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9.11 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I would like to tell the Minister for Housing and Planning, before he runs away, that I thought I might help his career by saying that I shall vote for the Bill at 10 pm. He may want to consider his future career path, but I shall vote for the Bill and thought that he would be pleased to hear it. This is the first debate for as long as I can remember in which a Minister has sat on the Front Bench for nearly the whole debate: he went out for one cup of tea, but we can allow him that. [Interruption.] It may indeed be that he has no friends to go to, but we should thank him for being here.

While I welcome the Bill—I see that the Minister has run away now—I do have one or two doubts about some of it. In many ways, it is good as far as it goes and good in its aspirations, but two things are lacking. One is the power to see through some of the necessary changes to bring about social housing of decent quality for people. The other is that the Bill does not provide the means to achieve its aspirations. In his opening speech, the Minister outlined some of those problems.

I have received, as I imagine most Members have, a Shelter briefing on the Bill, which is interesting and useful. The tenancy deposit scheme issue is very important. Almost automatically, because of the way the housing market works, the number of people in private tenancies is increasing and likely to increase quite fast. That means that the national tenancy scheme is becoming more and more important to end the abuses and disputes that take place whenever private tenancies occur.

My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), has changed a lot. There was a time, 10 or 20 years ago, when houses in multiple occupation were normal, indeed common, throughout most of north London. They are not now; most have reverted either to family houses or been sold and divided into flats. The number of places that one would call HMOs has reduced greatly, although I recognise that they are an enormous problem in other parts of the country.

The Bill helpfully deals with antisocial behaviour and the way in which many people simply make life hell for their neighbours, local residents and others. Those people can be drug dealers or pimps running prostitution rackets or just people who are deeply unpleasant in their behaviour towards others. We are all faced in our constituency surgeries with a desperation to get away from those people and those estates.

While that is a respectable thing to want to do, it is not a credible solution. The solution is to ensure better running of those communities and those estates.

The December issue of Housing Today contained an interesting article about the work of the antisocial behaviour unit of Hackney council, under its leader, Keith Veness, whom I know well. It has been successful in getting rid of many of the people who have terrorised communities on estates throughout the borough.

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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the most desperate antisocial behaviour, especially in London, happens when flats are taken over by drug dealers and become crack dens? In my constituency, we would like to see even more resources put into closing down such premises. Although Keith Veness is doing good work, as soon as one is closed down, another opens up.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Resources have to be put in consistently, over the long term. Sufficient police resources must be available to keep up the pressure, because—as we discover when London Members of Parliament meet, as we frequently do—the problem moves from one constituency that has had an effective operation to another down the road.

I shall concentrate on issues of social housing need—the need for a better supply of housing. I recall a time when my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and I were active in politics in Haringey. We were both councillors at various times and in the late 1970s we could say proudly that we would never again put children in high-rise properties, that all the new properties we built would be houses with gardens, and that we would attempt to create decent community neighbourhoods. There are some wonderful examples of municipal development by Haringey, Camden, Hackney and Islington in that period, which was a high point for housing, with a Labour Government providing sufficient resources and local authorities with the imagination to develop new estates.

Tragically, a graph of the development of housing would show 100,000 new properties for council rent constructed in 1979, but only a handful—a few thousand—constructed last year by registered social landlords. The situation is desperate. The Government have commissioned a report from Kate Barker on housing supply, which demonstrates some unpalatable truths that we need to understand. It is all very well to assume that there is a market solution to housing need, but the reality is that 70 per cent. of all new households—they are mostly single person, but not all—cannot afford to buy a property. It is impossible to buy a property in my constituency even on an MP's salary without having a property to sell. That is the case for most of London. If someone who earns more than £50,000 a year cannot afford to move on to the housing ladder, what hope is there for a local authority worker, a nurse or a road sweeper?

It gives me no pleasure to say that of the 80,000 homeless people registered nationally, some 30,000 are in London. Over the past five years, the only big increase in London has been in the number of people registered as homeless, living in grossly overcrowded accommodation in hostels or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The number of new lettings has fallen and the number of new houses built has not increased. It is certainly not keeping pace with the number of people registered as homeless in London.

I congratulate the Government on the money that they have put in to estate improvements, including new roofs, new windows and new landscaping. However, the market created the housing crisis that the poorest people of London and the south-east face at present. The market will not solve that crisis. It will be solved only by

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sufficient public investment in new housing for build. The Government should not tell those living in overcrowded, badly run, dilapidated estates that the only way to improve their housing stock is to transfer to a registered social landlord who will be allowed to build dozens, if not hundreds, of properties to sell on the remaining bits of open land on those estates. Working-class communities which suffered 18 years of cuts and abuse under the Tories deserve better than that from a Labour Government, so I hope that the Minister will understand the strong feelings that arise when there are votes on housing transfer or, as occurred in Camden recently, on transfer to an arm's-length management organisation.

I represent an inner-city area and I see the desperation of the people who come to my advice bureau—children who are under-achieving at school and truanting, families who are breaking up, unemployment and everything that goes with that misery. Nationally, the picture is clear; there are empty properties in the north-east and the north-west. If people want to move freely from London to those areas that is fine—I wish them well. Good luck to them and I hope that everything works out for them. But for people with an extended community network or from a particular linguistic minority, that is not a credible alternative. We need to invest in council housing in inner London so that the poorest people, who have loyally supported our party for dozens of years, can have hope and aspiration for the future.

I welcome much that is in the Bill. I welcome the aspirations of the decent homes target, but that target cannot be met unless there is sufficient investment in, yes, high-cost areas to ensure that we have decent-quality housing for all those people. The Government will the ends, which are laudable, but they do not provide the means for us to achieve them. I hope that the Bill goes through and that it is improved in Committee, but I hope, too, that the Government will give us a much enhanced housing strategy in the future.

