HL Deb 13 May 1981 vol 420 cc561-606

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Birk rose to call attention to the difficulties arising throughout the country owing to the housing situation; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I must apologise to the House for my lack of voice. I hope that it carries through. This Motion is expressed in moderate terms, although the human privation and misery resulting from the housing situation arouses strong feelings and often harsh words. It is almost a year ago since the 1980 Act received its Second Reading in this House. It was then that I stressed that the Government's policy moulded in that Bill would have to be judged against the current bleak housing background. Since then it has turned out to be far worse than it was ever assumed.

There has been a disastrous collapse of new housing starts which have been sacrified on the altar of savage cuts in public expenditure of which housing took a disproportionate three-quarters of the weight. Housing declined in Labour's last years, I readily admit, due to the IMF stringencies. It declined from a high peak of 50 per cent. over a period of four years, but the decline has recently been 51 per cent. in two years from an abysmally low level. Fears expressed then have been corroborated recently by a series of reports from a wide variety of bodies documenting the alarming state of housing in Britain; the Association of Municipal Associations, the London Boroughs' Association, Shelter, SHAC, the Catholic Housing Aid society. Only yesterday I had a letter from Age Concern, which is extremely worried about the plight of the elderly.

The report of the House of Commons Environmental Committee was the most damning of them all. There was a committee of the House with a majority of Conservatives on it whose projection of the future of housing from the evidence that they received was very gloomy indeed. They also referred to the fact that the Secretary of State did not come forward and give any projections or hard facts from which they could work. It is not only that the position is far worse than we even assumed it would be. On present trends there is the chance and the danger of even more serious deterioration in the future.

In new housebuilding there has been a further fall since last summer, when we discussed this matter on what is now the Housing Act. There were 54,000 new council starts executed in 1980. That is the lowest figure since 1924–25. When I use these figures—and I unfortunately have to use a few figures—I hope that they will not be looked at just as figures, whether they are percentages or numbers of starts, whatever they are, because each one of these represents a family, or individual, who is either getting housing or being deprived of housing. It is in that light that we must look at what on the face of it appear to be very dry statistics.

In Birmingham, from which I have just received their recently proposed programme—and programmes will be coming in now from other local authorities—in 1981–82 they had hoped to start 1,190 new dwellings. They will actually be able to build only 169. What is more, most of the council's programme is for small units and dwellings for specialised needs, so this means that less accommodation will be available and transfers will be more difficult, under-occupation will be made worse when you cannot transfer elderly peope. More families will remain in high-rise flats, which are quite unsuitable for family living, as I think we would all agree. Waiting lists are increasing. I spell this out because I fear the same story is going to come from councils all over the country, whatever their political views.

The private sector has also been very badly hit. It is true there has been a slight increase recently, but the House Builders' Federation and the National Federation of Building Trade Employers, together with a host of other organisations with whose names I will not weary your Lordships and who are not known to be ardent supporters of the Labour Party, have expressed their fears, alarm and great sadness over what is happening in the building and construction industry today.

Furthermore, we have an alarming state of disrepair in our housing stock. It is true that it has increased over the years but if resources are not put into it immediately the situation can only get worse. Nearly a quarter of all the houses in London are substandard and nearly one-third of the houses in Liverpool a well. I am quite sure that the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches will be discussing Liverpool in some depth. In Birmingham, as regards housing built in the inter-war years, they had hoped to renovate those houses but they have had to stop their programme almost entirely. Local authorities are turning more to renovation, as they have been asked to do by the Government and, although the percentage is higher, it is true, we must remember that this is taken out of a drastically reduced housing cake so that in real terms the improvement slice is very much thinner.

According to the Association of Municipal Authorities, in 1981–82, the Housing Investment Programme, the HIP allocation, has meant that 18 per cent. of authorities in England are no longer going to be able to give improvement grants at all and 40 per cent. are restricting them very severely. I do not think I can do better than quote briefly from an article in The Times on 5th May 1981 by the Planning Reporter: Evidence from a range of sources is showing that the condition of both public and private housing in London and other large cities is deteriorating far more quickly than the Government admits. Unless it is prepared to reverse its spending cuts and make more money available for repairs, improvement and modernization, many buildings will become uninhabitable within a few years".

It is not with any satisfaction that I build up what I think is a pretty hard case against the Government. I do not think there is anybody in this House or outside it who would be at all happy about the housing situation at the present time. What we need is to see very much more growth in housing. Waiting lists were over a million in 1980 and, according to Shelter, the time that people would have to be on that list before they get a place is eight years, and 23 years in London. It is estimated that by 1984 the waiting list will be up to 1.8 million and the waiting time will be 21 years.

I have heard the Minister say before, and he will probably say again today, that the housing waiting lists are often unreal. I accept there are a certain number of people on them who have not taken their names off but, on the other hand, there are people who have not put their names on waiting lists because they believe the situation is so desperate that it is not worth their while. The level of homelessness has reached a record in which we can take no pride. More than 58,000 families were accepted by local authorities in the year ended June 1980 under the Homeless Persons Act. In London, according to SHAC, there will be insufficient council lettings by 1983–84—only two years from now—even to accommodate the homeless, let alone single families, from the waiting lists; and London of course is a very hard case indeed.

The Government's policies enshrined in the 1980 Housing Act are failing to tackle the problems. During the passage of that Act we had many debates not only in the other place but also in this House, and one of the hard-fought areas was on shortholds, where the Government were quite convinced that that was going to be the answer to the clamp-down on lettings and that lettings would emerge and there would be very much more property which people could find to rent. But despite the rhetoric that came from Ministers, the latest reckoning shows 680 shorthold tenancies in England and 24 in Wales. The Minister will no doubt say, as the Minister said in another place, that the Labour threat to repeal the Act is having a detrimental effect on landlords who might otherwise be prepared to let. I think this is wrong, for two reasons. First, it is possible to let on shorthold for a period anywhere between one year and five years, and unless people think that the Government are going to last less than a year—maybe they do—people could still let for just a year. So I do not think that has much force. Secondly, if the Government had accepted some of the amendments we pressed so hard and which were in the original Brandon Rhys-Williams Bill on shorthold, for instance, giving the sitting tenant a first refusal at the end of the lease, then there would have been less opposition from this side of the House.

Then if we look at the right to buy, this does not produce one single new home: I do not think there can be any disagreement about that. But although the Government may say it is early days, there have been very few sales indeed. In London, whether Tory or Labour councils are concerned, there have been practically none. In fact I believe that in Kensington there have been no sales although there have been 8,000 inquiries, or something like that. One of the reasons is that many of these are for flats, and it is very hard.

But what is much more important is that in spite of the decline in the situation the Government are still prepared to continue with what I can only call "asset-stripping", when we are so short of houses and flats for people to rent and when the building of units is going down considerably, and to take out of the rental market—which after all was what council housing was started for—all these houses and flats which they hopefully want to take out in order that people should have the right to buy. I think noble Lords will remember the battle we had even to get exemption for the elderly in sheltered housing, and what a battle it was! But there there was great support for our amendment not only from the Liberals and the Cross-Benchers, but also from a number of Members of the party opposite. The Act, as it is at the moment, is so tough in this way that I have had letters from Tories, particularly in rural parts of the country, who were delighted that we got that amendment through. They have since said how difficult it is to house people in rural areas, and how hard it still is to help elderly people.

We have seen an unprecedented increase in council rents. However one argues that there are some rents which should have gone up—possibly there were—there is no reason or justification for the amount by which a number of rents have gone up; and, as I understand it, the Secretary of State has certainly not ruled out the possibility of a further increase. There is a curious factor about what is happening. In an Answer the other day in another place, the Minister for Housing and Construction said that 46 per cent. of tenants can afford to meet the rent only with help from supplementary benefit or rent rebate. That means that nearly half of the people paying council rent have to be given help from another Government pocket, which means a considerable increase in bureaucracy. I shall not quote—because I am not sure of it—the very large figure which is floating around of what this will cost, but it is considerable. It is a piece of public book-keeping that is expensive and socially unsound. It also means that more and more poor families will be caught in the poverty trap.

As regards future prospects, I wish I could say that we have got over the hump and that things will be better. Unfortunately, it does not look at all like that. The National Council of Building Materials Producers expect output to drop by nearly 10 per cent. in 1981, and, even according to DoE figures, new orders for construction work are down and are very bleak. So the future is not a very happy one.

Houses are for people. They are not for straightening out the books or to be played around with by Governments as just another piece of public expenditure, without weighing the social necessity and the consequences. After food, the next necessity that is required by everybody is a decent roof over their heads. I say"decent", because so many people are living in such ghastly housing conditions that others who saw them for the first time would be absolutely amazed and would find them quite incredible.

The public expenditure cuts are an easy ride to take for a Government which is following a monetarist policy, and which is being so severe towards public expenditure that it is causing a continuous increase in unemployment with colossal sums being paid out, at the rate of something like £6,000 a year for a married man and wife with two children. As unemployment is probably over the 3 million mark, when we take in all the hidden unemployment as well, the cost is absolutely tremendous.

But building is a very labour-intensive industry and people could be set to work. We would deplete the ranks of the unemployed and would be building houses for people to live in, if the Government did not stick fast not just to its housing policy, but to its whole monetary and financial policy, under which housing is suffering terribly. I would remind your Lordships that 75 per cent. of the cuts in public expenditure came from housing.

The tentacles that reach out from insufficient and bad housing are absolutely infinite. We see the breakdown in marital relationships. Young people have nowhere to live. Young married couples cannot find a house or flat. Older people cannot manage in their own dwellings, and the last Act has not helped them very much. It means either that they have to go into residential homes, or that they stay, often unwillingly and not very happily, with relatives which does not work out very well.

We have seen increases in vandalism and in delinquency, and when you speak to probation officers you find they say that the two major factors which affect these increases are unemployment and bad housing. In some council estates, as well as elsewhere, there are many people, particularly women, who are today constantly on tranquillisers, because they find it so hard to cope with miserable housing conditions and with overcrowded families. They find that they just cannot cope at all.

What we need to do, is to recognise the extent of the need. The Government must recognise that this is a social need and it is something that should he on the nation's conscience. It should not be looked at only from a financial point of view, though, even from that point of view, it is extremely short-sighted not to realise that building houses and flats, and putting enough money into improvements before the dilapidated buildings completely fall down will benefit future generations. It is part of the stock and the wealth of the country.

We must take some of the political prejudice out of this whole housing question. One is not asking for something which is a luxury. One is not asking for people to have more than their share. One is just saying that the citizens of this country should all be entitled to decent housing conditions, somewhere to live and something to which they can look forward.

If we could achieve that and start thinking along those lines, instead of getting into these almost cast iron compartments, we might start to get somewhere. But the Opposition certainly cannot do this on its own, and the Government must take a completely new look at housing, and see it as an entirely different ingredient when it is considering public expenditure. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.28 p.m.

Lord Evans of Claughton

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on initiating this debate. I should also like, as I am sure your Lordships would, to commiserate with her on suffering the worst possible infirmity that can befall a politician. I do not know what she has in that glass, but it seemed to improve the quality of her performance as time moved on. Perhaps she will give me the recipe later on.

It is apposite that the noble Baroness should have initiated this debate. As she said, it is about a year after the coming into force of the Housing Act, and it gives us an opportunity to review the position after that Act and the very serious housing position in this country generally. I welcome the debate, too, because, as the noble Baroness said, I come from a part of the country, Merseyside, which probably has some of the worst housing conditions in the country. But I do not intend on this occasion to dwell on that, except to say that, in the area that I used to represent on the county council, we recently demolished a block of flats which had been built only 18 years ago to accommodate 240 families, because they were no longer inhabitable or possible to let.

That is the kind of thing that is happening in other parts of the country with monotonous regularity. I only wish there were more examples of the experiment that has been so successfully carried out at"Terror Tower"in Edinburgh, which has been refurbished and revitalised. I hope that, instead of the demolition of comparatively new multi-storey blocks, we may, in the early future, be seeing their conversion and improvement and, if that is possible, the making of them vandalproof, as has been done in Edinburgh.

I also think it is a happy coincidence that my honourable friend Mr. David Alton is this afternoon introducing a Ten-minute Rule Bill in another place to amend the 1936 Public Health Act, to seek to ensure that public health inspectors will enforce minimum standards and that every tenant will be entitled to running hot water, an inside lavatory, and a bathroom. The 1976 English House Conditions Survey estimated that 39 per cent. of people over 65 years of age lived in property built before 1919, of which 50 per cent.—to say the least—was, according to the survey, unsatisfactory. It has been estimated that since 1976 there has been a considerable increase in the deterioration of this accommodation. One need hardly underline that the absence of basic amenities such as those to which I have referred, and rising damp, hit the elderly particularly hard because they are less able to cope with such conditions and are probably less able to afford to carry out the repairs which are required.

