§ Order for Second Reading read.4.50 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Younger)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As this is a major measure not only with important effects on families throughout Scotland but from the point of view of the Government's programme, perhaps I should start by commenting on the background to the Bill.
We have discussed Scottish housing so often since I have been in the House that my memory does not recall every incident that has taken place in those debates. However, one of the few things that would be agreed on both sides throughout those debates is that, whatever the rights and wrongs of Scottish housing, the situation now is highly unsatisfactory for most of those who have to take the facilities offered by our housing system. I think that perhaps that view would carry general consent throughout and beyond the House.
That unsatisfactory position surely cannot be due to any lack of money spent on housing in Scotland. Even going back as short a distance as 1971, Governments have spent no less than £3,640 million from public expenditure sources alone on housing in Scotland. Since the war, 1,024,000 houses have been built in Scotland under successive Governments.
The difficulties of housing today cannot be ascribed to any lack of attention by successive Governments who have operated in Scotland during these years. I have done a rough check and I find that no fewer than 25 Acts of Parliament relating to Scottish housing have been passed since the war. One would have thought that, with all that amount of energy being put into the problem, we would have had a more satisfactory result than we see today.
Considering the numbers of families and houses, it is interesting to record that in Scotland today, at the latest count, there are about 1,750,000 households and, at the latest stock-taking, 1,964,000 houses. Of course, all those houses are 1238 not perfect. Some may be in very poor condition. Nevertheless, that represents a surplus over all Scotland of about 200,000 more houses than there are families—a surplus of about 10 per cent. of the stock. That clearly is an important background to our discussions. Although it does not get us any nearer to solving the housing problem, it may help to point us in the right direction in seeking solutions.
I think that most people who looked into the housing situation in Scotland would now agree that what is wrong and is causing the difficulties about which people talk so much is the types of houses that are available and the types of schemes in which those houses are situated. Indeed, in many respects the form of tenure available to tenants is wrong and the location of the houses is wrong. In short, with all this money, energy and concern about housing in Scotland, we have been busily building the wrong houses in the wrong places. The result is an unbalanced and unsatisfactory housing system.
I should perhaps pause momentarily to point out that I am not suggesting that all who have contributed to this effort have done wrong. Indeed, much of the effort put in was in its time absolutely right. Everything was done with the best of intentions by all concerned to meet the often desperate needs of the time in the best possible way. As a result, there are some excellent houses and housing schemes in which people are happy to live.
I do not believe that the system could work at all if it were not for the outstanding quality of the work done by those who operate it. I have always had the greatest admiration for housing managers and their staffs who operate this system. Their devotion, skill and patience has certainly impressed me every time I have experienced it. I am sure that many other Members on both sides of the House would agree with that.
Why is it that the housing system in Scotland is so different from systems in almost all other parts of Europe? What is different about the Scottish situation from other parts of the Western European world?
§ Mr. Younger
If that were so since the war, that argument might be put forward, but it is not, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) knows. Indeed, he was a member of a very non-Tory Government who tried their best to contribute to solving this problem.
In the past, some people have said that Scottish average earnings have been so much lower than earnings elsewhere that it was inevitable that the housing provision should be radically different. But that argument can no longer be used. Scottish average earnings are on a par with those for the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed, over part of the past few years, they have been above average earnings for the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, that excuse has gone.
After all, when we look at those among whom we live, we see that our jobs, the lives that we live, our tastes, the things that we buy and the things that we do are absolutely the same as for so many others throughout Western Europe. There must be something strange that makes our housing system so different from everyone else's. Therefore, is it not high time that we sat back and took a long, hard look at the Scottish housing system and tried to do something about putting it right and getting it more in tune with the needs of those who have to use it?
What does the average family want in housing? I think that it wants some choice in the house in which it is to live. It wants mobility so that, if circumstances change, it is not tied to the same spot. It also wants security so that it may at least look forward to having a house into which it can put its energy and contribution and which it can regard as home.
The present system, however many virtues it may have, does not give choice. One is not able to choose one's council house in Scotland; one has it allocated by someone who is doing his best to weigh competing claims on the house and on the fairest basis to put them on the list. Nevertheless, it is a matter not of choice but of allocation by a bureaucrat.
We do not get mobility from the system. Once someone is lucky enough to get a house, he is stuck there.
§ Mr. Hughes rose—
§ Mr. Hughes rose—
§ Mr. Younger
I promise to give way to the hon. Gentleman later.
Secondly, it does not give mobility to the person who is lucky enough to get into a council house, because, if he has to change from the town in which he lives, he will have no priority in the new district to which he goes. If he wishes to move from one part of the town to another, as many tenants know to their cost, he will have to wait for years on a transfer list with little or no prospect of obtaining a transfer.
§ Mr. Hughes rose—
§ Mr. Younger
I am coming to the hon. Gentleman.
Thirdly, it does not give security. At present, the tenant cannot improve his house at his own hand, because that is the job of the landlord. He cannot save money in the course of buying his own house, which is what most people in other parts of Western Europe do in a practical way to their family benefit, and he is inevitably subject to eviction. That threat, whether we like it or not, hangs over the heads of many families in Scotland. Now, I will give way to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Will he tell us where in the Bill the ability of an applicant to choose what house he wants or the opportunity for someone already living in a council house to choose to which district to go is improved?
§ Mr. Younger
Indeed, that is one of the main purposes of the Bill. In the course of the interesting remarks that I am about to make, which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North is looking forward to hearing, he will learn all about it.
1241 That brings me to the point I was just about to make, which is that it this is a short look at what our housing system produces now, it raises, in any reasonable person's mind, the question whether it is not now high time that a major and radical step was taken to change the prospects of every person in Scotland who at present is part of the public system. I shall now deal with the provisions of the Bill with that background in mind.
First, I want to deal with those who wish to remain as tenants. They constitute a large number, and I see no reason why they should be expected to put up with a second-class service. The Bill introduces what amounts to a tenants' charter, which will produce major changes in the development of public sector housing.
The last few decades have seen enormous and rapid growth in the provision of public housing, but the quality of life in that housing has not matched its physical quality. The balance of control over individual houses has rested with landlords—that is, the local authorities—rather than with the tenants of those houses. This state of affairs looks more and more out of date. The time has come to change that and to give quality of life equal priority with the physical quality of housing by creating a new framework for the relationship between landlord and tenant which will provide a clear set of rights for tenants and an impartial mechanism for resolving disputes.
I recognise that this approach is already adopted by the more enlightened local authorities, and in many respects the Bill simply gives statutory force to the existing best practice of local authorities. In that sense, no local authority which deals with its tenants in a reasonable manner need have any anxiety about the Bill's provisions, but the Bill will ensure that tenants throughout Scotland will have equal opportunity to enjoy their homes free from unreasonable constraints.
The provisions in the Bill will essentially give tenants the freedom and power to help themselves rather than prescribe precisely what they can and cannot do. I must stress that where matters are normally dealt with between landlord and tenant at present, such as consent for improvement works, they will continue to be dealt with in that way except in cases 1242 where the tenant considers that the landlord is being unreasonable.
Similarly, the obligation on landlords to go to court to evict a tenant is the same basic process as occurs at present, and in the majority of cases the legal process will not be significantly more complicated than at present. The landlord will present the evidence justifying eviction, which in the overwhelming majority of cases is likely to be rent arrears and simple to prove. The sheriff, unless there are reasons for not doing so, will grant a possession order.
I had better stress that we are not introducing complicated new burdens on landlords; we are merely giving tenants a right to be heard by an impartial third party where they wish to challenge the reasonableness of their landlords' actions. From the tenants' side, we are clearing the way for them to approach their landlords with requests to carry out improvements, to sublet or have an unreasonable tenancy condition removed, in the knowledge that, if their request does not receive reasonable consideration, they can press their point by pursuing the matter in the courts. However, we go beyond this in three important respects.
We give a right of succession to the tenancy following a tenant's death to his widow or another member of his family who lives with him and we make it possible for tenants to be repaid the cost of improvement works which they have carried out when they leave a house. We also provide that any authorities which do not make a practice of giving tenants proper written tenancy agreements must do so, in order that tenants are quite clear what their rights and obligations are.
I now want to turn to the provisions relating to the privately rented sector.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that we have been in correspondence on a number of occasions about the practice of local authorities charging arrears of rent to divorced or separated spouses, where there is no legal right for the local authority to have that money, by blackmailing them, saying that unless the arrears are paid they will not get the tenancy. His hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has written to me and said that there is no basis in law for a wife being responsible for that kind of debt. Repeatedly we have been told in 1243 Committee that this, that or the other Bill was not the right Bill. Why has not the Secretary of State put it into this Bill, if it is the right one?
§ Mr. Younger
I am grateful to the hon. Member. I am aware of the correspondence on this matter. It is a complicated issue and we are looking into it to see how we can best deal with it. I do not think that it can be dealt with in this Bill, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman will be able to pursue the matter in Committee if he wishes. It is a difficult matter, but it is something that we ought to try to do something about.
I return to the provisions relating to the privately rented sector. The main feature of these is that, in order to encourage landlords to make and keep available accommodation for letting to private tenants, we shall introduce a new type of tenure—a short tenancy, as it will be called—under which a landlord can, in future, let accommodation with the absolute certainty that he will be able to recover possession of it on a predetermined date if he wishes. I should stress at this stage that our proposals do not affect the rights of existing tenants under the Rent Acts.
In some quarters the continuing decline of the private sector has come to be regarded as inevitable. The Government do not share this view, which in any event overlooks the way the role of the privately rented sector has changed in recent years—and changed significantly. The privately rented sector is no longer the normal source of accommodation for those who wish to rent on a permanent basis. People who prefer this type of tenure will now look to local authorities or housing associations to accommodate them.
Where the privately rented sector still has a vitally important role to play in meeting housing need is in catering for the young and mobile who normally regard it as a temporary expedient. It is here that the privately rented sector can and should continue to make an important contribution to housing need. There is no doubt that great hardship is now caused to many mobile people, particularly the young, by the shortage of privately rented accommodation in towns and cities. This is a direct result of the present laws, which mean that no one can let a house 1244 unless he knows that he will never need it himself.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
Referring to the right hon. Gentleman's most recent remark, will he explain to the House how many young and mobile families are at present accommodated under a controlled tenancy which is to be abolished by the Bill?
§ Mr. Younger
There are quite a number of them—several thousand, I believe. I do not have the actual figure, but the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) might like to investigate the matter among his hon. Friends and acquaintances. I certainly know many who find it extremely difficult to obtain accommodation to rent in our cities. That is one of the things that has to be put right. I hope that it will be put right, in part, by the Bill.
We also intend to take powers in part IV of the Bill to complete the process we began in 1972 to convert all remaining controlled tenancies to rent regulation, a process that was halted by the last Government in 1975. I cannot see how the anomaly of running a fair rents system and a controlled rents system side by side can be justified, or the anomaly of preventing the progression to fair rent levels in some cases while many thousands of other tenants are already paying fair rents.
We intend to change the basis on which a rent progresses from one level to another. At the moment, when a fair rent is registered which is more than the previous rent, the increase is spread, generally speaking, by three instalments over two years, subject to a maximum increase of £1.50 per week in any one year. In these circumstances, at best the landlord will not now receive the full fair rent to which he is entitled until the second anniversary of the date of registration; at worst he will not receive it at all, because of the effect of the limitation on maximum increases, before the end of the three-year period for which a fair rent determination normally runs.
We recognise that to require all tenants to pay the full fair rent forthwith could cause hardship to those who have hitherto benefited from phasing. Therefore, while we intend to abolish phasing as such, it is also our intention that increases in rent should continue to be subject to a maximum annual increase to be specified by 1245 order. It would be premature for me to attempt to forecast at this date what that annual limit might be, but I would expect it to be pitched at a level which would accelerate the progression up to the new fair rent.
We are not only concerned with those who already have houses. The Bill contains several provisions aimed at helping those seeking council housing. As a foundation, we are imposing a statutory obligation on all local authorities to publish their rules on allocations, transfers and exchanges—as the great majority of them already do—in order that those seeking a house or wishing to move from one house to another may see clearly where they stand and what their chances are.
It is quite clear from the hundreds of letters about allocations received every day by my Department that people's dissatisfaction with allocations often arises because the rules are not made clear to them and they have little idea why some people are allocated houses in preference to others.
In addition, we have decided that, although the allocation of houses is, in general, a matter for local authorities themselves to control, it is necessary to take action against those features of allocation policies which act as barriers to mobility.
There is a considerable volume of evidence to suggest that the practice of many authorities of refusing applications from, or discriminating against, applicants from outside their area has a depressing effect on the Scottish economy by inhibiting labour mobility. The size of the public sector in Scotland makes this a serious national problem which justifies the exceptional step of overriding local discretion and prohibiting residential qualifications and certain other aspects of allocation policies which act against people needing to move for employment reasons.
Although this intervention is primarily an assertion of national economic interests, it is also part of our determination to give those who rent housing in the public sector benefits comparable to those enjoyed by owner-occupiers, as far as is reasonable. People who own their own homes are able to move freely around the country as employment or other considerations dictate, and there is no apparent reason why public tenants should be effec- 1246 tively confined to an area once they are living there.
A benefit which the Bill will confer on private and public tenants alike is the extension of eligibility for the whole range of improvement and repair grants to most tenants in both sectors. This is part of a range of measures to extend the availability of grants, which will benefit owner-occupiers and landlords as well as tenants and will continue the drive to improve our older housing.
The Bill contains other provisions which I shall mention very briefly. We are removing or relaxing a number of central Government controls over local authorities, including the power to prevent local authorities from fixing rents at the level which they consider appropriate, and we have decided reluctantly to abolish the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee, which had fallen into virtual disuse under the previous Government.
The provisions dealing with public tenants are the most important part of the Bill, but it would be a serious mistake to view them in isolation. The changes made in that respect are part of our broader view of the direction which housing policy should take, a view which gives primacy to greater freedom of choice for the individual. The choice between owning and renting for public sector tenants, who make up more than half of the population of Scotland, is essential as a means of breaking down the rigidity of our existing housing system, but it is important also that we should facilitate access to owner-occupation in other ways and revive the private rented sector as a genuine third alternative.
As our manifesto made clear, the main encouragement for owner-occupation will come from bringing the economy under control and creating a stable financial climate. However, the Bill contains provisions which will facilitate access to home ownership by giving local authorities the power to indemnify building societies and other lenders against loss.
Taken as a whole, these measures will make a real contribution to increasing housing choice and counteracting the tendency towards a stark division between owner-occupiers, with full freedom to enjoy their homes and increasing capital wealth, and public sector tenants denied access to both those benefits and frustrated both by the ever-increasing gap 1247 between their status and that of home owners and by the increasing financial difficulty of achieving the transition from renting to owning.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Will the Secretary of State answer a simple question? Since he states as a matter of principle that tenants of local authority housing should have the right to buy their homes, why is that principle not being applied to tenants in the private sector?
§ Mr. Younger
The houses in the private sector to which the hon. Gentleman refers do not belong to the State. It is not up to me to say. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] They do not belong to the State. The houses to which I am referring are part of the public sector of housing, into which the taxpayer has put large sums of money. I have never noticed the hon. Gentleman in the past being backward in coming forward with suggested instructions or directions as to what should happen with public sector housing, and I do not suppose that he will stop that now.
All that I have said so far concerns those who rent their homes and wish to continue to do so. I hope that the House will welcome these changes. I am certain that tenants throughout Scotland will do so.
One of the greatest restrictions on Scottish families is the difficulty of moving from being tenant to being an owner. This is mainly due to the extreme shortage of homes to buy in many parts of Scotland, which is itself a consequence of past policies which have severely discouraged home ownership.
There is no way that this shortage of homes to buy can be put right quickly enough by building new ones, even if there were a need for many new homes, which, in general, there is not. The only way to create a large pool of homes to buy, at prices that ordinary families can afford, is to encourage public sector tenants who wish to do so to buy their own homes instead of paying rent all their lives.
I turn now, therefore, to the details of the right of council tenants to buy their homes and the other provisions relating to the sale of houses. We have, of course, been encouraging local authorities to pursue voluntary sales under the terms of a 1248 general consent issued almost immediately we took office, and, as we made clear at that time, the main features of the Bill's provisions are the same as those of the general consent, which, in turn, were set out in some detail in our manifesto.
Sales to tenants who have spent at least three years in public sector housing will take place at discounts of between 33 per cent. and 50 per cent., according to length of tenancy. These discounts reflect tenants' security of tenure in the house they are to buy and represent a fair way of recognising the length of their property interest in public sector housing. They will give tenants a helping hand towards home ownership while preserving the substantial benefits to public expenditure which result from sales.
The discounts will be calculated on a generous basis, taking account of time spent in other forms of public housing before the prospective purchaser became a housing authority tenant. These other forms of housing will include houses provided for members of the forces, policemen, firemen, prison officers and a range of other occupants of publicly owned tied housing.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
The Secretary of State has referred to the transition between the voluntary scheme and the statutory one in the Bill. He will know that the three housing authorities in my constituency are not politically composed—[Laughter.]—I am putting it politely—but they have co-operated fully in the principle of the sale of council houses. They are, however, unanimous in rejecting this statutory scheme because they fear that they will be left with the older houses while the more attractive ones in the rural areas and the small burghs will be sold. Surely, the Secretary of State must take account of the representations of the people on the ground.
§ Mr. Younger
I am not sure about the non-political nature of the right hon. Gentleman's local authorities—in fact, I thought that that usually meant Liberal—but they are entitled to their views on the Bill, just as everyone else is, and they will, no doubt, follow the arguments which go on during its passage through the House.
I must assure the right hon. Gentleman that the fears which he expresses are 1249 quite without foundation. Exactly the opposite is likely to happen. I understand that some people are concerned about that aspect of these matters, and I am sure that it can be fully covered in our discussions in the House. The provisions will eventually be passed as the House decides, and that is how it should be.
The Bill is framed also in such a way that widows, for example, may obtain the benefit—
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
Will the right hon. Gentleman agree at least that there is unanimity on the following two propositions: first, that the discount scheme in the terms suggested will entail a heavy cost to every other ratepayer—that is, to local authorities—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."]—and, second, that it will mean a drying up of available houses in the rural areas? Save for the right hon. Gentleman himself, there is unanimity on those two matters.
§ Mr. Younger
I am sorry to disillusion the hon. Gentleman, but there is anything but unanimity. Indeed, both those propositions are absolutely wrong. We have provided in the Library some information, which the hon. Gentleman and others may find interesting, which disproves the first point, and the second is utterly unlikely to happen. In any case, it can be covered in the discussions which we have.
The discounts will be framed also in such a way that a widow, for example, may obtain the benefit of time during which her husband was the tenant of a house in which they lived together.
Since these discounts are substantially more generous than any which have been permitted in the past, we are maintaining a safeguard against early resale of houses for quick profits by requiring that a proportion of the discount shall be repaid to the housing authority if a house is resold within five years. In yearly stages, the proportion will reduce from 100 per cent. in the first year to 20 per cent. in the fifth year.
The introduction of these terms of sale through the general consent have, as I indicated earlier, brought forward many thousands of inquiries from tenants who are anxious to make the step forward into home ownership. I am confident that 1250 that will swell to a flood when those tenants who are unfortunate enough to live in areas where the local authorities are maintaining an intransigent attitude to sales are given the opportunity to buy. The removal of the local authorities' power to obstruct the ambitions of their tenants is, of course, the main difference between the present general consent and the Bill. The procedure that we have devised will make it absolutely straightforward for a tenant to buy his house while, at the same time, it will back up his right to buy with a comprehensive set of safeguards for his interests, on which he may call if necessary.
In addition to the provision of the right to buy at a reasonable price and on reasonable terms, we are also concerned with providing tenants with the means to buy.
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
The Secretary of State has referred to the fact that local authorities will no longer be able to obstruct the ambition of their tenants to buy. Does he accept that the obverse of that is that it will be impossible to manage the housing stock? There will no longer be a willing buyer and a willing seller, but there will be compulsory purchase in reverse. It will be impossible to have a balanced sale of housing stock, varying in categories of amenities, age, and so on, but there will be random selection by individual tenants based upon their calculation of a personal aim.
§ Mr. Younger
The main effect of the policy, if it is successful—I am sure that it will be—will be to create a better and wider balance within the community instead of the sameness that is a feature of so many of our housing schemes. In no way will it be difficult for local authorities to manage their houses. I have never heard of any difficulties experienced by a body managing houses because one or two people in the middle operate under a different system. To suggest that there will be such difficulties is a complete figment of the hon. Gentleman's imagination.
A good proportion of tenants will finance their sales wholly or partly from private sources—by obtaining a building society mortgage or meeting a proportion of the price out of their savings. Under the present voluntary sales arrangements, it is by no means unknown for tenants to 1251 buy their houses outright from their savings, and the involvement of building societies in the provision of finance has, on the basis of the limited information which I have, been extremely encouraging. Nevertheless, a substantial increase in the volume of sales is bound to mean that many people who are not in a position to obtain building society mortgages will wish to buy. The Bill provides for those people to obtain a mortgage from the housing authority. The right to a mortgage will be available only to those who are genuinely unable to obtain the necessary funds from a building society. To help to ensure that that is so, the Bill makes it impossible in future for authorities to charge lower rates than building societies. However, subject to that qualification and to normal safeguards concerning the tenant's ability to afford repayments, tenants will have as absolute a right to a mortgage as they have to the purchase of the house.
