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Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport) : I shall try to keep my comments brief so that other hon. Members can get in.

My interest in housing started as an elected representative back in 1970, when I was elected to the Solihull county borough council. Immediately, my talents were noted, because I became the Labour party spokesman on housing on that council, which is hardly surprising as I was the only Labour Member on the council at the time. I remember the people who came to see me. They made the same points : inadequate housing ; the houses were too small for their family needs ; they needed to move on medical grounds ; or they had no decent home in which to live.

Coming to the House 22 years later, I hoped that I would hear something different after 19 out of the past 24 years in which Tory Governments have been in power. What is different now is that the situation is somewhat worse than it was in 1970. Why has the housing situation not improved?

We listened to the Secretary of State for Social Security at the Tory party conference--a normally mild-mannered man, or he likes to give that impression. But he suddenly found his bark at the conference last year. He blamed single teenage pregnant women for causing the problems of homelessness. He intimated that young teenage women were rushing out to get pregnant to qualify for a council property. It is probably not in the briefing from Tory central office, which has been circulating with some controversy on the Conservative Benches, but if he reads his Department's documentation, he will see that it says that only 2 per cent. of homeless households are headed by single people in the public sector.

Some of that 2 per cent. have no children and have been housed for special reasons, usually because of their vulnerability. The fact is that only three out of 1,000 public sector households are headed by a single teenage mother. But that did not stop the right hon. Gentleman making his attack on that most vulnerable group--single mothers. Those women are coping on their own, often in very difficult circumstances. Yet, to get cheap applause at the

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Tory party conference, the right hon. Gentleman managed, with others in the Cabinet, to blame them for the housing shortage. There are empty houses all around Plymouth, Devonport. Many are former council houses that have been repossessed. During the heady 1980s, people were encouraged to buy their houses. Now they are being plunged into the Tory recession. Many people have lost their jobs. There has been a massive loss of jobs in the dockyard. In the 1987 and 1992 elections, we were told that that would not happen. Those people have had very little help from the banks and building societies, contrary to what we were told about a year ago by the Prime Minister.

What happens when those people's homes are repossessed? They find their way on the road to the city council and are then rehoused by the city council. The city council has now lost access to two properties : one that sold and is lying empty, often derelict and boarded up ; and the other which is occupied. In and around my constituency, many private properties have been repossessed and are lying empty.

Contrary to the many speeches that we have heard from hon. Members on the Government Back Benches, many of whom are not in their places, the situation in Plymouth is good, because Labour-controlled Plymouth city council is not only working hard to maintain high standards and keep rents low, but has one of the lowest records of voids in the country--0.7 per cent. That means seven in every 1,000 properties are void at any one moment. They are mainly short-term between transfer of tenancies or are in need of repair.

Many other houses are empty. In my constituency, more than 200 properties are lying empty. Who owns those empty houses? Who has left those hundreds of homes lying empty? Often, whole estates are empty. Who owns those hundreds of vandalised houses? Who must pay to have security guards to guard those boarded up properties? Who is not collecting the rent? Who is ensuring that no council tax is collected from those houses? Which feckless uncaring landlord is destroying communities of people who have to live surrounded by boarded-up empty homes? Who has 675 empty properties in Devon and Cornwall? The answer is the Government themselves. The large faceless bureaucracy of the Ministry of Defence has row on row of empty properties in my constituency. I must take issue with the hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), who said that there was a consensus on this matter, and that we all agreed. There may be a consensus among those sitting in the Chamber today, but it is certainly not shared by the Secretary of State for Defence.

