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Mr. Raynsford : Many people suffering cold and miserable conditions may well face a "double whammy" from the Government : they may not only have no decent home in which to live, but find that there is no hospital for them to go to if poor housing conditions affect their health.
There are other problems, however. People cannot hope to exercise any rights if they have no homes to go to because of the inadequate supply of rented accommodation. Many of my constituents live in properties that are old and in poor condition and they want them to be modernised. Housing associations are keen to introduce a rehabilitation programme, but cannot do so because the current total cost indicator--TCI--rules and the grant regime make it impossible for them to provide affordable homes.
As the Minister probably knows very well, the rehabilitation programme has been halted in many inner-city areas as a result. He may shake his head, but he is wrong. He should be receiving evidence that many of the best housing associations in the country are now saying that they cannot do their job, because the Government's current financial regime has made it impossible for them to provide decent homes at affordable rents.
The problem of affordability is also denying many tenants the opportunity to move. They cannot afford the rents that they would have to pay under the Government's new subsidy arrangements. Many others will feel deeply cynical about a Government who, while claiming to be interested in tenants' rights, force those tenants to pay part of the cost of their neighbours' housing benefit. The current subsidy regime forces up some tenants' rents in order to subsidise others. That cannot be fair. What if such logic were applied in the owner-occupied sector? There would be an outcry if well-off home owners were asked to contribute a levy on their mortgage payments to meet the costs of income support for poorer home owners.
All those measures are making a mockery of a programme that talks of extending rights and choice. Rights, choice and tenant participation cannot be extended while current Government policies continue, causing inadequate housing provision and--through the subsidy regime--forcing rents beyond a reasonable level.
Although Opposition Members welcome the principle of extending tenants' rights, we must express the gravest cynicism about the Government's actual policies. Like many tenants, we know that, in the previous Parliament, this same Government introduced a grotesquely ill-titled scheme called "tenants' choice", which was supposedly about extending tenants' choice, but which, in practice, was about extending opportunities for landlords to take over certain council housing estates. The Government know only too well how tenants throughout the country reacted to that policy : they said that it was a sham and a fraud. They knew that anyone who came up with a scheme under which any tenant who did not vote would be assumed to be in favour of opting for another landlord was up to no good. It is hardly surprising that tenants have voted decisively with their feet against having anything to do with that discredited scheme.
The Government's intentions are, sad to say, revealed in their previous record. They are not about the interests of tenants and the extension of their rights ; they have an ideological programme, based on a deep hostility to
Column 1057council housing. Until the Government recognise the misguided nature of their policy, start to think seriously about housing needs and pay heed to the words of organisations such as the Audit Commission, which has showed up the inadequacy of the Government's policies, we cannot expect there to be a real extension of tenants' rights and real opportunities for participation.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) : I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to address the House for the first time. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). I have read many of his articles, always with pleasure. However, having reached the end of an article, I have often, regretfully, had to disagree with him.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Sir Robert McCrindle, who served with great distinction the people of Brentwood and Ongar, and its predecessor constituencies, in the House. He was rightly regarded by his constituents with great affection. He spoke with great authority in many debates, particularly those on financial services and aviation. His first speech was typically a battle on behalf of his constituents with regard to compulsory purchase. His last speech was, again typically, a battle on behalf of Brentwood and Ongar. He told the Government in no uncertain terms that the people of Brentwood and Ongar do not want the M12, which is blighting my constituency. As you may know, Madam Deputy Speaker, Sir Robert did not enjoy the best of health during his last few years as a Member of Parliament. Therefore, I am sure that the whole House will be pleased to know that Sir Robert is now in very good health. I am confident that both he and his wife Myra will enjoy many happy and healthy years of retirement from politics.
Brentwood and Ongar is situated about 20 miles to the north-east of this House, in the county of Essex. Since my adoption of Essex, it has become clear to me that the people of the country are divided into two--those who come from Essex and those who wish they came from Essex. For a Yorkshireman to say that is true praise indeed. My constituency straddles the two main conurbations of Abridge and West Horndon. It has played a curious and significant part in the nation's history. According to Robert Graves, it was the scene where a singular battle over sovereignty was fought--not over the treaty of Rome but over the treaty of the Roman legions. It was the place where the Emperor Claudius met the ancient Britons. The residents of Brentwood and Ongar were the first to see elephants on these shores. Our association with elephants continued for 2,000 years. The East India Company decided to set up its training school for elephants in Brentwood. It was there that the first, second or even third sons of the landed gentry met those huge quadrupeds for the first time. Stories still abound among my constituents about these bewildered members of the aristocracy losing themselves in Brentwood and Ongar. The site of that elephant training school is now the headquarters of Ford UK and Ford Europe. Many international and national companies are to be found in my constituency. Rhone Poulenc, a French pharmaceutical company, has based its research facility in Brentwood
Column 1058and Ongar. It is also the headquarters of Amstrad, the computer company which has done so much to ensure that ordinary people have the opportunity to own personal computers. While retaining its traditions, therefore, Brentwood and Ongar is a constituency which looks to the future. I am proud to represent it here.