The introduction of the right to buy is not the only initiative which we are taking on sales. We have also revised the existing controls over local authorities' power to sell houses voluntarily. They will continue to apply to houses that are not covered by the right to buy, and we will make it possible for housing associations to sell houses where they wish to do so.
A number of Opposition Members have expressed an interest in the financial effects of the sales proposals. As I mentioned a moment ago, my right hon. Friends and I have placed a memorandum in the Library which hon. Members will be able to study and upon which, no doubt, they will be able to raise points, if they wish, during the Committee stage.
I shall go on to deal with some of the reasons for giving tenants these rights. There is, of course, the obvious reason which I have already mentioned—freedom, the freedom to choose, the freedom through one's own hard work to acquire an asset which can be enjoyed and passed on to one's children, and the freedom to determine one's own way of life. Many of the great reform movements of the past and the present have been associated with those freedoms and with the desire by the people to ensure that property rights become dispersed throughout the community. But, of course, apart from those somewhat philosophical reasons, 1252 there are also several practical reasons which I am sure will appeal to Opposition Members.
Many people in Scotland who would prefer to own their own homes enter the public sector because at a particular stage of their lives they are unable to afford to buy a house. However, once they pass that stage and their financial circumstances have improved, they are, in many cases, willing and able to devote more of their resources to housing in order to enjoy the benefits of owner-occupation. These people find themselves in a difficult situation. They have put down roots in a particular place, but, because of the predominance of the public sector in many areas, it is likely that the only way in which they could own their homes would be to move elsewhere. In addition, they will often find it difficult to locate a house which will provide them with as good a standard of accommodation as they have at present. That is partly a result of the stifling of private house-building by the growth of the public sector.
The logical solution to the problems is to change our housing system so that it is sufficiently flexible to allow people to fulfil their desire to change their form of tenure. The most effective way of doing that is to allow people to make the transition from renting to buying without moving house. That also allows the financial difficulties of the transition to house purchase to be dealt with by selling houses at a price which reflects the tenants' existing property interest, while substantially reducing the level of public expenditure that is needed to subsidise the provision of housing.
Previous Conservative Governments, and some local authorities, have for many years pointed out the good sense of integrating the sale of publicly owned houses into housing policy. However, the Labour Party and Labour-controlled local authorities have always been extremely reluctant to allow people to fulfil their wishes in that respect. Indeed, in the last few years we have seen the ludicrous situation of a Labour Government allowing the sale of council houses in England and Wales but setting their face against such a policy in Scotland, despite the fact that the proportion of public housing in Scotland is approaching twice that in England and Wales. Labour Members 1253 will, no doubt, attempt to deny that doctrinaire opposition to sales, but the facts speak for themselves. In the four full years between 1975 and 1978, when the previous Government were in power, only 202 houses were sold from local authority stock out of a stock of over 900,000. In 1975, 28 houses were sold; in 1976, 24 houses; in 1977, 92 houses; in 1978, 98 houses—very nearly a century—and in 1979, the year that saw a change in Government and before the new scheme had had time to get off the ground, 941 local authority houses were sold. As I mentioned earlier, between 25,000 and 30,000 applications and inquiries have been received from many council tenants who have been anxiously waiting for the chance to buy their own homes.
I shall not speculate on the motives for the Labour Party's logic concerning the sale of council houses. Clearly, it is not an approach to sales which is ever likely to result in a reasonable approach to sales by some local authorities. As long as that is the case, the only way to ensure that the tenants of public housing authorities throughout Scotland are not unreasonably denied the opportunity to own their homes is to give tenants the absolute right to buy the homes in which they live. That is what the Bill does. In doing so. it puts the power of decision about choice of tenure in the right place —in the hands of the individual tenant.
It is a radical step, but I believe that it is necessary if we in Scotland are to move towards a more balanced society in our towns and cities. Indeed, the Scottish Home Ownership Forum, a creation of the previous Government which contains a broad cross-section of those who are interested in housing in Scotland, in advocating a move towards greater home ownership in Scotland, pointed out that the scale of the problem was so great that a reasonable proportion of owner-occupation could be achieved only by massive sales of council houses. It estimated that even a modest target of 45per cent. home ownership in Scotland—indeed, that is modest—would require the sale of 200,000 public sector dwellings. The scale of the problem before us can be appreciated if we remember that 56 per cent. of householders in England are owner-occupiers. Those who are content a present can continue as before, and those who wish to change 1254 their way of life will have the right to do so. It is my experience that freedom encourages responsibility, and that must be to the ultimate benefit of all—to landlord, tenant and owner—occupierand to the benefit of society as a whole.
I hope that the House will welcome the Bill. In the course of our discussions I hope that all will bear in mind, above all else, the wishes, hopes and ambitions of those whose future prospects are affected. There is overwhelming evidence that most Scots desire to own their homes. Surveys and public opinion polls published in recent years have shown, almost without exception, that there is strong support for that view. The only differences between the results of the polls are to be found in the size of the majority who are in favour of the proposition that more Scots wish to own their homes.
Public opinion, the national interest and common sense are all, for once, allied. Who is against the Bill other than the Labour Party? The only people who come out clearly and consistently against the expressed wishes of the vast majority of the people in Scotland are members of the Labour Party in Scotland. I understand that the Labour Party intends to vote against the whole measure this evening. It proposes to vote against tenants'rights—for instance, the right to buy—and to vote against reforms that are desired by over half of those who live in council houses.
I should have expected this. After all, the Labour Party is only repeating its folly of voting against the whole of the rent rebate scheme when the Conservative Party introduced it in 1972. I wonder how many public sector tenants in Scotland have reflected upon what position they would have been in during the Labour Government's rent increases of the past five years if they had had no rent rebate scheme to cushion them. It was a Tory Government who put that measure through in the teeth of Labour Party opposition, and that party will not be allowed to forget it.
Everyone is in step on this issue except the Labour Party in Scotland. In an atmosphere of conciliation, I hope that Labour Members will be prepared to listen to the arguments and to change their view before Third Reading. If they do, they will support and not oppose a 1255 measure that will transform the prospects of thousands of families in Scotland. I ask the House to give the Bill warm support tonight.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Before I call the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has asked me to say that the 10-minute limit will operate on speeches made between 7 pm and 8.50 pm.
Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Craigton)
The Secretary of State's words on the sale of council houses were even greater nonsense than I had expected. The wishes of the people of Scotland were expressed on a range of issues, including housing, during the last general election. As a result, there are twice as many Labour Members in the Chamber as Tory Members. If the Secretary of State wants another test for the Government's housing policy, I am willing to see what happens at the district council elections next May. We shall see then what the people of Scotland feel about the Bill and about these proposals.
The Labour Party utterly opposes the proposals in the Bill for council house sales and it will resist them to the limit. We shall vote against the Bill and against all the provisions in the Bill relating to the sale of council houses.
There are certain provisions in the Bill that we accept. For example, we accept the provisions on the tenants' charter and the provisions relating to security of tenure that repeat the contents of the consultative documents issued by the Labour Government. These documents apparently satisfy the present Government so adequately that they have not issued a single consultative document on the Bill in Scotland since May. They have relied on the document concerning the sale of council houses that was issued in entirely different circumstances by the Department of the Environment for England and Wales. They have not issued a single consultative document concerning the provisions of the Bill, including those relating to the private sector.
The Secretary of State began his speech by setting the Bill against the general housing background in Scotland and I shall do the same within the context of what is likely to happen during the next 1256 few years. The prospects for housing, both public and private, are the worst—particularly for next year—since the end of the war. The Department of the Environment published some figures at the end of last week. The Guardian described those figures in the following way:Housing set for worst slump".The Times described the figures asFurther evidence of fall in house building activity…According to forecasts recently produced by the industry's Economic Development Committee (little Neddy) total housing starts in 1980…will be the lowest since 1948".That is the reality of the general housing background against which we are debating the Bill. There is no mystery as to why the prospects for housing for next year are very bleak and why they will be bleak a considerable period after that if the Bill is passed.
Within the private sector, we need look no further than the 15 per cent. mortgage rate. It is absolute hypocrisy for the Secretary of State to talk of encouraging home ownership when young couples are faced with a 15 per cent. mortgage interest rate when trying to buy their first house. The irony is that the real friends of owner-occupiers in the United Kingdom have been successive Labour Governments. It was a Labour Government who introduced the option mortgage scheme and the scheme to assist first-time buyers. In the last eight months this Government have put the mortgage interest rates up to a record level, and I understand from indications given by the Chancellor and others that there is no immediate prospect of those rates coming down.
That is why in 1980 we shall have one of the worst years within the private sector since the end of the war. The total housing starts in the United Kingdom this year are likely to be the lowest since 1948. We have been asked to ponder upon some of the realities of present housing, and I hope that Conservative Members will ponder on that reality as it affects the hopes and aspirations of thousands of citizens in Scotland as well as the prospects of the construction industry and, therefore, employment in that industry for next year.
The Government are busy encouraging this rundown because there is a reduction 1257 of £30 million in the capital allocations to local authorities for housing expenditure next year. That has quite deliberately been reduced from the figures given by the previous Labour Government for 1979–80. It has been reduced from £223 million to £197 million.
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): Over five years.
§ Mr. Millan
It is not the last five years. I have the figures here. The Government are quite deliberately reducing local authority capital expenditure next year by £30 million.
When I was in Government, I did not believe that the only test of local authority housing policy was the number of new houses being built. We have gone past the situation where housing policy can be judged simply in terms of the number of new houses being built.
There was not a single occasion in the five years between 1974 and 1979 when a new housing scheme proposed by any local authority in Scotland was turned down by the Government. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to say that over the forthcoming year. The right hon. Gentleman in his first few months in office has already introduced changes in policy which will mean that the capital allocation to local authorities in the current year will not be fully spent. He has refused additional allocations to local authorities this year. Those additional allocations had become a feature of our policy and enabled us to get close to the situation in which local authorities spent the allocations that they were given. It was our experience in earlier years that without such a provision local authorities tended to under-spend their capital allocation.
§ Mr. John MacKay (Argyll)
The right hon. Gentleman is putting up a splendid smokescreen to defend the position where local authority housing dropped from 22,000 in 1976 to 11,000 two years later, during a period when I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State.
§ Mr. Millan
I have just made the point that during the previous Labour Government any drop in the local authority spending was at the instance of those authorities. They recognised, as we must 1258 all recognise, that the emphasis in recent years has moved from new building to improvement and modernisation.
The proposed £30 million reduction will affect modernisation. No one can say that housing in Glasgow does not require considerable modernisation and improvement, but the programme next year has already been slashed by £20 million. I doubt whether any hon. Member will find that fact amusing, and that is the reality of what the Government are doing.
Although the emphasis should be on modernisation and improvement, we still need a significant number of new houses built each year by local authorities to cater for the elderly and others with special needs and to cope with the problems in inner city areas. The prospect for all new building in Scotland next year is gloomier than for many years. I believe that at the end of the year we shall find that the figures for 1980 are even worse than the forecasts of the NEDC, the building industry and the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues in the Department of the Environment. The problems of improving and modernising public sector housing are not dealt with in the Bill, and the provisions for sales will make the position worse.
The future for all housing in Scotland is gloomy. Owner-occupiers are starting the year with a mortgage rate that has increased to 15 per cent., the 20 per cent. reduction in the housing support grant that the Government are imposing on local authorities will mean a rent rise of 33 per cent. for local authority tenants, and under the provisions of the Bill private sector tenants face considerable rate increases.
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)
During the past six years, for five of which the Labour Government were in office, housing improvements halved. In his broad outline of housing policy the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the fact that housing associations have produced more sheltered housing for the elderly than all the local authorities put together.
§ Mr. Millan
The hon. Gentleman is talking awful nonsense. The increased provisions for housing associations were a product of the Labour Government. The capital allocation to housing associations in Scotland during the last year of the Labour Government was five times 1259 greater than when we came to power in 1974.
The expansion of housing association activity in Scotland occurred under the previous Labour Government. We inherited a deplorable situation in 1974 and made considerable improvements. Even in the past two years, between 1977–78 and 1979–80, capital expenditure for housing associations in Scotland rose from £29 million to £48 million. When we became the Government, I believe that it was less than £10 a year.
When the Bill was published, the provisons for the private sector did not get much attention. I am glad that the Secretary of State dealt with that matter. In my constituency there is a considerable amount of private housing, most of which was built with public subsidy under the provisions of the 1924 Housing Act. A considerable number of my constituents who are on the fair rent system have benefited considerably from the £78 limit and the three-instalment phasing introduced in the 1975 Act, which will disappear in the Bill.
The Secretary of State said that another limit would be fixed, which he suggested would be considerably higher than £78. What will that limit be? There is no reason why it should not be written into the Bill, as it was in 1975. In the English Bill it appears that phasing will be retained in two instalments. Why is it being abolished in Scotland? There is no justification for that. In my constituency, private sector tenants who are paying rents of about £300 a year are now faced with increases to £900 a year over a short period.
§ Mr. Millan
The right hon. Gentleman says "No", but the simplest way to reassure people that that will not happen is to state what the limit will be. I am opposed to the replacement of the £78 limit, and there is no justification for the Government not telling us what the new limit is to be. I hope that we shall be told when the Under-Secretary replies to the debate.
I got the impression that the Secretary of State had not the slightest idea of what a controlled tenancy was. I do not believe that it is sensible to remove the control and to convert such tenancies to regula- 1260 tion in one fell swoop. The one sure result will be considerable increases in rents. Whatever limit is established by the Secretary of State, the fact that phasing has been removed will result in substantial increases for controlled tenants, most of whom are paying small rents. We are against that provision.
We also oppose the provision in clause 33 for short-term tenancies. It is ludicrous for the Secretary of State to talk about the great virtues of security of tenure when he is introducing a new provision to allow short-term tenancies for periods as short as one year. Security of tenure for between one year and five years is of little value. The right hon. Gentleman has made a profound mistake.
§ Mr. Rifkind rose—
§ Mr. Millan
I want to say a word to the Under-Secretary. The justification of the Government's proposal ought to have been provided by way of a consultative document, but the Government have produced no such document. The Under-Secretary appears anxious to tell us the reason for the proposal, but I want to get on with my speech and, as the hon. Gentleman is to reply to the debate, perhaps he will give us the justification when he replies. He has given us no explanation. The Government have produced no piece of a paper about the Bill. I want answers from the hon. Gentleman when he replies.
§ Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith (Glasgow, Hillhead)
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that many people would be willing to let their houses if they could be sure of getting them back? It is because they are not sure of getting them back that they do not let those houses.
§ Mr. Millan
I doubt whether the consequences that the Secretary of State suggested would flow from this provision will, in fact, happen. We shall debate that issue in Committee. The Government have given no justification for it.
We agree generally with the Bill's proposals for a tenants' charter. Many of the provisions are taken from the previous Government's consultative document, but there is a conspicuous gap that calls into question all the provisions relating to the charter. I refer to consultation.
The English Bill provides an obligation on local authorities to consult, but 1261 there is not a single word about consultation in the Scottish Bill. I understand some of the practical difficulties involved. It is not an easy matter, but it is intolerable that the English Bill should place obligations to consult on local authorities when there is not a word about that in the Scottish Bill.
We shall have to pursue that matter in Committee, but it throws a different light on the bland words of the Secretary of State about the importance of local authorities taking account of tenants' rights and responsibilities, and so on.
I understand the fears of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about security of tenure, particularly in relation to anti-social tenants, but the Labour Party is firmly in favour of security of tenure and we believe that the provisions in the Bill are right, except for the provision relating to under-occupation. That was in the previous Labour Government's original document, but we dropped it before the last election and informed the interests concerned that we had done so. I do not believe that under-occupation should be a ground for the recovery of a house. The problem facing most hon. Members is to get people out of houses that are too big for them and into houses that are smaller and more convenient to their needs and into which they want to move. So there is little justification for the under-occupation provision.
§ Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the under-occupation provision could be a good way of dealing with the problem of the marital split-up when the husband is left in the house and the wife, who may have three or four children, is sent out? The under-occupation provision would enable the wife to return to the marital home.
§ Mr. Millan
Provisions already exist to allow a local authority to allocate a house to a wife and children rather than to a husband. It has always been my view that that is what should happen in the sort of circumstances outlined by the hon. Gentleman. Unfortunately, many local authorities have taken the side of the husband, for what I believe to be spurious legal reasons. I believe that the house should be allocated to the wife and children, but that does not have to be included in the Bill. It is a point 1262 that should be dealt with in a different way and not in the Bill.
We shall look at allocation questions in Committee. Many aspects were dealt with by the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee in a report a number of years ago. It is ironic that the committee is to be abolished by the Bill. The Secretary of State had the impertinence to call the Scottish home ownership forum in support of some of his ideas. The right hon. Gentleman recently gratuitously abolished the forum.
§ Mr. Millan
I have thought that on more than one occasion over the past eight months.
The benefit that the Secretary of State has suggested will derive from the provisions on allocations is grossly exaggerated. They will not deal with many of the problems that need to be dealt with. Many of the problems cannot be dealt with by central legislation. It is a mistake to believe that we can legislate to solve a number of local problems. That cannot be done. We shall return at length to those matters in Committee.
The most important part of the Bill relates to council house sales. Our objections, in summary, are that the provisions are unfair to local authorities, to tenants and to prospective tenants.
The whole question of Government-local authority relationships is involved. The Bill denies local authorities the right to manage their own housing stocks. It is humbug for the Secretary of State to say how wonderful housing managers are. I do not believe that they are all wonderful, but I would not say that they are wonderful and at the same time clobber their rights and the rights of elected members of local authorities. That is what the Secretary of State is doing.
A lot of nonsense—no doubt the Secretary of State would call it philosophy—has been talked about the right to buy. That is more humbug. There is no right in the Bill, in practice, for more than a minority of council house tenants to buy their houses. There is no inalienable right, in any case, for any citizen, even one desperately requiring housing, to have suitable local authority housing allocated to him.
1263 I have thousands of constituents who would love to be allocated local authority housing, but it has been denied them. There is no absolute right to local authority housing and no inalienable right for anyone to buy his house. If there were such rights and if it were a matter of such grand philosophy, they ought to be applied to private tenants as well as to public tenants. It is hypocrisy for the Secretary of State to talk as he does about the right to buy.
I do not believe that only the local authority should decide on such matters. Since public housing has been provided partly by local subsidy and partly by general Government subsidy, the Government have a role. The role should be complementary, not dictatorial.
The view of the Labour Government, as expressed in the Green Paper of 1977 and subsequently implemented, was that local authority sales in Scotland should be strictly controlled and subject to the discipline of the annual housing plans. During our last years of government we told local authorities in Scotland that if they wished to produce proposals for the sale of council houses they were at liberty to do so but that the proposals should be within the context of their general housing plans, which cover the whole housing situation in the area, including the contribution by the private sector as well as that of the public sector. We received proposals from four authorities in 1978, and I have no doubt that had the Labour Party remained in power we should have had many more in 1979.
It would have been possible for the present Government, wishing to achieve an increase in local authority sales, to use the vehicle of the housing plans to achieve that end. They could have told authorities that restrictions placed upon them by the Labour Government would be removed. Local authorities could have put forward proposals under their housing plans, provided that they did not contain any outrageous proposals. That could have been done without this legislation and without dictating to the local authorities.
Even the discounts could have been introduced under the local housing plans. There is no need for the Bill if the Government wish purely to expand council house sales in Scotland. That could be 1264 done under the terms of the housing plans. Instead, the Bill contains an utterly doctrinaire attitude and provision which will have disastrous consequences for local authority housing in Scotland.
§ Mr. Rifkind
If that approach would have met with the support and consent of the right hon. Gentleman, why did he not welcome the general consent to local authorities that we gave after the election, whereby local authorities, in consultation with the Government, could do that?
§ Mr. Millan
The hon. Gentleman has just confirmed that it could have been done without the Bill. That is my point. I did not welcome it because I do not approve of the general consent. My point is that a Government wanting to encourage sales can do so without the Bill. There is nothing in the Bill that would produce an increase in local authority sales in Scotland that could not have eagerly been achieved without this legislation and without dictating to local authorities. The Government did not wish to do that by general consent and with the co-operation of local authorities. They are determined that they know best, and they are determined to take away the rights of local authorities to manage their own housing They wish to impose a dictatorial obligation on local authorities to sell their houses, regardless of their general housing policy and regardless of the impact of the sales on the general stock of local authority housing.
The financial consequences were the subject of considerable wild claims, particularly by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Those claims have been considerably modified, although the financial memorandum is completely misleading on what the savings are likely to be. Incidentally, a document on the subject was published and made available in the Vote Office at 10 o'clock on a Friday morning during the parliamentary recess when the Bill was to be debated on the following Monday. That is typical of consultation with Members of Parliament, never mind consultation with local authorities. Most hon. Members will have seen that document for the first time today. It can be seen from that document that the wild claims previously made about the tremendous saving in public expenditure were ludicrous. Depending 1265 or the assumptions used, one could produce figures showing financial benefit from the sale of council houses, or showing considerable deficit, as a number of independent studies have already shown.
The financial consequences cannot be assessed by mathematical calculations and untested assumptions. [Interruption.] We asked for an explanatory document well before Second Reading. We shall now study the document and comment on it in Committee. The Secretary of State had little to say about it today. One would have thought that if it demonstrated the financial sense of the Bill he would have said a lot more.
