HC Deb 07 May 1976 vol 910 cc1660-736

Order for Second Reading read.

12.2 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I do so in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) who obtained the leave of the House to introduce the Bill and is, indeed, responsible for its preparation. My hon. Friend is in the unfortunate position that his wife has been in hospital this week. He learned only yesterday evening that it is intended to operate on her today. I am sure all of his friends in the House will join me in sending him good wishes for his wife's successful operation and speedy recovery. We all recognise that his place was in Salford today rather than at Westminster.

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's dedication, conscientiousness and sense of responsibility because it would have been easy, in this situation, simply to miss the opportunity to have the Bill presented since he cannot be here today. However, despite his personal worries, my hon. Friend has taken considerable trouble to make sure that his colleagues are informed about the Bill. I have been to Euston station this morning to receive a large package despatched by express service by British Rail yesterday evening, which was faithfully delivered.

You may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in rather different circumstances in 1972, when you were Chairman of the Housing Finance Bill Committee, I had occasion to make a long statement to the Committee. I hasten to reassure you that I have no intention of repeating that performance today. I would say that the measure of material, with which my hon. Friend has provided me from his researches into the problem of empty homes, would be sufficient to make a speech lasting many hours in support of the Bill he has prepared. My hon. Friend cares passionately about the homeless and about taking action to get them housed. His Bill represents an attempt to achieve that.

I would suggest that there is an onus on others who claim to care about homelessness, but who oppose this measure in principle, to offer alternative ways of dealing with the empty property problem. I shall return later to what I understand to be the objections to the Bill.

First, if I may refer to the detailed case prepared by my hon Friend, I would remind the House that leave was given some five months ago for the introduction of the Bill by 224 votes to 184—a fairly impressive majority, particularly in view of the way in which this House is constituted at present. Those who were supporting action in relation to empty property included some very distinguished members of the Government, and it would be unfortunate if the Government themselves showed any hostility to the Bill today. It was noted that certain Department of Environment Ministers did not show the same enthusiasm as their other Government colleagues. I hope that they will have had some further thoughts and considerations since then.

The 1971 census showed there to be 790,000 empty properties in the United Kingdom as a whole. These are residential flats and houses. It ought to be stresser that they are habitable dwellings. The census figures did not include those properties which were derelict or semi-derelict. These were nearly 800,000 habitable dwellings.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

Does the figure my hon. Friend has just quoted include mansions such as that put up for sale this week at £1 million?

Mr. Latham

I am not sure whether that one was empty. It may have become empty since. The point that I was about to make was that the figure was nearly 800,000 in 1971 and that there is every reason to believe that the situation has become considerably worse and that the number has substantially increased. Indeed, since leave was given to introduce the Bill, people from all over the country have been corresponding with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East adding to the evidence of large numbers of empty properties, in some cases almost sufficient to wipe out local housing lists. The examples which he has obtained include that in Barnet the number of empty houses has grown from 2,000 in 1971 to 4,482, a figure obtained at a more recent date. In Chelsea, it is said, there are 4,300 empty properties, many of which have been vacant for more than three years. In the City of Westminster, in which my own constituency of Paddington falls, there were 4,200 empty properties in 1973 and it is believed that by the end of 1973 alone this figure had increased to 6,732.

Indeed, the City of Westminster seems to hold the record of all the London boroughs for the number of empty properties. It is quite possible that if all the empty residential properties in the City of Westminster could be utilised, it would be more than sufficient to clear the present waiting list of 8,000 people without adequate homes.

If empty properties were brought into use it would transform the housing problem throughout the country. There is evidence from Merseyside Improved Housing, Harehills (Leeds), the Empty Properties Group, Southwark Forum, Wandsworth Housing Rights Centre, Balham Law Centre, CHAR and Saltley (Birmingham), all supporting the contention that this is a problem not simply in Westminster, Paddington or London but also in many parts of the country. The Chiswick Village Tenants' Association said that 50 out of 280 properties owned by the Berger group are empty, many for over two years, and that the agents of the group refused to let the vacant properties despite the fact that there is the national scandal of so many people without homes of their own.

This Bill seeks to offer some remedy to the situation. It permits a local authority to requisition houses and flats which have been unoccupied for at least six months. It provides for those properties, if necessary, to be repaired and let quickly to those in need on a council's housing list. Clearly, this can be done much more quickly than the planning and building of new houses.

My hon. Friend has made a major amendment to the Bill which he attempted to introduce 18 months ago. Many representations were made to him about the problems of owner-occupiers and the number of exceptions and exemptions that it would have been necessary to introduce, and he has been persuaded that it is right to make a total exception in the case of owner-occupied property. This may leave some accommodation which should in principle be subject to the Bill, but, in view of the examples presented, the major part of the Bill will deal with the substantial number of properties which are not owner-occupied but simply not let and which should be available for letting.

It is estimated that there are about 40,000 squatters in London. We are all aware of the kind of social problems and neighbourhood conflicts which arise from the difficulties caused by squatting. The simple answer to squatting is not to leave properties empty for an inordinate length of time but to invite those who are homeless and not necessarily at the top of the list to move into property which is otherwise unused. Thus, not only would the Bill deal with the problems of many homeless people: it would also overcome the basic cause of the problem of squatting.

Furthermore, about 200,000 people are unemployed in the building industry and my hon. Friend's proposals would provide work for them in repairing and preparing for letting those properties which need attention but which are otherwise habitable.

There are objections, I understand, from the Government and certainly from the Opposition. I want to deal with both. One argument offered by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who spoke against the Bill when leave was given for its introduction, was that council property is also often empty. The fact that some local authority dwellings are left empty for longer than is reasonable is no argument against the Bill and is no case for permitting many thousands of privately-owned dwellings to continue to remain empty.

I do not condone bad local administrative practices which result in properties being left empty for longer than is necessary. I am often impressed by the lack of a sense of urgency by some local authority housing staffs, who feel that, despite the desperately pressing housing need, time can be taken in making one offer, delivering keys, accepting their return and then considering another selected applicant—a process which can take many weeks and sometimes months.

There is room for improvement there, but it should be recognised that the number of empty local authority dwellings should be seen as a percentage of the total local authority housing stock which should relate to the rate of turnover of tenancies and obviously must have regard to plans for repair, improvement, conversion and redecoration of dwellings before they are relet.

I submit that there is no evidence and no reason to suppose that local authorities, on taking over privately-owned rented property, would simply add to the total of vacant council-owned dwellings. Whatever Proportion the empty local authority dwellings represent of local authority total housing stock would be the proportion of empty private dwellings which might be empty subsequently for a period while the local authority undertook necessary works and made administrative arrangements for their letting. But there is no reason to suppose that transferring from private to local authority responsibility would result in their simply continuing to remain empty.

Second, the Conservative Party objects that there are many empty dwellings because of the changes in the rent laws and particularly because security of tenure was extended to occupants of furnished dwellings. The available evidence suggests that the overwhelming proportion of empty properties were already empty before that legislation went on to the statute book.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Surely, earlier in his speech, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the number of empty homes had virtually doubled in the last five years. How does that tie in with what he is now saying

Mr. Latham

It ties in very well. The legislation to which I refer was not introduced five years ago. I have been trying to show that the number has risen considerably since the 1971 census. I see no hard evidence to show that there is a massive increase since the passing of the legislation to which I have referred and still less of any direct cause and effect between the two. Although that representation has been made by some landlord interests, whenever I have asked for evidence it has not been forthcoming.

The objection to which I referred would lead one to conclude that the Opposition favour a much freer market in rents. That suggests that they are claiming that, if much higher rents can be charged, properties will not remain empty. I emphasise, for the benefit of the Minister, that in my constituency the kind of rents which are now beginning to apply are as bad, from a tenant's point of view, as the rents that one might expect in a free market. Whereas at one time in the private sector one might be able without difficulty to find accommodation of moderate quality for perhaps £15 a week or so, the present level is much nearer £40 a week. Ordinary working-class families will soon be unable to continue to live in the area, such are the pressures for rented property. Yet against that background, there is still this large number of empty properties, for a whole variety of reasons with which the Minister will undoubtedly be familiar.

The third objection which was raised by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury was that he regarded requisitioning of any kind as a form of theft by the community. If he wanted to argue against the compulsory purchase procedure for empty properties, which is one alternative suggested by the Government to requisitioning, that point could at least be argued. But the Bill does not represent acquisition by the local authority. It provides for something in the nature of a compulsory letting.

The Bill tells the landlord that society generally regards it as criminal that habitable property should remain empty for long periods while many hundreds of thousands are homeless and that therefore society requires property which has been empty for more than six months to be let to one of the many in the locality in genuine housing need. I do not see how that can be regarded as theft. Indeed, the owner of the property has the right under the Bill to have the requisition revoked. He can subsequently sell the property, it remains in his ownership, and all that is required is that there shall be adequate, reasonable, full social use of that property which the landlord has failed to achieve.

I turn to what I understand to be the Government's objections to the Bill. It has been said by Ministers that properties remaining empty other than in a housing action area or general improvement area can be subject to a compulsory purchase order. That procedure is far too slow. It can take at least 18 months. There is often the problem of tracing and clearly identifying an owner, and all manner of complications and delays arise. The alternative method proposed in the Bill is quick and simple.

The number of properties dealt with in the Government's suggested alternative manner is relatively small against the total problem. In a parliamentary answer which referred to DOE Circular 70/74, which made it possible for local authorities to acquire houses, the Minister said: Over 9,000 such dwellings have been bought by negotiations during the past 12 months; compulsory purchase orders have been made on about 100 only."—[Official Report. 3rd March 1975; Vol. 887, c. 341.] That figure of 9,000 dwellings bought by negotiation is grossly inadequate, against the canvas of the 800,000 dwellings that are known to be empty.

The Government also propose the alternative of purchase, but purchase would necessitate a further increase in public and local government expenditure, which the Government have decided must be held back. The proposition in the Bill that the property shall be "borrowed" for letting—which is the effect of requisition—would have virtually no impact on public expenditure compared with the cost involved in purchase.

I understand that funds available for the general process of municipalisation are very limited, and I should welcome the Minister's comments. There appear to be no funds available for the outright purchase of properties beyond the municipalisation programmes that local authorities may be pursuing.

An alternative suggestion for the leasing of properties has been made. Some experiments have been made, but the number of cases in which leasing has proved effective is not impressive. Furthermore, there are fears that the leasing procedure would simply be used by landlords as a device for avoiding the provisions of the Rent Act.

At Eastbourne in November last the then Secretary of State said that if present powers and policies did not prove sufficient to combat the increasing amount of empty property he would consider the introduction of requisitioning powers.

In March this year, the Under-Secretary of State said: We have already said that if it becomes clear that we are not making firm headway against the problem of empty houses, particularly in housing stress areas, we shall not hesitate to consider introducing new and realistic powers to deal with the situation."—[Official Report, 17th March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 1401.] My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East and I believe that the time to act in that way has long since passed. We hope to get a positive response from the Government today. I hope that the House and the Government will allow the Bill to go to Standing Committee in recognition of the problem of homelessness and the number of empty properties throughout the country. I readily recognise that there are imperfections in the Bill. The Second Reading debate is concerned with principle and the job of the Standing Committee is to try to get rid of the imperfections.

I ask the Government and the House to recognise that there is a serious problem, and that there has not been sufficient Government action to deal with empty properties. I hope that the Bill will be read a Second time, so that there is an opportunity to debate my hon. Friend's proposals and to air and hear the Government's proposals. It is evident that the problem is getting worse. Here is a huge reservoir of housing, which could do much to diminish human misery among the homeless.

12.25 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

We have to consider the Bill in the context of the general housing situation and to recognise that the stock of homes available is made up of homes of which households and sometimes individuals wish to make use. The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) will recognise the concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House and the public for people who are living in inadequate homes. The points of difference between us are not purely party political. People's attitude to the potential power to requisition homes is conditioned by their attitude to housing policy in general, by their experience of having considered letting their homes and not doing so, or their experience of housing when they were young.

Most, but not all, of the homeless are young. Others may come from a broken home, for example. If I were to be divorced, I should be just as homeless as a 21-year-old married couple, an ex-prisoner, or an ex-hospital patient. For the first year after I married I lived in a rented house in Cambridge, and for the second year I lived in a rented house in Suffolk. One effect of the Rent Act 1974 was that owners who had been letting their homes for many years were no longer prepared to do so.

We are in a period of transition. Before the First World War, most people lived in privately rented homes. Some lived in municipal homes, or homes such as those on the Progress Estate, in my constituency, which were built by the Government to house armaments workers, so that they would not be enticed to Germany, where homes were better and Krupps was trying to build up the German armaments industry. Those houses are mainly owned now by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. Before the First World War, some people were owner-occupiers and some lived in large mansions, but most lived in privately rented homes.

There has been a radical change. Now more than 50 per cent. of householders live in homes which they have bought, are buying or own outright. There has been a tremendous change even since the end of the Second World War, when less than half that proportion were living in homes they could call their own and which, when they died, they could leave to their children or grandchildren.

The privately rented sector has declined rapidly. We can perhaps look forward to a time when it will be a very small proportion of the housing stock. The ownership of privately owned rented homes may move to housing associations, housing societies or perhaps even to owner-occupiers. Many previously privately rented homes are now owner-occupied. I live in such a house myself. I shall come to that in a moment, and share with the House not only the beginning of my family life but the later period. In this transition we have to recognise that the form of occupation of the housing stock is important.

It would be naive of any hon. Member—although I am innocent, I claim not to be naive—not to recognise that the effect of the regulations about the letting of homes is to diminish in some circumstances the likelihood of homes being let either at a reasonable rent or to the type of family about whom most of us feel most concern.

If an hon. Member—perhaps an hon. Member on the Government Benches, should he decide to go off and serve in the European Parliament, or as one of the European Community Commissioners—wanted to let his home, he would be advised to let it to someone who would not qualify for the protection of the recent Rent Act. He would probably be well advised to go to the American Embassy, or to place an advertisement in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune saying—"Cabinet Minister's home to let."

If such a person were likely to be away for three or four years, he would be most unlikely to place an advertisement in Dalton's Weekly saying—"Young family with children wanted to occupy a furnished home in London", in part because he might think that the children would do a fair amount of damage, but mainly because he would be worried that when he returned to Britain he would not be able to obtain possession of his home. Under an agreement he would make with the tenants—especially if it was one that was extended if he were reappointed for a second term in Brussels—that he should be able to take back his home, even on a specified date, he could not be sure that this would happen.

