Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the terms of Question 26 on the Order Paper? I should make it clear that I took the first opportunity I had to notify the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) that I intended to raise this point of order. I understand that he has now withdrawn his question. Nevertheless, the question was tabled and appeared on the Order Paper, which is why I wish to raise the matter.
The question asks
"by how much more the rate support grant figure for 1989-90 would be increased if 2,000 of the residents of Langbaurgh were black." The question is undeniably racially discriminatory in intention and it is racially offensive and inflammatory in effect. It breaches the usual rules of good order which we attempt to establish in this House, and it is potentially in breach of the statutory rules applied by race relations legislation.
How was it that the Table Office accepted the question? Are there not rules which we can deploy to protect the House against such offensive questions? In asking you for your ruling, Mr. Speaker, may I add that I invite the Secretary of State to join me in dissociating himself from the terms of the question?
Mr. Speaker : No. Why does the hon. Gentleman always rise when I seek to reply? I can give the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) the answer to his question. The Table Office accepted the question because various criteria are used in calculating rate support grant, including the make-up of the population. As for the motives, any hon. Member can table a question provided that it is in order. That is a matter for him.
Mr. Winnick : My point of order arises from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould). On Monday, when the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) made certain comments that many of us considered to be an incitement to race hatred, you said that every hon. Member has a right to express a view. If legislation forbids the incitement to race hatred and it is illegal outside the House, why is it that remarks such as those made by the hon. Member for Northampton, North or offensive questions about blacks are accepted by the Table Office? Does that mean that we can ask questions relating to the number of Jews, Catholics or Protestants? It is difficult to believe that such questions would be accepted.
Mr. Speaker : Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is challenging what I have said. I have already explained why the Table Office accepted that question. As to what the hon. Gentleman said about other matters, I can only remind him that, over many centuries, we have achieved
Column 994freedom of speech in this House, and it is for each hon. Member to decide how to use that right. As Mr. Speaker, I am certainly not in the business of rationing freedom of speech in this place.
Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, and further to your explanation in response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), I wonder whether you would reconsider the matter. I do not believe that local authorities collect information on the basis of the colour or the ethnic origin of citizens. That being so, I submit for your consideration--and I accept that you need time to think about this--my belief that the question should not have appeared on the Order Paper, under any circumstances, as it is grossly offensive. Although we understand and value the help that we receive from the Clerk's Department, this is an unfortunate matter that requires further consideration. Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Allen : This is a point of order for you, Mr. Speaker. Given the subsidy for the sale of our water industry of £3.3 billion, or £65 for every man, woman and child in the country, would it not be for the convenience of the House if the Secretary of State were to submit a memorandum and all the side papers involved in this matter to the Public Accounts Committee now, rather than in a year's time?
Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by Mr. Secretary Waddington, Mr. Secretary Walker, Mr. Secretary King, Mr. Secretary Ridley, Mr. Secretary Rifkind, Mr. Secretary Parkinson, Mr. Secretary Patten, Mr. Norman Lamont, Mr. Richard Luce, Mr. Peter Lilley and Mr. Richard Ryder, presented a Bill to amend the Government Trading Funds Act 1973 and section 5 of the Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1921 and to repeal the Borrowing (Control and Guarantees) Act 1946 : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 10.]
Column 995Mr. Speaker : On another matter--Mr. Campbell-Savours.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As you were here during Question Time and heard what happened on water questions, and as you know that many Conservative Members of Parliament have bought shares in water companies and that Labour Members have refused to do so, is it right that those Conservative Members should be allowed to ask questions which, by their effect, may help further to drive up the price of water shares on the stock exchange? Is it not improper for them to ask questions that might influence whether a further rights issue should be made to secure further money for the water companies? Could you rule on this matter? Surely it is quite improper
Mr. Campbell-Savours : They should be on the Register Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman said, "As you know". I have no knowledge of such matters. If they are recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, I would have knowledge of them, but I have no knowledge about the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Corbyn : Is it not correct that those Conservative Members who have bought shares in the water companies should now declare that and should not take any part in any debate or discussion of the matter in this House, because otherwise they could be thought to be feathering their own nests as a result of being Members of Parliament?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman knows that there are well-known rules about the registration of interests in companies. If an hon. Member had a certain number of shares that fell within those rules, he would have to register them.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Bearing in mind your answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), which I well understand, would it now be in order for you to rule that an hon. Member can table a question asking for a breakdown by colour of how many people are stopped by immigration officials and how many are deported? A breakdown by colour would prove categorically that the Government are racist in their immigration policies.