About 80 per cent. of Brentwood and Ongar's housing stock is now in owner- occupation. The two district councils are the largest providers of rented housing for the remaining 20 per cent. In Brentwood there has been a decline of about 3 per cent. a year in the public rented sector, largely as a result of right-to-buy. There have been more than 2,000 sales since the scheme began. That is a remarkable achievement.
Public housing was largely responsible for the forming of my own political views, contrary to the political tradition of my family. I was brought up on a council estate in the West Riding of Yorkshire where my parents ran a small corner shop. As I looked at the style and condition of the houses occupied by my friends and neighbours, my conviction grew that they deserved a better landlord. I served for many years on a local authority and do not want to paint all local authorities black, but, even when they are at their most benign, they do not make good landlords. They are cumbersome and bureaucratic. Pavements remain cracked for want of inspection ; window frames remain unpainted for want of a form. Brave is a tenant who decides to take matters into his own hands. To me, there is no such thing as a golden age of public housing.
Any reasonable housing policy must be based on quality, diversity and choice. Above all, it must be based on what people want. People simply want to own their own homes. According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders and a recent BBC survey, 77 per cent. of the population believe that to own their own homes is the ideal tenure. I have heard hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber argue that the British obsession with wanting to own one's home is wrong. That message is particularly hard to swallow when it is given by people who come from families who are second, third or even fourth generation owner-occupiers. Perhaps my socialist ancestors would approve of what I think about those sentiments : what is good enough for the toffs is good enough for the workers. People have the right to own their own homes. We have an obligation to ensure that they can do so.
I welcome the Minister's reference to the rents-to-mortgages scheme. I understand and fully appreciate that it will not have the same impact as right-to-buy, but it will enable people, just one or two steps down the housing ladder, to own their own homes. I expect more people thereby to achieve their goal of home ownership. Nevertheless, I recognise that, for reasons of mobility and disposable income, some people may not want to buy. To offer diversity and choice represents a great challenge to both the Government and local government. It is a reflection of the greater challenge that faces the Government, which is to ensure that choice, freedom and opportunity are taken further down the social and economic ladder.
I am especially pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the concept of empowerment, which is the key to tenants' rights. We need to ensure that there are methods other than purchase by which tenants can exercise choice and enjoy freedom.
Column 1059The more tenants are involved in the running of estates, the better those estates will be. And the more officials are removed from their air-conditioned towers and work and manage from estates, the better the estates will be. When I talk to housing officials, I sometimes feel that they regard estates as distant colonies-- that there is a new form of colonialism, with the inspector going round once a month. If people have to drive past graffiti, cracked paving stones and holes in the road, those problems suddenly assume the importance that they should and suddenly the council gets round to doing something about them. I believe that the area management of estates is vital--just as important as the tenants charter.
I welcome the promise that, in the autumn, the right to repair will be improved, because at present the provisions are a little cumbersome and difficult to understand. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give his attention to, and perhaps also give us some further details on, the right of improvement? If people are to have the opportunity to use their own homes as their own homes, we must ensure that, when they decide to leave them, they are financially compensated for the improvements that they have made. If anything, the present right of improvement poses more difficulties than the right of repair and I should welcome a commitment to improve that right in the legislation.
I believe that council housing is now moving into a different age. Too much energy has been wasted on trying to find ways round regulations, on trying to prevent tenants from buying their own homes and on trying to stop housing action trusts coming into being. If just a quarter of that effort and vitality had been put into ensuring that tenants had a better deal and more opportunity to decide the way in which their homes, environment and estates were managed, the stock of public housing would be materially better than it is today. 11.22 am
Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham) : I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his maiden speech. He spoke fluently and with passion. It may seem a little strange that a former resident of Yorkshire should represent an Essex constituency, but, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we have a Lancastrian representing the city of Bath. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's contributions in future.
I also congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your new role. This is the first time that you have been in the Chair when I have spoken in the House and it is thus my first opportunity to congratulate you. I also offer you the best wishes of my predecessor, Sir Charles Irving. As I know that your appointment brought him great pleasure.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I do so in my capacity as housing spokesman for my party and as a local councillor with some experience of the problems.
People who rent, and the problems of people who rent, often fail to receive publicity, yet millions of families live in unfit accomodation or are on long waiting lists. Many of them suffer from health problems and stress as a result, and many were severely punished when the poll tax was introduced without any reduction in rent. It is on their behalf that I intend to speak this morning. There are a number of ways of being a tenant and I believe that tenants should have basic rights irrespective of the form of tenure that they take. The Liberal Democrats
Column 1060would support any scheme that improved and enhanced the rights of tenants in both the public and the private sector.
