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Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but will he tell the House how it will help service personnel who wish to return to their home towns to obtain accommodation ?
Sir George Young : If my hon. Friend looks at the code of guidance that we issued to local authorities, I think that he will find specific reference to service personnel. He will know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary
Column 31of State for Defence has made a number of proposals to help those leaving the forces to buy their own accommodation in the private sector. A wide range of schemes are available to help service personnel put down roots in areas where they want to live, and I know that my right hon. and learned Friend takes this subject particularly seriously.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) : Will the Minister explain to my constituents, who live in an area with limited assured tenancies and limited private sector accommodation, where the wait for a council house is more than five years, precisely what will happen to homeless families in the first year after they are accepted as homeless, and in the period thereafter ? That is not clear from the statement. If they are not given a secure council tenancy, what will happen to them ?
The Minister referred to "more thorough" investigation of applications from people who live with family or friends. As local authorities such as mine-- the best authorities-- already conduct thorough investigations, what additional investigations is he suggesting they should make ?
Sir George Young : On the first point, I have been particularly impressed with what has happened in Derby, which is not far from the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It has a good relationship with the private rented sector and is finding and taking advantage of property not previously available to homeless families. On the 12-month responsibility, the duty can recur if, after 12 months, there is still a difficulty with the local authority. On the final point, we propose to consult local authorities, which have a number of positive suggestions to make on how we can tighten the intentionality rules.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which he announced he is seeking to amend, was the origin, both in time and in cause, of an unparalleled explosion in illegitimacy and the breakdown of family life in this country ? Will he accept from me that thousands of my constituents will be delighted to hear that we are bringing some justice back into the allocation of what will always be a scarce resource ?
Sir George Young : The original legislation was never meant to be the main route into social housing ; it was meant to be a safety net. Although the number of lettings has remained broadly constant in the past 15 years, the number of acceptances has increased dramatically because people have seen it as a faster route into social housing. It was never meant to be that.
Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South) : Will the Minister tell me and the 9,000 people in Bradford who want housing how many of them will be rehoused as a result of today's statement ? Is not the truth that the forward-thinking local authorities that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned today have considered the whole picture of housing-- housing need and the need for houses-- whereas the statement concentrates on one aspect ? To ensure justice, the whole picture is to build houses. When will we hear something from the Government about when they will allow councils to build houses for people such as the 9,000 homeless people in Bradford ?
Sir George Young : However many houses are built in Bradford, there must be a fair system for allocating them. That is why I believe our principles are justified, at whatever level of supply. I was recently in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in Bradford, where I opened a new housing association development built under city challenge. The Government are making extra resources available to the hon. Gentleman's city to meet the housing need to which he has just referred.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he agree that people who are seeking social housing would benefit if housing authorities were more efficient ? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are thousands of empty council houses in London ? If local authorities were also to collect their rents, they could improve some of those houses.
Sir George Young : I warmly welcome the common sense in my hon. Friend's suggestions. Of course we need to maximise resources for housing and collecting the rents do that. Of course we need to maximise the use of homes which have already been built. Bringing empty properties back into use does that as well.
Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East) : Does the Minister accept that securing a permanent home is a matter of paramount importance for the overwhelming majority of families in the United Kingdom ? Does not his statement herald the creation of a whole tier of families who will simply be shuffled from one temporary let to another and never have the prospect of securing the permanent home they need ?
Sir George Young : Securing a permanent home is indeed a valid objective which many people share. That is why it is important that securing the permanent home should be allocated on a fair basis.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that his statement represents a substantial step towards a more rational allocation of housing in the United Kingdom ? Does he also agree that only those most obsessed with political correctness are against the proposals ? Would it not be better if they allocated more of their efforts to ensuring that the voids in public housing, particularly in Labour authorities, were available to the homeless, particularly in London ?