Mortgage Costs and Housing
That this House condemns the Government's responsibility for the growing housing crisis ; deplores the rise in mortgage interest rates which has destroyed family budgets, cost some their homes and placed home ownership beyond the reach of others ; warns that
Government-inspired increases in council rents above the rate of inflation will cause hardship to many low-income people ; deplores the Government's failure to maintain the condition of the housing stock and the consequent shortage of affordable housing ; and believes that the scandal of growing homelessness is just the most visible sign of a wider housing failure.
Of all the mistakes made by the Government, and there have been many, none is more resented, none is more painfully felt and none is more likely to cost the Government support than the steep and sustained increase in interest rates--a rise which in itself is an admission of economic failure and is a sign of desperation in the pursuit of economic policy, and a rise which has its most immediate effect, and does its most immediate damage, in its impact on mortgage rates.
The anger and resentment that that has caused are not just the result of the damage that it has done to family budgets, although that is real enough. Average monthly repayments for the country as a whole since May 1988 have risen from £259 to £347, an increase of no less than £88 per month. In London, the figures are even worse, because they reflect a rise of £162 per month. Increases of that magnitude will have shattered even the most careful of household budgets and will have plunged thousands of families into the most desperate of financial plights.
But the anger and resentment arise not just on that account, nor just because, for a tragic minority, the increase has meant the shock, despair and humiliation of losing their homes. In the first half of this year there were 6,350 building society repossessions. There is precious little comfort to be gained from the fact that that high figure represents a small decrease from the even higher figure of the earlier year or two ; little comfort because the lower figure reflects the fact that building societies are playing a somewhat smaller proportionate part in the provision of mortgage lending, and even less comfort because, in prospect, the outlook is much grimmer. Already we see the volume of mortgage arrears growing fast. In June this year, no fewer than 45,100 mortgages were between six and 12 months in arrears, which represented a jump of more than 20 per cent. What is already a grim reality for many people is rapidly becoming a frightening prospect for many more.
But the true reason for the widespread resentment and anger is the sense of betrayal felt by many thousands of people who recall that they were enticed on to that treadmill of spiralling house prices, of ever-rising mortgage repayments, by a Government who told them that we were enjoying an economic miracle ; a Government
Column 997who made them glib promises to the effect that home ownership was a risk-free one-way bet ; but a Government who, with equal irresponsibility, threw everything into reverse when their own mistakes caught up with them and then blamed the victims of those mistakes for being so easily duped.
It is the Government's heartlessness, their almost moralistic zeal in turning the screw, which has added insult to injury, and it is that which has created mortgage misery for millions. In case anybody thinks that that easy alliteration conceals nothing much, let us be clear that it conceals a true degree of desperation. It is that desperation which has made home ownership an impossible dream for some and an impossible nightmare for many more.
It is not just mortgage payers who are suffering. Tenants, too, find that their housing costs are going up sharply. It is not surprising that tenants feel somewhat aggrieved at what they consider to be the excessive attention paid to the interests of mortgage payers. They, too, find that housing costs are rising inexorably against them. Council tenants have been put on notice by Ministers--including the Secretary of State--that the Government intend to force their rents up to near market levels. The new subsidy arrangements and the ring-fencing provisions of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 mean that the Government now have the power to make their writ run, whatever local democracy may require or suggest. Council rents are set to rise much higher than the inflation rate, often against the wishes of local authorities and almost always against the interests of some of the lowest-income families in our society.
At the same time, private sector rents will also rise sharply. The Housing Act 1988, which allows market rents to be charged in place of fair rents and reduces security of tenure, is just beginning to have its malign effect. What that will mean in terms of affordable housing is clearly shown by a survey commissioned by the Department of the Environment and carried out by Price Waterhouse, which was published in August. It shows that a married couple with two children and an income above the qualifying level for housing benefit would be able to afford a market rent for a two- bedroomed house in only two cities in the country--Leicester and Newcastle. For the rest, market rents will mean that private rented accommodation is placed beyond their reach. That is a prime instance of the futility of looking to the market to meet unmet housing needs.
Even housing associations, which are now looked to by the Government as the instrument of salvation, will find that their rents will rise as they are forced to turn to private sector funding. It is little wonder that over the past year housing association rents have risen by no less than 24 per cent.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Is my hon. Friend aware that, in the London borough of Newham, we will be faced next April with rent increases of about 21 per cent. because of Government diktat? Is he also aware that, because of the benefit changes last April, rent arrears--not only in Newham but throughout the whole of London and the country--went up by an average of 38 per cent.? What impact does he think that this enforced rent increase will have on rent arrears throughout the country?