With the increasing proportion of elderly people in this country, the extremely low level of slum clearance—with only 29,152 demolitions in 1979 compared with 70,000 a year in the early 1970s—and the fact that 66 per cent. of local authorities with slum clearance problems have either cut back or delayed their programmes, coupled with the fact brought out in a survey published in March 1981 showing that improvement grants were not being taken up, as the noble Baroness has said, owing to the cut in HIP, the future for the elderly and indeed for all tenants and owners of pre-1919 property is not a very encouraging one.

I am delighted that the amendment by my noble friend Lord Banks which was carried at the Report stage of the Housing Bill and which enabled many elderly people to benefit from an extension to the Option Mortgage Scheme, is turning out to be of great practical help to the elderly. This is one of many projects which Help the Aged and other voluntary organisations have been able to use in assisting elderly people, such as the Gifted Housing Scheme, home improvement and insulation projects and others. The cut-back in local authority spending after the Housing Improvement Programme allocations has resulted in as much as 38 per cent. of current cuts falling on sheltered housing, which I should have thought was a very shortsighted policy on the part of both local and central government.

At the other extreme, students and undergraduates are suffering from the housing problem. Every autumn, colleges and universities throughout the country find themselves with hundreds of homeless students and with many more inadequately housed in private accommodation of an inferior quality. The building of halls of residence has virtually stopped, and while I believe that many of the luxurious halls of residence built in the 1960s and 1970s were often wasteful of finance, I consider that in areas of housing stress such as London the Government should make funds available for building or extending halls of residence.

At the same time, rents in halls of residence are rising, according to estimates from the National Union of Students, by figures ranging from 25 per cent. to 70 per cent.—44 per cent. in Wales—while the grant allocated to students is rising by only 7 per cent. I fear that this will force students out of halls of residence which they cannot afford into the already overcrowded private sector. In the private sector students are particularly vulnerable to Rent Act evasions such as non-exclusive licences to occupy and bogus holiday lets, as many of your Lordships warned the Government during the progress of the Housing Bill a year ago. I refer in particular to the provision in the Housing Act 1980 allowing landlords to charge a deposit of two months' rent, which may mean that a student has to find a deposit of £170. This, together with his first month's rent, means that a student is having to pay out 42 per cent. of his first term's grant on rent alone. That cannot be a satisfactory position, and I hope the matter is one that the noble Lord the Minister or his collegaues will look at.

I have mentioned these examples of the plight facing the elderly and the young to draw attention to my belief that we, as a country, have become complacent because of the great burst of slum clearance and house improvement programmes of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact we now face—as the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has pointed out—intense housing problems in this country. First, we are neither building nor renovating enough dwellings to meet the challenge of providing 900,000 more households by the late 1980s brought about by the huge increase in births in the decades since the war. Secondly, there were fewer housing starts in 1980 than there have been for 50 years. In 1980 only 152,000 starts were made compared with more than 300,000 starts five years before. In the public sector there were only 44,000 new starts last year, which was the lowest figure since 1920.

From the statistics which are available it seems to me that housing is bearing the severest brunt of the Government's spending cuts. By 1984—that magic year to which we are continually referring—housing will account for only 3.9 per cent. of Government spending, compared with 7.3 per cent. last year. I am afraid that whatever Government have been in power since the war, housing has always been a popular target for cuts, because it is so capital intensive that a single cut can appear to make a large saving without being immediately seen to affect pressure groups and others who have a strong lobby in their favour. In fact it affects the future housing of new generations and also the housing of the homeless, groups which are less easy to mobilise into protest.

So the miserable thing goes on, with one round of cuts justifying another. If we go on as we are, it is likely that by 1983 less than 30,000 council houses will be completed, which is fewer than the number suggested by the Select Committee on the Environment and which compares with 100,000 only three years ago. It is projected that by 1984 this will leave an absolute deficit of 500,000 houses, even if housing deficit in one part of the country is offset against surpluses in another and even accepting the highly doubtful assertion that most single people do not want a house of their own. On this projection there will be over the country as a whole a total deficit of 500,000 houses.

As the noble Baroness indicated, higher rents will not drive out tenants into the private sector, as might have happened before the Housing Act; the tenant will merely buy, under the very generous provisions of the Housing Act 1980, without creating a single new available letting. The need of tenants, local authorities and the building industry is a period of stability with a steady programme of building and rehabilitation, not subject—as the housing and building industry has been—to wild fluctuations depending on the whim of successive governments and successive economic problems. We need a simplification of the system of housing finance and the substitution of a housing credit system for the present complex system of mortgage interest relief, insurance relief, council rent subsidies, rent and rate rebates, and supplementary benefits.

I am glad that some building societies are trying to break—if only at the margins—the extremely conservative image that the building society movement has had over the years. Much needs to be done by the building societies themselves to encourage loans for less conventional dwellings, and possibly to less conventional borrowers, and to reappraise the policy of"red-lining"whole areas as not being available for building society mortgages.

Competition from other financial institutions would be healthy. I welcome the fact that in a small way the joint stock banks are beginning to compete in this area. The creation of new forms of ownership and tenure would be helpful. Clearly as the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has said, for one reason or another which I do not intend to debate at the moment, the shorthold scheme has not yet taken off, though I believe that, with safeguards, it might have been a useful addition to the various types of tenures available.

My belief, therefore, is that unless we are willing to face, and I hope none of us is, an extreme housing crisis in the next five years—as the noble Baroness rightly said, it is a human crisis; any housing crisis is a human crisis—and also the virtual destruction of the building industry, an industry with 350,000 unemployed (as Shelter have said"The present level of activity in the construction industry will significantly and perhaps permanently reduce the industry's capacity to respond efficiently to increased demand in the future") there must be, I repeat, because this is the key to the whole problem of housing, a period of stability and a very considerable and consistent growth in building starts and rehabilitation, including the rehabilitation of hard-to-let multi-storey property. There must be an improvement in the housing investment programme allocations, simplification of housing finance, innovation in financing the private sector, experimentation in new kinds of tenure and special assistance for the elderly and the young, including students and undergraduates.

If we do not take steps of this crisis kind, we shall be creating a crisis that we ourselves and certainly our children will have to face of an extremely serious nature in terms of the basic human right of people to have a house and a home of their own.

3.42 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, may I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for initiating this debate. I hope her sore throat will soon be better.

Any debate on housing is really a debate on homes. To a society which is family orientated, a home is one, though not the only basic need of a family. But in our society there are those who either have not got a family or who, because of their particular problems, cannot live within the orbit of their family. Some of them are on probation; some are discharged prisoners; some of them are drug addicts. There are those who have been discharged from mental hospitals; there are the homeless and there are those who are unable to sustain a job. And, very sadly, there are those very young people who cannot get jobs in their own areas and who think that by coming to a big city they will find one. Then they find themselves without a job and without a home to live in. Today, therefore, I should like to talk about hostels and the provision of positive shelter for those in our society who are the most vulnerable.

If we support the hostel movement, and I think most Members of your Lordships' House do, we support it because it is a way of helping vulnerable people along the road to self-survival in the community in which they live. There are some hostels which provide accommodation on a long-term basis while there are others, most important in our community, which supply a stepping stone towards independence.

Administratively, the situation is extremely difficult. Three Ministries are involved: the Department of the Environment, the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Security. May I make three points to show how difficult it is when three Ministries are involved. The staffing ratios in hostels for those most vulnerable in our society who need skilled help from people who are able to tolerate that very difficult life are laid down not by the hostel staff, not by the voluntary organisations running the hostels, not by the Home Office who understand those who have come from penal institutions. They are laid down by the Department of the Environment. If you appoint more than the number of staff laid down by the Department of the Environment, then you are in trouble with that department. If, on the other hand, you do not supply sufficient skilled and helpful staff who are committed to their work, you are running the hostels at a loss because you are not cost effective and helping people to be rehabilitated in their communities.

That is one problem. The second problem is that the rent per person is laid down again by the Department of the Environment. The department lays down the rent which must be paid by each person in the hostel. If a man is on social security, the rent is paid by social security. If, however, a man finds a job which pays him less than his social security—this sometimes is the case, because he loses a number of other benefits—then he cannot afford to pay the rent for his accommodation in the hostel. If he cannot afford to pay the rent he must leave the hostel, which means that he is on the streets and has nowhere to go. Quite clearly, therefore, the Department of the Environment has not completely understood the needs of that particular man, woman or young person. This is a disincentive to work.

It is well-known in your Lordships' House that at the moment many men are moving about the country. They are leaving their families and seeking work in different parts of the country. If they cannot find other accommodation, perhaps they can find it in a hostel. When they go to a hostel they find that they can be accommodated and paid for by supplementary benefit. But if they get a job they cannot afford the rent and then they must leave the hostel.

My third point relates to the Home Office. The Home Office funds men, women and young people who have been in penal institutions or who are on probation and who need hostel accommodation. The House of Commons Expenditure Committee pressed in 1978 for more hostel accommodation. In 1980, a Government White Paper said that it was hoped that resources for expansion would be forthcoming, but nothing yet has happened.

Therefore, different Government departments are ruled by the Department of the Environment, which provides grants through housing associations, with voluntary organisations running the hostels, yet they do not provide sufficient funds to enable those hostels to be run efficiently. May I therefore ask the Minister to say in his reply whether or not it would be a good idea to have a joint committee consisting of the three Ministries, the National Federation of Housing Associations and the Voluntary Hostels Association, so that one co-ordinated policy can be laid down for the different types of hostels and the different types of needs.

I speak with very deep feeling. I have been responsible for running hostels. The administration was appalling. The Home Office paid for perhaps two beds, while supplementary benefits paid for perhaps three beds, and great difficulty arose, because of the need to submit different accounts to different Ministries while at the same time trying to fit in with the Department of the Environment. Would it not be possible to have an all-departmental committee together with the voluntary organisations, or a co-ordinating committee which would lay down help for all hostels for all people? I submit that this is not asking for money and in the end it would probably prove to be cost effective.

I wish to mention two other sectors which present problems. One concerns evictions. Those of us who have to deal with families being evicted know that this is an appalling problem. We acknowledge that there are rent arrears; there are families with children and they are evicted for non-payment of rent. The children are accepted into care, which is very costly and not at all the right emotional situation for the children, nor for the parents, or alternatively the families are perhaps placed in lodging houses, boarding houses, even hotels—something which is even more costly than the rent arrear which has built up. I would make a plea on two counts: first, that housing departments should look closely at their rent arrears and offer support to families at a very early stage. Once rent arrears have built up there is no hope of ever getting them paid off.

Secondly, one goes round big cities and sees an enormous number of houses empty and yet there are families who have been evicted and placed in hotels and boarding houses and who have nowhere to go. I submit that it would be far better for such families to be housed in those empty properties, pending their use. The families could be housed, not necessarily as tenants but as licensees, and therefore they would not come under the Rent Act.

I wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, on the subject of students. Coming from a university city, I know that the students are in great difficulties and I know that this matter will be pursued by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers. So I would ask the Minister whether he will consider those who are most vulnerable in our society, not necessarily for more money—although I am quite sure that we could do with more hostels and more money—but with a view to developing a different procedure so that we can deal with them and help them more effectively.

3.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Truro

My Lords, I, too, would wish to express appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for the opportunity which she has provided for us to debate this subject. I believe it is difficult to exaggerate its importance for people and for the well-being of our society. I should like to develop two of the points which the noble Baroness made in her speech. First, she said that it was a social need which should be accepted by our society and, secondly, she said that it was short-sighted not to recognise that a housing stock was part of the assets of our country and of our society.

I am sure that many of your Lordships at the present time of recession and economic difficulties share my own experience of receiving pleas from those who are engaged in very worthy and deserving causes which have suffered or are likely to suffer as a result of financial cuts. Many of these pleas arouse our deep sympathy but, however sympathetic we may feel and bearing in mind that the financial resources of the nation are limited, our only responsible course is to assess priorities. When it comes to the assessing of priorities I believe we must recognise that housing must take a very high place indeed, not only in its own right, allowing people to have the basic right to be adequately housed, but because, when we come to look at many of these causes which are pleading their cases with us, many of the situations which they have been created to remedy have arisen in large measure from the housing problem. Therefore I very much welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said when she spoke about it being shortsighted not to realise that this problem must have the very highest priority.

I think no one can deny that there is an evident correlation between the provision of adequate housing, both in quality and quantity, and the stability of our family life, and it is to that point that I ask your Lordships to turn your minds for a moment—the stability of our family life, which is in such urgent need of being strengthened at the present time. In my experience, some of the causes which we are asked to support exist to meet needs which are exacerbated, if not caused, by the housing situation.

