§ 3.31 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our housing policies. The Government are today publishing the White Paper, "Our Future Homes". Copies will be available immediately after this statement in the Library and the Vote Office.
Home ownership, opportunity in renting and unlocking resources to provide help where it is needed—those are the hallmarks of the Government's housing policies and have been since 1979. The objective of our housing policy is that a decent home should be within reach of every family. A population living longer and staying longer in their homes, together with the breakdown of traditional family structures, means that there will be an increasing demand for homes. We live in a heavily populated country, yet we shall have to meet the demand for new homes in an environmentally sustainable way. The public sector needs to look for new and imaginative ways in which to work with the private sector to achieve our aims.
The proposals that I am putting forward today embody three themes: opportunity, choice and responsibility. Those are things that people value. We remain committed to continued sustainable growth in home ownership. Home ownership is what 80 per cent. of people want. More than 4 million households in addition have become home owners since 1979. Over the next 10 years, our aim is that 1.5 million more families will own their own homes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has today underlined our commitment by reaffirming that there will be no cut in the tax relief on mortgage interest for the rest of this Parliament.
Now we want to go further and give more people the opportunity to buy. First, we propose to introduce a new voluntary grant scheme, to give housing association tenants cash help to buy the homes that they live in. Housing associations will receive the full market price and will be able to keep the receipt from the sale to build a new home.
Secondly, we propose to legislate to make it a condition of future grant to social landlords that landlords—including housing associations—commit themselves to making the new houses and flats available for sale to tenants on request. Again, sales will be at full market price, with grant to tenants to help them buy.
Thirdly, we shall challenge private developers, public bodies and housing associations to bring forward development proposals for support from English Partnerships to build on derelict land, to bring more home ownership into the heart of our cities, building healthier, more balanced communities.
We shall also change the renovation grants system to allow a more strategic approach in providing help to low-income home owners, including elderly people and people with disabilities, for essential improvements and adaptations to their homes. We shall have a discretionary system, except for grants for disabled people, which will remain mandatory.
Of course, we realise the real difficulties that are currently being faced by some home owners. Our objective must continue to be sustainable home ownership, able to cope with changing economic conditions.
688 Sustaining a healthy private rented sector is the second key element in providing people with choices and opportunities. In 1988, we removed the controls that were strangling that sector. Since then, we have seen its steady growth from 1.7 million to 2 million homes. Now we want to do more to unlock new resources.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to legislate to allow the creation of housing investment trusts, to encourage financial institutions to invest. They will benefit from a reduced rate of corporation tax and exemptions from tax on capital gains.
We propose to legislate to help small landlords, by simplifying letting arrangements and making it easier to evict tenants who do not pay the rent. We propose to legislate to improve the safety and fitness of houses in multiple occupation. I intend to strengthen the powers already available to local authorities, particularly in respect of ensuring adequate fire precautions in high-risk houses in multiple occupation. Those proposals will, I believe, sustain the growth in private renting that has been achieved under this Government.
Our White Paper also reaffirms our commitment to maintaining a social rented sector at rents below market levels. Affordable rents mean that people have real incentives to work and to save. On current plans, the Government will provide 180,000 additional social rented lettings in three years. Now we need to look for yet more ways to increase investment through partnership with the private sector, to extend choice and to improve further the service provided to tenants.
We propose to legislate to allow commercial providers to compete alongside housing associations for grants to provide social housing at below market rents, increasing competition so that we can get more homes for taxpayers' money. [Interruption.] Opposition Members who do not want more homes for taxpayers' money are letting down not the Government, but the people who would otherwise be provided with decent homes.
We shall introduce a system to ensure that all new social sector landlords are delivering the required level of service to tenants. There will be no question of operating on an unequal playing field.
There is considerable potential for using large-scale voluntary transfers of local authority stock to help wider regeneration in urban areas. We shall be encouraging transfers—if the tenants agree—in cases where there are benefits for tenants through increased investment, as well as a reduction in the burden on taxpayers. Where there are costs, we shall support transfers that offer the best return on the resources that we have available.
We shall encourage transfer to a wider range of private landlords. That could include local housing companies, as well as commercial landlords. Local authority companies will need to be clearly in the private sector.
By 2005, we intend to transform the remaining large—[Laughter.] For the first time, a Government have committed themselves to transform all the worst housing estates in Britain and the only thing that the Opposition can do is laugh, for they have no policy and cannot face the realities of Britain's housing problems. Opposition Members who care only for party political slogans and do not care to improve the housing of the people of Britain can go on giggling into the next century, for we have work to do.
689 We shall bring together resources to deal with the worst social, economic and housing problems. Within this decade, we shall see to it that families are no longer brought up in the dispiriting and destructive environment that pervades our worst estates—in councils largely run by the Labour party and where the quality of housing is a standing disgrace to that party throughout the land. It is the Opposition whose rent policies have meant that they have been unable to keep up the decent housing to which the electorate lay claim.
We shall meet housing demand while protecting the environment. We have set ourselves targets for England for the next 10 years, to which Opposition Members on the Front Bench would do well to listen. The first is to reduce the percentage of empty homes in the public and private sectors to 3 per cent. of stock. The second is to reduce the number of Government-owned empty homes, selling off surplus empty homes within six months of their becoming empty. The third is to build half of all new homes on previously developed land, reducing building on green-field sites, protecting the environment and safeguarding the green belt.