If the policy is damaging in other ways, there are other costs to local authorities which cannot be quantified in advance. I give a parallel. I am not making party points, because it has happened under both Labour and Conservative Governments. We all know the damage that has been done to many local authority housing schemes in Scotland, which were built at a time when the accompanying social amenities were not built because of financial stringency. Money was saved then, but it has cost millions of pounds since. If this scheme goes wrong—I believe that it will inevitably go wrong—some of the indirect as well as direct consequences will cost millions of pounds later. They cannot be quantified in the kind of document published last Friday. The discounts are too generous and public assets will be available at give-away prices. I am opposed to that. No discounts were given by the previous Labour Government for the sale of council houses in Scotland.
One outrageous proposal, which cannot be justified in any circumstances, is that contained in clause 2. For the payment of £100 a person can maintain an option to buy a council house at a frozen price for two years. That is outrageous. I hope that owner-occupiers or prospective owner-occupiers who, under the two last years of both Labour and Conservative Government, have been faced with price increases of up to 50 per cent. will note that for the payment of £100 a council tenant already in a council house will have the price of his house frozen for the next two years.
The proposals state that if a person is turned down by a building society—presumably because he is not a good risk 1266 —the local authority is under an obligation to give a loan for the sale of a house that it does not wish to sell in the first place and to finance it out of its own money. If that is not dictating to local authorities, I do not know what is. That matter is to be regulated by the Secretary of State, but there was no indication in his speech today of what he had in mind for regulating those financial arrangements.
It is a bargain for the minority—I believe that it will be a small minority—of council house tenants who buy their houses at a discount of 50 per cent. Anything that can be bought at 50 per cent. of its value is a bargain. If I had that sort of money to give away, I would not give it to long-established council house tenants in the better housing schemes when there are many other people who are demanding housing help but are not getting it from the Government. I think particularly of young couples wishing to buy their first homes. That is where the priority ought to go.
§ Mr. Henderson
May I intervene on that point? The long-serving council house tenant will not ordinarily be making his house available for the use of any other potential tenant, but if he buys his house it makes money available to the local authority, which can then build another council house, perhaps suitable for an elderly tenant.
§ Mr. Millan
The hon. Gentleman is off the beam. If he reads his own Government's financial appraisal, he will see how far he is off the beam.
The Secretary of State talked in grand terms of liberating the vast majority of council house tenants. The financial memorandum indicates that the Government expect 5,000 houses to be sold in the first year. We have 1 million of them in Scotland. At that rate it would take 200 years to sell off the total stock of local authority housing.
There is a great myth, and it is usually propagated by people who would not know a council house scheme if they saw one and who know nothing about the tenants' circumstances. It is that in some way, because the values would be reduced in the poorer areas, there would be sales in every kind of local authority area in Scotland. That is absolute nonsense. No one who knows anything about local 1267 authority tenants will believe that there will be sales in all the areas. Large numbers of tenants will be unwilling to buy, for very good reasons. Frankly, there are many of our housing schemes in which I would not advise tenants to buy. In many cases it would be a very poor bargain, even at low prices. In addition, there are large numbers of council tenants who have nothing like the income to enable them to buy a council house. That is a very significant proportion.
The rather peculiar family provisions in the Bill could be subject to the most appalling abuse, giving people uncovenanted profit, for no housing gain at all, not even to the person living in the house but to some member of the family. But, even using the family provisions, there are very large numbers of tenants who will not be able to buy for income reasons.
When we look at the English experience, on the basis of the appraisal document available today we find that for the purposes of its calculations it has taken the average market value of the houses to be sold as £14,000. That gives the game away immediately, because it identifies, certainly in the Scottish context, the houses likely to be sold as the best houses in the best area, otherwise the average would come out at nothing like £14,000. That average of £14,000 is used in the Government's own document.
What has been the experience in Birmingham, where 10,000 dwellings have been sold between 1965 and 1978? Of these 10,000 dwellings, only four were flats, and that is over 13 years, with an open sales policy. When we consider the United Kingdom figures for 1979–80 as a whole, we find that only 1.3 per cent. of the dwellings sold were flats. A vast proportion of the Scottish council houses are flats, and most of these will not be sold.
The idea that there will be sales all through the local authority schemes, resulting in an improvement in the social mix, is absolute nonsense. Anyone who knows local authority housing in Scotland must recognise that the houses that will be sold will be the best houses in the best areas. These houses will be sold to the minority of tenants who can afford them. That is what will happen under these proposals. The local authorities will 1268 be left with all the problem areas. Far from this measure improving the balance of local authority stock, it will considerably increase the problems.
The Government have swept aside all these practical objections, including the objections put forward by COSLA. The claim that COSLA is in favour of the Bill is a lie, to put it bluntly. [Interruption.] I am glad to have it acknowledged that the claim is a lie. There is nothing in the Bill about the rural areas, although there is something in the English Bill and there was something in the Tory election manifesto on that subject. The problems of multi-storey flats have been mentioned by COSLA. There is nothing in the Bill about these, although there are formidable problems there. There are also formidable problems in areas which are being modernised and rehabilitated. All these matters are ignored in the Bill. They are all swept aside, and instead we have purely doctrinaire provisions.
The effect of the Bill will be extremely serious, first to the tenants on the waiting lists. Those of us who know the position in the larger cities have no doubt about that. It will very considerably reduce the prospects of the people at present on the waiting lists. The housing managers have already said so in the studies that they have produced. There will be a particular problem and a particular disadvantage for the tenants who are awaiting transfer from the poorer or less popular housing schemes to the more popular ones. There is no point in the Secretary of State shaking his head. If I may say so, I have vast experience of this problem in my own constituency. It is an utter lie to suggest that these people will not be disadvantaged. If there were some compensating gains to be obtained, that would be fair enough, but I do not believe that any such gains exist. To say that there is no disadvantage for those who wish to obtain a transfer to the better areas is to fly in the face of all experience and common sense.
Those are the direct effects on individual tenants, but in some ways the indirect effects can be even more damaging. The Bill makes provision for tenants to buy over the heads of the local authorities, regardless of their wishes. That is bound to be a disincentive to local authorities to build new housing—and they are already building very little at the moment. 1269 As I said earlier, we still need new building. There is a considerable disincentive written into the Bill. If a local authority builds a house, spending a lot of money on it, under the Bill that house can be removed within a year or two from local authority control. The tenant does not have to be in it even for a week before he can exercise his right to buy if he is already a council tenant. The Secretary of State simply does not understand the effect of his own Bill.
I say unequivocally that the Bill will represent a disincentive to local authorities to build. But, even more so, it will represent a disincentive to local authorities to modernise property. Why should a local authority spend a lot of money in modernising houses if it can lose 50 per cent. of the value of that modernisation right away?
I have already had to tell the people who live in a very desirable part of my own constituency where I think there will be a demand to buy the houses but where the houses need internal modernisation that it is very difficult to see why, if the Bill goes through, the local authorities should spend a penny on modernising them. I have said this to my own constituents and I say it here. The local authority will be throwing good money away if houses can be bought, against the wishes of the local authority, immediately after modernisation.
Some of these points have been made by COSLA, but they have all been swept aside. It may be that the Government want to stop new building and modernisation altogether. They are already reducing the figures for next year. That true monetarist, the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) in an article in The Guardian this morning, advocates that we should stop building council houses now that this sort of legislation is before the House.
I do not think that the Government can really believe that the Bill will improve social mobility and social mix and give a great deal of freedom to local authority tenants. If the Government genuinely believe that, they will be very considerably disappointed. The Bill will not achieve those purposes. But its effect will be damaging well beyond the provisions of the Bill itself and well beyond the modest number of houses which I believe will be sold given the terms of the Bill. 1270 Even if the number is modest, the effect on the local authority housing stock and the indirect effect on new house building and modernisation by local authorities can be utterly disastrous for the public sector in Scotland.
The Tories have always disliked council housing, especially in Scotland. They have done everything in their power to damage it over the years. They have sneered at it and they have sneered at the people who live in council houses in Scotland. They have done it repeatedly in this House. But, for many people, council housing is the only prospect that they will ever have of decent housing. The Bill is an attack on hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland, and the Opposition intend to resist it to the end.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Speaker
Hon. Members can see as well as I can how many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. We were late starting the debate. It will be possible to call hon. Members only if speeches are brief, I must warn the House.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given what you have just said and the fact that earlier you announced that there would be a 10-minute limitation on speeches, may I ask whether there is any way in which you can prevail on Front Bench spokesmen to act with a degree of restraint? I have it in mind that the Secretary of State spoke for 42 minutes and that the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) spoke for 46 minutes. Surely that is hardly fair.
§ Mr. Speaker
I remind the hon. Gentleman that Front Benchers speak for their respective parties and that there is a difference. However, I hope that the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) himself heard my plea to the House.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
I shall take account of what you have said, Mr. Speaker.
The Bill is a mixture of good and bad, and that must be said straight away. Despite the fair amount of press criticism of it that there has been, parts of it are excellent, especially in the area of tenants' rights. The Government have gone far beyond what the previous Administration 1271 did and failed to do despite their election commitments in 1974.
It is the first part of the Bill, concerning the right to buy, which is the most controversial. The way in which it is done represents the Bill's worst feature.
Liberals see nothing wrong and a great deal right with the principle of the sale of council houses. However, two conditions must be considered, recognised and met by the Government in seeking to proceed with this matter. The first condition is that the sale of council houses should not in either the short or the long term harm the chances of those who cannot afford to buy putting a rented roof over their heads. The second is that sales should deplete the good and bad areas of a council's housing stock at a roughly equivalent rate so as not to leave local authorities in the possession of difficult-to-let schemes while the best stock is sold to private owners. I am afraid that the Bill fails to meet those two basic conditions.
In terms of the first condition, it is obvious that certain Scottish authorities in the West of Scotland—Glasgow and Greenock are examples—fall into categories where, in crude terms, they have a housing surplus. Sales in those areas are desirable and perhaps can be conducted without causing social damage as applicants will still be given houses to rent from the surplus until the surplus is eroded, and that is not to be expected to happen in a short space of time. But in the East of Scotland and in the rural areas the position is different, and the Government must face this. Obviously I do not expect them to indicate changes immediately, but they must face the problem.
In Aberdeen, for instance, I understand that there is a waiting list of about 1,000, with about 3,000 waiting for transfers. In the town of Inverness, where I live, there is a waiting list of between 1,600 and 2,000. Far from having a surplus of accommodation, such authorities have a shortfall because there have been difficulties of finance imposed by successive Governments over the years, about which there is no point in arguing at the moment.
In those circumstances, to encourage people to move from rented accommoda- 1272 tion to owner-occupation is acceptable only if the bought houses come from private builders. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) made a fair point when he said that the Government should also be thinking in terms of assistance to private builders and with mortgage rates.
Rural areas have this problem magnified many times. A rural authority may have a smaller stock to start with. I have in mind an authority such as Badenoch and Strathspey, in my constituency, which has only 1,000 houses altogether. At the moment, there are 549 people on the waiting list. The bulk of its houses are a very attractive proposition, especially for people interested in having a second home, a holiday home.
The position in other rural areas is exaggerated still further. There are many small district authorities with perhaps a dozen or 15 houses in small villages, and the sale of one depletes the stock by 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. That is a position which the Government cannot ignore and pretend does not exist.
One can hardly blame or make any moral judgment of a sitting tenant who takes advantage of this legislation knowing that within five years he can make a considerable financial gain. But surely that is not the object of the Government's legislation.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire) rose—
§ Mr. Younger rose—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. We have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time. I do not think the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) was aware that the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) was seeking to intervene. But, if he saw him, I do not think that he had an inclination to give way to him.
§ Mr. Johnston
I am grateful for your guidance, as always, Mr. Speaker. I was saying that if the house was eventually sold, in a small community the elderly parents of the seller might well 1273 be deprived in the future of the opportunity of having a house.
§ Mr. Younger
In the first instance, the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that the house is available for buying only to the person living in it and continuing to live in it for the rest of his life. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. Secondly, even if he sells eventually for some reason or another, he still has to find somewhere else to live. Therefore, the accommodation is made use of throughout. It does not make any difference to the waiting list.
§ Mr. Johnston
It could serve as a holiday home, of course. However, I make two points on that basis, In my view, individual local authorities should be given discretion to decide in the light of the assessment of housing need, which, after all, they are obliged to supply to the Scottish Office as part of their annual housing plans, whether their stocks are large enough to allow sales and, if so, at what pace. In other words, I do not believe that flat-out sales should be allowed.
This involves devolution as well. It involves some freedom to local authorities of which, in the days of Tameside, the present Government were very much in favour.
The second necessary change is to safeguard the existence of small pockets of rented property in rural areas even by exempting them in some way or by giving to the council the right of pre-emption, with no limit in time, to permit reacquisition. There are good social and rural development grounds for that kind of approach.
It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to say that the question of the depletion of good and bad schemes will not be a great problem. I know what will happen. The good areas of Inverness will sell quickly. The Secretary of State is right. But there is no way in which sales will be made in Kessock, or what is called the Ferry, in Inverness. The local authority will be left with a large difficult area to handle. That is a major problem that cannot be ignored.
§ Mr. David Steel
My hon. Friend's point about the rural areas is not confined to the rural areas. In my constituency, there are conservation areas in the boroughs containing local authority pro- 1274 perties to which these rights extend under the Bill as drafted.
§ Mr. Johnston
It is perhaps also worth mentioning that I support the part of the Bill that empowers councils to sell empty houses. This has been tried in Liverpool and talked about in Edinburgh. It is a good idea. It is excellent that the Government should have proceeded in the matter.
Part II of the Bill, by contrast, is good. I was glad to hear the right hon. Member for Craigton say that he supported the security of tenure provisions, although, as we know, COSLA has expressed some questions about them. We agree with the provision. We see no reason why council tenants should not have the same security of tenure as private tenants.
I have not time to refer to the whole question of leases. But that area of the Bill is good. The Government are to be complimented on what they have done.
Part III of the Bill is also reasonably good. No Liberal could but applaud the stipulation that allocation systems should be open to public scrutiny. That is a highly desirable development. It is also good that residence qualifications and minimum waiting periods are to be abolished. Successive Governments, over three decades, have been trying to get local authorities to adopt this approach on a voluntary basis but unsuccessfully. I am not sure that I am so enthusiastic about abolishing the Secretary of State's right to limit unreasonable rent increases. I shall not necessarily go to the barricades on the matter, but I am doubtful about the value of the proposal.
I tend to keep an open mind on the question of short tenancies and short hold touched upon by the right hon. Member for Craigton. There can be no argument that there is a need for greater accessibility to private rented accommodation. Some of the effects of the Rent Act were not foreseen by many hon. Members when we were seeking to give tenants protection which they did not possess at that time.
I cannot agree that it is a good idea to abolish the rent tribunals. I would have thought that there was a clear role for them. The Scottish Housing Advisory Committee is to disappear. This is perhaps part of a quango-bashing exercise. I do not see any other major justification. The committee has done a useful job and, 1275 as the right hon. Member for Craigton indicated, it has contributed to the composition of good parts of the Bill. However, its disappearance is not perhaps the end of the world.
I am conscious of Mr. Speaker's admonitions to other hon. Members. I would not wish him to extend them to me. I therefore seek to sum up by asking the Minister to indicate a willingness to consider carefully in Committee amendments designed to enable authorities to regulate sales in terms of need. The Secretary of State talked about absolute rights to purchase. I do not believe that there are absolute rights that are not necessarily conditioned by responsibilities to the community. One has also to protect the rural situation to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Liberal Party referred and about which I spoke myself. Without these changes, we cannot support the Bill as a whole despite the fact that we accept the idea of sale in principle and welcome the proposals contained in other parts of the Bill.
§ Mr. Michael Ancram (Edinburgh, South)
I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston). It was, to my mind, a typically Liberal speech. The hon. Gentleman liked parts of the Bill but he did not like other parts. At the end of the day, the hon. Gentleman left me in a certain amount of doubt about whether or not he supported the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman raised two points that I should like to take up. The hon. Gentleman seems to be falling into the same trap as the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) in believing that if council houses were not offered for sale, the tenants, in some magic way, would disappear and the houses would become available to people on waiting lists. It has been a recurrent theme in speeches heard from the Opposition Benches that one can afford to sell council houses only when there are surpluses or one begins to diminish the amount available for people seeking to move into council houses.
That is not the impression that I gain in my constituency. Some of the people in council houses in my constituency will buy if they get the chance under the Bill. 1276 But if they do not get that chance they will stay in the council houses and the houses will not become available to others. I find the argument put forward from the Opposition Benches specious and one that does not hold water.
I listened with great care and fascination to the speech of the right hon. Member for Craigton. His speech seemed to be the culmination of a carefully orchestrated and gradually constructed opposition from Opposition Members to the Bill. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members who have held press conferences around Scotland on the great efforts that they have made. Those efforts have been considerable. They have been like some amphibian which realises the puny nature of its presence and puffs itself up to an ever larger size in order to give some sense of ferocity and strength when, in fact, the reality is that all it contains is hot air. That is what we have heard today from the right hon. Member for Craigton. There was much noise and much posturing. When we read his words, we shall find that they amount to very little else than irrelevant polemics.
Perhaps, on reflection, it is a little unfair to suggest that all that we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman has been posturing. I believe that there has been more to it than that In many ways it has been the heart-rending cry of the overweening parent who finds suddenly that his child has grown up, is now mature and intends to go his own way and that the parent can no longer exercise the dominance and control that he has been able to exercise in the past.
The Bill sets out not to create the sort of social conditions about which the right hon. Member for Craigton was speaking but to put an end to paternalism. Its aim is to put an end to the paternalistic control of Scottish council housing that has existed for so long and to the paternalism that for years has sought to destroy any real feeling of responsibility or pride in what to the tenant—this is often forgotten—is not just a house and not just a convenience but a home.
The Bill aims to end the paternalism that has too often enforced uniformity and drabness upon people who were only too willing, had they been given the chance, to express their own individuality in their own houses in their own ways. 1277 It also seeks to end the paternalism of Big Brother under which housing has been regarded too often as a political weapon whereby the control of people and people's lives through their homes can achieve a political allegiance that owes more to their fear and their dependence than to their reason. The Bill sounds the death knell for that outdated and unjustifiable attitude.
No wonder there are sounds of anguish from hon. Members opposite, and especially from the right hon. Member for Craigton. They claim that the Bill will mean an end to well-managed council housing as a public service. That is complete and arrant nonsense. If they bothered to read the Bill, they would see that it ends not good management but merely the restrictions and regulations which have too often made those in council houses the servants and subjects of the housing authorities rather than the other way round. If housing is to be a genuine public service, the authority must serve and not dominate. In many respects, that is what the Bill sets out to do.
The right hon. Member for Craigton suggested that the Bill would drastically reduce the powers of housing authorities. My answer is, thank goodness. It is only by reducing the powers of housing authorities, local authorities and executives that one can increase individual rights and freedoms.
I welcome the Bill because it sets its balance about right. It maintains the public housing sector as a necessary and beneficial public service, but it removes the dead weight of authority from it, which was effectively reducing the quality of life for many people living in council houses. But, above all—thisis the most important point—the Bill recognises a council house as someone's home rather than just a tool of administration. It places the emphasis back on the householder and away from the authority.
Much has been said already about detailed aspects of the Bill. I would not wish to take up time by going over the ground again, but I should like to deal with a few areas of complaint from constituents, with which the Bill effectively deals.
People have often complained to me, as I am sure constituents have complained 1278 to other hon. Members, about the progress of their housing applications. This has been a major part of my postbag since I re-entered the House in May last year. Often the root of the complaints is that people see housing lists as a secret procedure conducted behind closed doors, in some way militating against their interests. Whether justice is done by the housing committees does not matter to them, because they rarely if ever see justice done. The resultant uncertainty often breeds great resentment in the hearts of people so treated.
I believe that the Bill will open the windows on allocations and transfers. No hon. Member who has received the sort of complaints that I have from constituents can oppose that part of the Bill, unless he believes these lists to be a necessary part of some manipulative system which should not see the light of day.
Council tenants in my constituency have also often complained to me about their inability to treat their houses as their homes. The Bill makes a genuine attempt to alter that position in various ways. First, it will give those people the right to buy their council houses, which in the end is the ultimate security, and it can give them a proper return for the years of rent that they have paid.
The right hon. Member for Craigton talked about giving away houses at knock-down prices. He seems to forget that tenants have paid hard-earned money for years for the right to live in those houses. This provision of a right for tenants to buy gives them the chance to see some return for the money that they have paid. Another important right that will be given to the tenant is the opportunity to improve his house himself without having always to obey the dictates of the council.
§ Mr. George Robertson(Hamilton) indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Ancram
The hon. Member shakes his head. Some people in my constituency long to work on their own houses and choose the sort of doors and windows that they want but at the moment are prevented from doing so. The Bill will give them that right. If the hon. Member wishes, I will later give him the name and address of a tenant in my constituency who has recently been 1279 unable to acquire a door which fits because it is not the standard door provided in council houses of his type.
The right to sublet will allow the tenant to see some return, where appropriate, for his rent. Also important is the question of security of tenure.
All these provisions break away from the drabness and uniformity of council houses which, in so many areas of our cities, reduce the quality of life and help to exacerbate social problems. The possibility of genuine neighbourhood projects of the kind that we have sought in many areas of Scotland can now suddenly become a reality. That alone will help to improve the quality of life.
