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Column 297imposed by the current Housing Minister on even the parsimonious plans for next year proposed by the current Home Secretary. What is crazy about Government policy on public housing is that, as investment has been halved, personal subsidies, so derided by the Conservative party, have shot up. In the wake of massive and unjustified increases in rents, housing benefit costs have risen by 55 per cent. in real terms in just five years, now standing at £7.3 billion--£1.5 billion more than we invested in housing--while the social security bill for the payment of mortgage interest alone has risen fourfold in real terms in five years and now tops £1.1 billion.
The consequence is greater misery in all tenures than any of us can remember for owner-occupiers, tenants, the homeless and building workers, 500,000 of whom have lost their jobs. More than 1 million home owners are trapped in their own homes, unable to move because their houses are worth much less than they paid for them and much less than their mortgage. Some 35,000 people are more than six months in arrears ; 60,000 families lost their homes in 1993 through mortgage repossessions ; waiting lists have increased by 200,000 and number of homeless people has gone up threefold.
Council rents have been forced up at 2.5 times the rate of inflation, and housing association rents are now so high that, as the Environment Select Committee reported :
"Welfare ghettos are now being created where only those on housing benefit can possibly afford to reside, and once there are forced to stay on the dole rather than to take lower paid work available." The Government talk about rolling back dependency on the state, but they have increased dependency on the state with every policy. In 1979, only one in 12 people of working age was dependent on the state. It is now down to one in six. Many of those people are desperate to get back to work, but are trapped on the dole by the insane housing and social policies of the Government.
That situation is almost entirely of the Government's making. Had they established a system by which councils were able to reinvest the proceeds of council house sales in renewing and rehabilitating the social housing stock, a substantial part of this crisis would never have happened. Had they not switched from investment to personal subsidy, they would have saved the public purse millions of pounds and not created welfare ghettos.
Mr. Straw : The hon. Gentleman wants to know where the money will come from for investment. He must look at council house receipts, the amount that is being squandered year after year on housing benefit and other subsidies that subsidise the policy of excessively high rents.
The Government are not renowned for accepting their share of the blame. "The buck stops anywhere but here" is what should be inscribed on every Minister's chair. Never has there been a group of people more ill fitted to lecture the rest of us on individual responsibility than the collection of handwashers and scapegoaters on the Government Front Bench.
Seventeen years ago, the late and good Stephen Ross, the Liberal Member for the Isle of Wight, piloted through the House his Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, with the active support of the Labour Government and many Conservative Members as well. That Act brought in overdue reform. It ended the unfairness of the old law that
Column 298allowed some councils--usually Conservative- -to evade
responsibilities for the homeless, and gave those who were homeless through no fault of their own some highly qualified rights of access to local authority accommodation.
That Act has all-party support and survived the test of time, as even Lady Thatcher recognised when she was Prime Minister. The 1977 provisions were consolidated by the Conservative Government in the Housing Act 1985 and were amended--only slightly--by the Government in the Housing and Planning Act 1986. The Act was the subject of a major review by the then Secretary of State, the late Lord Ridley, in 1988.
The conclusions were announced by his successor, Chris Patten, who, on 15 November 1989, said :
"We believe that the Act remains important The present terms of the Act strike a reasonable balance between the interests of the genuinely homeless and others in housing need. We do not intend therefore to change the law, but we have proposals--
which were sensible--
to make it work better."
He went on to say :
"The real and long-term remedies
to the levels of homelessness
"are to be found in an effective housing strategy, based on the contributions of the private and the public sectors".-- [Official Report, 15 November 1991 ; Vol. 160, c. 243-244.]
I could not have put it better myself.
Mr. Stephen Milligan (Eastleigh) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the situation in my constituency, where the number of homeless people has fallen sharply over the past 18 months, the number of people accepted as homeless has fallen and the number of people in temporary accommodation has fallen, but at the same time 443 people on the council waiting list have been waiting for a long time? Of those, only one family was rehoused last year. Given the limited resources, are not the Government right to change the rules to ensure that people on low incomes, who have a normal family life, do not have to become homeless to get a council house?