We need to ensure that social housing is allocated fairly to those with the best claim to it. In July 1994, we announced that we would proceed with plans to reform homelessness legislation and make the system of allocating social housing fairer—[Interruption.]—not something with which the Labour Front Bench appears to bother. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), who is a Whip, cannot allow the House to listen to a fairer system.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It has been the tradition of the House that Ministers make statements uninterrupted, but is it not also part of the tradition that they are serious ministerial departmental statements and not a rant?
§ Madam Speaker
I am following the ministerial statement carefully and the Minister is deviating considerably. As this is an important statement on which I expect a lot of questions, I hope that he will keep to the statement so that I can allow Back Benchers who seek to question it to do so.
§ Mr. Gummer
We need to ensure that social housing is allocated fairly to those with the best claim to it. In July 1994, we announced that we would proceed with plans to reform homelessness legislation and to make the system of allocating social housing a fairer one. The White Paper confirms our commitment to legislating on that.
These reforms will put all those with a long-term need for social housing on the same footing, while ensuring that there is a safety net for emergency and pressing needs. Too often, people who fit the statutory categories get a house before people on the waiting list, who have put up with long-term housing problems but do not happen to fit those categories. Local authorities will have greater flexibility to decide what is the best housing solution for people in need of help, in the light of circumstances in their area and of the particular circumstances of the individuals concerned.
To help prevent homelessness, we shall legislate to ensure that suitable housing advice services are available in each local authority area. There will also be more help to low-income households to find a home, through pre-tenancy determinations of housing benefit for those renting in the private sector, and through powers for local authorities to provide rent guarantees.
690 Sleeping rough on the streets is the most visible form of homelessness. The Government's rough sleepers initiative in central London, which will have invested £182 million of public money over the six years to March 1996, has been highly effective. We shall build on that success to ensure that there is no necessity for people to sleep rough.
In central London, we shall continue the rough sleepers initiative beyond March 1996, including the funding for people who do the hard job of working with the most difficult of cases out there on the streets. We shall also fund resettlement work and an annual winter shelter programme, and shall consider the need for funding for some temporary direct access hostel provision. Outside central London, we shall consider assisting the development of the rough sleepers initiative model in areas where rough sleeping is demonstrated to be a major problem.
We want a better service for tenants in the social rented sector. We have given tenants a wide range of rights so that they have a bigger say in how their homes are run, and so that services are more responsive to local needs. Those changes appear in the council tenants charter, a new and improved version of which we published last week.
However, tenants have not only important rights but important responsibilities, such as to stick to tenancy agreements, to pay the rent, and not to annoy other tenants. Sadly, there is a small minority of tenants whose selfish behaviour makes their neighbours' lives a misery, and we want to help local authorities to deal more effectively with anti-social behaviour. Our proposal is for probationary tenancies, so that local authorities can improve the quality of life for the responsible majority of tenants by taking firm action against the irresponsible minority.
What is proposed is a balanced, sensible package that encourages private initiative and investment, and will promote competition to increase value for taxpayers' money. The package is designed to deliver genuine opportunity and to support individual responsibility, while recognising the responsibility of Government to provide effective help for those who need it.
Our policies are set out in full in the White Paper. A number of detailed consultation papers are also being published either today or over the next few weeks. Those are listed in the White Paper, and copies will be made available in the Library.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
From that statement, one would never guess the scale of the housing crisis now harming the lives of families in every part of the country, whether they are owner-occupiers, whether they are renting or whether they are simply trying to get somewhere decent to live. After 16 years in office, the Government have produced a White Paper that neither addresses the immediate problems that millions of people face nor spells out a vision for a future in which everyone in Britain has a decent home.
The White Paper is the product of a Government who have run out of ideas, and who now appear to be living in a world of their own. They have now started ignoring problems in the hope that people will not notice what has gone wrong or who is to blame. The White Paper does nothing to restore faith in the mortgage market, and little or nothing to end the crisis in housing investment. It does nothing to help the homeless or people living in overcrowded accommodation. Indeed, it is all too likely to make matters worse.
691 As the White Paper has not dealt with many of the problems that people face, I shall put the following specific questions to the Secretary of State. First, will he confirm that despite the one and a quarter million families in negative equity, the half a million families in mortgage arrears and the one third of a million families whose homes have been repossessed in the past five years, his statement did not mention the word "repossession", and the White Paper mentions it only once—and certainly does not come up with any answers?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that despite the Tory general election promise to retain mortgage tax relief, that too has been cut, and that even the promises announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer are current only this side of the next general election? Will he confirm that, for every family with serious mortgage arrears in 1982, there are now 21 families with serious arrears, and that for every family whose home was repossessed in 1979, 16 families had their homes repossessed last year?