Sir George Young : In order to persuade Opposition Members, I have quoted from The Guardian , I have quoted from the chairman of the Labour party and I have quoted the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). If I wanted to, I could quote Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk--[ laughter ]--but I will not. There is a very broad range of political support for the proposals that I have just put forward.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) : The Minister must be aware of many cases, in respect of repossessions and marital breakdowns, when families have been taken into accommodation by relatives and friends. Does not the Minister's intention to tighten up the rules on intentionality say to those people, "Don't accept relatives into your homes for fear that they will never be rehoused unless you are forced to go to court against your own family or friends to evict them from your own home" ?
Sir George Young : I understand that point entirely. There will be no need to obtain a court order in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has just described.
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : As for the housing of ex-service men, is guidance enough ? Will my right hon. Friend consider what can be done to make local housing authorities act more justly towards ex-service men and their families, when those men have been serving this country abroad ? Is it not quite wrong that local housing authorities, many of which care nothing for the defence of this country, should be able to put such people at the back of the housing waiting list because of the lack of residential qualifications ?
Sir George Young : I believe that we issued a revised code of guidance to local authorities last year on precisely the subject that my hon. Friend has raised. Of course I will consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to see whether we need to take any further steps to provide accommodation for those who are leaving the services.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : A Welsh Office Minister should be on the Government Front Bench for a statement of this importance, bearing in mind the growing housing crisis in Wales. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that our surgeries are crammed with people begging and pleading for affordable housing ? The right hon. Gentleman's statement today makes it harder--not easier--for right hon. and hon. Members to help the homeless. Is not this cruel and brutal statement in effect a job application to join the Cabinet ?
Sir George Young : I think that I am right in saying that, on Thursday 7 July, there was a half-day Supply day debate on housing in Wales. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister who replied to the debate explained exactly what we are doing to help people in Wales who are in housing need.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the major benefit of his proposals is that they address the key issue that homeless people have had unequal priority over many other deserving cases looking for social houses ? I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement on that basis.
Sir George Young : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. At the moment, those who fall within the legislation are rewarded, in effect, with a tenancy for life in publicly funded housing, at the expense of others whose underlying need might be the same or even greater.
Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) : The Minister will be aware that, in Birmingham, we have successfully avoided the use of bed-and- breakfast accommodation for housing homeless families. Therefore, is the right hon. Gentleman concerned that, in his submission to the consultation, the outgoing director of housing, Derek Waddington, said that, if the proposals are implemented, he doubts whether Birmingham can continue to avoid using such accommodation.
How can the right hon. Gentleman's proposals be consistent with obligations under the Children Act 1989 when there is evidence that families living in temporary accommodation, because of the insecurity they suffer, are under considerable stress ? Instead of taking us back to the era of "Cathy Come Home", would it not be better to
Column 34ensure that local authorities can supply good -quality housing by using their capital receipts or borrowing on the back of their assets, and taking on board the rental income that will result from such homes being built ?
Sir George Young : I do not agree with first part of the hon. Lady's assertion. Many people expect that, because there is no longer a guarantee of permanent accommodation, the homelessness route will not be quite as attractive as it is at the moment. There is substantial investment in housing in Birmingham. As the hon. Lady will know, the Castle Vale housing action trust is receiving additional funds over and above what Birmingham city council receives in the usual way.
I have dealt with capital receipts. If the hon. Lady wants to make the case for greater public investment in housing on behalf of the Labour party, I hope that she catches your eye, Madam Speaker, in the debate.
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that his proposals will be widely welcomed in the north-west, particularly in my borough of Wyre, because they draw a clear distinction between the statutory right of boroughs to house the homeless and the position of families on the waiting list, which is a completely different matter ?
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that his proposals will mean that councils and other organisations in the public and private sectors will move closer together to find permanent accommodation for the homeless, rather than trying to put them as high as possible up the waiting list for council houses ?
Sir George Young : It will certainly be the case that local authorities will have greater discretion to allocate housing on the basis of need than they have at the moment. I hope that they will work closely with the private rented sector to broaden the base of housing available for those in housing need.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : Does the Minister accept that many people will regard his statement as a pathetic response to the gravest housing crisis in post-war Britain ? While scapegoating the homeless, lone parents, beggars and other vulnerable people, why do the Government constantly reject the example of previous Conservative Governments, for instance that led by Harold Macmillan, who launched major house building programmes ? Why does the right hon. Gentleman refuse to combine capital receipts with unemployed construction workers, and build thousands of decent homes at affordable rents and prices for the thousands of British people in desperate housing need ?
