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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any request from the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement about what seems to be a significant oil pollution incident in parts of Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, including Wigtown? There appears to be marine diesel fuel and heavy oil involved, and it is crucial that we find out what has happened, because there seems to be no mention of the incident on Lloyd's Register . Can we have a statement on the matter?

Madam Speaker : No Minister has informed me that he is seeking to make a statement today, but of course those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Lady said.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This afternoon, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) have returned to the smearing of my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition in relation to Monklands district council.

It ought to be brought to the attention of the House that today's edition of The Herald, a respected newspaper

Madam Speaker : Order. I should like to hear the hon. Gentleman's point of order for me.

Mr. Hogg : The point of order is this, Madam Speaker. The House is being constantly abused, and two senior Members of this House are being constantly attacked and smeared by Government Members. The Government auditor for Monklands has now given the council a clearance certificate from the Audit Commission, and there is no basis whatever for allegations of corruption or of improper behaviour.

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker : Order. I can deal with the matter. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing parliamentarian, and I think that he is trying to prolong the debate. As to the hon. Gentleman's remarks on questioning, if the questioning had been out of order, I would have ruled it so. I should like the House to get back to debating policies, and not personalities.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Order. It does not relate to the previous point of order, does it?

Mr. Gallie : No, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : I will take the hon. Gentleman at his word.

Mr. Gallie : Is it permissible for the hon. Member who represents one constituency to mention the name of an industrial complex in the constituency of another hon.


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Member? If so, was it in order for the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) to have hurled abuse at me from a sedentary position?

Hon. Members : Yes.

Madam Speaker : Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to his first question. As he heard me say earlier, the House should get back to policies and leave personalities out of debates.

Northern Ireland Committee

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 99(2) (Matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland).

Children (Northern Ireland)

That the Matter of the proposal for a Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, being a Matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Committee for its consideration.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS, &c.

Auditors

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Auditors (Financial Services Act 1986) Rules 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Accountants

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Accountants (Banking Act 1987) Regulations 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Auditors

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Building Societies (Auditors) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Auditors (Insurance Companies Act 1982) Regulations 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Cultural Objects

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Regurn of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]


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Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Scientific Research

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Building Societies

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Building Societies (EFTA States) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Not fewer than 20 Members having risen in their places and signified their objection thereto, Madam Speaker-- declared that the Noes had it, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Sheriff Court Fees

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.). That the Sheriff Court Fees Amendment (No. 2) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 2957) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.


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Statutory Instruments (Debates)

3.35 pm

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it perhaps correct to point out that Standing Order No. 101(3) was introduced by the Procedure Committee specifically to allow non-contentious statutory instruments to go straight into Standing Committee? As a result of the action of hon. Members today, we shall have a debate of perhaps 15 to 20 hours on non-contentious statutory instruments. If that is the case, the sooner we get Jopling introduced, the better for everyone.

Madam Speaker : The right hon. Gentleman is commenting on the findings of a Select Committee. I assume that all Members here, by the individual action they take, know precisely what they are doing.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have noted the two interventions in the past week of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. Are you aware that some of us are disturbed by the way in which he is clearly backing the Government in his interventions while he remains Chairman of the Committee? Some of us believe that, if he persists in doing so, a resolution of the House will be required to deal with the problem.

Sir Peter Emery : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. If people listened, they might notice that I have tried to further a unanimous recommendation of a Select Committee of the House to introduce some modernisation of Standing Orders--I refer to Jopling. I shall go on doing so, because I believe that it is my duty so to do.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) suggested that statutory instruments should be sent upstairs because they are non- controversial. Is it not true that Statutory Instruments can often be as long as, or, indeed, longer than, major primary legislation, and that they affect millions of people? Is there not a good case for taking more statutory instruments on the Floor of the House, where they are subject to full scrutiny, rather than pushing them upstairs into a Committee? It is time that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged that.

Madam Speaker : We are now entering into a debate on procedure. I shall not allow that to take place.


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Leasehold Law Reform

3.38 pm

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law regarding privity of contract and estate for future but not existing leases ; and for connected purposes.