Is not the Secretary of State ashamed that the number of homes being built for rent by housing associations and councils this year is less than 20,000—the lowest since the second world war? Is it not the case that, for every home being built for rent this year, seven were being built under the previous Labour Government and that, under this Government, rents are rising at four or five times the rate of inflation? Will he confirm that, despite a record number of houses in disrepair, he proposes to end families' rights to renovation grants? Will he explain where he expects the homeless to go when their temporary right to accommodation runs out, especially as fewer homes are available for rent? How will making it easier for private landlords to evict tenants reduce homelessness? Why does he think that a licensing scheme to improve the safety of homes in multiple occupation would amount to "over-regulation and bureaucracy", as stated in the White Paper?
If, as the Secretary of State intends, council housing is to be transferred to private companies, how does he intend to keep rents down, and who will meet the cost of keeping rents down? Why does he refuse to allow councils to start investing in new homes the takings from the right-to-buy sale of council houses?
Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that, despite anything that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said at his press conference this morning, when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales, he approved every word of this housing White Paper, which means that both candidates for the Conservative party leadership are totally responsible for this feeble and useless document?
§ Mr. Gummer
It is an amazing experience to see that, despite the fact that the Labour party has profited from the theft of the White Paper for some days, that is all that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) can bring forward. His speech contained not a single idea about what he would do and, yet again, not a single suggestion about housing from the Labour party. In each of the previous 16 years we have been in exactly the same position: every new idea comes from the Conservatives, while every carping criticism comes from the Opposition, who still have no ideas.
692 Moreover, the hon. Gentleman still does not understand that if private landlords are not allowed to run the homes that they let reasonably, there will be no homes to let. The last time that the Labour party placed heavy restrictions on private landlords, it lost 500,000 letting homes. We now insist that if private landlords receive help from the Government to provide homes below market rents, they must meet the same requirements that are placed on housing associations. The hon. Gentleman has clearly not even read the White Paper, despite the fact that he has had an advantage over many hon. Members for several days.
It is difficult to take the hon. Gentleman's attack on the Government's housing policy when every day we sell 200 houses to people who were previously in rented accommodation in the public sector. So 200 families a day are buying their own homes through the right to buy, an organisation and system that the Opposition have opposed tooth and nail throughout their period in opposition. In addition, we are building, renovating and improving lettings for those who need supported housing at a rate of 60,000 a year. That is a significant addition to the homes available to those who need subsidised and supported housing.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman has shown that he has not read the White Paper and knows nothing about housing. Publicly to reveal his ignorance after so many days of being able to read the details simply shows how bankrupt he and his party are.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
My right hon. Friend has made an important statement. Housing is an essential of life. Would he accept from me, first, that there is some concern that the Conservative party and the Conservative Government have turned their face against home ownership and are now concerned more with the renting of homes than with home ownership? It would be a great encouragement to those who want to buy their homes if mortgage interest relief at source—MIRAS—was increased from 15 per cent. to 25 per cent., not least for first-time buyers, in order to give greater confidence and to stimulate home ownership.
Secondly, would my right hon. Friend accept from me, representing as I do the only Conservative-controlled borough council north of the Severn to the Wash, that local government has a role to play in housing? The housing committee of Macclesfield borough council is highly responsible and sensitive to the needs of local housing. It is regrettable that those who have been democratically elected are being deprived of the opportunity to have some say in local government provision of housing.
§ Mr. Gummer
The Government remain totally committed to home ownership. We are setting our sights on a further 1.5 million families owning their own homes. Now, 200 families, who used to be tenants of the state, are buying their own homes. Local authorities are encouraged to go for large-scale voluntary transfers—LSVTs. I can tell my hon. Friend from my experience in Suffolk, Coastal that when the local authority sold its council stock to Suffolk Heritage, the number of complaints that I used to receive in a month now account for what I get in over a year. That is the difference, because one has a dedicated housing group, which is concerned only about being a landlord. That housing authority had one of the best reputations in the country, and it will confirm that LSVTs is the way to tap into 693 capital and to use it to improve housing stock. Were even the excellent council in Macclesfield to do that, it would find the means of even bettering its performance to date.
§ Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in housing are concerned that the White Paper does not recognise the interlink between the economy and housing? While promoting unsustainable home ownership and doing absolutely nothing for those who already have mortgages in arrears, is not the Secretary of State merely stoking up the fires of excess in housing? In the end, that will mean that more trouble is stored up for the future.
The Secretary of State has said that he believes that young people and families should have a stable environment, but his proposals mean that, in the last year alone, 67,000 homeless families would now have been in short-term, unsustainable accommodation.
§ Mr. Gummer
On the first point, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: an economy with low interest rates and low inflation is an economy that provides sustainable home ownership. There has not been a better time for years in which to buy a house. The average cost of mortgages has dropped from £320 a month in 1990 to £190. I should remind my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) that if MIRAS was increased as he suggested, the difference would amount to £10 a month. The real difference is achieved by getting the inflation rate down, keeping it down and, therefore, keeping mortgage repayments down. The policy of the hon. Lady's party would push inflation and mortgage rates up. Her party's policy and the extra taxation needed to fund what she claims she would do would create unsustainable housing.
It is clear from the hon. Lady's final suggestion that she wants to continue to have a system where those in real need are bypassed by those who happen to fall in the right category. That is what she means. A single mother with a child, who had a terrible housing problem, would be left in that accommodation because, technically, she had a roof over her head while someone in better circumstances, fitting the category, would get ahead of her. That is what the hon. Lady wants and if that is Liberal fairness, it is not my concept of fairness.
§ Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on producing an immensely wide-ranging and positive White Paper? Will he confirm that the essence of what he has said is that there is a massive boost for the funds available for social housing through the recycling of money from the sale of housing association properties, by allowing private developers to bid for housing association grant and by opening the doors to massive new investment from private companies in the private rented sector?
Is my right hon. Friend aware also that there will be a particular welcome from voluntary organisations for his comments on the future of the rough sleepers initiative? Will he confirm that there has been a dramatic fall in the number of people sleeping rough in London as a result of that initiative and will he now undertake a wide-ranging consultation exercise to establish exactly what format the scheme should take?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank my hon. Friend. What we have announced today will mean that we shall make the very best use of taxpayers' money; draw in a great deal more 694 money from the private sector; ensure that we recycle that money so that more and more people are given the opportunity for a home of their own; and that we make sure that need is the main reason for entry into social housing—a most important change.
As for the rough sleepers initiative, I promise my hon. Friend that we shall continue to work extremely closely with the voluntary sector. We shall talk to it in detail about how to take that forward. We have introduced the extension of the initiative because of the voluntary sector's very considerable support. My hon. Friend is right that the number of rough sleepers has now dropped in central London—by the voluntary sector's figures, from over 1,000 to the 200 mark.
§ Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)
After that most inept performance by the Secretary of State, is he aware that in 1979 in the northern region, over 10,000 council houses were built? Last year, 68 council houses were built in the whole northern region. Does he not realise that local authorities have capital receipts from sales under the right to buy with which they could immediately start to build houses? That would not necessarily solve the problem, but it would go a long way towards solving it and releasing people from the lists into houses. When, in the name of heaven, will the right hon. Gentleman get rid of his damned dogma and allow local authorities to use the money to build houses so that people can get houses to live in?
§ Mr. Gummer
If we are talking about ineptitude, what about a Member of Parliament from the north who does not know that housing associations have been building houses all over the north or recognise that estate action has improved large numbers of estates in the north of England and suggests that I am proceeding dogmatically when I am providing the widest choice ever known in this country? He is clearly so blinkered by his socialism that he wants houses to be built only by local authorities.
The fact is that if local authorities were to spend their accumulated receipts, it would be many of the local authorities that had the least need to provide housing that would have the largest opportunity to spend receipts. The Labour party proposes that authorities should spend them, but, of course, it would have to reduce the grant and capital allowances provided by the Government to those authorities because the Labour party has admitted that it would not increase public expenditure. What would happen is that local authorities would not be able to build or help local housing associations to build, but in the plusher parts of the country there would be plenty of money to spend. If that is socialism, it is a very curious sort.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that much in the White Paper is very welcome to Conservative Members? Can he clear up one point that concerns me, about charitable housing trusts? Did he say in his statement that in future they would be able to build only for sale? If that is so, I suspect that it will be in conflict with some of their charitable purposes.
§ Mr. Gummer
No. What I was saying is that in normal circumstances when housing associations build to rent—which is what they do—the right to buy will in future be part of the tenants' offer, so that a tenant who begins renting accommodation under the new deal with the housing association will in future also have the right to 695 buy. We are extending the right to buy to those who will have houses that will be built in future by housing associations.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)
When he comes to draft the legislation, will the Secretary of State bear in mind the plight of the owners of Orlit houses, which were built by non-registered housing associations and thereby excluded from grant repair schemes because of a flaw in the drafting?
§ Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston)
While I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his proposals, will he confirm that when a housing association receives the purchase price from the sale of a house, there will be no restriction by the Government on its ability to reinvest all that money in yet another house?
§ Mr. Gummer
That is entirely correct. Someone who moves from being a tenant to being an owner releases money for the housing association. The housing association then gets the maximum price to build a new house, which can then be let. That is a constant return system.
§ Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
On the question of council house allocation policies, does the Secretary of State accept that the notion that single-parent mothers are systematically queue-jumping is based on a myth? Nowhere in law do single-parent mothers get priority—homeless families with children get priority. Does he also accept that the children of single-parent mothers are not an inferior type of humanity? Why should the children of single-parent mothers have to suffer in temporary and hostel accommodation because Ministers seek to make moral judgments about those mothers' personal situation?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Lady did not listen to what I said, which was precisely the opposite. I said that it was a scandal when a single-parent mother in very bad housing was unable to get proper accommodation because someone else who was technically in a higher category jumped the queue ahead of her. The hon. Lady must not let her prejudice interfere with her ears. The fact is that I am on her side and believe that need must be the first priority. If the hon. Lady will join me in fighting to make need the first priority, we shall go arm in arm in the housing sphere.
§ Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a particular welcome for his decision to extend the rough sleepers initiative outside London and for his determination that new housing should be built on derelict land and previously used land? Does he accept that, while the aspiration for home ownership remains widespread, there is at least as pressing a need—socially and economically—for a diversified rented sector? If there is no terrible danger to the economy in allowing housing associations to reuse their capital receipts, what particular reason is there for continuing to restrain local authorities from doing likewise?
