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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mrs. Jacqui Lait.

8.15 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate, especially as I was able to speak last week on a subject that was also of great interest to my constituents. All aspects of this Bill affect my constituency in some way, so I welcome the remedies that it will provide for many of the problems that I and other hon. Members find in our postbags.

I welcome the exemption in the Bill of rural housing from the right-to-buy provision. That is not because I am not a great supporter of the right-to-buy policy but because I have had representations from almost all my

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parish councils and from many people who live in villages in my constituency saying that they do not want their communities to expand. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that housing stock that is sold should be replaced. That is easy to say, but when an area is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, a site of special scientific interest, an environmentally sensitive area and, now, a European special protected area, it becomes extremely difficult to find the land on which to replace that housing.

I welcome the provisions on anti-social behaviour. Several hon. Members have outlined the problems in their areas. I particularly welcome the proposal that both social and private landlords will be able to take action against those who behave anti-socially without the victims having to give evidence before the courts. I have been struck by the number of people who tell me that they dare not stand up in court for fear of being victimised further.

I also welcome the proposals on homelessness. Although I do not wish to repeat many of the points that my hon. Friends have made, I have been struck by the number of honest, decent, respectable people who have come to my surgeries or written to me saying that they have endured difficult housing conditions for a long time and then been pipped at the post when it was their turn at the top of the housing list. A recent "Panorama" programme highlighted a 17-year-old girl who was four months pregnant, based in Hastings, and who had been given her own flat. That is a result of current policy. We should ensure that the waiting lists help those most in need, including those who have waited for a great length of time.

As I represent a seaside constituency, I welcome the measures on houses in multiple occupation. I shall not add to the litany of complaints about those houses because I agree with all the points that have been made. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that the definition of "houses in multiple occupation" excludes self-contained flats and flats in large houses where a flying freehold has been long established?

My hon. Friend the Minister may recall a case in my constituency where the local environmental health department was making life very difficult for residents in a mansion block with flying freehold, largely because the concept of flying freehold is not well understood. I am glad that we have been able to clarify that situation, but I would be grateful if my hon. Friend will confirm that those sorts of flats are excluded from the legislation. It reads as though they are, but I would appreciate that confirmation.

I turn now to the issue of leaseholders. There has been much publicity about leaseholding in London blocks and on large estates. On most of those estates, the freeholders are very respectable and responsible and they are only too keen to ensure that their leaseholders get an extremely good deal. In areas such as Hastings, freeholders may once have been residents of Hastings, but that freehold has been sold on and on. In such circumstances, it is very difficult for leaseholders not only to trace the freeholder but to withstand the demands of the freeholder and the managing agent.

Leaseholders in my constituency face two problems. The first concerns their ability to purchase their freehold. An elderly lady in my constituency wishes to buy her freehold and she made an offer in September 1994. On 5 January

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1995, she informed me that she had not received an answer, despite letters from her and from her solicitors, and from me, to the managing agents, Oakleigh Property Management Ltd., and to the freeholders, Ashcorn Estates Ltd. Interestingly--or suspiciously--both of those companies share the same address of 2a Belmore Hill court, Morestead road, Owslebury near Winchester. I hope that, as a result of my comments this evening, they now take action. I believe that the Bill will make it easier for people such as my constituent to buy their freehold.

The second problem concerns the notorious area of repairs, insurance, builders and surveyors, and residents being forced to pay inflated bills for shoddy work. I am grateful that the Bill addresses these issues too. One of the remedies for leaseholders involves the use of the leasehold valuation tribunal. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether that tribunal has any right of enforcement? If not, how is it proposed to enforce the tribunal's decisions?

I welcome those aspects of the Bill which deal with leaseholding and I am sure that many leaseholders will agree that they are practical suggestions for resolving existing problems. I hope that they will close existing loopholes and that no more will be opened. The current situation whereby leaseholders are forced to take their cases to court definitely works to the advantage of the freeholders. I am very conscious that changes which will enable leaseholders to hold freeholders to account more cheaply will go some way to addressing that problem.

In light of that and given the fact that my private Member's Bill, the Leasehold (Reform) Bill, is designed to reform aspects of leasehold law, I was grateful to receive the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) on the issue of commonhold. I plan to include that in my private Member's Bill, and I hope that--in tandem with the body of law that is being developed regarding leaseholding--we shall resolve the difficult and aggravating position of leaseholders and freeholders. It seems to be a particularly English and Welsh system of law and, as a Scot, I do not find it easy to understand.

I also endorse the recommendation by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West that the Latham proposals be carried forward in the next Housing Bill. I hope that we shall move quite quickly, as much of the construction industry is very keen to support the Latham report. That should assist the construction industry in the future.

8.24 pm

Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East): I shall spend most of the time available to me tonight addressing that part of the Bill which deals with criminal and anti-social behaviour on housing estates. However, I cannot speak to the Housing Bill without also referring briefly to several other issues.