Over the years, hon. Members on both sides of the House have tabled questions about empty properties. In October 1988, the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) asked about empty properties in Plymouth and he was told that a total of 486 housing units were in the ownership of the Ministry of Defence. The reply continued : "Over the next 12 months it is expected that 164 will be offered for sale to service personnel under the discount scheme, 278 will be sold on the open market".--[ Official Report, 24 October 1988 ; Vol. 139, c. 62. ]

After waiting a year to see what happened, in April 1989 my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), who spoke extremely well in the debate, asked how many

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Ministry of Defence properties were empty. He was told at that time that 14.4 per cent. of Ministry of Defence properties were empty. Mr. Neubert went on to say :

"Some of these vacant properties are in the process of disposal, others will be undergoing major maintenance or refurbishment, and yet others will be allocated and awaiting the arrival of families to the unit."--[ Official Report, 20 April 1989 ; Vol. 151, c. 277. ] What has happened in that time? What urgent action has been taken by the Ministry of Defence? In June 1989, in reply to a question about a report on empty Ministry of Defene houses, Mr. Sainsbury, the Minister said :

"The report to which he refers recognises that measures are being taken to improve performance in the future."--[ Official Report, 13 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 693.]

By February 1980 we were certain that things had changed. In reply to a question, again put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, Mr. Hamilton said that some of the vacant properties were in the process of disposal. So it goes on. The same dreary answers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. On three occasions the hon. Gentleman has mentioned Ministers by name. That is not done in the House. The hon. Gentleman must refer to them by their titles.

Mr. Jamieson : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I stand corrected. I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence dated 17 January and that is why I take issue with the hon. Member for Finchley when he says that there is consensus on the matter. When I asked how many dwellings were owned by the Ministry of Defence and how many were vacant I was told :

"The majority of the vacant quarters were either undergoing or awaiting major maintenance work or modernisation, already allocated to service families who were due to move in shortly".--[ Official Report, 17 January 1994 ; Vol. 235, c. 443.]

For six years the Ministry of Defence has been telling us that families will be moving in shortly or that houses are under repair. The one thing that does not change is the number that are empty. When I asked my question last year, 9,291 properties were empty. The Minister will recall that six months ago I asked him to make representations to the Secretary of State for Defence on the matter. I am sure that he did so, but as a result of his actions, in December 1993, 10,112 properties were empty--14.4 per cent. of those properties are still vacant. Plymouth city council with 0.7 per cent. vacancies is 20 times better than the Ministry of Defence.

What is the effect of those empty properties on the taxpayer? No rent is collected and no council tax is paid, maintenance costs are high and the Ministry of Defence has to pay security guards to protect them. At the same time, local councils throughout the country, including Plymouth, are paying for people who could easily occupy those properties to go into bed-and- breakfast accommodation. The taxpayer is paying for those empty properties and for the temporary accommodation.

There is a further cruel irony in all this. Last year in Plymouth, 75 of the families that were deemed homeless were former service personnel ; people who had come to the end of their time with the services and left or been made redundant. Those 75 families of service personnel were given six months and then received notice to quit their properties. They then became homeless and Plymouth city

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council became responsible for housing them. The houses that they formerly occupied then stood empty and boarded up. The Minister must take up that matter with the Secretary of State for Defence so that urgent action is taken and we do the best by the homeless and by the taxpayer.

There is a road to success. We have had success with a few homes in Plymouth that were owned by the Ministry of Defence. Eight months ago, in one small cul de sac, Mantle gardens, each of the 26 properties had their windows boarded up after being broken by vandals. One property had lost its roof after people had broken in. Now, with the excellent partnership between Plymouth city council and Devon and Cornwall housing association, I am pleased to tell the Minister that most of those houses are occupied by families who, exclusively, were living in temporary accommodation or in the most appalling cramped conditions. There is an answer to the problem, but we need urgent action from the Ministry of Defence so that those houses are released.

When the boards were pulled off those houses it was not just the homeless and the taxpayer who benefited. A number of young men and women were given jobs repairing the houses, so jobs were created. Instead of being unemployed, 10 or 12 people are doing useful work in the community repairing and rebuilding properties.

I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will address this important problem which is particularly acute in my constituency in the south-west. Its solution will be a partial answer to the serious level of homelessness in my part of the country.

8.26 pm

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I am pleased to participate in the debate. I apologise for missing the first part of it but I had to attend a meeting of the Select Committee on Social Security at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commented on housing benefit and on the housing market. I am sorry to have missed the opening speech by my right hon. Friend the Minister, but I look forward to reading it. However, according to the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), I do not seem to have missed any enlightenment from the Opposition, so I doubt whether the contributions of Opposition Members will be worth reading.