No hon. Member would deny that that is the situation facing many people who, although they own their home, may not be owner-occupiers as envisaged by the Bill. I am willing to give way if anybody wishes to say that that is not so, but I believe that it is accepted that it is so.

Perhaps instead of debating this Bill the time of the House would be better employed in putting pressure on the Government to accept the idea put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys-Williams) that some form of "shorthand" should be created under which people could let their home for a medium term in the knowledge that it would return to them when they needed it.

Hon. Members may feel inclined to interject and say "You are not talking about the area we are thinking of. We are thinking of blocks of 200 flats owned by a property company or an individual where a large number of the flats is left empty." I hope to come to a specific instance in my constituency where this has happened on a smaller scale, but. given the present state of the privately rented sector and those homes which might he available to be rented privately, we should be concerned first with the long-term aspects, which concern those who for reasons of mobility within Britain or because they are going to take a job abroad will probably want to rent their home when they are away.

Let us assume that, instead of being an industrial economist and a Member of the House, I were a rather more useful civil engineer who was going out to Nigeria to build a highway or to the Middle East to try to earn back some of the money we are spending following the fivefold increase in oil prices, and that I was leaving my home behind me. Is there an hon. Member who would recommend that in such circumstances I should let my house to an English family with children, those being the people about whom I am most concerned, as you, Mr. Speaker, will know from other speeches I have made? Would any hon. Member recommend that that is what I should do if I wanted to be certain of getting my home back when I needed it after two or three years abroad?

By my reading of the Bill I would not get the protection. I might be left with the choice between leaving the home empty and letting it to someone who was visiting this country and who, I felt fairly sure, would return to a job outside this country at the end of his contract with me to rent my home.

One is tackling the problem in quite the wrong way if one does not look to see why people are leaving homes empty, whether they are absent owners in the sense that I have mentioned or people who merely control a building that has many homes in it, or perhaps just two or three homes. I should have thought that this would have been recognised, especially by hon. Members opposite who in the last few days have said some fairly realistic things about statutory and voluntary control of pay increases.

It is a question of taking horses to water and letting them drink, or making them drink, and perhaps sometimes saying "Dear horse, if you do not drink we shall shoot you dead and see if you drink after we have shot you." I rather fear that this is what happened to much of the privately-rented housing market.

I ask hon. Members to reflect on what people who had the funds did 20 years ago, or perhaps 40 years ago, to establish a charity or to provide an endowment for a church or a school or to provide protection for their wives and family. At that time, insurance schemes had not spread quite as wide as they have now thanks to the attention of the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry).

In those good old had old days many people who had the opportunity—I fully recognise that most people did not have the opportunity—would have said "I shall build a home or two and the income from those homes will provide a guaranteed income for my wife, or for my children, or for my church, or for the school that I helped to establish". In that way they were endowing an interest which they had very close to heart.

A large proportion of the privately-rented market, and indeed a large proportion of the rent-controlled and statutory-controlled private market, is the result of such actions in the past. Obviously there are some people and some companies which control vast numbers of homes, but the greater proportion of homes is owned and controlled in ones and twos and fours and fives.

A group of Members of Parliament who seek to change the rules so that more homes are left vacant are under an obligation to pay attention to the factor I have just mentioned. The best thing they could do would be to lend support to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and try to sort this matter out sensibly.

The hon. Member for Paddington talked about the Tories talking about higher rents and all the rest. He went on to say that it was those who obtained the higher rents who made it impossible for ordinary working people to go on living in his constituency. We can argue from some of the more conventional analyses of the voting patterns that that process has not gone all that far. I certainly would not like the day to come when people who could not afford exorbitant rents had to leave inner London. If I have the forbearance of the House, I shall touch on that point later.

I find it somewhat ironic that, on the one hand, people are told "The Government are subsidising family planning. Go along to the Family Planning Association and take care not to have more children than you can afford", and the other, they are told "Produce three children as fast as you can, because that is the quickest way of getting a council home".

In the inner cities people are told that they cannot be put into one of the housing clubs until they have three children or £3,000. Although many of us may have made a running start into marriage, others, unless they are on fertility drugs, or win the football pools, cannot qualify.

What is the reason for people having to pay £40 a week for a home in Battersea and in many other areas of London? It is the scarcity of homes. Why is there a scarcity of homes? I suggest there are two reasons. One is that the side effect of much legislation passed in this House has been to drive homes off the market, and, without accepting that all the empty homes are the result of rent Acts or other legislation, it is clear that a reasonable proportion are. If we pass legislation that makes people more reluctant to do what otherwise would be in their own interests and to let their homes, we slow up the working of a reasonable housing market.

Tied in with that is the fact that in the good old bad old days people would say "What shall I do with my funds?" or "What shall we do with the contributions from people who club together to provide a reasonable pool of investment funds?" They would decide to build homes to let. But they do not do it any more because there are more controls over privately-rented homes than there were in those days.

One could argue that one reason that people do not invest in industry and in productive investment as much as they should is that the risks of losing their all and being stopped from doing what they believe to be right are too great.

I have a great regard for Labour Weekly, because I can watch through the eyes of its editor the switches of Labour Party policy and I can see whether he is supporting what the Government are doing or what the Labour Party is doing Labour Weekly, instead of printing an advertisement saying "If you want to solve the housing problem, why not put your money together and provide more homes?", talks of football competitions. It is now inviting its readers to invest in the Australian football pools, because the football season in this country is now coming to an end. In the same way as the unions in Germany use a good deal of their members' subscriptions and fees to build homes for their members, one would like to see more of this done with the funds of trade unions in this country.

Going further afield to see how the people in Singapore deal with the housing problem, which was far greater than ours, one finds that they make sure that they build the right number of homes, and, by cutting off the vast demands on housing resources, they lower the general level of rents. In case someone in Singapore should read this speech, which some may regard as unlikely, I feel that one should pay a compliment to the people in Singapore for the way in which they have not only rebuilt their housing stocks in the last 15 years but have also managed to sell off those homes to the people who live in them.

Going back to the matter of housing stock in this country, besides a reduction in the rented accommodation market and a doubling of owner-occupation, there has been a large increase in homes owned by local authorities. Although there is some argument for local authorities taking over some homes, there is no argument for local authorities saying "Whatever home we happen to take over or build, it must remain ours for ever."

One reason why it has been possible for owner-occupation to increase is that private rented homes have come into the possession of the occupants. In a constituency like mine, where one-third of the homes are privately rented, one-third are owned by the local authority and one-third are owner occupied, unless more land can be found for building, which is not possible in most of the built-up areas, the only way in which we can increase owner-occupation, which is the key to mobility within much of the housing market, is by transferring homes either from privately rented or from local authority rented to the free market of owner occupation.

Some may say that is not important. I would tell them that people come to see me on Saturday mornings saying "Can you help me get a transfer?"—perhaps to Eastbourne. I reply "What is the difficulty?" I am then told "It is difficult to find someone in Eastbourne who wants to come and live here, who has got the right-sized flat or maisonette to suit me and who has got the right-sized family for my house." I then say "What do you think ought to be done about it?" because I am always willing to learn from my constituents. They then say "Would it not be a sensible idea if, instead of having to go to Eastbourne and advertise in a tobacconist's window for someone to do a swop with me, I could advertise in my own area and say Who wants to take this flat?' and then I could go to Eastbourne and choose a home there?"

One reason why people in local authority houses do not move so much is that if they want to make an exchange it has usually got to be a direct exchange. I hope to hear from the Government, or possibly from one of the sponsors of this Bill, what positive action they believe might be possible, not within the terms of the Bill, to recognise the blocks which discourage or prevent people from letting their homes.

I do not wish to prolong my speech, but I should like to refer to an analysis carried out in Wandsworth by one of the housing action groups that brought forward a list of a vast number of homes which had been left empty, and then it had to put out a correction a week or two later when it was discovered that nearly half the homes on the list did not come into the classification into which they were originally put.

It is worth inquiring to see how the various housing clubs operate. There are many retired people who live in homes that are not the right size for them. There are plenty of people, as I have discovered during spasms of door knocking in election campaigns, who say "Cannot you do something to help me into a smaller home or into a different area?" I say to myself "What can one learn from this?" What one learns from it is the immobility of local authority housing.

If at the age of 25 I had qualified to get on the council list I would probably have found that I could not move to a slightly larger home by offering more rent to the local authority, because that is not the way local authorities work. I would have the choice of paying a rent of £6 a week or going into the private market and buying my own home, paying off a mortgage at the rate of £25 a week. Therefore, I would probably stay where I was. With luck I might be able to get a transfer to a slightly more desirable home, again owned by the local authority. I would continue to pay the same rent until the day I retired. If had not been able to make private provision for my old age I might become one of the nearly 2 million old-age pensioners who are on supplementary benefit.

I think more and more of us realise that such a vast proportion of people are on supplementary benefit after retirement age almost solely because of their housing and because the housing club that they happened to join more than 40 years before determines their position at 65. It is time that the situation was changed.

If people can, they should get into a humane and independent housing club, that is, where privately rented homes are to be had when people need them. When I was 10 years younger than I am now—that makes me feel very mature—would it have been any good to the country if I and people like me, had not been able to rent homes, as I did, in Cambridge and Suffolk? Should I have stayed in my mother's or mother-in-law's front room, sleeping on a sofa with one or two children, waiting for the local authority to build or requisition more homes to house everybody?

This has come home to me because I meet many more people—or I have during the last two and a half years than most of my hon. Friends or hon. Members on the Government Benches, because I have been in more elections. One meets a young person who says "I got engaged five years ago, was married three years ago, and I am now about to have my first child. Can I get a home?" I cannot say "Yes", because the privately rented market has gone crazy. If the general level of rent for a home is now £40 a week, how many people are able to afford that? We cannot do much to reduce the numbers who want homes, because we all want homes, and we all deserve homes. That could be made possible, either by total requisitioning which is not in the Bill but which is one potential answer used in some countries, or by a totally free market, which leads to various abuses, or we could see by what extent we should interfere. If one has the choice of modifying the last Rent Act or modifying the powers of a council to requisition homes or compulsorily lease them, I am one who would far prefer to go for freedom, because of the benefit I received from it 10 years ago. I think others should have the benefit of it as well. My freedom to get a home in such circumstances depended on the freedom of the controllers of those homes to let them. The home I rented in Cambridge had been let for 25 years continuously, for one- or two-year periods. But now the landlord will not let it because of the side effects of the 1974 Rent Act, and the threat of that Act, which caused a number of homes not to be let in the time before it was passed. I do not want to go into the rights and wrongs of giving more security of tenure to furnished tenants, but that is a side effect of the 1974 Rent Act that has been generally recognised, and no one has yet contradicted it.

Could the person who came along to me and said "I am having my first child and I cannot get a privately rented home" get a council house? The answer is that he probably will be able to, because he put his name down at the right time. But suppose he had not. Suppose he had hoped to make his own provisions, what would one have advised him to do five years ago? Should one advise him to put his name down in case he cannot sort it out himself? Then one will have to ask how many names on council housing lists actually need homes. I could tell all the engaged couples in Eltham to put their names on the council housing list. But the result would be that it would double the numbers on the list. But the result would be that it would double the numbers on the list and the council would then have a case for doubling the number of its requisitions. It would then buy up all the lower-grade homes in the area, which, at present, about half the engaged couples are buying. The result would be that one would be chasing a smaller and smaller supply of homes by encouraging the housing waiting lists to grow. I shall not go into the comparison between this young man and a neighbour who, five years ago, got engaged, then married and now has three children. He lives in a decent-sized home because he organised his affairs so that he qualified for it. Is the right kind of family responsibility being encouraged, or do we appear to give advantage to people who live for the minute and take a short cut?

I shall not get side-tracked by the case of the old-age pensioner who, at the end of the day, ends up with £600 in a building society or a trustee savings bank and then discovers that if he had spent his money on a few luxuries in the last 10 years of his working life he would have had sufficiently low savings to qualify for greater help from the Department of Health and Social Security or the council. I hope that I shall have another opportunity, perhaps on another Friday, to develop that at greater length.

The question remains whether we we should advise a person to put his name on any housing waiting list. If the result of having a housing situation which requires more and more people to put their names on housing lists is that the council goes in for more miscellaneous acquisition and more and more comprehensive development to raise the density of the population in any area of London outside the areas which have too many people to the acre already—or to the hectare. I suppose we shall have to say—this is the wrong way to approach it, as the population of this country is not growing.

While we can artificially create conditions in which we have a mammoth boom in council interference in the housing market, the result will be a far greater degree of chaos, with everyone worse off. We are all familiar with the way in which the investment boom came, and took on a character of its own. For example, if machine tools are required to make engineering plant to produce consumer goods, and the demand for those goods is increased by 10 per cent., it doubles up the requirement for machine tools for a year or so. But it will not go on for ever, and the result is a mammoth boom in machine tools—a boom that falls flat on its face. The same thing is likely to happen if we take that attitude to the housing market. While this is not actually in the Bill itself, it is implicit in the approach to the housing market in the provisions of the Bill, with its powers for requisitioning. One reason why the housing market appears to be in very bad order is that the distribution of jobs around the country is very poor.

Four years ago I was involved in a survey of families on supplementary benefit level or below. I discovered that in an area outside Manchester half the families included in the survey were actually buying their own homes, because at that time the area had not been torn down and redeveloped by the local authority, and for less than the rent which they would otherwise pay to the council people could buy their own homes. They were not very grand homes. They were certainly not exepnsive. As I recall it, they cost about £800 each. This is going back four years, of course.

Is that not better than making people live in mother-in-law's front room and sleep on the sofa? Is it not better than having a state of affairs that requires the council to carry on buying up such homes, which people might otherwise buy for a payment lower than the local authority rent? Once people put a foot on the first slope of the housing mountain. once they enter membership of one of the housing clubs—we all know that, in the main, these are owner-occupation, local authority rented and privately rented—one begins to make improvements. If, on the other hand, it is done at the cost of stopping people following along behind from being housed, we do no good whatever.

That is why I contend that it would be far better if the time and attention of the House and of the housing Minister were turned back to the question: how can we encourage people to work together as providers and occupiers of homes? The Bill is directed to the provision of homes, but the people who control them are not letting them.