Mr. Straw : I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. He has just damned himself out of his own mouth. He said that the number of people accepted as homeless has dropped in the past six months. I suspect that, in Eastleigh, that is not a very high proportion at all. He knows that there are hundreds on the waiting list and that only one was rehoused last year. Why is that the case? It is not because the homeless are jumping the queue, but because of the fundamental failure of the Conservative Government and his council in collapsing the house building programme.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to do something for the people on the waiting lists in Eastleigh or anywhere else, he should join us in the Lobby tonight --join us in unfreezing capital receipts and in giving his council and every other council the right to spend the money that they have raised from the sale of council houses on housing those who are homeless and those on the housing waiting list as well. Despite the continuing squeeze on resources, councils and voluntary organisations have continued to support the conclusions of the 1989 review of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. Many, especially Labour-controlled councils, have made sterling efforts to cut numbers in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, in some cases to eliminate bed-and-breakfast accommodation altogether--
Column 299as Camden has done, for example, despite worse pressure from the homeless, with three main-line stations in its area, than adjoining Westminster, which continues to have to house hundreds of the homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Mr. Straw : Not again : I shall spare the hon. Gentleman. No council or voluntary organisation that I can identify, except, I think, Westminster and Wandsworth--the Minister can correct me if I am wrong--has made any call for a further review. There the policy, broadly accepted, rested until the Conservative party conference last October.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) once attributed the success of his right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) at Tory party conferences to, I paraphrase, the right hon. Gentleman's elegant anatomical knowledge of the body politic of the Conservative party. But no such skill is possessed by other members of this Administration. They know only where to find the cesspit of the Tory party, and their only appeal is to whip up the crudest, the basest, prejudices inside their party.
How they succeeded at the Conservative party conference. The Secretary of State for Social Security won the biggest ovation of the week, so The Daily Telegraph told us, with an attack on alleged foreign scroungers. The Secretary of State for Education launched what may now be seen as a rather injudicious attack on "parents who walk away". The Home Secretary roamed even wider. Single parents with more than one child could have their benefits capped, he mused, and their rights as homeless people severely restricted.
But the man who played the most disreputable role at the Conservative party conference last October, was the man who, until then, had enjoyed a reputation as the most liberal and humane man in this Administration--none other than the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction. His speech signalled that, not content with blaming the unemployed for being jobless, the Government were now going to blame those without a home of their own for being homeless. The specific target of his attack was single parents, especially younger single parents.
Since Christmas, the Government have recognised that the "back to basics" scam of last October has been a catastrophe for the Tory party. Hopeless denials have come from the Tory party that anything was ever said about private morality, while the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction sought to salvage his reputation by pretending that deliberate queue-jumping by single mothers "was not the case I was making for reform",
as he told me in a letter.
References to single mothers have been excised from the consultative document. In addition, there is a most revealing omission which speaks volumes in the brief for this debate, presented and prepared by the Conservative research department, which a well-wisher in that extraordinary department has sent me. The brief is of no more general reliability than the brief issued on Haringey recently, which alleged that two town halls in Haringey had been demolished, both of which are
Column 300still standing. But if we trawl through it, we find endless extracts from the Minister's speech at the Conservative party conference, except the one extract that earned him all the publicity, the one extract that he wishes he had never said.
Let me remind the House what he said :
"How do we explain to the young couple who want to wait for a home before they start a family that they cannot be housed ahead of the unmarried teenager expecting her first, probably unplanned, child?"
Every prejudice one can think of is plumbed in every word. As it happens, single mothers of whatever age have never had priority in the homeless queue, and the right hon. Gentleman knew that when he made his disgraceful speech.
The 1989 review also made it clear that no homeless person had an automatic right to housing, whatever his or her condition. Indeed, the opening section of the review went out of its way to say : "It is important to remember that the legislation does not require councils directly to provide homes for people. A council's task is to assess people's need, and then, if satisfied that they genuinely do need accommodation, to help them secure it. Authorities may use their own stock to do so, or may make arrangements for people to be housed by a housing association or other provider in the private sector." It goes on to say that people presenting themselves as homeless must satisfy three separate tests, and that only if they meet the necessary criteria will they be offered any kind of housing, temporary or otherwise.
Last Thursday, the right hon. Gentleman published his so-called consultation paper, to universal condemnation from all those who have to deal with the homeless. That is no wonder, for, if implemented, its proposals will set back the clock 30 years or more. Fine words such as
"continuing to provide homes for families and vulnerable individuals"
trip easily from the right hon. Gentleman's lips, but Conservatives had better understand what the proposals mean.