I have enjoyed hearing the speeches by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley made an excellent speech, particularly when he said that we should trust the people. I can see why it has taken so long for the Labour party to have a debate on housing. I cannot remember how many years it is since a debate on housing was initiated by the Opposition, but the Labour party's housing record is appalling.

The latest ombudsman's report on local government says that much the single largest group of complaints related to housing, about which there were 5,037 complaints, of which 2,257 related to the management of council houses, 1,155 to council house repairs, 210 to the right-to-buy policy, 721 to housing benefit and 240 to housing grants ; and that is just a selection. There are plenty more and I recommend hon. Members to read the pamphlet entitled "Choose Your Landlord", which I produced recently.

Previous speakers have outlined Labour's appalling record in London. Lambeth, Hackney and Southwark

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councils alone have cumulative rent arrears of some £70 million, and on the latest figures, vacant houses total 3,400. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland), who was speaking when I came into the Chamber, but who is not in his place now, did not allow any interventions.

There are many more points to be made about Manchester's housing record. I recently received a letter from a former councillor, Ann Carroll, which drew my attention to incidents that occurred during her service in Manchester between 1987 and 1991. She served on a number of committees, including the housing committee. She mentions the actions of the Labour- controlled council which she says "purposely kept council properties unoccupied for periods of up to one year and then moved in their own supporters, and bought votes by allowing rent and rate arrears to become completely uncontrollable, as well as giving massive grants to minority groups and any left-wing organisations After the hard left took control of the City, wards with Conservative Councillors were targeted. Council property was used as was the Council's nomination on housing association lettings In 1990 rent and rate arrears were in the region of £30M with £2.6M written off from tenants who had moved. Hundreds of tenants owed up to 2 years' rent and whilst in arrears were allowed to move to larger premises."

Mr. Straw : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Thurnham : May I please finish the point that I was making ? I shall then be glad to hear an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. The letter continued :

"Amongst those in arrears were council employees and an illegal immigrant who was in receipt of a weekly grant from the council. There were approximately 6,000 empty council properties, yet homeless families were accommodated in bed and breakfast accommodation The wards with the highest rate arrears were with Labour Councillors." I shall now be glad to hear the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

Mr. Straw : The hon. Gentleman has made a serious allegation about Manchester city council's policy. He has alleged that it maintained a designated sales policy. Was the issue referred to the district auditor? If so, what was the result?

Mr. Thurnham : The hon. Gentleman will know that a number of matters were referred to the auditor. I have here quotations from the Municipal Journal of 30 July this year, from The Daily Telegraph of 5 January 1991, from the Manchester Evening News of 16 November 1990 and from the Local Government Chronicle of 21 September 1990, all of which deal with Manchester city council's work.

The council had to order an independent inquiry into its housing accounts after a series of multi-million pound accounting mistakes was uncovered. A council report concealed the fact that there had been major subsidy miscalculations and accounting errors. In the past, Manchester city council had rented out one house for £25 a week while renting the neighbouring property for £296 a week. The tenant in the latter was entitled to full housing benefit.

The Manchester Evening News, which revealed the case, repeatedly asked the local authority to justify its actions but the council failed to respond to suggestions that it had been ripping off the Department of Social Security and, therefore, the taxpayer. The newspaper story was

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published less than two weeks after private landlords had been warned that they could be taken to court for overcharging poor tenants on benefit.

In 1990, the ombudsman issued 15 further reports against Manchester city council over unreasonable delays in dealing with right-to-buy applications that affected thousands of tenants. Ombudsman Patricia Thomas said that the council's actions fell a long way short of providing a satisfactory response to her findings that an injustice was caused by maladministration.

An apology on its own is not enough. Manchester decided not to follow Mrs. Thomas's suggestion that it should compensate tenants for the extra costs that they had incurred or scrap demands for payment of the discount. The council had caused delays of between 18 and 60 weeks on applications. That is not a record of which any Labour Member should be proud.