Mr. Gould : My hon. Friend lends detail and substance to the point that I am making. His experience in his borough is echoed and repeated up and down the country--certainly in my part of London. He is right to point out that rent arrears have risen and the difficulties have become manifest before the real impact of the recent changes has been felt. Therefore, as I have argued on other issues, the prospect is even grimmer than the current reality. Wherever people turn, as owner-occupiers or tenants in the public or private sector, they find that the cost of housing is moving sharply and inexorably against them. That is sometimes because of deliberate and direct Government policy--as with the recent legislation--and sometimes because the market is distorted by the excessively high interest rates imposed by the Government. However, affordable housing is a matter not just of price but of supply. Here, too, the record of the Tory Government is appalling. Housing completions have fallen steadily throughout the decade. In the public sector, they have fallen from 113,800 in 1978 to just 24, 800 last year. The total number of housing completions has fallen also--from 240,800 in 1978 to just 184,600 last year. Those figures complete a picture of a grim decade for house building. Worse is to come. I expect the Minister--
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) rose --
Mr. Gould : I am grateful to the Minister for putting the question in that direct and simple way because I can give him a direct and simple answer. Yes, that is housing failure. When it is measured against the unmet housing need--which I will come to shortly--the record is appalling.
It is far worse than the house completion record under the Labour Government. The Government having decimated--in literal terms, having far more than decimated--public sector house building, the prospects for the Government's policy on private sector house building are equally grim. Even the brief 1988 revival in private sector house completions has come to a sticky end as the construction industry grapples with the full brunt of high interest rates. During the first six months of 1989, there was a 17 per cent. slump in private sector housing building. Comparing the second quarter of this year with the second quarter of 1988, we see that fully a fifth of what was then achieved has been lost.
It is hard to understand how value added tax on new domestic house construction will help. I, in common with many others, felt a sense of alarm when the Secretary of State failed earlier this afternoon at Question Time to rule out in absolute terms any willingness by the Government to accept diktats from the Commission in Brussels.
Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on this point, because it was the reply to my question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to which he has just referred. My interpretation of his answer was not quite the same as the hon. Gentleman's. My right hon. Friend said
Column 999that he would consult his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that all possible opposition was mounted if the EC threatened to impose VAT on domestic house construction. The hon. Gentleman is a responsible Member of the House. He should not try to attach such a dishonourable interpretation to my right hon. Friend's answer.
Mr. Gould : I bear with equanimity the fact that the hon. Gentleman's interpretation and my interpretation of what the Secretary of State said are different. We start from different points of view. The hon. Gentleman is intent upon finding the most favourable interpretation. However, the hon. Gentleman has gone even further. Perhaps he should have given the answer at the Dispatch Box ; it would have been a much better answer than that given by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman is fair and honourable. I am sure that he will concede when he consults Hansard tomorrow that he added substantially to his right hon. Friend's answer and that my interpretation was exactly correct ; that the Secretary of State promised only to consult the Treasury and that he gave no assurance, either on his own behalf or that of the Department or the Government, that he was implacably opposed to the imposition of VAT on domestic house building. Housing costs have risen. Housing supply, in terms of new build, has fallen below what we have a right to expect. Housing supply is not just a matter of new build ; it is also a matter of the condition of the existing housing stock. The brutal fact is that the condition of the existing housing stock is growing worse. There are now 2,400, 000 houses in serious disrepair, or 13 per cent. of the total. To put those houses into proper repair would cost an estimated total of £30 billion. That is a shocking record for any civilised country, but it is especially shocking for a country and a Government who have enjoyed over £120 billion of North sea oil revenues. Surely the Government ought to have spent some part of that bonanza on providing decent housing for all our citizens.
The failures have not happened by accident. The problem is--we have had 10 years' experience of it--that the Government prefer dogma to decent housing. They are prepared to carry on a war of attrition against the most obvious and efficient instrument for the provision of housing, particularly for low-income families--the local authorities. The homeless and the badly housed are the innocent victims of that unilaterally waged war.
Local authority housing investment programme spending has fallen consistently over the past decade. In 1980-81, it was £3.37 billion, in 1982-83 it was down to £2.84 billion, and by 1988-89 it had decreased to £1.12 billion in total. The most lunatic expression of the Government's vendetta against local authorities and their role in the provision of housing concerned the spending of capital receipts. The councils have £ 8.5 billion of capital receipts which they want to spend on improving housing stock and housing provision. Incredibly, they are prevented from doing precisely that by central Government diktat.