If the small-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) would be quiet, he might learn something for the benefit of his constituents. If the small business sector compiled lists of restraints and barriers to trade, it would not be surprising to find commercial leaseholds and the law relating to them, if not at the top of the list, almost at the top. It is for that reason that my Bill concentrates on how smaller businesses might be helped by changes to commercial leasehold law.

Part of my effort is motivated by the fact that I and all hon. Members have recently seen more and more boarded-up shops and vacant shop fronts standing out like blackened teeth, disfiguring the towns and villages of our constituencies, and contributing to the rundown of community life. My Bill will help to reverse that decline, by giving small businesses a fairer deal when undertaking commercial leaseholds. It will give confidence to small business men who take the plunge and start a new business.

My Bill will enable consideration of upward-only rent reviews, privity of contract and compensation if rates are found to be too highly assessed. It is normal for a small business entering into negotiations with a landlord to be faced with a gross imbalance of power. While that imbalance has been partially corrected by the recession, there is no doubt that normal service will be resumed once the property market recovers. It is not surprising that small business men find themselves having to sign contracts, which normally they would be considered insane to sign.

Big businesses are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves. They can employ lawyers and accountants to argue their case on leasehold negotiations. Smaller businesses do not have that strength. It is because of that imbalance of power that I believe that the Government should go further to introduce leasehold reforms to protect the interests of smaller business. That is the purpose of the Bill.

My greatest concern is over privity of contract--whereby an individual taking a lease assumes liability for rents due many years later from organisations with which he may have had no connection and for which he has no responsibility. I have heard of cases in which, decades later, individuals have been presented with demands for tens of thousands of pounds and, as a result, have been subjected to personal bankruptcy. The hand of the landlord can reach out literally to the edge of the grave. That unfairness should be redressed. In addition to the proposed limitation of privity to the immediate successor, I recommend that the sword of Damocles be removed after a reasonable but specific time. Lease lives have diminished--the average lease life here is about 15 years, and in the United States it is much shorter. That is still far too long for the individual to be liable for rents--he may have moved on, sold up or even retired. Therefore, for smaller businesses of less than approximately 3,000 sq ft, there should be a five-year limit, after which responsibility is diminished. That would prevent some of the worst cases of personal hardship


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caused by privity of contract in commercial leases. Surely five years is long enough for the landlord to assess whether the new tenant is good enough or to find another tenant.

I am aware of the need to rebuild investor confidence in the commercial property sector, but I am concerned that such a consideration may override all others. As I said, commercial landlords are in a much stronger position than the smaller business man, which is reflected in the majority of leasehold agreements. The landlord has the ability to obtain agreements, not only on privity of contract, but on upward-only rent reviews.

It seems strange, to say the least, that landlords are content to set new rentals according to current market conditions, while future reviews remain blind to any change of circumstances that might affect property values. I cannot think of any other traded commodity that can only rise in price. Upward-only rent reviews should therefore be prohibited. Instead, rents should be adjusted according to market conditions.

The wholesale abolition of upward-only rent reviews would bring sense to a nonsensical practice. The commercial property market is not unique : other capital-intensive industries that have no plan for the long term. The fluctuations in the commercial aircraft industry make life in the property market seem almost secure. I do not accept, therefore, that commercial landlords need special allowances for their circumstances.

Together with privity, upward-only rent reviews inflict tremendous commercial and personal harm on small businesses and their owners. Even the industry's own representative, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, has acknowledged that

"real hardship is being suffered and that, in some cases, paying rents above market levels can be a contributory cause of insolvency."

Limited compensation measures should be introduced to provide some redress for a small business that is driven from a property by an upward-rent review, only to see the landlord let that property at a lower rental. That compensation would be offered within a specific period of two years. A compensation scheme would encourage flexibility, and would surely benefit all concerned.

I speak with some experience, because I know of a constituent who was charged a rent of £13,000 a year. That was too expensive for him, and he went into bankruptcy. Within a few months, however, his landlord, who had refused to agree to a lower rent, relet the property for only £10,000 a year. My Bill would introduce changes that reflect current market conditions.

