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Mr. Sykes rose--

Mr. Dobson: One of the lurchers is standing up now.

It is no good Ministers trying to deny what is happening. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which the Government want to update, was a private Member's Bill supported by both the then Labour Government and Mr. Peter Walker, a former Environment Secretary and subsequently a Cabinet Minister under Mrs. Thatcher. The Bill was opposed only by right-wing Tories, who have lobbied against it ever since.

As a result of that lobbying, the law was reviewed in the early 1980s by the right hon. Member for Henley(Mr. Heseltine), now the Deputy Prime Minister. It was reviewed again in the late 1980s by the late Nicholas Ridley, while Mrs. Thatcher was still Prime Minister.On each occasion, it was decided to leave the law alone. That is not for this Government--they want to toughen up a law for the homeless that even Mrs. Thatcher thought was harsh enough.

The Tory lurch to the right is also the reason why the Government are changing the law to put private tenants at a disadvantage--both when they are looking for somewhere to live and if they get into arrears with their rent. From now on, the law will assume that every tenancy is a shorthold tenancy, and landlords will be able to evict tenants who get just two months behind with the rent. There is not much hope of extra security there.

Then there is the case of leaseholders. The Government claimed when they introduced the previous housing Bill that they had protected leaseholders, but they had not. Dishonest, unscrupulous landowners, managing agents, lawyers and a whole host of shark-like, so-called professionals have continued to exploit leaseholders. Now the Government are proposing further changes. As usual, they are a bit too late and certainly too little. They do not go far enough; they do not give leaseholders the right to manage, which is what is really needed and what the leaseholders are looking for.

We have further evidence of the Government's wish to centralise all power into their own hands. They propose to decide on the housing allocation policies of all local authorities. So housing allocation priorities in Wakefield, Wigan and Warrington will be laid down by the Secretary of State, who represents Suffolk, Coastal, instead of by local councillors who know their area and have to answer to the electors for their decisions.

The Government have decided that they know best, so the next question is: what housing allocation policies will they pursue? Will they be those pursued by Tory Westminster city council, whose Tory councillors allocate homeless families to asbestos-ridden blocks, and who, according to the district auditor--not me--have unlawfully squandered £29 million of public money allocating houses for party political advantage? Is that what the Secretary of State has in mind for when he takes his new powers? To the best of my knowledge, he has never criticised Westminster council's allocation or priorities. We can therefore reasonably assume that they are the sort of priorities that he wants to introduce in every other part of the country.

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The Government claim to be the party of law and order. They are nothing of the sort. All over the country, Labour councils have been taking action, and trying to take action, to combat and reduce anti-social behaviour, not only on council estates but everywhere, but have received precious little help from the Government.

When the Labour party introduced proposals, some of which are incorporated in the Bill, the Prime Minister said:

On the same day, the Home Secretary said to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw):

The Secretary of State says that he is now introducing in the Bill some of the very measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn was proposing and which the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister denounced in their usual knee-jerk manner.

The Government have given precious little help to councils that have been pushing to improve matters and to combat anti-social behaviour. The Labour party has been pressing for changes in the law, and the Bill includes some of those changes. However, it is typical of the Government that they are not introducing all the necessary changes. None of the changes relates to witness protection, rules of evidence or court delays, and the Government are not prepared to extend the scope of injunctions to cover visitors to council estates as well as the tenants.

Of course, the Government have a long history of making exaggerated claims for all sorts of housing schemes that turn out not to work. No one has mentioned it, and it has not been in any press releases, but the Government have quietly dropped an idea thought up by the late Nicholas Ridley and the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I must say that I always had doubts about a scheme affecting council tenants that had been devised by the son of Viscount Ridley and the son of Earl Waldegrave--how right I was. It was the tenants choice scheme, which was designed to bring about the wholesale privatisation of council housing. Tenants were to be asked to vote on whether to get a private landlord. The voting system was rigged, so that those who did not vote and empty flats counted as a yes vote.

Despite those strange electoral arrangements, eight years later, fewer than 1,000 tenants have opted for a private landlord, and more than 900 of them were tenants of Westminster city council who were desperate to escape its clutches. In the whole of the rest of the country, fewer than 100 tenants availed themselves of the Ridley-Waldegrave choice. That scheme has, however, been costing between £500,000 and £1 million a year to advertise and administer--for the sake of argument, let us say £6 million over the past eight years. It is a further Tory waste of taxpayers' money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich(Mr. Raynsford) and other colleagues will be dealing with other aspects of the Housing Bill. They will work hard to

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improve it in Committee, but they will have a hard task, because the Bill ignores the realities that face tens of thousands of British families. Above all, instead of reducing insecurity, the Bill adds to it. That is why we shall vote against it tonight.

Our approach to housing is based on the belief that every family should have somewhere decent to live and should be able to afford to live there. A decent, secure home is vital to family life. Without it, a family's health suffers; without it, grown-ups find it hard to hold down a job; without it, children find it hard to do well at school; without it, family relationships are soured and family breakdown becomes more likely.

Everyone recognises that it will take a long time and a lot of hard work to ensure that everyone in Britain has somewhere decent to live. The people know that this Government will not do what is necessary. They also know that they need a Labour Government, even to make a start.