I ought not to have to repeat this, but in the light of the approach of Bills such as this and some of the speeeches made at election time by some candidates, perhaps I should repeat it. Encouraging someone to do what is right is far better than setting up an inquisition or going back to the Star Chamber to inquire into his motives. The more people can sort out their own affairs in terms of letting a home that would otherwise be empty, and the more one can find people able to rent such homes and willing to strike a mutually agreeable bargain, which does no untold harm to society, the better. If we can make it possible for that to happen to a greater extent, I shall be much happier.

In my constituency, there is a block of flats on the A20, a road that the Government had intended to bring up to motorway standard, although I understand that that is not now the intention. The owners of those flats, above a parade of shops, were told that the council would buy them, and they entered into an agreement. Because the council was offering more if the homes were empty, and because it happened to be in an area in which there was a substantial turnover of tenants, the people in control of the homes refrained from reletting, until they were all empty, when the council took control of them all. They then remained empty because, although they were good enough for the tenants of the private controller of the flats, the standard was not good enough for the council to offer to its tenants.

In Clause 3 there is a provision requiring the local authority immediately to take such steps as are necessary to make the homes fit for people to live in. What sort of standard is intended? By Clause 4, the local authority is required to let the homes within 14 days. Again, what kind of housing market will the local authority run? The hon. Member for Paddington suggested that one of the reasons why council homes were left empty might be that, quite often, people were offered a slightly generous system—this was the implication—which allowed them to turn down the first home offered by the local authority.

I wonder how many of us would like to see those of our constituents who go on the council housing list given no option—given a Hobson's choice in terms of the home offered. We all know that our local authorities own homes of varying quality and standard, or, perhaps, if of the same standard, with varying amenities, according to preference—a large garden, a small garden, facing on to a busy road, and so on. How will those be allocated? Will it be done purely by need, or by asking people whether they prefer a large garden, a small garden, a back yard, or nothing at all?

If it were possible to require a local authority to let a home within 14 days, one could, I suggest, scrap the rest of the Bill, change its Title and lust keep Clause 4—that might endear itself to some hon. Members—requiring local authorities to find ways of letting their homes within 14 days, anyway. Certainly, if one could find a way of getting them to put their homes into good repair fast enough, or of encouraging the tenants to put them into good repair, we could move a good deal further forward.

In the constituency in which I live—the constituency of Vauxhall—there is an area of 600 homes, which we understand are to be pulled down. I speak with some hesitation and say "we understand", because the people who lived there in 1946 were told exactly the same. If one looks for the reason why there is so much housing stress, one finds in many city areas, which are, course, the major housing stress areas—London, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities where people were voting yesterday, apart from London—that part of the reason is comprehensive redevelopment. I have been arguing this for several years.

How many people on the housing waiting list get rehoused because they come top of the list? The truth is that very few do. Most local authority rehousing is necessary because the people live in an area that the council has comprehensively redeveloped, or intends to redevelop. Once such an area is to be comprehensively redeveloped, the people who live there have to be moved into another area that has been redeveloped. This is fine for them, of course, because they are getting new homes, but it is no good at all for others.

At local inquiries before the inspector whom the Secretary of State sends down, the justification advanced by the local authority is in these terms: "We have to go in for this comprehensive redevelopment because we must have housing gain". But the truth, which we soon discover, is, first, that there is no housing gain, and, second, that we do not help people on the housing waiting list because of the number of people who have to be moved out for redevelopment.

The situation is slightly different in the outer London boroughs, because there is usually more land available, but one can see what happens to the so-called housing gain in many inner London boroughs. I once did a calculation that showed that Lambeth could knock down every home it had twice over, and that at the rate of housing gain then going on half the people on the housing waiting list would still not be helped. One must remember here also the people who become homeless and the young families which grow, with more children coming, and automatically—or sometimes automatically—get themselves rehoused.

To come back to the area behind which live, those 600 homes are now falling empty, after 30 years, and no one will spend any money on them. I have met the tenants and landlords of those homes, and they told me two or three years ago that the council said back in 1946—or 1956 or 1966—"Do not put in a proper kitchen, do not put in a bathroom, because the homes are all coming down". Perhaps they are now to come down, and one justification for that is that the homes have no bathrooms, have not been painted for 30 years, and have generally deteriorated.

In this way we create an imbalance between the supply and the demand for homes. Those 600 homes will ail vanish, and it will be five years before other homes are created in their place. Thus, an extra 600 families will need rehousing.

If we could find some way of keeping houses in good repair, which would stop the need to knock down four out of five of them, and find a system which made it possible to put bathrooms in where there are no bathrooms now, to put in damp-proof courses or to repair damp-proof courses and to mend leaking roofs, most of the pressure for comprehensive redevelopment would go.

I believe that we all accept that now. Indeed, some hon. Members were arguing it several years ago, and all credit to them. I wish that the argument had been more effective earlier. If one could reach that stage, one would suddenly discover that one had the equivalent or five years' building accumulated for the housing stock without anything having to be knocked down. That would produce a straightforward housing gain in nearly all the inner city areas, and, once that happened, two results would follow.

First, the general level of, so to speak, free rents would decline because one would be taking the pressure off those who demand their own home; secondly, there would still be a housing club or market that was not local authority rented or in straight owner-occupation. There would be more availability of homes to those who wanted privately-rented homes or to move around the country, as I did 10 years ago. If we do that, we shall find that many of the worries of those who control empty houses now will start to disappear, and perhaps they will then let off those homes without the need for such a Bill as this.

There is another point concerning the housing market about which I feel strongly. It is the question of spending on the many homes that fall into disrepair. One can argue that the fall into disrepair results in part from inadequate returns from lettings because of the various rent controls. I do not want to do away with all controls over rents—broadly, I think that they are valuable in their etTects—but I think that housing prices in certain areas should be subject to an over-view, at any rate from an independent outside body.

We shall have to be more aware of the creation of rundown homes. Let us take the case, for example, of the old-age pensioner in owner-occupation—a sector in which there is a good deal of under-occupation. More and more males are likely to die before their wives, leaving their relics behind them, probably with inadequate incomes—that will certainly be the case if inflation continues at the present rate—and occupying a whole house. In many cases, a house will be occupied by one mature lady from the age of, say, 60 to the age of 90, and during those 30 years it is most unlikely that she will be able to keep that home in good repair. She is also unlikely to want to sell it, unless some reasonable arrangement can be made, because it is the only security she has—a long-term security, because her housing costs have been paid off, so she knows that, to a certain extent, she is clear for the rest of her life.

We might argue, as individuals, that we should be able to make rather better provision and, instead of providing for compulsory requisition or letting of the part of her home she is not occupying, should offer her the chance of selling her home to a housing association or to the local authority, which could then, if she wished, move her to a more purpose-built home, selling off her old home to a young married couple.

I hope that more and more councils will realise, instead of spending the ratepayers' money on doing up homes immediately for young married couples, that most young married couples are willing to do it themselves. When I bought my home in London about six years ago—I promised that I would bring you up to date, Mr. Speaker—the local authority had been intending to pull it down. Although it had a bath, the bath was not connected to the water supply—nor was it used for keeping coal in, because there were no coal fires in the house. The local authority could have bought that home for £6,000 or £7,000, spent £500 on knocking it down and another £15,000 on building a new house, and then said to me "Young man, go into it with your wife and children".

Instead, the improvement grants were made more realistic, and I improved that house. We lived there for the first nine months—a period that would be covered by the Bill—with one electric point, one cold water tap and one bath which was not of much use, while the house was improved and rebuilt. The money provided by the local authority through improvement grant in that case saved it over £20,000, because it did not then go on with its original plan, and the process also gave me a home at least nine months before it would otherwise have been available. The local authority did not need to worry about me any more—indeed, it increased my rates for doing the job for it.

From the point of view of young families who need a home and from the point of view of the perceived needs of those who control their own homes, the Bill approaches the problem from a totally wrong direction, following the line of the Rent Act and looking forward to the day when all owner-occupied homes become controlled by the local council.

It is perhaps unfair that someone like, say, the Foreign Secretary, should have a better home than I, which I believe he does, but it would be wrong for me to try to promote a Bill that would even out that unfairness and give us both a chance to live in that home. He got there first, and good luck to him. If I win the pools I may have a chance to buy it from him. That would be the right way round. It is not the right way round to bring forward a Bill such as this, which would prevent many council tenants in my constituency from owning their own homes.

We should throw out this Bill and recognise that encouraging people to provide homes for themselves is a far better way than working, as the Bill does, towards a totalitarian State. It is now lunch-time, Mr. Speaker, so I conclude my remarks.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot believe it.

1.18 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I would be failing in courtesy if I did not congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) on his effort. I am afraid that my contribution will sound very drab and dreary in comparison. As I know a great deal more about it than he can know, since he is a young and virile man, I am tempted to follow him in what he said about the contrast between the situation before the First World War and now, because he does not know what was the position before 1914. I shall resist the temptation, however, because I want to return to the subject of the Bill.

My constituency forms part of an area in which the housing list is over 14,000, and therefore I am acutely aware of the need to examine and if possible to adopt any measure which could assist the homeless and others in need of housing. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that, although he took a considerable time to say it. If houses are kept empty for a considerable time, particularly in stress areas, the obvious solution appears to be to give the local authority power to take them over.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on seizing the opportunity to endeavour to achieve that object. I congratulate him on the way in which, in rather lawyer-like fashion, he has drafted the Bill apparently to deal with all possible situations. I am sorry that my hon. Friend is not here today because of the illness of his wife. We echo what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) in wishing his wife a speedy recovery. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington on stepping into the breach so ably with a speech that set out many of the arguments in favour of the Bill.

I want to examine the Bill in some detail. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that I do so in full appreciation of his efforts but in an endeavour to see whether it is fair and just and whether it attains its desired object. The points I raise are not merely Committee points but are fundamental to the Bill.

First, a local authority already has power under Part V of the Housing Act 1957 to take over empty houses. It is true that there are often difficulties. The delay in bringing compulsory purchase orders into effect has often been criticised and something should certainly be done to try to speed them up. But there has always rightly been insistence upon the need to protect the owner, occupier or person with an interest in the house, and therefore Inquiries must be held. Another factor in making compulsory purchase orders is the settlement of a fair market rent.

I understand that under the municipalisation programme launched two years ago, more than 13,000 empty houses were brought into local authority ownership in the first year and 4,000 into housing association ownership. Moreover, more than 40 local authorities have introduced a scheme to rake tenancies or leases of privately-owned property and sublet them to homeless families or those in housing need.

There is a great deal to be said for leasing properties rather than buying them outright, and I understand that the Government are examining that possibility. I also understand that discussions are proceeding with local authorities to encourage further acquisition and renovation of empty, under-used and sub-standard houses, particularly in stress areas.

In the light of all that, let us examine the Bill. Will it strengthen the Government's powers to deal with the problem? Of course, if houses are kept empty unnecessarily—I stress "unnecessarily"—urgent steps should be taken to acquire them. But will the Bill help to achieve that? It seeks to do it by the use of requisitioning powers, a war-time expedient which I do not suppose the hon. Members for Woolwich, West will remember, introduced in 1939. It is also true that a not dissimilar measure was introduced in Section 73 of the 1964 Housing Act to protect the safety, welfare and health of people living in grossly multi-occupied houses.

The Bill seeks to give requisitioning powers where a house has been empty for at least six months and is suitable or can be made suitable for use as housing accommodation. The only reservation is that within 21 days notice must be given to the owners or occupier or person whom the local authority knows to have an interest, and that such a person may make representations to the local authority, which may refuse to accept such representations. My first objection is that there is no appeal to the courts. There is the exception, under Clause 8, that after a revocation order has been made the owner may appeal, on certain specific grounds, but once representations have been made to the local authority in the first instance, the authority rules whether it accepts them, and if it accepts them there is no appeal.

It is also true that under Clause 1(6)(c) no order can be made on the owner-occupier of a house or, in the case of multi-occupation, where part of a house is his only or main residence.

I should like to put a number of points which my hon. Friend should study. First, what is meant by unoccupied for…at least 6 months"? Suppose the owner is in hospital or there are difficulties and delays such as often occur in the sale of a house. Suppose the owner puts in a friend or caretaker for a few days during the period of six months. Is it to be deemed unoccupied within the terms of the Bill? If so, I can visualise a considerable amount of litigation, with profit only to lawyers. It may be said that the local authority will consider these points when representations are made by the owner, but there is no appeal from its decision and, if there were, again I visualise considerable litigation.

Under Clause 5 the local authority is given the right to the possession of any furniture in the house, with the power to renounce that right. Leaving furniture in a house with a claim to return at a future date may well found an argument by the owner that he never ceased to occupy the house and that it was never empty within the meaning of the Bill. That is another possible fruitful source of litigation. Although there is no right of appeal, if such a case arose the owner might attempt to go to the courts and suggest that any revocation order made by the local authority was ultra vires.

I turn to Clause 6. The compensation to be paid, with a proviso as to deduction for the cost of repairs and other matters, is the gross rateable value. That must be contrasted with the market rent. Then there is the extraordinary position that where the local authority's right to possession of the house or any furniture is exercisable against more than one person such person can apply to the courts for adjustment of what are called "rights and liabilities". What are those rights and liabilities? Do they include an appeal against the making of the revocation order? if so, the right to appeal is given by the clause where other persons have an interest but not to the single owner.

Again, a requisition order cannot be made in relation to a part of a house in multiple occupation where part of that house is the only or the main residence of the owner. What is meant by "main residence"? Is that matter also be to be left to the courts? The decision of the council on this point would appear to be final and not subject to appeal. Suppose the owner has a flat at Brighton or a country cottage which he occupies during certain months of the year. Where is his main residence?

The truth is that there are a number of dangerous snags into which the Bill will run. There is, for example, the problem of administration. In times when our economy is fully stretched and increased burdens are being put upon already over- burdened local authorities, another burden will be added by this Bill.

Local authority ownership of obviously empty houses, desirable as it is, is bound to be limited by the constraints in public expenditure and staffing. Inquiries would have to be made to ascertain whether a house was really empty and also about the position in respect of ownership. A certain amount of snooping might take place. Under Clause 3, the duty is laid upon the local authority to carry out repairs, and it may furnish and install requisite fittings and conveniences. It is true that this is to be done as soon as is practicable. I am told by my own council that, when council property is empty, repairs take a considerable time and entail a great deal of work.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the ownership of property in itself is not a cardinal sin. Many a person of modest means may have invested in a modest way. Let us suppose that such a person has to sell a house but is awaiting an offer, or is in process of negotiations. It may even be that the actual sale takes more than six months. The Bill will hit against such a person.

