HC Deb 27 January 1976 vol 904 cc257-65

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit local authorities to requisition houses or flats left empty for more than six months without good reason. Almost exactly a year ago I sought to introduce a similar though not identical Bill. Permission to do so was given by 223 votes to 204, but no opportunity was provided during the Session to take the Bill any further, although it was printed. As Wilberforce tried for 14 successive years to get through Parliament his Bill to abolish the slave trade, and Fenner Brockway tried for nine years to introduce a Bill to deal with race hatred, before those Bills became law, it seems that there are honourable precedents for sticking at it.

Including Scotland, there are 800,000 empty houses and flats at this moment, many of them having been unoccupied for years. This is a national scandal at a time when the housing situation is so desperate.

Since the first attempt with this Bill, the arguments in favour of it have been greatly strengthened. Many of the homes about which I complained then are still unoccupied twelve months later—indeed, the numbers have increased.

The Labour Party annual delegate conference carried a resolution precisely along these lines. The Association of Municipal Authorities, an all-party body, has sought powers of a rather similar kind. There has been support, in the form of petitions and letters, from all over the country. The Empty Property Group has sent the Minister two lists of addresses of houses which have been empty for long periods—up to 15 years in one case.

It is likely that, in many of the houses so acquired, improvement and repairs would be necessary. This would provide work for many of the 200,000 building trade workers now unemployed.

When a house is left empty, it frequently happens that within weeks children throw bricks through the windows. They climb inside and light fires. Sometimes the house is set on fire, together with neighbouring houses. Thieves steal the lead from the roof. They also steal the lead piping, with the result that they often cut off the water supply, not only from the house concerned but from a whole terrace of houses. Rubbish is dumped inside, leading to rats, mice, bugs and flies congregating there.

Before long the councils have to brick up the empty houses, or, even worse, have to demolish them entirely. This is an obvious provocation to squatters. In some instances the owner cannot be traced, since he has died, gone abroad or disappeared.

The situation often arises because property owners are holding out for a high selling price or a high rent. In some instances, capital appreciation may more than compensate for the loss of rent on a vacant property, so that the owner is in no hurry either to re-let or to sell, assuming that at some time in the future the market will improve, that the conditions in the area will alter in his favour, or that a change of Government or new legislation will add to the value of his asset.

As an example, I refer to a letter I received last month from a tenants' association in West London. It tells me of a development of 280 flats owned by a well-known property group. Over 50 of these flats are empty. Many have been vacant for over two years. The tenants feel that, if there were requisitioning powers, the owners would be ready to sell the flats at reasonable prices to the council for letting purposes.

In a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question last month, the Minister told me that a special examination is now being carried out by Sir Dennis Pilcher and Mr. Derek Wood into the scope for bringing more privately owned property into social use by leasing. Provided this is not used as a device by landlords to evade the Rent Acts, this might be of some use, but the requisitioning measure would give the back-up power required, as I shall show.

The Answer continued: But if it becomes clear that we are not making proper headway against the problem of empty homes, then we will not hesitate to consider introducing new and realistic powers to deal with the situation."—[Official Report, 19th December 1975; Vol. 903; c. 899–900.] It would give me great pleasure if the Government took over the measure and turned those words into deeds—particularly since there have been promises to deal with the problem for several years, without results.

Since the original Bill was published, I have come to the view that owner-occupiers should be exempt from requisitioning in certain circumstances—for example, if the occupant had to go into hospital for six months, or was sent abroad on military service, or went temporarily to look after an invalid living on his or her own. Therefore, I would amend the Bill in the second edition to enable the Secretary of State to give guidance as to making exemptions in these and other cases.

Conservative Members who may consider opposing the Bill must accept the fact that, under both Labour and Conservative Governments, this vast waste of houses has continued. Whatever measures exist to remedy the evil have clearly failed. For example, the survey of short-term letting schemes conducted by the Association of District Councils shows that across the whole country only 100 housing units have been brought into use by landlords who volunteered their empty property for management by the local council. Obviously, stronger measures are necessary.