I accept that a deal is a deal, and that what is past is past. The measures contained in my Bill would therefore not be retrospective. The small business sector is the one that will provide jobs as the economy expands. It is the acorn from which the oak can grow. I sincerely recommend the Bill to the House, because it would amend commercial leaseholds to give small businesses a better chance of getting started and a fairer deal.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Page, Mr. John Fraser, Sir Michael Grylls, Mr. PeterThurnham, Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. James Couchman and Mr. Spencer Batiste.

Leasehold Law Reform

Mr. Richard Page accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law regarding privity of contract and estate for future


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but existing leases ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 22 April and to be printed. [Bill 39.]


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OPPOSITION DAY

[2nd Allotted Day]

Housing

Madam Speaker : I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.47 pm

Mr. Jack Straw : I beg to move,

That this House, noting that investment in housing has more than halved since 1979, whilst housing benefit costs have rocketed, that homelessness has trebled, that for the one million who face negative equity the dream of home ownership has turned into a nightmare, and that half a million building workers are on the dole, condemns the failure of the housing policies of Her Majesty's Government, the latest proposals to remove the basic right of the homeless to a permanent home, and the mean and nasty consequence of government policies which led Westminster City Council to spend millions on designated sales schemes which have harmed tenants and owner occupiers alike ; and calls for policies to secure real choice between tenures, which revive housebuilding through the phased release of capital receipts, which make more effective use of a socially responsible private rented sector, deal humanely with the homeless, and provide better advice and protection for home purchasers.

Britain faces a housing crisis unparalleled for four decades. In the past 18 months, the Labour party has published five separate documents setting out its proposals to tackle that crisis. If the Government had any sense, they would adopt them today. Those documents set out a clear strategy and a call for action to deal with that housing crisis.

The right to a decent home is fundamental in a civilised democracy. Without that basic entitlement, it is almost impossible to exercise all the other rights that we all take for granted. We now are faced with a Government, however, who see themselves as having little responsibility for ensuring that every one of our citizens has a proper home. We have a Government who, in the face of such a crisis, have decided to slash still further their pitiable capital investment budget.

The biggest problem is the lack of adequate housing supply. What makes the Government's response even worse is the fact that the resources are there to make a start on tackling that crisis. They exist in the form of more than £5,500 million of accumulated capital receipts, which are currently locked away in council bank accounts by order of the Government. We believe that those receipts should be used to buy up empty and repossessed homes and to build new homes. With the number of housing starts down by 100,000 on the level achieved by the Labour Government, before 1979, that emergency house building programme is desperately needed.

Only absurd Treasury dogma stops those receipts from being invested in housing now. How can the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction explain to the young couple who want to set up a home before starting a family that they may have to wait indefinitely, because his Government will not let their local council build homes with money which it already has, but which is locked in the bank by Government order?

It was difficult enough for the Government to justify their refusal to allow local authorities to spend their capital receipts before the 1992 autumn statement ; it is virtually impossible now. In the 1992 autumn statement, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer--the right hon. Member for


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Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont)--conceded the exact principle for which we have argued : that councils should be able to use all their current capital receipts to rebuild houses and rehouse people. If the receipts could be unfrozen for 13 months, why could they not be unfrozen for another year? If current receipts could be reinvested in housing, why could not the same apply to accumulated receipts?

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his proposal would add £5.5 billion to the public sector borrowing requirement? How does he square that with the assurance given by his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) that the Labour party has no firm spending commitments?

Mr. Straw : This is the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends faced last year. If it was right to unfreeze capital receipts last year--notwithstanding the way in which the PSBR is defined-- why is it wrong this year, when the housing crisis is even worse?

What lies behind the Government's prohibition is an irrational hatred of council housing. They believe that there is only one legitimate form of housing tenure : home ownership. They have a one-club housing policy, which is as profound a failure as their one-club economic policy. Labour believes in real choice among different forms of housing tenure, which is why we have published proposals for flexible tenure.

