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9.9 pm

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I shall take a very different line from the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

In his opening speech, the Secretary of State said, in connection with part II--which deals with houses in multiple occupation--that he already intended to introduce amendments to a Bill that was printed as recently as 18 January. It is incredible that the Government should wish to amend their own Bill before it has even been given a Second Reading. I accept that the Government may well be moving in the right direction, but--unlike Conservative Members--I want to see all the implications, and all the loopholes, in print before I support the legislation.

Conservative Members should bear it in mind that numerous attempts have been made to control the appalling problems that we are discussing, although we accept that regulation is needed to deal with those problems. I say "regulation"; given that Conservative Members constantly speak of deregulation, it is surprising that they should now recognise that regulation is necessary to make such houses safe for people to live in. I stress the word "safe".

Part V deals with the conduct of tenants, a subject that is likely to provoke considerable debate during the Bill's later stages. Hon. Members on both sides of the House want to ensure that council tenants can live in peace and quiet without being disturbed by the life styles of others, but we should not allow that to be seen as merely a council estate problem. I am told, in writing and by those who visit my advice bureau, that the problem is on the increase: it is a sign of the times, and it now affects many areas of Burnley. It may be easier to control it by means of legislation applying to council estates, but we should ensure that those living elsewhere can also live peaceful lives.

Chapter II of part III makes "minor amendments" to the leasehold reform provisions in the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993. During the passage of that legislation, we repeatedly told the Government that they were not tackling the problem

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properly, but I do not believe that the minor amendments contained in the Bill deal with outstanding major leasehold reform issues. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) mentioned commonhold; I know that that is not a matter for the Department of the Environment, but some people want the difficulties to be resolved once and for all.

The Secretary of State referred to the consultation document on the allocation of accommodation by local authorities that was recently issued. A response is demanded by no later than Monday 25 March. It is no use our being able to discuss what the Government say in the document in Committee and on Report; we need to know what responses are forthcoming, and what the Government intend to do.

Opposition Members have said several times that the Bill does nothing to deal with real housing problems. A monthly snapshot survey that is produced by the National Council of Building Material Producers underlines the problem. Sixty-one per cent. of respondents say that order volumes have decreased. To the question:

100 per cent. say no. Zero per cent. say that business confidence has increased and 39 per cent. say that it has decreased. Those are the latest figures, published in December. What an appalling reflection it is of what those people feel about the position.

In 1979, there were 8,649 council and new town dwelling starts in the north-west; last year, there were three. What has the Tory party done on housing since it won the election in 1979? Homelessness was a big city and a London problem; the Conservative party made it a national problem. In every town, we now have homelessness.

Like other councils, Burnley council did away with its points system and had an open waiting list. Other than for people wanting specific houses of a specific nature, there was no problem. It had a surplus of houses in 1979; it now has a waiting list and has had to go back to a points system.

The Government do not deal with housing grants in the Bill, as they had originally planned. I believe, however, that that will be done in the other Bill that will go to the other place. The Minister knows that every council cannot apply the mandatory grant system in the way that they are supposed to because they do not have the money.

Homelessness has been created. There are not enough houses because we are not building them. I want local authorities to be the main provider of housing to rent, but if the Government favoured housing associations and were to let them meet the need, I would accept the position. However, they are not doing that. We know that every independent body says that we need to build about 100,000 houses to rent a year, but we are not building half of that, which is appalling.

The Churches' response to the Bill is presented by Church Action on Poverty, the Catholic Housing Aid Society and the Churches National Housing Coalition. Their view, which is reflected by Shelter and by almost every independent body, is that the Bill's proposals on homelessness are wrong. Their briefing states:

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    departments and organisations across the country. None of the local authority associations believe there is a need for change. No evidence for this 'queue jumping' has ever been produced by the Department of the Environment. The argument is further undermined by Government commissioned research showing that 74 per cent. of households accepted as homeless are already on the waiting list."

The Bill will create more problems than it solves. It tackles the problem and tries to do away with homelessness by saying that people should go into temporary accommodation. The Government need to provide resources now to ensure that there are houses for people to rent before it is too late and they are kicked out of office.

9.17 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I was the sponsor of an early-day motion on rural housing in the previous Parliament, which led to the successful policy specifically dealing with the particular problems of rural areas. The early-day motion was a precursor to the change in Government policy leading to local authorities being able to grant planning permission for low-cost homes to be tenanted by local people on low incomes, on land outside the village envelope, provided by sympathetic landowners at less than the market value for building land. I welcome the fact that the right to buy will not apply to settlements of fewer than 3,000 people, although I understand that it will be necessary now for the Government to designate individual parishes accordingly.

In some cases, that may lead to a certain amount of disillusionment and disappointment in instances where there are communities of more than 3,000 souls, but which regard themselves as essentially rural communities. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister therefore to adopt maximum flexibility in the matter so as not to prejudice the success of a policy that has been introduced to deal with a specific problem and is working well, with a fund of good will from all sides. There is good will from the people who provide the land and from the planners and, of course, the policy has been welcomed by the beneficiaries.

I remind the Minister that South Shropshire district council in my Ludlow constituency is one of the relatively few local authorities to have implemented large-scale voluntary transfers of council houses to housing associations. I urge my hon. Friend to study the effect that that has had upon the finances of that authority and to look sympathetically at the consequences.