One of the best ways to guarantee better standards of repair and protection from harassment is to give local authorities suitable powers. Even the Association of District Councils, which used to oppose the concept of additional duties, now supports the idea of placing a duty on local authorities to inspect houses in multiple occupation. Outside the family, the employer and landlord have the greatest influence on individual well- being. Employers are bound by restrictions, and landlords, too, should conform to a code of behaviour.
I hope that the Government will give the tenants charter real teeth. The charter should give tenants the right to have essential repairs carried out within a certain time limit. It should enhance the powers of the courts to award damages to tenants in cases of harrassment or illegal eviction and it should improve access to legal aid. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) referred to that question and I have received a number of representations from solicitors in my constituency, who are concerned that the legal aid system is underfunded and that poorer people are thus being denied the right to suitable legal representation. Finally, the tenants charter should require local authorities to ensure that housing, public health and fire requlations are observed in private rented housing.
In discussing rights, we must include those who live on state benefits alone. They are citizens of this country, too. Although the absence of cheap rented accommodation is the principal reason for homelessness, the barriers preventing the homeless from obtaining accommodation have increased remarkably in the past three years. It is essential to improve the delivery of housing benefit and I agree with what the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said about the system of funding that benefit. In my own constituency of Cheltenham, the local council will pay about £6 million in benefits this year and only £1.9 million is to be provided by the Government. That means that rents will increase more than they should. It is vital that the emergency interim payments of housing benefit, which are supposed to be available within 14 days, are delivered on time. We must also have much closer inspection by central Government to ensure that local authorities are performing properly. At the moment, neither the Department of Social Security nor the Department of the Environment inspects their operations. Housing benefit changes in 1988 made one third of all homes in multiple occupation users worse off.
Students represent a growing proportion of the residents of privately rented housing, especially in Cheltenham, where the Cheltenham and Gloucester college of higher education expects to increase its student population from 5,500 to 8,500 in the next few years and where we may shortly have our own university. That puts enormous pressure on rented accommodation. In 1990, the Government decided to remove from students all entitlement to housing benefit--and this at a time when student grants have been frozen. I strongly believe that that policy should be reversed and that those who opt to stay in education should at least be able to do so without incurring huge debts.
Safety, too, is important. A report issued by the National Consumer Council last September showed clearly why tenants should be given basic rights. It
Column 1061predicted that if action is not taken, over the next 10 years we must expect more than 1,500 people to die and 25,000 to be injured in England and Wales as a result of fires in houses of multiple occupancy. Yesterday, I talked to the chief fire officer of Gloucestershire, Mr. Malcolm Eastwood, who told me that he is very worried at the state of some HMOs in Cheltenham and in Gloucester, which he regards as tinder boxes.
The first opportunity that tenants must have is to be a tenant in the first place--and at an affordable rent. We have heard this morning of the gap between the amount of social housing or rented accommodation that is available and the number of people who need that rented accommodation. The rented sector has an important role to play in meeting the needs of certain people, often those who do not wish or are unable to buy. One in three families in Britain cannot afford to buy their own home.
The lack of rented accommodation forces many people into owner-occupation that they cannot afford. We have all had cases of people who bought their council house at the top of the market, lost their job, had their home repossessed and went back on the local council's books. I had one particularly distressing case of a family who were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 56 weeks because they took up the chance to buy their home and it all went wrong. The stock of available rented accommodation has shrunk during the past 70 years. That trend must be reversed. An increase in supply would widen choice for potential tenants, increase competition and put pressure on landlords to reduce rents. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioned participation, which is vital if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided. The form of participation selected by tenants should include several basic principles. First, tenants should be closely involved from the start with any decisions affecting their homes. Secondly, tenants should have a full range of housing options from which to choose. They should be able to control the management and maintenance of their homes, either directly through a management co-operative or estate management board, or by using an external agency such as the local authority or a housing association. In Cheltenham the residents of the St. Paul's area have voted to set up an estate management board in an attempt to tackle their problems. That move is strongly supported by the local Liberal Democrat councillors who represent the area.
There must be long-term investment in the rented sector. The hon. Member for Greenwich mentioned the capital assets that have been raised from the sale of council houses. In his reply, will the Minister tell us what are his intentions for those capital assets? In Cheltenham we have £11 million locked away in a bank account which we would like to use to help to solve the problems of homelessness in the area. Councils should be allowed to use the £6.5 billion raised from council house sales to initiate housing schemes to benefit the less well off.
There is evidence that housing benefit claimants are penalised in their search for rented accommodation. Income support should be paid to claimants in advance. The duty of local authorities to provide housing should be
Column 1062extended to 16 to 18-year-olds. Surely 16 to 18-year-olds should have the right to be housed when they have the legal ability to get married and have children.