Potential owners should be given more flexible choice in regard to home ownership. Shared ownership schemes should be offered by social landlords, allowing people to own as much of a home as they can afford while paying rent for the rest. They could then "staircase" up to full ownership as income and circumstances permit it ; we believe, however, that they should be able to "staircase" downwards as well. Reducing the mortgage element that people pay and turning mortgages into rent is surely better than turfing families out of their homes when they cannot manage mortgage repayments.

If there is to be real choice between different forms of tenure, we need a healthy private rented sector. Conservative Members routinely pay lip service to that ; yet the proportion of households renting private homes has halved since 1979 and there are more than 800,000 empty private homes. Since 1989, deregulation has been a profiteers' charter, just as deregulation in 1957 did not lead to an increase in the private rented sector--as Conservative Ministers then claimed--but led to a collapse in that sector, and to Rachmanism.

In a speech last week, launching what was described as

"a swingeing attack on the Government's housing policy", the chief executive of the Halifax building society spoke of "a polarisation of tenures between owner-occupation and housing association or local authority renting. Little choice exists." Britain suffers from the lack of a viable alternative to social renting or owner occupation. Labour has presented proposals to encourage the development of a new, socially responsible private rented sector.

Home owners and potential buyers have not been helped by the Government's one-club policy, either. They have been given precious little protection against the unscrupulous and irresponsible behaviour of some mortgage lenders. Many thousands of households are trapped in homes that are worth less than they paid for


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them, with mortgages that they cannot afford. Labour wants tougher regulation of mortgage lenders, and better advice and protection for home purchasers.

The measures that I have outlined have been demanded for years by housing organisations, building firms, home owners and tenants alike. They are common-sense measures, which ought to be utterly uncontroversial. Not long ago, even a Conservative Government would have based their policy upon them. In 1924, the first Labour Government had to establish the basis for a common-sense housing policy, and it will be our job after the next election to re-establish it.

Although it was often a matter of intense debate, for many decades after the war a broad post-war consensus existed between the parties about the balance and purpose of housing policy right up until 1979. There were mistakes as Government and councils tried to make up the massive deficit of houses caused by bombing and slums beyond repair, but those mistakes were shared.

Today, almost every Conservative speech on housing is peppered with references to 1960s tower blocks, as though they were a Labour invention, but it was the 1944 Abercrombie plan agreed by the wartime coalition which had the idea of tower blocks, and the 1951-55 Conservative Government who began the error of forcing tower blocks and industrialised buildings on councils whether they wanted them or not. New subsidy arrangements by the Conservative Government in the mid-1950s encouraged tower blocks against the building of traditional homes by increasing the subsidy on buildings of six storeys or more. Under pressure from private construction firms, the then Conservative Housing Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, became an evangelist for tower blocks, telling the House in November 1962 and again in December 1962 of the necessity

"to take advantage of industrialised techniques which make smaller demands on available labour in order to meet this larger programme".--[ Official Report, 13 November 1962 ; Vol. 667, c. 22.] At least at that time, both sides recognised the importance of a mix of tenures. Whilst the majority of people--an increasing number--rightly wanted to own their own homes for the rest of their lives, there would always be a need for affordable, decent homes to rent which had to be provided through councils and housing associations.

That broad consensus changed in 1979, with the first election of the present Administration. The Conservative manifesto of that date committed the incoming Government to legislating on the right to buy and to measures to revive the private rented sector. It was wholly silent on any positive role for the social housing sector. Since 1979, council house building has been virtually abolished, but building by housing associations has only spasmodically reached levels attained by Labour. The overall consequence is that the number of social housing units being built each year has dropped from 100, 000 a year with Labour to 35,000--or one third--under the Conservatives.

Nor has private housing fared much better. Overall starts are down 110,000, from 270,000 under Labour in 1978 to 160,000 under the Conservatives in 1992. During that period, public investment in housing has halved, at today's prices, from £13 billion in 1978 to £6 billion in 1991-92 and it is still falling, with a cut of £500 million


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