9.20 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich): I declare an interest, which is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I am a consultant to HACAS, the social housing consultancy.

We are considering the Government's second Bill on housing during this Parliament. The first became the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, and it was announced shortly after the 1992 general election. The current Bill represents the Government's last realistic opportunity to legislate before the coming general election. What are we to make of their two legislative offerings in this Parliament, and how do they match Conservative party promises that were put before the electorate in 1992?

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An analysis of the contents of the 1993 Act and of the Bill is an instructive and revealing exercise, especially when the contents are contrasted with the Government's promises to the electorate and placed in the context of what has been happening to housing in Britain over the past four years. They have been grim years for people in every tenure. Home owners have endured continuing problems of mortgage debt, repossession and negative equity on scales that have never before been experienced. No wonder they feel betrayed by a Government who promised to help home owners but who turned their backs on them when the going got rough.

The Government promised to maintain mortgage tax relief but cut it twice. They have compounded insecurity in the market by cutting the income support safety net. They are led by a Prime Minister who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras(Mr. Dobson) said, claimed in January 1992 to have stopped repossessions, but who has not lifted a finger to help the 200,000 householders who have had their homes repossessed since then.

I understand that the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), the chairman of the Conservative party, has recently launched what he calls a "hypocrisy watch". He could make no better start than by comparing the glib promises that his party and the Prime Minister made in 1992 about helping home owners with the systematic and cynical betrayal of home owners that has characterised the Government's actions over the past four years.

In case any Conservative Member has a doubt on the subject, I remind the House that, in the week when the latest repossession figures are due to be announced--they are expected to show repossessions continuing at the appalling rate of 1,000 every week--we are considering a Bill that contains nothing for home owners in difficulty, nothing to ease their fears, nothing to help to restore confidence in the market, and nothing to reduce the tide of repossessions which, according to the Prime Minister, was supposed to have stopped four years ago.

All that the Bill offers to home owners in difficulty is the prospect, if they have their homes repossessed, of even harsher treatment as homeless families. They are more likely to be refused help under the broader definition of intentional homelessness. Even if they are accepted by local authorities, they will be condemned to linger in temporary accommodation because the Government intend--although the Secretary of State revealed earlier that he was a little confused on the issue--to prohibit councils from rehousing homeless families directly into permanent housing. Home owners have been betrayed by the Government and the Bill compounds that betrayal.

Leaseholders have suffered an equally raw deal over recent years. Many leaseholders in former council properties have found themselves trapped with no prospect of selling their homes, or have been confronted with huge repair bills that they simply have not the means to pay.

Private leaseholders have every reason to feel betrayed by the Government, for the Tories promised them the chance to enfranchise their homes. Indeed, that was supposed to have been one of the main purposes of the 1993 Act. As we warned at the time, the Act was so riddled with complexities and loopholes it proved only too easy for landlords to frustrate the hopes of leaseholders. Consequently, very few leaseholders in flats have been able to buy the freehold of their homes.

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The 1993 Act was of course the third attempt by the Tory Government to legislate on leasehold reform. Their previous attempts in 1985 and 1987 had equally failed to provide effective remedies for leaseholders confronted with incompetent or unprincipled freeholders or managing agents. In the course of the past year, we have seen all too many examples of that--some from supposedly reputable bodies, such as Smith's Charity, which sold the freehold of its estate over the heads of its leaseholders in breach of the 1987 Act, and got away with it because the Act contained no penalties against defaulting landlords.

Other examples have arisen in less illustrious quarters, including a certain Harold Bebington, mentioned by name by the Secretary of State, and his accomplices Malthouse and Chevalier, who have been terrorising leaseholders all over London with unreasonable demands backed by threats of forfeiture. We should be quite clear about who is responsible for this deplorable state of affairs. Responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the Government, who promised to help leaseholders but failed them--not just once but three times.

Nor can the Government plead ignorance. We warned them time and again when the 1993 Act was going through the House that it would not work. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) pointed out, he warned them too in the late 1980s about the failure of measures to provide proper redress for leaseholders. They ignored our warnings and they have only themselves to blame for creating this mess. Sadly, all too many leaseholders have had to pay a heavy price for the Government's stubborn incompetence.

The reason for the Government's failure to give effective help to leaseholders is all too clear. The Tories dare not act decisively in the interests of leaseholders because they are beholden to the big landowners who have contributed large sums of money to Tory funds. The hypocrisy watch, if the right hon. Member for Peterborough is serious about it, could well find a great deal of interesting evidence on that particular issue. That is why we are sceptical of the promises emanating from the Secretary of State about the measures in the Bill that are supposed to give redress to leaseholders.

Although the Secretary of State does not look the part, he has all the hallmarks of the second-hand car salesman, whose firm has already conned an unfortunate motorist with not one but three successive dud vehicles, none of which worked. Now he is trying to convince the unfortunate buyer that the fourth old banger that he is offering will turn out to be a top-class, high-performance vehicle. Like any such salesman, he is not giving the potential victim the opportunity to inspect the vehicle or take it for a test run. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) pointed out, the Secretary of State is promising clauses that are not in the Bill, yet it was published only 10 days ago.

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