A month of so ago I was preaching at the service held in our cathedral to celebrate the centenary of that fine institution, the Church of England Children's Society. As a boy I was brought up in Battersea, where my father was a priest. The Society was then known as the Waifs and Strays—and waifs and strays I certainly saw as I lived in that part of London. They were waifs and strays who certainly suffered physical deprivation. When I was preaching my sermon at the centenary of that society I said that the waifs and strays of today are not merely those who suffer physical deprivation but also those who suffer psychological and spiritual deprivation because of their family and their housing situation. It is that spiritual and psychological deprivation which is often the result of the instability of family life to which in adequate housing or homelessness is a contributory factor. One has only to ask in any school to find evidence of the relationship between delinquency, disturbance and the situation of the family, particularly in regard to its accommodation.

A moment or two ago I mentioned homelessness and, as your Lordships know, that is the most acute and distressing aspect of the problem. The number of homeless households has more than doubled in the last five years. I only mention this to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that 69 per cent. of homeless households in 1978 were those with dependent children, which means that it has a particularly acute effect on family life. If I do not speak further on this aspect of the problem of homelessness, it is not because I do not care; on the contrary, it is because I believe it needs particular special and expert attention and because it is in effect the tip of the iceberg of the housing situation generally. Although we may have to do what we can for homelessness as a problem, what we can do there will, in the long run, avail little unless we are trying to do something about the housing situation generally.

It is to certain aspects of that problem that I would now ask your Lordships to turn your attention. I want first to speak of the effect of the housing situation on those who are newly married. In a recent discussion paper published by the Policy Studies Institute entitled Public Policy in Family Life, Mr. Bradshaw, drawing on another publication, Who Divorces?, states that disadvantaged housing, especially in the early years of marriage, is more typical of those who have suffered marital breakdown than of those who are continuing the marriage, as also is friction between parties in shared accommodation. In general, he points out that marital stability and a stable accommodation history in the first years of marriage go hand in hand. Many of us would rather have suspected that that was the case, but it could not be taken for granted; it does seem now that clearly that is so. It seems that divorced couples, for example, undoubtedly tend to have had more frequent haphazard and even forced moves during the early years of their marriage.

I am not, of course, suggesting that housing problems are the only or even the prime cause of divorce. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that there is an evident correlation between inadequate housing and marital breakdown, and that at a time when children are particularly vulnerable. The Church of England report Marriage and the Church's Task made a similar point. It drew attention to the fact that the serious housing shortage has a particular effect on the ability of young married couples to set up house and results in them very often starting their marriage in very unsatisfactory conditions.

The report of the Research Working Group under the chairmanship of Sir Douglas Black, entitled Inequalities in Health, drew attention to the known deleterious consequences for children of high-rise living and to the association of poor housing, and particularly overcrowding, with a number of indicators of mortality and morbidity. Correlation has been found between the proportion of population living at one or more persons per room and the mortality rate among children up to the age of four. The report maintained that adequate housing of families with children must be a priority if class inequalities in health are to be eliminated.

So far as housing and elderly people are concerned, the report A Happier Old Age, published by the Stationery Office in 1978, drew attention to the fact that, although most old people live in the community, their ability to do so can depend as much upon the kind of accommodation they occupy as upon the support they receive. This, I believe, is a very important point that we need to bear in mind. It is one of which I am particularly conscious in my present diocese, where we have many old people, happy to live on their own, with independence, but finding it increasingly difficult to do so because of the quality of the accommodation they have; and the very quality of that accommodation, coupled with the high rise in energy costs, means that too often they cannot continue where they are, with the resulting demands that they make upon our existing already overstrained health services.

The report of the Policy Studies Institute, to which I referred earlier, recommends that elderly people who are on their own should be encouraged to live communally but with privacy. I was very glad to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said just now about hostels and housing associations, because I believe that a good deal of accommodation could be released by proper provision of this kind of housing for elderly people, in which their privacy and their independence is recognised but they are able also to live in community.

I have sought to remind your Lordships of some ways in which the housing situation affects our family life and makes it a matter of such grave concern. I could have referred to certain specific problems, such as, for example, those of the disabled. The only point I want to make here is that it is not so much a question of what special provision for the disabled you make in the accommodation provided as the fact that in a situation of pressure their position is always made more difficult for them; in other words, if you have disabled members in your family, family life comes under greater stress if your accommodation is inadequate. Therefore, I believe this is another reason for seeing our housing problem in this overall family context.

I was going to mention the particular position of students, but I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, for having made that point effectively for me. What I believe is needed is that there should be a clearer overall policy for housing which really takes into account the rate of the formation of new households, which is something we cannot control; it is not for us to say whether people should get married or not and whether they should then have families. But the rate must have a direct bearing upon our housing policy. Secondly, the overall policy must balance improvements with the rate of deterioration of houses, and, as one has heard already in this House today, the situation is not a very happy one. A large percentage of our housing, particularly in London, is in a state of serious deterioration. Thirdly, it must ensure that inroads are made in the backlog of had conditions.

I am, of course, well aware of the financial difficulties of today, but in the first place I think we must re-emphasise again and again that the need to help people to enjoy the basic human right to acquire adequate accommodation must be heard loud and clear. Your Lordships notice how I phrase that—to enable people"to enjoy the basic human right to acquire adequate accommodation". My experience of those countries in which housing is wholly the responsibility of the state does not encourage me to think that this is the way to solve the problem. Nor do I think that it can be done by a laissez-faire attitude towards housing, in which council provision is regarded as a kind of stop-gap, or even a kind of supplement, without the two being related.

I believe that there is a need for a clearer and more evident relationship to be made between housing generally, in the private sector and its provision by local authorities, and that we must not think simply in terms of either state control or laissez-faire supported by a degree of state provision. The two must be seen as part of a coherent housing policy which takes into account the whole stock of housing which is available in this country.

I believe that our basic concern must be to enable the individual to enjoy the basic right to acquire adequate accommodation. It may be that he will have to be given that right through council provided accommodation. It may be that he can be helped in other ways to do it for himself. Either way must be respected, but the two need to be related. Failure to look for an overall housing policy which takes both sectors into full account and seeks to relate them can only serve to increase the number of homeless and those who suffer because of their accommodation problems. But I also believe that such a policy will bring its rewards, and happy rewards, in terms of the future of this country. I believe that we need to take a much more positive look not merely at housing but at housing in the context of family life and in the context of society and to see it as one of the fundamental problems which we have to grasp today. If we do not do that we shall cause people to suffer, and I believe that we shall also be found wanting as a society in fulfilling our responsibilities.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Greenwood of Rossendale

My Lords, in the teeth of very great difficulties, my noble friend Lady Birk made what I thought was a splendidly robust and vigorous speech, and once again my noble friend has placed the House in her debt. I should also like to say how much I enjoyed the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. I think that I agreed with most of what he said and I am hoping that the right reverend Prelate induced in your Lordships a frame of mind which makes it easier for me to crave the indulgence of the House if I leave it for about an hour soon after five o'clock. I have the responsibility of welcoming a number of your Lordships at the annual reception of the AMA. I feel that that must have priority for at any rate part of today.

I wanted very much to speak in this debate because for the past 15 years I have devoted more thought to the housing problem than to any other problem. I have at times declared interests in your Lordships' House and I do not want to go over them again. I shall simply say that all my experience in most sections of the housing world leads me to form a sombre view of the prospects that lie ahead. My earnest hope today is that perhaps we can find some common ground, some general acceptance of what we need and what we can afford. I am quite sure that it is wrong that housing should be used as a financial regulator. We must have stable approach to the housing problem. Fifty per cent. cuts in public expenditure on housing just do not make sense by anybody's reckoning.

If today, I seem critical, I can assure your Lordships that my criticisms are not in any way directed against individuals. I have a very high regard for Mr. Stanley and the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for the conscientious and industrious way in which they approach their responsibilities. What I am complaining of is the Government's overall strategy and the effect that it is having on the housing situation. It would be wrong to blame individual members if house building does not begin to soar. It is the Government's responsibility. If the Minister's colleagues in the Treasury are not prepared to make the resources available to the housing Ministers, then it is wrong to blame the housing Ministers for any shortfall.

I do not want to go over again the figures that were given by my noble friend and also by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton. I shall simply say that we are in a situation in which public sector housing has come almost to a standstill. The payment of improvement grants has been cut by something like 60 per cent.; slum clearance has been slowed down; we are losing our existing stock and we are not producing new houses on the scale that is required. I find that a most depressing picture.

My noble friend referred to the 350,000 unemployed building workers. Of course not all of them would be involved in the building of houses. However, there is surely something desperately wrong when we have 350,000 men with skills at their fingertips and we have homelessness probably actually increasing at the moment and we cannot bring the two together. I think that the public may well ponder over the policies that the Government are pursuing when they are spending no less than £2,000 million a year on keeping building workers out of a job. If only the men, the money, the materials and the land could be brought together! There is no earthly reason why that should not be done. I am afraid that many members of the public may well become a little sceptical and frustrated when they look at this situation. I am bound to say, as one who has been worried about the lack of young people going into apprenticeships, that I can hardly blame them for hesitating to go into apprenticeships when we can waste manpower in the way in which we are doing at present.

I was pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, referred to the voluntary housing movement. We are both involved in it, and it has, I think, shown remarkable resilience in the last six months or a year. It has handled its case with very great skill indeed and I think that it has had a good deal of help from the housing Ministers in that respect. Nevertheless, there was for half the financial year a moratorium. In 1979–80 there were going to be 34,500 homes approved. However, that was reduced first to 21,700; then it was reduced still further to 14,700 and the final figure was, in fact, 11,170—a cut of about 60 per cent.; and a number of new schemes were slashed.

The offices of the National Federation of Housing Associations now estimates that the voluntary housing movement is working to only 50 per cent. of capacity. I am genuinely afraid that, if the voluntary housing movement does not get further off the ground in the near future, we shall lose a lot of people from it; a lot of skills will be lost and it will be difficult to repair the damage that has been done. I am a little worried, for example, by the fact that a great deal of energy has been switched from the provision of rented housing to the purchase of houses for improvement and sale. That is an interesting and exciting job for housing associations, but I cannot help feeling that the priority should be the acquisition of new properties for the homeless rather than the rehabilitation of houses for sale after improvement. I agreed with everything that the noble Baroness said about the hostels. I am sure that she is on the right lines, if I may say so with all modesty, and, indeed, it is good to know that her thinking is along those lines.

In my view there are three lessons which I suggest we should all learn from our difficulties—and they should be learnt not least by many who share my own political point of view. The first is that if planning is too restrictive it greatly favours the land owner with planning permission. It gives him tremendous power and it raises the price of houses. The second lesson is that if the provision of houses does not keep pace with supply of mortgage finance the cost of houses will be forced up. The third lesson, in my humble submission, is that standards are not immutable. I would much sooner see some dropping of the standards if it meant the provision of more houses than I would the concentration on too high a level of standard with a smaller total. I think that that is something that we shall have to think about seriously.

Finally, I am not at all sure whether for a very long time we can repair the damage that the cuts have already done. But if we are to remedy the situation, we must stop bashing one another about in order to do it. I strongly believe that we must reach a consensus on the basic provision of housing below which no Government of any party would allow it to fall. An essential feature of a secure and happy people is to maintain such a consensus instead of allowing the figures to fluctuate wildly between 150,000 homes a year and over 400,000 homes a year.

It was that consideration that a few months ago led me to write a letter to the Daily Telegraph, and perhaps I could read to your Lordships what I wrote: Until we take housing out of the political cockpit the building industry will be at risk, local authorities will be frustrated, the voluntary housing movement will lose momentum and many of our people will be without homes or living in slums. It should not be impossible to get agreement on the number of new homes we (i) need, and (ii) can afford. Once that is decided … Ministers, councils, and building societies will know how much finance is required; builders will know the demand for labour and materials; the planners will know what land must be freed for development.". I believe that none of this is incapable of achievement. The Housing Centre Trust was kind enough to set up a working party to consider the points that I made in that letter, and it will be reporting in about 10 days' time. The working party was chaired by Mr. Richard Edmonds, a former chairman of the Housing and Planning Council and chairman of the planning committee of the old LCC; Miss Joan Ash was the Secretary of that working party.

However, I think that I must make just one point before I conclude, and it concerns my reference to the "political cockpit". I do not, for a moment, suggest that we should stop arguing about housing. There are so many aspects of the housing problem that lend themselves to lively controversy: the sale of council houses, rent policies, what should be the social mix, are all examples of the kind of matter about which we should be arguing. No, I want to stop"targeteering"—to stop the parties promising to build more than their opponents. I want them to reach broad agreement on a basic standard of housing below which they will not allow it to sink. I want them to agree on how many houses we need a year, how much we can afford, and perhaps on the broad allocation of available funds to new building, redevelopment and rehabilitation. I hope that this debate today will have helped to clarify our minds on some of the basic issues upon which we have to decide. Like your Lordships, I am most grateful to my noble friend for introducing the debate this afternoon.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder—not wishing to interrupt his absolutely excellent speech—whether he could help on this matter. He said that we should bring together the building trade workers who are out of work and the money that is being drawn in supplementary benefits for those men to be out of work. Can he indicate how this could be done? Because in this sector and in other sectors many of us would like to see this done but are in some difficulty over trade union law and as to how much a man should be paid over the supplementary benefit.