Bolton council, my own authority, has dragged its feet over the years on the right to buy. A former Labour spokesman on housing, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) who was my predecessor in Bolton, said that she would allow the right to buy only over her dead body, if I remember rightly. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was clearly suffering from a severe attack of amnesia if he thought that there was common ground between the parties on the question of ownership, because that was clearly not the case at that time.

I was elected in 1983. Of a total of 100,000 houses in Bolton, 26, 000 were council houses. After 10 years of the right-to-buy policy, which has been successfully applied in most parts of the country, the number of council houses in Bolton has been reduced to 23,000, a reduction of a mere 3,000. Bearing in mind the average number of council house sales elsewhere in the country, it is clear that Bolton should have sold at least a further 2,500, which would have benefited the council to the tune of £25 million. The council could have used the money to repay its debts or for investment elsewhere. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) was the author of the Labour party's latest housing document, but it states that the private rented sector badly needs a boost. One sees that that is only too true when one compares the privately rented sector in this country with that in other countries.

Of the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we have the lowest proportion of housing in the privately rented sector. In fact, our privately rented sector is less than half the average of the OECD countries. Let us consider the position of some of our competitors : West Germany's privately rented sector is four times the size of ours ; and Switzerland, which has one of the highest standards of living, clearly has a much more successful housing policy than virtually any other country--its privately rented sector accounts for 56 per cent. of its housing ; the private owner-occupied sector is 30 per cent., thus leaving a mere 14 per cent. as socially rented housing.

In the United States, 30 per cent. of property is privately rented, only 5 per cent. is socially rented and 65 per cent. is owner-occupied. In Japan, the privately rented sector accounts for 23 per cent., the socially rented sector for 15 per cent. and the privately owned sector for 62 per cent. It is only in this country that the socially rented sector is more than twice the size of the privately rented sector. There is clearly a major imbalance.

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The Housing Act 1988 was described by Mr. Philip Gibbs, the president of the North West Landlords Association, as a brilliant piece of legislation. I have no doubt that it has changed the climate in which we can develop the private rented sector. [Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) is laughing about. Surveys of tenants' attitudes reveal that tenants are more satisfied in a privately rented house than in social housing because in the latter they are faced with complaints such as those mentioned by the ombudsman. I recommend the report to the hon. Gentleman.

The 1988 Act provided the foundation on which to build a larger privately rented sector. I should like existing legislation to be amended to enable council houses to be sold to private landlords. The Housing Act 1980 established secure tenancies which provided the model for the successful assured tenancies. Under the 1988 Act, a council house can be sold to a private landlord only if he is approved by the housing corporation. I see no need for such an approval.

Mr. Pike : The hon. Gentleman is speaking about the growth of the privately rented sector but does he accept that, as a large proportion of housing in that sector will also depend on housing benefit, it will also in effect be socially rented housing? Should he not therefore be very careful about the context in which he uses the term "socially rented"?

Mr. Thurnham : If the hon. Gentleman cares to wait, I shall deal with that issue. He makes a valid point and I hope to be able to answer him in due course.

I should like the legislation to be amended so that a council house can be sold to a private landlord and so that the tenant can have full choice about who that landlord should be without the landlord having to be approved by the housing corporation. If the tenant has chosen the landlord, what can be wrong with allowing him or her to go ahead? I should like an extension of the right-to-buy policy--one could call it right-to-buy round two--to allow a much larger sale of council houses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) talked about the Institute of Housing for which he acts as parliamentary consultant. He mentioned the institute's interest in housing companies. I do not know whether I could go along with that, because I do not like such corporatist intervention in the housing market. I should prefer private landlords to take initiatives and make investments of their own accord rather than wholesale transfers.

The Institute of Housing has valued existing council housing stock at £40 billion or more. I think that that was a modest valuation but it shows the sort of sums that could be raised and which would go some way towards repaying the enormous debts of local authorities across the country. It could also provide a means for investment elsewhere.