Surely the speculator, the person who plays the Monopoly game, who keeps property empty in order to increase his gains, who deprives a needy family of a home, is the person against whom we have to move.

As I said, the problem is not easy of solution. I welcome my hon. Friend's efforts, but in my view it is a problem which requires extremely careful research by the Government, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, holding a balance, enacting what is fair and just in the interests of the homeless and those needing housing, and not disregarding the interests of the owners of houses. This must be done urgently before a measure of this kind can be translated into effective law.

1.33 p.m.

Mr. Cecil Parkinson (Hertfordshire, South)

I apologise to the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) for missing part of his speech. However, I have heard him speak on this subject before when he and I served on the Committee which considered the 1974 Housing Bill, where I first heard the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) introduce the idea contained in this Bill by way of an amendment to the Housing Bill which was then under discussion.

I wish to say immediately how much I enjoyed and appreciated the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). I can remember sitting in Committee upstairs with his late lamented predecessor, a very much admired man, and listening to him commenting on the various clauses in the Finance Bill. He always related the Finance Bill to the people in his constituency. As my hon. Friend toured his well-known constituency and as I listened to his remarks about Eltham, and so on, he brought back memories of former days. The figure of Plumstead Man became a sort of touchstone in the Committee. No matter what the subject under discussion, the then Member for Woolwich, West was asked what he thought Plumstead Man would say about it, and he would tell us.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Plumstead Man is divided between me and the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright). We share him. Eltham Man and half the Plumstead man are mine.

Mr. Parkinson

I am a little sad that Plumstead Man has not appeared today, though the representatives of various other parts of my hon. Friend's constituency made appearances at different stages of his speech.

When the hon. Member for Salford, East introduced his new clause and his subsequent Bill, I opposed both. I spoke quite strongly in Committee against his new clause. I want today to tell the House just why I feel that I was right in my opposition then and why I have not changed my view.

The Bill has been changed fairly considerably even since the 1975 Bill and certainly since the new clause. It is much modified and rather more moderate. But it is still dealing with an effect and totally ignoring the causes of the problem. It is true that there are too many empty houses and that, at a time when there is a great deal of homelessness and when we all know that there are very long local authority waiting lists, it is extremely trying to hear of empty homes. But I wish to give three examples of empty homes in my own constituency and to explain to the House the background leading to those homes being empty.

I begin by talking about the home of an employee of an international company who has been sent overseas for two years by his company. He has a nice home in Potters Bar, which is a very pleasant town in my constituency, and he felt that he would like to let it. He felt that it would be quite wrong to leave it empty for two years. He hoped that the income from the letting would ensure that the house would be maintained and looked after properly in his absence. Through local agents, he obtained a tenant. The tenant paid one month's rent and has never paid any more.

My constituent, who is a long way from home working overseas to boost Britain's exports, then heard from his agents that the tenant was wrecking the house and not paying the rent. We all agree that it must be very disturbing to be 2,000 or 3,000 miles away from home, feeling quite helpless, and to receive a letter from a house agent saying "Your beloved home is being badly neglected by people who are not paying the rent. We are sorry to tell you that you have hopeless tenants."

My constituent cabled back to the agent saying "Please get possession of the property". The agent went to court. The court gave the tenant one month's notice to quit. It made an order instructing the tenant to leave the property a month later. Why a month later, I do not understand. That month was spent by the tenant in completely wrecking the home. It is now in an appalling mess, and hundreds of pounds will have to be spent to put it right.

The tenant is a man of straw. There is no point in pursuing him for the arrears of rent or for the cost of restoring the property. But the law is so biased in favour of this tenant, about whom it would be impossible to say anything good, that my constituent now faces a very difficult choice. He intends to restore his home, at great expense. But what is he to do with it? Should he let it again? There is no doubt that he is right in asking me to bring to the notice of the Government this ridiculous state of affairs.

Why does a totally worthless tenant have to receive a month's grace during the course of which he can cause total chaos? Why are the courts so lenient in cases of that kind? I can well understand the need for leniency in many other cases, and I do not argue that every landlord going to court should be able to get possession at a month's notice. We can all think of many reasons why that would be absurd. But the court could use its discretion, and I should have thought that the idea that the person who needed protection was always the tenant and never the landlord was absurd.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Lambeth, Central)

Which court dealt with the case?

Mr. Parkinson

I prefer not to say. It was a North London court.

The net result is that my constituent will not let his home again. My constituent has had enough of that. He says that, with the law biased in favour of the tenant, as it is, the only thing that he can do is to keep his house empty. He says that it is a waste, but at least he knows that it will not be damaged or destroyed. Therefore, there will be an unnecessarily empty home in my constituency. That is because, thanks to an extent to what has been a bipartisan approach, the law is tilted in certain cases too far in favour of the tenant.

Many people—I have given one example—are deciding to keep their homes empty rather than to let them because, although they will be available for perhaps two years, they feel that the risks of letting them are too great and that the protection for the genuine bona fide landlord is too inadequate.

I shall next give an illustration of another type of case in my constituency where the landlord will never again let his house. An elderly couple, who had always wished to live in the country on retirement, bought a little cottage in a village near St. Albans, where they live. They planned to retire to that cottage when the husband reached retirement age. In the interval they let the cottage to three young men.

As the date for retirement came closer, they approached the three young bachelors—all earning very good incomes—and said "We would like possession of our house three months from now. We hope that you have enjoyed living there, but will you make arrangements to move?"

The three bachelors went to a local solicitor who advised them that there was no need for them to move. He asked what rent they were paying. It was a fairly low rent. The solicitor said "I think that you could apply to the rent tribunal and get it reduced." They went to the tribunal and the rent, which was already small, was reduced. My constituents cannot get possession of their property because those three young men, who are in a far better financial position to provide for themselves than they are, like living in that cottage at a low rent. They have no social conscience. They have said "We like it here. The fact that you saved and bought this little cottage to which you could retire later is of no concern to us."

My constituents have come to the conclusion that they should never have let that property. I have no doubt that, if they could live their lives over again or go back a year or two, they would say to themselves "We have learned our lesson. It is a shame that the house is empty and not being used when many people need homes, but look what happens when people do let houses." Therefore, their view is "For goodness sake, do not be a mug. Keep your property empty."

I will give the House a brief example of a third type of problem. A husband and wife in my consituency, who are tenants of a council house, have inherited a house in an area which is under a threat of blight. They would like to sell that house, but they cannot, because the local authority cannot make up its mind what to do with that area. My constituents feel that they would like to let the house, but they dare not, because, if they do and the local authority clears away the blight, they will not be able to get possession in order to sell it. Therefore, they have come to the conclusion that the answer is to keep that house empty. They do not want to keep it empty. They would like to sell it. However, they know that if they let it they will not be able to get possession to sell it.

I have given three examples where, for good and sensible reasons, people are unwilling to let properties, wish that they had not let properties and, in one case, were the property to be free, would never let it again.

We ought not to say that the answer to the housing problem is to requisition empty properties. Instead, we should ask ourselves whether the various Rent Acts, and so on, have promoted the problem which we are in the process of discussing in, other legislation which it is suggested will solve the problem. I suggest that the problem could be solved better by the repeal of certain parts of the different pieces of legislation than by the imposition of yet another unnecessary law.

The House must understand that it has pursued its vendetta against the landlord too far. I have no sympathy with the unscrupulous landlord. But many genuine people, who have no ambition to become unscrupulous landlords, are being put off letting properties which they could let. People do not read the fine print in our legislation. The buzz gets about "Do not let your property because, if you do, when you need it you will not be able to get it back."

That is how many people—not big landlords—now regard tenants. In many ways, we have made a menace out of tenants. Those who need homes and are prepared to pay rent are now regarded by many who have properties available to let as people to be careful about. That is an unwelcome by-product of some of our activities in this House. We have gone too far in our vendetta against the genuine bona fide landlord.

When the hon. Member for Salford, East first introduced his new clause in the Housing Bill—that new clause contained the spirit of this Bill—he made a great speech about speculators. The hon. Gentleman described how people were making a lot of money by keeping properties empty and suggested that the heart of the problem was base greed and exploitation. In those days, the hon. Gentleman's speeches were larded with comments about Centre Point and Harry Hyams and other people who made fortunes by keeping properties empty.

There was a period when there was that element about. But many people who thought that they were being clever by keeping properties empty, because they were bound to go up in value, have had their fingers badly burned. For example, Mr. William Stern is likely to be bankrupted for £105 million. People have learned their lesson. They deserve to learn it. I have no sympathy with them. They thought that they could borrow expensive money and use it to buy properties but not to let them in order to produce an income. They bought properties because they were sure that the rents would go up and that the capital value of the properties would increase and that therefore, by keeping them empty for seven years, they would be bound to make a killing. But they have found that they are not making the killing any more. Financially, they are the dead.

Whenever the hon. Member for Salford, East made his speeches, I used to get up and ask how people could make money out of borrowing from the bank at 14 per cent. or 15 per cent., which was the going rate, to buy properties which produced no income at a time when property values were falling, as they have been for the last two or three years. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman's thinking was totally out of date, because he was talking about yesterday's problems.

When the hon. Gentleman introduced his new clause, we pointed out that the only way to make money by keeping property empty was if the capital value went up faster than the rate of interest. If the value of the property was falling and the rate of interest was high, any person who indulged in that exercise would be on a course that would guarantee eventual bankruptcy. We pointed out that the hon. Gentleman's basic reasoning was wrong. As an accountant, the hon. Gentleman ought to have understood that he was talking economic nonsense. I am sorry to speak in his absence, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) is more than capable of defending his hon. Friend. I know that his hon. Friend has heard me say these things to his face, and there is nothing new in my arguments against this Bill as far as the hon. Member for Salford, East is concerned.

However, the hon. Member for Salford, East is a great believer in the conspiracy theory—that is, that there are empty properties; landlords are an evil group of men; therefore, those landlords are on the make and many people are becoming very rich. Once again, it is alleged that a tiny unnamed group is making a fortune by exploiting public need and exploiting a situation that far from exploiting they ought to be helping to overcome. There is always a little group of conspirators somewhere in the process of making a huge and usually, allegedly, tax-free gain at the expense of the unsuspecting public.

That argument has been exploded. When we discussed it in 1974, it was still possible to argue that there might be some people who were making money. If one were determined to be misguided, one could close one's eyes to the facts and argue that a lot of money was being made out of empty properties. However, the truth is that with the collapse of the property market and very high interest rates, we have seen the inevitable happen. Property man after property man has gone bust. No one who has any sense is now investing in properties to keep them empty for the purpose of making gain. Therefore, we must stop pretending that there is this great conspiracy of property owners who are taking the public for a ride. We must address ourselves to the reasons why people who own properties are reluctant to let them.

I have tried to suggest one of the reasons. We all accept that there are perfectly genuine reasons why, at any given moment, there is bound to be empty property in Britain. I must declare an interest in this respect. I was the unlucky possessor of two homes for eight months. It was a very expensive lesson. I thought that I had sold my house and I signed a contract to buy a new house. The would-be purchaser of my house stepped out. For eight months my original house was empty. However, I was in good company. I thought that I had been rather foolish, but the Minister for Housing and Construction—no less—had to point out that he could not support a proposition similar to that before us today because some elderly relatives of his who had always planned to retire to the seaside, and had signed up so to do, had also been let down by the purchasers of their house and that his relatives' own house had been empty for several months. The Minister knew from his personal experience that many people who owned empty houses only wished that they did not own them. He had to say —it was a little embarrassing for the Minister, with his mania about increasing local authority housing—that the principal culprits in the ownership of empty houses were local authorities.

I come to my next major point. It has been mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. Local authorities are under tremendous pressures to handle properly their present housing stock. Very few of them would be geared to carrying out what would be their duties under this Bill, taking on odd properties scattered all over the place, which might be in need of repair, and managing and letting them. Many local authorities do not have the facilities to do that. Their departments are already overstretched.

In my view, most local authorities set a standard of inefficiency in property management which, far from being something that ought to encourage us towards putting more properties in their hands, is a very good argument for taking away from them the management of many of the properties that they are at present trying to manage.

If the Bill were to be passed, the principal offenders, local authorities, the largest group of landlords that own empty houses, would go scot free. There would be no pressure on them to let their empty houses. What would happen is that we would say to them "We know that you have proved successfully by your efforts that you are not capable of handling your own housing stock and are keeping a great number of houses empty, but there are some constituents in your area who are nearly as bad at managing their houses as you are, and therefore, we shall put you in charge of other people's homes".

That would seem most unfair to many people in my constituency in Boreham Wood, where we have a high proportion of municipally-owned empty houses and a low proportion of owner-occupied properties. Never a week goes by without me getting a letter from somebody saying something like "I have been trying to get a transfer for X months. A house in my road has been empty for Y months. I would love to move into it. No one has lived in it from the beginning of the year". Week after week, I get letters from council tenants saying "There are empty houses in my road. My daughter has been on the council waiting list for five years and cannot get a house. It is very aggravating to wallk past that house day after day when my house is full to bursting and when we know that there are local authority houses that are empty and a huge number of people on the waiting list".

However, the very people who keep far too high a proportion of their own housing stock empty and are not good managers of property would, under the Bill, be in a position to act almost as judge and jury and to take over properties belonging to other people who are handling those properties no worse than the local authority is handling its own.

It would not be right to set up local authority poachers as gamekeepers when they still carry on with their poaching. If local authorities had proved that they were good at managing property, if they had proved that they could keep their proportion of empty houses down, there might be an argument. I would suggest that all the evidence is to the contrary. Local authorities have proved absolutely nothing of the kind. It would be quite wrong to make them the enforcers of rules against others when they are not capable of observing the rules themselves.

I do not think that local authorities—I speak from experience in my constituency—very often set standards which anyone could admire in their management of properties and in the treatment of their own tenants. Let me give an illustration. In my constituency, we have in Boreham Wood several very large London overspill housing estates. We have nearly 6,000 Greater London Council properties. My constituency is not in the Greater London area. The GLC is an absentee landlord in Boreham Wood. Those 6,000 properties there form a very substantial proportion of all the properties available in the town. Those properties have been built by the GLC and are occupied by GLC tenants. The GLC brought families out to Boreham Wood 20 years ago. Many of the people who qualified for a house there did so because they had a family, and very often quite a large one. Several of them came into their new home and, on the old principle of "new home, new baby" enlarged their families after their arrival in the town.