Lord Greenwood of Rossendale

My Lords, I appreciate the point of view of the noble Baroness, but I do not think that one can take a block of money there and a block of workers here and just bring them together. This entirely depends on getting the house-building industry moving again so that money is made available by the Government and the local authorities. If we can put them back to work, the state as a whole will save approximately that amount in a year.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I must apologise that you have to accept me instead of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. Apparently the Whips Office made a mistake, and when the noble Lord withdrew his name they thought that I was the person withdrawing; hence my name does not appear on the list. All the same, it is a stroke of good fortune, because it enables me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, who has made an excellent speech on this particular subject, and I am happy to be able so to do.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, that the objective should be to decide how many houses we need to build and how many houses we need to keep in repair. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro that the question must be one of the relationship of households to dwellings. The trouble about the question of this relationship of households to dwellings is that it cannot be worked out in a nice round figure, which is what Ministers often try to do. They often tell us that there are, in fact, enough dwellings for the households. Sometimes they are right and the overall figure balances; but it is the areas that matter.

I have a few figures for London which I should like to quote. To take Brent, there are, infact, 2,500 more households than dwellings; in Harringey there are 2,100; in Ealing there are 1,400; in Lambeth there are 2,400; but in Richmond there are only 200, and in Wandsworth there are only 900. So this question of the balance between households and dwellings is very important, but it must be borne in mind that it is a local balance, and it is the local balance that must be achieved.

I want to ask your Lordships to look at this housing problem in terms of what goes on at the moment. Let us start, for example, with the waiting lists. I know that the Minister will tell us that the waiting list is not an accurate record of need, and I accept that. But it is an indicator, because just as there are many people on the waiting lists who have put down their names in order that if, in a few years' time, they need a house, they are on the list, so there are many people who do not put their names on the list. I can assure the Minister that in my medical surgery—I am not talking about political surgeries—I come across many people who have got themselves into housing difficulties. I tell them that they must go and see the council, and then I discover that they have never put their names on the waiting list. So there is a balance there: there are people who are on the waiting list merely"on spec", and there are people who need houses but who are not on the waiting list. Therefore, although the waiting list is not an accurate indicator, it is an indicator.

There are at this moment in England and Wales 1,144,000 people on council housing waiting lists. In 1979 that figure was 1,020,000. This means that it has increased by another 24,000 in a year. I have the London figure for 1979 but not for 1980. For 1979 the London figure was 228,000. What is more, there were 57,200 people registered as homeless who had reported as being homeless in 1979. Again, I do not have the 1980 figure. But, again, 30 per cent. of those were here in London—17,368.

There has also been a survey of the condition of houses in Greater London. This survey showed that we had 241,000 unfit dwellings in London; 140,000 of which were in fact in inner London. There are 417,000 dwellings in disrepair. Of those 154,000 were in the private sector, and 208,000 were owner-occupied. The percentage of houses in disrepair again was higher in inner London than outer London. In inner London there were 21 per cent. and in outer London 17 per cent.

What was also found in the survey was that by and large local authority houses were in fair condition, the private rented stock was in the worst state, but there was also a disrepair problem in owner-occupied houses. In fact, a comparison of the unfit dwellings situation in London as opposed to the rest of the country showed that 9.2 per cent. of London dwellings were unfit; the England total is 4.6 per cent. Lacking basic amenities, London was about the same as the rest of the country, it was 5.4 per cent. to 5.3 per cent. But with dwellings that required repair costing more than £3,000, in London there were 18 per cent. whereas the rest of the country was 6.4 per cent. Admittedly some of that would be due to the fact that houses in London are more expensive than in the rest of the country, but I know that that could not be the whole answer. There is obviously more disrepair here in London than there is in the rest of the country.

That is the situation. We have these huge waiting lists, these houses in disrepair, and all the surveys show that the older houses are steadily getting worse and needing repair. What do we have as an answer? In 1980 only 128,000 houses were started of which, as we heard earlier, only 44,000 were in the public sector. The rest were in the private sector. I know that the Government's strategy is to allow the private sector to provide the housing that is required. I know that that is their strategy, but it is quite obvious that the private sector is not yet in a position to provide the houses required.

Therefore, I should have thought that a Government concerned about the welfare of the people—and I am not suggesting that the Government are not—would, pending the period when the private sector would take up the slack, make sure that there is not that big a slack. That would be my condemnation of the Government. In every sphere at this moment we are falling down. It is not just that the starts are less. In the case of improvements there are less. There were only 75,000 improvement grants given in 1980 to private owners. You have to compare that with the 192,000 in 1974 to realise what has been happening. Take slum clearance. In 1980 only 29,152 slums were cleared. Again you must compare this with the 70,000 a year that were cleared in most of the 1970s.

Not only are we not providing the new houses, we are not repairing. We are not dealing with the slums. Therefore, we are heading for a serious housing crisis. We are bound to. In fact, the AMA has estimated that we should be 430,000 houses short by 1986. This is a serious matter; a matter to which the Government ought to be directing their attention. But what we have is the direct opposite. What we have is a steady cut in the housing investment programme allocation. It has been cut year after year.

I know that the Government expect that the sale of council houses would meet some of that. In fact, that was the reason why I was insisting when the Housing Bill was going through this House that the reduction rate that would be given to the people who are buying council houses should be paid for by central Government. The Government estimate that there will be £413 million available for capital investment next year in their allocation. If in effect the discount was also met by central Government, there would be another £200 million to be used for house building and house improvement. This was the point that I was making—I made it unsuccessfully—during the period of the Housing Bill.

There is a certain category of people for whom it is the public sector who have to provide houses. We have heard about the elderly and about the students. In the case of the elderly the problem is really one of repair. I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of Government to work out a system under which these old people, who own their properties and cannot maintain them, can be given a much bigger grant, in fact the full 100 per cent. grant, to enable them to put them right, rather than the present situation. There is a straightforward way in which the old people living in houses which they cannot maintain can in fact be helped.

However, I have not heard anything said so far about the disabled. They are also a group for whom special provisions should be made by the Government. I hope that the Government will bear in mind the need to make special provisions for the housing of the disabled. The other group I want to talk about are the single people. By and large the council housing association or even the private sector give priority to families over single people in terms of housing. Again speaking from my own experience in my practice, I have run into a lot of single people who are homeless. This seems to be something to which in fact the Government can direct their attention and try to make some special provisions for single people.

What I am saying, and hoping that the Minister is taking in, is that the Government, while sticking to their ideology—and I am not challenging it at the moment—can still do a lot more than is being done to bridge the gap between the people who are in need and the existing provisions. I hope sincerely that as a result of what we are discussing this afternoon the Government will remember this. I must conclude by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for introducing this debate, and I thank your Lordships for your patience in listening to me. I hope that the Minister will take some of the things I have said on board.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, it is clear if we look at the whole post-war period that there have been considerable advances and improvements in housing conditions. It is true today that the vast majority of people are at least adequately housed. However, none of that gives any reason for complacency, and here I agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, said. We need only think of the special needs of particular groups—those, for instance, mentioned in her eloquent speech by my noble friend Lady Faithfull, and some of those touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt; we need only think of the geographic areas of special need—the obsolete and decaying Victorian houses, particularly in the older industrial areas; or of the obsolete council housing needing large sums to be spent on repairs, improvements and sometimes on total replanning; and the housing stress areas, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, in London and elsewhere, where housing need and other acute forms of social problem are found in the same place.

Those of your Lordships who live in the country will know well that in almost all rural areas there is now an acute shortage of houses to rent; we had quite a lot to say about that last summer.

Alas, these situations are too little understood in what I would call the safe Tory seats, and that may perhaps explain why during the last 10 years when I have sat in your Lordships' House we had first the Housing (Finnace) Act 1972 and then the Housing Act 1980. My views on those two measures are on record in Hansard and I will not go on further about them. Suffice it to say that neither of those Acts grappled with the fundamental problem of personal finance for housing, and I regret that very much. However, before the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and her noble friends get too excited, I must tell them that I regret also the failure of the Labour Party, both in and out of office, to grapple with our inherited mixture of housing subsidies, rebates, allowances and systems of tax relief.

What is the fundamental problem of housing finance? I suggest that it is to encourage and enable individuals and families to pay for housing of a satisfactory standard and size. This will of course have repercussions on many things, particularly on the welfare and tax systems, and it will affect our whole approach to the maintenance of family income. There is, I suggest, a need for more equal treatment of existing forms of housing tenure. If this can be achieved, it will greatly help both choice and mobility in housing.

There is a need to develop new forms of tenure. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, touched on some of those and I would only add, for instance, equity sharing, leasehold schemes for the elderly, co-owner-ship and housing co-operatives. It may be that we shall need to devise some universal form of housing allowance which could be received either via tax relief or through cash allowances; or we may need a mixture of both forms available to the same person. It may turn out that individuals and families in this country need to become accustomed to spending a higher percentage of their incomes on housing and perhaps proportionately less on such things as cars and consumer durables.

I have spoken so far of finance for housing demand. But it is equally important to look into and to bear in mind the finance of housing supply. My guess here is that the really urgent thing to do is to get as much as possible of housing provision to take place without recourse to public sector borrowing. We in this country have some of the very best financial institutions in the world, for instance building societies, insurance companies, pension funds, trade union funds, benevolent funds and property companies. Concentrated in them is a great deal of expertise, perhaps second to none, and the time has come to liberate that large quantity of finance and considerable pool of expertise, so that those organisations are able to invest in a far wider variety of housing than ever before.

The Government took a small step in that direction when they brought in the assured rent scheme in the last Housing Act, but I do not think that will be anything like sufficient in itself without proper studies of the finance, of both demand and supply, have been undertaken. Will the Government put in hand the necessary studies of both personal and institutional housing finance as a matter of urgency? If they do not, I fear that we may arrive in the 21st century still in a great state of muddle and with no clear policy. Will the Government take the opportunity to learn whatever can be learned from methods developed and functioning in other countries? If such a Government study cannot be put in hand, one will be forced to appeal to other circles—to academic researchers and to research institutions and trusts—to undertake a task which, in my opinion, is vital to the wellbeing of the people and to civilised living conditions in both town and country.

4.47 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, I also wish to thank my noble friend Lady Birk for introducing this topic and to congratulate her on the improvement in her voice as the proceedings went forward. Of course, as a temperance reformer, I am sure that had nothing whatever to do with the contents of the glass on the Table, but only reflected the prescription of John Wesley who, referring to sore throats, said, "Preach them out". That was to some extent justified by the remarks with which my noble friend introduced the debate and I am grateful for the substance of those remarks.

The format of the debate is interesting in that we are calling attention to difficulties. My master at school taught me that the meaning of a difficulty was that which frustrated an intention; and until we know what the intention of the housing programme is, it seems rather facile to proceed to talk about the difficulties. I shall therefore presume first to say something about housing as I see it within the trinodis necessitas of decent government, which has a priority none the less with that of food and clothing. In fact, I believe housing is a service ministry; and therefore, when I am asked to consider those problems which arise and difficulties which emerge, I have first to ask myself, as other noble Lords have asked themselves this afternoon, what are the purposes of a housing Ministry and what is that condition of housing today which tends to frustrate those recognisable ambitions.

I think the answer falls into two separable, not separate, categories. The first is the bricks and mortar category; what are the difficulties which now present themselves because of conditions within the actual fabric of the housing world?—and the answer there is uncontroversial but deplorable. We know of the very large amount of property which is unsuitable and we know there are 2 million concealed households; that is, where they are living in conditions of necessary co-operation and sometimes confrontation with others in the same premises.

We know that there are a million households living in completely unsuitable conditions, and we know furthermore that there are about 4 million households living in conditions in which the standards of repair and suitability fall below what would be recognised by anybody as reasonable. Those are the facts, and they present a difficulty which to me is a very serious one. If we regard the provision of housing as something which as a civilised community we ought to guarantee, at least in large measure, then here is an alarming and deplorable gap.

But to turn this particular statement into more personal terms, I would point out that your Lordships have this afternoon already heard about living conditions for the elderly; 47 per cent. of the total number of the elderly are living in houses that are in desperate need of immediate repair. I shall not dilate upon what the noble Baroness said about hostels, although I have been involved in that world for the last 40 or 50 years, and there is no doubt at all that the conditions of many of those who are condemned almost to vagabondage have worsened.