The proposals mean that councils will no longer be obliged to provide accommodation for applicants while investigating their application. They will be obliged to secure accommodation for homeless households for a limited period only. They will have no responsibility to help people who have been asked by friends or relatives to leave not their own home but someone's else home if the council believes that they can reasonably continue to live there without what is called "undue strain".
The overall consequenced of the proposals is that many homeless families will not be eligible for accommodation unless they are physically on the streets--not only homeless but roofless. In addition, many families will be moved from one borough to another, from one set of accommodation to another. What will that do for the basic rights of those families, and especially for those of their children?
We must ask again where the demand for the change is coming from. It is not coming from those who have to deal with the homeless ; nor is it a response to the facts. A leaked internal Cabinet paper showed that there was no evidence to link single parents with higher levels of crime or other social disorder. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that single mothers deliberately become pregnant to jump the queue, as the right hon. Gentleman insinuated at the Conservative party conference.
I now read an interesting quotation :
Column 301"I have yet to meet a single mother' who has deliberately become pregnant in order to gain housing or financial advantage." They are the words of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the Minister for Roads and Traffic, as reported in The Journal in Salisbury last week. He was right, and the Conservative Members who have sought to scapegoat young single mothers for their own failure should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
The general household survey published yesterday revealed that the number of single families has altered little since 1990, shortly after the previous review was published. During Question Time only last Wednesday, the Minister of State was trumpeting the fact that the number of homeless acceptances had fallen in each of the previous six quarters. So where is the problem that requires the Government's extraordinary solution?
The problem does not lie with the legislation or its enactment. Of course, there is a reason that waiting lists have lengthened, and to near-infinity in Westminster, as I outlined at the beginning of the debate.
If, at a time of rising household formation, one halves investment in housing, stops councils building any new homes, cuts the total number of new homes in the social housing sector to a third of what it was under Labour, and forces hundreds of thousands into mortgage arrears through crazy economic and social policies, one will of course end up with a crisis --one for which not the homeless, those on housing waiting lists or those trapped in homes worth less than their mortgages are responsible but one for which the Government are patently responsible.
The Government's policy on the homeless has nothing whatever to do with housing need and everything to do with the desperation and political bankruptcy of the Conservative party. Yes, this is a "back to basics" policy, but it is back to the Victorian basics of the Poor Law and the Vagrancy Acts, when the homeless were chased across parish boundaries so that they did not become a burden on the ratepayers--a technique already applied, with disastrous social consequences, by Westminster city council, which sent housing officers scampering across the country to Wigan and to my constituency of Blackburn, offering those astonished boroughs £400 a head if they would take Westminster's responsibilities for its homeless people off its hands.
Yes, "back to basics" is a moral issue ; a matter of public morality and of decency. That policy is amoral, indecent, and unworthy of any Government in the late 20th century--and worthy, above all, of the Minister.
Our motion speaks of the mean and nasty consequences of Government policies. That phrase comes from the formal instructions that were given by the Conservative leadership in Westminster to housing officers, who were told to be "mean and nasty" with the homeless. What has been revealed in the district auditor's report on Westminster is not simply an embarrassment to the local Conservative association. It was central Government's neurotic hatred of council housing which created the climate in which Dame Shirley Porter could set about the social cleansing of Westminster. What started as Tory dogma has ended in the corrupt gerrymandering of Westminster city council's designated sales scheme.
The victims of that policy are, first, the homeless in Westminster, whose needs were mocked by watching decent council homes being boarded up for sale some time, maybe or never.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : The hon. Gentleman complains about vacant houses in Westminster. Is he aware that, under the housing investment programme application in April 1993, 2 per cent. of the Westminster housing stock was empty, but in Hackney the percentage was 9.2 per cent., in Waltham Forest 4.6 per cent., in Tower Hamlets 4.6 per cent. and in Lambeth 3.6 per cent.? Should not the hon. Gentleman's motion tackle those Liberal and Labour councils and not Westminster city council?