Now, 20 years later, those children are growing up and looking for homes of their own. Many are married and have children of their own. One would expect the GLC to say "We took the families there and we must therefore accept some responsibility for the housing of the children" but it does no such thing. It says to what is now Hertsmere District Council, the chairman of which is the Minister's brother, who is a distinguished and admired member throughout the area, that the children are the responsibility of the local council.

The GLC says "If we were a private landlord we should not accept any responsibility for these children, so why should we, as a public authority, accept responsibility for them?" It tells people to talk to the local council because it says, housing is the responsibility of the local housing authority and it is that authority's duty to fix people up with a home. However, as a magnanimous gesture to the local authority the GLC says: "We are prepared to make 30 houses a year available, if we have them, to help with the problem which has been foisted on you".

My local authority has a very big problem. We are in the middle of a green belt, just north of London. We have an absentee landlord, the GLC, which owns a large proportion of our housing stock. There is a limited supply of land for building more houses. The GLC, which owns most of that land, is in the process of putting up nearly 700 more houses, virtually none of which will be available to residents in the town. The GLC says "We are very sorry. We know that you have problems. We know that most of the problems arise from the fact that we have developed large estates in your area, but that is too bad. We have problems of our own, and you can sort out your troubles. Why not advise some of your young people to live in Milton Keynes or Northampton or leave the district?".

We do not regard Boreham Wood as a clearing house. We want to create a community there. We want young people to be born there, to live there, and to marry there and to create a balanced community. We do not want a town in which everybody is growing old together. But the GLC says that that is not its problem and that the town we have is a matter for us. It further says that it owns land in the area and will build more houses and bring more people there, that they in turn will no doubt have children, and that in due course we shall have to solve the problem of housing them.

I suggest that no private landlord owning nearly 60 per cent. of a town would have taken that attitude to the children of his tenants. I am sure that a private landlord in his special category of owning a whole area would have accepted that he had a responsibility to the community at large.

I quote that as an example of how a local authority, in this case the GLC, can behave in a way that would be regarded as totally reprehensible if it were adopted by a private landlord, but because it is being done by a local authority whose motives are deemed to be pure and above reproach, it is apparently above criticism.

Local authorities can treat their tenants in a most high-handed way. We know that local authority tenants have no security of tenure. Local authorities are not subject to the restrictions imposed upon other landlords. Tenants who have problems of maintenance, and so on, have great difficulty in getting local authorities to act, because they are not, good responsive landlords.

In my area we have a particularly difficult problem because we have the major landlord but we have no representation on that council. At least if one has a local councillor representing one's area he can go to the council and kick up a fuss about the fact that that council is not behaving properly or is acting inefficiently. The GLC is far more interested in those areas which have GLC members who speak for them than it is in areas such as mine which are out of the mainstream of its responsibilities and which have no representation of any kind on the council.

I suggest that the Bill is faulty in looking to local authorities as the body which should deal with empty properties. The old saying that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones is extremely relevant here. Local authorities are in very much of a glass house when it comes to the ownership of property and managing to keep so many of their properties empty. They have no credentials which suggest that they could show the sensibility, the skill and the adaptability that they would need to operate this piece of legislation in the way in which the hon. Gentleman says it should be operated.

I have said nothing about the cavalier approach of the Bill to ownership. The idea, apparently, is that the landlord should get a rent equal to the gross rateable value of the property regardless of the price at which the local authority lets the property. Apparently, the local authority will decide how it will spend money on the property and then send the bill to the landlord. We know that local authorities are not the most efficient repairers and maintainers of property. The landlord will have no say about the work done in his property, or about the quality of the work. He will have no right to inspect or to say whether he approves of what has been done. He will merely get a bill from the local authority saying that certain things needed to be done and "by the way, we have a person in our housing department who is fond of duck egg blue walls and we have arranged to have all the walls in your house painted duck egg blue. We hope you like the colour, but if you do not, too bad".

Mr. Weitzman

The hon. Gentleman is not accurate in saying that the Bill will not give the owner any facilities to see what is done. Clause 9 gives the owner the right to look at accounts and to have facilities for inspecting and examining the house.

Mr. Parkinson

The hon. and learned Gentleman has a fine reputation for reading the fine print of Bills, but I suggest that he has only partially contradicted me. As I read Clause 9, the tenant would have the right to go along and inspect the duck egg blue walls once they had been painted and to make sure that they had been painted and that the Bill he received was deserved, but I see nothing which suggests that there would need to be consultation about what had to be done, or anything which suggests that the owner would have the right to agree with the local authority the schedule of work which the local authority decides it will do.

We know how easy it is to spend other people's money. Let us imagine that someone is working in the local authority housing department and he receives a message from Whitehall—as all local authorities do—saying that he must restrict local authority spending. Let us assume that that person is an enthusiastic maintainer of properties. He knows that there is no money in the kitty for maintaining his stock of properties, but then, all of a sudden, he finds a house that he can requisition. He will go along and indulge himself and say "I shall make a palace out of this house. I shall do to this house all the things that I cannot do to the council's own houses." What is more, as the hon. Member for Paddington said, "it will not cost the taxpayer a penny because I shall be able to send the bill to the landlord. He will have no choice about paying, because if he does not the cost will become a charge on the property".

I suggest that that is a gross interference with the rights of ownership. It is scandalous that a local authority should be empowered by half-baked legislation such as this to go into a property just because it is empty. I know there are safeguards to put the property into the condition it thinks it ought to be in, at a cost it thinks ought to be spent. The owner is not to be invited to see competitive tenders or anything of the kind. He will just be the mug who gets the bill for work which is done but over which he has no say.

This does not seem to be particularly fair. It seems to be an idea which has cone out of the stable which produced the notion that all landlords are bad and that all local authorities know best. I do not think the hon. Member for Paddington, in making his case for the Bill, gave any attention to the rights of owners, It is not immoral for people to have saved and bought a property and to own it. We believe that, provided one is not using the property one owns in a way which injures other people, or using it in an offensive way, one should be entitled to use it as one wishes.

There are certainly properties which are not looked after but the truth is that the credentials of the people who would be doing the looking after in future are very bad indeed. They have no great tradition of good management and no great record of being owners who would get a good bargain when it comes to the maintenance of property. They have no great record as people who get things done promptly. No doubt many local authorities seeing this piece of legislation on the statute book would think very careful indeed about using it. I still think it would be quite wrong to give such powers to local authorities.

The hon. Member for Salford, East and the hon. Member for Paddington have been exercising their right as members of this House to promote a piece of legislation to deal with a problem which they have identified. They have now had several opportunities of introducing this legislation and of arguing its case. I do not think the arguments became better as they were repeated. The case for the Bill becomes worse and worse every time the measure is produced.

I accept that there is a problem of empty properties and that there are too many properties which are empty. I would suggest that we in this House have contributed to quite a degree to that problem by our discrimination against landlords and by making the letting of property an almost foolish thing to do. I do not think the answer to this situation, which we in this House have helped to cause, is yet another piece of legislation giving powers to local authorities to requisition properties.

I believe that the Bill will do nothing to improve the future expectations of the homeless. I believe that it will create more problems than it will solve, and I earnestly hope that the House will decide that it does not deserve a Second Reading, as the House decided on two previous occasions that similar pieces of legislation did not deserve Second Readings.

2.4 p.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) finished his lengthy speech—it was a valuable one—by recognising that in many parts of the country there was a problem in respect of empty property. What I want to do is pinpoint a particular area in inner London in which we have a considerable amount of empty property, most of it privately owned. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), with his usual legal clarity, made a number of Committee points in order to try to confuse the issue, but the issue in London today is the issue of empty property.

Mr. Weitzman

If my hon. Friend will forgive me—

Mr. Perry

I shall always forgive my hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Weitzman

My hon. Friend contradicts himself by referring to my usual clarity and then saying that I confuse the issue. I made it perfectly clear that I was anxious that something should be done about empty properties. I was merely pointing out that the Bill and its clauses do not effectively deal with the problem and may well mean a great deal of work for lawyers, rather than clearing up the issue.

Mr. Perry

I accept what my hon. and learned Friend says. But what I said still stands. I said that with his usual clarity he managed to confuse the issue. That is usually the purpose of lawyers, so that they can enter into some sort of job and earn very hefty fees out of it. That is the whole purpose of lawyers' clarity and confusion. I was not attacking my hon. and learned Friend; I was merely pointing out how astute he is in doing this sort of thing.

I would congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Arthur Latham) for putting the Bill through today. We have had a lot of investigation in Wandsworth in regard to empty properties. An institution with which I am acquainted in my constituency—the Balham Law Centre—conducted an inquiry into the number of empty properties in and around my constituency. It examined roads and streets, and visited houses, and discovered that there are hundreds of empty properties in my constituency. Even in my own road—Old Park Avenue—there are houses that have been empty for many years.

I want to deal with the problem of the owner-occupier who is buying his house and who lives next door to one of those houses which have been empty for years. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South made hardly any mention of the problem of owner-occupiers who, after spending a lot of money on their houses, have saddled in between them a house that has been empty for years.

Mr. Parkinson

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that what I said is that very few people in that position would welcome the idea that the right way to deal with the problem is to let the local authority loose on it, not because they might be scared of the people who would come there but because they realise that local authorities do not have a marvellous record as landlords or as people who look after property?

Mr. Perry

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the facts show that that is not quite the case. Only this week, an owner-occupier in my constituency approached me about the empty house next door. It is a big, 12-roomed house, which has been empty for a number of years. It has become the dumping ground for all the rubbish in the neighbourhood and this owner-occupier is up in arms because the council will not take it over.

That is the situation in inner London. Unless we do something about this sort of empty property it will fall into disrepair and become an eyesore and the dumping ground for all the rubbish that people can find, while the people living next door, who happen to be owner-occupiers and want to put their house up for sale and move elsewhere, cannot find buyers because of this empty property. Property owners in a situation like this are only too glad when the council requisitions it, decorates it and puts families in it who will make the house look habitable.

Let me give another example of an empty property in my own constituency. I refer to the house at No. 6 Wroughton Road. The lady who lives next door, a member of the Conservative Party, has been to see me on a number of occasions about that house.

It has been empty for a number of years, because the owner is in a mental institution, and it is under the control of the Court of Protection. Practically all the back windows have been destroyed. Today it is the home not of human beings but of hundreds of pigeons, which are in and out of the house day and night. The owner-occupier next door, who is an old-age pensioner, is troubled by this. She has written to the local council and has been to see me. Day and night she is troubled by the screeching of pigeons.

The local authority has been asked to do something, but because the house is under a protection order under the Lunacy Commission, it cannot be interfered with. The Court of Protection should take its finger out and do something to protect property when the owners cannot do it themselves. The court should see that these properties are properly maintained and, if possible, let or sold. The people on either side who suffer this nuisance are both owner-occupiers. They would not be able to sell their own houses because of the condition of the empty property. If the council could take over the house and let it, the road would be greatly improved.

Wandsworth Borough Council will seek permission, next Tuesday, to purchase a block of flats called Harwood Court, in Upper Richmond Road. It has been the subject of discussion for some time and at last the council is to buy 128 flats for about £700,000, or £5,000 a flat. The property company selling the flats has kept 37 of them vacant for a number of years, so the council will get 37 empty flats and the rest occupied, some furnished and some unfurnished.

The local authority protested to the company about the flats after the tenants of this nice property had asked it to do so. A survey showed that the majority of the tenants wanted to come under the council's control. This company has deliberately kept 37 flats empty for a long period, perhaps to enhance their value. The hon. Member for Hertford-shire, South said that many property companies had burned their fingers. The company to which I am referring has flats lying empty and cannot sell the block because the market has gone down. It is forced to sell to the council.

This problem is intense in London. Property is empty for long periods, deteriorating and annoying the neighbours. I am concerned about the neighbours who cannot sell their own homes. The amount of empty property is increasing. I do not say that all inner London authorities do the job as quickly as they should. Some leave properties empty for six or 12 months and do not do repairs urgently. It is essential that someone, particularly the council, should have power to requisition these dwellings and get them occupied.

2.25 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

I had not intended to participate in this debate and I apologise for not having heard all the speeches. I regret that the author of the Bill, the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), is away for reasons of his wife's health and I hope that she will soon be better. But having taken account of who has spoken on the Government's side, I can well imagine that the same dreary old arguments have been gone through yet again—with the exception of the speech of the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry), who always takes a realistic and sensible view of London's housing problems.

However, the House would do no service to the provision of new accommodation in London if it gave the Bill a Second Reading. The Bill has been before the House in various forms before. When the hon. Member for Salford, East sought leave to introduce it on a previous occasion, my opposition was unsuccessful, but the Bill got no further. This time the Bill has been introduced and has had its First Reading, but I doubt whether it will still be with us at the end of the afternoon.

The hon. Member for Battersea, South described in graphic detail an empty house in his constituency which was inhabited by numbers of pigeons—perhaps the pigeons which are no longer to be carried by British Rail. It is disturbing that that property is under the control of a public authority. I would not wish to encourage it to be kept empty. Unfortunately, most of the trouble in London with empty properties occurs when they are already in municipal ownership.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have read only this week that, when the GLC finally managed to get some squatters out of property it owned in North London, it found sheer mucky vandalism running into figures of well over £100,000. I should have had a little more sympathy with the Bill if it had, for example, said that empty properties owned by a local authority which had been empty for more than a certain period should be sold forthwith to a private individual. But this is a one-sided Bill and deserves to go no further.

The saddest people in England and Wales today are Londoners who, but for this Government having forced through a postponement of London elections, would today be enjoying a Conservative-controlled GLC, as the results throughout the country have shown. London has to suffer for another 12 months. We need a fresh and unprejudiced look at the supply of houses in London, and the Bill does not supply it. London's housing stock is in a difficult position. The quantity of rented unfurnished accommodation has been going down in numbers sometimes perceptibly and at other times imperceptibly, for a long time. Large numbers of people wish neither to own their own homes nor to be council serfs, but to have the opportunity to rent private furnished or unfurnished accommodation.

Measures taken and threats made by the Labour Party are a major factor in drying up the number of properties available for renting. Lip service is paid to housing associations in many areas controlled by the Labour Party. I should have thought that it would be useful if the Minister considered those authorities which have a vast stock of housing. I make no party point on this. Many local authorities under the control of either party seem unable to manage their housing stock as efficiently as they should. Will the Minister exert what pressure he can upon local authorities to get the accommodation already in their ownership more quickly into occupation?