Here I should like to make a reference to what I regarded as the fascinating comment made by the right reverend Prelate about the Waifs and Strays Society. It so happens that in 1904 my mother, who was concerned with the Waifs and Strays Society, located 143 waifs after midnight on a Saturday night in Battersea—143! I believe that this kind of situation now involves an older age group. My own experience is that those who today have nowhere to live are in the early adolescence age group, rather than a younger age group, and that is due of course to the many benefactions of societies such as Dr. Barnardo's and the National Children's Home.

What I am concerned to say is that when the actual physical conditions are as deplorable or as inadequate as the facts that I have adumbrated suggest, there are certain immediate and equally deplorable, perhaps even more deplorable, conditions which prevail in the psychological field. I regard, as I am sure do other noble Lords, wife- and child-bashing as abominable. But, having had some contact with those who have been involved in this undoubtedly criminal and dreadful kind of behaviour, I ask myself how I would behave if I were clammed up in one room which had to be both the bedroom and the sitting room, with perhaps four or five children, at least some of them petulant, and perhaps some of them petulant all the time. I ask myself whether that is a tolerable prospect for anyone who is less than a saint; and indeed I should very much doubt whether a saint could put up with it for very long. The consequences in terms of stress and turmoil under those horrible conditions are such as would in my judgment plead for sympathy and understanding even for those who behave in such a brutal way as is evidenced to us quite repeatedly in the press.

That leads me to what the right reverend Prelate was saying about those conditions which ought to relate to adequate housing; and it is not merely a question of bricks and mortar. May I divert for a moment to offer what I would believe to be at least a contribution, no matter how badly I put it, to this kind of debate? Homelessness is not only the absence of a house. Homelessness is a condition which might indeed prevail in a most expensive house. Homelessness is concerned with the lack of that principle which turns a house into a school of behaviour.

I have been fascinated, as I dare say have other Members of your Lordships' House, in reading Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. My confidence in quoting him is all the greater because he did not proceed from a Christian standpoint, as I should try to do. What he said, in almost immortal prose, is that the characteristics of a true home form the kind of basis upon which it is possible to lead a good life, and when those characteristics are not there it is all the more difficult to find them elsewhere.

There are many varieties of home life; of course there are. There are many varieties of the matrimonial condition. We recognise that, but from a Christian standpoint I should like to invite your Lordships to consider the following point. Where would we get the vocabulary of fellowship which in Christian terms is a vocabulary domestic in essence?—father, mother, the word at the family table and at the hearth fire. Is it not true that the impoverishment of the home as a concept and basis for the education of true living is one of the most calamitous of the troubles from which we suffer?

In one sense, there is of course the cynicism of the man who says,"Home is the place where you hang around when somebody else has the car". Therefore I am by no means of the opinion that it is necessarily a question only of bad housing. As the right reverend Prelate insisted, there has been a general decay in the characteristics that belong to a true family. But if you do not have the vocabulary of, say, brotherhood, motherhood, fatherhood, if these do not belong to the home and cannot be called upon, where do you build up your fellowship? If you lose your vocabulary, you lose your communication. If you lose your communication, you become alienated. Those who have been trying to pinpoint the true reasons for the deplorable conditions in, say, Brixton the other day, have said,"Racism of course"; they have said,"Violence of course". But they have also included bad housing as a reason. In so many respects bad housing is the reason why people find their lives to be outside the natural context which can best support those things which I believe finally belong to truth and beauty.

Your Lordships will forgive that interruption of a general argument on much more mundane matters, but I ventured to introduce it for the following reason. I share with my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the conviction that the recovery of home life is indispensable to the future prosperity of any community.

I recognise, finally, that there is surely an indictment against any Government in which 75 per cent. of what they require as cuts are made in the housing area. I regard it as a further indictment that whereas a few years ago for every pound spent on defence a pound was spent on housing, today for every pound spent on defence only 33p is spent on housing. I do not believe that you can so curtail this indispensable characteristic of civilised life, whatever may be the needs of defence. I invite your Lordships to believe that my own contacts, such as they are, would confirm the belief that there is an increasing cynicism about the immense amount of money that is spent on defence, because very few people believe that it would be adequate or even workable.

Therefore simplistic though it might be, I would plead for a vast infusion of public money for hostels and for work of repair affecting the 47 per cent. of elderly people who live in premises that are in desperate need of repair. It might sound simplistic, but perhaps that which is most required is a recovery of confidence that we have our priorities right in the community in which we live.

I am particularly grateful to my noble friend that we have at least been invited to consider this question of housing on a larger canvas, against a larger background than merely that covering certain provisions of Governments past and present. I believe—and I make no bones about it—that only when the priority of housing is regarded with the same insistence as the priority of food and clothing, shall we be within measurable distance of meeting those needs from which so many of our contemporaries living in inadequate and bad housing now suffer.

5 p.m.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, considering she is not feeling in top form, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for coming to the House today and initiating the debate with an interesting speech. I hope that she will soon recover. I would thank also my noble friend Lord Bellwin who has been sitting through this debate. He came to this House after a distinguished career in Leeds and understands the problem of people and housing. He was thrown in at the deep end when he arrived and had a very tough time. I think we must thank him for the attitude he has taken. I hope that when the economic situation has improved somebody will be able to say, "Yes, Minister" to him on certain occasions. I would thank him for coming down to Southwark to see the Humming Bird Building Association. I am sure he will be pleased to know that we now have another piece of land and hope to go on building.

I am delighted to see here the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro and I hope that when he becomes Bishop of London he will remember the West Country. We need adequate support in that area. I should like to go on to what he said about the impact of overcrowding on general health and wellbeing. It can, I think, have an even greater effect on living standards without basic amenities. I tried to bring this matter up in the recent debate on the Housing Act. The yardstick most often used to measure civilised housing standards, the legal standard for overcrowding, remains appallingly inadequate. Once the minimum standards have become in many parts of Great Britain the maximum, the enforcement procedures are largely defective. Not since 1935 has the Government had the courage even to glance in the direction of this neglected area for fear that large numbers of overcrowded households might find their way into the statistics. This is very frightening. I am delighted with what my noble friend Lady Faithfull said about hostels. She knows that I have had to close my hostels for the 17 to 23 year olds purely for lack of money and lack of adequate backing from various Ministries. I hope from what she said today that there may be a possibility that I can start again. I am always willing to have another go.

I was interested to read that the Nationwide Building Society estimated in January 1981 that the surplus of dwellings over households in Great Britain in 1980 was over 900,000. That is nearly 5 per cent. of the dwellings. It seems unfortunate that they should have all these, because apparently those dwellings are not in the right places at the right times when people need them. It is interesting to note that the two parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, have built approximately the same number of houses. The Conservatives (I imagine in an equivalent number of years) built 5.4 million and the Labour Party 4.7 million. The standard is improving also. In 1951, there were 600,000 overcrowded households and in 1977 only 73,000. We have heard of the things that are not right in this country, but, strange to say, Britain has one of the highest proportions of dwellings equipped with basic amenities of any country in Europe. Having been for some time chairman of the Local Government Committee in the Council of Europe, know that this is correct.

But still the problems remain. One-sixth of our housing stock is still unfit and lacks basic amenities and is in a serious state of disrepair. The local authorities in 1979 had to find housing for over 56,000 households under the Homeless Persons Act 1977. One of the encouraging things is the building for sale by private builders on local authority land; 93 local authorities have agreed to this. I am interested in homesteading or the sale of unimproved homes to purchasers with a waiver of interest on mortgages for up to five years Among the authorities who have an enormous number of empty houses are Manchester, Islington, Hackney, Southwark, Lambeth and Camberwell. All have over 1,000 and some nearly 2,000 empty houses. I make a plea that some of these will go to people who would be willing to go into them and to do them up on the homesteading scheme. I went to a small council in Essex and saw some of these houses done up by the local people and the scheme was working very well. I hope that more people may be able to undertake this homesteading.

I should like to mention the question of fire precautions in hostels which was dealt with in the Act. Last July when the Housing Act was in its closing stages in this House, the Government introduced a new schedule to the Bill (Schedule 24). This schedule consolidated the existing powers of local authorities to see that hostels were equipped with effective means of escape from fire. It gave the Secretary of State power to designate by order certain types of hostels as premises in regard to which local authorities would then have a duty to require the installation of effective means of escape. On the Third Reading on 13th July, I moved an amendment to this schedule which I called the"Kilburn amendment"—recalling the tragic hostel fire there earlier that year—and which had the effect of ensuring that premises occupied by three or more households or six or more individuals would be covered by this duty. I was supported by the Bishop of London. I hope that when we get our new Bishop of London he will continue this support.

The fire tragedies had evoked support from all sides of the House. The Minister replied, however, that he would need to consult with local authorities about the scope of the new duty before it could be brought into effect; and after assurances I withdrew my amendment. Nine months later, regrettably, no designating order has been issued by the Secretary of State. Despite all the concern expressed by the House, hostel residents like those of Kilburn can still remain inadequately protected. Only last month there was a serious fire at a commercial hostel in Eastbourne used to provide shelter for homeless single people in which one man died and 10 others were injured. It was a four-storey building like that in Kilburn.

The Department of the Environment consulted the local authority associations as they said they would, and voluntary bodies like CHAR and the National Federation of Housing Associations. I understand that the period of consultation ended on 31st January, 1981. Since then, the Minister in another place has replied to two Questions which provide ominous and worrying signs that no order is going to be made. On 4th March, Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg said he was still considering the views put to him in the consultations "on the possible making of an order". We still have no order, and I shall be grateful if my noble friend when he comes to reply will give an indication of whether we are likely to get one.

Another point concerns caring hostels provided by housing associations. This was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Faithfull. Last September, the Housing Minister, Mr. John Stanley, announced a most welcome"hostels initiative". He allocated £12 million of the Housing Corporation's budget for 1981–2 for housing associations to develop small community hostels to enable homeless single people to return to the community through supported accommodation. There are two points that I should like to mention. First, in 1981–2 housing associations throughout the country have put in bids amounting to some two-and-a-half times the allocation, the potential of the voluntary housing movement, to develop this much needed housing. Secondly, many caring hostels require revenue funding of small amounts to cover care costs over and above housing association grant. Such revenue funding has to come in the main from social services or health authorities. Since September the DoE have been discussing with the DHSS the possibility of more central co-ordination for this funding by the DHSS. So far as I understand it, these discussions have produced nothing from the DHSS. I should be very grateful if my noble friend could say a word about that when he comes to reply.

I mentioned that I would say something about students, and I want to refer to shortholds. I have been in discussion for some time—not on behalf of students but for others—in regard to shortholds. I understand that only 680 shortholds have so far been established in England and Wales. It is possible that this low figure will rise in the autumn and when the students start to return to their colleges. I therefore realise that it is too early to say how shortholds will operate in practice. There remains the concern that this type of tenancy might deprive occupiers of security of tenure. Perhaps the noble Lord will let me know how this scheme for shortholds is growing and whether it is satisfactory. I am very pleased that we are having this debate today and I am certain that we shall get helpful answers from the Minister.

5.11 p.m.

Lord Ritchie-Calder

My Lords, I should like to thank my fellow journalist Lady Birk for this opportunity to speak, because it was as a crime reporter that I became politically sensitised and largely because of this matter that we are discussing tonight. There is no question whatever in my experience—a fairly extensive one in this area—that the identification of crime and of misery—particularly misery—with bad housing is a paramount problem of our society. It is something which still remains with us, although I thought that over the years we were doing something substantial about it.

In Glasgow in the 1920s the slum situation was probably the most notorious in Europe. With this went what we called the "Saturday night murders". On one occasion—one of many because Saturday night murders were regular—I found myself in a slum house as a result of a perfectly meaningless murder in which the husband with the help of the drink "Red Biddie" had cut his wife's throat. I do not know what was peculiar about it except the self-evident circumstances; it was so common and so repetitive. I carried out a study of what had brought it about. It did not merit more than 10 lines in the paper. It was just an ordinary Saturday night murder. But I later produced what I called, The Tragedy of the Middle Door. The middle door in a Glasgow tenement was the single room between the butts and bens on the storeys of the tenement. This was where young people set up home as a start. So often they never got out. It was precisely that story. The story of a young couple who has come from the country and hopefully set up home hoping that Glasgow—as they would now think of London—would provide work. They finished up after years in appalling conditions in a single room in a dreadful tenement. It was the story of progressive deterioration of a young couple and their family, their misery and malnutrition, and eventually their decline into hopelessness.

This kind of degeneration was manifest and clear in so many circumstances and crimes that we became accustomed to it in Glasgow. It was just the Saturday night murder. It was rather like putting in the football results. You just expected it on Saturday night. When I later came to London I began to get involved in the problems of housing in the inner city in a less directly painful way.

