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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that Madam Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 pm and 9 pm.

6.50 pm

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): Those who read the speech of the hon. Member for Scarborough(Mr. Sykes) in Hansard will note the effect of 17 years of Tory government. The hon. Gentleman spoke of an increase in crime, of people being driven by unemployment to the coast in an attempt to find jobs and of a rise in homelessness. Indeed, he treated us to a catalogue of failures, and I am sure that the Labour party in Scarborough will latch on to it. The hon. Gentleman's speech emphasised the need for the fair and proper legislation that is not provided in the Bill that we are discussing.

Housing is a major social problem. In my constituency it is paramount, in both the rented and the owner-occupied sectors. For years, the Government have done little to help those with housing problems. Part I of the Bill supposedly deals with the social rented sector, but in fact it deals only with the Housing Corporation, giving it new powers over housing associations, but no accountability to anyone except the Secretary of State. I consider that part of the Bill cruel and dishonest. It does not allow local authorities to build social housing, although they are expert at doing so and have a long history of social housing management.

The Bill offers no help to the 250,000 people who bought their homes from the social rented sector, and now find themselves in the negative equity trap. It also contains no measures to help the 1,000 families a week who become homeless when their homes are repossessed, although that has a devastating effect on family life. In many instances, such suffering is caused by redundancy or a business collapse. The Bill does nothing to help home owners, or to restore confidence in the housing market. Many people expected it to help tackle the underlying problems facing our housing stock, but nothing has been done to increase investment in either the public or the private sector. The Government still prevent councils from investing capital receipts in social rented housing.

Clauses 15 and 16 refer to the right to buy for housing association tenants. The National Federation of Housing Associations has no objection to its tenants purchasing their homes, and the Government are currently introducing a voluntary scheme that is acceptable to housing associations. In the past, the NFHA has argued that associations should be allowed to sell houses to tenants in particular circumstances, but housing associations fear that they too could experience the devastation experienced by local authorities, given the shortage of houses available at an affordable rent.

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The Bill is so inflexible that it may well result in fewer houses in the rented sector, causing greater hardship to people who need social housing. Houses in the social rented sector are already in short supply, and unless the houses that are sold are replaced, the number will be further reduced. The NFHA has told the Minister of its fears relating to the selling of certain houses in certain areas, or houses that were built with agreed terms. It has also described the problems of replacing those houses for rent, and the restriction of future agreements with providers of help.

In the past, people have donated money or land to housing associations with the firm intention that it be used for the specific purpose of providing low-cost rented homes for those most in need. If the Government legislate for the sale of houses that were built with a minimum amount of public money, there will be fewer such donations.

Mr. Curry: That is not true. We have made it clear that, where properties have been built and land donated, there is no question of housing authorities being obliged to put the houses up for sale. As for existing properties, housing associations must opt into the scheme in any event: there is no question of their being compelled to put the properties on the market. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I am very sensitive to those issues, and we have gone a long way to meet the NFHA.

Mr. O'Brien: I appreciate the Minister's intervention. In Committee, however, there will be more pressure on him to give such assurances, and to ensure that they are contained in the Bill rather than in a consultative document.

The Bill has been criticised by various people and organisations with housing interests, but everyone's concerns have been dramatically heightened by the changes in the law relating to homelessness, which constitute an attack on the most vulnerable people. If the Bill is not amended, some homeless people will never be able to obtain permanent homes from local authorities. Local authorities' duties to help the homeless will be restricted to the provision of a minimum of one year's temporary accommodation. Moreover, if there is suitable alternative accommodation within the local authority area, an authority will not be responsible for housing the homeless. Both local authorities and the NFHA want that part of the Bill to be withdrawn.

The present homelessness legislation provides an important and improved safety net for homeless families and other vulnerable homeless people, allowing them to obtain a permanent home and start to build a stable family life. If homeless people are offered only temporary accommodation, there is every danger that they will constantly be moved around, which will have a tremendous effect on family life. That will have a major impact on stable communities. It will no doubt have a lasting effect on the children of homeless families, who could be moving from school to school every time the family has to move. That part of the Bill should be withdrawn because of the inhuman approach to homeless people.