I know that there are also many council houses kept empty for long periods without good reason. This is equally inexcusable, and I hope that councillors will keep a close watch on this in their own wards. An official of the council housing department should be charged with taking preventive steps to avoid vacancies and gaps caused by premature demolition and premature decanting.

However, there is no financial incentive to councillors, and the number of empty council houses is only one-eighth, approximately, of the empty privately rented or owned properties. They are the main problem.

The chief effect of this Bill would be to give owners of vacant properties an incentive to let or sell them quickly at more reasonable rents or prices and thus to ease the acute housing problem affecting millions of men, women and children. People come before property.

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) rose

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Member opposing the Bill?

Mr. Ridley

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

I suggest to the House that it should not give the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) leave to introduce this Bill. Earlier this afternoon the hon. Member was asking a Question of great interest to Russia. Indeed, he is known as a friend of Russia. I am frightened, on the one hand, that he will get into trouble with his friends there because all the commissars have dachas, and if he tries to pinch them he will get a letter from Mr. Semenov, complaining, as in the case of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, about the conduct and views of a Member of Parliament.

The hon. Member will clearly also offend his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who, from what we hear, has several empty houses, as have the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They will not thank him for this measure. But, more important still, he will offend the Minister for Housing, who has had to deal with this suggestion on many occasions before.

On a previous occasion, not only did the Minister say that he had an ancient relative or an old friend who had been unable to sell his house—and, therefore, why should it be requisitioned just because the owner could not find a buyer?—but he produced many administrative and technical reasons to do with the administration of the scheme and to do with the need for an appeals system which in the opinion of the Government meant that the proposals of the hon. Member for Salford, East were not acceptable. I take it that all members of the Government will therefore support me in opposing the hon. Gentleman's having leave to introduce his Bill. We look forward to a massive vote on this occasion.

But the Minister did not give the right reasons for rejecting his hon. Friend's suggestion. The word "requisition" is a military word. It means to take from a town or a part of the countryside horses, fodder, housing, ammunition and anything else that the Army needs—in other words, just to steal it. The word "requisition" is a military word meaning "steal"—

Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) aware that hundreds of thousands of Londoners bombed out during the war had their housing—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That sounds to me like an argument and not a point of order.

Mr. Ridley

If the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) will curb her impatience, I shall be coming to the houses in a moment.

The first objection to the Bill is that this is no time for requisitioning. I remember the story of a magistrate who once had to pass sentence on a man convicted of stealing. He asked the prisoner what his job was, and the reply came "I am a draughtsman." The magistrate said to him, "How would you like it if I pinched your bloody draughts?" That is what the hon. Member for Salford, East is trying to do. He is trying to pinch someone else's property. How would he like it if the Tories tried to pinch the funds of the trade unions?

Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)

They did.

Mr. Ridley

What will be the encouragement to squatters if the hon. Member for Salford, East is allowed to bring in his Bill?

The general encouragement of disrespect for the law which the hon. Gentleman has sought to bring about is the first moral objection in principle to what he wishes to do. But there is a much more important reason why we should not take this step. That, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, concerns people and not property.

The number of homeless in this country is a disgrace. Since 1950, the number of people in county council care has gone up from 5,500 families to 28,500 families.

That in itself is an appalling reflection upon our ability to house our people. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will know that their constituents are getting more and more desperate about their housing problems. The number of housing problems coming to us increases year by year. It is not just that the private sector is not able to cope. It is that the public sector is totally unable to cope with the masses of people who want State housing.

We have here a very real problem, and we have to ask ourselves why these people are homeless and why there are so many empty houses. The answer to the problem is not the one given by the hon. Member for Salford, East, which is to take the houses for them. The answer is to go to the root cause of the problem, which is Socialism for 55 years.

