asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to complete his review of the Rent Acts.
The Government hope to introduce legislation to encourage the supply of more homes for renting in the private sector, but probably not during the lifetime of this Parliament.
In view of newspaper rumours that the Cabinet has decided not to go ahead with the lifting of all rent restrictions, can the Secretary of State confirm that this is because the Prime Minister suddenly realised what the electoral consequences would be for her personally in Finchley if she lifted all rent controls in a constituency where no fewer than 23 per cent. of the households are living in privately rented accommodation, compared with 12 per cent. in the rest of the country?
I do not think that anyone other than the hon. Gentleman is talking about lifting all rent controls from privately rented property—[Interruption.] The fact of the matter is that the Labour party has done all that it can over the years to undermine the private rented sector and is determined to do nothing whatever to help it in the future. A heavy load of responsibility rests upon the Labour party.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are a substantial number of empty dwellings which were previously privately rented, particularly in London, which, if brought back into use, would go a long way towards solving the housing problem, and that the best way of achieving this aim would be to revive the private rented sector?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but the fact is that to restore the private rented sector so that it can play a proper role in housing the people of this country requires the confidence of landlords. Whatever proposals we introduced before the next general election would inevitably face the negative threat of repeal by the Labour party. That is why it is more sensible to consider introducing legislation early in the next Parliament.
Given that the Secretary of State long ago gave up the policy of building houses and that he has now gone back on the policy of improving houses and reforming the Rent Acts, what housing policy do this Government have left?
The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. There has been a huge recovery in the building of houses for sale. He will have seen the latest forecasts of the House Builders Federation. It expects substantially to increase the number of starts this year.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that by causing housing shortages the Rent Acts have been responsible for more misery and unhappiness than almost any other social question? Is it not shameful of the Government to have abandoned the cause of the repeal of the Rent Acts?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government have done no such thing. We share his view that there is a very important role to be played by the private rented sector, but if it is to play that role the Government have to enjoy the confidence of landlords and of those who would build and let. That is unlikely to happen as a result of any legislation passed before the next general election, and that is why I have decided to postpone it.
Is it not the case that the Minister for Housing and Construction has suffered a bitter political disappointment? His plan to abolish the Rent Acts and rent regulations have been vetoed by the Cabinet. One notices that he has not resigned. Is the Secretary of State aware that it will come as a considerable relief to many private tenants in London and elsewhere that there is to be no abolition of security of tenure and of the rent regulations, which, if it did come about, would cause the same misery as the Tory Rent Act of 1957?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. There has never been any proposal to abolish rent control for sitting tenants. That was made absolutely clear. If the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that, in part at least, the problems of homelessness can be traced to the decline in the private rented sector, he is even more blind than I thought.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread disappointment at his announcement today? Many people feel that the problems of the homeless could very largely be met by liberalising the Rent Acts so as to bring into occupation the large quantities of empty housing that exist in this country?
My hon. Friend is right. If landlords are to be persuaded, after legislation, to let their empty property, they need to have confidence that they will be able to regain possession. Because of the threats of the Labour party that any such legislation would be repealed, there does not seem to be a great deal of sense in seeking to introduce legislation in this Parliament. My hon. Friend referred to empty properties. For some time we have been turning our attention to ways of trying to reduce the number of empty properties in the public sector, which has become a major scandal.
We are glad to have the confidence of the Secretary of State that Labour Members will be sitting on the Treasury Bench after the next election. One reason for that will be that we put the security of tenants above the profits of landlords. Although the Secretary of State and Conservative Back Bench Members bleed their hearts out for the homeless, do they not understand that the last time the Conservative party went down the road of Rachmanism and de-control—in 1957—the House was told that that would lead to an increase in private rented homes and a decrease in homelessness. However, it led to the fastest decline in the private rented sector since the war. Is the Minister aware that if the Government reintroduce the de-control of new or existing tenancies it will lead, not to an increase in rented accommodation, but to a decrease, hardship and Rachmanism?
The hon. Gentleman simply does not understand what he is talking about. Is a landlord more likely to bring pressure on a tenant to vacate his premises if that tenant is paying a low protected rent, or if he is paying a market rent? If there were de-control of new lettings, with tenants paying market rents, that would restore the balance. The hon. Gentleman has made the attitude of the Labour party crystal clear, and has fully justified our decision to wait until the next election.