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Madam Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that the transfer of questions is entirely a matter for Ministers, not for the Clerks in the Table Office or for me. Ministers determine whether questions remain with them or are transferred to another Department.

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Orders of the Day

Housing Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker: Before I call the Secretary of State, I must announce that speeches between 7 pm and 9 pm will have to be limited to 10 minutes.

3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

When we published our housing White Paper last summer, we made clear our continuing commitment to a decent home for every family. We said that we remained committed to meeting that objective in the face of the social and economic changes and the environmental concerns that place new and increasing demands on government.

The Housing Bill extends opportunity. It will mean that more housing association tenants will have the opportunity to buy their own homes, that leaseholders will have stronger and more accessible protection, and that council tenants will have the opportunity to vote for new types of social landlords, who can bring in private money to improve their estates.

Conservative Members have shown that housing issues can be approached with imagination. We have not simply fallen back on the tired old policies of building municipal estates: "Never mind the quality; measure the quantity; count the cost". The Conservative party brought in the right to buy--1.3 million households in England wanted that right, and took the opportunity that was given to them. Each day, 200 households go on wanting that right. The Labour party voted against that opportunity.

We are also the party that brought in private finance alongside public money to improve our council estates. We brought in competition to provide housing, with housing associations competing to provide it at the best price. That means better housing at a cheaper price,and more of it than would otherwise have been the case.We brought in new rights for tenants, and gave them a greater say in how their estates are run.

The Labour party says that it wants those things, but it voted solidly against every one of them. It says one thing and does another.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): I agree with absolutely everything that my right hon. Friend said about our housing policy, but I should like to press him on one point, which I may have missed. In the housing White Paper, we proposed to legislate to allow profit-making companies and other bodies to compete for the grants available to those in social housing. Will my right hon. Friend explain whether that is in the Bill, or whether we are planning to introduce it later?

Mr. Gummer: We have said that the needs of leaseholders are more important in the immediate term, and we have to deal with them. We are therefore producing a separate Bill that covers that issue, which I hope will soon be introduced. There is no question of

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dropping it. However, decisions on leasehold problems, particularly in London and the south coast resorts, are so serious that they should be taken immediately. That is therefore covered in the Bill.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer: I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman, because I have one or two things to say to him in particular.

We published our White Paper last summer and have now introduced the Bill. The Opposition, of course, did not publish their own policy document, despite the many promises that they would do so, and that it would be bigger, better and certainly more expensive than ours. They leaked ours in order to pretend that they had one. When they were pressed about it at the Housing Corporation conference in February 1995--I stress that date--the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said:

that is, last--

We are less than three weeks away from the anniversary of that statement. When will we get Labour's housing policy? Why has it taken so long? Has the hon. Member for Greenwich been unable to get the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) to understand it? Has the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras--having taken some time to understand the policy--not been able to get his Treasury team to agree to it?

Or is it merely that Labour does not have a clue as to what it would do if anybody was ever silly enough to ask it to take charge? Does Labour want to stick with saying and never doing? The hon. Member for Greenwich said that he was going to produce a policy in a few months. That was good enough to allow him to get away with it in front of an audience, but it is not good enough for the people of Britain who want to know what Labour would do.

I have taken some time to look at the one piece of Labour policy that I have discovered so far--that, somehow or other, Labour would release the accumulated receipts so that they could be spent. That is the one thing that Labour has said, but it has not explained until recently what that would mean. It would mean not that a Labour Government would allow councils to spend their receipts, but that some councils would be allowed to spend other councils' receipts.

We have now discovered that, carefully hidden in Labour's policy, is a proposal that the arrangement of phasing would mean that the Labour council in the Wyre, for example, would be asked to spend its receipts in, let us say, Gateshead. So when a council leader says, "We will release the receipts," he thinks that the receipts will be released for the people of the Wyre, Bracknell Forest, Dacorum or any of the other places that are temporarily in Labour control. That is what the councils think, but Labour would actually give permission for those receipts to be spent somewhere else.

Labour's policy has been rumbled. Inside Housing, a newspaper not entirely in favour of the Conservative cause, asked what would happen to the interest that is now

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going to the local authority that has the receipts when those receipts are spent. The newspaper said that, if there were a Labour Government, councils could refuse to use billions of pounds of capital receipts unless they got an extra subsidy from the Labour Government to pay for the interest they were losing.

Hidden in the only bit of Labour policy that works in the minds of the public is the fact that it would, in absolute truth, hold back receipts from councils to make sure that it could subsidise the spendthrift by nationalising the receipts of those councils which have done their job properly.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept--as he must, since he has no evidence to the contrary--that everything he has said in the past five minutes is absolutely untrue, and that he has made it all up?

Mr. Gummer: No. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that Labour would not allow the leafy suburbs to spend the money, because that would be the only way in which it would be able to provide the extra money for the councils to which it wants to give money. That is precisely what Labour intends to do. The housing press has revealed precisely what Labour did not want to be admitted or publicised. It is no wonder that the hon. Gentleman was so quick on to his feet--he knows that he has been rumbled.

Madam Speaker: Order. I hope that we can get on to the Second Reading of this Bill.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): My question was exactly that, Madam Speaker. Can the Secretary of State answer three simple questions? Will the Bill mean any significant increase in the number of houses for rent; will it mean any significant reduction in the rents of people in housing association properties, as those associations are losing their grant by a greater amount every year; and will it mean any relief for those who have bought their properties from local authorities, particularly in council tower blocks, and who face maintenance, service and capital charges of up to £28,000, which some of them cannot afford?

Mr. Gummer: The first question is dealt with in the Finance Bill, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The second is not part of this Bill, because it is part of others, and the third is one of the issues that we have already taken into account and on which we have taken action.

One of the key arguments about the Bill is that an alternative way exists, which is related centrally to capital receipts. That is why it is crucial for us to deal with that issue at the beginning, and it is why I gave way tothe hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey(Mr. Hughes). I wanted to have the opportunity to tell the House what his party said about his policy. He has said:

That means, according to the party's Whips Office, that the Liberal Democrats' weaknesses are as follows, first,

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Secondly, it states:

the very point that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey had the cheek to question me on a moment ago. So the Liberal Democrats admit that their policy would make the present situation worse.

Lastly, the Liberal Whips state:

which is what the hon. Gentleman asked about--

That is what the Liberal party says about its policy, and I must thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to mention it, in case he did not have the opportunity to do so.

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