The current financial and legal framework does not meet the needs of either landlords or tenants. The rent-a-room scheme detailed in the Conservative manifesto is welcome so far as it goes, but ultimately the supply of rented accommodation must be increased. I hope that the Government will take on board some of the ideas that I have outlined.
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). Not only did he pay a gracious tribute to his predecessor, who was a great friend of all Conservative Members, but he clearly marked out for himself a role, along the lines of the elephants, of trumpeting the cause of his constituency. We hope that his record in Bradford of trampling socialism under foot will continue. That is what our housing record is all about.
I begin by tackling a point raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones). There is a great myth about housing capital receipts and it is an easy bandwagon for people to jump on. Those receipts are not sitting under someone's bed. They are either lent on the market or used as an alternative to external borrowing. If all the receipts were spent at once, the inevitable consequence would be pressure on interest rates to rise. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) made some comments on the effect of interest rates on housing. I find it extraordinary that, at the same time, he should support a policy that would push up interest rates still further. It is almost nine years since I delivered my maiden speech on housing. We were then extending the right to buy through the Housing and Building Control Act 1984. I have followed closely our Government's record on tenancy matters, which is second to none. The right to buy, the right to repair and some of the proposals contained in our manifesto are excellent ways of enfranchising tenants who, in the past, were so often treated like feudal serfs, usually by socialist, although not always socialist, authorities.
However, there remain those who are disenfranchised. For example, the tenants of charitable housing associations are denied the right to buy. They were denied it in another place by people who in many cases owned not just one but two, three or four houses. Those people denied to ordinary working-class people who were tenants of charitable housing associations the privilege which they themselves enjoyed as owner-occupiers.
We have had a chance to reverse the disenfranchisement of tenants and to extend the right to buy. The extension of the right to buy to tenants of charitable housing associations is not on the agenda at present, but I hope that the Government will return to it in due course. However, we could make it clear to the Housing Corporation that no further grants will be given to charitable housing associations until they are prepared to extend the opportunity to buy to their tenants where public money has financed the building of the estate. For example, the Sutton housing association estate in my constituency was funded 98 per cent. by the taxpayer. Only
Column 10632 per cent. of the money came from the charity to pay for landscaping. How can such a body deny its tenants the opportunity that we have given to local authority tenants?
I also wish to deal with the tenants of housing associations--not only charitable but non-profit-making. At their best, housing associations perform extremely well. I welcome some of their initiatives in both specialist housing and providing greater mobility. However, it is a sad fact that some housing associations do not measure up to that standard. I have had battle after battle with the Metropolitan Housing Trust, which has an estate in my constituency, the pedigree of which goes back to the socialist local authorities of north London. I referred earlier to the abominable record of the Co-operative Development Society, which has several houses in my constituency.
I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about performance indicators and the adoption of a new, robust line by the Housing Corporation. But we must all judge that entirely on the basis of the performance of the Housing Corporation. The subject will not simply go away if tenants of housing associations continue to receive bad service for repairs in particular and have to take their landlords to court, as has happened in my constituency on several occasions. It is remarkable that the Housing Corporation did not step in straight away in those cases.
The issue of tenants' rights and responsibilities is extremely broad and it would be impossible to touch on every aspect. I wish to put into the debate some points that have not been addressed so far. On waiting lists, the Government's figures and those of the building societies reveal clearly that the aspiration of the huge majority of our people is to become a home owner. Among the youngest age group, the figure is between 80 and 90 per cent. So how is it that when they need housing and go along to their local authority, the only thing that they can do is put their name down on the list to rent? The only exception is in Wandsworth, but I do not know whether that scheme is still running.
People should be asked their preference when they seek housing. Local authorities should be obliged to keep a list of people who want to buy or share in ownership, as well as those who want to rent. That would provide some useful statistics to determine planning authorities' policies. It would also mean a guaranteed list of people who could be approached over joint participation schemes, which have been so successful, and would offer an opportunity for those involved in speculative building in the private sector to tailor their building to suit those wanting to buy in an area.
Alternative waiting lists are important and we shall also have to bite the bullet and decide whether waiting lists should be means tested. Some people who could well afford to buy put their names on the waiting list. I remember receiving a letter from two constituents who said that they could afford to buy a house costing £50,000, but wanted to go on the local authority waiting list because they did not see why they should spend their money. That is fair enough from their point of view, but, from the point of view of the community, I would rather that the money was used to help people in need.
The points system used by most local authorities causes people to worsen their housing conditions because they know that they will receive extra points only if they live in overcrowded conditions, if the property is in a poor state or if they have children before they want to. That is a crazy
Column 1064system and has been criticised by the university of Bristol, which has done a lot of research. It is time that public sector allocations encouraged families who do not have the opportunity to buy because of low incomes, rather than giving all tenancies to people who have not planned their lives as effectively.
