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Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): My hon. Friend is not a Whip.

Dr. Twinn: The hon. Lady believes that it is acceptable for the 11-year-old daughter to be forced for ever to share with her mother.

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The local authority will not allocate accommodation to the mother because, every time there is an allocation, the property goes either to people with an emergency medical need or to people on the homeless list. The Bill's housing allocation changes are therefore to be greatly praised.

Mr. Betts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Twinn: No. We have no time, while there is a 10-minute limit on speeches, for one of the hon. Gentleman's rambling interventions.

The leasehold reforms in the Bill are especially welcome. There is room here for agreement even with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who appears to take a Stalinist view on most housing matters--perhaps he agrees with what we are trying to do on leasehold reform. The Bill deals with unscrupulous landlords who have found ingenious loopholes to exploit in the present law. Perhaps they divide freeholds between related companies to avoid the right of leaseholders to buy, or do not tell leaseholders when freeholds are transformed, or put in outrageous demands for service charges that are unjustified by the work that has been done, or send grotesquely inflated bills for work that should not have been undertaken. The Evening Standard has been especially good at exposing what has been happening. A company called Linkproud has been operating with Empress Estates throughout London in a most outrageous way. The Bill seeks to tackle such practices and to give leaseholders some real power over unscrupulous freeholders.

One group of leaseholders will be listening carefully to Conservative Members on the topic of leasehold and freehold reform. They are the people who bought local authority properties in tower blocks and in system-built blocks. Some of the descriptions of unscrupulous landlords could be applied to some local authorities, which have inflicted inflated and unjustified bills and outrageous behaviour on right-to-buy leaseholders. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, my hon. Friend the Minister will assure us that the proposed provisions for freeholders will apply also to local authority freeholders. That would go some way towards helping those who are trapped, in difficult circumstances, in leasehold properties in tower blocks.

I welcome some of the Bill's detailed proposals, such as the proposed action to end forfeiture proceedings until service charges have been properly confirmed. The absolute right, to be given to leaseholders, to buy their freehold is also important. We must take the gloves off in the battle against freeholders, and the Bill does just that. I hope that, in Committee, hon. Members will stand up for the rights of existing tenants and for those in real housing need who have slipped through the present system. We should not give in to the Opposition, who extrapolate one sectional interest and use it to attack the Government.

It was quite clear that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) had not read the Bill--some of his comments about it were blatantly wrong. As has been said, the hon. Gentleman went perilously close to misleading the House. I am sure that, in his wildest dreams, he would not want to do that. I recommend to Opposition Members that, in future, they spend their weekends more productively by reading legislation before they dare to speak about it in the House.

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7.11 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith): The fundamental cause of our housing problems is the lack of affordable accommodation. That is why more people than ever are homeless and begging in the streets. It is why there are more people than ever in temporary or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It is also why the Government are desperately fiddling about with a rationing system for homelessness and entry to the housing queue. Rationing occurs when there is a shortage, but the Government do not acknowledge that and they are not trying to solve the basic problem.

It has not been said today that, in England and Wales, with a population of about 50 million, fewer houses are being built in the public rented sector than are being built in Northern Ireland, which has a population of 1.5 million. We could have an interesting debate about why the Government think that it is necessary to build more social housing in Northern Ireland but do not apply the same criteria to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The second underlying problem is that the Government have done nothing to help low-income home owners. The Bill will not help them either. Conservative Members have asked how we would pay for such help, but until we address the issue of the reform of housing finance we will not be able to get that one right. The housing finance system is inequitable and inefficient. Does anyone seriously believe that £10 billion a year on housing benefit, much of which goes to landlords who do not need it, is a good way to subsidise housing? The Government started to recognise that when they reformed mortgage interest relief--by cutting it. They did it in the worst possible way because they gave no help to low-income mortgage holders, which is what they ought to have done. That is why some people are still in mortgage difficulties.

Conservative Members who ask about financing should remember that about one in nine homeless applications to local authorities come from people who have had their houses repossessed. The mortgage company or bank gets the house and can sell it; the local authority puts the family into bed-and-breakfast or temporary accommodation for which we, the people, pay. As a result, the family suffers incredible stress while the house sits empty awaiting sale in a depressed housing market which it depresses still further.

Before the last election, we suggested to the Government a mortgage rescue scheme that was designed to help such people. I had it costed by the Council of Mortgage Lenders. At that time, the chief executive of the council was a member of the Tory party and had been a Tory candidate at an election. He accepted that the package was cost free, but the Government refused to accept it.