If the Government are serious about promoting the private rented sector, I hope that they will extend the remit of the existing agencies--the priority estates project, or PEP, and the tenants participation advisory service, the TEPAS project--because both agencies do little or nothing to promote private rented housing. It is somewhere in their scope but I do not see it mentioned in any of the leaflets

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that they have produced. The Government should give those agenices a better remit than they have at the moment or introduce a new agency to carry out that function more effectively and to issue a code of good practice for landlords and tenants. A certain amount has already been done, but I would like it to be done more openly.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), who spoke very well during the debate, talked about the rent-a-room concession of £60 a week and called for it to be extended. I support that. In a parliamentary question which was answered today, I asked how many people benefit from the rent-a-room tax relief. I received the answer that information about the number of people who benefit from the scheme, introduced in the Finance Act 1992, is not yet available. I do not know when we shall obtain that information, but I hope that we can extend that concession to include a tenant under another roof and not only under the roof of the landlord himself.

A number of new tax benefits should be considered. We have seen the end of the business expansion scheme, but we could consider new extensions of it-- son of BES. The firm of Johnson Fry, with Mr. Owen Inskip, has done an enormous amount to secure investment through the previous BES schemes. Many hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested--in fact, as much as £900 million has been invested through that route. The Government therefore need to consider new routes for continuing to attract investment into the market.

That is the argument that I would like to make in reply to the intervention by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). We need sufficient tax incentives to encourage new investment. That is what has happened in West Germany, where the private rented sector constitutes more than 40 per cent. of housing. The situation has been brought about by very strong tax incentives. Then it is possible for new housing to be built for rent without it having to be subsidised in other ways, through housing benefit, to the extent that it would have to be if it were done at full cost. That is the way in which I would like the market to develop--that is my answer to the hon. Gentleman--so that the whole load is not taken by housing benefit but by housing being built with every type of encouragement.

Those incentives should be focused on individuals to encourage them to invest. I do not think that we should expect pension funds in the City to do that. Why cannot people see their pension fund sitting there as a house? They can own their own house and then, as they develop any wealth, they can use that wealth to invest in a house for their own pension.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the thinking behind the Labour party's philosophy is that it wishes to retain municipal landlordism as an oasis of social deprivation and that in those ghettos they see political advantage, which is demonstrated in his arguments about Manchester?

Mr. Thurnham : My hon. Friend is right, and it has not done the Labour party any good. Tribune said after the 1992 general election :

"It would be wrong to blame the debacle of May 7"

the local government elections--

"entirely on that of April 9"

the general election.

"In several of the councils where Labour did worst, it did not deserve to do any better, simply on the basis of its dire record in

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office in many areas Labour local government is lacklustre and incompetent. In a few it is simply corrupt and nepotistic". So it has done the Labour party no good and my hon. Friend is right.

I would like the private rented sector to develop through encouragement to private individuals to invest. I would like sales of rented property to be exempted to some degree from capital gains tax, perhaps one sale a year, because that is what is allowed for an owner-occupier. Capital allowances should be introduced in the way in which they are in other countries, at a rate of perhaps 3 per cent. a year, and then, through VAT and corporation tax and inheritance tax, reliefs could be given to reduce some of the distortions that now exist in the market.

The hon. Member for Burnley, who intervened, mentioned housing benefit. Of course it has soared and is projected to increase to £9 billion and perhaps more. The way in which the benefit has grown is unsatisfactory. We need to consider it in a different way, not just as a personal entitlement but as an area entitlement and localised. That has happened with care in the community.

It would give local authorities an opportunity, if they were competent, to bid to be the agency to administer housing benefit, hopefully in a better way than they administer it at the moment. It would be a local entitlement which could be viewed as a limited benefit instead of a totally unlimited benefit. One could then live in the real world instead of a world in which all those things are unlimited.

Ms Glenda Jackson : Is it ideal that an area has a fixed amount of housing benefit and if that runs out the residents will be shifted to another local authority which perhaps has some housing benefit left over?

Mr. Thurnham : I told the hon. Lady earlier that we have an area entitlement with care in the community. I do not think that she is proposing that elderly folk and other people who need care in the community should be moved round from one area to another.

Ms Jackson : But they are.

Mr. Thurnham : I do not think that it is any more relevant than that.