There is also a chance, by means of the Bill, to create genuine variety and individuality of housing and to change a system which insists on standard doors, windows and colours. The Bill will give people the chance to own their own homes or at least to leave them to their families, either as tenants or as owner-occupiers. If one believes in the importance of family roots and the stability that roots create—
§ Mr. Ancram
Perhaps it has, and perhaps I want to see those benefits shared widely.
The right of a person to succeed to the family home under the Bill will help to achieve an even greater stability within the family of the sort we seek.
I also welcome the efforts in the Bill to free the privately rented sector and to increase the stock of accommodation, which was so seriously curtailed by previous legislation. In my constituency, for instance, many people have had difficulty in getting private flats because of those restrictions and the problem of security of tenure.
The provision for controlling anti-social tenants is also important. If we are to create stable and happy council estates, we have to have a proper method of dealing with such tenants, who can create misery for their neighbours.
The Bill will also encourage greater mobility for council tenants. Often in 1280 the past people's job opportunities were diminished because of their fear that they would not be able to get a council house.
I have one or two doubts, with which hope the Minister will be able to deal in his reply. I should like to hear what he has to say about the Bill's effect on council housing in sparsely populated rural areas. That must be seriously considered. I understand that the equivalent English Bill has some provisions to deal with that matter.
Secondly, why have police houses been excluded from the provisions to give tenants the right to buy? Policemen, who often spend a long time in one house during their service, should have the same right as council tenants to regard their house as their home.
I am worried as some Opposition Members about whether it is possible to give a greater incentive to buy to people in what the hon. Member for Inverness called the worst areas in order to get a wider pattern of sale across the community.
Having expressed those doubts, I believe that the principle of the Bill is right—to give the householder greater control over and responsibility for his own life and to break away from the heavy-handed control of bureaucracy over homes, which are the most vital part of people's lives.
I am not surprised that hon. Gentlemen opposite—particularly members of the Labour Party—complain. For years they saw council housing as their own private empire on which the sun would never set. This Bill is the first sign that that sun is on the wane. I am not surprised either that COSLA and certain local authorities complain about the Bill. I have yet to find an instance where Parliament has threatened to reduce someone's powers where that person or authority does not complain about it. They complain because power is being taken from them and being given to the people who really matter—the tenants.
I know from experience in my own constituency that those tenants welcome this legislation. They see that once again they are to be given the chance to choose for themselves in their own lives and in their own homes. I hope that the House will support the Bill.
§ Mr. Michael Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
There is great concern in Glasgow about the Bill. People on housing waiting lists, elected members and officials of the district council are concerned because the Government have failed to consult them. The district council there has 180,000 houses in its stock and the Government have had one meeting only with the district council—one meeting with representatives of a city which has many housing problems. Glasgow has great difficulty in overcoming those problems without facing this particular piece of legislation.
As a result of the Bill, the local authority will be forced to sell houses which were not built for sale. [Interruption.] Hon. Members on the Tory Benches may laugh, but in my constituency we have multi-storey blocks 32 storeys high, the highest in Europe. I think that it is irresponsible to give tenants in those blocks the right to buy their homes. Who will be responsible, for example, for the maintenance of lifts? Who will take responsibility for security in such blocks? Any tenant buying his home in such a block will face heavy repair and maintenance bills.
That is the kind of problem existing in Glasgow. There are the same problems with deck-access houses. I do not believe that many Tories will have been in deck-access houses, which are similar to multi-storey dwellings, except that they are designed on the corridor principle. Some of those corridors stretch for a quarter of a mile. There are difficulties in the supervision of such housing, and owner-occupiers would have to find the money not only to pay mortgages but to look after maintenance, repairs and security.
Glasgow is also concerned about the proposal for the indiscriminate selling of council houses. Any authority which has embarked on the sale of council housing has usually designated certain parts of its housing schemes for sale. The Bill enables any tenant of three years' standing to buy his house. What will happen if such buyers face settlement problems? Local authority housing has had to be demolished in the past because of settlement. We now have the problem in reverse. We must find out who owns a house. We must search for title deeds. 1282 There can be many delays before the re-housing of tenants can take place.
The Secretary of State told us that he would like to see a revival in the private rented sector. Any Glaswegian over the age of 25 has vivid memories of the city's private landlords. Glasgow has had more than its fair share of Rachman-type landlords. Indeed, some of Glasgow's landlords would have put Rachman to shame.
I was brought up in a room-and-kitchen slum in Glasgow. Such an up-bringing leaves its mark. Private landlords in Glasgow herded people like animals into conditions of overcrowding. Such landlords could have provided better accomodation, but, because the tenants in their older properties made a fuss and kicked up a row about their conditions, landlords denied those tenants the right to transfer to a better house. In my experience, the only time that the private landlord came to our dwelling was when someone was in arrears with rent. The private landlord did not want to know about his own property when that property needed to be repaired.
The Bill is unjust because it will mean that the more attractive housing stock will be bought up. That means that people looking for homes to rent will have to take the less attractive houses. The Secretary of State and the Government should also remember that in Glasgow many people on the housing waiting list stood aside because there were others with priorities. We have all heard constituents asking why after waiting 20 years they were unable to obtain a house while other people who had waited only 10 years were able to get a house. The reason why people were able to obtain a house after a 10-year wait was that they had to be removed from property about to be demolished in redevelopment areas.
It is extremely unfair that the people who have been denied housing because they stood aside in the face of more important priorities are now not fortunate enough to be in a local authority house. They are being doubly penalised. They will not be able to get the type of local authority house which a wait of 20 or 30 years would attract and so will not be able to buy that house from the local authority.
The Tories talk a great deal about freedom. It is nonsense to say that the 1283 Bill gives freedom to tenants. It is an attack on the men and women of Scotland.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I think it is near enough to 7 pm for me to indicate that we shall now be operating the 10-minute rule. I hope that hon. Members will curtail their speeches so that the Chair does not have to intervene.
§ Mr. Ian Lang (Galloway)
I give a cordial welcome to the Bill. My welcome begins with the title of the Bill, which is not, be it noted, the Council House (Scotland) Bill; still less, indeed, the Council House (Sales) Bill. The title is Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill.
The title reflects the importance of the long-overdue change of emphasis in our outlook on Scotland's housing problems. The Bill is in favour of the individuals and the families who occupy the houses and against the bureaucracies that run housing schemes. Council housing and the creation of the large authorities which grew up to administer it has for too long been an end in itself instead of a means to an end—a master instead of a servant, a source of power instead of a source of help for those in need.
In some cities great acreages of housing schemes, without adequate shops, bus services or amenities, with no spirit of community, with vandalism at epidemic proportions and enormous multi-storey flats isolating people 20 storeys up, were built as monuments to municipal self-importance by successive profligate local authorities. They were built with no thought for the true needs or rights of the occupants.
Now, at last, words such as "flexibility", "variety", "improvement grants" and "security of tenure" and, above all, a "security of tenure" and, above all, a code of rights for public sector tenants mark a fundamental change of approach away from the patronage of the State and towards the rights of the individual. That approach is reflected in a number of the Bill's provisions. The Bill also marks a change of emphasis from quantity to quality. The Bill finds echoes in the work done by the previous Conservative Government when they sought to implement the recommendations of the Cullingworth 1284 report on improving Scotland's older houses.
I welcome all the provisions which seek to achieve that and freedom for the occupants of council housing, including the right to buy in particular. All the calculations about profit and loss and which types of house will sell and which will not are fruitless because so many imponderables must be taken into account. Opposition Members seem to take no account of the fact that each house has its price and that a market price will be found for those houses which are for sale. It is unjust to argue that a particular type of house will sell more easily than another type. The principle is important and not the pounds and the pence.
The provision of council housing should be concentrated on those who want and need it—the elderly, the handicapped and the poor. Council housing has a crucially important role for such people. Those who wish to take on the responsibility, as well as the freedom, of owning their own home, maintaining and improving it and having the chance to build up an investment for their future and their family's future, should be entitled to what could be called a fundamental and irreversible redistribution of wealth in favour of working people.
I impress upon my right hon. Friend the importance of the different nature of housing patterns in rural and urban areas. I stress the difference between employment patterns and incomes. The proportion of owner-occupied and council housing is reversed in some areas. Sensitivity of approach is called for. The wholesale disposal of council houses in some areas, because there are few such houses and because they are crucial to the continuing viability of such communities, could have damaging long-term effects. It could cause increased rural depopulation and the spread of holiday homes, which cannot sustain life in a community since they are occupied for only a couple of weeks a year.
I accept that, if we want to give council house tenants the right to buy, that right should apply as far as possible to all council tenants. I do not ask my right hon. Friend to exclude from this freedom the rights of those who live in council houses in the country by exempting a proportion of housing stock from the provisions of the Bill. Indeed, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend 1285 might consider extending his plans and encouraging—if not by legislation, perhaps by a code of conduct—other house-owning authorities, such as education authorities and the Forestry Commission, which have housing stock surplus to requirements to emulate the scheme contained in the Bill.
I wonder whether it would be wise to include in the Bill provision for the insertion of a pre-emption clause in every sale in an area with lower than a given level of housing stock, so that councils have the right to buy back if a house is resold by the original purchaser within seven or ten years. Such a clause might be so drawn as to apply to any change of ownership in which the council chooses not to exercise its right. In that way, smaller housing authorities would be better able to maintain the housing stock which was essential to their basic requirements and to exert some influence on any adverse change in the housing pattern in the country areas.
I understand that mortgage difficulties could arise in such circumstances, but in such cases local authorities, which are not expected to find more than 70 per cent. of the mortgage loans for council house sales, could grant mortgages. I do not wish to make too much of the distinction between rural and urban areas. Some comment has been exaggerated. However, there is a more fragile balance in rural areas than elsewhere. I hope that my right hon. Friend will find a way of writing into the Bill in Committee some degree of protection in case the worst fears of those who are involved in council housing in sparsely populated areas should be realised.
I offer a few brief comments on part IV of the Bill, which relates to private sector tenancies. I agree with my right hon. Friend that they have a vitally important role to play. I am sure that the innovation of short tenancies will be applauded widely in the hope that it will breathe life into this sadly neglected and abused sector of Scottish housing. However, I wonder whether the Government should have gone further, taken their courage in both hands and set out to give private rented housing a substantial boost. For example, it is a pity that it will still be necessary to register rents. The Bill could have provided an ideal opportunity to establish an open and free market, to allow rents to find a true and 1286 commercial level offering a fair return on capital. It could have provided an opportunity to free this sector from the bureaucratic morass of registering rents with the rent officer and appealing if necessary to a rent assessment committee, with all the delays which are unfair both to landlord and to tenant.
There is the restriction in phasing rent increases which spreads an increase to a fair rent over a period by allowing the Secretary of State to specify the maximum amount by which a rent may be increased. Surely a maximum percentage would be a more reasonable control, if there must be a control. If a rent is fair, why should it not be payable immediately? The whole business of determining what is a fair rent is in need of greater clarification than is provided in the Bill. I hope that this matter will be examined again at a later stage.
Clause 40 refers to current rents of comparable property in an area. It does not advance matters far, as such current rents have been artifically controlled. The pattern of registered rents in the past 10 years has been irregular with steep rises and plateaux—the unavoidable corollary of controls in this sphere, as in others. Indeed, since the 1914 Rent Act was introduced as a temporary wartime measure the history of private sector house rents in Scotland has been a sorry one. It can be claimed that most of Scotland's housing problems stem from the low rent policies pursued by successive Governments in the last 65 years.
The Rent Act 1965 was a bold but long overdue attempt to take private sector rents out of the political arena. Its failures, such as they were, were administrative rather than matters of principle. The Bill seems to miss a chance to have another go at this problem.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will re-examine part IV and decide that the time has come to withdraw from unnecessary interference in the private sector and that it still has a useful role to play in Scotland's housing scheme.
With those comments and qualifications, I warmly welcome the Bill as a major step forward across the whole housing spectrum. Scotland's housing, which for too long has resembled an abandoned battlefield, now has a real chance to make progress and to bring new hope to all involved in it.
§ 7.9 pm
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
The Bill does nothing to improve the quality of the housing stock in Scotland. If the Government were seeking in some way to improve the conditions of the people, they should have taken care of some of the problems which affect our housing stock. Between 150,000 and 200,000houses in Scotland fall below the minimum standard, which provides for exclusive use of three basic amenities—inside toilet, bath and hot water. That figure takes no account of the tremendous problems caused by dampness and condensation in public authority houses.
In Dundee about 11,500 houses are substandard and 75 per cent. of them are in the private sector. It is estimated that it will cost £3½ million, at 1977 prices, to cure dampness and condensation. My first disappointment is that nothing is to be done in a financial sense to improve our housing stock.
In the public and private sectors are houses that the Secretary of State said were empty. However, he must be the first to admit that many of those properties are so run down that they are unfit for human habitation. Indeed, they are situated in undesirable areas. This is an area where the Government, in view of their intention to sell the housing stock, will run into one of their first problems. Many houses in the public sector area sufficient deterrent to those who live in them that the last thing they wish is to purchase them. When they come to see me or go to their councils, they express the wish to exchange their houses for more preferable housing.
The Bill contains some good provisions, particularly in relation to tenants' rights. However, it is marred by the ideological blunderbuss fashion in which the Government have approached the sale of council houses. The Scottish National Party has no objection to the sale of council houses where there is an excess of such houses, but it should be done in a way which keeps a balance in the housing stock.
The point about lack of consultation was made earlier. Many of the points that have been made this afternoon and evening could possibly have been avoided 1288 if White and Green Papers had been issued by the Government instead of rushing into the legislation which has been introduced this Session.
If, as I suspect, some of the best houses are sold first, we shall create not a tenants' charter but a charter for the creation of ghettos in council house areas. That is a real danger. We would be giving rights to one class of tenant at the expense of other classes of tenants. Where a special right is given, difficulty or injustice may be created for others who perhaps hoped to move up within the public sector through rented housing from a flat to a terraced house to a house with a garden.
In 1978, a survey carried out in the city of Dundee showed that 10 per cent. of the sample were interested in buying their council houses and 15 per cent. were interested in buying council houses for their own homes which they did not then occupy. The estimate of the market from the housing director is that 2,000 dwellings in all might be sold out of a housing stock of 40,000, but that survey significantly found that 85 per cent. of those who were interested in buying wanted cottages with gardens. That would mean that the vast majority of the housing stock would not be of any interest to those tenants. Therefore, the Government will be creating problems by the way in which they are proposing to tackle this situation.
I recognise that the Government, in view of their intention of offering more council houses for sale, will probably face intransigent local authorities under Labour control which would refuse to accept that they should sell any houses whatsoever. The Government, in their solution to that problem, have overstepped the mark. They are, in effect, taking control away from democratically elected local authorities and trying to give rights which will have serious effects on the balance of housing in entirely different areas. Each local authority has a different make-up to its housing stock. Therefore, we cannot legislate in an umbrella fashion nationally for each local authority. Therefore, I suggest that the Government will create real difficulties here.
There are other ways of tackling the problem. The Government could have used their housing plans principles and given local authorities a time limit within 1289 which to produce plans for the sale of council houses. That would have kept some form of balance within the housing stock and suited the plans to the different areas. Indeed, they could have fitted in sanctions thereafter—sanctions which would mean that tenants would have an overall right to buy—which would encourage the local authority to take action or, indeed, the Government to consider some other way of achieving their aim. However, I suggest that they have gone overboard.
Time is short. I had intended to go on at great length—not in a parliamentary sense—about some of the implications of this legislation. I should like to deal briefly with some parts of the Bill.
We should be doing a disservice if we were to concentrate entirely on the house sale provision, simply because it is the most controversial and at the front of the Bill, and to miss some of the important clauses which remain. Those of us who have served on Committees know that that is what happens.
I ask the Government to look again at the phasing of rents, because it could cause considerable distress and force many people out of private lets.
As for rent increases by housing authorities, I suggest that the Government should give power to the rent officers or to the rent assessment committees, when increasing the rents, to direct landlords to carry out certain specified repairs. I make that suggestion because people often complain to me that, although they pay high rents to improve the housing stock, they do not get the benefits back.
I think that we shall also have to look closely at the proposal regarding anti-social tenants.
The Government propose to give permission for local authorities to pay compensation for improvements to outgoing tenants. It is essential that, when the Bill goes into Committee, we should make it mandatory on local authorities to pay out to tenants what they have expended on improving the houses that they have occupied for so many years. That is a matter of elementary justice.
Lastly, I condemn the Government for taking away power from directly elected local authorities. They are engaged in a monstrous measure of centralisation, which they will live to regret.
§ Mr. Allan Stewart (Renfrewshire, East)
It is appropriate that this Bill should be the subject of our first debate in the 1980s, not only because it is an important subject but because of the personality on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) will be winding up the first debate of the 1980s fresh from his triumph of having been described by Now! magazine as the most promising young starlet in the Labour firmament.
The Bill highlights what will be the fundamental clash in political philosophy in the 1980s—on the one hand, my hon. Friends, who, broadly speaking, believe in a market Toryism with the emphasis on the individual, on choice and on the market economy and, on the other hand, the forces of collectivism and bureaucracy on the Opposition Benches.
The Bill is very important. It gives a right of choice to those whom Opposition Members generally describe as ordinary working people. It could mean an immense transfer of wealth and power to them.
§ Mr. Dewar rose—
§ Mr. Stewart
I am sorry, but I am subject to the 10-minute rule.
The essential point is that this transfer will be irreversible. Once we give a right, such as the right to buy, no future Government will take that right away. If Opposition Members do not believe me, let the hon. Member for Hamilton, who is to wind up for the Opposition, tell the House and the people of Scotland how many people a future Labour Government would deprive of that right. I know that he will have no more control than I over the next Labour manifesto, but let him tell the people of Scotland what he thinks should be in that manifesto. How many of the 1.1 million families would be deprived of the right to buy by a future Labour Government?
I should like to make some points of relative detail on the Bill. The first relates to the types of tenancy which qualify towards discount. They are listed in clause 1(8). The list seems to exclude people in houses provided by health boards and by the Forestry Commission. I am not sure why these categories of public housing should be excluded.
1291 The second point relates to the limitation on the right to buy houses built since 1975. I do not recall this limitation springing out in bold headlines from the Conservative manifesto. It could be a significant limitation for people who have moved, perhaps to help the local authority, from an older, larger house to a new, small house. I appreciate that we must have some kind of limitation for new houses that will be built after the Bill becomes an Act, but I do not see the argument for the limitation since 1975.
I turn, principally, to the main argument that has come from the Opposition. I am not sure why Opposition Members are so opposed to council house sales. It is probable that they fear variety in the midst of a council scheme, that they actually like walking down streets with one red door after another going on endlessly. There is certainly confusion in the arguments that the Opposition have put forward. On the one hand, the Labour Party says that no one will buy and, on the other, it says that all sorts of social disasters will follow from giving people the right to buy. That is clearly incompatible. There is no sense in it.
I turn to the so-called "ghetto" argument, that the only people that will buy will be those who live in the best houses and that there will be a general decline in the council housing stock because of the limitation of opportunity to transfer from poor to better housing. The first point is that housing will be sold at a market price. I accept that Opposition Members do not like, or indeed understand, how the market works, but there will be a discount on the price, which the district valuer will fix, between a willing buyer—
§ Mr. Stewart
—and a willing seller. Well done, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar).
The second point is that the market will not be there for one or two years—we are talking about a continuation over a long period of time. The longer it continues, the more we shall see area after area with a significant proportion of people buying, and in the present relatively unattractive areas the market price will be much lower.
1292 What I also point out to Opposition Members who claim that there is no demand in unattractive areas is that there is a demand in the city of Glasgow for poor owner-occupied housing. Young couples in the city of Glasgow make tremendous sacrifices to get into poor owner-occupied housing because they want to get on the first step of the ladder. I believe that the demand will be there for all sorts of housing.
The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) talked about the better parts of his constituency. It happens that I am one of his constituents and I know the parts about which he was talking. He was talking about areas in Glasgow like Mosspark, which is an attractive area. The point I make is that, even if we accept the argument that people will buy only in the better areas, there is still the practical point that at present nobody gets into Mosspark unless he has waited for about 30 years. In using the ghetto argument. Opposition Members completely fail to relate that to what actually happens at present or to the high level of immobility in the council house sector.
Before completing my remarks, I shall mention one point about the compulsion on local authorities, a matter which was raised by a number of Opposition Members. Let us be clear about this. The right to buy is not a transfer of power, as I think the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) implied, from local authority to central Government. It is a transfer of power from the local authority to an individual family. That is very different. It is something that we on the Government Benches see as desirable in itself.
In the past, housing policy in Scotland has suffered from a blinkered view of the housing market. There have been periods when we have said that we should knock it all down and build Castle milk. There have been periods when we have said that the multi-storeys were the answer. We can now say, I think, that we have a degree of humility about the housing market and we realise that there is a variety of answers because the needs and desires of people are so different. I welcome the Bill as reflecting that and as the start of a new approach to housing in Scotland, using all the instruments of housing that are available.
1293 Finally, we should not look at the Bill and its effects in terms of one, five, or 10 years. It is a Bill that is for generations ahead. When future generations look back, they will see this as a turning point at which ordinary working people were given the chance to have the security of owning their own home and to build up capital. We shall see the end of the soulless uniformity that so bedevils many of our council schemes in the West of Scotland. We shall be transferring wealth. In the long term, the right to buy, by encouraging variety, will transform central Scotland. Future generations will thank us for passing the Bill tonight. I hope that the Government will get it on the statute book as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
I shall return at a later stage to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) about the council sector. I begin by addressing myself to that part of the Bill relating to the private rented sector. I make no apology for doing so, because I represent far more private tenants than council tenants.
