict between what he said and what has been said by the hon. Member for Brightside.
The truth is that the Bill will achieve greater accountability, encourage better management and strengthen the local democratic process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said so clearly in his excellent speech.
The Opposition's other problem is that one of the principal aims of the Bill is to focus resources on those in greatest need. It seeks to direct improvement and repair grants to those on lower incomes, and to give more support to the poorer owner-occupiers. It seeks to focus capital expenditure on the areas of most need, and to relate current subsidies to needs so that authorities in poorer areas with more poor tenants will receive a higher proportion of the available subsidy. Speaker after speaker this evening has attacked that as unfair. What do they want? What is their policy? Do they want to keep improvement grants for the better off, at the expense of poorer owner-occupiers? Do they want to give fewer resources to the inner cities, and to the poorer authorities of the midlands and the north? Do they really want to retain a central rents system or formula which, by incorporating flat-rate increases regardless of cost, means higher rent increases than necessary in poorer districts and proportionately larger subsidies to richer districts?
Mr. Trippier : Perhaps Labour Members want all the things that I have mentioned. Perhaps they want to spend more taxpayers' money on everyone. That is a strange thought, however. If it is true, Labour party housing policy is based on taxing poorer people and regions to provide grants for owner-occupiers who do not need them, extra resources for the richer southern authorities that draw in higher capital receipts, and increased subsidies to rents in richer areas with higher average incomes and lower unemployment.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) has returned to his favourite topic, minimum housing standards. He is nothing if not persistent. Let me remind
Column 435the House about his minimum standards. There are 18 of them--enough to keep every environmental health officer in the country busy night and day. It would make the enforcement of income tax seem like a picnic. One of his standards stipulates that
"Any dwelling shall be so located that the immediate environmental factors are tolerable."
What on earth does that mean? Does it mean that if I do not like the view from my kitchen window I can claim that my house is unfit? If the traffic on the road outside my house is heavy at certain times of the day, does that also mean that I can claim that my house is unfit?
Another of the hon. Gentleman's standards is that
"The habitable room of any dwelling shall comprise a minimum size as specified by the Secretary of State."
I see that the hon. Member for Leeds, West is nodding.
Mr. Battle rose --
The hon. Gentleman suggested in Committee that the Secretary of State is being given unacceptable powers. However, he wants to give the Secretary of State more powers. Is he seriously suggesting that the Secretary of State should prescribe a room size that might condemn thousands of highly desirable houses to unfitness? I ask the hon. Gentleman this simple question : how many properties in his own constituency would conform to his minimum standards? Would his own house conform to them? Mine certainly does not, nor does the home of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government or of my other ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). I give him this undertaking. I shall willingly, on any occasion that is convenient to both of us, visit his home. I know that he is a very hospitable chap. He boasts about Yorkshire hospitality, and I am sure that he will be hospitable, even to a Lancastrian like me. I know that I shall get a cup of tea, or even a little bit more. I am even prepared to bring with me my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West. I shall enjoy inspecting the hon. Gentleman's home. If it fails any of the standards on the list of 18, I shall ask his local environmental health officer to provide an estimate of how much it would cost to bring his house up to standard and to multiply it by all other houses in a similar condition in his constituency and throughout the land. His proposal sounds reasonable, but it is totally unworkable, impracticable and interventionist in practice.
Mr. Battle : I am surprised to hear that the Minister has not heard of the Parker Morris standards which specify area, that there should be no dampness and that there should be adequate natural lighting, all of which are in the catalogue of 18. Will the Minister give an undertaking that he will restore the Parker Morris standards that his Government have removed and that the environmental health officers are calling for?
Mr. Trippier : So many additional standards have been laid down by the hon. Gentleman that, if we are not careful, we shall have everything, short of gold taps. It is absolutely ridiculous. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Tony Banks : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It may very well be that the Minister is talking rubbish, but we are entitled to hear it. I should be grateful if you would call the House to order.
Madam Deputy Speaker : I have already drawn the attention of the House to the fact that far too many conversations are taking place while the Minister is speaking. I appeal to those hon. Members who wish to continue to hold conversations to do so on the other side of the swing doors.
Mr. Trippier : Of course until very recently Opposition Members had no alternative but to attack our policy. They had no alternative policy to offer. But the famed Labour party policy review has now been published and the cat is out of the bag. Opposition Members rebutted criticisms a score of times by referring to the clear statement of Labour's housing policy that was to come. It is the alternative to the Bill. Now that we have it all our questions can be answered. Now we learn how more grants for all and more subsidies for all regardless of need will be achieved. Calculating what rents will be under our policy, according to the hon. Member for Brightside, takes only a matter of minutes, and presumably can be worked out on the back of an envelope. So one can assume fairly safely, given the time that Opposition Members spent putting together their alternative to the Bill, which is referred to in their document, that that would be their answer.
Mr. George Howarth : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the Minister for taking time to publicise the Labour party's excellent housing policy which appears in the review. However, as the Labour party's policy is not contained in the Bill, is the Minister in order?
I have heard a number of Opposition Members refer to their alternative policy, which is precisely what we are discussing.
I hope that Opposition Members will explain to the House and to the rest of the country who will pay for the extra subsidies that they would make available. It is clear that people in the midlands and the north will pay, as the Bill seeks to give fairer treatment to local authorities in the greatest need.
The Labour party's policy is a jumble of vague platitudes, a nod in the direction of every conceivable interest group. It was supposed to have been a review, but it is a recipe that has not changed one jot. It proposes to spend more money on everything and everyone. In direct contrast, the Government are proud to be the champion of
Column 437greater efficiency in local authorities, greater accountability in housing management and the directing of resources to those in greatest need. The Bill enshrines those policies, and I commend it to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time : The House divided : Ayes 310, Noes 206.
Division No. 257] [10.22 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon John
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Emery, Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fishburn, John Dudley
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Fox, Sir Marcus
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Glyn, Dr Alan
Goodhart, Sir Philip
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hampson, Dr Keith
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.