Sir George Young : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain how that great programme will be funded. We have had no clear answer to that point each time we have debated housing.
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood) : Perhaps the answer is that such a programme might be funded by the housing benefit that would have to be paid for rehousing homeless people in private accommodation.
Sir George Young : The hon. Gentleman will have seen the estimates we made when we published the document earlier this year, when we estimated that the impact would be broadly neutral.
Column 35Several hon. Members rose
Madam Speaker : Order. We are now going to move on.
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) : With your permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a personal statement.
On 13 July, during the debate on Members' interests, I stated that I had placed letters on the letter board giving notice of my intention to refer to certain hon. Members in the course of the debate. I said that I had done so earlier that evening, and well in time. In fact, although I had every intention of notifying the hon. Members concerned, I found to my surprise that the letter board was closed, when I sought to leave letters there, and I handed in the letters at the Post Office.
I owe you and and the House a full apology in two respects, Madam Speaker. I inadvertently misled you when I stated that the letters had been left on the board ; furthermore, I now recognise that letters left at that stage of the evening provided a totally inadequate warning in this case.
I deeply regret my actions, Madam Speaker, and repeat my sincere apology to you and the House.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I should be grateful if you would give some thought to a problem that has arisen in relation to the boundary between the legislature and the Executive, and is causing concern to some of my colleagues and to me.
Until a few years ago, parliamentary private secretaries were appointed only by senior Ministers, and--as I understand it--the Minister concerned made the appointment personally. Parliamentary private secretaries were not members of the Government. Over the past few weeks, however, it has become apparent that some consider them to be so, and there have been reports of their being appointed, and sacked, by either the Chief Whip or the Prime Minister.
A list of members of the Government is regularly published in the Official Report . I think that it should be made absolutely clear--it may be worth your while to give some thought to this, Madam Speaker--that parliamentary private secretaries either are or are not members of the Government. If they are, certain rules, regulations and other considerations apply ; if they are not, they have certain rights and responsibilities of a different kind. I think that the matter is important, Madam Speaker, and I should be grateful for your thoughts on it.
Madam Speaker : I do not need to give much thought to it. Parliamentary private secretaries certainly are not members of the Government.
Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether there has been any indication that a statement will be made on the appointment, or election, of Mr. Santer as President
Column 36of the European Commission. You will recollect that there was much public interest in the vetoing of Mr. Dehaene, and I assume that the Government will wish to explain their reasons for selecting Mr. Santer. If they do not, it is extraordinary that Opposition Members--in whose hands the matter really is--have not insisted to the Leader of the House that the bipartisan non-discussion of Europe should end
Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I was aware that a statement would be made ; I have not been informed by the Government that they intend to make a statement at this stage.
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to raise an issue that I raised more than three weeks ago with the Home Secretary by means of a parliamentary question ; I also tabled an early-day motion, which has now been signed by more than 70 hon. Members. It is a serious issue. It concerns the use of forensic pathology photographs of murder victims in a leisure context. There is immense concern
Madam Speaker : Order. I really cannot allow the hon. Lady, or any other hon. Member, to abuse points of order in this way. If the hon. Lady will come to the matter that is for me to deal with, without giving an explanation of the photographs or the early-day motion, I will attempt to deal with it ; but I fear that she is abusing a point of order.
Mrs. Jackson : Thank you, Madam Speaker.
Although responses were received from the Secretary of State for Health, police officers, the Police Federation of Englsand and Wales and the British Medical Association, the Home Secretary has not even had the courtesy to write a letter.
Madam Speaker : I am sure that the hon. Lady herself is quite capable of pursuing the matter with a Minister. It is by no means a point of order for me to deal with.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) rose
Madam Speaker : Is this a point of order ?