The Secretary of State outlined his proposals for freeholders and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) said that it was time we took the gloves off. We said that, and tabled amendments to that effect, in Committee on the Bill that became the Housing Act 1988. Conservatives voted them down. The Secretary of State says that he wants to get tough on landlords who are not fulfilling their obligations to people in houses in multiple occupation. We have known about that for years. We twice put down amendments to the 1988 Bill to deal with that, especially in the context of seaside towns about which the Secretary of State also spoke, but Conservative

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Members voted them down. It is only now that the consequences of their actions in relation to what became the 1988 Act are beginning to be felt. They must face the fact that they have failed to act on such problems.

The issue of empty properties is dealt with only as an aside in the Bill, but we have heard about it from Conservative Members. For the past 16 years, the Government have consistently been the worst offenders on empty properties. Even now, in the Biggin hill area, they are dumping Government homes on the public market for sale. There is much negative equity in that area, and their action will depress the housing market even further. They could save money by transferring those houses to housing associations or local authorities, which could deal with the queue about which the hon. Member for Edmonton complained. That is a way in which to address the problem of rationing that the Government have created.

Local authorities and housing associations are much more effective at letting properties than the private sector or the Government. Hackney has been mentioned as a bad example. I am the first to accept that, in the past, Hackney's management has not been good. However, a year or two ago, Hackney's voids were about 5.3 per cent. They are now down to about 3 per cent., but only if the tower blocks that the Government have said must be knocked down are taken out of the calculation. The Government are giving money to have them knocked down.

We are in a febrile political atmosphere, but I should have thought that even in this pre-election bonanza period we could still get some cross-party agreement that, by and large, it is desirable to take tenants out of high-rise flats before they are demolished. I have given the reason for the Hackney figures being so high; we should focus on that as well.

My advice to the Government is simple: stop selling Government-owned empty properties, start handing them over to housing associations and councils and start dealing with the rationing that the hon. Member for Edmonton does not like. Conservative Members complain about the right to buy in rural areas in certain circumstances. I wish that the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) were in his place. The right to buy, matched by a duty to replace and a housing finance system that enabled councils and housing associations to replace homes that were sold, is a good policy. A housing policy that consists of a right to buy but does not enable replacement of the homes that have been sold is a disaster, but that is what the Government have given us over the years. Now, suddenly, the hon. Member for High Peak and some other Conservative Members have begun to complain because they fear that too many houses might be sold in rural areas. Exactly the same problem has been hitting us in urban areas for donkeys years. If we could have replaced the houses that were sold, we would not have the queues of today and there would not be 2,000 or 3,000 people in areas such as mine living in emergency accommodation.

The problem is primarily the Government's. Yes, one or two people abuse the system and keep their council houses when they should get rid of them--there are examples of that in my constituency--but the core problem lies with the Government for it is they who have

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failed to provide the mechanism by which the houses that are sold can be replaced so that more houses can be made available in the rented sector.

What is the fundamental problem? A housing finance regime that allows all the money to be allocated in housing benefit instead of recognising that we need to return to a system--as the Duke of Edinburgh's report, with which just about everyone agreed, rightly said some years ago--of subsidising bricks and mortar, at least in part.

There is no sense in giving, as we do at the moment, housing benefit subsidy to a landlord who is in prison for harassing tenants. The Deputy Prime Minister has the audacity to say that the Labour party is on the side of villains. I have never heard of any Labour policy that argues that taxpayers' money should be used to subsidise people who are in prison--which is what the Government are doing now. It is a disgrace, we know that it is, and it should be brought to an end. If we are to do that, we must reform housing finance and recognise the rights of tenants.

I welcome the introduction of an ombudsman.We proposed that, too, during the Committee stage of what became the 1988 Act, and the Government rejected it. I am in favour of enabling the Housing Corporation to step in when bad management occurs in housing associations or councils, and to take other action to transfer accommodation from such landlords.

Why will the Government not introduce something similar in the private rented sector? Why should we not be able to strike off a bad landlord in the private rented sector who has been harassing tenants? Why do we send them to prison at enormous cost, subsidise them while they are there, and allow them to let the house and receive yet more subsidy when they are released? That is subsidising the villains. That is being on the side of the villains.

Most private landlords are good. Why do we not introduce something adventurous and flexible for a change? I would be quite prepared to subsidise private landlords in exchange for guarantees about good management--another suggestion that I made many years ago. If they failed to deliver good management, they would be struck off. That is the key to housing policy. We should stop worrying about ownership and concentrate on quality.

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