I hold a regular surgery in my constituency, as I am sure most hon. Members do. Perhaps 80 per cent. of all those who come to see me have housing problems. The inability of hon. Members to deal with those problems is one of the most worrying aspects of our job. I rarely conclude my surgery, which can go on for many hours, without a feeling
Column 1000of desperation and sadness that I can do so little to help. When people come to me and say, "Why can't the local authority spend a little more on putting my house into proper repair ; why can't they build a few more flats for young married couples ; why can't they spend some of the money that they must have received from the sale of council houses and council property?", I tell them that local authorities are not allowed to do that, as the Government have consistently prevented them from spending more than 20 per cent. of their receipts on those obvious and worthwhile purposes.
Almost invariably, my constituents look at me pityingly. One can see the disbelief spread across their faces. They think, "Here is yet another politician flannelling on about absolute nonsense." They cannot believe that any Government could be so misguided and illogical as to impose such a stupid and damaging restriction.
Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West) : Most of my constituents who come to see me also have housing problems. What they have in common with the hon. Gentleman's constituents is that they are tenants of Labour authorities. Can he explain why the vast majority of empty houses, outstanding repairs and uncollected rents are in Labour-controlled areas?
Mr. Gould : That is a familiar canard. The rate of empty property in local authorities is lower than it is in housing associations and in the private sector, and substantially lower than it is in the rest of the public sector, where Government Departments predominate. A housing crisis is building in Britain. Any conscientious Member of Parliament who carries out regular constituency surgeries will have seen the evidence. Those hon. Members who profess to be unaware of the growing housing crisis, the housing time bomb that is ticking away, must be uniquely advantaged and live in the most prosperous parts of the country, because elsewhere a growing tide of humanity is condemned to a miserable, depleted and distorted existence because people do not have proper housing.
Undoubtedly the most tragic victims of the housing crisis are the homeless. Let no one say that there is no homelessness crisis in Britain. Last year, 117,550 families were accepted on to homelessness lists. That means that 337,369 people are homeless. Even that figure is dwarfed by the 242,000 families that applied for the status of being homeless. Homelessness is not a problem only in London. It is a problem in Gateshead, where homelessness has risen by 27 per cent. in the past year. In Colchester, it has risen by 48 per cent. and in leafy Salisbury by 52 per cent.
Those appalling figures do not include the most distressing manifestation of homelessness. The young people who are forced to beg by day and to sleep on our streets by night are not included in the figures, yet they are part of the daily experience of everyone who walks the streets of our major cities, particularly our great capital city. They are a blot on the face of this country and in particular on the Government's record. It is a sight that we had assumed had been pushed unmourned into the less salubrious pages of our history. Faced with that problem, the £250 million spread over two years which was announced in the Autumn Statement is no more than a drop in the ocean. It is totally inadequate to deal with the size and the seriousness of the problem of homelessness.
Column 1001This problem has not arisen by accident. Homelessness is simply the most visible sign of a wider, deeper housing failure. A housing failure is not just an ordinary failure of Government policy ; it is a failure by the Government to fulfil one of their basic duties to the people. There is something peculiarly shocking about the failure of a rich, self-proclaimedly civilised country that fails to provide a decent roof over the head of each of its citizens.
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) rose--
There is nothing more fundamental to human dignity than a house of reasonable comfort and security.
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton) rose--
There is nothing more destructive of family cohesion or individual self- respect than condemning people to unacceptable housing conditions.
The solution clearly requires a fundamental reappraisal of many aspects of policy--the growing regional imbalance, the failure to use planning law to establish adequate new provision of housing, particularly in the south- east, the allocation of resources both between housing and other services and within the housing budget between owner-occupiers and others. Of course the solutions require fundamental reappraisal, but much more immediate steps can be taken--the reversal of the serious and avoidable mistakes in housing policy which have been made by the Government and which have made our housing conditions in modern Britain not just a crisis but a scandal.
"welcomes Her Majesty's Government's commitment to home ownership throughout the last ten years which has enabled many more people to own their homes ; recognises the benefits which have resulted from the introduction of the Right to Buy for council tenants ; further recognises that the Government's sound economic policies have played an important part in facilitating the growth in owner-occupation ; and urges the Government to maintain those policies in the interests of home owners, first-time buyers and the nation as a whole." In common with speeches that we are accustomed to hearing from the Labour Front Bench, that of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) was long on a description of problems, much of it inaccurate, and short, almost to the point of non-existence, of any suggestion as to how he and his party would set about tackling those problems. It was so lacking in any substance that, as a serious contribution to debate on housing policy, it was little short of a disgrace.