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I believe so, Madam Speaker. I was just wondering whether there had been any consultation with the Government on the appointment of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) to a £103,000-a-year job as a Commissioner.
Madam Speaker : That is nothing to do with me. It is certainly a bogus point of order if I ever heard one.
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport) rose
Madam Speaker : Is this another one ?
Mr. Jamieson : Not a bogus one, Madam Speaker.
Madam Speaker : Hon. Members may recall that I told the House last week that I hoped that its behaviour would start to improve on Monday this week. I am afraid that my words fell on fairly stony ground. I take this matter very seriously ; I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a genuine point of order.
Mr. Jamieson : This is a genuine point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the Chancellor's parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr.
Column 37Oppenheim), to hand out pre-prepared questions to Conservative Back Benchers ? If it is not, perhaps you can give us some guidance.
Madam Speaker : That is not a matter for me : it is a question of party discipline. I have seen lots of papers and early-day motions floated around on both sides of the House. When I first came to the House, one would not dream of showing someone an early-day motion in this Chamber ; one would have been sent off with a flea in one's ear if one did. Members are in this Chamber to pay attention to what is taking place, not to sign early-day motions. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear!"] Good, that has not fallen on stony ground.
[Relevant document : The Minutes of Evidence taken before the Treasury and Civil Service Committee on Tuesday 5th July (House of Commons Paper No. 561-ii).]
Madam Speaker : I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). Also, I have had to impose a ten-minute limit on speeches between 7 pm and 9 pm ; I hope that those speaking at other times will exercise voluntary restraint.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Kenneth Clarke) : I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the publication of the Government's latest economic forecast, which shows growth continuing at a steady and sustainable rate and inflation remaining within its target range ; and congratulates the Government on its economic policies which have laid the foundations for the non-inflationary growth, rising industrial production and falling unemployment that is now being seen.
I tend to agree with you, Madam Speaker, that many of the old ways are the best, but this summer economic debate is an innovation. It is the first so- called summer debate on the economy held in the House and it is intended to be an annual event, although I have no doubt that we have all attended the first annual dinner of organisations that have never held another. I think that this debate will last, however, as it is a sensible procedural consequence of moving to the unified Budget in November of each year.
As we have not debated the economy for some time, it also usefully fills the gap left between the Budgets that we now hold in November each year. In former times, during Labour Governments those gaps were filled by frequent Budget statements throughout the year, each correcting the Budget judgment in the previous statement. Those were a feature of Labour's mismanagement of the economy in the 1970s. Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne) rose
Mr. Clarke : With respect to the right hon. Gentleman it is a little early in the debate to give way. [Hon. Members :-- "He was a Minister"]. A very long time ago, at the time about which I was complaining.
This debate will give hon. Members the opportunity to discuss the outlook for the economy now. We shall certainly relish the opportunity, for the same reason that the Opposition will not do so. The Government have a coherent economic strategy--the Opposition do not--and our strategy has delivered what are, potentially, the most favourable set of economic circumstances that Britain has enjoyed for more than a generation.
Mr. Sheldon : I will be very brief.
Mr. Clarke : The right hon. Gentleman is a very respected former Minister. May I contrast my situation to the one that he faced so many years ago. At this stage of recovery from recession, no Government since the war have produced an economic climate that combines steady growth with falling unemployment, rising productivity and low inflation of the type that we now have.
Mr. Sheldon : I am sorry to interrupt, but many people do not realise that it is seven months since we last had an economic debate, in December last year. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out, there was a time when we had frequent economic debates--perhaps too frequent--but we must move somewhere between the two extremes and that is worth mentioning at the beginning of his speech.
Mr. Clarke : During Labour Governments, we had very frequent economic debates and statements. I remember one occasion when a Labour Government made a fresh Budget statement before they had even finished debating the Finance Bill that flowed from the previous statement. I was pointing out that we have moved rather a long way from that
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : My right hon. Friend made a serious point.
