HC Deb 07 April 1976 vol 909 cc401-3
3. Mr. McCrindle

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has received any representations from the Building Societies Association on the subject of the sale of council houses.

6. Mr. John Hunt

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his policy towards the sale of council houses to tenants; and if he will take account of the recent report of Mr. F. Fields for the Child Poverty Action Group in its formulation.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

The Government set out their attitude towards the sale of council houses in paragraph 35 of Circular 70/74. I am keeping the matter under consideration, in parallel with the review of housing finance. I have, of course, noted the views expressed by the Building Societies Association and the Catholic Housing Aid Society's publication.

Mr. McCrindle

When such diverse bodies as the Building Societies Association and Mr. Frank Field, President of the CPAG, indicate that the sale of council houses can be advantageous, does the Minister not consider that he might be out of step? Whether it be in the interests of social justice, as the CPAG implies, or of a property-owning democracy, as the building societies imply, is it not time the Minister became less obstinate on the whole matter?

Mr. Freeson

I am not sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman's refer- ence to obstinacy. I do not think that he has reread the paragraph from the circular in question, to which I referred recently. If he had, he would realise that far from taking an obstinate line we are taking a far more realistic and flexible line than are the Opposition.

Mr. George Rodgers

Does my hon. Friend not agree that it might be more sensible if the building societies concentrated their attention, and some of their funds, on providing loans to people in search of property at the lower end of the scale, and to people on low incomes?

Mr. Freeson

This area of policy and practice is giving more concern to the Government and, indeed, to a growing number of people in the building societies movement, as well as in local government. Discussions are going on now between local authority association representatives and the BSA on this matter. I look forward to reading a report of the joint working party that has been set up which will be completed towards the end of this month.

Mr. Hunt

Why did the hon. Gentleman make no specific reference to Mr. Frank Field in his original reply? Is this not a cavalier way of treating a fellow Socialist? Is the Minister aware that Mr. Field now holds the view that the sale of council houses acts as a means of redistributing wealth as well as increasing the freedom and mobility of tenants? Is this not an aim that appeals to him? Will he follow my hon. Friends' advice and, just for once, cast aside his politic prejudices in this matter?

Mr. Freeson

Again, I must ask the hon. Gentleman to reread the policy statement on this matter, contained in the circular to which I referred. There is no question of obstinacy or anything like that.

As to the publication itself, I referred to the body that sponsored it and for which Mr. Frank Field wrote it—the Catholic Housing Aid Society, not the CPAG. Regarding the basic underlying theme of that publication, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will do what I am going to do and what Mr. Frank Field asked us to do, namely, to think through the implications of what he was discussing.

Mr. Raison

Will the Minister think again about his answers to this Question? It may be his last pronouncement from that Dispatch Box. Does he accept that my hon. Friends have made an overwhelming case for permitting and, indeed, encouraging the sale of council houses'? Is it not high time that the ban on the sale of new town houses was also brought to an end?

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening as carefully as he normally does to his hon. Friends. They were not making out a case at all; they were saying that, because a certain publication by Mr. Frank Field had advocated a particular line of development to be thought through, it should therefore be adopted by the Government. That was not an argument. In their policy circular the Government have clearly put on record the fact that they continue to reject the rather gimmicky policy of indiscriminate disposal of these assets. There are situations in which, for a variety of reasons which I am prepared to discuss at length on another occasion, there could be an argument for doing what has been proposed. That is the Government's policy. What we object to is the stupid attitude that we should seek indiscriminately to get rid of 5 million dwellings from the rented market, which the Opposition complain has been reducing and declining for many years.