The amount of housing benefit that is provided in any case could be judged much more than on the merits and needs. At the moment there is no incentive for a tenant to economise on a house. If a tenant could live in a smaller and more economical house than he or she is in at he moment, there is no incentive to do so because 100 per cent. of the rent is paid. Provided that the house meets the requirements of the assessment officer as far as the value of the rent goes and it is not so grossly large that the tenant can be asked to move on that account alone, there is no incentive for him or her to move. I do not accept what the hon. Lady said.

Conservative policies are obviously the right policies. Right to buy is an exceedingly successsful policy. My hon. Friend the Housing Minister has been responsible for administering Conservative policy in an excellent and fair way. The new policies of compulsory competitive tendering and right to manage are excellent. Those will make great changes. Rents-into-mortgages is now taking effect. We have the strength of the 1988 Housing Act to build for the growth of the private rented sector. The new consultation document is just coming out. I am delighted at

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the proposals there that the private rented sector can provide housing for the homeless. That has already been pioneered by Derby city and Wandsworth and I am sure that it can be applied successfully elsewhere.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government will consider amending the 1980 and 1988 Acts to allow sales to private landlords and consider tax breaks to help the private rented sector to build new houses for rent.

8.47 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) : Perhaps understandably, the debate has centred around public sector housing, but I want to mention some issues of concern regarding people who live in their own homes and who have been rather neglected, not just in the debate, but by the Government.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Litherland) say that he considered a decent home to be a basic human right. I endorse that. It is disappointing, if not surprising, that neither the Housing Minister nor any of the members of the Wandsworth and Westminster fan club who have spoken from the Government Back Benches has endorsed it. They will not endorse it, because in my constituency thousands upon thousands of people are being denied the basic right to a decent home.

The Minister spoke about the aspirations of people to own their own home. He said that about 80 per cent. of the population would like to own their own home. That proportion was achieved in my constituency many, many years ago. The culture of home ownership was entrenched in east Lancashire years before it became fashionable with the Conservative Government. Well over four out of five of the population in my constituency own their own home. Only one in eight lives in a council house, only one in 17 lives in the private rented sector, and only one in 33 lives in housing association properties. In short, we are the Government's dream of a home-owning democracy.

However, of the 33,000 houses in my constituency, 8,500 are unfit for people to live in, another 8,500 require serious renovation work, and another 500 lack even basic amenities. What was the Government's reaction to the crisis in the private sector in my constituency? They cut the money that the council could spend on mandatory grants and clearance from £3.5 million in the current financial year to less than £3 million next year--a cut of 14 or 15 per cent. If it were not for the tragedy of the people who have to live in those appalling houses, the figures would be a joke.

The estimated total cost of renovating the 17,000-plus sub-standard houses in my constituency is more than £210 million, yet the council will be allowed to spend less than £3 million next year. At the currrent rate of expenditure it would take more than 60 years to renovate and to deal with all the houses. Yet almost all the houses date from the 19th century, and many of them will not last another five years, let alone another 60 years.

The Housing Minister was kind enough to meet me and representatives of my local authority last year in Accrington to discuss the problems. As the House might expect, he was sympathetic, spoke kind words and was his usual urbane self. Unfortunately, his sympathy and kind words did not extend to ensuring that we got the year-on-year increase in resources that would prevent people in my constituency from having to live in unfit houses.

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I wrote a letter last summer on behalf of a constituent of mine who lives in Great Harwood. She and her husband and children are living in appalling conditions ; among the many other problems that they have to endure, the two children share a bedroom with no external window. There is no question but that the family is entitled to a mandatory grant, yet the council has hundreds upon hundreds of similar applications.

I wrote to the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Strathclyde, asking for his comments on the situation, and his reply was interesting :

"responsibility for the renovation grant system rests with local housing authorities local authorities are under a statutory duty to provide mandatory grants .

There is no provision which allows an authority to make the award of grant subject to the availability of resources, or to operate a waiting list for grant applications."

The letter went on to say that if a council did so it would be open to legal challenge and could be referred to the local government ombudsman.