Some local authorities have given short-life leases to various licensed organisations. That is good. There are, however, many local authorities which cannot be bothered to do that, have not thought of it or want a jolly good kick into being persuaded to do it. This is a non-political point, and I hope that the Minister will urge local authorities to get the property they own into use as quickly as possible.

The trouble is that local authorities are not co-operating with the Minister. His Department has a form called P11 on which local authorities have to make a quarterly return of the properties they have municipalised. On the last occasion when I asked the Minister what percentage of local authorities had returned the form within the requisite period, I was told that 46 per cent. had done so. It appears that fewer than half are efficient enough even to return the form. I feel sure that the make-up of the 54 per cent. which have not returned the form would be split right across the parties.

If local authorities go on becoming bigger and bigger landlords, they must be forced into being more efficient and better landlords. Irrespective of the political colour of the local authority, we know from the complaints we receive from our constituents who are council tenants that the council takes no notice of complaints made to the rent collector. Tenants write to the housing office to ask for work to be done but nothing happens. They go to see the council and nothing happens. In desperation they come to their Member of Parliament and then, and only then, action is perhaps taken.

Here I depart from the non-controversial part of my speech. All that the Bill will do is to burden the ratepayers with more property which the local authority will be clearly unable to manage. No case has been made out for the Bill. I shall read with interest the speech made by the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham), but I doubt whether he is able to be more eloquent or to bring any more new ideas than the hon. Member for Salford, East who has devoted himself to this subject, and nothing that he ever said convinced me of the need for the Bill.

Having said that I think that there is no useful purpose for the Bill, I want to examine in a little more detail what is likely to happen. Properties can be empty for a large number of reasons. There may be a death, or the owner may decide that he wishes to convert the property. He will make an application to do so to the local authority. The local authority that covers Camden has a deliberate policy that I can only call blackmail. If a private owner puts in plans to convert a property, that property is immediately considered by an aquisitions panel. That is running near to dishonesty. If a person applies for planning permission, it is no business of another section of the council to consider taking over that property. In some cases the council decided to acquire the property against the wishes of the owner who had merely asked for permission to convert it to provide more accommodation. That is one reason why a property might be empty. I know that there are safeguards and exclusions in the Bill, but I do not wish the concept of municipal ownership to be further widened.

Having been saddened at the bad luck of Londoners at not having had the chance yesterday to sling out the Labour Greater London Council, I rejoice to know that there will be a massive increase in the number of homes sold to council tenants who will no longer be council serfs in cities such as Birmingham, and there will be a reduction in the total stock of municipally owned homes. About time, too. That gives me real pleasure.

Why should the Bill be given a Second Reading? Various reasons are given in the Explanatory Memorandum, which refers to "absentee landlords" and to houses which have been standing empty without good reason. There is no magic in the term "absentee landlord". There is not much to choose betwen an absentee landlord and the bureaucracy of the town hall, which is usually absentee because it is impossible to get through to the chap who understands the problem. It is a pity that the emotive term "absentee landlords" is included.

The Explanatory Memorandum talks of the— service of a notice of intent after the fifth month, the carrying out of repairs, and the installation of furnishings…compensation". Then, as if it is an afterthought, there is a reference to a revocation procedure.

Clause 9(2) generously states: While a requisition order is in force the local authority shall afford to an owner and any other person having an interest in the house, any reasonable facilities requested by him for inspecting and examining the house. The owner has to get permission to inspect his own house from the bureaucracy that has taken it over.

This is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of legislation. It is not to extend to Northern Ireland. Apparently it is to extend to Scotland. I would have thought that the Scots had much more sense than to want to be saddled with this nonsense. Unfortunately, the Welsh will have to have it, but there may be a song in certain hearts in Cardiff today not connected with Arms Park. The House has been unlucky in having to spend several hours on this mucky piece of legislation, and I hope that it will proceed no further.

7 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

As the Member for a Scottish constituency, I hesitate to intervene in the debate, but I note that one of the sponsors of the Bill is my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). The Short Title says that the Bill shall not extend to Northern Ireland, so presumably it will extend to Scotland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) appreciates that Scotland has separate and distinctive housing legislation, to which no reference is made in the text of the Bill. I do not condemn it on that account; I wish to argue about it on other grounds.

I object to the unjust, unfair and exaggerated criticism of local authorities as housing agents made by the hon. Members for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) and Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) and other Opposition Members. No housing authorities in the world have a better record than have those in Britain. They have problems of finance, of staffing, and so on, but these are not peculiar to Britain. All over the world there are problems of a similar nature. I have been to Communist countries. Some of the worst slums in the world are in Moscow and other big cities in the Communist world.

I stress, therefore, that the problem of conurbations generally is of worldwide application and is not peculiar to Britain. In the United States—the wealthiest country in the world—the most squalid slums go cheek by jowl with areas of great affluence.

I dismiss as cheap argy-bargy all the political controversy over housing that takes place in the House. I do not believe that we shall ever be able to take housing out of the arena of political controversy, because there is a fundamental difference of approach to housing between Labour Members and Conservative Members, which I do not think we shall bridge.

Many years ago an old Labour Member, Willie Reid—the Member for Camlachie, as it then was, in one of the seedier parts of Glasgow—used to attack the landlords there, quite justly. The landlords offered to sell Willie their houses at 1d. each. Willie Reid replied—typically—"They are not bloody well worth it". That was the state that we had reached with private landlordism in Scotland.

Nobody should even pretend that Britain's housing problem, and probably that of other countries, can be solved by private landlordism any longer, even if it ever could have been.

I understand and sympathise with the reasons for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun). My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington referred to those reasons. However, I must say that I am a little offended by the apparent simplistic solutions of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East to every conceivable problem we face, whether it be in housing or defence, or any other sphere.

In his attitude to defence my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East tries to kid the people that ships, aeroplanes and guns can be turned immediately into houses, hospitals and schools—that one tap can be turned off and another automatically turned on. This simplistic approach is an insult to the intelligence of the British people.

The same applies to the Bill—indeed, to many Bills. We as legislators assume almost automatically that if we pass a Bill it immediately solves the problem in question. In fact, it often highlights and accentuates the problem; peoples' expectations rise and, when they are brought crashing down to earth, they ask "What the blazes are those people at Westminster doing by passing an Act like this without first ensuring that the resources were available to translate the legislation into practical possibilities?"

One good example of that was another Private Member's measure—the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It covered the whole spectrum of the problems of the disabled and gave local authorities permission to do all kinds of things—for instance, to install telephones in the homes of the disabled. Every conceivable facility was to be provided by local authorities, but no mention was made of where the money was to come from. It is legislation such as this that brings Parliament into disrepute.

Just as we in the Labour Party can and do associate the Tory Party with landowners, with property speculators, and with instinctive enmity towards the trade unions, so the Tory Party caricatures the Labour Party as the pliant tool of the trade unions, and as a party of collectivists who believe in nationalisation and other forms of public ownership as the solution to every problem.

Not even a majority of Labour Members believe that, but the Bill is part of the mythology. It is simply trying to kid the homeless that if only local authorities were given powers compulsorily to acquire the empty properties of private owners it would not be long before the problem of homelessness was solved.

Many years ago the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) made what he thought was a profound speech. He always seeks to create the impression that his speeches are profound. In fact, some of them are very superficial. The right hon. Gentleman has been very inconsistent. The best example of this is shown in his attitude to immigration. He built up the National Health Service on coloured labour when he was Minister of Health. He filled the London hospitals, in particular, with coloured workers. Every hospital in London would close if it were not for coloured workers—and the right hon. Gentleman was the man who actively encouraged that when he was Minister of Health.

I remember well the right hon. Gentleman making a weighty pronouncement. He looked at the figures of the homeless and the numbers of houses and said "There is no housing problem, because arithmetically we have more houses than we have people who want them". The right hon. Gentleman's mathematics were absolutely perfect. What was wrong was his sociology. The houses and the people happened to be in different places, and neither was exactly mobile. The houses could not be taken to the people and the people could not be taken to the houses.

That is the present problem. We have more houses than we have people for them. The trouble is that they are not in the right places. It is a truism that at any time a proportion of empty houses, whether they be privately owned or publicly owned, is not only inevitable but is even desirable.

In my constituency in Glenrothes—this applies in other new towns—the development corporation, as part of its policy, deliberately keeps a number of houses empty. The reason is simple. My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, to whom I apologise for not being present to hear the whole of his speech in moving the Second Reading, will no doubt say that development corporations are not covered by the Bill. I understand that point.

Houses are deliberately kept empty by development corporations so that, in the event of an industrialist wanting to come in to a new town, the corporation can say We can give you X number of houses immediately for key workers or middle management."

However, I agree with my hon. Friends that many houses are empty for less defensible reasons, especially in big towns and cities. Specific examples have been given, especially relating to areas of London. I live in part of South-East London. There are houses there which were built speculatively. In that area one-bedroom flats have been empty for many months. No wonder. They are there for sale from £12,000 plus—onebedroom flats. Not half a mile from there, near the Crystal Palace television mast, a block of flats was built speculatively, and the private owner simply could not sell them, so the local authority bought them and let them to its own tenants. How the tenants were selected for that block of luxury flats I do not know, but there can be no doubt that in cases like that the local authorities can, should and, in fact, do have the power already to requisition properties of that kind.

If I recall aright, municipalisation was undertaken two or three years ago, and I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to tell us what are the up-to-date figures for acquisition under that legislation. I think I am right in saying that thousands of houses were taken into ownership by housing associations. Again, I should like my hon. Friend to tell us exactly what are the present figures of compulsory acquisition by local authorities and housing associations. I understand that most of these houses are in areas of greatest housing need, mostly in inner city areas.

I know that my hon. Friend is not responsible for Scottish housing, and I wish the Minister responsible for the Scottish Office housing department had been here, because I should like to know what the Scottish figures are. Perhaps my hon. Friend can contact the Scottish Office and obtain the figures for Scotland.

As I say, so far as I am led to understand, local authorities already have the power to acquire empty houses in housing action areas and general improvement areas, and also where houses have been empty for two months. The period provided in the Bill is six months, but the existing legislation, I gather, is much more stringent than that. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can carry his answer a little further and say—if the figures are, as I suspect, not as great as one might have thought they would be in the course of two years, or whatever the period is—what are the reasons for the relatively poor results.

I suspect that there is a simple reason, namely, that the local authorities have not got the cash or the staff to do the job that we, by legislation, have said they should do. We simply do not provide the resources. We provide the print on the paper and call it legislation. Do we then simply sit back? If local authorities have this power and do not use it, do we sit back, wring our hands in despair, and say to the homeless "We are very sorry, but you cannot have those empty houses because the local authorities cannot afford to take them over, improve them and provide the facilities that are mentioned in this measure"?

I do not know where we go from there. I understand that an alternative is practised in Wiltshire, where the local authorities undertake some form of leasing such property. I understand that several local authorities have introduced schemes enabling them to take tenancies or leases of private properties and sublet those properties to the homeless.

I should like to know whether my hon. Friend intends to extend or encourage the extension of this kind of pioneering. If he does, will local authorities be required to give undertakings to rehouse the subtenants, assuming that they cannot find accommodation when the lease comes to an end? If that is the case, has it happened on any measurable scale since this pioneering was undertaken?

I come to a related point. I gather that there is some kind of study group in the Department considering the problem of leasing property, and I should like a progress report to be made on its work. There need be no illusion—indeed, there is no illusion on the Government Benches—that there are real problems in this area of housing which we find deeply offensive to our sense of social justice. Homelessness in this age of affluence—for we still live in a relatively affluent society—is a social crime. No suggestions put forward to resolve it should be rejected out of hand. The Government have already introduced legislation permitting requisitioning of houses. We had requisitioning during the war. It was renewed after the war, and I think it was again renewed or revamped in 1964. The powers already exist. I do not know how much further the Bill seeks to go.

I want to refer to one other issue, which is the crux of the matter. For understandable reasons, the Bill contains no mention of the cost of implementing its provisions. Suppose the local authorities said "We shall immediately start taking over all these houses within the next six or 12 months". The cost would be colossal, at a time when local authorities are told by the Government that on no account must they increase their expenditure. Yet they are under increasing pressure to increase their expenditure, not least by Opposition Members.

Hon. Members on the Government side of the House are worried about the rating impositions. We are waiting for the Layfield Report on a fairer system of rating. Until we get that matter sorted out, it is useless and almost dishonest to introduce legislation of this kind and pretend that simply by adding something else to the statute book we shall even begin to solve the very desperate housing problem.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I am sure the House will agree that there is nothing between the Tory Party and the Labour Government in the strength of their concern for the housing problem. Perhaps the mood of the House this afternoon should be one in which we reflect not so much upon homelessness as upon hopelessness, because there must be a sense of hope- lessness which comes over all of us when we consider the situation.

Since the Rent Acts were first introduced as a temporary measure at the beginning of the 1914–18 war, more and more time of the House has been spent on housing legislation, and more and more of the taxpayer's money has been spent on attempting to solve the problem of homelessness. Surely, if this were a problem which could be solved by legislation alone, if it were a problem which could be solved by throwing money at it, it would have been solved by now. But we all know that it has not been solved. Every year brings worse stories of longer lists of those waiting for homes. Every year brings more stories of great tragedy and unhappiness among our fellow citizens.

There must come a time when we ask ourselves whether we are doing the right thing. Is our approach to this problem fundamentally right? We may say that some Governments have lacked the thrust and vigour needed in approaching this problem by the conventional methods. No doubt there have been both incompetent and competent Ministers in the course of many years since the State accepted the responsibility for homelessness. No doubt there have even been prejudiced civil servants and there may have been wicked men even in the Ministries. But even assuming all that, is it not a possibility that the approach of throwing money at the problem and thinking of yet more ways to restrict and distort the market is the wrong?

On this side of the House—perhaps from the Whig side of our philosophy—we tend to believe in a free market. We would say that this Bill is bad for two main fundamental reasons of philosophy—first, because it relies on compulsion rather than persuasion, and secondly, because it fundamentally attacks the right of the individual citizen to hold property in general—and I stress individual and in general—without interference from the State.

The Home Secretary said recently—I think it was on 23rd January this year—in what I am sure was a very offensive speech to the left wing of his own party, that when public expenditure started to exceed 60 per cent. of gross national product the values of a plural society were in danger. The values of a plural society are most of all supported and most of all defended by those who have private property. It was once said that had there been no barons there would have been no Magna Carta, and that is true. Only a person who has private property and who feels secure in the belief in his own way of life, in his job and possessions, will say to the State in the last resort "I do not like your views, I disagree with them, and if necessary, I will go to prison to defy the current regime". If we are all to be the slaves or servants of a local authority or central Government we shall say instead "We find these measures profoundly unattractive. They are an infringement of our liberty and the liberty of our fellow citizens, but it is our duty to support ourselves and our families, and that obligation must come first. Therefore, once again, we are obliged to kow-tow to the State or to the local authority".