It was in 1919 that rent restriction was first introduced. Since then, rent restriction has been tightened and council housing has been increased until this year we are spending £4,000 million on subsidies to State housing. The security of tenure regulations have starved off landlords from putting forward their houses for letting and, after all this period of Socialist housing, the homelessness is worse, the human misery is worse and the queues are longer.

On this subject, we have a track record of the effects of Socialism over a long period of time, and to suggest that we should underpin an ailing and failing State housing sector by a further dose of Socialism is to condemn countless hundreds of thousands of families to homelessness, to squalor, to overcrowding and to the miserable council house waiting list which is the only ultimate conclusion of a Socialist housing policy. Therefore, I ask the House to refuse the hon. Member for Salford, East leave to introduce his Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 224, Noes 184.

Division No. 36.] AYES [4.15 p.m.
Allaun, Frank Ashton, Joe Bain, Mrs Margaret
Anderson, Donald Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Bates, Alf
Archer, Peter Atkinson, Norman Bean, R. E.
Ashley, Jack Bagier, Gordon A. T. Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Grant, John (Islington C) Parker, John
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Grocott, Bruce Parry, Robert
Bidwell, Sydney Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Pavitt, Laurie
Bishop, E. S. Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Pendry, Tom
Blenkinsop, Arthur Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Penhaligon, David
Booth, Albert Hart, Rt Hon Judith Perry, Ernest
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Prescott, John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hatton, Frank Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Hayman, Mrs Helene Price, William (Rugby)
Buchan, Norman Heffer, Eric S. Radice, Giles
Buchanan, Richard Hooley, Frank Reid, George
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Horam, John Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE) Howell, Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Roderick, Caerwyn
Canavan, Dennis Huckfield, Les Rooker, J. W.
Cant, R. B. Hughes, Mark (Durham) Rose, Paul B.
Carmichael, Neil Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hughes, Roy (Newport) Rowlands, Ted
Cartwright, John Hunter, Adam Sandelson, Neville
Clemitson, Ivor Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill) Sedgemore, Brian
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Selby, Harry
Coleman, Donald Jeger, Mrs Lena Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Colquhoun, Mrs Maureen Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Sillars, James
Concannon, J. D. Johnson, James (Hull West) Silverman, Julius
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Skinner, Dennis
Corbett, Robin Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Small, William
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Jones, Barry (East Flint) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Crawford, Douglas Jones, Dan (Burnley) Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Crawshaw, Richard Judd, Frank Snape, Peter
Cronin, John Kelley, Richard Spearing, Nigel
Cryer, Bob Kerr, Russell Spriggs, Leslie
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Kilroy-Silk, Robert Stallard, A. W.
Dalyell, Tam Kinnock, Neil Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Davidson, Arthur Lambie, David Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Lamborn, Harry Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Davies, Denzil (Llane[...]ll) Lamond, James Stoddart, David
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Stonehouse, Rt Hon John
Deakins, Eric Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Stott, Roger
Dean, Joseph (Leeds W) Litterick, Tom Strang, Gavin
Delargy, Hugh Loyden, Eddie Swain, Thomas
Delargy, Hugh Luard, Evan Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Thompson, George
Dempsey, James McCartney, Hugh Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Doig, Peter McElhone, Frank Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Dormand, J. D. McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Tierney, Sydney
Douglas-Mann, Bruce McNamara, Kevin Tomlinson, John
Duffy, A. E. P. Madden, Max Torney, Tom
Dunnett, Jack Magee, Bryan Tuck, Raphael
Edge, Geoff Mahon, Simon Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Mallalieu, J. P. W. Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
English, Michael Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Ennals, David Maynard, Miss Joan Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Meacher, Michael Ward, Michael
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Watkins, David
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Mikardo, Ian Welsh, Andrew
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Flannery, Martin Molloy, William Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Moonman, Eric Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Forrester, John Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Wilson, Rt Hon H. (Huyton)