9.21 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful that my speech could be squeezed in before the end of the debate.

I welcome the Bill, not least in these straitened times, as it implements two of our manifesto commitments at the last general election: the mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation and the provision of home information packs. However, the Bill focuses primarily on the private rented sector and the raising of standards in that sector. That is not surprising when we consider that the Government have already very much addressed the needs of owner-occupiers, with the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years. If we add to that the stability of the economy over the past six years and the high rate of employment, with an additional 1.5 million people in employment, it is not surprising that owner-occupation has risen from 68 per cent. to 71 per cent.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said earlier, the Government have also addressed the problems in the social sector. He referred to the £19 billion backlog of disrepair, the fact that 1

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million dwellings have been improved over the past six years and the possibility that all those homes will have been improved by 2010. The Government are investing in housing itself; the amount will rise to £11 billion in 2005 by the end of the current spending review. They have also developed the sustainable communities plan.

The recent Barker report on housing supply revealed a number of things. I shall pick out two of them. First, most of the decline in housing supply is the result of the collapse in the supply of affordable housing since 1981. Earlier, someone claimed that the six years before 1997 offered some sort of excuse for the situation, but Barker shows clearly that the problems at the root of the difficulty have existed since 1981. When we further take account of the fact that since then 1.5 million properties have been sold under the right to buy, we can see that we face an enormous difficulty and that it will take a long time to replace those units of affordable accommodation.

Secondly, the Barker report showed that only 1 per cent.—just 1 per cent.—of institutional property investment goes into residential property. Other Members have commented on Kate Barker's suggestion that we should look into some form of tax-transparent, real estate investment trusts, on the American model. Although I should be happy to do that, we also need to consider the main reason why that investment is not being made: the image of the private rented sector.

All the studies show that, whenever tenants are polled, they always say that they do not want to live in the private rented sector. I could quote the National Union of Students report, which I assume all hon. Members have received, but I will not do so because of a lack time, although it is a very good indicator. Of course, there are many good landlords, but the image is undoubtedly formed by the bad landlords. The Hoogstratens and Rachmans of this world taint the whole private rented sector, and we have to do something about that if we are to get institutional investment.

The Bill makes a very promising start in two areas. As many hon. Members have said, the first is the mandatory licensing of HMOs. There is great evidence to show a concentration of poor physical condition in HMOs. The estimate is that 10 per cent. of them are unfit for human habitation. Bad management practices exist, and there are health and safety concerns. There have been a number of prominent accidents in HMOs. Of course, very vulnerable tenants live in that sector, so there is a high risk. As I suggested to the Minister earlier—I repeat this, and it is in line with what other hon. Members have said—we need to consider HMOs because they are in the high-risk category and have multiple problems.

Unlike my good Friend the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), I do not think that we can rely on a voluntary scheme for local authorities. All the evidence suggests that, although there are many very good authorities that will deal with the issues locally, that does not always happen, so we have to ensure that we cover them properly. I am sure that that will be considered carefully in Committee. We also have to consider the difficulties of landlords withdrawing from the sector as a result of mandatory licensing. There are different views about that, but the Government need to

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consider linking in to the homelessness strategies of local authorities to ensure that landlords do not withdraw from the sector.

The second area is, of course, the selective licensing of private landlords. We need to deal with some of the most unscrupulous practices in the housing sector and scams such as housing benefit fraud, harassment and unlawful eviction, specifically because many of the neighbourhoods involved are in decline and that sort of activity will accelerate that decline. Of course demand will disappear altogether in low-demand areas if something is not done. We need to address the standards issue, and I very much welcome the measures that will ensure that landlords must be fit and proper persons. Indeed, licences will be withheld if necessary.

In the very short time available to me, I cannot go over all the issues covered in the Bill, but I am moved to comment on the right to buy. As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the Conservative spokesman, has returned to the Chamber, I want to explore his earlier comments, which appeared to represent a shift away from the rather dubious policy of extending the right to buy to RSLs. I say that not in a spirit of party political bickering, but to raise the prospect that a cross-party consensus could emerge. I have always held the view that we need cross-party consensus if we are to improve the possibility of people owning their properties, while providing a good standard of affordable accommodation. I hope that the Conservative party will continue to move in that direction so that we can make progress.

I want briefly to raise two issues, the first of which is overcrowding, on which other hon. Members have commented. I introduced a ten-minute Bill that raised a number of issues. Clearly, we need to end the Dickensian standards that currently exist; but more importantly, we need to collect more accurate statistics. I do not expect that to be done using measures in Bill, but I welcome the Government's move in that direction. We also need to inform policy in relation to the level of overcrowding. That is the missing link in all the housing stress problems that we face, and it could be dealt with in the Bill.

A national tenancy deposit scheme would begin to address the friction currently caused by all the disputes over tenancy deposits. That relates to the private rented sector's image, and it creates a lack of confidence in the sector and a loss of trust in the relationship between landlords and tenants. According to the Government's estimates, there were 127,000 cases of dispute. One in five tenants have their deposits withheld. That is not all caused by rogue landlords. There are rogue tenants. Often, when a tenant does not think that they will get their deposit back, they withhold the rent. Sometimes they take to trashing their accommodation. The Bill provides a chance to address the whole image of the private rented sector. Although I accept that the Government might not wish to move in that direction in the Bill, there is some urgency over the need to move at the earliest opportunity on a national tenancy deposit scheme.

Otherwise, I welcome the Bill's provisions. They will address the issues in the private rented sector that must be addressed if it is to contribute to the provision of good-quality, affordable accommodation in the future.

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