Mr. Straw : I have been kind and gentle to Conservative Members. I warned them about not listening to or following Conservative party research documents. I have seen the same one. Unfortunately, I have here a Department of Environment "housing investment programme all items" print. It shows for Hackney, not that 9 per cent. of the homes are empty and available for letting, but 1.54 per cent. [Interruption.]
Mr. Marshall rose--
That 1.54 per cent. is way below the average for local authorities, and seven times below the level of the Government.
Mr. Marshall rose--
Mr. Marshall rose--
I was saying, Madam Speaker--
Mr. Straw : No ; I do not want a very point. The hon. Gentleman was wrong. If he has an argument, he had better take it up with the Department of the Environment, which provided me with those figures.
The first victims of the policy followed by Westminster city council were the homeless. The second victims were the residents, whose council spent £21 million on what the district auditor said was an unlawful housing policy. Many former tenants were sold a false prospectus and are now stuck with maintenance bills they cannot pay, in homes they cannot sell.
Much attention has rightly been paid to the effect of designated sales on the homeless, who were treated little better than chattels, but many of the supposed gainers also ended up as losers. The objective of the policy was obvious. As the district auditor said in his report, it was motivated by considerations of electoral advantage. The intention was to change the electoral base in 18 wards through the sale of council property to people who were likely to be Conservative voters.
Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley) rose--
The link between Westminster city council and the Government is not based simply on similar policy objectives and land deals. There is now overwhelming evidence that Westminster city council involved Ministers. Not only was the Prime Minister happy to commend the example set by Dame Shirley Porter to other local authorities, not only did the present Secretary of State for Employment describe Westminster's policies as a stunning success, but we now know that Ministers were present at key meetings in which Westminster Conservative councillors discussed the designated sales policies. The right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), who is now a Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office--I told him that I would raise the matter today--has already admitted to being present to at least two seminars with Westminster councillors, in 1986 and 1988, at which the designated sales policy was discussed. He could hardly have denied being present, because one of those meetings took place in his room.
The Secretary of State for National Heritage has explained to me that he could not be present today because of a ministerial engagement, and I entirely accept that. The right hon. Gentleman was also present at the meetings, and in a statement to The Observer he said that
"he was aware there was a political dimension"
to the policy. The right hon. Member for Westminster, North went further, and his spokesman said :
"Of course he knew about the designated sales policy and supports it. This policy is fantastically popular in Westminster."
Mr. Booth rose --
Perhaps it is the involvement of members of the Government in meetings with Westminster councillors which explains another curious aspect of the saga-- the fact that the Government have fallen uncharacteristically silent about the whole affair. They are latter-day converts to the "due process" idea when allegations are made against councillors who are members of their party--a subscription which they did not exactly take out when the allegations were about councillors from other parties.
Ministers are now trying to say that a district auditor's report that took more than four years to complete does not provide sufficient evidence to enable us to make a judgment about the policy that Westminster council pursued.
Ministers are at great pains to emphasise the idea that the district auditor's recommendations are only provisional. That is true, and those named in the report are entitled to due process. However, Ministers conveniently gloss over the fact that the district auditor is in no doubt that the designated sales policy was
"unlawful, unauthorised, and to the detriment of the interests of local taxpayers".
Westminster council has not felt obliged to restrict its discussions of the report, and now, notwithstanding the ludicrous leaflets that it was putting out a few days ago, it has decided to abandon the policy, because it recognises how wrong it was. It is high time that Ministers who were involved up to their necks in what was going on in Westminster had the guts that Westminster councillors
Column 304have, and at long last admitted that the policy was wrong. They should understand that they can condemn the policies without in any sense prejudging whether those responsible for them committed unlawful acts.
What happened in Westminster was not an aberration, but the natural consequence of Conservative housing and social policy, bearing the indelible fingerprints of Conservative central office, of local Conservative Members of Parliament and of a succession of Ministers. The pathetic brief put out by central office for the debate today gets up to the usual nonsense of trying to denigrate the record of Labour councils. I say "trying", and it is indeed very trying, because even that effort backfires. The brief contains a list of rent arrears as a percentage of the rent roll. Top of the list, with £16.8 million owing--more than one third of the total rent roll--is Brent, an authority which has been Conservative for the past four years. We need no lectures from the Conservative party about efficiency or probity in housing, or in public life generally. If the Tory party wants to get back to basics, it should start examining the beam in its own eye before looking for the mote in the eyes of others. Of course what is owing should be collected. That is why Ministers should start with the £1.7 billion in uncollected tax, and the several billions of pounds in tax that the Inland Revenue says should come from the black economy.