Having read through the section of the Bill relating to the private rented sector, I find it breathtaking in its comprehensive nature and that it should be put before the House and the public without the least vestige of consultation. There has not been a White Paper, a Green Paper or even a publication of the review of the Rent Act launched by the previous Government.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Lang) has left the Chamber. I was distressed that he was so disturbed by the fact that we were still a long way away from market rents in the private rented sector. I wanted the opportunity to assure him that we were nearly there under the terms of the Bill. Indeed, the Bill explicitly relieves the rent officer of the constraints of not taking into account the scarcity factor when assessing a fair rent. When we take that out of his assessment, we are left with what will be not fair rents but market rents.
The Secretary of State justified the Bill by saying that it is the Government's intention to expand the number of private tenancies. Every Tory Minister who has come to the Dispatch Box 1294 during the 30 years since the war to justify a change in the law for the private rented sector has done so on the basis that it would increase the number of private sector tenures. Every time that was done, it was followed by a diminution in the number of private sector tenancies.
I express no view at present about whether short-term tenancies will result in an increase in the number of tenancies. However, it will certainly result in the immediate drying up of long-term tenancies with security, because it is impossible to see who will let on a long-term tenancy with security when he can let on a short-term tenancy with insecurity.
In answer to the point made from a sedentary position by the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind)—I am most concerned for the people in my constituency who are private sitting tenants. The bulk of the provisions in the Bill relating to the private sector relate not to short tenancies but to sitting tenants. Briefly, I will run through three ways in which those tenants will be affected. They will be affected by the abolition of rent control.
When the Secretary of State spoke about this, he said that he knew many young married mobile couples who were looking for tenancies in the private sector. He will remember that I intervened during his speech and asked him how many young mobile couples were living under a controlled tenancy. His reply was "Many thousands". I find that rather startling, since to be in a controlled tenancy one must have been in continuous occupation of that tenancy since before 1957. I know many controlled tenants, and without exception they are retired—mostly widows—and they are the very people who under the Bill will be plummeted into the morass of the Rent Act, which many lawyers do not understand, never mind pensioners and others living alone.
Moreover, once in that situation, such people will find that the Bill provides for the first time a means of cancelling a registered rent. It does so any time a tenancy changes. In all sincerity, I put it to hon. Members on the Government Benches that they have not grasped one of the fundamental considerations in all our debates on the private rented sector over the past 30 years. One should not 1295 create a financial incentive for the landlord to harass a sitting tenant in order to get him out, for the moment one does that harassment will return whatever statutory protections one may provide to discourage it. Yet the Bill gives a clear incentive to landlords to harass tenants and get them out so that the rent registration is cancelled. It was exactly such a measure in the 1957 Act which gave rise to the Rachman generation in the early 1960s.
Finally, the Bill abolishes the phasing of such rent increase as may be struck under the fair rent system or, as it will now be in effect, the market rent system. I find it inexplicable that this should be done only for Scotland. The Bill for England and Wales provides that rent phasing will be retained. It will be kept over only two years, as opposed to three, but it will be kept. Some protection will be given to the many elderly private tenants in respect of the increases in their case because they will see them coming over two or three years and they will see them phased.
I see no reason whatever that should make the policy pursued in the Scottish private rented sector so different from the policy pursued south of the border.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman will see that under the English Bill the Secretary of State for the Environment will have no power to impose a maximum level even for a phased increase. That is a power that the Secretary of State for Scotland will have, and it will be for the advantage of the tenant.
§ Mr. Cook
We shall see later tonight how the Secretary of State uses some of his powers when we consider the housing support grant order. I must say that if I had to choose between a statutory phasing of an increase and a power by order of the present Secretary of State, I should have no hesitation in choosing statutory phasing over a period of time.
I grant at least that the Government are honest about the effect on the private sector of all their proposed changes in the law. The effect will be a substantial increase in rent. This is made clear in the financial memorandum, where there is reference to the provision of another £1 million for expenditure on rent allowances in Scotland.
1296 Again, I invite the Minister to consult his colleague who is steering through the measure applying to England and Wales, since the financial memorandum to that Bill refers to the provision of £72 million for increased expenditure on rent allowances—far in excess, even proportionately, of the sum in Scotland. That gives a clear measure of the extent to which the Government expect rents to soar in the private sector as the Bill takes effect.
The people who will be affected will be the mobile young married couples to whom the Secretary of State referred. He will find many more of them throughout Scotland, because they will no longer easily be able to find a council house.
I tried to intervene a second time during the Secretary of State's speech—I do not complain that he did not give way, since he had already done so once—because I was intrigued by the point that he made, which gave me the impression that he was beginning to grasp the issue. He said that many people get a council house when they cannot afford to buy, and over a period of years they find that they can afford to buy a house.
That is indeed the case, because most of the people who offer to buy their house when it is made available by the local authority are middle-aged people whose children have moved away and who are going through a period of relative affluence because they do not have dependants to support. So the Secretary of State is right. But I ask him—this is the point to which he did not address himself—what happens to the next generation of people, now with young children, who also cannot afford to buy a house and are therefore looking for a council tenancy? They will not to the same extent be able to obtain a council tenancy, because people in the previous generation have been buying houses under the Bill.
That state of affairs will apply not just to new applicants; there is also the question of sitting tenants who will be seeking a transfer. I listened with wry amusement to the Secretary of State's references to mobility. The mobility that most council tenants are interested in is moving to a better council estate and a better house. There is no doubt that under the Bill it will be more difficult for them to do so, because it is those houses that will be sold. We have the statement 1297 from the director of housing for Glasgow in this very context:It is difficult to see how, in Glasgow at any rate, the uncontrolled sale of council houses can fail to restrict the opportunities of those who choose or are forced by circumstances to rent to better their housing position by transfer.The problem goes beyond Glasgow. In Edinburgh 50 per cent. of all the council houses that have been sold are ground floor terraced or semi-detached houses. They make up 5 per cent. of the housing stock, but they make up 50 per cent. of those that are purchased.
There is no doubt that the Bill will make it more difficult both for local authorities to meet the needs of people who apply for council houses and for sitting tenants to satisfy their aspirations for transfer. That is why 29 out of 56 local authorities have refused to take any action on the circular sent to them by the Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State cannot pull the wool over the eyes of hon. Members by pretending that that reaction stems from a doctrinaire attitude on the part of Labour local authorities. These authorities include the following: Badenoch and Strathspey, Ettrick and Lauderdale, Tweeddale, Angus, Skye and Lochalsh. If the Secretary of State feels that he needs to legislate to make his scheme mandatory on local authorities such as those—
§ Mr. Peter Fraser rose—
§ Mr. Cook
No, I have no time—because they might fall into Labour hands in the May elections, he has a poor idea of the standing of his party.
The fact is that these local authorities will still be obliged to submit an annual housing plan, with their estimate of housing need, although, as authority after authority has made plain, they do not know how they can plan to meet housing need when they have no way of planning the way in which their housing stock diminishes through arbitrary purchases by tenants.
I feel that at times we have too often in this Chamber decried the achievements of public sector housing. The large problem estate has become the symbol or emblem of all council housing. I think that in many ways we do an injustice to what has been achieved in public sector 1298 housing by making that the sole symbol of such housing. But the Bill will do nothing to help that problem. It will leave local authorities with inadequate houses—houses that are too poor to attract purchasers—still trying to meet the needs of those too broke to buy a house of their own. I do not see that as an appealing role for the public sector, and I believe that the Bill should therefore be resisted.
§ Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)
Unlike the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), I warmly and wholeheartedly welcome the Bill which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has put before the House. In the short time available to me, I shall concentrate on the provisions dealing with the sale of council houses, and I wish to use my time to give five reasons for my certainty that what my right hon. Friend is doing is for the great benefit of all the people of Scotland.
The first reason why I am so convinced is a reason of principle. The Bill expresses the excellent principle—a principle which ought to be more widely expressed in other legislation—that we should enlarge the freedom of choice of individuals and families to make up their own minds what they want to do with their own money and their own lives.
The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) referred earlier to devolution. This is exactly the devolution which is for the benefit of Scotland—devolving power and money away from the State and back to the individual. This is the best example we could have of what devolution should really be.
I find it shocking that in Scotland still over 50 per cent. of all housing—some 54 per cent. in fact—should be under the control of the State. That is a percentage almost double that in England, almost double that in Wales, and even greater than is to be found in many countries of Eastern Europe under Communist rule, such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In getting rid of that shocking state of affairs, the Bill will perform a signal service.
The second reason why I support my right hon. Friend so wholeheartedly is that I believe that the Bill will bring about a massive redistribution of wealth within Scotland—indeed, the most massive redistribution of wealth ever in the country 1299 within so short a period. For that reason alone, the Bill should be welcome to Labour Members, if they did not have an ideological blanket refusal to face up to the fact that many of the people who voted for them will be substantially better off as a result of the legislation. The Bill will provide for many people in Scotland an independence, a valuable capital asset and something valuable to pass on to their children in their wills. That massive redistribution of wealth should be welcomed by all hon. Members.
The third reason why I am in favour of the Bill is that it will, at least, help to roll back the ever-rising tide of bureaucracy. Outside the House, everybody believes that we have far too many bureaucrats—so we do. Too many of them are engaged in local government. However, it is not just the number of bureaucrats to which objection is taken but their powers. Bureaucrats in local government can say to tenants "No, you cannot paint your door this colour" or "You must leave the house that you have lived in for 40 years because we have decided that you are no longer a suitable tenant to live here. "In that way, a couple who have lived in a house for 30 or 40 years may be forced to move. Tenants are also told that they cannot have dogs because that is what the bureaucrats have decided. That sort of petty interference will be wiped away to a great extent by the Bill. It will roll back the tide of bureaucracy. Not only that, but the Bill will mean that fewer bureaucrats will be needed for the administration of council estates. There will be less need for repair men, and so on, and, at the end of the day, that will help to cut rate rises. There will be less burden on local authorities and less need for the present level of finance.
The fourth reason why I am strongly in favour of the Bill is that I believe that by getting rid of many council houses which are occupied by people who are able and willing to buy their houses, local councils will be able to concentrate on the aspect of housing on which they should concentrate—the provision of houses for those who are in greatest need. We all know that, although there are many in council estates who have substantial incomes, others desperately need council houses but cannot get them. By getting 1300 rid of the extra burden on the housing management, the management will be able to concentrate its energies on those with the greatest need for housing.
The fifth reason why I am in favour of the Bill is that I believe that it will greatly increase social mobility in Scotland. Nobody who has represented a constituency in Aberdeen could be under any illusions about the importance of social mobility. The lack of social mobility from which we currently suffer stops those who live in Glasgow with the qualifications for jobs in Aberdeen from being able to take up such jobs because they cannot move from a council house in Glasgow to one in Aberdeen and they do not have the capital to buy or rent a house in Aberdeen. The Bill will greatly increase the mobility of labour within Scotland. It will enable those who would not otherwise be able to take up the jobs to do so.
The question of social mobility is important and it has regard to employment prospects. However, we should not forget the old-age pensioners who may have lived all their lives in Drumchapel and who find, at the end of their days, that they would like to move to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay). At the moment, they have not a hope of doing so. Under the Bill, if they have possession of their council house, they will be able to sell that house to get the capital to buy a cottage in my hon. Friend's constituency. That is the sort of freedom of choice that will be achieved by the Bill.
It is interesting to see Labour Members laughing. I wonder how many of them live in council houses. They are trying to deny to ordinary people in Scotland the right to become owner-occupiers. Well may they laugh—they are all right, they have their owner-occupation. By their obdurate opposition to the Bill, Labour Members are trying to stop ordinary people in Scotland from having the rights of owner-occupancy which they themselves have. It will be interesting to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) when he replies on behalf of the Opposition. I am sure that he does not live in a council house—it is news to me if he does—and it will be interesting to hear how he justifies living in his own house and stopping other people in Scotland from having that right.
1301 Because I believe that the Bill increases freedom of choice, because it will see a massive redistribution of wealth within Scotland, because it rolls back bureaucracy and because it enables council management to concentrate on those who need help, it is a welcome Bill. Conservative Members do not deny the great difficulties that there will be in the matter, but, on the balance of argument and justice, I fully support the Bill.
§ Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)
In opening the debate, the Secretary of State stated that the Government have support for the Bill throughout Scotland and that every public opinion poll on the issue had shown a clear majority in support of the Government's policy on the sale of council housing. In a democracy, the only public opinion poll—as the Prime Minister keeps telling the House—is the public opinion poll of general and local elections. Tonight, the Government will get the Bill on Second Reading only by bringing in hordes of English Conservative Members, their majority, to vote down the majority of Scottish Members.
Tonight, the majority of Scottish Members will vote against the Bill. Yet the Government will be successful because the Tories will come in and vote for it. Not one of them has been in the Chamber today, but they will come in to vote for it. Not one of them has been in the Chamber today, but they will come in to vote against the majority opinion in Scotland. The next public opinion poll that takes place in Scotland, the district council election on the first Thursday in May, will see the few remaining Tories now on those councils wiped out. After that election, the Labour Party will control almost every district council in Scotland.
One of the disturbing features about the debate—I have said this in the past during similar debates—is that we are discussing the future of 65 per cent. of the people of Scotland. The fact has been referred to by the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat), Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) and Galloway (Mr. Lang). These people live in tenanted property either in the public or in the private sector, and yet the majority of hon. Members are owner-occupiers. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South was right to draw attention 1302 to that fact. Not only in this Government but also in the previous Labour Government policies have been proffered that tend to favour the owner-occupier and which go away from the rights of council tenants.
It is strange that, with 65 per cent. of the people of Scotland being tenants, the majority of hon. Members who will vote on the Bill and who represent Scottish constituencies are owner-occupiers. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South said, those Members are looking at the problem from above. I take exception to hon. Members who state that it is wrong for people to want to be tenants. It is a Scottish tradition to be a tenant—there is nothing wrong with it. Surely, the policies of the previous Government put forward the idea of variety. If people want to be owner-occupiers, they can go to the private sector and allow a private contractor to build them houses which they can occupy. If people wish to go to private landlords, they can do so. If people wish to occupy council houses, they put their names down on a list and receive a house in their turn according to their needs. There is nothing wrong with that, and that is the basis of democracy.
If the Secretary of State can prove that an increasing percentage of owner-occupiers within the United Kingdom will lead to a happier Britain, I will accept his argument. However, we now have a politically divided Britain of the North versus the South. Conservative Members represent the South and Labour Members represent the North. The Bill will divide towns and cities into owner-occupiers and tenants. That will not bring any more happiness, but it will cause division and bring the Government down.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) is not here, because he once lost his political reputation in Scotland by talking about second-class citizens—council tenants. We cannot get away from that way of thinking, yet that will not lead towards a happier or more democratic feeling in Britain.
I am a tenant. I take pride in being a tenant. The Duke of Edinburgh is a tenant and he takes pride in being one. The only difference between the Duke of Edinburgh and myself is that the Duke of Edinburgh pays no rent but I pay rent. He lives in 120 rooms, but I live in four. 1303 However, we are both tenants, and I am sure that the Duke of Edinburgh does not want to buy his council house. I am sure that he does not want to take advantage of the Tory Government's English legislation. There is a need for perspective and a need to get away from the idea that a tenant is a second-class citizen whereas an owner-occupier is a first-class citizen. We will get a happy Britain, and a really democratic society, only if we have variety. Let those who want to become owner-occupiers go to the private sector and let those who want to become tenants go either into the private tenancy sector or into the public sector.
Conservative Members are doing nothing to help the movement towards greater democracy in housing within Scotland and the United Kingdom. I shall make only three criticisms of the Bill as I hope that we shall go into greater detail in Committee. First, the Bill will substantially increase rents in the private and public sectors. It will give the Secretary of State the right to fix any level of rent either through the Bill or through the rights that he has in the present housing support grant.
I remind my colleagues, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), of all the arguments that we advanced during the last few years, when the Labour Government introduced the housing support grant and put through the various orders associated with it. We said then that we were safe when a Labour Government were in power because the tenants would be protected, but we asked what would happen under a Tory Government. We were afraid that Teddy Taylor would become the Secretary of State for Scotland. We might have been better off if Teddy Taylor had been Secretary of State, because at least we knew where he stood.
The Secretary of State is an aristocratic Tory and he agrees with everything. One cannot attack him, because he is always on one's side. He is a decent person, but he is more Tory than Teddy Taylor. Teddy Taylor represented working-class people in Glasgow and, although he may have done it when no one was looking, he watched what he said in certain areas of Glasgow. The Secretary of State will have the right substantially to increase public and private sector housing rents 1304 in Scotland. Tenants will have no defence. Their defence has always been to vote for councillors who would listen to public opinion, and, therefore, they had some effect on rent levels.
Secondly, the Bill will reduce the pool of available housing. Like other hon. Members, I find that 80 per cent. of my work concerns people coming to me and asking me questions about housing. One hundred per cent. will come asking about council housing if the Bill goes through, because few tenants will be able to exchange to a smaller house or a larger house. That will create more social problems.
Thirdly, Shelter pointed out that under-occupation will become a valid right for eviction. That takes us back to the old system of compulsory decanting. The local authority had the right to say to a tenant who had reared a family and stayed in a house for 30 or 40 years that he was occupying a four-apartment house and that, as there were only two members of the family left, he should get out of that house and go to another area where he had no friends and did not want to go. The Bill will give the Government permission to do that. I shall therefore vote against it.
§ Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)
If the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) has some political courage to accompany the spurious logic of his speech, I have no doubt that he will abstain tomorrow evening when the housing Bill that affects England is laid before the House. The Bill should be welcomed not only for the statutory right that it gives the tenant to purchase his home from the council but for the significant improvements that will make in a tenant's standing in relation to the council. I emphasis that it is a tenant's right to remain a tenant if he so wishes.
At first sight, the Bill may appear to be something of a Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, but it is not. There are far greater balances within the Bill and a more unified theme of advantage to the council tenants than the Opposition have discerned—or, if the Opposition have discerned, have had the courage to acknowledge. Without rehearsing any of the arguments and financial terms put forward in this House and outside on the question why the tenant should take 1305 advantage of the generous proposals in the Bill, I shall consider resistance to the Bill. If an analysis of that resistance is attempted, it appears to depend upon the curious logic that the more tenants there are to share the misery of badly designed, badly located, vandalised houses, the smaller will be the average burden of that misery upon the individual tenant. That will not do as a method of logic, nor as an approach to the Bill.
It is defeatest simply to look at the Bill in those global terms. When those who live in high-amenity houses take up the option to buy them, those who live in grim accommodation will continue to have their problems. It is no good trying to lay all the evils and problems that affect Scottish housing at the door of the Bill and at the door of the statutory right of a tenant to buy his home. The Secretary of State should be well warned that every problem and failure in housing management, every fault in design or bad location, every fiat or house ruined by the anti-social tenant, and any street that has been vandalised, will be laid at the foot of the Bill. That will not do. Although the Bill has some problems, and although it breaks new ground, it demonstrates a firm, positive and radical resolution to come to terms with those problems.
In view of the time available, rather than develop general themes I shall deal with particular aspects. Our manifesto contained reference to recognition of the special circumstances of rural areas, and concern has been expressed about the sale provisions for council houses in rural areas. However, it is necessary to emphasise that the concern is not uniform throughout rural Scotland. Certain district councils are concerned, but I have spent time with the district council in Angus. That authority has some attractive council houses at the foot of the Grampians, where people like to take up holiday homes. It would accordingly seem to be a pressure area but at present it has houses that it cannot let.
The crude flaw in the Opposition's argument is that they do not discern that within rural areas the pressure is not so much from council houses in remote locations being attractive to the second home purchaser. People want to move to the smaller boroughs and the fringes of those areas where there are concentrations of population. If there is pressure in rural 1306 areas for housing, it is to be found in the small boroughs.
I hope that my right Hon. Friend will consider taking to himself residual powers similar to those contained in clause 18 of the English Bill that enable the Secretary of State for Wales to designate an area as rural. He might consider that as a back-up or long-stop provision. It would be wrong as a matter of definition in the Bill to attempt to state what should be a rural area, but if problems arise it might be a long-stop approach.
The tenants' charter provisions are particularly welcome. In a number of respects the Bill is probably better than the one coming before the House tomorrow. Clause 16 makes provision for tenants to object to the terms of their written lease and, if necessary, by way of summary application, go to the sheriff. I do not believe that there will be a great queue of such tenants, but again it is a valuable long-stop provision should a district council adopt curious clauses in its lease.
Similarly, clause 25 is worth while and a considerable extension to the rights of tenants throughout Scotland. The provision relating to allocations has been welcomed by the Opposition. Lip service has for a long time been paid to the principle, but in practice it has not always been observed.
The only caveat that I would add to the extension of powers of allocation is that the authorities which in the past have crudely used housing waiting lists as the primary indicator of housing demand will have to abandon that technique. The better authorities already apply more sophisticated techniques to establish housing needs, and those interested in the problem will have to follow suit.
My only substantial misgiving in relation to the tenants' charter concerns the omission of a tenant's right to consultation, which was referred to by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan). I appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had to tiptoe through a minefield sown by COSLA, but I regret that that right of consultation has been omitted. As my right hon. Friend is doubtless aware, the Department of the Environment put out a number of consultation papers last 1307 autumn, and it was stated that the Government firmly believed that tenants should be consulted on matters affecting their tenancies and that such consultation had a considerable part to play in reducing vandalism and preventing the emergence of difficult-to-let estates. That view accords entirely with my own.
