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Column 833housing policy and programme. I very much hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me to quote with considerable freedom from that document. The hon. Member for Blackburn did not do so, for reasons that will soon become obvious.
In the three quarters of an hour that the Opposition spokesman took, not a single practical policy proposal was presented to the House. First, the hon. Gentleman said that he was in favour of the rented sector but that there was no longer a free market in that rented sector, because the controls had been taken away. That did not seem to me to follow.
Then the hon. Gentleman said, that although he was in favour of the private rented sector, he wanted to say a few words about landlords. Would any sensible person, having heard what he proceeded to say about landlords and fearing that Labour might rule in town hall, county hall or Westminster, go into the rented sector ? Once again, the hon. Gentleman gave vent to one of the aspects of Labour policy that has been most damaging to our private rented sector--a deep-seated animus against any form of renting that is not controlled by Labour councils.
Today's report from Rowntree is in stark contrast to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It makes the point that we need more rented accommodation, so as to provide greater flexibility. The hon. Gentleman did not begin to deal with that, for he dare not produce any policies. He was very upset about various figures he gave us in connection with rents, but did anyone in the House hear him commit any possible future Labour Government to reducing rents ? Was there any costed commitment to that ?
The hon. Member for Blackburn said that there was a surplus of £600 million in the housing revenue account--and he disliked that fact. If he puts an end to that surplus, where will the £600 million come from ? We heard not a word about that.
Then we come to the question of the PSBR.
The hon. Member for Blackburn suggested that one of the things that he would do if he ever came to power was to allow what he called a phased expenditure of £5,000 million from capital receipts. Now, there is already a phased release of capital receipts, and, what is more, there have been periods in which that phasing has been made more generous. But all that has been within the PSBR as stated. I know that the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult to count while he is talking. He finds it pretty easy to talk, so it must be the counting that is difficult. The hon. Gentleman clearly finds counting extremely difficult, because £5,000 million is rather less over five years than the Government have been spending over three years to meet more than the target for social housing in our manifesto.
Column 834extremely carefully to the hon. Member for Blackburn, although with growing bewilderment, because what the hon. Gentleman would not say was whether, if he released the £5,000 million to the local authorities, that would be in addition to the more than £5,000 million provided at the moment for local housing associations. If it was in addition, how would it be accommodated within the PSBR ? When I have heard the hon. Gentleman before on the subject, he has said a rather curious thing. He says that that sum would not count towards the PSBR. [ An hon. Member :-- "Why should it ?"] Why should it ? That is interesting. These are capital receipts, so it is not real money, and if one spends it, one has not really spent it. If it is real money, it must count towards the PSBR, because the PSBR is not some invented figure but a proper comparative figure to see how a nation
Mr. Gummer : No, I shall finish this. Given how well the hon. Gentleman did with the accounting for the student games, he should listen to a bit of accounting, because it is important in this situation.
The £5 billion can only not count towards the PSBR if £5 billion is deducted from spending on housing somewhere else. If that is the case, not only will the amount of money spent on housing not be increased, but it will be decreased, because the money that is given to the housing associations levers in another 40 per cent. on top of the money that is being spent.
I ask the hon. Gentleman a direct question. Is the £5,000 million in addition, and if so, what will be cut from the PSBR in order to accommodate it ? If it is not housing that will be cut, what other sections of the welfare state would be reduced if the Labour party came to power and took that numerically ignorant view of the PSBR ?
Mr. Straw : The answer is that, when the Labour party comes to power it will not be running public finances in the most appalling way that this Government are--doubling the PSBR, wasting billions of pounds of public money in public borrowing on unemployment and keeping people out of work. We will use the money to put people back to work.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer answered the Secretary of State's question himself in his November 1992 statement. He did not raise that problem about the PSBR. He saw that there was a need, yes, to provide additional resources from capital receipts and, suddenly, all the objections about the PSBR disappeared like snow in the sunshine, while restrictions on capital receipts were lifted.
In July 1983, talking about accumulated capital receipts, the then Under- Secretary of State for the Environment, now the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction, said :
"There simply is no excuse for authorities not using those receipts in view of the needs that the hon. Gentleman mentioned."--[ Official Report , 5 July 1983 ; Vol. 45, c. 234.]
Column 835Why did the Minister not at that stage raise the spurious point about the size of the PSBR ? Why has the Government's policy on that changed, not ours ?
Mr. Gummer : First, I should like to return to the question that I asked the hon. Gentleman, to which we did not receive a good answer. What the hon. Gentleman must have meant was that such spending would be in addition, and if so, he really has to go to his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who specifically said that no such promises might be made by anybody on behalf of the Labour party without his permission.