Of course no public sector house should be empty a day longer than is necessary. So Ministers had better explain why there were 25,000 empty Government properties last March--seven times the empty property rate for local authorities. Ministers had better start applauding the record of councils, especially those such as Hackney, which, with less than 2 per cent. of its stock empty and available for letting, has the best record in any sector. Most such authorities are Labour. If Ministers want to pick on a council, they would do best to choose that of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the Secretary of State for the Environment. Again, if we consider figures from the Department of the Environment, we find that that council has only 40 properties left under its ownership. I would have thought that that would not be difficult to manage. Of those 40, 13--a third--are lying idle. According to figures from the Department of the Environment, that is the highest proportion of houses lying idle of any authority in the country. With 1,463 persons on the waiting list, surely it should not be difficult to fill those dwellings, but perhaps that is someone else's fault too.
Labour wants tenants to get value for money and affordable homes to rent to be available. That is why rents in Labour areas are much lower than in Conservative areas. The Tory party is trying to price up tenants in work out of their own homes. Of the six London boroughs with the highest rents, every one is Tory. The highest rent to be found anywhere in the country is in Conservative Ealing--the borough of the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction--where the average council rent of £66.06 a week is more than twice the national average.
Just as Labour Governments have had the best housing policies, so Labour councils have had, and continue to have, the best housing policies. Of the 25 most efficient housing authorities recently named, 11 are Labour- controlled, three are Labour-dominated and just four are Conservative. That list comes from none other than the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction.
Column 305The Government have failed home owners and tenants alike. They have created a crisis and sought to scapegoat others for their moral, financial and political failure. We need a Government who will end that crisis, provide for those in need and ensure real choice of tenure. The Labour party will provide that Government.
"welcomes the fact that the Government is set to surpass its manifesto commitment to produce 153,000 homes in the first three years of this Parliament by 25,000 ; notes with approval the reduction in the number of families accepted as statutory homeless and temporarily housed in bed and breakfast accommodation ; notes that the size of the nation's housing stock has grown faster than population growth over the last 15 years and its quality has improved and that the mortgage rate is now at its lowest since the 1960s as a result of the Government's economic policies ; commends the Government's policies to secure decent housing for those in need, to provide a safety net for vulnerable people faced with losing their home and to provide more opportunities for home ownership ; and calls on Her Majesty's Opposition to condemn the actions of those Labour-controlled councils who wasted taxpayers' money through mismanagement of their housing stock, failure to collect rents and the imposition of high council taxes."
It is a coincidence that, on the day after I had pointed out to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) at a public debate on housing that the Labour Front Bench had not held one Supply day debate on housing in the whole parliamentary session, the Order Paper should have shown a response to that suggestion.
I welcome the opportunity to set out our record on housing and to describe the wide range of initiatives which we are promoting to bring decent housing to those in housing need. I shall do so on a day when we have good news from the construction industry of a 14 per cent. increase in orders in the last quarter of 1993 and when new orders for private housing are 38 per cent. up on the same period in 1992.
Sir George Young : Let me make some progress and then I shall give way. I want to contrast our portfolio of ideas on this side of the House-- [Laughter.] --with the empty rhetoric of Opposition Members. In its latest editorial, the magazine funded by Shelter, "Roof", says about the housing policies of Opposition Members :
"perhaps the biggest change of all needs to come from the Opposition parties. There is a huge policy vacuum there, waiting to be filled with imaginative ideas."
Before I move on, I shall deal with the question of Hackney council. The hon. Member for Blackburn may have read, inadvertently, from the wrong line. The figures that we have in the Department from local authorities show that in Westminster the total number of management vacancies-- [Interruption.] I shall give both figures. In Westminster, the total number of management vacancies as at 1 April 1993 was 92. In the London borough of Hackney, the figure was 1,091. There were 0.6 per cent. management vacancies in Westminster and 4.7 per cent. in Hackney. The total vacancies, not just the management voids, in Westminster were 331 and in Hackney, 3,750. The percentages are as follows : 2 per cent. for Westminster and 9.2 per cent. for Hackney.