5.3 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South): The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and I share, pleasurably, parliamentary responsibility for Covent Garden, which spans our constituency boundaries. In the past, we have shared the different experience, although not simultaneously, of being councillors for the London borough of Camden where, indeed, in its previous Hampstead embodiment, my noble mother--to coin a phrase--was for many years the chairman of housing.

The fact that Camden and Westminster have different housing policies may explain why I did not agree wholly and precisely with everything that the hon. Gentleman said in what I would describe as a characteristically provocative speech. There are moments when I am relieved that there are china shops left standing in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman's attack on Westminster council contained a long passage about Clarendon Court hotel. What he said would have caused any hon. Member to make inquiries, within the proper constituency conventions, even if, as in my case, the matter had not previously been brought to my attention, for reasons which I am sure he will understand. He did his case less good and made it less convincing with his charge that councillors in Westminster had been putting homeless people in asbestos-ridden property when he knows that the words he used would be potentially actionable outside the House.

Mr. Dobson: I would repeat them outside the House.

Mr. Brooke: That is something to which Westminster councillors will no doubt look forward.

Six days ago, Madam Deputy Speaker, you were very kind to call me as one of the few Back Benchers to speak on the benefit regulations for asylum seekers. Given that I was called such a short time ago, I am particularly conscious that I must not trample on the time of other hon. Members in this debate, not least because of the rationing that will occur later.

My interest is a constituency one. I have not sought to verify whether each and every clause in the Bill--a description of which, incidentally, would owe more to a

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pantechnicon than to a portmanteau--relates to my constituency precisely, but it would not surprise me. I shall, however, concentrate on a limited number of issues.

First, although I have absorbed a great deal of briefing from interested parties hostile to the amendments to existing homelessness provisions, I am not convinced that, in an environment such as Westminster's, amendment was inappropriate. The number of homeless people who have been permanently rehoused in Westminster has steadily climbed from just under 900 in 1990-91 to nearly 1,250 in 1994-95, with one blip in the middle when it went up to nearly 1,300.

During the same period, the number of category A cases that required rehousing and were rehoused fell from just under 200 in 1990-91 to 119 at its lowest, although I acknowledge that, last year, the number went back up to 138. With those trends, in terms of absolute numbers and their respective directions, it is not surprising that, in the most recent month of relevant statistics, the average wait for a category A rehousing case in Westminster was more than three times that of the homeless wait for permanent housing. The Westminster figures afford a poor climate for the case for the homeless to be accepted by those with much deeper roots in the community.

Briefing that I received from various lobbies implied that one quarter to one third of accommodation was going to homeless families. In Westminster, in the five years that I was citing, the figure has always been in excess of 50 per cent. and, in two years, it was more than 60 per cent. Incidentally, some of those homeless, whose handling will be changed by the Bill, will appear on the waiting list--a waiting list on which the prospects have been improved.

The second matter to which I should like to allude is the major role that has been played in Westminster by the Peabody Trust and similar bodies. A great city requires a significant amount of low-income housing near its centre in order to provide homes for those who will run many of its city services on comparatively low incomes.

I have historically been critical of the Peabody Trust in private for changing its priorities to the disadvantage of those reared on Peabody estates and who, in my view, conferred genuine and helpful stability in an inner-city community. However, I can now pay public tribute to at least a partial change in emphasis on its part. I am genuinely concerned that the Government should listen in Committee to the practical problems of those who manage social estates in central London, including those which have been admirably created in the past quarter of a century by organisations such as the Soho Housing Association.

Everyone thinks that, in my constituency, it is the City of London that has businesses but no residents, yet in the W1 postal district alone, the number of businesses equals the number of households. That confers special problems on medium-sized organisations with dispersed properties that have a critical role to play in inner-city housing provision. I am particularly concerned that the extra legal and administrative costs associated with leaseholders should not adversely affect rents for tenants.

The very nature of Westminster brings me back to the homeless. Clause 155 offers real potential for assistance, provided the word "district" in line 9--which is noticeably

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spelt with a lowercase "d"--genuinely offers some flexibility and does not limit an authority to its own boundaries. Westminster in particular is an authority whose nature of housing would make that specifically unhelpful, but I recognise that the matter will be examined again in Committee. Likewise, while introductory tenancies may not be welcomed everywhere, they would be helpful in Westminster as an extra weapon in the armoury.

On a different subject, I am glad, in the interests of effective legislation, that the Government have revisited the issue of leasehold reform. I too have had constituency cases like those that have animated my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington).

I am conscious that the majority role that owner-occupiers now play in the housing market--which I welcome--potentially reduces the attention that is paid to the rest of the community. This can have untoward effects, and I do not blame the lobbies for trying to redress the balance--or for the vehemence with which they argue the case. Whether that is the best way in which to achieve their several objectives is for them.

While I support the main thrust of the Bill, I hope that the House and the Government will listen carefully to the case that is put for the homeless, who are also my constituents, as we study its detail and small print. The Bill will warrant close study in Committee, and it would be a particular service to those affected by it if sensible and strategic approaches to the relevance and importance of different parts of the Bill were to take precedence over more familiar tactical enthusiasms.

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