It is the possession of private property which, taking into account all human frailties, gives a man that independence which will help him to bolster up his sense of integrity, responsibility and self-reliance. The Bill, however, is a fundamental attack upon the right of the individual to hold property. The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham), whose Bill it is, was very frank about it. He spoke of the need to reduce public expenditure, and he felt sure that his measure would have no impact upon public expenditure. But we cannot have it both ways. If that is right, it means that property will be requisitioned without compensation to the owners. If, on the other hand, the requisition will be made with proper compensation, and if it is to be done on a large scale, there must be an impact on public expenditure. One cannot say that private property owners will be adequately safeguarded and at the same time say that there will be no impact upon public expenditure.

The whole House ought to be grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), for with great courage, learning and industry he showed what a ridiculous lawyers' feast the Bill would become. He pointed out that the individual citizen would not only run the risk of his property being requisitioned without proper compensation but in his efforts to get it back he would find himself caught up in a maze, dealing with the local authority and ultimately appealing to the county court.

All of us who are lawyers are here not just to try to increase the great flood of legislation which comes from this place but to try to see what the practical effect on the citizen will be when we pass legislation. I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman is no longer a practising barrister. Perhaps I may say, as a practising barrister from a rather humbler part of the profession's ladder, that I know how vastly overcrowded are the lists in our county courts.

Yet under Clause 8 the applicant, which is how the unhappy owner of requisitioned property is there described, has the right eventually to apply to the county court to get his property back. There is no certainty about when he will be granted a hearing in the county court. Let us say that he left his house in order to work away in Dubai on the building of an oil installation for the Arabs—or, equally, to Scotland to work on the building of an oil installation there—and back he comes to find his house requisitioned. He will go to the local authority, and the local authority will, perhaps, have turned the house over to the second cousin once removed of the leader of the council, and it is politically most inconvenient to kick the bloke out.

Along goes the applicant or owner to the county court. No doubt, he will find that it will be two or three months before he has a first hearing. Then, to his amazement, he finds that the hearing day is on a day when there are many other cases and his case is adjourned, put off for another couple of months. For all this time, of course, he has been trying to bring his children back from Dubai or Aberdeen, or wherever it may be.

Is that the way we encourage people to take on the expense of home ownership so as to give themselves a roof over their head—somewhere to bring up their children and live their way of life in some measure of independence—make provision for themselves, to accept responsibility and to stand on their own feet?

The Bill is a frontal attack on the need to encourage individual citizens to take on that measure of independence and responsibility which, I am sure, the whole House now recognises as an essential part of human dignity. But we surely also have to criticise the Bill because it relies upon compulsion—and an attempt to compel landowners and landlords has been at the root of all the legislation about housing passed since 1914. This is not just another measure to give security of tenure in almost every circumstance or artificially to control rents. It seeks to take away possession of premises and to give it to another with inadequate compensation. It is based on the simple, fallacious idea that society, as the hon. Member for Paddington said, regards it as criminal that property should be empty. So he seeks to give the local authorities even further powers.

I do not think that, as a matter of law, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) is right in saying that there are already powers for requisitioning properties. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether that is the position. Of course there are compulsory purchase powers, and these proposals would be in addition to them. There is also the provision in Section 17 of the General Rate Act 1967, amended by the Local Government Act 1974, giving local authorities a discretionary power to levy full rates without domestic rate relief on properties empty for a continuous period of more than three months. I do not believe that there are powers for requisition. The hon. Member for Paddington did not define what he meant by requisitioning, but I think that he meant the type which occurred during the Second World War in very special circumstances.

Perhaps at this stage I should say something about requisitioning as it occurred in the Second World War. As a matter of philosophy, it is accepted that, in circumstances of clearly identifiable grave national crisis, it is reasonable that the liberties of the individual citizen should be infringed by such measures as requisitioning or even to the extent of modifying rules such as that of habeas corpus. But it is now customary to have a crisis almost every second month, and whenever any politician gets into a jam the great response since the war has been to roll out some platitude about the Dunkirk spirit, say that there is a crisis and ask for more and Draconian powers for the State.

Surely we should be opposing such infringements of the liberty of the individual. We should also be saying that there has been enough compulsion in this area. Compulsion has been at the root of housing legislation since 1914. We need now to recognise the reality of human nature, to try to work with it and to recognise that the desire for security and the desire for profit are two of the essential characteristics of human existence. We want people to be prepared to let housing. We want people to be prepared to be landlords.

There is no doubt that having the serious threat of this legislation hanging over them will be one more restriction upon the letting of housing. It will be one more reason why fewer and fewer people will be prepared to do anything which would put them in a position where their housing might be requisitioned or taken over by a council, or where they might be able to let it only with the disadvantage of restrictions upon the rent and by granting almost indefinite security of tenure.

Therefore, we say that the Bill is wrong in its thrust. It goes against the basic beliefs of ordinary people, against human nature. It works against people's natural inclinations rather than with them. It also gives further powers to bodies which have already proved that they have a bad record in housing management. I dare say that councils are bad managers of housing almost irrespective of their political colour. You may remember, Mr. Speaker, the interchange on Wednesday this week when the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment about empty council houses. He said: Is my hon. Friend aware, however, that in Liverpool the situation in respect of empty council dwellings has now reached scandalous proportions, and that in my constituency and other places there is a great deal of squatting going on, which will greatly increase if this sort of thing continues? People will simply not accept that the should be homeless while properties are empty. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) intervened to say: Under the Liberals."—[Official Report, 5th May 1976; Vol. 910, c. 1278.] The hon. Member for Walton is one whose views are held in great affection in this House, but he got the matter precisely wrong. It is not because Liverpool was governed by the Liberals at that time that there were so many houses empty. I should probably have to concede that even if Liverpool were governed by the Tories there would be far too many council houses empty.

The fact is that a great bureaucratic organisation, such as a large unit of housing governed by a council, will inevitably be less flexible and less able to deal with situations quickly than a small landlord owning perhaps 20 or 30 houses and being anxious not only to maximise his annual return from them but to keep the capital asset in proper repair. Therefore, we are most sceptical about any attempt to give councils larger responsibilities, as they have been almost universally so neglectful of their responsibilities.

It is not that individual housing managers are wicked people. It is simply the circumstances in which they are put. We do not believe that the extension of the responsibilities of these good people will do anything to solve the great scandal of homelessness.

Let us try to look at the matter a little more constructively. It is not just a question of shouting about homelessness. We must look at the causes. I believe that the transformation in the housing situation as a consequence of the Rent Act has been almost wholly disadvantageous to this country and has resulted in great sadness and misery for many of our fellow citizens. If we had allowed the private landlord to continue in business, much of the distress which we know still exists would not have occurred.

Let us hope that, when the Government have finished their review of housing finance, they will issue that review in a completely non-partisan way in a sense in which they recognise that great mistakes have been made by all Ministers of all parties which have had the charge of dealing with housing policy. Let them recognise that it has been State interference and legislation from this place which has, most of all, harmed those seeking homes and those who would provide homes if they were allowed to do so in freedom.

Of course, the Rent Acts cannot be changed overnight. When any commodity is provided with a subsidy or with a distortion, those who receive that commodity find themselves adjusting their way of life and their finances to the subsidised price. No one is saying that we can change the Rent Acts overnight. But, when this review comes out, let it be considered in a non-partisan way, because, if Socialism could have worked, Socialism has surely been applied in the area of rent control.

Let us also try to consider some of the less partisan and deeply concerned and constructive proposals which come from the Opposition side of the House. There is surely something to be said for the idea of a shorthold. There is something to be said for saying to a landlord who has a temporarily empty property "Yes, you may let it for a short period. You may agree the rent, and you may agree the term. We shall not interfere at a later stage with the contract into which you have entered with the tenant, licensee or however you may describe the occupant of the premises." If people are allowed to enter into their own arrangement or agreement, it can be said to both of them "We, the State, do not know what is best for you. Enter into your own terms. You are both adult persons of complete understanding. It is not for us to tell you what is the best deal. We shall say to you that you both negotiate at arms' length. Enter into some form of shorthold agreement, and we shall not interfere."

Let us hope that some sense will come into the present Government and that they will at last realise that one way in which they can reduce public expenditure and at the same time give people that sense of independence and security which comes from owning their own homes is to give to council tenants the right to buy their houses. I know that, with independence, there would go the sense that the Labour Party could no longer bribe those who are council tenants and who look to the Labour Government to keep the subsidies to council tenants at a high level. But I believe it is plain that, even for the present Government, the party is over and that they recognise that there must be a restriction in the size of the subsidy which is given to those who are council tenants.

These are constructive ways of dealing with what is a long-standing and deeply serious problem—

Mr. Arthur Latham

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear, in this arrangement between tenant and private landlord, whether we are to take it that the official Tory answer now to the problem of empty properties is to have a completely free market in rents and to abandon all the controls and protections which exist?

Mr. Budgen

I am not putting forward an official Tory answer. I am putting forward a personal approach to dealing with this problem.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Is that what it means?

Mr. Budgen

It would work out best if we had a free market for a limited period.

Mr. Arthur Latham

How long?

Mr. Budgen

It is not possible for me to say without having had technical advice about a number of different markets. I do not pretend that the market in Wolverhampton is the same as the markets in Paddington or Glasgow. If we are to have national legislation, we must have information from all the important national centres. I should have thought that this idea of a six-month period would be helpful in dealing with the problem that we have in Wolverhampton. That is all I have to say about shorthold.

I hope that the House will join me in rejecting this measure as being based upon compulsion and a desire by the State to walk over people's property rights. This Bill will do nothing for the homeless, but it will do a great deal for tyranny.

3.26 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I am grateful for the opportunity of making some brief comments on the Bill. Urgent constituency business kept me away from the House during the earlier part of the debate.

I believe that the Bill is urgently required and can serve a useful function. I anticipate that, in reply, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say that this measure, although desirable in many ways, is not necessary because compulsory purchase would enable local authorities to perform the functions that the Bill would permit. I dispute that view. I apologise for disputing it in ad- vance of its being expressed in my presence.

The existence of requisition powers would prove salutory, in that they would encourage landlords to make their properties available for letting. They would also make them available to local authorities under schemes, such as the North Wiltshire scheme, under which private landlords can make their properties available to local authorities for a fixed term with an assurance that they will be vacated and returned at the end of the fixed term. That scheme has certain similarities to the shorthold idea which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) was extolling, except that it is regulated by the local authority. Under his scheme, the local authority would have the burden of rehousing the tenant at the end of his tenancy. Under the North Wiltshire scheme the local authority is able to control the numbers brought in. A requisitioning scheme would make it easier to persuade landlords to let their properties privately or to local authorities so that they could deal with them.

An overwhelmingly tremendous advantage of a requisitioning scheme is that even if we allow generous compensation—as a sponsor, I do not necessarily adhere to the level of compensation proposed in the Bill—that compensation will be charged on the revenue; it will not be a capital charge. Last year we spent £180 million on the municipalisation programme. The amount of housing brought into use by local authorities by reason of that expenditure was limited. If we had a requisition scheme, the rents would come out of current revenue; they would not be a capital cost, as happens now with the municipalisation scheme.

The advantage of the North Wiltshire scheme is that local authorities can have the use of properties for limited periods. The requisitioning power in the Bill would greatly facilitate the bringing into use of empty properties by all local authorities.

I accept that valid criticisms are made about local authorities not always being able to use all the properties under their control, but, although there are valid criticisms, there are also valid reasons. The principal reason is the money required to be spent to bring properties up to a proper habitable standard.

In stress areas, local authorities desperately require additional accommodation for letting to families in urgent need of housing. Without a requistioning power, there is little incentive for landlords, who anticipate that the market will change and that prices will rise, to bring their empty properties into use. The power in the Bill would be valuable in that it would encourage landlords to let their properties. I hope that the Minister will support the Bill.

3.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am sure that the whole House regrets the circumstances which have compelled the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) today. We know how conscientious he is about bringing to this House the great social problem of housing and how much he must regret not being here today. I should like to express my own regrets that he is not present. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) will convey to him our good wishes for a speedy and complete recovery for his wife in this very difficult time. We certainly hope that the operation goes well.

I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, who has done a service not only to his hon. Friend but to the House. We are grateful for this opportunity—an opportunity that we do not often have—of spending some time in this Chamber taking an objective look at the evils of homelessness and inadequate housing, on the one hand, and empty and under-used houses, on the other.

Many points have been raised today in some very interesting speeches. I take them on board and I understand why it may be that the debate has suggested that the Government are doing very little about this problem. I obviously understand that when hon. Members are putting forward new legislation and the need for new powers, they do not want to spend time talking about the present attempts by the Government and present policies of the Government to deal with this very difficult problem. Therefore, I feel that I am under an obligation to put the record straight, to deal with the provisions of the Bill and, at the same time, to put forward the measures that the Government have already taken to deal with these very difficult problems, and to say something about them.

This debate is an important opportunity for the House to discuss the wide social issues that are involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington stressed the fact that people are more important than property and come before property. Certainly I go along with him in that principle. People must always come before property.

The Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill gives its main purpose as being: to enable local authorities to bring into use houses, owned by absentee landlords, which have been standing empty without good reason. I assure the House immediately that the Government fully support the purpose as expressed in those words. We are deeply aware of the evils of homelessness and we are at one with my hon. Friend in our determination to ensure that good housing should not go to waste in some speculative venture when it could and should be used to meet pressing housing needs.

One of the most difficult tasks of a Minister—as you, Mr. Speaker, will know; and I have been at the receiving end of this on previous occasions—is to stand at the Dispatch Box and agree with the aims and objects of resolutions or legislation that has been put forward, and then give all the Government reasons why it should not be adopted. However, I want to express my thanks to my hon. Friend. He has brought us face to face with a continuing problem.

Increased resources are being allocated to housing. The present Government have a particularly good record, of which I am proud, yet at the same time there are in Britain families, single people and people in special need who are living in intolerable circumstances. Although there is a net gain in housing, year by year, it seems that the problem of homelessness is growing. Therefore, there is no question of complacency. We are bringing all that we can to bear in order to help local authorities—because they have the prime responsibility—to deal with these very serious human problems.