§ Mr. Gummer
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important to promote home ownership, but it should 696 be done in concert with providing opportunities to rent accommodation. The Government have changed the rules so that landlords find it worth while to let. Without those changes, there would be no further letting accommodation. This is a further step in the same direction.
Local authorities are of course able to spend a proportion of their receipts, but the problem is that local authority receipts and the need for housing are not in the same places. We therefore think it better to direct the opportunity to build to housing associations in areas where the need is greatest, which is what we are doing. Housing associations are getting the funds where the need is greatest. When they sell their houses, they are able to recycle the sums of money because we have already directed them to where the need is greatest. The problem is that many local authorities have been able to sell large quantities of houses and other assets, but they are not in the places where need demands that they build new houses, which is why we believe that they should be more targeted. Money from the taxpayer should be used to the full.
§ Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
Is the Secretary of State aware that, since 1979, homelessness in the northern region has doubled, council house rents have risen by more than 500 per cent. and people living in the housing association properties to which he referred in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) cannot afford to pay those rents unless they are on 100 per cent. housing benefit? Of course, if they get a job, they have to consider moving out. Is he further aware that 27,000 properties in the northern region are affected by negative equity? Is that a record of which the Secretary of State is proud? To what extent will the White Paper deal with such problems?
§ Mr. Gummer
I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not mention that properties in the northern region have been allowed to run down and need considerable renovation precisely because of the rent policies of previous Labour administrations and Labour councils. [Interruption.] If tenants are not charged a reasonable amount to contribute towards the upkeep of the accommodation, the accommodation will run down. Opposition Members cannot get upset about it; it is a fact of life. If one does not spend money on the housing, the housing will run down.
We now have a sensible rent policy, and those who cannot afford to pay the rent have the opportunity of receiving the generous housing benefit that costs the Government £8.9 billion. The Labour party is unable to face the fact that the Government's policies have done more to help the homeless and those in poor accommodation than any policies advanced by the Labour party.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent proposals to bring much needed private enterprise into our town hall-dominated council estates—something for which I have argued for a very long time. Does he agree that examples in other countries show how much more the private rented sector can do? For instance, the private rented sectors in Switzerland and Germany are four times the size of our private rented sector and much of their housing is provided by private individuals.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right. Has he noticed that the Labour party does not understand any of that? 697 Labour Members laugh at anything that they could learn from anyone else. The Labour party is stuck in the 1940s, when council accommodation was provided for a limited number of people. That council accommodation has deteriorated because the Labour party has never been prepared to find ways of spending money properly on its upkeep.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
It is no wonder that the Tory party is going to the dogs when, after 16 years in government, it fails to recognise that it is facing a housing crisis. More than a quarter of a million building workers are looking for jobs, there are millions of bricks at the London Brick Company and elsewhere, thousands of people are on the streets without a roof over their heads and many more are on council housing waiting lists. Yet, despite all the talk about negative equity, today the Minister calls upon more people to get up to their necks in debt. The country is in never-never land, living on tick. The Minister, in his swan song speech—he is likely to be dumped—does not have the decency to tell councils to build some houses, get people back to work and put roofs over people's heads.
§ Mr. Gummer
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman made that penultimate remark. He has said that every year since I first stood at the Dispatch Box, and he has been wrong every year. I was afraid that he would not say it again this year, because the year that he does not say it I shall really be in trouble.
As usual, the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. What he says now is precisely what the Labour party said in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and again in the 1990s. It has never been able to meet the housing aspirations of our people. However, we are able to say not only that we have enabled more families to own their own homes and that every day 200 families buy houses under the right to buy and similar schemes, but that 1.5 million more families will purchase houses in the next few years. As usual, the hon. Gentleman is totally out of touch with real life and in contact only with the whimsical attitudes of his socialism.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the tenants of Hastings borough council will welcome his proposals for housing associations as they are voting to join the 1066 housing association? Will he confirm whether the new probationary tenancies will apply only to new tenants or whether they will apply to existing tenants who are causing problems? Can he also confirm whether responsible flying freeholders in the private sector are regarded as living in high-risk houses of multiple occupation?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am concerned to ensure that there is a proper balance between the tenant's rights and the tenant's responsibilities. Therefore, it will be for new tenants that the probationary tenancy system will be available. However, we are discussing with the local authority associations ways in which we can help them deal with tenants who are already there and who are causing considerable difficulties to their neighbours.
I believe that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was less than fair—even more less than fair than usual—when he railed at me on the subject of multiple occupation. We need to have a system whereby we protect tenants from the dangers of inadequate fire safety and the like, while not placing on 698 people such burdens that they do not provide that type of accommodation. Those are vulnerable people in two different ways—vulnerable if the accommodation is not properly protected, but vulnerable if there is no accommodation available.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
If Government policy on housing has been successful and equitable, can the Secretary of State explain why, in the London borough of Newham, expenditure on the homeless has increased from £1 million to over £8 million during the Conservative administration and, moreover, £8 million must be found under the defective standard spending assessment formula—expenditure that should go to other council services, especially education and social services? How has that come about, and why is it fair and successful?