Many hon. Members are worried that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, places an unfair burden on local authorities such as Hillingdon, which contains London airport. I have always been amazed that whenever I suggested an overhaul of the 1977 Act, the local authority associations said that it was working satisfactorily, although all the evidence points the other way. During this Parliament I hope that we shall have a comprehensive review and I promise my hon. Friend the Minister that if I am a Member of the Select Committee on the Environment again it will be one of the matters to which we shall want to pay particular attention to. Finally, as it is unfair to take up too much time when so many hon. Members want to speak, I stress that the Government have a proud record on this issue and have done more than any other Government to enfranchise tenants. They were responsible for much of the switch by traditional working-class Labour supporters to the Conservatives in 1983, 1987 and at the last general election, and long may we continue to work in their interests.
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) : Although I agreed with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), I did not agree with his views on the way in which the Government have tried to enfranchise tenants. I am sure that, from his point of view, the right to buy had some purely political merit, but he and the Minister, who opened the debate with a singularly partisan speech, were extremely unfair to Labour local authorities, especially as we all regret the paternalistic attitude of local authorities of any party.
There is no doubt that if the 50,000 or 60,000 people in the Principality of Wales who are waiting for council houses or the 20, 000 homeless people in Wales were given a choice between a paternalistic landlord or no house, they would choose the landlord. The most significant omission in the Minister's remarks was that he did not tell us what will happen to tens of thousands of people in Wales and hundreds of thousands of people in the country who have no hope of getting a council house or a housing association property. I pay tribute to the work of the tenants' organisations in the Principality and especially to the Welsh Tenants Federation, the Tenant Participation Advisory Service (Wales) and the Valleys Tenants and Residents Forum. It is significant that, whether they are Labour, independent, Liberal or Conservative local authorities, they are paying more attention to their tenants' wishes.
It is interesting that the Tenant Participation Advisory Service and the Welsh Tenants Federation were officially represented at the annual conference of the Welsh Institute of Housing, and that the Welsh Federation of Housing Associations symposium had tenants on its board and was subsidised by Housing for Wales, or Tai Cymru, as it is known in Wales.
Column 1065More local authorities and housing associations are keen on tenant participation and 85 tenants' groups are affiliated to TPAS (Wales), a figure which I am sure is also reflected in England and Scotland. When looking at the work by local authorities in Wales, of whatever political colour, in dealing with tenants' rights and
responsibilities, the picture is pleasing. In Aberconway, there have been considerable consultations with tenants over redevelopment proposals. In Colwyn, where there have been major flooding problems in the past two years, there have been consultations with tenants, and there is an excellent tenant service in the capital city of Wales, with a full-time tenant participation officer, who works well with our largest local authority housing provider. Similar work is being carried out in Taff Ely and in Ynys Mo n.
The Swansea tenants federation has done sterling work, with the help and co -operation of the local authority in that great city. There have been surveys of tenants, development work with tenants in rural areas, and people have been trained to work with tenants throughout the Principality. We are assured that future developments will include reference to special needs, and the production during the next year of a number of publications by the bodies to which I referred.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on the Front Bench referred to the need to consult tenants more widely on the construction and design stage of housing, the management of estates and the membership of committees that run houses, whether owned by housing associations or by the local authorities, and the need to consult them on setting reasonable rents, tackling repairs and on major capital works. Those are all properly the responsibility and interest of tenants, whether private tenants of housing associations or local authority tenants in Wales and England.
I fear that much of what the Minister said about tenants simply homed in on the problems of the right to buy. That is an aspect of tenants' rights, but it is not the only one. In the previous Session of Parliament the Government tried to deal with tenants' rights in another way--by transferring them en bloc from local authorities either to private landlords or to housing associations. That was a gigantic flop in the Principality. It made no headway and Tai Cymru, which was charged with the responsibility, would be the first to admit that from beginning to end it was a notable disaster. In exactly the same way, the Government think that, as a result of the forthcoming legislation on rents-to-mortgages, all will be well with the provision of housing for social need. That is not the case in the one instance in Wales when that ludicrous scheme was undertaken in Montgomeryshire. The scheme operated there by the Development Board for Rural Wales has been a failure, just like the scheme in Scotland. There is nothing in such initiatives for tenants. The problems go much deeper.
Many people have no desire to own their own homes. They want to rent because they do not want the burden or the responsibility of home ownership, particularly as millions of people, especially in the south-east of England are suffering because of the problems of the property
Column 1066market. The Government should re-examine some aspects of their housing policy from their own point of view and from that of tenants.