When he replies, perhaps the Minister will advise me and Hyndburn council which law he thinks the council should break. It has mandatory grant applications far in excess of the resources that the Government are prepared to make available to meet them. Should it pay the grants anyway, in contravention of the Finance Act, because it is under a statutory obligation to do so under housing legislation? If councillors did that, doubtless they would face surcharge. Or should the council accept that the Government have not allocated sufficient resources to the problem and defer the payments, in effect operating a waiting list? That is what the authority does. Whichever course of action the authority chooses, it will end up either in court or before the local government ombudsman.

That situation is not unique to Hyndburn ; it is common across the whole of east Lancashire. In the boroughs of Blackburn, Pendle, Rossendale and Burnley local authorities are in exactly that situation. My local council is in some ways an excellent housing authority. It is innovative and works well with the private sector ; it has declared housing renewal areas, in line with Government policy.

Housing renewal areas are intended to be the flagship of urban renewal, and were much trumpeted by the Government in the late 1980s, but in my view they are a complete con and a sham. They build up the expectations of people living in sub-standard and unfit housing that extra resources will follow, yet there are no extra resources. Councils cannot even clear unfit houses to provide space for new developments by the private sector or by housing associations because they have not got the money to do so. In my constituency it is estimated that over the next five years more than 600 houses will fall into dereliction because the council does not have the money either to do them up or to clear them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) will be aware of the plight of residents of Langho street in Blackburn, which was suffering from clearance blight when I was a member of the housing committee on Blackburn council. The local authority, desperate to clear the houses, does not have the resources to do so. Even if we could clear the houses and demolish them, where would we rehouse the people who live in them? There is a desperate shortage of decent low-cost housing in east Lancashire.

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There is virtually no private rented sector there, and the council house waiting lists are as long as your arm. Of course, there has been no council new build in my constituency for years. The Minister cannot even say that the local authority is inefficient, because the voids are less than 1.5 per cent. of council stock.

In Accrington, in the heart of my constituency, people are now sleeping rough on the streets. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is not in his place now, but earlier he suggested that people who sleep rough on the streets do so out of choice. I am sure that at 9 o'clock, when it is dark and getting cold outside, many young people on the streets of Accrington are having a chat and deciding whether to stay at the Savoy or at the Ritz and finally, on balance, deciding to sleep in the bus station. Those are the people whom the Minister thinks should not have priority on the council waiting list, as he said in his nasty little speech to the Tory party conference--it is fair to say that he sank to the occasion. Only a few years ago, in the early 1980s, at the beginning of the Government's time in office, it was completely unheard of for people to sleep rough on the streets in towns such as Accrington, Blackburn and Burnley. If it had not been for organisations such as Nightsafe, a charity dealing with young single homeless people in east Lancashire, the situation would be a lot worse. Only yesterday a new initiative started in Hyndburn called the Stable project--another night shelter for young single homeless people. It was started by church leaders, who were sick of having to step over kids sleeping in doorways in towns such as Accrington. What a damning indictment of 15 years of Tory housing policy.

Housing underpins everything else in society. If, as a society, we cannot even provide every person with a decent home and a roof over their heads, I do not know what we can provide. We are dealing with a Minister who, for the first time ever, has prevented local authorities from bidding for resources on the basis of housing need. From now on, local authorities are to bid, as does my local authority, on the basis of resources that are allocated in the current year. The current year's allocation forms the basis for the consequent year's allocation, rather than in previous years, when bids were made on the basis of what councils felt that they would need to spend. The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction caved in to the Treasury in advance of the spending round this year. He knows full well about the acute difficulties that my constituents face and he chooses to turn his back on them. We have a Housing Minister who cares more about cutting the public sector borrowing requirement than he cares about the 17,000 families in my constituency living in housing need, and it is time that he went.

8.58 pm

Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash) : I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) as I, too, represent a constituency in which a high proportion of people own their own homes. I have heard all my hon. Friends talk about the importance of good-quality housing and it is because of that importance that there are such things as grants to assist people who own their own home and to assist them in renovating their home.

Having a similarly high proportion of home ownership in my constituency to that of the hon. Gentleman, contrary to him I find people come to my door and say that they

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