Finally, I return to the subject of under-occupation, which I raised with the right hon. Member for Craigton. With the greatest respect, he did not seem fully to appreciate that there will be a change. Tenants will have security of tenure, and it will not be possible for a local authority to say "No, you get out. I will let the wife and the three or four children return. "It may be that the problem can be tackled in other ways, but the under-occupation clause is one way of dealing with it.
For all those reasons, and with certain reservations on points that we may be able to deal with in Committee, I welcome the Bill.
§ 8.5 pm
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
I shall deal exclusively with the sale of council houses, which is raising anxiety in my constituency. Over 95 per cent. of my electorate live in council houses and we have little private rented property.
There has been a great deal of discussion tonight about philosophy, and, if I may say so, it has been a rather "cracker barrel" philosophy. The air has been thick with slogans about freedom of choice, and it has been suggested that there is a great difference in principle between the two sides of the House. I am not sure about philosophy, but I know something of the practicalities of housing policy in a peripheral housing scheme in Glasgow. I am concerned about the effect of the sale of council houses on such schemes generally in urban West-Central Scotland.
My objections can be stated simply. The sale of council housing proposed in the Bill is a fundamental attack on the principles of local democracy. I do not believe that, by definition, everything done by local authorities is right because it is done by elected members. That proposition is totally preposterous and one that I would not advance. However, if local democracy is to have any point, 1308 there has to be a level of trust and areas of responsibility must be left to local authorities. Local authorities in Scotland will be "cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound" by the powers given by the Bill to the Secretary of State in that essential area, and, after all, the management of the housing stock is the sole raison ďêtre of the district council. Take that away, and there is nothing left. The inhibitions proposed in the Bill cannot be justified.
I listened with amazement to some of the Conservative philosophies advanced. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) said that he believed in the free market and the market mechanism. A free market was helpfully defined in another context for the hon. Gentleman, and my understanding is that it requires a willing buyer and a willing seller. We have here about to be enshrined in statute what amounts to compulsory purchase in reverse. We may have a willing buyer, but there will be no nonsense about a willing seller. Local authorities will be told to sell and will be given no option, which is nonsense.
The way to put the matter to the test is to ask the people in the areas affected what they think, and that is what we shall be doing on 1 May. I do not believe that hon. Members on the Government side will take up that challenge. The more powerful the campaigning in Garscadden and the more clearly the issues are put, the less likely it is that the Conservatives will win any seats in my area or others where council house sales are likely to be an issue.
The suggestion is impracticable and makes totally unmanageable the public housing stock in a local authority's area. There is no way to sell a balanced cross-section of the housing available or a certain percentage in a given area. There is no way to ensure that consideration will be given perhaps to the difficulties of two or three private owners in a tower block or other specific housing complex. That will not be possible. Purchasing will be at the whim of the individual buyer and will be dictated not by public policy or a consideration of the wider good but by how the individual purchaser sees his financial or other self-interest—and I make no complaint about that, given the circumstances that are being created. All that the local authorities will be able to do is powerlessly to sit 1309 and look on. That cannot make any sense.
The crux of the Government's argument concerns freedom for the tenant to buy. The importance of mobility has also been prayed in aid by Conservative spokesmen. I, too, believe that choice, freedom and mobility of the individual are important. My objection is that, while the Bill may help a small group who see it to be in their interest to buy, it will make the situation worse for the vast majority who will be more firmly trapped and immobile and whose choice will be reduced.
My constituency has some desirable council housing which will sell. Significant inroads will be made in that section. However, we also have in my constituency an area that is difficult to let, where people have voted with their feet and said that nothing would make them take an allocation of a house there. Those who take a house in that area do so under duress and only because they have no alternative. The area has about 25 per cent. of all families rehoused under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act.
I cannot produce statistics about the likelihood of sales in that area, but my firm subjective view, based on detailed knowledge of the area, is that there will be no sales. The most commonly expressed view among my constituents in that area is that anyone who bought a house there would need his head looked at.
The best parts and the more desirable properties—the semi-detached houses with gardens—will be sold, and those are exactly the houses that those who have been unfortunate in the housing allocation queue and have been put in areas that are perceived to be less desirable want to get into.
I accept that the wish of those people is often a long-term wish and that they may have to wait a long time before getting into such houses, but that is not an argument for removing those properties from the housing pool. Conservatives argue that because it is difficult to get into that sort of housing it should be removed from the housing pool.
There is no doubt that there will be bitterness and frustration among many of my electors. They will see that their bad luck in being placed in unpopular 1310 and less desirable housing is being reinforced because those who have good houses will buy them, to their financial advantage, and destroy, inevitably and irreversibly, the hope of others some day to graduate to those houses.
It will be a considerable advantage to buy in certain limited areas. There are houses in my constituency with a market value of nearly £20,000. With a 50 per cent. discount, of course it makes sense for the individual to buy. But we must look beyond that individual and consider that we are restricting and destroying choice in the public sector.
I know that there is no intention of creating ghettos, but the Government are destroying the perception of public sector housing of even those who live in that housing. It is not a case of outsiders calling public sector tenants second-class citizens. The danger is that the tenants will see themselves as second-class citizens because they will be caught in a housing sector which is being impoverished and from which, in financial terms, they have no hope of escaping. That is the tragedy and the danger. That is why the Bill is essentially a wicked piece of legislation.
Long after the Government have become nothing but a memory of old men, we shall be coping with the social divisions in society that the Bill reinforces. That may sound melodramatic and hon. Members may laugh, but if they were moving between Drumchapel and Knightswood and dealing with the many people who approach any elected representative—it is no good saying that it is not the responsibility of a Member of Parliament, since the people will say "We have been trying for so long and you are our last hope"—they would realise how wrong it is to destroy the hope of those people and to say, in effect, that because they have been waiting so long we should make it impossible for them ever to get what they want.
If that happens, people will become angry and bitter and our communities will become divided in a way in which every one of us will live to regret. That is why the Bill must be fought and why we should sweep out the Tory councils in May. We must try to make the Secretary of State and his colleagues think again before it is too late.
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)
The one thing that has been borne in on me as I have listened to the whole debate is that it must be bewildering to be a Socialist in a changing world. Time and again we see how difficult Labour Members find it to deal with the realities of a changing society.
I warmly welcome the Bill. It is an important piece of legislation and one of the most important pieces of specifically Scottish legislation for many days. There are some matters of detail that we shall look at carefully in Committee and on which we shall attempt to persuade the Government to change their mind. They include the fact that the Bill provides that an authority cannot sell a council house for less than the outstanding debt on the property. Superficially, that may seem a reasonable proposition, but the debt will not be recovered by continuing to rent the property either, and the marginal loss on one or two houses will be compensated for by substantial profits on many houses. It was a retrograde step to include that provision in the Bill.
In popular areas of the country, such as East Fife, there may be a problem of outsiders seeking to come in. That could be a severe problem for local people who have lived in an area all their lives. There ought to be the possibility of allocations taking some cognisance of the extent to which a person belongs to an area.
§ Mr. Henderson
My hon. Friend is a sound fellow, who will get the point much more swifty than will the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan).
I question the basic principle of the age limit for a child to succeed to a tenancy and I am worried about what will happen to the £100 if an option to buy is not taken up within two years. I am also concerned about the provisions relating to discounts and the right to buy for tenants of police and fire authorities, and for prison service and Armed Forces personnel. We should give the maximum possible rights to those people also, unless we are concerned with genuinely tied houses.
1312 I am concerned that the council may have to bear the cost of valuation and conveyancing. I feel that it is reasonable that the purchaser should bear that cost. I also believe that there is a strong case for the rights of tenants to be consulted.
I am glad that the Secretary of State reminded us of the opposition of the Labour Party to the rent rebate scheme when it first came about. Labour Members keep quiet about that now. Doubtless it will be the same when this excellent measure of Tory progress has become the accustomed way of life in Scotland. Again, Labour Members will forget—if I am not mixing my metaphors—that they are the dodos who put their heads in the sand. It will be said that a great opportunity was here to be grasped and they failed to see it. It is a great measure, which is well timed, perhaps even overdue, as an improvement in Scottish housing. At the same time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat)said, it provides major benefits in a social and economic sense.
In the social sense, Labour Members have failed to grasp—whether it be the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) or the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan)—that there is social injustice and imbalance within the housing schemes in our great cities and in other areas. It is a matter of luck, or who one's friends are, whether one gets the nice house to which the hon. Member for Garscadden referred. [Interruption.] Or perhaps longevity. But it is still the few who get these little plums; it is not the many. It is also unfair that for somebody who, because of his work, wishes to move from one side of a city to another, or—even worse—from one town to another, the chances of being able to do that are small.
What is at the root of the misunderstanding of Labour Members is that they cannot see the significance of the fact that fundamentally the Bill provides that the price will be decided by market value. The right hon. Member for Craigton said that he would not advise people to buy some of the houses in his constituency. That is a sad commentary on 50 years of Socialism in Glasgow. Those houses were built to the high standards existing at the time and maintained and repaired at considerable expense. If the houses are 1313 that bad, the market value will be low, and the houses will be regarded as a bargain by some young person who sees an opportunity to progress from Garscadden across that little divide to Bears-den on the other side.
The right hon. Member said that flats will not go. He was saying that it was a disaster to build—[Interruption.] Many people will not be able to make that jump from Garscadden to Bearsden without the possibility that they will first own their own council house.
The right hon. Member for Craigton said that flats will not go. It was the sort of limpid statement that he might have made in the days when he was at the Scottish Office and making it into an ivory tower. There is no reason why fiats should not go if they are reasonable places in which people can live. If they are not reasonable places in which people can live, they should not have been built in the first place by the Socialist authorities who built them. If they are reasonable places in which to live, people will decide the price that they will pay, as they do in London, Edinburgh and other cities.
I hope that Labour Members will realise the opportunity for making the maximum use of the housing stock. Tens of thousands of houses are not occupied, because no one wants them as tenants, but many people would be prepared to buy them at the appropriate price. There would be an improvement in the social environment of Scotland, particularly in the houses in some of the most depressed areas, if they were to be sold at the appropriate price.
At the beginning of my speech I indicated to the Minister that in Committee I would hope to consider a number of detailed points in the Bill. I so warmly welcome the Bill—not least because it is one-third of the size of the English Bill and far more significant in scope—that he can be assured, if Labour Members continue to put forward foolish and outmoded concepts, of the united support and encouragement of Conservative Members, however long the Bill is prolonged in Committee. It will be a pleasure to push the Bill through Parliament, because it is one of the great measures for the future of Scotland.
§ 8.25 pm.
§ Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
I am sure that the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) will understand if I do not follow the points that he made in his speech. For the sake of brevity, I intend to confine myself to the issue of council house sales.
I recognise that the provisions for giving greater security of tenure to public authority tenants represent a very real advance for many of my constituents and will enhance their position in their dealings with the local authority. We welcome the fact that they will be given a great deal more security. But I have no hesitation in asserting that I believe that the proposal to require the local authorities in my constituency to sell council houses is not only against the interests of the wider community but is against the interests of the vast majority of council tenants.
Like many of my hon. Friends, I find that the vast majority of the people who come to see me with problems are council tenants. Since the general election, not one of those council tenants has approached me with an interest in acquiring his own council house. These are perhaps young couples living in a room with their in-laws. They are perhaps couples with young families and living in multi-storey flats. They are elderly people—some retired but some still working—who are struggling to climb the stairs and who are trying to get a ground floor flat or a house with a main door.
The reason, above all, why we on the Labour Benches are opposed to the measure is that it represents a denial of choice for the vast majority of these council tenants. Their prospects of enhancing their housing conditions or of obtaining better housing will be massively diminished if the Bill reaches the statute book. But the position is even worse than that. It is true that in my constituency, as in many others, there are people living in houses without the basic amenties, such as an indoor toilet. I do not find that as depressing as the problems which exist in one or two of the council schemes in my constituency. These schemes have relatively modern houses with the basic amenities, and yet probably the greatest problem in our big cities is the level of deprivation which now exists in such schemes.
1315 I am worried that the Bill will intensify that problem. We shall be moving to a position in which council housing is reserved for people who are on very low wages, for people who perhaps, through physical handicap or mental impairment, cannot hold down a permanent job, and for one-parent families. The problem of creating council estate ghettos will be massively intensified if the Government force through this policy with the intensity and vigour that they seem to intend for it.
I say that not because of the legislative requirements which will be put on local authorities but because it is clear from the housing support grant order, which will be debated later this evening, that the Government intend to use the financial provisions to bring pressure on local authorities to sell council houses—and, indeed, to bring pressure on council tenants, by forcing up rents massively, to buy their own houses. It would not be an exaggeration to say that bona fide council tenants may be victimised in an attempt to force more of them to buy their council houses. That appears to be the price for making the policy some sort of success from the standpoint of the Government.
Let us consider the issue of the statutory requirement. These are houses which have been built by local authorities. The Secretary of State refers to them as estate houses. They are not estate houses. It is true that Government grants have gone into them, but the local communities of Scotland built these houses. Their resources, through their rates and their rents, have gone into the building of these council houses. In all fairness, what right have the Government to require them to dispose of these assets at less than their market value—and, what is more, not to the people in greatest housing need? It will be the better-off council tenants who will buy their houses. Government supporters view with anathema the idea that a Labour Government would take over assets at less than their market value. I suggest to them that it is at least one step down that road to require local authorities to sell off assets which they have created at less than their market value.
The Secretary of State ended his speech with a polemic against the Labour 1316 Party. However, in his introductory remarks he pointed out many of the real housing problems in Scotland. There is general agreement about some of the problems which have to be tackled. But they are physical problems. They will not be resolved simply by creating more owner-occupiers in our council estates. They will be resolved by building new and better houses, by modernising our existing housing stock and by tackling them in a physical and imaginative way where we can improve standards and create a better environment for the people living there.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) argued, the real criticism of the Opposition is that the Bill will make it harder to resolve the problems. In a wider sense, it will make Scotland's housing problems worse. That is why we intend to oppose it.
§ Mr. John MacKay (Argyll)
I begin by referring to part IV of the Bill, which concerns private sector tenancies. I can speak only of rural areas, but in rural areas there has been a decline in the amount of private sector rented accommodation, not because properties have suddenly, by some twinkle of someone's nose as in a television programme, vanished from the landscape but because many owners of flats and houses are reluctant to relet them once their existing tenants move out. They are reluctant for three main reasons. The first is in case they wish to resume their tenancies in their own right. The second is in case they wish to put their houses to some other use, perhaps by modernising them. The third is in case they are landed with tenants with whom they do not get on. The latter reason is especially important in flats where perhaps one flat is out to rent and the other is occupied by the landlord.
This short tenancy idea will increase the amount of private rented accommodation, especially in rural areas, and people who want temporary accommodation before settling down to their careers or before making the next step up the ladder will find accommodation available. I know of places in Argyll where accommodation is available but where the owners are reluctant to let it in case they lose control of it.
1317 I come next to part II, which deals with the rights of council tenants. I welcome the rights that it gives. I mention especially the clauses which say that a tenant can seek the consent of the local authority for subletting and for alterations to his house. In both cases, the Bill says that such permission shall not be withheld unreasonably. In my view, that is to be welcomed. I hope that the Labour Party also welcomes it.
I shall be glad to have it confirmed that sublets will include holiday guests—for example, in bed and breakfast accommodation, which forms an important part of the economy of the tourist industry in Argyll.
I also assume that the tenant will be able to get permission to decorate the outside of his house. Many tenants feel that it is a reflection on themselves when the paintwork on the exterior of their houses deteriorates far below the standard that they would like to see. I hope that tenants will be able to do their own painting without interference from the local authority. I have heard it said by some tenants that they have painted their front doors only to find council officials putting pressure en them because they have acted on their own.
While dealing with part II, I want also to refer to the clauses on allocation and transfer. When I joined Oban town council more than 10 years ago, I banded together with some of the councillors, including a stalwart of the Labour Party, in campaigning for clear public rules on the allocation of houses and for the drawing up of an open housing list. We succeeded. The allocation of houses was then put on a fairer basis. It was better understood by the public and less susceptible to undue influence on councillors and by councillors. At that time, we felt unable to remove the residential qualification. We felt that to do so on our own would be unfair to people on our patch and that reciprocal arrangements would not be available. I welcome warmly, therefore, the decision to remove the residential qualification so that all local authorities in Scotland will be on the same footing immediately the Bill becomes an Act.
The controversy and debate will centre on part I of the Bill. I have listened for years to argument about the selling of council houses. When we succeeded in 1318 selling some council houses in Oban in the 1970s, the houses did not disappear. They are still there. People still live in them. It is astonishing. They are still in the housing pool. The houses, by and large, are still occupied by the same people who bought them. I have no doubt that this situation will continue until the occupants die.
The Bill represents the only chance for many people in Scotland to own their own homes. That is good. The Opposition obviously do not feel it is good. We are moving away from the days when a young couple in Scotland, having decided to get married, would go first to the council house office and put their name on the waiting list. They may still be doing so, but they are also visiting the lawyer's office and the estate agents to try to get into the private sector market. That change is taking place.
The parents of many such people are also thinking that they would like to own their own homes. A small but substantial number of new mortgage holders are former council tenants. But the demand of all of those council tenants who would like to become owner-occupiers can never be met. Many will be able to become owner-occupiers only if they can buy their council houses. There are problems. I have mentioned the rural problem about which the Opposition are making so much. But the majority of council houses in rural areas are fairly large collections of housing in small boroughs where the problem of a small number of council houses does not exist.
I do not envisage that the problem will prove to be those who buy a council house and try to sell it in four or five years to make a profit, or that the property will become a holiday home. The problem is much more likely to be that the tenant will buy the house and that, when he and his wife die, the house will fall to children who will not stay in Argyll or the country area but would like to maintain contact and a foothold. That is a real problem.
§ Mr. MacKay
I would only say to Opposition Members that these are not second homes as they define them. They belong to local people who would like to maintain contact and perhaps come back to stay. I am not, however, disguising the problem. But it is a small 1319 problem. It should not interfere with the rights of council house tenants in rural areas to buy their council houses. They would feel that they were second-class citizens and that, because they stayed in a static rural community, they were not getting this right.
I hope that in Committee, without the barracking that is now taking place, we might examine ways in which we might get round this problem. Perhaps some method can be written into the contract of sale under which the homes will stay as permanent homes.
I should like to turn to the bigger council estates. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has left the Chamber, because he put the matter clearly. I have some knowledge of his constituency. It seemed to me that the message of hope to the people of Drumchapel went like this: "Yes, if you live long enough and if the folk in Knightswood die quickly enough, you might have a chance of moving house. Otherwise, there will be nothing."
That is a sad reflection on housing in Scotland. Contrary to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), the older houses, not the modern houses, will be in demand. It is an appalling reflection on what we have done to people that they have been put into council houses that Opposition Members say they would be out of their minds if they bought. That is appalling. But it makes no difference whether some houses are sold or not. This is a problem that the great management people in local authorities will have to solve. If we reduce some of the houses that they have to factor, perhaps they will get down to managing the ghetto areas which already exist. Such areas are not a new problem.
I should like to hear the Minister's views about Forestry Commission houses in rural areas, teachers' houses and police houses. Such tenants, too, should have some hope of becoming owner-occupiers once their tenancies are over.
The Bill will not mean the Government or anyone else ordering people to buy. Whether the Bill works or not will depend entirely on the free choice of council tenants. I am prepared to give them that choice. I hope that they hear that the Labour Party is not prepared to 1320 give them any choice to get into the private housing market and to buy the houses which many of them call their own and have lived in for many years.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) gave a lucid description of the way in which the private rented sector, particularly in rural areas, had failed because private landlords were not willing to give prospective tenants secure tenancies. That probably explains why that system failed. However, I do not want to go down that road—
§ Mr. Robertson
I will discuss it any day of the week, but we are in a hurry tonight.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward a Bill whose title includes the words "Tenants' Rights (Scotland)". Any move to bring in a tenants' charter along the general lines of that drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) early last year must be a good thing and is to be welcomed.
The Secretary of State said that we on the Labour Benches intended to vote against those tenants' rights. If we were being asked to vote only for the tenants' charter, the right hon. Gentleman would have less bother with hon. Members on this side than with his hon. Friends. The problem with the Bill is the "Etc."—the sting in the tail. We are all well aware that one of the greatest problems for families throughout Scotland is the lack of housing. We all hear about these problems at our surgeries from people who desperately need houses but cannot get them. That problem will get worse, because this Government have already brought public sector house building in Scotland virtually to a halt.
I accept that in an ideal world it should be possible for everyone to own his own home, but in present circumstances we should be aiming for a much more fundamental objective—namely, that everyone should have a satisfactory home in which to live. We are nowhere near achieving that objective in Scotland. There are still people sleeping rough outside, 1321 even in the winter; there are still substandard houses; there is still serious overcrowding in many houses.
In a nation which still has such a chronic and now worsening housing problem, it is outrageous that this Government should proceed to fritter away some of the inadequate housing funds on a mainly cosmetic and politically inspired scheme to extend home ownership regardless of the probable damage that this will do to the availability of housing for the people who need it.
