|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 924thousands of empty council properties. They fail to collect rents from existing council tenants and thereby deprive the homeless of further resources.
Mr. Battle rose --
Mr. Chope : We have considered a number of reports about homelessness and the problems of the homeless while undertaking our review of legislation on the homeless. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to announce our conclusions shortly. Planned public investment in housing during the next three years will total nearly £13 billion. The thrust of our housing policy is aimed at helping areas with the greatest need, by extending the role and funding of housing associations and by expanding the private sector, which so many Opposition Members seem to despise. To tackle the important issue of the single homeless, we are encouraging people to take in lodgers.
The new housing revenue account system, which is the basis of the debate, will make local authorities more accountable to tenants, promote efficiency and encourage a fairer, better-targeted means of distributing taxpayers' money to those who need it. That is the best way to help the homeless.
We have a genuine concern for the homeless. If Opposition Members were genuinely concerned, they would try to put something into action at a local level.
Mr. Pike : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely it would be common courtesy for the Minister to give way. He has been given the permission of the House to make a second speech in the debate and he should at least give way once.
Mr. Chope : I detect that the House is getting somewhat impatient to vote after such a lengthy debate. I think that we have won the argument, and that, from the Opposition, we have had fluster and filibuster.
Mr. Soley : With the permission of the House, I should like to make a short supplementary speech. I had not planned on making it. On Report, no fewer than 606 amendments were put before us. Many of them were introduced by the Government. For the Minister to fail to give way to my hon. Friends who wished to intervene in such an important debate is a sign of weakness, and it will
Column 925do him no good. I wished to raise the issue which he failed to deal with in his opening speech, which is that rentpayers in one area will subsidise the housing benefit of people in the same area. That means that the poor will subsidise the poorest. I refer to clause 78, which remains unamended after the Bill's consideration by another place. The Minister's predecessor and the previous Secretary of State for the Environment accepted that what we were saying was basically true although they would not accept the phrase--I understand why--"the poor subsidising the poorest". They accepted, however, that our argument was right.
I shall try to quote as accurately as I can the Minister's words. He tried to slide them through quickly, but I shall repeat them to the best of my memory. We can check my recollection with the report in Hansard. He said, "If there is a surplus, they will have to use that to meet rent rebates." The surplus can accrue only from other people's rents. The Bill ring-fences accounts so that rents must be used only for housing. They cannot be used in any other sector. It is not possible to translate money from the rate fund to the rent fund. In other words, the rebate bill is met in part by using surplus rent money when there is some. The only way in which the Minister is partially right is that, when there is no surplus, that option does not arise. As soon as there is a surplus, however, the local authority has no option but to use it to pay the housing benefit bill. We say that that is a classic example of the poor subsidising the poorest. It was the Minister's failure to respond to that issue that led him into so much trouble.
I understand why the Minister would not give way. I can interpret what he said thereafter only as that somehow the bill would be met. Is he giving the House a commitment that, where there is a surplus which must be used to meet the housing benefit bill, the Government will step in and pay the difference? If the Minister cannot answer that question, he either does not understand it or, more likely, he is deliberately trying to avoid the issue because he appreciates that it is embarrassing for the Government.
Mr. Chope rose --
Mr. Chope : There is no dispute among my right hon. and hon. Friends. If there is a surplus, it will be taken into account when it comes to a subsidy. If there is a surplus on the housing revenue account, it is likely that there will be less subsidy entitlement than if there is not. I thought that Opposition Members would consider that a sensible and fair way of proceeding.
Mr. Soley : We had to drag the truth out of him but he has now conceded that where there is a surplus, it will be used to pay the housing benefit bill. That will mean that poor rentpayers who are just outside the housing benefit net, will end up paying the housing benefit of their neighbours. That is the truth, the Minister knows it, and in effect he has conceded that it is true.
In his reply, the Minister referred again to rent collection. It was noticeable that he did not answer the question that I put to him in my opening speech about the report that the Audit Commission is about to produce, of
Column 926which he and his colleagues may be aware. The report states clearly that rent arrears are increasing in local authorities of all political complexions because of cuts in housing benefit. Yet he chose to start the hare that some people who could afford to do so are not paying their rent. Does he think that the Audit Commission report is wrong or right?
Mr. Chope : I have not seen the report, so I cannot be expected to comment on it. The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue for the first time this evening. Under this Government, total payments of housing benefit have doubled. [ Hon. Members :-- "That is because the rents were increased."]
Mr. Soley : This would be hilarious if it were not so tragic. Housing benefit has increased, despite cuts, because the Government have driven up housing costs and cut income support. As the previous Secretary of State conceded, expenditure on housing benefit has increased dramatically in some areas of the south where rents are high. An unemployed person living in a private-sector flat with a market rent of £70 a week--which is not unusual in London, certainly not in my constituency--has all his rent paid through housing benefit. The system is daft. It does not even save public expenditure as the Government wish it to do. It has never helped people to pay their rent, as it should.