During the 1930s we still had appallingly bad housing—a great shortage of housing—but we did start to make some movement towards better housing conditions with new housing estates. Indeed, after the war when we were building the new towns and the new housing estates, short of the high-rise buildings which came eventually, we were doing rather well in getting to grips with the problems. In fact, we were doing extremely well. My daughter at that time was a sociologist. She was hired by the Building Research Station to answer the question which has been asked so often here today:"When does a house become a home?". It is not a question of so many cubic feet and in fact it is not a question of what facilities are built into it, but of how people take a house and convert it into a home.

People today are not getting either the houses or the opportunities to convert them into homes. We are now losing those opportunities. It is a sad picture all the way round because, as I know from academic university student conditions, not only are there great shortages of reasonably priced lodgings—no longer are Halls of Residence being built—but there is the appalling problem of young students and where they are going to go and what they are going to do. They become a kind of academic vagrant or vagabond. The same thing has been pointed out and is true of the declining conditions of the old. It is certainly shown in the shocking reappearance of the homeless, the waifs and the strays and so on.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Soper that a great many of the explanations for broken homes, wife-beatings, baby-bashings and so on, and for the numbers of people in our streets and the problems of people exposed to drug-taking come down to housing conditions. I noticed in the television film of the Brixton riots one boy who looked very intelligent and who was asked why he was on the streets looking for trouble. He said, "I was not on the streets looking for trouble. Have you ever stayed at home?"In fact it is a case of what we used to call in Glasgow the "Sunday afternoon delinquent" because Sunday afternoon was when everybody was crowded into the one-room house, and they could not take it.

What we are looking for now is what has been suggested as a real appreciation, a real evaluation, of what we as a civilised community regard as not just measurement standards, not just cubic feet, standards for housing, but what should be the conditions to make it possible for a house to become a home. When the Labour Party were putting through their housing programme after the war everybody was referring to living units. Churchill got up and more or less chanted: Mid pleasures and palaces, Though we may roam; Be it ever so humble, There's no place like a living unit". We are not thinking now of what problems we are going to have of actual physical coverage, but of how we can provide not just the bricks and mortar but the conditions under which, as has been properly pointed out here, we are going to have a vigorous, healthy and economically stable society. To get that, we need good housing.

It seems to me that we are now reaching the point of no return. Not only is our housing stock declining in numbers—at least the renewal is declining and in many cases we are slipping into the kind of slums we have been using bulldozers to get rid of. But I want to reaffirm the fact that with the decline of the building industry with 340,000 builders unemployed and obviously with no inducement for anyone to follow through as apprentices and so on in an industry which is not replenishing itself, I do not know how we are going to be able to get people to build the houses we are going to need. That seems to me to be a crisis of our time, because we shall be in a situation from 1984 in which we shall not be able to do what we want to do, even if the money is available. We shall start taking shortcuts in standards again, and I say this with feeling, because one of our troubles, even when we had the money was that we turned out buildings that were certainly not consistent with decent living—I am thinking with some horror of high-rise flats, and in Glasgow I am thinking of creating the various non-home circumstances we were trying to avoid.

We should not start doing that kind of thing again, nor, as deplorably as we have done, use bulldozers to tear the hearts out of cities, calling it slum clearance, or indeed knocking down houses which, no matter how grubby they look, are sound houses and which when rehabilitated become extremely valuable property, as in some parts of London such as Canonbury, Chelsea and now parts of Lambeth. They are highly desirable properties. There is no reason why we should not return these properties into decent habitations. I think it is a sin that we have destroyed houses which were part of our heritage, simply because they were dirty and nasty and they were labeled "slums". Let us have another look at these; but, above all, it is absolutely imperative to turn from the course we are pursuing and envisage a policy where we are not running down our housing stock.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Parry

My Lords, it is required that I apologise to the House because my name was not included on the list of speakers. I had intended to speak in this debate and I take the opportunity now, with permission of the House. In a sense, the noble Baroness who did us the favour of introducing this debate illustrated one of the problems of this comfortable place. In speaking she, to pick up the theme of the noble Lord, Lord Soper, lacked the means of communication in the early stages of her introduction of the debate. She found difficulties in communication; she found the vocabulary but not the means, for a while, of expressing as clearly she would have wished those things that she felt.

We all know there are homeless people in this country and that there are overcrowded houses; yet our well-fed and modulated voices this afternoon will tomorrow morning fall as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals upon the ears of those who are actually homeless and overcrowded, because they will see much of what we are saying as being largely irrelevant to what they are feeling as we speak here. This is the classic dilemma of any democracy. It is not a criticism, in party political terms, of what we are putting forward in this debate. Yet it is a fact that, while we know and care, we find it difficult to appreciate the depths of degradation and feeling that come to those people who are homeless and overcrowded and who suffer from it.

So because I might find some difficulty in expressing the things we have been trying to express in this debate this afternoon, I chose instead to find focus in an article by a young journalist called Gwenda Richards. We have heard the voices of older journalists already this afternoon. Gwenda Richards, in the capital city of Wales, Cardiff, this week took five cases of homeless and overcrowded people and examined them in an article in which she said: Five per cent. of Welsh families live in overcrowded conditions and like Carol and Tom"— those are the people she quotes first of all— will pay the price of the health, welfare and development of their children, while parents risk their mental health and the chance of a normal relationship". If you think that I am using journalese" there in order to emphasise a point, then I plead guilty to it, because it illustrates a fact that I did not know, that the law as it stands allows as many as 14 people—six adults and eight children under 10—to share a three-up and two-down terraced house, and that Shelter, the housing charity, are calling for the reform of what they call"that ridiculous standard".

My noble friend Lord Greenwood of Rossendale has emphasised certain standards this afternoon. We have heard little of that one, which affects and blights the lives of a new generation of people in Great Britain as we debate here. I will return in a moment to the point that was made by Shelter and I want to take up, too, the situation in a town just a little way up the road from Cardiff—Newport, in Gwent. I will quote: Newport's resources for dealing with homeless people have been plunged into crisis by the dramatic rise in the number of people without a roof over their heads, the borough housing committee was told yesterday. Families who have to be placed in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation get somewhere to sleep only at night—they have to move out during the day". In 1975 61,000 families were awaiting council housing and, of that number, over 3,700 were in the Newport area. Even then, 25,000 holiday homes were in existence in Wales. I will come back to that again in a moment.

In taking these illustrations I want to make the point that not only is homelessness or overcrowding a problem, and not only are the social difficulties that have been emphasised today problems for the people suffering, but they create further problems and we have a "cannoning-on" effect, in which the whole of society—and this too has been illustrated time and again this afternoon—the social fabric and democracy itself is in the end threatened by our failure.

I am the last to point to Ministers sitting opposite and to suggest in any way that the Minister who is presiding over this debate does not share my concern about these facts. We know him to be a caring man and references have been paid to him, quite rightly, in the debate this afternoon. The councillors of Gwynedd—that is in the North of Wales—illustrate one problem; they are concerned because the ownership of second homes has become magnified as a problem.

In speaking in this debate, I have to disclaim for a moment my responsibilities under the rules as a chairman of a statutory body, and I have to say that I speak now simply as a Member of your Lordships' House. I have also informed the Welsh Office that I intended to speak in this debate and to make these points. It is often claimed that there are 30,000 second homes in this country, and in the county of Gwynedd alone there are 8,000. In just the same way that the problem of the squatter in unoccupied premises in London is an additional dimension of the problem, so is the second home, which is vacant at certain parts of the year, another dimension of this problem throughout the country.

It is quite wrong to assume—and I want to make this point, because it was made to me by the Welsh Office—that the 30,000 houses, identified as second homes, are all truly that. Many of them—11,000, I think, in the survey conducted on behalf of the Welsh Office—were identified as being second home dwellings, and 19,000 were houses which had been constructed for specific purposes, such as for renting for holiday purposes and so on. The councillors in Gwynedd have become so concerned that they lack adequate housing, on the one hand, and that there is a certain housing stock, on the other, that they have identified the problem of the second home as one that they wish to see treated to quite separate and distinct legislation.

In a very short intervention in your Lordships' debate, all I wish to do is to identify problems which are incredibly difficult for any Government to tackle, and to point out that those problems are seized upon by those who have no sympathy with the points that are being made carefully in this debate in order to win support for legislation to remove the causes. They are seized upon by people who would use them to their own advantage, and who focus upon them acts which your Lordships and I, and, indeed, the majority of people in democratic society, would not only reject but despise. But it is a fact that we have a situation where, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, said, even when we care, and even when we know, it is possible for us to give the impression that we are complacent about the situation.

In case we are, and in case it should be thought that there is some kind of party political nuance in my contribution, let me say this. Shelter went on to condemn not simply this Government, but all Governments in Britain for some considerable time. It said this: No Government in recent years has dared to tackle the standard". That is not the standard of the house, slightly larger or slightly smaller. It is not the standard of someone having two houses, while other people have none. That is not the point that is being made. The point that Shelter is making is that no Government in recent years has dared to tackle the standard under which 14 people, adults and children, can be expected to be crowded into totally inadequate houses, with all the danger that that implies to society and the social fabric, because it would mean heavy demands for more housing.

In 1945, after the war, a massive effort was made to rehouse people. Lloyd George had carried—although he possibly did not deserve it any more than the rest of us—the shadow of the "homes fit for heroes" scandal. The Labour Party had at its disposal in 1945 orders in council and particular circumstances that no democratic government usually expects to find, and was able to carry out a great rehousing programme. That programme was taken up again under Sir Harold Macmillan, and he went on to build 300,000 houses, with a change of standards, but presenting a new attack and a new opportunity. The nation, having willed the fact, set about providing the means to do it.

All I want to say, as I conclude, is that I agree with the right reverend Prelate, as I agree with my reverend friend and as I agree with those who have spoken in this debate of the social consequences. I quote the words of Shelter here: Meanwhile, thousands of families will continue to suffer stress, frustration, bad health, broken marriages and poor achievement at school, at work and in society". As I walk through the streets of Cardiff, the capital city, I am conscious that I see wandering through the streets an alienated young generation—truants now, malcontents later, actual breakers of the law later than that, and a threat not in themselves but in their alienation from the standards that we had hoped we shared with them, because the conditions under which they live, the classes to which they go in school, the society which they will inherit are, at this moment, unable to measure up to their caring, to their consideration and to their knowledge. And what will it matter to the homeless tomorrow, if they hear of our debate and know that, as a consequence of it, very little will be done?

5.35 p.m.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, we are all agreed that we are very much indebted to my noble friend Lady Birk for initiating this debate, and for the courageous determination with which she persisted and succeeded in doing so against considerable difficulty. Indeed, we had hoped to have more Members from this side of the House taking part in the debate, but invalidism has struck down two or three of them during the last few days.

I must admit that I start my speech with a rather different kind of disability. It is usually considered to be the duty of he who winds up a debate from the Opposition side to reply to any disagreements that there have been with his noble friend who opened the debate. But in this debate there have not been, so far as I have been able to discover, any substantial disagreements with the case made by my noble friend Lady Birk. There have been some very valuable and interesting speeches. We have ranged over many facets of the housing problem. We have had illustrations of the effects of the developing housing situation in London, in Wales, in Cornwall and in other parts of the country.

But all this has been against the grim background that we have embarked in the last two years on a process of cutting public expenditure on housing, which will mean that over four years it will have been cut by 53 per cent.—an operation for which there is really no previous parallel. That means, for example, that whereas in 1978 there were 89,000 starts in the council housing sector, by 1980 that number had fallen to 43,000 and it is anticipated that it will go down to 30,000.

We on this side of the House are sometimes charged with laying too great a stress on the part played by council housing in solving the housing problem, though if we do so it is because it is council housing that meets the housing need of those who feel it most acutely. But we are not, in present circumstances, able to say or to hope that the rapid decline in council house building will be met by an advance from the private sector. In 1978, there were 160,000 housing starts in the private sector. In 1980, there were 100,000. It is expected that that downward decline will also continue. If we hope that home ownership will be a remedy for declining council housing, we have to notice that whereas in 1978 some 800,000 home loans were granted, that number had fallen by about one-sixth by 1980, and that local authority grants and loans to housing associations had been reduced over those two years by nearly one-third.

Then—this concerns the private sector—we have the complaints mentioned by my noble friend Lady Birk from the president of the House Builders' Federation and from the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors about the decline in the market for their work, about the break-up of firms, particularly small and moderate-sized firms with skilled teams which have been engaged in house-building and which, once gone, will be very difficult to replace.

I want to look next at some devices which it has been suggested could be a remedy to the decline in the actual building of houses. It can be argued that one can make up for that decline to some extent by the improvement of property which, given a certain amount of money spent on it, could be made fit. Local authorities are being urged to shift their resources from new building to improvement, but what has actually happened? As a result of the attempt to shift things in that direction, between the year ending spring 1979 and the next year there was a decided leap forward in expenditure on improvement, but in the following year—the year just completed—spending fell back again and is now lower than it was two years ago. The amount of public money being spent by local authorities on improvements, either to improve their own property or in making grants for the improvement of privately owned property, has dropped. I hope and trust that in the coming year the position will be better than this, but clearly improvement work is not continuing on a scale which could remedy the alarming decline in actual house building.

