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6.7 pm

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): First, I wish to declare an interest as set out in the Register of Members' Interests. I am chairman of Home Rent 16 to 23 plc, which rents out private rented property, although my speech will bear no relation to that sector. I am also a trustee of Big Issue Action, the charitable foundation set up by The Big Issue magazine to help those who are homeless on our streets.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has left the Chamber. Having heard his speech, I felt that he might have benefited from listening to others. I imagine, however, that he has left the Chamber to shave off his beard, having read all those reports in the weekend press that, in order to get

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advancement in the Labour party these days, one has to shave off one's beard. Having heard his speech today, I regret that, however much he shaves off, it will not make him more credible.

The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to answer many questions this afternoon, and he chose to ignore them all. He was asked, "How many pounds?"--which I thought was rather rude. My guess would be about 18 stone.

Time and again, the hon. Gentleman ignored questions that he was invited to answer. He was asked how much more money Labour would spend on housing, and whether Labour would make a commitment to bring back MIRAS in the way that it used to operate. The hon. Gentleman was asked how many more houses Labour would build. He did not even make an attempt to answer, but dodged or ignored the issues.

It is clear that Labour's approach is to be tough on policies and tough on the causes of policies--something that even the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) pointed out. It is unfortunate that the only serious part of the hon. Gentleman's speech bore no relation to the Bill. If he had taken the trouble to read the Bill, he would have realised that it directly addresses his concerns about parts of Westminster.

Mr. Sykes: Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was honest about one question directed at him? He could not defend the fact that Labour-controlled Hackney council has 2,000 empty council houses. Was that not honest of the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Hendry: Of course--as honest as I would expect him to be over such a question--but no doubt he wanted to brush it aside for fear that others of my hon. Friends would ask about the number of empty houses in virtually every Labour metropolitan authority. The hon. Gentleman would have been too embarrassed to deal with such questions, so he decided to leave the Chamber.

Dr. Lynne Jones: How does the hon. Gentleman square his remarks with the situation in Birmingham, which has about 1,800 empty council houses or 1.5 per cent. of the property stock, which is a normal minimum--but 16,800 empty houses in the private sector, which is the result of Government housing policy? How would the hon. Gentleman deal with that problem?

Mr. Hendry: If the hon. Lady had bothered to listen to previous debates, she would know that one of my constant themes is the number of empty houses in the private rented sector. There is a difference when it is a matter of an individual keeping his or her home empty. It may be a second home or have been inherited from a parent. Private sector homes are empty for many reasons.

A local authority has an absolute obligation to use its resources sensibly and constructively. For Birmingham to keep 1,800 houses empty is a scandalous disgrace, and reflects badly on the city council. It has chosen to keep 1,800 people in temporary accommodation when they could have been rehoused in fixed-term council property. The hon. Lady's remarks only draw attention to the shame that is cast on the city of Birmingham.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Hendry: I have given way to an intervention about the Birmingham situation once, and I do not want the hon. Gentleman to dig himself into a bigger hole. I notice that the hon. Gentleman has shaved off his moustache, so clearly he is desperately seeking to crawl back--

Mr. Burden: I have not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Is the hon. Gentleman giving way?

Mr. Hendry: Having maligned the hon. Gentleman's moustache, I really ought to do so.

Mr. Burden: I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I assure him that my moustache is still there. Is he aware that the former Housing Minister complimented Birmingham city council on its housing policies, not once but several times? As a housing management authority, that city council has been complimented by this Government.

Mr. Hendry: If--as the hon. Lady said--there are 1,800 empty local authority houses in Birmingham, 1,800 families or household units are being denied access to that accommodation. That figure is far too high, and more should be done to bring those homes back into use.

I refer to two of the most important aspects of the Bill. I welcome the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants, which will enable money that is tied up in association properties to be recycled, to increase the supply of association properties.

I welcome also the Government's decision to re-examine the impact of that policy in rural areas. There would have been concern in my constituency, which is widely rural, if that policy had applied throughout the country, regardless of the size of the rural communities affected. I am pleased that the Government took note of recommendations and decided that the policy should apply only to populations of more than 3,000.

I urge the Government to resist appeals to raise that limit to populations of 5,000 or more. A community of 3,000 people is sizeable and will have a reasonable amount of housing stock that one could expect to be recycled. If that figure were exceeded, people in reasonably sized towns would be denied the right to buy their housing association property. I urge the Government not to go down that road.

I am disappointed that the Bill omits the original proposal to allow private companies to bid for housing association grant. I take on board my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's remark that that provision will return shortly. I seek from my hon. Friend the Minister a reassurance when he winds up that the policy has only been postponed, not cancelled. Many people would be able to build social housing of extremely good quality at a reasonable price. They could take the risk for themselves to build more houses.

The Bill would enable people who are currently homeless or on housing waiting lists to be properly treated. I approach that issue in my capacity as joint chairman for the past three years of the all-party group on homelessness. The group has examined the issue carefully on a number of occasions. Differing views have been expressed, but we have listened to advice. I commend the

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constructive way in which Shelter, under Chris Holmes, has put its case, and has sought to avoid political discussion and to concentrate on real concerns.

People who express such concerns do not always consider both sides of the argument. Many of my surgery cases and much of my postbag centre on housing issues. I had a surgery case on Friday of a married couple in rented accommodation who are terrified of their neighbours because of their criminal activities. That couple have been No. 1 on two separate housing lists in the borough for more than one year, but every time a house becomes available it has not gone to them, however deeply distressing their circumstances, because others have had an urgent need to be rehoused.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Equally sad are cases of young married couples, when one of them is obliged to live with parents and the other with in-laws. They postpone having a family, because, being responsible, they do not want to start one before getting their own home--yet see other people, probably in far better circumstances, leaping to the head of the queue.

Mr. Hendry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The debate has often focused on single mothers who benefit, but another surgery case involved a single mother living at her parents' home, with her six-year-old daughter sharing her bedroom. She had lived in those circumstances for five years, and for that time was No. 1 on the village housing waiting list. If that single mother's parents had said to her, "We're kicking you out and making you homeless," she would have been rehoused immediately. As that young woman decided to do what she thought was right, and her parents supported her, she has been penalised. The Bill is designed to assist in such cases.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): The hon. Gentleman cited a serious problem, but is not the real problem the lack of provision rather than the size or quality of the waiting list? Should not the Bill home in on more social homes for rent?

Mr. Hendry: I will respond to that point, but first I will mention another recent constituency case, in which--as my hon. Friend mentioned--the person wants to move in with his partner. They are both in council accommodation, so if they were allowed to move in together, they would free up one council property, and the availability of the stock would be increased. His ranking on the list is high, but because people jump above him to a suitable house, neither of those people can move out and free that house for somebody else. Surely more attention should be given to those who have patiently waited their turn. Their rights should be looked after as well.

There is also a fundamental point of principle. Many people who are homeless have an urgent, short-term housing need. By allocating them temporary accommodation for 12 months, we could see whether they needed short-term or long-term housing. People may have a short-term housing need for only a few months, but they are allocated a council house which will be there for 20, 30 or 40 years. It is right, as laid down in the Bill, to consider everybody's housing needs together, so that the allocation of houses can be made according to overall need.

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