Freud, Clement Newens, Stanley Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Noble, Mike Wise, Mrs Audrey
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Oakes, Gordon Woodall, Alec
George, Bruce O'Halloran, Michael Young, David (Bolton E)
Gilbert, Dr John O'Malley, Rt Hon Brian
Ginsburg, David Orbach, Maurice TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Golding, John Ovenden, John Mr. George Rodgers and
Gould, Bryan Owen, Dr David Mr. Ron Thomas.
Graham, Ted Padley, Walter
Grant, George (Morpeth) Park, George
Adley, Robert Berry, Hon Anthony Brittan, Leon
Aitken, Jonathan Biggs-Davison, John Brocklebank-Fowler, C.
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Blaker, Peter Brotherton, Michael
Arnold, Tom Body, Richard Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)
Awdry, Daniel Boscawen, Hon Robert Buchanan-Smith, Alick
Baker, Kenneth Bottomley, Peter Budgen, Nick
Banks, Robert Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Bulmer, Esmond
Bell, Ronald Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Burden, F. A.
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Braine, Sir Bernard Butler, Adam (Bosworth)
Carlisle, Mark Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd) Peyton, Rt Hon John
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Pink, R. Bonner
Churchill, W. S. Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Price, David (Eastleigh)
Clark, William (Croydon S) Jopling, Michael Prior, Rt Hon James
Clegg, Walter Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Raison, Timothy
Cockcroft, John Kaberry, Sir Donald Rathbone, Tim
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Cormack, Patrick Kershaw, Anthony Rees-Davies, W. R.
Corrie, John Kilfedder, James Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Costain, A. P. Kitson, Sir Timothy Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford) Knight, Mrs Jill Ridsdale, Julian
Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Lamont, Norman Rifkind, Malcolm
Dodsworth, Geoffrey Langford-Holt, Sir John Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Le Marchant, Spencer Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Drayson, Burnaby Lester, Jim (Beeston) Ross, William (Londonderry)
Dunlop, John Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Durant, Tony Lloyd, Ian Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Loveridge, John Royle, Sir Anthony
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Luce, Richard Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Elliott, Sir William McAdden, Sir Stephen Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Eyre, Reginald McCrindle, Robert Shelton, William (Streatham)
Fairgrieve, Russell McCusker, H. Shepherd, Colin
Fell, Anthony Macfarlane, Neil Sims, Roger
Finsberg, Geoffrey MacGregor, John Sinclair, Sir George
Fisher, Sir Nigel McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Skeet, T. H. H.
Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N) Marten, Neil Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Mather, Carol Speed, Keith
Fookes, Miss Janet Maudling, Rt Hon Reginald Spence, John
Fry, Peter Mawby, Ray Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Sproat, Iain
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Meyer, Sir Anthony Stainton, Keith
Glyn, Dr Alan Mills, Peter Stokes, John
Goodhart, Philip Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Stradling Thomas, J.
Goodhew, Victor Moate, Roger Tapsell, Peter
Goodlad, Alastair Molyneaux, James Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Monro, Hector Townsend, Cyril D.
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Montgomery, Fergus Tugendhat, Christopher
Griffiths, Eldon More, Jasper (Ludlow) Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Hall, Sir John Morgan, Geraint Wakeham, John
Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Hampson, Dr Keith Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Wall, Patrick
Hannam, John Mudd, David Walters, Dennis
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Neave, Airey Weatherill, Bernard
Hastings, Stephen Neubert, Michael Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Hawkins, Paul Newton, Tony Winterton, Nicholas
Higgins, Terence L. Onslow, Cranley Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Holland, Philip Oppenheim, Mrs Sally Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Hordern, Peter Osborn, John Younger, Hon George
H[...]well, Ralph (North Norfolk) Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Hurd, Douglas Paisley, Rev Ian TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hutchison, Michael Clark Parkinson, Cecil Mr. Michael Latham and
Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Pattie, Geoffrey Mr. Nicholas Ridley.
James, David Percival Ian

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Arthur Latham, Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann, Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop, Mr. Robin F. Cook, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Ron Thomas, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. Dan Jones, Mr. Jim Callaghan, Mr. Mike Noble and Mr. Julius Silverman.