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22 Oct 2002 : Column 156—continued

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No, I want to make some progress.

There would be widespread agreement that more work needs to be done. I also suspect that there would be agreement as to the need for the privately rented sector to play a greater role in meeting the need for affordable housing. I note that the Conservatives' amendment refers to that point, although they might not agree with some of the measures that we think should be introduced to assist in increasing that role—for example, the use of tax credits to encourage landlords to provide accommodation at sub-market rents.

However, the hon. Member for Cotswold and I might agree that we can see no way at all in which the latest announcements about revisions to housing benefit can help. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has pointed out, the Government seem to believe that there is a world in which those on housing benefit are happy tenants, surveying a wide range of quality affordable accommodation with the opportunity to sit down with landlords to discuss the rent over a mug of coffee. That is certainly not the world in which I and many of my constituents live.

Much help could also be given to enable the private sector to work with others. There are many useful self-help and part self-build schemes throughout the country that need more encouragement. I draw the Minister's attention to the excellent habitat for humanity team, which is doing good work in Southwark with the private sector, the local authority and would-be tenants to develop and build affordable housing in the area.

There will not be agreement, however, about the right to buy. I return to the question put by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). More than 1.5 million houses have been sold under the right-to-buy scheme since it was introduced in 1980, but the receipts have been wholly insufficient to replace the stock of affordable homes that were lost. In the current year, although 52,000 properties were sold, fewer than 20,000 new affordable homes were built. The Government are right to consider changes, not least to end some of the unacceptable exploitation that currently exists.

Dr. Julian Lewis rose—

Mr. Gray rose—

Mr. Foster: I promise that I will give way in a moment.

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The hon. Member for Cotswold referred to one practice as a scam. He said:

I entirely agree with him. He is right.

Sadly, however, that is not the only scam. In this month's edition of London Housing magazine, Julian Blake describes another—a legal exploitation of the rules—which he claims involves about 20 companies in London alone. Those companies cash in on the discount of up to #38,000 offered to tenants exercising their right to buy and sidestep the laws on resale. A company offers cash incentives to tenants to buy under the right to buy, subject to the tenants signing an agreement immediately to vacate the property so that the company can rent it out. The tenants formally sell the house to the company only after the three-year period during which they would normally have to repay the discount. As a result of that scam, valuable homes are being snapped up for private gain at sub-market prices, with the permanent loss of valuable, affordable housing stock. That scam should end. It cannot go on. Rather than row back on the right-to-buy scheme, however, the Conservatives want to extend it.

Mr. Gray: There is no doubt that the type of scam described by the hon. Gentleman must be stamped out. However, does he agree that if he does away with the 60 or 70 per cent. discount under the right-to-buy scheme and replaces it with the 25 per cent. scheme proposed by the Liberal Democrats, it would make homes much less affordable? Secondly, does he recall the Liberal Democrat document entitled XA Home of Your Own", which stated that

When did the Liberal Democrats change their view?

Mr. Foster: We changed our view in the run up to the last general election and we changed it for the reasons that I have given—that increasingly we began to be concerned that in some sensitive areas of the country there were growing problems associated with the shortage of affordable housing. We changed it because we recognised that, under the rules introduced by the Conservative party, there was no possibility that the money released from the right-to-buy scheme would be sufficient to provide a one-for-one matching with a new affordable home. We also recognised that, in any further moves in that direction, such as those which the Conservatives are now proposing, there was no possibility whatever of a matching one-for-one proposal. I therefore believe—

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Foster: I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) will acknowledge—

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No. I shall just finish answering the question.

22 Oct 2002 : Column 158

I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will acknowledge that anyone who is sensible, having reviewed how a policy has worked and its implications and effects, would be prepared to change their mind. [Hon. Members: XWrong."] Sadly, that is what the Conservative party is not prepared to do. It is very interesting—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will listen, because both the leader of the Conservative party and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), at their recent party conference, announced their so-called Xnew" right-to-buy policy. The right hon. Gentleman said:

XNew", for the Tories, is a very flexible word. Most of us would certainly not consider Xnew" a policy first announced in 1979, as it was in the Conservative manifesto at that time.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No. I will not.

But 1 million is also, for the Tories, a rather flexible number. They claim that 1 million people will benefit from their policy and yet—I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will correct me if I have got this wrong, but the figures are very clear—already 300,000 housing association tenants have the right to buy under the 1980 legislation, and 200,000 have the slightly different right to acquire under the 1996 legislation. So for the Tories, for new read old and for 1 million read 500,000.

Mr. Tyler: Is my hon. Friend aware that under the Conservative rules, a further scam has taken place in areas of considerable housing shortage, whereby some properties have ended up, under the right to buy, as second homes? Is he also aware that that has exacerbated the situation in areas such as the south-west—Cornwall and Devon? Is he further aware that if the Conservative party's proposals were pursued, it would be central Government dictation to local authorities to do something that they know is completely mad in local circumstances?

Mr. Foster: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why, first, we have made the proposal—shortly, we hope, to be accepted by the Government—in relation to council tax subsidy, and secondly why we will continue to urge the Government to introduce the planning requirements at a local authority level for a change of use to a second home.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No, I want to conclude. There is no doubt whatever—

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No, I have said that I want to finish now.

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There is no doubt whatever that the Conservative party proposals to extend the right to buy are totally uncosted. It is clear that they will never, under their proposals, be able to help to solve the affordable housing crisis. We have a very significant crisis in affordable homes, and it is not just the homeless, the overcrowded, the poorly housed or the poorly paid who are losing out. We all lose out, because if key workers cannot find housing, the crucial public services on which we all depend will collapse.

Everyone deserves a decent home; it is a scandal that not everyone has one. Despite many fine words—[Interruption.]—although not from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), not enough has been done. Now we must act.

5.19 pm

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche) : I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Let me start on a note of consensus by saying that it is absolutely right that we are debating this important subject today. It is agreed in all parts of the House that this is one of the most vital issues confronting us, and it is good that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has raised it.

On 18 July, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement in which he set out his aim of achieving a step change in the provision of

Our priority is to create sustainable communities and to provide decent homes for all. As the House knows very well, the problems differ in different parts of the country, and it will be very interesting to hear hon. Members' views, which will vary according to the parts of the country that they represent.

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