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Mr. Raynsford: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is quoting from a comment that he made to Conservatives.com--presumably one of the dotcom companies about to go into receivership? The reality is that there is no change in the priorities determining the allocation of permanent council housing. It is untrue that prisoners are jumping the housing queue. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that and withdraw that remark?
Mr. Waterson: As far as the first part of the Minister's intervention goes, I never knowingly quote myself. As for the second part, if he proposes to give priority to people with institutionalised backgrounds, including ex-prisoners, logic demands that that means giving them priority over somebody else. Perhaps that is so in the case of temporary accommodation alone, but that is still the message that he proposes to send. It should be said that we support giving priority to vulnerable groups such as ex-forces personnel and those fleeing domestic violence.
Another feature of the Government's policy is the dramatic fall in the provision of new social housing, which has fallen from 91,200 in 1994-96 to 59,000 in 1997-99. That is at a time when private sector building has been increasing. The number of empty council properties has risen by 3 per cent. under Labour. At times, it seemed as if Labour's flagship policy was the Conservative one of large-scale voluntary transfers, which have accelerated quite sharply in the past four years.
We hear a great deal from the rough sleepers' unit, which makes extravagant claims about its success. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) achieved considerable success in reducing the number of rough sleepers without the benefit of a £90,000 streets tsar. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for their excellent work on housing when in government. One leading homelessness charity recently accused the rough sleepers' unit of "beggar bashing". The highly respected Simon community has discounted the RSU's claims that it has cut street sleeping by one third.
One top of all that, the Government have made home ownership less accessible by scrapping mortgage tax relief, reducing right-to-buy discounts for council tenants and cutting support for shared ownership schemes. At the same time, the average home for a first-time buyer now costs 23 per cent. more than it did in 1997. In London, the average first-time buyer will need to find an extra £40,000 to buy his or her own home. To try to deal with that the Government have come up with their scheme for so-called key workers, who are to be given help in buying their own homes. In areas--especially London--where accommodation costs are high, they would receive help with discounted mortgages.
There are two major problems with that scheme, and we shall be looking closely at its details. First, on what basis will the Government draw lines on maps to mark the areas that will receive that help? Secondly, which key workers do they propose to help? The indications given so far suggest that they are talking about teachers, police officers, nurses and other fairly limited categories, but what about ancillary workers in the national health service, for example? They will be on even lower salaries than nurses and doctors. What about civilian workers in the police force, who form a far higher proportion of the police establishment than they did a number of years ago? What happens with regard to ancillary workers? What will happen if a nurse marries a police officer and their joint income can comfortably service a mortgage? Will the help suddenly be taken away from them? What happens when a police sergeant becomes an inspector or a nurse is promoted to a higher grade? There must be some way of removing the benefits or of ensuring that they are tapered off.
Mr. Raynsford: Perhaps I can put the hon. Gentleman out of his agony. We have made it clear that the scheme is designed to assist key workers and that we expect bids to be approved by local authorities in the light of their experience of their areas' needs. The question of priorities on categories of key worker will be determined locally. We will then reach our decision on how to allocate the funds.
Mr. Waterson: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not find those comments terribly reassuring. The distinctions about which I speak, which concern us deeply, will still have to be made by somebody. Apparently, that person will ultimately be him.
The Opposition will, however, be at some pains to ensure that local authorities are genuinely to be given the freedoms for which they ask and that central Government will not yet again impose new burdens and duties without providing commensurate resources. Various bodies have expressed concern at the extra resource implications inherent in extending the priority need categories and increasing the level of assistance available to homeless people who are not in priority need. It is worth remembering that the new power is unlikely to afford any great benefit in areas of high demand. For that matter, the same can be said of seeking to encourage choice in lettings.
In my constituency, people looking for council accommodation will, on average, wait a couple of years or more. In some parts of the north, however, people will be shown two or three perfectly nice properties on the same afternoon. That is an enormous difference between different parts of the country. No wonder the housing director of Hammersmith and Fulham has described the proposals as being
As Members of Parliament, all hon. Members must deal with problems caused by so-called neighbours from hell. Such people can cause utter misery for those who are unfortunate enough to live around them and can sometimes affect the whole character of an estate. The Bill seeks to end blanket exclusions from access to social housing, but we welcome the provision in clause 27 that enables a local authority to take into account
Part I of the Bill deals with proposals on seller's packs. Sixty-nine per cent. of householders in England now own their homes. That is a proud achievement of successive Conservative Governments. It would be interesting to know how many Labour Members do not own their homes. I wonder what the equivalent ownership proportion is in Denmark, the fig leaf to which the Minister clutched throughout his comments on the provisions about which I am speaking. I suspect that it is a great deal lower.
The Labour party has often been uneasy with owner-occupation, especially with the right-to-buy scheme. Nevertheless, it obviously felt it necessary to court the votes of owner-occupiers. In February 1997, in the policy document entitled "No to Gazumping", the then shadow Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), proposed a costs guarantee. He said:
The problems of gazumping have reappeared. Those who break their bargains should be liable to pay the costs inflicted on others, in particular legal and survey costs.
Mr. Raynsford: May I immediately make it clear that I made no such statement? I said that it was impossible to outlaw gazumping, but I went on to stress that the measures in the Bill would do an enormous amount to reduce the circumstances in which gazumping can thrive. I ask the hon. Gentleman to recognise that that is a priority. Does his party support measures to make gazumping far less likely? When the Conservatives were in government, gazumping thrived: it was their hallmark.
Mr. Waterson: Dear me. I confess that my attention wandered once or twice during the 59 minutes of the hon. Gentleman's opening speech. I listened intently to the part of his statement that dealt with gazumping. I thought-- I hope Hansard will show this--that he accepted that gazumping was not being tackled, certainly not in any direct fashion. I accept that he believes that by speeding up the process, gazumping will be less likely--he has just referred to that again. Surely it would not matter to the average seller whether he had six, four, three or 10 weeks for the transaction. If he discovered that he could get £10,000 or £20,000 more for his home than he originally thought, he would make the same decision, and gazumping would occur.
We do not accept for a moment that the Government's proposals will bring about a significant reduction in the time taken for these transactions. I hope that I have clarified the Minister's position and mine on the question of delay and gazumping. On the basis of a rather dodgy pilot scheme, the Government are setting out to increase costs for potential sellers, to bureaucratise the sale of private properties and to criminalise ordinary law-abiding citizens who are merely trying to enter freely into contractual relations. That is the sum of the Bill and its contents on this issue.