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) graphically expose the conditions at the Clarendon Court hotel, which is under the authority of Westminster city council. Taxpayers are funding that hotel and its appalling conditions through the housing benefit system--that is a modern scandal of epic proportions. Although we do not have the equivalent of a Clarendon Court hotel in Coventry, I assure hon. Members that the provision made by some private sector

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landlords amounts to a disgraceful rip-off of the housing benefit system and of the taxpayer. The Government know that, but they tolerate it and allow it to continue.

Housing cost figures mean different things in different parts of the country, but the local authority in Coventry can still provide a decent size family dwelling for less than £40 a week. However, families are forced increasingly into small, antiquated and unhealthy accommodation for which the taxpayer is paying more than £80 per week through the housing benefit system. That is a growing problem.

When considering the dilemma of our public finances, one should look no further than the Government's mismanagement of the housing benefit and housing subsidy issue. In large part, that money is going to landlords who should not receive such support. They are ripping off the taxpayer while providing inadequate housing.

Although other hon. Members have covered the issue adequately, I shall turn briefly to the Government's proposals on homelessness. The House is facing an adverse public reaction to the passage of bad law. That fact was graphically illustrated by the poll tax and the Child Support Agency. We are in danger of doing the same thing in this instance because dogma has overtaken common sense. The laws with regard to housing allocation for the homeless have been reviewed again and again not by Labour, but by Conservative Ministers and Conservative Governments. We are now finding that proposals which were thrown out by Conservative Ministers are being offered as law.

I believe that this measure is born not of common sense or any attempt to introduce fairness into housing waiting lists, but of scapegoating. The Conservatives have realised that people are very angry about the length of housing waiting lists. In Coventry there are waiting lists of up to 14 years for local housing stock in some of the more desirable parts of the city. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras exposed the fact that the supply of local authority housing has fallen to the disgraceful level of only 400 new houses provided nationally.

How have the Government responded to that situation? Instead of accepting the failure of their policies and addressing the problem, they have looked for a scapegoat. Government Members try to tell ordinary people who are on housing waiting lists--which were created by the Government's policies--that it is the fault of the homeless. They say that they shall sort out the homeless; they shall be put at the back of the queue, housed in temporary accommodation and then everything will be all right. That is another example of the Government's looking for a scapegoat instead of a solution. The legislation simply will not work.

I now turn to anti-social behaviour. At the start of the debate, the Secretary of State said that the Government were committed to action, but did not have the support of the Labour party. He said that the Association of District Councils was opposed to the only solution--introductory tenancies.

I have a document from the Local Authority Working Group On Anti-Social Behaviour, which lobbied Parliament last Thursday. That document is supported by the ADC and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. It endorses the Labour party's position on anti-social

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behaviour, and demands--as it has demanded Government action for the past four or five years--that the Government give local authorities the power effectively to tackle criminal and anti-social behaviour on our council estates.

The Secretary of State had the audacity to suggest that the ADC is opposed to tackling the issue. The position is quite the reverse. The document states that introductory tenancies will not work unless they are

Those are the real grounds for opposing introductory tenancies, not those that the Secretary of State attempted to put to the House.

Criminal anti-social behaviour is a growing problem on housing estates. The issue has been raised in the House, sometimes by Conservative Members with specific problems, but mostly by Labour Members demanding that local authorities be given the powers to sort out a small element on our housing estates that drives the overwhelming majority of residents to distraction.

We are not talking just about music in the middle of the night or rowdy behaviour outside somebody's house, although that can be a massive problem. We are talking about escalating intimidation, including violence, burglary and forced entry into people's houses. The issue cannot be tackled without additional powers.

In one case in Coventry, a tenant exercised the right to buy and bought a council house in the middle of what became a problem area. There were problems next door and the house was effectively destroyed--along with the one next door--leaving the family with massive negative equity on a property that was no longer worth a light. The wife had a nervous breakdown, and when I met him, the husband was attempting to hold down a job in London and commute back and forth, desperately trying to keep the family's finances together. That is an example of a huge problem that the Government have refused to tackle for a long time.

It is disgraceful for the Government to suggest, as they did at the weekend, that the Labour party is not prepared to tackle crime. The record shows that the Labour party, the AMA, which has a Labour majority, and the ADC have been demanding effective action from the Government for some time. They are worried that the Bill will not lead to that effective action.

For heaven's sake, let us have some proper scrutiny of the proposals in the Bill to make sure that they work. Let us listen to the local authorities that will have to exercise those powers. If we do not, we shall wind up with soundbite politics, the Conservative party attempting to say that it is tackling law and order, and a piece of legislation of absolutely no value.

If Conservative Members do not make the legislation work, they will expose themselves as interested in law and order only when it affects a rich and privileged elite, and not being concerned with issues that affect the majority of law-abiding people living on housing estates in our cities throughout the length and breath of the country. If they do not take action, we shall expose them for exactly that.

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