The Minister also referred to the old canard of empty local authority flats. He has not heard about this matter before, so he had better remember it well. The average number of empty local authority properties is 2.5 per cent. of the housing stock. For housing associations it is 3.2 per cent.-- slightly higher but both are good. For the private sector, it is 4.5 per cent. The worst offenders of all are the Government. Nearly 6 per cent. of their properties are empty. I do not refer only to Ministry of Defence properties. One in five Metropolitan police houses are empty. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) knows nothing about that. His own local authority has built a good housing development which he tried to prevent. That is why he walks by on the other side of the road when he sees the "homeless and hungry" signs. When he was a head teacher, I took my children away from his school because I did not want them to have his morality.
The Minister forgets that 6 per cent. of Department of the Environment properties are empty. [ Hon. Members :-- "Disgraceful."] Will the Minister take immediate steps to fill them? No, a year ago, his predecessor said that the Department would try to sell them. It is still trying to do so. The constituency of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has more empty Department of the Environment properties than any other. That is the sort of nonsense that the Government get into.
Mr. Soley : I am not interested in that. Someone with a small number of properties should be a good landlord. If a landlord has thousands of properties, I would expect difficulties. Someone with only a few hundred, a few dozen or tens of properties should be a good landlord. The Minister's Department is an incompetent landlord. The
Column 927properties have been empty for years. In my constituency, no fewer than 30 flats and houses, 60 if we include under- occupied houses, have been empty for nine years. What will the Department of the Environment do with them? It will demolish four and five-bedroomed Victorian houses and flats. At the same time, the hon. Member for Ealing, North is walking by on the other side, away from the homeless and the hungry.
My last point relates to the contraction of the private sector. A few hon. Members, including the Minister, said that the answer to the problems lay in expanding the private sector. Let us leave aside the issue of what happened some years ago and stick to what has been happening recently. We must remember that since 1980 the Government have been saying that they were abolishing the Rent Acts because it would be easier for private developers to let property. In fact, the private sector is continuing to decline. There are 500,000 fewer homes available for rent in the private sector than there were nine years ago. In London, where the Rent Acts have not really applied for several years, well over half the lets are outside the Rent Acts. As the Government make it easier to evict, the contraction of the private sector actually accelerates.
The reason for that is not hard to find. We need only to go back to 1957, when the word "Rachmanism" was introduced into the English language. The strange fact is--it is one that the Minister does not understand--that Rachman was not a bad landlord ; he was just a bad property developer. He did not want to be a landlord, any more than Hoogstraten wants to be one. They only want people in their properties for a very short time, and then want to sell, because buying and selling houses is more profitable than renting them. That will remain true even when the Minister achieves market rents, as he has now done, because of the subsidy system for the owner- occupied sector. That is why the private sector is declining. The big mistake that the Government have made is to axe the council house sector without providing an alternative.
Our amendments are an attempt to redress the balance by allowing local authorities to build, repair andrenovate. The Government are preventing them from doing that, and that is why we shall divide the House on amendment (b).
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 113 to 118 agreed to.
Lords amendment : No. 119, in page 81, line 44, leave out from beginning to end of line 9 on page 82 and insert--
(any amounts which fall to be or were credited or debited to the authority's Housing Revenue Account for that year or any previous year ;)
(any amounts which, on such assumptions as the Secretary of State may determine (whether or not borne out or likely to be borne out by events), would fall to be or would have been so credited or debited ; and)
(such other matters relating to the authority, or to (or to tenants of) houses and other property which are or have been within the account, as he thinks fit ;)
and the Secretary of State may make any determination falling to be made for the purposes of a formula on the basis of information received by him on or before such date as he thinks fit.
Column 928(4) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (3) above, a formula may require it to be assumed that the amount for any year of the rental income or housing expenditure of each authority (or each authority in England or in Wales) is to be determined--
(by taking the amount which the Secretary of State considers (having regard, amongst other things, to past and expected movements in incomes, costs and prices) should be or should have been the aggregate amount for that year of the rental incomes or, as the case may be, the housing expenditure of all of the authorities (or all of the authorities in England or Wales) taken together ; and) (b
(by apportioning that amount between them in such manner as the Secretary of State considers appropriate (which may involve, if he thinks fit, inferring the aggregate values of the houses and other property within their respective Housing Revenue Accounts from the average values of any of the houses and other property which they have disposed of) ;)
and in this subsection "rental income" means income falling within item 1 of Part I of Schedule 4 to this Act and "housing expenditure" means expenditure falling within item 1 of Part II of that Schedule or falling to be debited to the authorities' Housing Repairs Accounts."
Read a Second time.
Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment (b), in line 13, leave out and' and insert
but, in determining any formula under this section for the year beginning 1st April 1990, the Secretary of State shall not assume an increase in the average rent payable by tenants of a local housing authority which is greater than the highest local contribution differential for the purposes of section 425 of the Housing Act 1985 for that authority for any year after that ending 31st March 1986 and subject to this requirement'.
Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 201, Noes 289.
Division No. 370] [9.58 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)