We have already introduced a number of measures that are specifically aimed at dealing with the very problems with which the Bill sets out to deal, and which have been so graphically described during the course of the day, I shall come to some of those measures in my speech. We are continuing to devote our energies and resources in these very areas, and if these measures do not produce the results that both he and we want we shall not hesitate to look at other and more effective ways of ensuring our success.

There is not one problem of empty houses; there are many. But people in desperate need of accommodation are affronted when they see properties standing empty for any length of time. As my hon. Friend said, there are many reasons why a flat or house should stand empty, and this means that there is no single solution, and certainly no simple one. How much better life would be if there were.

Some of the speeches from the Opposition Benches seemed to indicate that the trouble is all due to rent Act legislation and that a relaxation of the legislation would solve the problem. They know that there is no simple or single answer. They thought they had got it right in 1957, but I do not think that anybody, knowing the consequences of that legislation, would say that the answer is as simple as some Conservative Members would have us believe.

The 1971 Census provides the most recent comprehensive figures relating to empty dwellings. It shows that 676,000 dwellings in England and Wales were recorded as vacant, representing 3.9 per cent. of the total housing stock. The recent nation-wide survey mentioned a figure of "well over 750,000". I have no intention of getting bogged down in an argument about the number of dwellings that are unoccupied. So far as I am concerned, any house that remains empty for any reason for longer than it ought to do is an affront to society, and something that we want to bring to a speedy end.

A house may remain empty for various reasons. Sometimes, prospective purchasers cannot get mortgages even though the owner or builder is anxious to sell at a reasonable price. My hon. Friends and, indeed, the House will recall that we inherited a mortgage famine when we came to power two years ago. The Conservative Government's monetary and housing policies had created a serious situation for people in the public sector and in the private sector alike. Too many owners and builders found themselves unable to sell their homes. As the House knows, we have taken vigorous and successful measures to restore and stabilise the flow of mortgage funds, and it would be surprising if the number of houses remaining empty because of the inability to get a mortgage was not now diminishing.

What we really need is a healthy overall social and housing policy and not a patchwork, piecemeal approach. Some houses are standing empty because the owners are holding out for higher prices or higher rents. I share my hon. Friend's disgust at that, but I anticipate that, here again, our measures to stabilise the mortgage market will be a surer and simpler way of discouraging the speculator.

Mr. Arthur Latham

My hon. Friend said that he does not want to play the numbers game. I do not want to detract from what the Government have attempted to do, but is not the significant test in relation to the Bill the question whether the measures taken by the Government have significantly reduced the number of empty properties? Is it not a fact that evidence available in the Department shows, as I find in my constituency, that the number of empty properties is increasing and that the number of properties remaining empty for long periods is also increasing as time goes on?

Mr. Armstrong

That is a matter on which we are trying to get more accurate figures, and in a recent circular we took extra steps to deal with this acute problem—one which a number of hon. Members have indicated is growing. I do not disagree with my hon. Friend about the seriousness of the problem, but if he is patient for a little while he will learn that we are well aware of the need for extra action to be taken.

Houses may be kept empty because the site is scheduled for redevelopment. I certainly hold no brief for those who seek to replace good housing by yet more giant office blocks, but we must recognise that much socially useful development—schools, hospitals and factories that provide jobs—may involve the replacement of houses. My hon. Friend will know that we are encouraging local authorities and housing associations to make the fullest possible use of such "short-life" housing, although I am sure he appreciates some of the difficulties that face authorities in that particular situation.

What is clear is that the problem—indeed, the problems—of empty houses are complicated and not susceptible to a single simple solution. As I move around the country I am very conscious that blanket policy at Whitehall would certainly help some authorities, but would deter others, and that the problems differ from place to place.

I should like to review the provisions of the Bill in the context of the measures that the Government have taken, and are taking, to tackle the problem of empty homes. I have already mentioned the steps that we took to restore and stabilise the flow of mortgage funds. These have reduced the chances of a house standing empty for lack of a buyer. We have introduced the new Rent Act provisions, which give security to the furnished tenant—a most positive way in which to reduce homelessness and ensure that housing remains in use.

But the main weapon—and this is an important feature of our policy—is municipalisation. Unlike the measures contained in the Bill now before the House, municipalisation grasps the nettle of social housing policy—the issue of social control. The Government stand by their view that if property is to meet social housing needs it must be under social control. My hon. Friend may say that the Bill would bring property under just such control, but the best sort of control is that under which a local authority holds property on a permanent basis.

Clearly, it must be brought under social control where others fail to make use of it, but it is more satisfactory for the authority to have the security of full ownership and for the tenants to have the confidence that results from that.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I assume that that the hon. Gentleman is referring solely to empty property—or is he suggesting that social ownership is right for nearly all homes?

Mr. Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman made a very long speech and I want to reply to the points that have been raised and to deal with the issues that are relevant to the provisions in the Bill and the proposal for the requisitioning of empty properties.

The extension of social ownership of rented housing has been a major priority in the Government's housing policy. When we first took office in 1974 we asked all local authorities to draw up plans for acquisitions in accordance with their own assessment of local housing needs. Within the overall housing budget, municipalisation has been given priority and, because the funds available are not unlimited, local authorities have been asked to concentrate their acquisitions and efforts within area of acute housing stress and homelessness. Progress has already been significant. I stress, because of the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), that the numbers I give relate to England. I will convey to the Minister in the Scottish Office my hon. Friend's interest and I will see that he receives the details for Scotland.

Over 60,000 old and sub-standard properties have been brought into social ownership by the combined efforts of local authorities and housing associations in England during the past two years, since 1st April 1974—44,000 of them by local authorities and 20,000 by housing associations. Over 17,000 empty dwellings were acquired in the first year of the policy alone. What is more impressive is that almost all these dwellings were acquired by agreement. Some compulsory purchase orders have, indeed, been aimed at empty houses but the numbers involved are very small. My hon. Friend may argue, therefore, that new compulsory powers are needed but I believe that we are making good progress with existing powers.

As far as possible we want to see authorities proceeding by agreement in bringing empty houses into use. Compulsory procedures take time and staff effort and consume resources—and I fear those proposed in my hon. Friend's Bill would be no exception. I think it can safely be predicted that requisitioning would involve local authorities in even more work both before and after an order had been made. Apart from anything else, it would not be an easy task to establish whether a house had in fact been unoccupied for six months. There would be appeals, plenty of them, and the more time and staff devoted to these procedures the less would be devoted to getting on with the real job of matching people to houses.

As I said just now, municipalisation arrangements were revised in Circular 33/76. The important general provision allows for the acquisition of properties which have been standing empty for at least two months in any areas where there is a serious overall shorage of housing or where the property is needed to relieve homelessness. The general approval also covers the purchase of properties for use as hostels, for example, for the use of the homeless, battered wives and children and single persons. This means that local authorities, under Circular 33/76, which we issued on 17th March 1976, can get on with the job quickly without constant reference to the Department. What therefore we have sought to do is to make the municipalisation policy a flexible and valuable instrument for tackling all these complex problems and especially that of empty houses in areas of stress and homelessness.

Our housing stock is one of our most precious national assets. If there is one thing which affronts people who are in desperate need of homes, it is the constant references, of which I am sometimes guilty myself, to the numbers of houses built, the net gain in each year and the fact that there are more houses in the country than households. I understand the frustration, the resentment and the bitterness of those who are without homes when they hear that kind of statement. But these are facts and they underline the ned for Government and local authorities to seek every means possible to achieve better use of existing housing stock.

As I said, our housing stock is one of the most precious national assets. To keep it in use we must take all steps to ensure not only that it is efficiently used but that it is kept in a proper state of repair for our own and future generations. We must minimise the amount of housing left to be derelict and vacant. I should like to stress that, contrary to some recent suggestions, the rehabilitation of properties remains a cornerstone of our housing policy.

We are also preparing new, up-to-date guidance to assist local authorities and others in developing urban renewal strategies. Renewal again means keeping houses in use and reducing pressures on new building so badly needed for so many. None of us wants uniformity. What is appropriate to one area would be quite unsuitable elsewhere. So we shall be stressing that there is a whole range of options which should be considered for any given area of housing, ranging from clearance to varying combinations of gradual renewal and rehabilitation, possibly using one of the special types of area treatment which were developed in the 1974 Act—housing action areas, priority neighbourhoods and general improvement areas where, among other things, the rates of grant are more generous.

I am pleased to see that an increasing number of authorities are adopting policies of gradual renewal, combining clearance and redevelopment with the improvement of existing houses. I hope that many authorities will continue to develop this total approach to the orderly and efficient better use of the housing stock.

I have been developing the theme that, while there are limits—financial, physical and human—to what can be done, we seek by way of bringing property into social ownership, and by carrying out the necessary rehabilitation work, to meet basic housing standards to keep housing in use and ensure vacancies are kept down.

We are also considering other ways in which private property can be brought under genuine social control. Sir Dennis Pilcher and Mr. Derek Wood are, at our request, undertaking a rapid study of the scope for local authority leasing, including short-term arrangements on the North Wiltshire model. Despite our preference for full social ownership, there are times when that may not be practicable and when we have to seek other approaches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central raised the position of subtenants. They are covered and protected by an undertaking to rehouse when the short-term arrangements come to an end. Over 40 housing authorities have adopted North Wiltshire type schemes.

Mr. Arthur Latham

My hon. Friend said that there were cases in which social ownership may not be the practical answer and other means may have to be used. I am not clear why, out of all the various means available, the Government completely reject requisitioning. Reference was made to 17,000 houses taken over in one year. Although that is a worthwhile development, we are agreed that there are more than 800,000 properties empty, and on that basis it would take 40 years or more to deal with the problem. Would it not be better to have this other weapon? Will the Minister take into account the effect that requisitioning powers might have on landlords by making them hurry up and let properties which are vacant?

Mr. Armstrong

I have given careful consideration to my hon. Friend's submission. We have nothing in principle against his suggestion, but our judgment is that it might hinder rather than help. I am coming to some of the procedures that are involved. We are very interested in the North Wiltshire scheme and similar schemes, but sometimes people get carried away and tend to think that schemes of that sort are a panacea. They are not.

Temporary arrangements for housing are becoming less and less acceptable. I am glad to say that people's expectations have risen considerably. Although in desperate conditions they are glad to get a roof over their heads, after a short time they demand good housing and modern amenities. The answer lies in the supply of adequate permanent housing, and that is the solution we are seeking to achieve.

In seeking leave to introduce the Bill now before the House, my hon. Friend said that other new ways of bringing empty property into use, for example, by leasing, might be of some use, but he went on to say that requisitioning powers were needed to provide the necessary back-up. We have also heard it argued that the powers are needed as a frontline weapon of policy, because existing compulsory powers are cumbersome in practice.

We cannot have it both ways. I have every sympathy with the view that compulsion must be available as a last resort in proper cases in a local authority's efforts to bring property into use. I am not persuaded, however, that in view of the clear successes of our municipalisation policies we need further draconian steps.

Although I accept that the existing compulsory purchase procedures may not be entirely suited to a large-scale programme of compulsory acquisition, there is no doubt that orders have been served on empty properties as a last resort, and that they have been effective in bringing them back into use.

In this connection I was interested to note that in the Shelter Housing Aid Centre Report on Empty Property the leader of one London borough council did not see why it was necessary to have additional powers when the present compulsory purchase powers could be used. The SHAC report also found that overall only one third of the London boroughs felt that requisitioning should even be considered. As I have said before, I genuinely fear that it would, whether we like it or not, require more rather than less staff time and effort and consequently be even less effective in resolving the very difficult problem the solution of which we both have at heart.

Incidentally, I should add that among the other measures examined in the SHAC report was the power of local authorities, provided under the Local Government Act 1974, to levy rates of up to 100 per cent. on a property which has been empty for more than three months. Every London borough now exercises these powers, and two-thirds do so at the maximum level of 100 per cent.

To return to the Bill—because this is a Second Reading debate and not a Committee stage—I shall concentrate on the broad structure and principles. I should make it clear that the Government see formidable technical and legal difficulties with the Bill. The rights of appeal proposed in the Bill—which may be necessary to requisitioning as a procedure—present very real problems. For instance, no provision is included for the owner and the other persons involved, if any, to be heard by an independent appellate body until after a requisition order is made. All they can do when a notice of intention is served is to make representations to the local authority that is pro posing to make the order.

Thus, if the local authority decides to go ahead, the owner has no right to go to court until after he has lost possession. As his grounds of appeal might be, for example, that the property had not even been empty for six months, I could understand it if he felt aggrieved. The 21 days within which representations must be made, unless the local authority sees fit to allow a longer time, would in any case be far shorter than is presently allowed under the compulsory purchase provision. Provisions of this sort give us real cause to wonder whether in peacetime this approach is necessary now.

My next worry is that the Bill fails to discriminate between the great villains among the owners of empty property—no doubt there are some; nobody would deny that—and people whose houses are empty through no fault of their own.

According to the Long Title, this is a Bill to permit local authorities to requisition houses or flats left empty for more than six months without good reason. But the Bill gives no guidance on what a good reason may be. In effect, a local authority has wide discretion to make an order whatever the reasons for the vacancy and whatever the representations made by the owner. In Circular 33/76 we indicated that the Department would be willing to co-operate with any local authority that had a particular problem with property that was left empty for two months or more.

Clause 2(2) would grant the local authority power to do anything to a requisitioned house that a person with a normal interest in it would be entitled to do. On the face of it, the local authority would be able to carry out major structural works—even demolish the house—without incurring any liability beyond compensating the owner at a rate equal to the gross rateable value. The authority would be prevented from offering the property for sale, but nothing in the Bill would prevent the granting of a long lease.

There is one more point that would be of vital importance north of the border, though some hon. Members might regard it as a point of detail only. I regret that the Bill could not possibly be applied to Scotland, as it simply would not fit the existing legislative framework in the housing field. My hon. Friend the Mem ber for Fife, Central knows that they do things differently there.

The Bill illustrates all too clearly that requisitioning is not an approach that will rid us of problems. We have given very careful consideration to the provisions of the Bill, because we are anxious to achieve the same aims and objects as my hon. Friends the Members for Salford, East and for Paddington have affirmed in the House over the years. However, for the very practical reasons I have explained, and because I believe that the Government are tackling this very problem, I cannot commend the Bill to the House. The Government recognise the share—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Mr. Speaker

Debate to be resumed what day? No day named.