§ Mr. Gummer
The SSA is equitable, although I know the hon. Gentleman's complaint about Newham being outside the inner London area and I promise to consider that in specifics, so I believe that he will agree with that.
The money is being provided through a system that takes into account the problems that Newham has. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that there are patterns of change in where people come to live, and that his borough is one of those that has had special pressures. However, he should be especially pleased that the present Government are providing the money to tackle those problems so generously.
We are helping the homeless in a way that was previously inconceivable because of the meanness of previous Labour Governments. The hon. Gentleman is an honourable man and I know that he means well, but the fact is that Conservative Governments provide help for the homeless; Labour Governments talk about it.
§ Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) about receipts from the sale of council houses, does the White Paper allow local authorities to spend more of their receipts on modernising existing council houses?
On the issue of housing association tenants being able to buy as a result of the new arrangements, are there any restrictions on their buying and then selling quickly?
§ Mr. Gummer
In answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, there will be a number of restrictions similar to those that were imposed in the past.
On money for redoing council accommodation, there are two ways in which we shall help with that. First, we shall encourage large-scale voluntary transfers, which is much the most sensible way of using the capital to improve the stock, so that it is worth more. That is the way in which the LSVT works. It does so without increasing the pressure on the taxpayer, so it has an especially advantageous effect.
Secondly, we are discussing with several boroughs, including Labour boroughs such as Manchester and Hackney, ways in which we can have local authority companies that will be able to do partial LSVTs specifically to improve the quality of stock.
I also mentioned that we shall open up the opportunity to tenants, if they so wish, to vote for private companies taking over accommodation and improving it on terms that protect the tenants from excessive rent increases.
§ Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)
Was not that somewhat overheated presentation by the Secretary of 699 State simply the grunts and gasps of a Government in their death throes—and a rather poor performance, some of us thought?
Should the populace and the House not be made aware that, during the jousting and the fun of Prime Minister's questions, the Press Gallery was packed, but when we come to this much more serious business of housing problems, all these chaps and the girlies go off to recover from their over-indulgence at lunchtime?
§ Madam Speaker
In that case, I should like to hear it right away.
While I am on my feet, let me say this. This statement has been running for a long time. It is an important statement. I want to try to call all hon. Members who are standing. I can do so only with the co-operation of the House, and if I have brisk questions and brisk answers. I have the remainder of the House's business to safeguard, so I should like questions to be to the point and brief.
§ Mr. Faulds
My questions will be brief and to the point, Madam Speaker. I just wanted the country to realise that we do a rather better job than the Press Gallery. Does the Secretary of State realise that figures for the west midlands over the past 15 years of Tory Government are not terribly satisfactory? In 1979, 64 times as many council houses were built as are built now. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that homelessness in the west midlands has risen two and a half times? Think of the suffering that involves for the people of the west midlands. Does the Secretary of State realise that the rise in council rents is five times what it was in 1979?
§ Mr. Faulds
Yes, nearly finished. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that households in negative equity in the west midlands affect 63,000 people? Think of the agonies and tragedies that involves for the people of the west midlands—all due to the policies of the Conservative Government over 15 years.
§ Madam Speaker
There was no question there, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was asking what the Secretary of State is going to do about it.
§ Mr. Gummer
I would find it easier to believe the hon. Gentleman's concern if he had ever asked a question of me about housing in Question Time since I have been a Minister responsible for housing. If the hon. Gentleman had ever taken part in a housing debate and put points about housing, I would believe his concern. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the vast increase in housing association houses in the west midlands. He is so committed to municipalisation that he cannot do that. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that in the west midlands, large numbers of people are buying their own homes every day, instead of being tenants. He did not mention that the White Paper proclaims a whole range of new ways of helping people to buy or rent their own homes and for more money to be put into housing. The hon. Gentleman has not done his homework.
§ Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)
Contrary to the whingeing and negative response of Opposition Members, does my right hon. Friend agree that his statement will be widely welcomed outside the House as well as on Conservative Benches? Does he further agree that the flowering of the housing association movement over the past 16 years has been a great credit to this Government, and that the introduction of the right to buy for new tenants will provide an element of fairness in housing allocation locally, as well as enabling housing associations to plan positively for the development of social housing in future?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is perfectly right. He may have noticed that the Labour party, instead of making sensible proposals for alternatives, has done nothing but barrack during these discussions. If there is any criticism of these discussions, it is that Labour does not want to hear the facts because it has no alternative.
§ Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)
Is this not another case of the Government pursuing dogma in the face of the evidence? Is the Secretary of State aware of the scale of the housing crisis in Bristol, where 23,000 people are on the council waiting list? To afford the rent for a three-bedroomed housing association property, it would be necessary for the tenant to earn £300 a week. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that his White Paper will encourage homeless people to be set against each other, provide in the rented sector only insecure tenancies and irresponsibly promote home ownership among people who evidently do not have the means to afford repairs and maintenance?
§ Mr. Gummer
If we are going to talk about dogma, that was the most dogmatic statement. Home ownership is unacceptable because some people find that they made the choice wrongly? People who are homeless are bound to fight among each other if it is decided which of them should be given housing on the basis of need? The only kind of housebuilding that there ought to be is local authority housebuilding? That is where the dogma lies. The hon. Lady does not make her case.
§ Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his radical and comprehensive statement will be widely welcomed by housing professionals and people in housing need throughout the country? Is he particularly aware that his proposals for local housing companies—which I advocated in my maiden speech on 5 June 1992, which my right hon. Friend will remember—are particularly welcome because they will bring together the benefits of housing management skills in the private and public sectors for the benefit of tenants, for which Opposition Members have no thought?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right. We should use every means in our power to help people have decent homes, and not stop a range of opportunities because we have the dogmatic predilections of the Labour party.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Does the Secretary of State ever take time off to consider that he might be wrong in the solutions at which he has arrived? Has he ever pondered whether it was wrong in principle, many years ago under this Government, to channel money into housing through a housing benefit system that locked people into unemployment instead of funding bricks and 701 mortar? Can he not be honest with the House for just one moment and consider whether there may have been an error of judgment in that area?
§ Mr. Gummer
The housing benefit system clearly does not lock people into unemployment, given that unemployment has been falling by 1,000 every working day for months. The hon. Gentleman's alternative is unacceptable. It would mean that, instead of channelling money to those who need it, it would be channelled into bricks and mortar. It was not only the Conservative party that thought that that was wrong. The Labour party saw also that there was a need to target. Targeting of taxpayers' money is essential.
I often ask myself, "Is there a better way of doing it?" The hon. Gentleman should recognise that any sensible person will ask himself, "Can we do it better?" That is why there is a range of new ideas in the White Paper. That is why every year we must find new ways of trying to extend opportunities for the people. It would not help much to put large amounts of subsidy into bricks and mortar, irrespective of the needs of those who live in those houses.
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his White Paper, which contains many constructive and practical ideas, in stark contrast to Opposition Members, who never have any constructive ideas and can only carp and criticise? Is my right hon. Friend aware that especially welcome in south-east England will be the part of the White Paper that relates to empty houses? At a time when there are 10 times as many empty houses and flats as there are homeless people, it makes no sense to cover our already scarce green spaces in urban and suburban areas with more and more housing. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if Labour Members had had their way during the past 16 years, there would have been no capital receipts to spend on new housing, because there would have been no sales of houses to the tenants of housing associations and local authorities?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is perfectly right. When the Labour party complains that not all capital receipts are spent on housing, it fails to mention that there would have been none under a Labour Government because they, Labour Members, were opposed to council house sales. My hon. Friend is also right to say that sustainable development demands that we build as much as we can on brown land, on land that has been used before. That will help us to reinvigorate our cities. It is an approach that fits in with the rest of our planning policies, which are designed to create vibrant towns and cities. My hon. Friend is right to say also that if we are to provide enough homes for the present population and if we take into account the fact that people live longer and families break up more often, we must use every opportunity and recognise that empty homes mean lost opportunities.
§ Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that his approach to the thousands of people waiting for improvement grants—most of them in my constituency are owner-occupiers—will not provide resources to enable them to improve their homes? They are now to be denied the right to a mandatory grant. That will remove the possibility of any effective area renewal.
Will the Secretary of State confirm also that his promise to housing associations that they can use total receipts from sales to build new homes is exactly the same 702 promise that was given to local authorities in 1980? Why should we believe this promise any more than we should have believed the previous one?
§ Mr. Gummer
On mandatory grants, the hon. Gentleman has got it right the wrong way round. Local authorities, no doubt including the one that he used to run, want to have the proposed change because with the mandatory grant system as it stands, a local authority cannot say that it wants to channel that grant into a particular scheme in a particular area. That is precisely contrary to the hon. Gentleman's approach, and the local authority world knows that. Perhaps that explains why Sheffield was run so badly when he was in charge of the local authority.
The housing association movement builds houses in partnership with the Government, Government grant and the private sector. When a house is sold to the tenant in future, the full sum will be recycled so that that partnership may continue.
§ Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
How many empty homes are owned by Government Ministries, and what has been the cost of keeping them boarded up and empty for many years? If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the homeless, why has he suddenly decided that it is time to do something about them when he has not done anything before?
§ Mr. Gummer
We did a great deal before and we have set targets that Departments have to meet. I am going further because there is a major opportunity, particularly with Ministry of Defence property, as a result of changes in the world situation. I know that the hon. Lady has recognised that those changes have meant a big alteration in our military establishment. Therefore, it is important that when those houses become vacant, we move them into the private sector as rapidly as possible. I have said that, in normal circumstances, if the houses have not been sold within six months, they will be put up to auction. That is a major change that Labour was unable to promise at any time when it was in power.
§ Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)
In his new zeal to protect green-field sites, will the Secretary of State consider, when windfall sites occur, deducting unit for unit from identified green-field housing sites?