If anyone is in any doubt about the shallowness of the Government's attitude, he might ponder the fact that they intend to give only public sector tenants the right to buy. There seems to be no question of giving private tenants such statutory rights. The Secretary of State waxed eloquent—or, rather, philosophical—about councils frustrating the legitimate ambitions of people to buy their own houses. Surely, private tenants have ambitions just as legitimate. If it is proposed to fulfil the ambitions of public sector tenants, why should we not also fulfil those of private tenants?
As I see it, part 1 of the Bill is designed to reduce the amount of public sector housing available. It will obviously reduce the already slim hopes of inadequately housed people who cannot afford this Government's high mortgage rates.
Nowhere, in my contention, is this more relevant than to the rural areas in Scotland. The outlook is bleak for those families who want to rent homes in rural areas, first, because there is very little council housing in those areas and, secondly, because the remaining housing stock in the private sector in those areas is, in many cases, either impossibly expensive or substandard. What is available for sale or for rent in country areas all too often becomes holiday accommodation.
Council houses are the only hope for young families of average income in rural areas. Now it appears that the Government wish to dispose of the limited stock available in such areas. The hon. Member for Argyll has just put forward the facile argument that just because a house has been sold it does not mean that it no longer exists. In many rural villages such houses might as well have ceased 1322 to exist, because they have become holiday homes. There are examples in my constituency of council houses which were among the few sold off under the last Government and which are now holiday homes.
My views should not be news to the Government. COSLA has told the Government of the serious misgivings of many rural local authorities. There are three district councils in my constituency. The biggest of them, East Lothian, refuses to sell any council houses—so long as it is able to refuse—not because it is against home ownership—I emphasise thatfact—but because it is determined to manage the limited amount of housing stock available for the benefit of all its people.
Another local authority in my constituency is Ettrick and Lauderdale district council, which has also expressed serious misgivings about the Government's proposals, for the reasons that I have outlined, namely, the need to keep a reservoir of houses available to let at reasonable rents in all the communities within its boundaries.
I refer finally to the black sheep of my constituency, which is Berwickshire district council. That council consists largely of backwoodsmen who would make even the Prime Minister look relatively tame. It has been selling houses and cutting services in fine style. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pent-lands (Mr. Rifkind)—would be proud of it. As I have said, some of the houses which it has already sold are now holiday homes.
I believe that the Government know the special housing needs of rural areas. They have in their possession a report compiled last year by their own officials on housing in rural areas. That report recommends that, far from selling houses, the Government should be building houses in rural areas. Of course that report has been suppressed, though I sincerely hope that the Minister will publish it shortly.
It has been said that clause 18 of the Housing Bill, which relates to England and Wales, allows local authorities in rural areas to restrict the resale of council houses to local people. The Conservative manifesto for Scotland in 1979, to which the hon. Member for Angus, South 1323 (Mr. Fraser) has referred explicitly, promised that council tenants would be given the legal right to buy their homeswhile recognising the special circumstances of rural areas.The Minister and Tory Back Benchers from rural constituencies must be aware of the special need to keep a pool of reasonably priced rented housing available in the small communities in rural areas. I hope that in due course the Minister will insert the appropriate clauses in the Bill.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)
I hope that it is not because my initials are "WW" that I am always called late to speak in our debates. However, I am delighted to be given the opportunity to speak about this Bill because it gives me the chance to deal with an area about which I know something, despite what some Opposition Members say.
I welcome the Bill because it gives tenants the right to buy, it provides a tenants' charter, deals with the allocation of council houses and provides for home loans and improvement grants. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Milian) is absent, because at the beginning of his speech he referred to my hon. Friends' apparent lack of understanding of council property.
I declare an interest, at second hand. Before the war, my mother and father lived in a tenement property in Dundee. They had six children—four boys and two girls. I was one of the boys. The boys attended school, but the girls did not because they were too young. We lived in a two-roomed tenement house with a toilet on the stairs which we shared with three other families. We were fortunate because we had gas lighting.
In May 1939 we moved into a council property with a bathroom and electric light. It was provided by a non-Labour council. The rent was calculated on the basis of what the family could afford to pay. As the boys left school and went to work, the rent was increased until it reached the economic level. That was an enlightened policy then and this Bill represents an enlightened policy today.
Shortly after we were allocated the house my father, through no fault of his. 1324 became unemployed. He was offered a job elsewhere but he could not take it because we had just moved into the best house that we thought it possible to have. The same is true today. People are tied by their council houses—the most tying type of house. It is odd that Opposition Members, who want everybody to have the right to go fishing, do not believe that everybody has the right to own a house.
My father still lives in the same council house. The house cost less than £300 to build. The original cost and borrowing charges have been repaid many times. Many elderly people in the same street are also living in the houses that they were allocated at that time. They will continue to live there until they die, and their houses will not come on to the market until then. It is nonsense to suggest that they will come on the market in any other way.
Thousands of families have been unable to move because they cannot rent a council house in an area where they have been offered a job. Redundancy is fairly common today, and yet people are tied to their council houses. The Bill is one of the greatest measures introduced by any Government to redistribute wealth and opportunity in Scotland. It will permit many individuals and their families to obtain a share in the largest area of capital investment—the owning of a home.
The building and allocation of council houses in Scotland since the war has often been engineered to provide large numbers of captive voters whose loyalty can be bought by the manipulation of council house rents. In addition, this policy has produced an almost God-like attitude in the way that councillors and officials have allocated or administered houses or dealt with pleas for help. With 54 per cent. of housing in Scotland in the public sector, this God-like attitude and political manipulation has occurred on a substantial scale. In England, with only 30 per cent, of housing in the public sector and in Wales with only 29 per cent., the situation is different.
The sad fact is that the level of private ownership in Scotland is lower than in some parts of Communist Eastern Europe. That is a sad indictment against us today.
Too many matters have been left unattended for too long. I am pleased that the Government have decided to do something which I have been working for 1325 and promoting for the past 20 years—and I started doing it when I was living in a council house. I am not ashamed of having lived in a council house. I never felt that I was a second-class citizen, as was suggested by one Opposition Member. I have never been treated by anyone as a second-class citizen. I am always interested in those who make comments about people being second-class citizens. I find very often that such people have enjoyed privileged education—something that I did not enjoy. I find that fascinating.
What makes matters worse in Scotland is that many houses, particularly local houses, are standing empty. I understand that there could be between 100,000 and 200,000 such houses. Many of these houses have been built since the war. There is something wrong with a system in which houses are built and within 30 years—less in some cases—people no longer wish to live in them. Worse still, we build estates and knock them down before anyone moves into them. That is the sad factual history of housing in Scotland. If Labour Members do not know of such a housing estate in the Glasgow area, I am sorry for them, because some of them represent the area. That estate was built and knocked down before anyone moved into it.
I turn now to a matter that interests my constituency—the rural area problem. This matter has been touched on by many speakers. I have done what I always do when I think there is a problem. I do not take the advice of the newspapers or of others, however well intentioned. I go out and find out for myself.
In my own rural constituency, which contains some of the most beautiful areas in Scotland which would appear to be very desirable for second homes, the evidence is that those who live in council properties stay there until they die. Why? Because their interests, work and everything else lie in that area. What is more, many of them take advantage of the right to pass those houses on to their children, who inherit the tenancies. That means that those houses never come on to the market. Other houses, as has been mentioned, are in small communities where, again, there is no demand for them as second homes. This business about properties in rural areas is a red herring, and we should recognise it for what it is.
1326 I welcome the provisions that will deal with anti-social tenants on many of our council estates. I know of anti-social tenants who put bricks through the windows of my father's house when he was foolish enough, some may think, to put up posters for his son who was the Tory candidate in the parliamentary constituency in which he lived. These anti-social tenants are well known locally. There is a need for something to be done about them. Therefore, I welcome this provision.
I should also like to draw attention to houses built in conjunction with special trusts. This point has been touched on elsewhere. It so happened that one of the trusts that was mentioned was a trust in the city of Perth, and I am sure that the member of the Opposition who will reply knows exactly what I am talking about.
The judgment I gave to my colleagues and friends in my constituency association and to my Conservative councillors, who were not too worried about the threats made earlier about losing at the May elections—I would be interested to see Labour win in Perth—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but I must remind him that he has spoken now for 10 minutes. Mr. John Maxton.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
Throughout the debate we have heard a great deal from Government members about freedom. Freedom has been the keynote of the debate. We have heard from the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) lovely stories about his family background. I put one small point to him. He said that his parents still live in their council house and that it will not become available until they die. I accept that. I would not take away their right in that respect. But what will happen if his parents buy that council house now? Who will it become available to on their death?
§ Mr. Maxton
Presumably the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire will have an equal share in it.
1327 Freedom has been the keynote of this debate, but freedom for whom? It will be freedom for a minority. Few people will wish to buy when they examine the conditions carefully. First, a large number of people, such as the unemployed and the old, will not have the right. Those over 55 years old will find it difficult to get a loan to buy a house even at the knockdown prices at which they will be sold, because the loan might need to extend beyond the age of 65 years. That is standard practice with most building societies and I assume that the same conditions will be imposed by local authorities. Even younger people may find it difficult to obtain a loan. Therefore, large numbers of people are automatically excluded from having the right to buy, even though they have the right on paper, because they will be unable to take up that right.
There are those who will not wish to buy. We have heard a great deal from Government members about those who live on council house estates which are so bad that they will not wish to buy. That is not the only reason for their not wishing to buy. People will not wish to buy their flats in large council housing schemes because they will be afraid that they will be trapped. They may wish to move out, not simply because they think that the whole scheme is unacceptable but because it is not the sort of place where they want to spend the rest of their lives. Equally, people will not wish to buy property in a tenement or a high-rise block. Why should they? The reason for that is quite simple; it is that the problems that will arise from one or two tenants buying their flats within tenement blocks are enormous.
I can assure the House that, apart from council house tenants coming to me with their problems, many private occupants of tenement blocks come to me because they have difficulties with the factoring of the property. The problems that arise when 10 people own 10 different flats within a house and the roof starts to leak, and the factor has to get money from every one of them before he puts the roof right, are enormous. It takes years to get the money out of each individual owner before the repairs can be carried out.
1328 It will be the same with tenants in council blocks. Who will be the factor? Will the local authority be expected to factor in those circumstances? If it does, will it charge not just for the repairs but a factoring fee? Will the local authority be allowed to charge for that service?
When people examine the true cost of mortgage repayments, the rates bill—which at present they do not notice because it is included in their rent—and repair bills, which could be enormous, they will think again. It could be the roof that needs repairing, or simply broken windows which may be covered by insurance. However, insurance companies will find it increasingly difficult to cover such repairs when flats in council blocks are privately owned as opposed to council owned. There will be the general upkeep of the premises to be thought of, and all these things will make it undesirable for people to buy their houses.
Moreover, this freedom is not being extended to the private sector, as several of my hon. Friends have already pointed out. Why not? My right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) told us that in his constituency, as in mine and other constituencies, there are houses built with public funds under the 1924 Act and owned by the Western Heritable Insurance Society. They were built almost entirely out of public money, although they are exactly the same in design as council houses in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar).
Why are people in houses of that kind not to have the same right to buy? The houses were not built out of public funds although they may now be in the hands of private owners.
Equally, nearly all privately rented houses in this country are subsidised in one way or another out of State funds. They are subsidised in many cases because the rent is paid through the social security system. They are subsidised through the landlords having been given grants from local authorities to renovate and renew the premises. In various ways public funds have been poured into the private sector, so why should not private sector tenants have the same right as tenants in the public sector, if it be such a great right?
We have heard a great deal about Tory philosophy, but it seems to me that 1329 in financial terms the Bill negates the great Tory principle of which we hear so much—the principle that private financing and private sector effort is the right thing, always superior to the public sector. I say that that principle is negated because local authorities will be asked to breach the financial rules laid down and followed by building societies when they give loans.
When a building society says "No" to someone, the local authority must make the loan. The need will not matter, and neither will the level of income. The state of the house and its age will not matter. The local authority must make the loan. No building society would do that.
These proposals are held up to us as a fine example, so why should not the proposed standards for local authorities be applied to building societies too for the benefit of young people who try to get loans for privately owned property?
For all those reasons, I shall vote against the Bill tonight and join in the fight against it at every stage.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)
The Bill will do little, if anything, to solve Scotland's serious housing problems. Indeed, I reckon that it will do considerable damage, and I say that with particular reference to the proposal for the indiscriminate sale of council houses. I am in no way opposed to people buying a house of their own in the private sector if they wish to do so. Indeed, I am not opposed to the use of public money to encourage and help people to buy their own homes—which was part of the reason why the last Labour Government introduced the, special scheme for first-time buyers. But I maintain that it is an abrogation of the responsibility of housing authorities to force them to sell council housing so long as there are families on the waiting list interested in a tenancy.
Our opposition to the Bill is not based on a doctrinaire approach. It stems simply from the realisation that free market forces alone are incapable of meeting the housing needs of Scotland today, just as they were incapable of solving Scotland's housing problem in years gone by.
1330 Let us think for a moment of the historical reason for there being such a high proportion of public sector housing in Scotland. It did not come simply because Socialists of yesteryear read in some theoretical textbook about the virtues of public ownership. The Socialist pioneers in housing policy realised that a completely unbridled free market economy could never provide roofs over heads. That is why, even before the war, in years of depression, we had, for example, the Wheatley legislation which was responsible for the construction of about 250,000 houses in the public sector in Scotland. Taking into account the post-war construction programme, there are now about 1 million houses in the public sector, which makes the figure more than 50 per cent. of total housing stock. We should not be ashamed of that we should be proud of it. It has made a real contribution towards helping to solve the housing needs of the people of Scotland.
In the public sector there is the opportunity to allocate housing on need. The local authority, through the elected representatives of the people, can decide its own fair points system, and so on. Once a house is sold and removed from the public sector—especially, as the Bill provides, with no buy-back provision—even if it is sold to the sitting tenant, in all probability it has gone from the public sector for ever. The future occupation of that house will be determined by free market forces rather than by priorities based on need.
If we imagine that the factors which existed at the time when public sector housing was introduced in Scotland no longer exist, we are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. For the Secretary of State to talk about a so-called surplus of dwelling-houses in Scotland is nonsense. Thousands of people, especially young couples, are queueing up for a house. Their only chance of getting a house is to wait for a council house. I challenge the Secretary of State to tell us the official Government estimate of the number on the waiting lists throughout the local authorities in Scotland. The average building society will not look at most of these young couples. They do not have the income or the necessary job security. Even if the building societies did look at them, they would find it impossible to pay when 1331 faced with the 15 per cent. mortgage interest rate, which has been caused largely by the Government's drastic economic policies.
Apart from the young couples and others on the waiting lists, thousands more want a transfer. What is the official Government estimate of the number on the transfer lists in the local authorities throughout Scotland? Has the Secretry of State done his homework before coming up with this tawdry and ill-prepared piece of legislation? Many people in flats, for example, would like to transfer to a semi-detached or cottage-type house with a garden. Yet, as other hon. Members have pointed out, good-quality council housing will decrease as a result of the Bill. By and large, the good houses will be sold off and the local authorities will be left only with second, third and fourth-class houses.
There are particular difficulties for rural areas. I have spoken to the local executive of the National Farmers Union in my area. Serious concern was expressed about the possible depopulation of rural areas which may be caused by this legislation. It will affect agricultural workers and others who contribute to the rural economy.
Behind the Bill is the typical Tory attitude about a "property-owning democracy". What does that phrase mean? Does it mean that those of us who do not own property have no right to participate in democracy? Are we who live in council houses to be treated like second-class citizens because we do not own property? That is the thinking behind the Bill. It has nothing to do with freedom and equality. That is why I hope that we shall resist it in its passage through the House. What is more, I hope that the local authorities will offer maximum resistance to it, even if it becomes the law.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
The Bill is another attempt by the Government to elevate election slogans into legislation. It suffers from the same defects as many of their other attempts. Slogans do not make good, workable legislation. The real tragedy, as the debate has amply illustrated so far, is the effect of the exercise, which was grandly described by the Under-Secretary of State 1332 for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), as a "housing revolution". He said that it will somehow liberate the council tenant. Its effect will be to cause enormous harm to the housing prospects of many thousands of Scots. It will impose a huge financial and administrative burden on local councils and the taxpayer, whose resources are being heavily cut back. It will confer gratuitous benefits on only a small and insignificant proportion of council tenants.
The extravagance of the Government's claims about the benefits arising from the sale of council housing is matched only by their extravagance with public housing assets. Their handouts and bribes are used to strip the councils of their best housing stock. Denied local power, discretion or judgment in a key area, local authorities will be left to supervise, if the policy works, a more bitterly than ever socially divided housing stock.
The Labour Party does not have a negative reaction to this gimmick-ridden legislation. Many of the problems of Scottish housing that the Bill spuriously and naively purports to challenge arise from an understandable and perhaps ambitious drive after the war to house the Scottish population. If those problems created by the drive are to be repeatedly underlined, so must the achievement of the public sector be underlined in providing the scale and type of housing that is now available. It is only because public authorities—councils, the Government and agencies—have dealt with the chronic post-war housing shortage that that problem has been met. Indeed,Scotland's homes are modern, 50 per cent. being built after the war (including three quarters of those in the public sector), a higher percentage than in any other EEC country except Germany and Holland, and 5 per cent. more than in Britain as a whole.Those are not words from Labour Party pamphlets or from a militant organisation, but from a pamphlet entitled "Scotland and the Union"—an anti-nationalist document produced by the Conservative research department in 1977. Now that the separatist challenge appears distant, that same trumpeted public sector housing success is labelled "serfdom". The consequences of that success are labelled "residential apartheid". The same private sector that created the slums and dereliction is hauled out of the Tory cupboard 1333 and described as the liberator of the council tenant. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) highlighted the catastrophic record of the private sector in Scotland before the war.
It is not just the sale of public housing that is at issue, nor the virtues of home ownership. The Labour Party has more right to be held up as the home owners' champion than a Government who are supervising history's highest mortgage rate. We now have the tightest mortgage supply and the lowest building programme. The debate is about the right of locally elected councils to provide a balanced level of housing for the needs of their local population. By imposing a policy of the right to buy, irrespective of the consequences upon housing need, stock or refinancing, we are entering the era of "big brother" politics, because most councils—Labour, Tory and the rest—find that policy unacceptable.
The echoes of 1984 are not confined to the dictatorial "we know best" attitude of the Government. The Orwellian concept of "newspeak" is a Government hallmark. The selling off of council housing has been called the "liberation of tenants", yet thousands who are already trapped in houses that they dislike will find that the sale of better houses—those with a garden and front and back door—means not liberation but the opposite. The Under-Secretary spoke last July of residential apartheid as between owner-occupiers and council tenants. Today the Secretary of State for Scotland talked about the stark division between owner-occupiers and council tenants. However, this policy seems guaranteed to leave council housing as a residual welfare service that will exist only for those stigmatised as being too poor to buy their homes.
In The Guardian today, the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) made it crystal clear what the real monetarists of the Tory Party think. He talked about council housing being simply the maintenance of a housing stock, necessary to meet cases of hardship. That is the real objective of Conservative policy. They say one thing and always mean another. It is another deception to sell this package.
The Secretary of State is promoting a party gimmick to the status of a human right, which is a perversion of the concept that is talked about. It is a right 1334 that he says conveniently supersedes the specific Conservative election pledge in 1970 of real local autonomy for local councils.
Is the imposition on local democracy in any way justified or fair? It is fair for the minority who take advantage of the Government's extravagant handouts. For many of them who are able to keep up the payments, there will be a major financial advantage in the blandishments. For the vast majority, however, the policy will, as we have demonstrated over and over again in the debate, be grossly wrong and unfair and represent a slowing down in the process of their real liberation.
It will be wrong for those who cannot buy their homes. For those who are too old, too poor, unemployed or single parents, the human right to buy is an empty one. It is akin to the human right for all of us in society to go to Eton or even share the Secretary of State's educational opportunities at Winchester.
Large numbers of council tenants, more than 40 per cent. nationally and more than half of those in Edinburgh, for instance, receive help with rent payments from the DHSS or through rent rebate schemes. In council housing more than half the heads of households are aged over 55, and for them a 25-year mortgage will be complete nonsense. With this Government's deepening economic depression and with four in every 10 tenants unemployed, retired or single parents, the hardship will be ever-increasing.
It will be wrong for those still on the waiting list and those in the worst areas who desperately seek a transfer out. The Government's fiction that houses sold would not have become available for relet is completely absurd. Sales will reduce the number of houses, and it will be the best houses that are sold.
The Government have in front of them the experience of Birmingham, with many years of council house sales. The conclusion there is that an estimated 10,000 renting opportunities have been lost over 25 years. The national figure shows that 4.5 per cent. of the housing stock becomes available each year, which represents 230,000 houses.
As the letting opportunities disappear, it will be those on the waiting list who suffer first. What of the 25 per cent. of 1335 the tenants in Drumchapel or Easter house who are on the transfer list? What of the 32,000 people on Glasgow's waiting list, 15,500 of whom are without secure accommodation, 5,000 overcrowded and 4,000 without a bath or inside toilet? Where are their tenants' rights protected in this legislation?
The second Glasgow housing plan categorically stated thatthe sales of better quality housing stock at this point in time would probably act as a severe restriction on many tenants' chances of access to this type of house.It will be a wrong policy for those who buy on the private market with no discounts and no guaranteed mortgages, never mind 100 per cent. mortgages. They will have no fixed price options in an escalating price market, and there will be the possibility of rising mortgage rates to finance the new council tenant borrowing. Their resentment and anger will be completely justified and add a further dimension to social tension.