Does the hon. Gentleman have that permission ? [Hon. Members :-- "Boring."] It is no good Labour Members being bored. It was the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East who said that, not me. The hon. Member for Blackburn does not like the fact that, if he released that sum outside the PSBR, he would have to cut spending somewhere else. As for the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction and others, their figures are within the PSBR as stated, and that must be right. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that, it shows that he has not yet gathered why it is that unemployment is falling in Britain and rising elsewhere.
He is saying that he would in some way get people back to work, when the policies that he is putting forward are precisely the policies that force people out of work and which in other countries mean that there are more people out of work than there are in Britain, where the tendency is for unemployment to fall all the time.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Blackburn in destruction, but will instead try to put forward a series of facts that we should remember. First, in the past 15 years, the proportion of households that are owner- occupied has increased from 56 per cent. to 67 per cent. That means that 3.6 million more families now live in a home that they own than was true in 1979, 1.5 million of them as a result of taking advantage of the right to buy, to which the Labour party was vehemently opposed.
I was surprised when the hon. Member for Blackburn replied to the perfectly innocent and reasonable quotation from a comment that he made in 1980 or 1981, when he said that his first housing priority was to repeal the right- to-buy legislation. He did not say that he would do so because he had another system to put in its place. He did not make some latter-day remark about how it was all to do with the fact that a Labour Government could not spend, or might not be able to spend, the money that came from it. If the legislation was repealed, there would not be any capital receipts. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is true.
The hon. Member for Blackburn failed to notice that last year's English house condition survey showed that housing in all forms of tenure had improved between 1986 and
Column 8361991. The housing attitude survey which we published earlier this month showed that nine out of 10 households are satisfied with their housing.
The latest figures for those accepted as homeless by local authorities were down for the eighth quarter in a row, but the hon. Gentleman said that they had risen. He does not understand how to count. He does not understand that, when figures are going down, it means that homelessness is declining, not worsening.
Mr. George Howarth : The Secretary of State urged my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to give an indication of likely policy on rent levels under a Labour Government. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can help us to formulate that policy by indicating what he considers to be the right level of council and housing association rents for 1996 and 1997.
Mr. Gummer : During Question Time today, for which the hon. Gentleman was present, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction made clear our view that rents ought properly to reflect conditions in the wider market, and that they will rise and continue to do so. The hon. Member for Blackburn spent a great deal of time attacking the concept of rent increases, but still did not say whether he would stop them were he, in some unlikely cataclysmic event, to come to power. The hon. Gentleman cannot complain unless he says what he would do.
I remind the House of the hon. Gentleman's policies. He was in favour of new
"flexible measures of tenure".
He did not say which sort, how flexible they would be, where he would find them and how that flexibility would differ from what we already have.
The hon. Gentleman had a second policy. I am sorry that I failed to mention both policies when I said that the hon. Gentleman had not produced any policies. His second policy was that there should be better advice to home owners. That was the second of the two policies presented after the hon. Gentleman's party political tirade. He does not even understand how the PSBR works, and admitted that he cannot count while he is speaking.
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : During Question Time, the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction stated that private rents are expected to rise £73 on average. He indicated that he expects housing association and council rents to reflect that in their rent increases. Does that mean that we should expect rent rises in the housing association and council sectors approximating that figure of £73 ? If so, will the Secretary of State say what will be the impact on housing benefit ?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that because-- properly, in my view--we moved the subsidy from bricks and mortar, where it was available to people whether or not they needed it, to people who do need it, it is perfectly true that, if rents rise, those who are in supported housing and unable to afford such rises have their housing benefit increased. That is how the system works. The hon. Gentleman knows that, and the hon. Member for Blackburn was complaining about it.
At the centre of all the remarks of the hon. Member for Blackburn was the importance of local authorities taking greater control of housing. I understand that the hon. Gentleman claims to be keen about Labour local authorities. He made considerable play of his support for them. I am surprised at that, because, in his day job as minder for one of Labour's leadership candidates, the hon. Gentleman visited the constituency of Monklands, East--where we can see what a Labour local authority is like. It spends £57 per head in Airdrie, and £450 in Coatbridge.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House is debating a motion concerning housing and urban policy in England. Is the Secretary of State in order in raising issues outside the motion ?
Mr. Gummer : I am alluding to something in Scotland as a terrible example for those of us who live south of the border. I point out to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how touchy Labour becomes if anybody mentions the problems of Monklands, because that is where
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. It is a question not of the Opposition being touchy, but of the Chair ruling something out of order. The motion is clear, as is the amendment. I repeat that allusions to Britain, which includes Scotland, are entirely in order, but that anything substantive is not.