I do not expect the Minister to answer my specific points on Wales, but two practical steps could be taken to help tenants. The first relates to the new town in Montgomeryshire established by the Development Board for Rural Wales--it is effectively the last new town in Wales ; the other is in my constituency in Cwmbran. The housing assets in those new towns were transferred from the development corporations to local authorities. Most previous transfers went relatively smoothly and, in Cwmbran, it went successfully. However, the Development Board for Rural Wales in Montgomeryshire does not take the same attitude towards such a transfer as that of other new towns in England.
I hope that not only will the tenants of the Development Board for Rural Wales be consulted, as the Government have promised, but that the results of the consultations will mean that their wishes will be abided by if they specifically ask to become the tenants of local authorities. If they wish to become tenants of a local authority or of a housing association they should have that right, and I hope that the wishes of the tenants in Montgomeryshire will be respected by the Welsh Office and by the Government. I hope that the tenants' position will not be determined by Government ideology, but as a result of meeting the genuine wishes of those who live in the houses. It is a scandal that Tai Cymru, Housing for Wales, which has responsibility for the development of housing policy, particularly social housing, in the whole of the Principality, does not have on its board one member who represents local authorities. That is a sign of the way in which the Government treat local authorities, particularly housing authorities. The Minister said that he saw local authorities only as enablers. The people of Wales also see them as providers. Local authorities combine those roles, but, whatever they are, as the Minister said, they are certainly landlords. The landlord of hundreds of thousands of people in Wales is their local authority. It is wrong that not one representative of the local authorities in Wales is on the board of Tai Cymru. I hope that the Government will change their mind on that.
Similarly, it is proper that, as is the case in England, a representative of the tenants should be on the board of Tai Cymru--a representative either from the Welsh Tenants Federation or from the Tenants Participation Advisory Service (Wales). The views of tenants on all aspects of housing, but particularly on housing associations, would be valuable when Tai Cymru discusses its affairs.
Tai Cymru is only one of a number of non-elected bodies in Wales--quangos as we call them--which increasingly run public life in the Principality. I am concerned because although the overwhelming majority of the Welsh people, at least, have rejected the Government, the people who are placed on those boards to run public affairs are extremely partisan and belong on one side of the political fence. For that reason, I was troubled by the Minister's remarks. The Government have had their majority reduced substantially from 100 seats to 20 and I thought that they would adopt a more consensual role. I had hoped that in those parts of the country with their own Government Departments--Scotland and Wales--there would be an attempt to move away from confrontation towards consensus, especially on those bodies responsible for housing.
Column 1067Unless we reach that consensus, I fear for the whole process of democracy in the Principality and in Scotland. I had hoped for some humility from the Government, rather than the arrogance that we have witnessed this morning.
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make my maiden speech. It is fitting that you should be in the Chair, because you represent my neighbouring seat. You have been very helpful to me since my arrival in the House.
There is a variety of ways in which hon. Members arrive in this place. Some take the fast route, others the slow one, but I believe that I may have arrived by the trap-door. It was on 22 February only that we knew that my predecessor did not intend to stand again. On 10 March I was selected for the seat and it was on 11 March that the Prime Minister called the election. Such a process is not designed to help the heart or the nerves, but as the admen would say, "It takes the waiting out of the wanting". It is a special privilege for me to represent the constituency in which I have lived and worked for many years.
My predecessor, Alan Clark, was well known in the House. He was a learned and well-respected person who represented Plymouth, Sutton for 18 years. He had a distinguished career in the Ministry of Defence and in the Department of Trade and Industry. Of his many fine qualities, I believe that perhaps the finest was his ability to speak his mind, irrespective of others' reaction. That is a rare and important gift in any democracy. He will be sadly missed in the House and elsewhere.
Plymouth is well known to hon. Members, many of whom will have spent at least one holiday in Devon and Cornwall. No doubt, on a wet Thursday in August, they came to Plymouth to do their shopping in our excellent city centre. Hon. Members will be aware that Plymouth is located in a most beautiful part of the world, with the stark majesty of Dartmoor to the north, the rolling hills of South Hams to the east, the beauty of Plymouth sound and the English channel to the south and Cornwall to the west. It is free to get into Cornwall over the Tamar bridge, but one must pay to get back into Plymouth--a price well worth paying.
Plymouth is the home of the Plymouth Brethren, Plymouth gin and, perhaps most importantly, Plymouth Argyle. It is a city with a proud history and a great potential. There is another side to it, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a city of considerable need. It has a population of 250,000 and, today, 12.3 per cent. of our residents are unemployed, against a national unemployment average of 9.6 per cent. In the past 12 months unemployment in Plymouth has risen by 5.4 per cent.--the largest rise in the country. That may take hon. Members by surprise, because people think of Plymouth as an attractive, leisure city--but we have real needs.
The local authority still owns 20,000 council houses, many in poor condition. We have a growing housing waiting list and, for the first time in many years, homeless people on the list are now in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is of particular concern to me. The city also has a growing crime rate and a drugs problem. Many of my constituents are worried about crime and I shall come back to that problem in the coming days, months and years.