It will be a wrong policy for those who try to buy and fail, for whom the Government's bribes will be a temptation that they cannot sustain and who will join the one in six who already default on local authority mortgage payments. It will be wrong for the ratepayer or taxpayer, who will eventually pick up the bill for the Government's profligacy.
This financial exercise in imagination that Ministers are indulging in will not stand up. Study after study from Shelter to The Economist has shown that the Government's optimism is misplaced and, at worst, fraudulent. Instead of being a bonus, each sale could represent a loss of at least £3,000 to the community. Even the document that was produced out of the magician's hat last Friday is inconclusive about the financial benefits of council house sales, and that document was specifically produced to bolster Ministers' claims in the debates today and tomorrow about the benefits to the community.
The Government's figures, which blatantly overestimate the immediate non-local authority sources of finance, ignore the effect of mortgage interest relief beyond the first sale and assume that no replacement building will be needed, are no guide to the real cost to the community of this electioneering exercise.
1336 The Bill represents the politics of the used car salesman—just a patched-up job of slogans, election gimmicks and reworked ideology, repainted as a basic human right. The whole lot is marketed as practical legislation. Some may think that it looks good in the showroom, but out in the country there is no chance of its working.
Apart from the tenants' charter, which is adopted in most parts from Labour's proposals, the Bill is a ragbag of pernicious weakening of tenants' security in the privately rented sector, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh. Central (Mr. Cook) outlined in detail, and a council house sales drive, which is riddled with the anomalies and illogicalities that one might expect from such a sloganeering approach.
The first anomaly is the rural areas, which were specifically identified in the Conservative Party's national manifesto as needing special recognition. They are to be left open to the holiday home market and the speculator. The problems are well known and were highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and the hon. Members for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) and Galloway (Mr. Lang).
Council housing in some rural areas represents only one-fifth of the housing stock and is probably the only chance that people have to get decent housing. In the Scottish Bill we are denied even the feeble protection provided for English rural areas in the Bill that is to be debated in the House tomorrow.
Another anomaly that will perpetuate the residential apartheid so abhorred by the Secretary of State is the proportion of flats in Scotland. One statistic stands out in all the literature of council house sales. In 13 years of sales in Birmingham—the arch supporters of the sale of council houses—10,000 council properties were sold and only four of those were flats. Of last year's national figure for sales, only 1.3 per cent. were flats.
In Scotland more than one-half of all council homes are flats, compared with one-third for the rest of the country. Indeed, the proportion in the urban areas of Scotland is even higher. Glasgow alone has 265 high-rise blocks, each with about 100 flats. My hon. Friend the Member for Springburn asked who would buy 1337 those flats. Only four tenants decided to buy flats in Birmingham. How on earth will flats be administered if they are sold? Will the blocks of flats be the new welfare ghettos of the 1980s and 1990s?
The Bill makes no attempt to deal with the anomalies of tied housing. Police and teachers' representatives have demanded equal rights for their members to own the houses that they have occupied for many years. If the logic of the Bill is accepted—though we do not accept it—who could deny them their case? The only exempted properties in special needs housing are those that are specifically adapted and those with communal facilities. They are the only categories to escape the great sell-off. But what about old people's homes with separate supplies? And if the quaint logic of the Government were true, why should the disabled and those who are too old be excluded from the Government's generous handouts?
Councils with no pre-emptive right to buy back sold property will in many cases have to sell, despite the minimal safeguards, for less than the original cost of building the property. The community will continue to pay for the next 60 years for an asset which it no longer owns. How will it be administered? The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) has told us that the town councils would be saved administrative staff and that we would not need all these housing managers and men to go around repairing the council houses to be sold. Will the selfsame maintenance men now be used to deal with the conveyancing and administrative aspects that will be the prerogative of local authorities indulging in the sales that the Government are proposing?
We are told that mortgages will be guaranteed, but only those rejected by the building societies will be taken on by the councils, which are forced to lend. Building societies are now giving on average 1.77 times income in advances. Will local councils be able to give more? Will the Government specify how many will qualify at that or any other level? Then we shall know how many tenants will have the opportunity of true liberation. Last year I said—
§ Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)
The hon. Member said that building societies are giving only 1.77 times 1338 income in advances. Building societies are giving two and a half times the salary of the person applying for a mortgage. The same figures could apply to applications to local government for mortgages.
§ Mr. Robertson
The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) is well known for supporting his own party from time to time. If he suggests that the Government lend two and a half times a person's salary, we hope that that will be confirmed this evening. The figure of 1.77 is the official figure of the building societies. We should like to know the figure of Government-imposed lending to council house tenants.
A wall graffiti notice last year made the following exhortation to ladies:Before you meet your handsome prince you have to kiss a load of toads.We have seen another illustration of that. Instead of a handsome prince of a Bill, we have another ugly toad. The Government may believe that the Bill will liberate and break down social divides, make economic sense, and even, as the Scotsmanleader writer recently suggested, increase the potential Conservative voting owners and make inroads on Labour's territory in the housing estates.
If they believe that nonsense, they are peddling to the Scottish public a very dangerous illusion. The Bill will seriously damage the prospect of finding adequate housing for the Scottish people. It will inevitably solidify social divisions and create new divisions. By leaving local councils with the task only of providing—with declining resources and emasculated powers—a residual welfare service for those who cannot escape from the rented sector, it reduces them simply to an estate agency for central Government. Expensively, extravagantly and recklessly, the Government will condemn thousands of tenants to a near permanent imprisonment in the ghettos that nobody can buy or want to buy. They will not forgive or forget easily. I call upon my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill this evening.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
This has been a remarkable debate, because the Labour Party, which for 50 years has presented itself as the champion of the council tenant, will shortly march in 1339 serried ranks through the "No" Lobby to vote against a tenants' rights Bill—a Bill which by common consent does more to emancipate the council tenant than any measure during the last 50 years. I am surprised at the decision of Labour Members.
As a preparation for the debate, I consulted the election manifesto on which the Labour Party fought the election. The Labour Party pays great attention to such manifestos. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) is the secretary of the manifesto group. He is keeper of the conscience of the manifesto group, although I suspect that this may be the last manifesto that he will wish to keep.
If we consult the manifesto on which the Labour Party fought the general election, we find that under the section on housing it states:We reject the philosophy that tenants are second-class citizens.It is a remarkable way of showing that philosophy if Labour Members are now to vote against a tenants' rights Bill and against a tenants' charter that will make the tenant a first-class citizen for the first time for many years.
The Labour Party has certainly made clear its opposition to a statutory right for tenants to buy their council homes, but the manifesto purports to suggest that the party was not being negative in this matter, because it states:Labour does not oppose the sale of council houses to sitting tenants of two years' standing who want to buy.By purporting to suggest that it is not dogmatic about this issue, the Labour Party has indeed given us the opportunity to pose this question. If in the Bill it supports the tenants' charter provisions, if it supports many of the other provisions, and if it is not hostile to the principle of council house sales in certain circumstances, would it not be more logical for Labour Members either to vote for the Second Reading or to abstain and then seek to amend the Bill to their satisfaction in Committee?
The reason why they are not doing so is quite simple and straightforward. It is because, for all the lip service that they pay to home ownership, they will support it only when it does not compete or contrast or conflict with their idea of a bureaucratic, paternalist Socialist 1340 society. We on the Government Benches make no apology for our support for a property-owning democracy. Labour Members, however, seek home ownership only when it is consistent with Socialism—never mind that Socialism has worked only in heaven, where it is not needed, or in hell, which has it already.
Let us consider the arguments that have been put forward in the course of the debate on the question why the House should reject the Bill. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), the hon. Member for Hamilton and a number of other hon. Members suggested that the Bill does not really have the support of council tenants in Scotland. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hamilton told us that only an insignificant number of people would benefit from the Bill. If they really believe that, what are they worrying about? No tenant will be forced to buy his house. If they seriously believe that only a minute number will benefit from the Bill and take advantage of it, they have no need to fear.
Scotland will remain the country with the highest figure for public sector housing in Western Europe. The massive acres of council estates will remain undisturbed, and bureaucratic paternalists who are so dear to the Labour Party will be able to continue undisturbed with their housing management. But Labour Members know that this is not the case. They know that the evidence already available suggests that our proposals are widely popular throughout Scotland. They know that in the few short months in which the Government have been in office more homes have been sold to their sitting tenants than at any time in our history. They know that already between 20,000 and 30,000 council tenants in Scotland have applied to find out the conditions under which they can buy their homes.
It is not surprising that this should be the case. Because Scotland has such a small private sector of housing and because the demand for home ownership is no less in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it is only by a massive sale of council houses that Scotland can approach the level of home ownership that other countries take for granted.
If the Labour Party continues with its dogmatic opposition to this policy, there is a duty upon it to tell the House and 1341 to tell the people of Scotland in what other radical way it would improve the prospects for home ownership in Scotland. We know that if 200,000 council houses were sold in Scotland we would still have a level of home ownership in Scotland 10 per cent. less than that which exists in England and Wales at the present time. The Labour Party is, quite simply, bankrupt of ideas for improving radically the level of home ownership.
The next argument was used by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), who suggested that whatever the council tenants might want the local authorities in Scotland were hostile to this measure.
Let us consider that proposition, because there, too, we have the evidence. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that many local authorities would like certain details of the Bill to be different, quite clearly that is the case. I accept that. But if he suggests, as he seemed to imply, that the local authorities prefer the policy pursued by the last Labour Government to that proposed in the Bill, I must tell him that the evidence is totally to the contrary.
Since the last election, all local authorities have been free to come to their own conclusions on this matter. In doing so, at least 30 local councils in Scotland are selling council houses voluntarily, with no compulsion yet upon them. Only a mere four have passed positive resolutions refusing to do so, and a number of others are waiting until this legislation is on the statute book. More than half are selling voluntarily, and that demonstrates in a way more eloquent than any mere words what the local authorities believe. Whatever they might think about certain details, they prefer the principle of council house sales to the policy pursued by the last Government.
§ Mr. Cook
Since the hon. Gentleman is so impressed by the number of local authorities selling council houses voluntarily, why not leave them to get on with the schemes that they have approved rather than make mandatory upon them the scheme that he proposes and that has been adopted by only a dozen of those authorities?
§ Mr. Rifkind
I shall answer that question happily. However, first I might say that it comes ill from Labour Members 1342 now to call for discretion to be given to local authorities. If they believed that the way to deal with the problem was for the local authorities to have discretion, it is remarkable that throughout virtually the whole of the last Labour Government, until their dying days, they prohibited the sale of council houses in the areas of those local authorities which wished to sell. The figures speak for themselves. It is somewhat doubtful to believe the credibility of Opposition Members when suddenly, when they are no longer in Government, they become converted to the joys of leaving it to local authority discretion.
There are two reasons why the Government will not leave it to the discretion of local authorities, although more than half of them sell quite voluntarily. The first is that we gave a pledge not to the local authorities but to the public in Scotland that every council tenant would have the right to buy. That is a pledge that we intend to keep. We believe that the rights of individual tenants are more important than the administrative convenience of local authorities.
But there is another reason. Sadly, it is the fact that every Labour-controlled local authority, if it were left to the discretion of the local authority, would refuse to give its tenants any right to purchase. It was the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) who pointed out the intransigence of Socialist local authorities. However, not every Labour Party member is against these proposals. In the last few months I have had a number of Labour councillors and even one or two Labour hon. Members saying "You are right. You must sell"—
§ Mr. Rifkind
They have said "You must sell council houses, but do not expect us to vote for such a proposal."
§ Mr. Rifkind
I have not yet got the permission of those hon. Members to name them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] If hon. Members will be silent, I shall answer the right hon. Member for Craigton. I shall not disclose names given to me in a private conversation. But if the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that I am lying, he should make that plain.
§ Mr. Millan
If it were not unparliamentary, I should be glad to do so. If these were private conversations, the hon. Gentleman had no business reporting them to the House, especially if he was not willing then to give the details.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The right hon. Gentleman must take that as he wishes. However, the fact remains that many Labour Members not only believe that many council houses have to be sold; there are even some who, if the right is provided, may consider exercising it. I remind the House that the former hon. Member for Bristol, North-West did that while he was trying to prevent his fellow citizens exercising a similar right.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman has made about two dozen sedentary interventions during the debate. Not once has he had the decency to stand up and seek to take part.
§ Mr. Ewing
I have been here longer than the Secretary of State. The Minister has, for the second time, made a very misleading statement to the House. The former Member to whom he refers never once cast a vote in this House against the ability of the constituents that he represented to buy their council houses. If the hon. Gentleman had been properly briefed for this debate and had not been too clever by half, he would have been aware of the fact that sales of council houses, particularly in that part of England, were much greater than in many other parts of the country. The Minister would do himself a service if he based his case upon some honest facts instead of misleading the House as he is now doing.
§ Mr. Rifkind
I am not sure what that irrelevant intervention added to the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his views known.
Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hamilton, indicated that the Bill would cause major problems for the housing management policies of local authorities. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) also put forward the case that the ability of a local authority to manage its property successfully would be gravely inhibited. If that argument is correct, the first proposition 1344 that one would have to accept is that these hon. Members expect massive numbers of houses to be sold and that massive numbers of tenants will wish to buy the houses. If only a handful take advantage of this right, the management responsibilities of local authorities cannot be affected.
Let us assume that those hon. Members are wrong and that substantial numbers of tenants exercise their rights under the Bill. Let us consider, therefore, as a consequence, these massive acres of single-tenure housing estates in Scotland becoming multi-tenure areas. Is that bad? Am I incorrect in referring to the present situation as residential apartheid? The hon. Member for Hamilton condemned me for using that phrase and suggested that it was a bogus claim. I refer him to the Green Paper "Scottish Housing", published by his own Government a couple of years ago. I refer to the words used. Paragraph 7.31, on page 62, said:The rigid geographical divisions which have grown up between areas of different types of tenure are socially divisive and prevent the creation of balanced communities.We agree with that assessment. This Bill seeks to do something about it in the teeth of opposition from Opposition Members.
§ Mr. George Robertson
Will the Minister accept that in referring to his expression "residential apartheid" I was drawing attention to the fact that instead of easing residential apartheid, whatever that means, he will create even more social divisions and even more harmful ones?
§ Mr. Rifkind
I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Hamilton could indicate some other way in which many acres of single-tenure housing estates in large urban areas can become multi-tenure areas unless we sell substantial numbers of council houses within them. The hon. Member has posed the question but has failed to suggest an alternative answer to that proposed by the Government.
I turn next to the suggestion that the policy pursued by this Government will inflict great harm and damage on those on council waiting lists. The answer was successfully put by my hon. Friend the 1345 Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) and others of my hon. Friends, who pointed out correctly that we are not considering, or proposing, selling council houses on the open market to whomsoever may wish to buy them. We are considering selling them to sitting tenants who have lived there for many years, most of whom will continue living there for the rest of their lives and will be succeeded by a widow who will continue living there for the rest of her life. Often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) indicated, their sons and daughters may inherit the tenancy thereafter.
We have experience of what this means in practice. Hon. Members who wish to check the reasoning need only consult the document laid before the House on Friday. They will see that the evidence shows that the vast majority of people who, in the past, have bought their houses have been those aged between 40 and 59. They have been middle-aged people, with wives and families. The average time in which they or their widows could expect to continue living is 30 to 35 years. Therefore, all that Labour Members could, with even the slightest justice, claim is that in 30 or 35 years there may be slightly fewer houses for those on the waiting list. If that is the extent of the argument, we accept that it may be one consequence, but we believe that in the meantime vast numbers of those on waiting lists, particularly in Scotland, will become home owners.
One feature of the Scottish housing scene is that many people whose income would make them natural home purchasers in England and Wales have, for historic reasons, ended up on the waiting lists, seeking to get a council house, but that, given the opportunity, they are as anxious to become home owners as anyone else throughout the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Dewar
Will the Minister accept that it is people on the transfer list who particularly worry me at least? Will he please give me a script that I can use when, on Saturday, I am interviewed with people who feel that they are disadvantaged because they have been unlucky in housing allocation, who are in difficult to-let areas and have been waiting—too long, I accept, but waiting patiently—for a chance to get into one of the more 1346 popular areas and who now discover that they will never get there because it is exactly the kind of housing they want which will be snapped up by those who have already been fortunate enough to be allocated it in the first place?
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman hinted at the answer to his own question, because he made clear what is clear to all of us with large numbers of council tenants among our constituents—that, even under the pre-existing arrangements, when no council houses could be sold, as was the case under the previous Labour Government, many of our tenants have had to wait 20 or 25 years and sometimes are never allocated houses in the areas of their choice. Therefore, it is no use raising theoretical arguments and objections to the proposals in the Bill. What the House and the public will be really interested in is the practical consequences.
If the evidence is that the average tenant who buys his house would—either he himself or his wife—continue to live in that house for 30 or 35 years, the practical consequence of the Bill is to have no significant effect in the foreseeable future on those on the waiting lists.
A number of Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), have suggested that the consequence of the Bill will be that only those houses in high-amenity areas will be sold and that gradually council estates will become estates of low amenity and low amenity only. That is a bogus argument, because it proceeds from two false assumptions, the first of which is that all the houses in the high-amenity areas will be sold. We know from the statistics, which are not in doubt, that about 40 per cent. of tenants in Scotland are on rent rebate or some form of supplementary benefit
Unless it is suggested that Labour local authorities and others have deliberately sent only high-income people to high-amenity estates—which I am sure is not being suggested—it follows that if, on the average council estate in Scotland, about 30 or 40 per cent. of the tenants are on supplementary benefit or social security, it is unlikely that those houses will be sold and it is unlikely that the very elderly will wish to buy, and others, through choice, will not wish to do so. 1347 We do not suggest that it is likely that anything other than a substantial proportion of those houses in high-amenity estates are likely to be sold.
At the other end of the market, many houses in low-amenity areas will be sold. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East was absolutely right to point out how low-amenity houses in the private sector in our city centres are snapped up by young married people who are only too anxious to get any form of house into their ownership so as to get on the first rung of the home ownership ladder. There is no reason why the same should not apply on council estates, particularly as many people would have a discount entitlement which would enable them for the first time in their lives seriously to contemplate home ownership.
The subject of the rural areas has been mentioned by several hon. Members. The Government are quite happy to recognise that there is genuine concern among my hon. Friends, local authorities and others about housing problems in rural areas. We will happily consider any firm evidence given to us that the problems—in particular the problems relating to second homes—require specific provision in the Bill. We do not rule that out if the evidence is forthcoming. However, the available evidence does not suggest that this is a serious problem in Scotland. We have the evidence of the Dartington Amenity Research Trust. That body was commissioned by the last Government and it reported in 1977 on the question of second homes in Scotland. It pointed out that between 1973 and 1977 there was no change in the number of second homes in Scotland.
It pointed out that half of the second homes were caravans, that the remainder accounted for not more than 1 per cent. of the total housing stock and that the vast majority of houses favoured as second homes were not expensive council houses or the equivalent. They were run-down country cottage-type properties suitable only for partial use. Therefore, the available evidence does not suggest that this is a serious problem. However, if there is new evidence the Government will look seriously at it and seek to respond in a constructive way to any proposals.
1348 The right hon. Member for Craigton asked a number of questions about private sector proposals. He and a number of his hon. Friends attacked the proposals for short tenancies. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central suggested that the short tenancy, for a maximum of five years, would be capable of exploitation by an unscrupulous landlord. Let us be quite clear about two things. Nothing in these short tenure proposals will affect the security of tenure of existing tenants. More importantly, any short tenure which came to an end after four or five years, in accordance with the original agreement, would not remove the house from rent control. Therefore, there would be no incentive to a landlord who wished to get rid of an existing tenant unless he genuinely wished to use the house either for his own purposes or for one of his relatives.
That is exactly the kind of relaxation in the private sector which will encourage many people who have a house or a flat presently empty because of a genuine control. Therefore, there would be no fear that, once let, it could not be recovered. If Labour Members will study the contents of the Bill, they will see that the short tenure proposals do nothing to jeopardise the rights of tenants but make a useful contribution to bringing far more homes into use in the private rented sector.
We are not giving the right to buy to the private rented sector, for two reasons. The first reason—already given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—is that these houses do not belong to the Government. The other equally persuasive reason is that while we have far too many public sector houses—far more than any other country in either Western or Eastern Europe—the private sector has drastically declined because of the ill-thought-out policies of the Labour Party. If we are to retain a genuine alternative for applicants in Scotland, this form of tenure must remain.
Before the Labour Party votes against these measures, I suggest that they answer a number of questions from the people of Scotland. Labour Members should tell them whether council houses will be sold only to sitting tenants over the dead bodies of the Labour Party. If they make that threat, it may be the latter that comes 1349 about. They should also tell the people of Scotland whether a future Labour Government will withdraw from Scottish council house tenants the right to buy their own homes. The public will then experience no confusion or make any mistake as to what the Labour Party really believes in.
For many years the Labour Party has talked about tenants' rights. Now we, a Conservative Government, are providing tenants' rights, and we are doing so in the teeth of opposition from the Labour
§ Party. For many years we have believed in a property-owning democracy. This Bill, together with that being brought forward for England and Wales, will make the single greatest contribution to the creation of a property-owning democracy that we have seen in this century.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time: —
§ The House divided: Ayes 313, Noes 252.1353
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).