Mr. Gummer : I am of course happy fully to obey your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Therefore, my allusion will conclude with one further sentence. Vulnerable people living in Airdrie receive £57 and vulnerable people in Coatbridge receive £450, because the council puts its money where it thinks the votes are. I am in quite a strong position to make that point.
That leads me to the rest of Britain, but particularly to England. If we are asked to put the future of all those people who need supported housing in the hands of local authorities and in the hands of Labour, as the hon. Member for Blackburn would like, we should know who they are and how they would operate. We do not have to speculate about something as unlikely as a Labour Government, but we can talk about the reality of Labour local government.
We can see Labour at work in Lambeth, Hackney, Liverpool and Birmingham. No one who takes a close look likes what they see. They see huge numbers of empty houses--management voids empty and ready to be let, but remaining empty through inefficiency. Hackney has 2,000, Manchester has 1,300, and Liverpool has 1,000. All top 10 local councils for voids are socialist- controlled, with a shameful total of 10,000 empty houses to their discredit.
The story is as shameful in respect of other aspects of socialist housing policy. In rent collection, seven out of the top 10 councils for rent arrears are socialist-controlled--including dear old Lambeth, which at one time had a policy of non-collection of rents. The level of rents does not matter if one does not collect them.
The largest local authority debts are held by the famous 10 Labour authorities. In Hackney, 1,100 of the council's 40,000 properties are thought to be illegally occupied. In
Column 838Haringey, the local ombudsman discovered that 88 per cent. of councillors' letters to the housing department went without reply. That is how Labour wants the housing of our most vulnerable people to be organised.
Having made one or two remarks against Labour local authorities, it is only fair to quote what Labour says about its own authorities. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said about Islington that it was a
"good, radical, progressive left-wing authority".
Labour means by that a council that had £18.6 million rent arrears in March 1993 and which paid a firm to maintain communal television aerials on a block of flats 10 years after they had been demolished. That is what is meant by a
"good, radical, progressive, left-wing authority"
one that has rent arrears in a society in which housing benefit provides the means whereby those who cannot afford to pay rent can get it from the state.
Mr. Straw : In case the right hon. Gentleman has not noticed it, there are virtually no Conservative housing authorities left. Therefore, Labour authorities and those with no overall control will be at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of every list--except for one.
I have the returns for every authority, provided by the Department of the Environment, showing the number of homes in each local authority area that are available to let, but are not let. At the very top is a local authority that has only 40 houses in its stock, but 32 per cent. of those are unlet, even though they are available to let. That council is Suffolk Coastal, the Conservative council in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.
Mr. Gummer : Oh, I have been so looking forward to this moment. Suffolk Coastal is a progressive authority that has sold its entire housing stock, bar 40, to a housing association. Those 40 houses are for emergency help for the homeless. They exist for precisely the people about whom the hon. Gentleman should care. The trouble with the Labour party is that it likes making party political comments, but it does not care sufficiently about the homeless to provide space for them when they need it.
What would the Labour party do with those houses ? Would it leave them empty for the homeless, or would it simply not provide that accommodation ? I know what would happen--it would have a large number of empty houses, but it would not be able to find them when they were needed for the homeless. That is what happens in Hackney and Haringey, where the Labour party keeps control of all its stock.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Gummer : I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later, because he knows a great deal more about the issue than his party's Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). I want to give one or two examples of what the Labour party says about its own councils. That will help us to decide whether it is reasonable to suggest that, instead of
Column 839housing being provided effectively by housing associations, we should put it into the hands of Labour authorities. The Labour document on Camden said about itself that there had been
"chronic overspending on homelessness"
"slack management and a reluctance to address the issue of living within the budget."
What that really means for decent people needing a home is that they do not get them because of
"slack management and a reluctance to address the issue of living within the budget."
That is precisely what would happen if we returned to the old system of supporting people by means of bricks and mortar, and gave money to Labour authorities like those to which I have referred. Several hon. Members rose
"We are the worst landlord in Liverpool, probably in the country . . . It takes genius ; voids gone up ; rent arrears soared . . . the breaking of the law on racial equality . . . Tenants get an appalling service . . . I think the fundamental cause is, frankly, we've put the interests of the providers of the service, the workforce, above the interests of the tenants."
That is the problem. That is what Labour councils always do. They are the representatives not of the electorate, not of the tenants, not of the people, but of the General and Municipal Workers Union, which pays the piper and calls the tune.