Column 1068Plymouth is a city not just of leisure and beauty ; too many of my constituents are out of work, do not have homes and do not have hope. I have committed myself to speaking on their behalf in this place. I shall do that in the years to come in the way that you have done, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I should like to put down two markers on behalf of my constituents, the first concerning crime. My constituents believe, and I agree with them, that we must punish much more severely those who commit crimes against the person. People who burgle, batter or rape must be locked away for a long time, not simply to deter others but to remove them from the streets so that they cannot commit the same crimes against other people. Our first approach when thinking of punishment must be the protection of innocent victims.
My constituents are fed up with hearing excuses about why people commit crime. They want us to talk more about the victims and what we will do to protect them. The Conservatives have an excellent record on funding the police force. Unfortunately, the nature of society today is causing crime to be on the increase. The present situation will not do.
As well as aiming to protect the innocent victims of crime by stiffer sentences, we should be examining the causes of crime and seeking to rediscover in society what I would call the traditional Christian values by which people learn at an early age to respect law and order, authority, other people and others' property. We must rediscover the importance at a young age of the family unit and of parental discipline. We have tended to turn our backs on those matters in the past 30 years. We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind.
My second marker is about Devonport dockyard. The future of Plymouth as we know and love it will be decided in the next six months by the Government, because in that time they will decide whether DML, the private firm which runs Devonport dockyard, will be successful in winning the nuclear refit work on the Trident boat. Hon. Members will know that Plymouth has grown over the years by being centred on the royal dockyard and the naval base. We have lost 7,000 jobs in the dockyard in the past seven years. If we do not win the nuclear refit work on the Trident, the dockyard will close and the naval base will be under great threat. It will be like tearing the heart out of Plymouth. Part of my job is to ensure that the Government make the right decision, as I am sure they will. I shall return to that issue time and again.
I appreciate that today we are debating tenancy matters, so I am grateful to the House for its indulgence in enabling me to refer in my maiden speech to other matters. I believe in home ownership, because it enhances one's sense of responsibility and self help. That is in the interests of every citizen. So we are right to encourage people to buy their own homes. The right-to-buy policy has been a success and I am sure that the rents-to- mortgages policy will be an equal success. I look forward to debating that in the months ahead. However, I also recognise that there is a significant minority of people who do not wish, or are unable, to buy their own homes. That minority may be about 20 per cent. of the population. Many, though by no means all, of them are on modest incomes. The Government are right, in their approach to social housing problems, to concentrate on housing associations as the main provider of new affordable social housing. They are housing specialists and
Column 1069are free from the ideological and political baggage that many local authorities carry around with them in their approach to housing. Again, the Government have been right in their approach to that matter.
The figures are revealing. Although we have had housing associations for at least 20 years, there are still4.2 million local authority dwellings in England and Wales, and I apologise to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), on the Opposition Front Bench, for not having the figures for Scotland. Against that figure, there are 645,000 housing association homes--83 as against 13 per cent. The difference in scale is enormous.
It is clear, whether we like it or not, that local authorities remain the major provider of social housing. That may not be the position 10 years from now, but we must review the situation as it exists. If tenants are to get a fair deal, and if we are to concentrate on tenants' rights and responsibilities, we must tackle the problems of the local authority management of housing. As a former housing chairman of Plymouth city council, I have some experience of that issue. Tenants are getting a raw deal all over the country from their local authority landlords and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that it is virtually impossible for a local authority to be a good, efficient and cost-effective landlord. By nature--one might say by culture--it is almost impossible.
When I was a law student at King's college, just along the water from here, in the late 1970s, I worked for three weeks in an Easter vacation for Southwark borough council on an agency job. My task, which I was privileged to do, involved my spraying bed bugs in council high-rise flats. That opened my eyes to the situation. I wonder how many other Conservative Members have worked for Southwark borough council. It was not a pleasant experience. I feel now, as I felt then, that there must be a better way to own and manage local authority housing. The answer is to diversify and to give opportunity and choice.
I admit that our approach in 1988 to provide tenants' choice has not proved an unqualified success. We have not seen wholesale voting by tenants to choose a new landlord. That should have happened, but it did not. A simile may be made with cases of battered wives, who, my partners in my law firm tell me, return time and again to their husbands. Nobody can work out why that happens. Or it is like the neglected child who clings even more closely to an uncaring parent ? There is a bond and security in the relationship. It is fear of the unknown, perhaps best expressed by the expression "Better the devil you know than the one you do not know".
Whatever the reason, tenants have not voted in a wholesale way to choose a new landlord. My experience as housing chairman in Plymouth while the process was being debated was that the 1988 legislation drove tenants closer to their landlords in an effort to fend off what they saw as an unattractive policy. It has been unfortunate, but if tenants have chosen to stay with their landlord, we must respect that choice and approach the issue on another basis. [Interruption.] I think I hear cries of, "Hear, hear" from the Opposition Benches. That is not a distinguished start for a maiden speaker.