§ Mr. Gummer
It is a very good question. I do not believe that the Government should follow policies that would restrict the opportunity for land to be made available. Therefore, it is right strongly to protect the green belt and to encourage people to produce land for housing within the plan. That is the mix that we want and that is how we shall achieve it. The hon. Gentleman would be better advised to seek to encourage the putting forward of land rather than discouraging it by his attack on windfall land.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
Is the Secretary of State aware of the effect of his Government's policies over the past few years, of forcing people into dependency on benefits? People in housing association developments are unable to afford the rents without benefits and they fall into the poverty trap. Does he not understand that the long-term consequence of the sort of policies that he has again announced today is that social rented housing will 703 become a ghetto that is inhabited by people who are elderly or unemployed and dependent on benefits? Is that the sort of future that he wants for social rented housing? Does he think that that is in the long-term interests of this country?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman is wrong for two reasons, one of which is that we are taking rent levels into the arrangements for housing association grants. That will help to deal with one part of the problem. Secondly, we have announced the right to buy for tenants who move into new houses in housing associations. There will not be a ghetto, as the hon. Gentleman says. People who own and people who rent their homes will be living side by side, and that is precisely what I want.
§ Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)
What is in the Secretary of State's White Paper for the thousands of tenants of the private development company, Thamesmead Town Ltd.? In that case, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor transferred council tenancies to private tenancies at unaffordable market rents without giving the tenants the right to choose a landlord. Will he give Thamesmead Town tenants the right to choose a landlord or does he intend to replicate the disaster that is Thamesmead by privatising council housing in the rest of the country?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to read at least some of the versions of the White Paper, and will have seen that there is no question of privatising council estates. The only offer is that if the council tenants themselves want to choose a new landlord to ensure that they get the improvement in their homes that is necessary, they may do so. Such improvement often takes the form of something new, because the rent policies of previous Labour-controlled authorities did not permit it.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
Will the Secretary of State correct the impression given in his statement about disabled people and the adaptation of houses for their benefit? Such adaptations include extensions to houses-for-life into which people can move as they grow older and more infirm. That is not dealt with specifically in the White Paper, but page 39 refers to a future statement. Therefore, the Minister is making claims about the White Paper that have not yet been cashed in.
§ Mr. Gummer
No; the hon. Gentleman is perhaps mixing two different things. What I said in my statement referred to the fact that the improvement grants for present houses will remain mandatory in relation to changes for disabled people. The other part to which he refers is what will come about as a result of our considering arrangements under our disablement programme in general.
Mr. Cynog Dans (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
Will the Secretary of State withdraw or change the constraints that have been placed on the power of housing associations to purchase from existing housing stock—to buy houses off the shelf and that sort of thing—enabling houses to be let to people as rented property? Does he not agree that that was a useful and flexible approach to providing housing, and enabled people who otherwise 704 would not have been able to do so to obtain access to existing housing stock? Will he change those constraints now, because that development has been regressive?
§ Mr. Gummer
In principle, it is always better if extra accommodation is found or built by a housing association in addition to that which is available anyway, so I start with a prejudice in that the housing association should extend opportunities rather than merely take over one form of tenancy or ownership from another. The position that especially pertains in Wales was meant to meet a real need and problem that had arisen. I do not think that there is any evidence that it is having the deleterious effects that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will consider any point that the hon. Gentleman would like to raise with me.
§ Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)
Is the Secretary of State aware of the gravity of the crisis in the funding of repairs and refurbishment of rundown and deprived estates in many of our cities, and that, in the London borough of Brent, which is Tory-controlled, so desperate is the crisis of the lack of investment that the council proposes to tear down desperately needed homes on the Chalkhill estate to build a supermarket, which is not needed, to fund a new development on that estate? Is that not nonsense? Will he agree to consider the environmental and commercial impact of that decision and tell us how his White Paper deals with the current crisis, rather than pursue the vendetta against council housing and the obsession with owner-occupancy that it displays?
§ Mr. Gummer
Obviously, I cannot comment on a particular planning application that may come to me for determination; that would be wrong, but I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I find his views odd, because one of the reasons why so much housing stock is not in the best of repair is that not enough has been spent on it, often by Labour councils that have failed to have a sensible rent policy, so that they have been unable to keep houses up. They have used rent as an electoral activity, which is a serious matter.
We have tried. therefore, to find ways through and we have suggested—it would be possible to do this in a number of London boroughs, not least the hon. Gentleman's own—either going to local authority companies or considering LSVT. In that way, one could refurbish precisely the sort of blocks of housing of which he speaks and do it from the capital that is locked up in the region. I hope therefore that he will seek, with his local authority, with which I know he has extremely good relations, to work through that route, and I promise to help him.
§ Mr. Dobson
The Secretary of State has confirmed that housing associations will be allowed—indeed they will be expected—to invest the takings from the sale of houses to sitting tenants in new housing. He has also said that the reason why that cannot apply to local authorities is that, in some cases, they have a large amount of capital receipts but no housing need, and, in other cases, they have few receipts but a lot of housing need. If that is the restraint, will he give a guarantee that, where councils have housing needs and capital receipts, he will allow them to start spending them?
§ Mr. Gummer
What we do is something even better than that: we provide the capital authorisations and the 705 ability to spend money in connection with the need. The hon. Gentleman knows that, in his widely publicised demands and statements that the Labour party would allow local councils to spend their capital receipts, he never mentions that the only way that that could be done within the rules put forward by his hon.
706 Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer would be to remove the direct help for thepoorest councils. That is what would happen. He means that he would allow capital receipts to be spent where they are not needed, but would not provide extra help where it is needed.