Mr. Clarke : On the serious procedural point, I agree that it is surprising that the House has got itself into a position in which there is a long debate on the Budget in November and a one-day debate in the summer. It is not for me and the shadow Chancellor to decide, but for the usual channels. I have suggested to my opposite number on at least one occasion that we might drop one day from future Budget debates and transfer it to the summer economic debate. That is a matter for the Select Committee on Procedure, the usual channels and others.
There have been many Supply day debates since the Budget. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is correct. It is extraordinary that the Labour party, which at times has had to scrape the barrel to find something to fill its allocation of Supply day debates, has kept away from economic policy and the state of the economy. I repeat my allegation : it is because the British economy is doing well, and because Labour has absolutely no alternative policy to put forward.
I have described the extremely good combination of circumstances which we have at present.
Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East) rose
Mr. Clarke : I shall give way in a moment.
The circumstances that I have described, which are confirmed by most outside observers of our economic situation, mean that we have grounds for cautious optimism at present. I regard that as a beginning. We must stick to the Government's successful economic strategy and deliver the increased prosperity and secure jobs which it should now be possible for us to deliver over the next few years, if international conditions allow. I believe that we are now poised for success. I do not believe that the Labour party has any alternative to our policy, but I am content to give way to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) if he wishes to put me right.
Mr. Gordon Brown : To put the record straight, will the Chancellor tell the House which of the Labour debates on education, housing, health and the Child Support Agency he regards as scraping the barrel ? Which debate is irrelevant to the public spending needs of this country ?
Mr. Clarke : The debate on the Child Support Agency covered a policy which had been supported by the Labour party and which had already been considered by a Select Committee. Is the hon. Gentleman claiming that at shadow Cabinet meetings he has been demanding time on the Floor
Column 40of the House to put Labour's alternative economic strategy but unfortunately he has been fought off by his colleagues who found desperate matters to bring before the House ? Of course he has not. I have had a lot of jobs in government, as people always point out. I have never held a ministerial post where I have taken part in fewer debates on the Floor of the House. Even when I was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my opposite number used to challenge me on more occasions than the hon. Gentleman does. That is because he knows that what I have just said is right : things are going very well and the outlook is very promising. That is the result of the Government's policies. The hon. Gentleman has absolutely no alternative to them which he is prepared to put forward.
Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way ?
Mr. Clarke : I shall give way once more and then I must be allowed to get on.
Mr. Budgen : As so many members of the public look for a less adversarial approach, would it not be generous to remind the House that support for the exchange rate mechanism, which was the feature of most hon. Members in the House, came particularly from Labour Members, and it is their embarrassment at having abandoned the official role of Opposition and having supported the Government in that disastrous policy which now prevents them from either criticising the present policy or, indeed, mentioning the past ?
Mr. Clarke : I shall touch on my hon. Friend's favourite subject during my speech. He and I have never agreed, but he is right to point out that we always had the complete support of the Labour party on every aspect of our membership of the exchange rate mechanism. Indeed, I believe that Labour is still committed to signing up to the Maastricht treaty, including the timetable for the exchange rate mechanism, despite the fact that no other member state is following that course at present.
Turning to mainstream economic policy and the economic situation--I did not intend to be too combative in my introductory remarks, which I thought were non-controversial--growth looks set to continue at its current healthy rate. Independent forecasters and the Government now expect growth to be higher than we were forecasting at the time of the Budget. They also expect growth to exceed the rate of inflation in 1994. That sounds as though growth in the economy exceeding inflation should be the norm. In fact, it has happened in the United Kingdom on only four occasions since 1960, and usually only because growth has been unsustainably high at times of boom, rather than inflation being low.
We now have a healthier situation. Growth is becoming increasingly balanced and the recovery is spreading throughout the economy. Exports and investments are strengthening, and export volumes from this country are now growing at an annual rate of 9 per cent., despite some continuing weaknesses in our most important European markets.
Investment looks set to grow faster than consumer spending in this year. As we say repeatedly and without any fear of sensible contradiction, Britain is now leading Europe out of recession. The European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for