Column 1070If tenants do not choose another landlord, it behoves the Government to change the way in which local authority landlords do their business. The answer is to cut housing departments free from local authorities in every management sense and convert them to what I would call semi-detached housing boards. In the way that we have created bus companies by the Transport Act 1985--by creating companies or boards of a semi-detached nature, owned by the local authority but enjoying a fresh approach to management--we must do the same in housing, creating a mean, lean management, but still owned by the local authority and largely free of local political interference. I have come to the conclusion that no real purpose is served by political interference at local level in housing management. It is just another encumbrance.
The boards should comprise senior housing officers, one or two councillors at the most--they should be sensible ones--and, most importantly, tenants' representatives and representatives from the business, finance and property sectors. Such boards should employ few people directly, but should buy in every service they need when they want it from the right source, at the right time and at the right price. That is the way in which to give an effective service. Having served on a local authority for about six years, my conclusion is that it is difficult to reform a local authority from the inside out because local authorities have a culture that has gone on from generation to generation. The fresh start for housing management would be to create the new boards which could then buy in what they wanted, cut free from the culture and baggage of local authority control.
Local authority housing departments today suffer from on-costs from all sorts of other council departments, such as treasury services, repair and maintenance services and the town clerk's department. Would not it be better if the housing boards could buy in legal, financial, repair and maintenance and even allocation services from people who were specialist, lean, mean and able to do the job? What would be the result of my suggestions? We should have public sector ownership of houses, which tenants appear to want, with all the benefits of the private sector, including efficiency and the cost-effectiveness. There would be massive savings if we cut housing departments free from the baggage that they currently have to endure. Those savings could be spent on improving the housing stock and the service delivered to tenants. At the end of the day, we are here to serve the tenants. Those savings could be spent on delivering excellence rather than on keeping traditions alive.
The most important part of any approach to housing management is tenants' participation, and other hon. Members have made that point. From my time as housing chairman, I recall that we spent a lot of time with tenants, listening to and learning from what they said, and entering into full and frank discussions. One of the most interesting discussions I had with tenants' groups concerned a forthcoming rent increase. It was a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, but we sat down, we talked the issue through and we reached a consensus. Tenant participation is absolutely critical and it is part of the way forward.
Some people may say that it is not necessary radically to reform the local authority management of housing. I know that it is. I shall never forget my deep sense of shock when I learned, after three months of being chair of
Column 1071housing in Plymouth, that if any of our tenants needed a new bath, it took five different tradesmen, who were members of the engineer's department, to install it. The biggest shock of all was that the officers sought to justify that to me as being in the tenants' interest. Can one conceive of such a thing in the private sector? One goes to the right person and gets the job done. One does not need such numbers of people to get the work done. We are dealing not only with reforming an institution but with changing a culture. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take two brief points into account. First, will he do something about the fact that many Labour-controlled local authorities are sitting on empty housing land? In the same localities, there are housing associations which pay market prices to buy land on which to build. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing measures to force Labour-controlled authorities to transfer that land at nil cost to local housing associations so that more houses can be built at affordable rents for local people? Secondly, in the great capital receipts debate, will my hon. Friend consider, if there is to be any release of capital receipts, only authorising local authorities to transfer capital receipts to housing associations so that they can use the money to provide social housing far more cost-effectively than local authorities can?
We now have a real opportunity to shake up housing management. If we are to tackle the problem of social housing, bearing in mind that 4 million families are still local authority tenants, we must be radical in our approach to housing departments. They will not reform themselves, so we must do that job for them. We must set up streamlined housing boards which can buy in the services they want when they want them. In that way the tenants who, after all, we are here to serve, will get the deal that they deserve.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) on his maiden speech. It is obvious that he will take up his constituents' concerns and I am sure that we shall hear a great deal more from him in the years ahead in this Parliament.
I have found the debate in general a depressing experience. We have heard many times from Conservative Members the ideological opposition to local authority housing and the obsession with owner-occupation. It is a peculiarly British obsession : few other countries in Europe believe that everyone should aim for owner-occupation or that renting has an inferior status. The obsession with owner-occupation seemed to dominate speeches by Conservative Members.
What tenants want--indeed, what the majority of people want from housing, whether they are tenants or not--is security. They want to be able to live in a property which is suitable in size and in location. They want to be able to repair the property or to have it repaired, and they want to be able to live in a property that they can afford, whether through rent or through mortgage. Those aspirations do not vary much among owner-occupiers or among tenants.
In recent years, it has become far more difficult for owner-occupiers to meet those aspirations ; one has only to ask the people whose homes have been repossessed in the