Mr. Raynsford rose
Mr. Gummer : I hope the hon. Gentleman can wait, because I am going to ask him a question about it. Keva Coombes's point about the interests of the providers coming first might strike a chord with the millions of commuters who still wait for any candidate for the Labour leadership to condemn the RMT for striking to get 11 per cent. without strings. Not one of them has done so. There would not be any money at all for housing under a Labour Government. The Labour party is committed to handing out money to anyone, from any union and however ridiculous the claim, who threatens it with a strike. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) might want to think about how he would answer his constituents if asked whether he supported a strike for 11 per cent. without strings. They would then know whether he would have any money left for housing if the Labour party were in power.
Will the right hon. Gentleman pay attention to a concept that has all-party agreement ? It is that the worst possible way to deal with the problem of homelessness is to put homeless people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I do not think anyone believes that that would be the right thing to do. What is the right hon. Gentleman's view on the record of Wandsworth council, which at the last count had 435 families in bed and breakfast, the highest figure of any
Column 840council in London, and even the whole country ? It is squandering £5 million a year on that inappropriate and unsuitable accommodation. It is wasting public money.
Mr. Gummer : As the hon. Gentleman knows, Wandsworth council has particular problems. In case he missed the figures, I can tell him that the number of homeless people in bed and breakfast has fallen this year by a further 30 per cent. That is the effect of the Government's policies.
I am still hoping that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will have noticed that he has become a candidate for the Labour leadership. All the candidates have refused to answer the simple question about whether or not they support the RMT strike.
The Labour party does not care about tenants or home owners. It is the party that opposed every reform of housing that we have introduced during the past 15 years. It opposed the right to buy ; it opposed tenant empowerment ; it opposed the rent-to-mortgage scheme ; it opposed leasehold enfranchisement ; and it opposed compulsory competitive tendering on housing management, which would do so much to improve the standards of management on even the worst estates in Labour authorities. It opposed housing action trusts, and it opposed estate action. [Interruption.]
Mr. Gummer : The Labour party is the party of preserving cosy relations with its friends in the unions and the direct labour organisations. In contrast, we are the party of the tenant ; we are the party of the leaseholder ; we are the party of the home owner. The fact is that all the new ideas in housing have come from the Government. During the whole of the debate and in the preceding Environment questions, Labour Members did not put forward a single new idea, other than flexible tenancies and giving more advice. We have introduced the right to buy ; tenants' rights ; housing action trusts ; estate action ; the initiative to use flats over shops ; the cash incentive and tenants' incentive schemes to enable yet more people to own their own homes ; and stock transfers--all the things that lie behind the improvement in people's housing in Britain. We will go further, because there is more work to be done. There is a deep sense of unfairness that would-be tenants in needy positions find they get entirely different treatment. The definition of homelessness is such that there are those who will never be housed because, however dreadful their conditions, they technically have a roof over their heads. By contrast, there are others living relatively comfortably in the parental home who, because they are technically homeless when their relations threaten to throw them out, are by law enabled to jump the queue.
That is why we have introduced proposals for a single waiting list, where real need and not technicalities will determine those with priority need for a home. The one issue that matters is need. Being genuinely homeless is a searing experience, and we propose that much more should be done by local authorities and others to prevent it. We are
Column 841absolutely clear that there must continue to be a proper safety net for those who become homeless through no fault of their own. It seems to me irrefutable that, having helped homeless people through their immediate crisis, a local authority should then be able to take a considered view about the proper allocation of one of its most valuable resources and assets. We hope to tell the House our conclusions on the consultation exercise before the summer recess.
I have already thanked the hon. Member for Blackburn for giving me the opportunity to explain the success of the Government's housing policy so clearly. I must also thank him for allowing me a second bite at the cherry- -for he went on to offer us a chance to illustrate, yet again, the true success of our inner-city policies.
It was in September 1987 that my right hon. and noble Friend the then Member of Parliament for Finchley stood in the middle of a huge area of urban dereliction in Teesside and vowed that "we must change all this". The initiatives of successive Secretaries of State for the Environment have indeed changed all that. I salute their achievements for the inner cities, and am personally determined to continue to take that revolution forward.
The hon. Member for Blackburn decided to make much of the Robson report. I looked carefully at his copy ; it contains a number of pieces of paper, suggesting that he has read at least part of it. It is a long report and there is a great deal in it, but some--including the report's authors-- might suggest that the hon. Gentleman's selection of quotations was, at best, partial. It would be better to say that, rather than relying on the report itself, the hon. Gentleman relied on press coverage of it. His speech provided no evidence that he had read it with the detail that I would expect from him.