I suppose we may hope that something can be done by securing properties which are now empty and bringing them into use, but how many such properties are there? They represent some 4 per cent. of the total national housing stock. That is not a terrifically wasteful arrangement because at any time there is always a certain proportion of the housing stock out of use. If it were otherwise there could be no mobility of labour. Therefore, we can expect that if Government, local authorities and private landlords put their minds to it there will be some reduction in the number of empty properties. But we need not imagine that that will make a very large contribution to solving the total housing problem which has been created by the alarming decline in housing starts.

In passing, perhaps I might point out to your Lordships that the Government's own survey showed that the number of properties which it could be said were empty due to the operations of the Rent Act was very small. The hundreds of thousands of houses depicted in the Tory election statements as being made empty because of the Rent Acts really did not exist. The number of houses shown in the Government survey was 31,000 and that is not hundreds of thousands; the Government said that 550,000 homes were empty and that 31,000 were empty due to the operation of the Rent Act. It is wrong that any property should he empty if it can be filled, but not all properties can be filled, and do not let us imagine that an improvement in the empty property situation can be on a scale which offsets the terrific decline in housing starts which we have witnessed and will continue to witness during the next two or three years.

Another suggested remedy is the sale of council houses. I will say only a few words on that subject because a great deal has already been said about it. I believe it is accepted that where sales occur these will be of the better council properties to better-off tenants. It is not a device that will help the poorest tenants. It is argued that this practice helps housing policy because local authorities will be able to use the proceeds from sales to build more new houses, but of course local authorities are not in a position to do that if they themselves have to provide the mortgages with which the houses are purchased. The majority of council house sales are going to be made with the help of mortgages provided by public funds; it is only when the mortgage comes from a private source that there is any—even initial—gain to the council. Over the long term—over the lifetime of a house—there will be a loss and the council will actually receive less than it would had the house remained its property. We cannot expect a flood of funds to local authorities from council house sales which will make a substantial difference to the total housing shortage with which we are confronted.

I am certainly not opposed to improvement or to measures which will prevent properties from remaining empty unnecessarily. I would not even be opposed to council house sales if it is done by the free judgment of the local authority as to what is best in its circumstances. But I do say that if one adds all these together they will nothing like countervail the terrific decline in house building which has been going on for the past two years and which we are told we must expect to continue.

What are the effects of all this? One side effect has been the deprivation of local authorities' freedom; the freedom to decide what to do about the houses they own. The Exchequer subsidy which local authorities get is so planned as pretty well to compel them either to raise rents or rates—because the Government assume that the local authorities are going to get a certain income from that figure and plan their Exchequer subsidy on that basis, and the block grant system then creates a situation in which local authorities are almost obliged to make provision out of rents. We are now getting the position whereby central Government are increasingly controlling the housing policy of local authorities. I do not believe that is what the Government intended, nor do I believe it is what the public wants. There is pressure everywhere for decisions to be made wherever possible at lower levels and nearer the consumer. At the moment, Government policy is working in the other direction.

What are the effects on rents? If one applies to 1979 rents the figure of 100, rents are now on average at a figure of 183—an increase not far short of double, or an addition of five-sixths. This is creating an increasing cleavage between the house owner and the tenant because the Government are a good deal more generous about mortgage relief than about subsidies for council tenants. That has been so for some time and it is going to be increasingly so as a result of recent policies.

These effects on tenants, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, pointed out, will hit in particular some especially vulnerable groups. They may be vulnerable for many very different reasons. They may be vulnerable because of their old age, because they are students, or because they are disabled. In every case they are to be given a further push nearer to desperation. The shortage of houses and the rise in rents, together with the difficulty of obtaining rented accommodation, are doing increasing harm to the mobility of labour. Even in the present unemployment situation one encounters instances of a man in the North of England knowing of a job he can do and which is available to him in the South, but he cannot find anywhere to live if he goes there. This cut in the housing programme strikes at the amount of accommodation available and raises the level of rents, and is going to make that problem of labour mobility even worse.

References have been made to the situation in many different parts of the country. Naturally I thought particularly of London; of its 19,000 homeless and a quarter of its housing stock unsatisfactory by the Government's own standards, and of the fact that each successive estimate by the late Greater London Council of the number of households it would have to provide has steadily risen year after year. We are cutting housing at a time when the need is steadily rising.

There also has to be considered the effect on building operatives. This can be summed up by the simple fact that about one quarter of the people in the construction industry are out of work. This brings us to a question upon which several noble Lords have touched. Is it not possible to bring together the fact that one has unemployed building labour and an immense housing need? At once we touch the tenderest spot of Government policy: the idea that if you propose increased public spending in any field you are destroying all their great work and putting everything at risk. But is it not becoming increasingly apparent that the Government have pursued that one goal at the expense of the industries of this country and of employment and, as we are now discussing, at the expense of the welfare of the home and the family and of any chance of the increase mobility of labour which we need if we are to get this country's industries right again?

I suggest that if you consider public spending on an increased housing programme it has these advantages. First of all, of almost all the forms of public spending which one can imagine today it is the one least likely to be inflationary because of the amount of slack resources and unemployed labour that there are immediately to hand. Inflation is most likely to occur if you increase spending in a field where the resources and the labour are scarce and where your increased spending shoves up prices and wages. In this field you have the resources and the labour waiting to be used. Public expenditure there would be at its least inflationary. Secondly, it would be at its most remedial. The amount of jobs you would create for every £100,000 spent would compare very favourably with public spending in other directions. Third, it would be a form of public spending which would make probably the least demand upon imported materials. All the arguments, then, surely are that the Government must shift from their absolute rigidity and increase public expenditure in the housing sector.

My noble friend Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, who unfortunately, to his own regret, has had to leave us before the conclusion of the debate, argued, if I understood him rightly, that we ought to make the number of houses to be built over a period of years a fixed, agreed target. There are very solid reasons for that. When you make cuts of the nature of 53 per cent. in four years, it is terribly wasteful of resources and it takes much longer to come back. You cannot turn the supply of building labour and materials just on and off, like a tap. The same is true of other fields of public expenditure. If any Minister of Housing ever succeeded in getting a Government to adopt my noble friend's interesting idea of a fixed, agreed target, the Secretary of State for Education and even the Secretary of State for Defence would, I think, be coming up quickly behind him.

Well, what then? Might it not mean that if a nation for any reason has to make reductions in expenditure as a result of a rise in oil prices or a world trade recession, it is better done by means of a reduction of private expenditure by the wealthier citizens than by the cutting of public service programmes? Unless you accept that proposition, you are bound to have the housing, education and defence programmes made what my noble friend Lord Greenwood of Rossendale called "a football" between one Government and another. I think the Government have regarded the ability of wealthier people to spend as they choose as much more important than the need of the nation for certain essential services. And with regard to housing, I say deliberately "essential".

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro pointed out, although I do not think he used this word, the primacy of housing among certain public services. If the family is not decently housed, a great deal of what may be spent for their welfare in other directions will lose in its effect. An ill-housed child will not get the benefit from anything done to its health or its education that a well-housed child will get. We are dealing with the home and all that that implies.

Several noble Lords and Baronesses on the other side urged particular kinds of measures. Eloquent speeches were made regarding hostels. But you cannot provide hostels or even adapt present dwellings for hostels without a certain amount of expenditure. Whether we like it or not, we are left with the hard fact that if you start cutting housing expenditure on this scale you will have the effects which have been described throughout the debate. I trust that the noble Lord the Minister will reflect upon this debate and will consider whether or not there is, at any rate in this field, some ground for some modification of Government policy.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, before I come to the carefully prepared parts of what I plan to say, may I try briefly to make a few observations regarding what has been said by noble Lords on both sides—and not in any special order. First may I say to my noble friend Lady Faithfull that I want to study very carefully what she said about hostels. I do not know what are the implications of a joint committee to co-ordinate policy, but I would certainly want to talk with colleagues about her suggestion. Likewise, I would want to consider very carefully some of the other points which she has made. Similarly, may I say to my noble friend Lady Vickers, who has for so long been involved with hostels, as have so many other noble Lords, that I do not have the answer, as I stand here, as to when the order to which she referred will be made. In fact, I think my noble friend was more concerned as to whether an order will be made. I understand that indeed this will be the case, but I am sure my noble friend knows that as I stand here I cannot confirm this. Nevertheless, I undertake to write to her on that point and on the other points which she made.

May I say to my noble friend Lord Hylton, who put in a plea for a survey of housing finance, that this is always a tempting line to follow. Unfortunately, it is so often used as a reason for doing very little. It is so easy to say, "Yes, we will set up a survey" and then simply to carry on as before. There have been many instances of this, not least the 1977 Green Paper of the previous Administration, which I remember so well and which took things not only not very far but nowhere at all. I understand why my noble friend feels that there should be a survey. Nobody who has been in housing can fail to accept that there ought to be scope for a better way of financing many aspects of housing. Certainly I accept that. However, whether or not a survey such as my noble friend suggested is the answer at this stage, I doubt. There are, of course, periodical surveys. I cannot, however, give my noble friend any comfort on that ground. All I can say is that I will talk to my honourable friend the Minister for Housing about that point.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro said that a laissez-faire attitude will not do. I agree with him. I shall try to show in a few moments that the Government's approach is anything but that. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, is not here. I always enjoy listening to the noble Lord, not least on housing. His background on that subject is very distinguished. Despite the points which were made by the noble Lord, I think that in making them he recognised some of the difficulties. Although to have a fixed figure sounds very tempting in many ways, where Governments have tried to do this in the past the attempt has not succeeded. Other than that, it was, as always, a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord.

So far as the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, are concerned, he knows from past debates with me on the right to buy that we differ on about every single aspect of it. He is no more likely to convince me of the rectitude of his approach than I am to convince him, so I think we might leave that subject on the table for the time being except that wish to say this—and in doing this I will save a little time by putting to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, that her figures as to what is currently happening do not appear to be quite right. My figures are certainly that in the first three months in which the right to buy was in operation, well over 120,000 local authority tenants claimed to exercise their right to buy in England alone and between April 1979 and December 1980, 124,000 sales of council houses actually took place. I do not want to go into that at the moment because I consider it to be too early. It takes time, as I know from my own experience some years ago, to get these things off the ground, but, whereas think that we shall have cause to feel much pleasure in what we shall achieve in that direction, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, may feel otherwise. However, in terms of what actually happens I feel that it is much too early to come to any conclusions.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could perhaps write to me on that because the number which he gave who have applied is not on the records. I should like to know the number of actual sales that have been completed, because I think that is where we probably differ.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I gladly undertake to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. When I refer to sales that have taken place, my understanding is that they have been completed, but I will write and confirm that to her.

I should like to say this: who would not really be moved by the eloquent speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Parry? It was also thought-provoking, particu larly when he referred to the requirements, the limitations and the legal allowances at the present time for occupancy of homes. I am not sure that I quite understood what he was saying but I should like to study it closely and I thank him for his typical acknowledgement of the fact that there is no monopoly of compassion and care; differ though we may—and do—on how we get there, at the end of the day we are basically seeking the same thing.

I think we should keep it all in perspective, because, despite all the problems and shortcomings—and they are many and I have no wish to minimise them; there is a long way to go—even so I should prefer to remind your Lordships that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said on 8th May 1978: We as a nation can honestly claim to be better housed than ever before".—[Official Report, 8/5/78; col. 757.] Indeed when I look back on many of the speeches that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, made in her days at the Department of the Environment, I find more to agree with than I was able to discover in her remarks today. As early as 25th June 1975, she was telling us: The economic situation means that there is a need for restraint and that we must be very careful not to waste resources".—[Official Report, 25/6/75; col. 1548.] This thought was still preoccupying her on 2nd November 1978—and no wonder—when she told noble Lords: The truth of the matter of course is that public expenditure growth must be controlled and the Government have been and are controlling it…We attach great importance to monetary aggregates and keep a watchful eye on the money supply. This is essential".—[Official Report, 2/11/78; col. 58.] My Lords, had I been there on 13th July 1977 I would have applauded her assurance that: As a Government we welcome the clear desire of many to own their own homes, and we wish to facilitate this wherever we can".—[Official Report, 13/7/77; col. 1025.] Yet once more on 8th May 1978, when speaking about the housing cost yardstick, she told the House that: A simpler system, providing local authorities with greater responsibility and incentives to seek out value for money, is definitely our objective".