We should not be too hard on the hon. Gentleman, because we know what trouble he gets into when he embarks upon the task of suggesting what policies might be used to deal with these problems. We know of his contributions to clarifying the Labour party's policies on housing, even before he was given his present responsibilities. His television appearances on these and other matters have become collectors' items, and we greatly look forward to more.
Mr. Howard : I am coming to that. I am interested in dealing with policies. Thanks to Brian Walden's revealing interview with the hon. Member for Dagenham, we know what the hon. Gentleman's policy would be--to target and penalise all those who seek to move to a larger house. People with growing families would bear the brunt of the policies which the hon. Gentleman did not dare mention during his long speech this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman even had the good grace during the interview to tell these growing families that, although they would be "hit", they would be "fully warned", and, in any event, his proposal was "in their interests". He finally assured them that their inability to house a growing family would be simply a "fairly marginal impact" of Labour's policies. The hon. Member for Dagenham was advocating direct controls on mortgages.
None of us should be surprised by such an approach, because it is the approach of the Socialist down the ages. Socialists believe that, if one sees a problem, one should slap on a control and form a queue. The Labour party is never happy without a queue or two, or preferably three or four. It satisfies its natural predilection for the hair-shirt. Its approach has always been that if everyone cannot have something, it should ensure that getting it becomes as painful as possible for those who can.
Mr. Gould : The Minister mentioned hair-shirts. Has he bothered to ask himself how many of his own constituents are obliged to wear the hair- shirt because of the Government's policy of high interest rates? How many repossessions have occurred in his constituency, or has he not bothered to find out?
Mr. Howard : I am well aware of the problems. I shall deal with them in my speech, and I shall deal with high interest rates as well. The hon. Member for Dagenham has clearly advocated the imposition of physical controls on those who wish to move into a larger house because they have a growing family. That is his policy, which was announced clearly in the interview to which I referred. It is right that we should all know about it, and that none of us should be under any misapprehension.
Mr. Gould : I had hoped that the Minister would not pursue this futile course for much longer, but as he insists on misdescribing what I have said--and what many others beyond the Labour party have said, including many Conservative Members--I must make it clear that we have always sought not to prescribe policies for 1991 or 1992, when a Labour Government will at last come to the rescue of the British people, but to rebut the suggestion that is constantly put from the Dispatch Box that there is no alternative to high interest rates.
There is a huge consensus across the board, embracing hon. Members of all parties, including some of the Minister's hon. Friends, that the Government are wrong to impose mortgage misery on so many people on the pretext that there is no alternative but high interest rates. The last thing that I--or anyone else--has done is to prescribe policies in this respect for the next Labour Government. We are saying that at present, in the dilemma and mess that have been created by this Government, it is simply not the case that there is no alternative to high interest rates.
Column 1003Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman has a short memory. I have here the full transcript of his interview with Brian Walden, in which he clearly and specifically set out his alternative to higher interest rates. His alternative was the imposition of direct controls on the amount that a person could borrow if he wanted to move into a larger house. I want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. His great merit-- although I am sorry to see him resile from it somewhat this afternoon--is candour. He is very open about these matters. Some Labour Members find the hon. Gentleman's approach uncomfortable. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) could not wait to slap down the hon. Member for Dagenham. He went on to the Walden programme the next week- -the earliest possible opportunity--to disown his hon. Friend. He said : "there is no way in which we are going to penalise a family which wishes to buy a larger house".
The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer was equally unhappy. He put forward his own remedies. He has it in mind to solve the difficulties by entering into a social contract with the clearing banks. He would not come forward with straightforward controls, as the hon. Member for Dagenham did. The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East believes that he could achieve the same objective by nudges and winks, and by backdoor deals with the bankers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham on his straightforward approach. It was no doubt his remarks that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) had in mind when he wrote a letter to Roof, the magazine of Shelter, in which he said :
"Our plans for owner-occupiers are not for the fainthearted." Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington) : If the Minister proposes to speak for the same length of time as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), he must now be more than halfway through his speech, yet he has not touched on the greatest problem of all in our society, which is the large number of homeless people. What attempt has he made to count the number of homeless people, especially in London, and what measures does he propose to take to do something about it? Is he aware that one telling manifestation of this great sickness in the Government's policy is that nearly every evening someone sleeps right outside the Palace gates? Is not that a disgrace, and is it not time that the Minister reached the part of his speech dealing with the subject about which people want to hear?
Mr. Howard : Homelessness is an aspect of the problem which we must take very seriously indeed and with which I shall certainly deal during my speech. But we do not get anywhere by describing problems without advancing solutions to them. The hon. Member for Dagenham spent his whole speech in an inaccurate description of the problems without giving us so much as a paragaph of solutions.