I recommend to the Minister the proposals by Wakefield metropolitan district council's housing department. In co-operation with the county council's

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housing association--the Chantry housing association--it is providing homes for homeless people. They are taking over empty properties and improving those properties together. The housing association is making a substantial contribution to the proposals. That will also help some of those unlucky home owners caught in the negative equity trap. The end will soon be in sight for them to be able to sell their properties.

I suggest that the Minister take note of the programme. The housing department press release states:


Without the legislation that is being proposed, local authorities and housing associations are providing accommodation for homeless people. If the Minister had more confidence in the work of those who have experience in providing social housing, and if there were more confidence in local authorities and local housing associations, there would be no need for such legislation.

The Bill is a bad Bill. If amendments are not accepted to provide more openness in regard to the quango of the Housing Corporation, there will be a lack of confidence. If there are no amendments to help and to provide for home owners and homeless people, there will be a greater deterioration in the provision of social housing. To allow more freedom to local authorities to provide houses would be a substantial step in the right direction. We need such an amendment to the Bill.

If changes are not made to the Bill, Labour Members must oppose it and assure people who need help with housing that the next Government, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) will serve as Minister with responsibility for housing, will ensure that such people will be given priority, and that democracy will apply to housing issues. If changes are not made to the Bill to meet some of the points raised by Labour Members, we should oppose it.

7.3 pm

Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton): It is a great shame that Labour Members have chosen, in their destructive way, to oppose the Bill and to announce that they will vote against its principle at the end of this Second Reading debate. It seeks to extend choice in housing. It seeks to extend the stakeholder principle, but Labour Members want to throw it away. As soon as we have a practical illustration of how their policies could be implemented, they want to vote against it. Two sets of standards are being operated by Labour Members. Today, we will see them being operated once again, when they will kick in the teeth people who are trying to get a hold of a stake in society.

Besides extending a stakeholder's rights through housing ownership and through opportunities for private and social renting, the Bill would extend fairness and justice throughout our housing system--principles to which Labour Members should pay a bit more attention rather than sniggering and sighing when they are mentioned. Conservative Members get just as angry about

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housing issues as Labour Members. We are all constituency Members of Parliament. Most of us sit in our surgeries on Fridays or Saturdays and listen to hard cases about housing.

It is wrong to take individual cases and build laws on them alone: we have to examine what is happening over the whole sector. The present housing allocation system, for example, operates against the interests of people who are being responsible and who have genuine housing needs--they are outcasts from that system. I hope, therefore, that Labour Members will think again about their objections to the principle of the Bill.

The right-to-buy measures are particularly welcome. It is wrong that, if two people are on the housing list, in places one and two, and go along for their allocation of housing, the first one can be allocated a local authority house and gradually develop the right to buy, but the second can be allocated a housing association house and be denied the right to buy. Both properties are developed with taxpayers' money, from public funds. One person gets the right to buy; the other is denied it.

I am pleased that the Government have listened to the pleadings of Conservative Members that there should be some justice, and that people who occupy social housing that is provided from public funds should have the right to buy. That is a great step forward and puts right a great wrong.

I am especially pleased that housing associations will be able to re-use funds thus realised and provide new social housing in their areas. Some Conservative Members who are great supporters of the housing association movement have been disappointed by its allowing itself to become sub-agents of local authorities in housing. Although that matter is not dealt with in the Bill, I hope that my right hon. Friends in the Government will reconsider the way in which housing associations operate, because they could be far more flexible towards specialist groups and in meeting specialist housing needs.

One of things that most frustrates me as a constituency Member of Parliament is that people who thoroughly deserve and need to be rehoused fall through the net of local authority rules on housing. For example, on Friday night a woman came to see me who has privately rented a one-bedroom flat for 17 years. She is a single mother with an 11-year-old daughter. She has been on Enfield borough council's housing list for 17 years. She lives opposite a tower block where vacancies frequently arise, but she has always been denied a place in two-bedroom accommodation.

The mother has been told by the now Labour-controlled authority that it is acceptable for her to share a bedroom with her 11-year-old daughter. [Interruption.] The Labour Whip, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), believes that that is acceptable.


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