Lore Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, will the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, allow me to intervene because my noble friend has a little difficulty in replying? May I suggest that all this hardly commits my noble friend Lady Birk to approval of a policy which has fiercely cut down house-building, which is heading towards the half a million shortfall and which is cutting down home loans and private house-building as well? She was speaking in an age before these things had happened.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the noble Lord must allow me to continue; it all comes out as we go along. It is a pity that in all this the wish of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, was so often taken for the deed. How different it must all seem from the other side of the Dispatch Box! The noble Baroness will quite rightly accuse me of being highly selective in my quotations and I owe it to her to admit it at once, before she finds herself in trouble with her noble friends. In context her remarks were often qualified in ways which removed all risk of her earning the Conservative seal of approval. At the same time, I am perfectly sincere in saying that most of her speeches at that time were noteworthy—and I mean that genuinely—for a thoughtful, constructive and moderate approach, which, unhappily, I have to say was far less apparent today.

My Lords, I do not need telling that it is simpleminded in the extreme to ascribe the level of housing activity in a given year solely to Government action or inaction. It reflects the state of the economy, the economic policies in force at the time and the consequences of previous economic policies. It reflects public expenditure priorities, too. I can see as well as the noble Baroness the problems that remain in housing, however much we may differ—and we do not always differ—on the best ways of putting them right. But it does no good to pretend that they are the only problems, or that money can be spent on them without reducing the resources available for other needs.

There is another reason, too, why I think the numbers game is dangerous. It encourages the belief that the housing problem is a simple one of numbers. At one time—for example in the late 'forties and 'fifties—it was not unreasonable to approach it in that way. The overall shortage fully justified the priority given to massive new-build programmes. In the 'sixties and 'seventies, however, the risks involved in concentrating on numbers of houses rather than on people's housing needs, started to become apparent. As the crude national shortage disappeared, we started to wake up to the fact that people had needs and preferences of their own which were not necessarily satisfied by the provision of a standard box of a standard size, equipped with the standard amenities—particularly if it was up in the sky, with nowhere for the children to play. We can all think of examples of the vast impersonal council estates, which cost a fortune to build, another fortune to repair and maintain, and, regrettably, in extreme cases, a third fortune to knock down. It is not without relevance—and my noble friend Lord Hylton touched upon it—that in West Germany over four-fifths of the capital used for the construction of rented housing has come from private and not public resources. And they have no council estates.

People's housing needs and aspirations, too, relate these days to tenure, just as much as to the type, size and location of the dwelling. Whenever they get the chance, large numbers are opting for owner-occupation. Of course many are happy to stay as council tenants and our policy must and does recognise that. In our view, the private rented sector remains important for those who cannot afford to buy but who seek greater independence and flexibility than council accommodation can normally provide. In other words what I am saying is that we must always have a mix. In my view, that is essential and I have thought that ever since I had anything to do with housing. If ever we get to a time when we have council housing on the one hand and owner-occupied housing only on the other, the situation will have deteriorated to a point beyond anything which we might be able to discuss in a debate such as we are having today.

Therefore the emphasis of policy is rightly shifting away from large-scale public sector building, towards more selective provision for specific needs, towards more choice and towards better and more flexible use of the existing stock and greater ease of access to housing. In a moment I should like to review a number of our recent policy initiatives, but first I must say a word about another factor which has tended to lead housing authorities and others to take a dangerously "over-simple view of the nature and scale of housing needs—one or two of your Lordships today have touched on it and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, herself referred to it in the form of the council waiting list—or rather, as I would put it, there is a tendency to take the matter too literally. Appearances can be very deceptive, and the absurdity of the claims which are often made on the basis of the number of people on waiting lists is well demonstrated by the result of the last Government's own National Dwelling and Housing Survey. The survey showed that at the end of 1977 about 1½ million people had put their names on council waiting lists. But it also showed that of those people over one-third—that is, some half million—were already council tenants who just wanted a transfer. Of those people in the private rented sector who hoped for council housing less than half said that they were dissatisfied with the present conditions, and no less than three-quarters of the owner-occupiers on the lists were already in physically satisfactory dwellings.

My Lords, people ask to be put on waiting lists for a wide variety of reasons, even though many of them may already have homes which are not unsatisfactory. Often their names are just left on waiting lists. I know this from my own experience. Periodically we used to do a review and it was dramatic to see how many people were no longer there or did not wish to be on the list any longer. I do not want to over distort this, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, rightly pointed out, that does not mean that there are not areas and situations where the waiting list is a very real and significant thing. I hope not to spoil a good case by distortion. Of course there are those situations. But it does no good for the whole consideration of this subject, which concerns us so much, to spoil it by the kind of distortion that we create by simply taking numbers on waiting lists.

I want to say a word about improving the use of the stock we have. We must surely consider that that is a prime factor in this whole matter. An obvious failing in this respect is the number of dwellings lying empty. A number of noble Lords have touched on this point. The noble Lord, Lord Stewart, said, "Well, it only represents 4 per cent"; but it is over half a million dwellings. No matter whether it is due to one cause or another, the fact is that it is over half a million dwellings. If we are all as anxious as we are about this whole matter we must consider what can be done to improve that situation. I am not seeking to put the blame on local authorities at all, because I know that there has to be a percentage of dwellings empty in any council's stock. You must have them empty because if you acquire them you have to repair them and you have to do many things that require some to be empty. So I am not seeking to knock anyone. But you cannot get away from the fact that these houses are there and are empty, and local authorities have over 100,000 of them. We can differ as to why they exist in the private sector, how many of them are due to the effects of the rent Acts or whatever. With regard to those we can only deplore that that situation is there.

Let us look to see what local authorities can do. Here the problem is that, I think it is, 23,000 of these houses have been empty for over a year. There is no way you can justify having dwellings empty for over a year. I will not take the point that says, "We cannot afford to put them right". These dwellings were empty long before anyone could criticise what was being given or not being given by way of grants, allocations or anything else. The fact is that there are a number of authorities who are seemingly content to let them stay empty, for whatever reasons—and I have my own views about some of them. Frankly, it is not good enough and contributes nothing to the totality of the problem we are facing.

My Lords, nothing in the recent history of housing is sadder than the attitude which the Labour Party, both in Government and in Opposition, has shown, which has tended to drive out private landlords and destroy the private rented sector. The fact is that the last Labour Government presided over the disappearance of 125,000 dwellings a year from the private sector. The reasons are not hard to find. If we talk of the 1974 Rent Act, which gave lifelong security to all furnished tenants of non-resident landlords, there you have it. For 15 months on every Friday I came down and sat on the Francis Committee, and we studied the working of the rent Acts. At the end of the day we came forward with certain recommendations, as committees of that kind are wont to do. One of the things we said was that if ever you give security to furnished tenancies the most immediate effect will be that you will lose a great number of dwellings to let. That is exactly what happened, because in 1974 it was done, and the result was the one which we now all know.

Lord Robbins

My Lords, may I remind the noble Lord that this case was argued in your Lordships' House, and the conclusion was expressed from his Benches and from the Cross-Benches that the extension of the rent Acts would create just the shortage which has actually occurred, especially among students.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, if the noble Lord is agreeing with me, I thank him for that.

Lord Robbins

Yes, I am.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, one is apt to be carried away by discussions of this kind, but then this debate is one which concerns people and caring and wanting to do things better, so if I am perhaps going on a little about it you will have to make allowances. We believe that the private rented sector still has an important role in meeting housing needs, particularly those of the young and the single and the mobile. That is why in the 1980 Act we have introduced shorthold, which I will quickly mention again in a moment. We have given six million public sector tenants the right to take in lodgers and to sub-let. We have simplified the rules for new lettings by resident landlords. We have extended the circumstances in which those going abroad, those in the Services and those owning a home to which they intend to retire, can regain possession of their homes if they have been let. We have introduced assured tenancies, to which my noble friend Lord Hylton referred. I am happy to say that the Abbey Housing Association have already let the first units under this scheme, at Tower Hamlets, and approval has also been granted to Wates Limited to build under the scheme.

I have to say that when we talk of shorthold it is disappointing to hear noble Lords opposite persist in the line which says, "Well, it will not work, and, what is more, when we come into office we will get rid of it." How can they criticise the numbers being let, especially in so short a time since the Act came into force, when they tell people that they will do away with this? It is not good enough for the noble Baroness to say, "Yes, but, you know, that is a five-year life". They can let for three to five years, under shorthold. However one might differ about what it will achieve—and there may be differences as to what it will achieve—surely it is an attempt to do something. To do nothing is so easy, to sit back and bemoan the diminution of this sector. Even if it is not successful in the end, at least we are trying to do something; we are not complacent and satisfied to sit back and bemoan our fate.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, on the subject of short-holds, I wonder whether the noble Lord has seen some of the figures given by his right honourable friend in Hansard in another place. The figures seem to be very disappointing indeed for shorthold lettings—three in Chelsea, five in Kensington, a few in Camden: very few indeed for the whole Metropolitan area. It does not seem to be a success at all.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord says that with pleasure or with disappointment. His party is committed to doing away with it anyhow, so that should cause him great pleasure. If the figures are as he says, I say two things; first of all, I think the Labour party, for the reasons I have given, must take most responsibility for it; and, secondly, it is still very much too early to come to any conclusions about it. But even if it all fails, at least it is an attempt to do something as compared to doing nothing.

On low cost home ownership, widening the opportunities for owner-occupation lies at the heart of our housing strategy. I need mention only in passing the right to buy, about which we talked, and the low-cost home ownership programme. They are surely well enough known by now. I should emphasise the advantages of this policy to local authorities themselves. First, many who will purchase under these initiatives would otherwise have been seeking rented accommodation from the authority, and to that extent pressure on the authority's rented stock is relieved. Secondly, the policy gives authorities new opportunities to dispose of houses and flats which they have been unable to put to good use themselves. Thirdly, every sale of land or houses generates a capital receipt. It is quite true, as the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, has said, that not all of that comes in a cash form which enables them to reinvest in housing in general, but a great deal of it does do so and I speak from personal experience of having sold thousands of houses. The fact is that a lot of money does come in and now, under the new rules which we have, 50 per cent. of that can be applied to any investment in housing. One can build, repair or do what one likes within an authority.

I have in front of me a great deal more that I should like to say, not least about private house building and so on. We have done a great deal. We have repealed the Community Land Act which simply created a vast bureaucracy and achieved nothing but clogged up the supply of land, as we always said it would. We have made the impact of development land tax less burdensome and more equitable. We have streamlined the planning system and the way in which it is administered. We have eliminated the wasteful overlap of planning responsibilities between counties and districts. We have taken many such steps.

I am sorely tempted to spell out the list which I have before me of the shortcomings, as it were, of the previous Administration in housing, but I shall resist that because it is history and, like most of the speakers today, I am more concerned not about scoring points but about where we go from here. That is the matter of concern. So in conclusion I should like to mention some of the things that we are doing in addition. Two years of this Government have seen further reductions in housing investment. That is the inescapable consequence of adjustment to economic reality—the reality to which the noble Baroness was referring in the quotations which I mentioned earlier. Yet in just those first two years we have seen more imaginative new housing policies—and, above all, more action—than our predecessors ever dreamed of.

We have taken a host of initiatives to encourage the release of land for private house building: we have repealed the Community Land Act, set up land registers and many more. Seven thousand acres of developable land have been sold by new towns, the Housing Corporation and the PSA for building purposes. A new subsidy system is now in place. It concentrates help where it is most needed. It does not scatter money at random across the country. It sets the context for a rational approach to rent-setting, while still leaving authorities free to take their own decisions. We now have a tenants' charter of statutory rights for public sector tenants—something which noble Lords talked about but which we have done—which, apart from the right to buy, has given tenants the right to decorate and improve; the right to take in lodgers and sublet; the right to security of tenure and one succession: and the right to information and consultation. That is now a fact. We have, in addition, a Mobility Scheme. We have given authorities undreamed of freedom to determine their own investment programmes within what the nation can afford. The yardstick has been swept away.

Finally, tens and hundreds of thousands of households will have cause to thank us for putting home ownership within their reach through the right to buy and the exciting and bold low-cost home ownership schemes which the Government are pioneering—and my noble friend Lord Hylton mentioned one or two of them. Shared ownership; homesteading; selling local authority land for starter homes; improvement for sale; local authority indemnities for mortgages; licensing builders to build starter homes on local authority land. What such comparative housing initiatives have any previous Government ever shown?

Not for one moment do I belittle the proper concern which has been expressed today. The housing problems and needs and changing situations, and the special needs of certain categories of people continue to abound, and, Heaven knows!, we are not complacent about them. We shall have them constantly in mind in all that we do. But, yes, we do care. However, no Government could put it all right or solve all the problems in two years, not least in times of financial difficulty. Even so, as I hope I have illustrated clearly enough, in their short term of office so far the Government have already a record in which we can, and do, take pride.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I hope that it is in order for me to say, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Birk, that I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.