Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): As the Secretary of State responsible for introducing the regulations in 1996, which interacted in an unforeseen way with the regulations last year, I must seek the House’s indulgence at not having recalled the detail of their text and drawn any possible problem to the attention of my successor. However, I assure the House that there was no intention of granting any long-term relief from a change of policy that I envisaged introducing if we had been re-elected and I had remained Secretary of State.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Lilley: I will give way not at the moment.
The problem that we face is a huge shortage of housing. We have 1.85 million people on council waiting lists, up 800,000 since 1997. That should be no surprise, given that the previous Government allowed the population to increase by 3 million during that period, with virtually no addition to the housing stock.
The symptom of such a shortage is overcrowding—a word which did not pass the lips of the Opposition spokesman in her speech. During my period as a Member of Parliament, many people have come to my surgery to seek help about a change in social housing. Overwhelmingly, they have been people living in overcrowded accommodation who want a bigger property and seek to move out of a one or two-bedroom property. I have therefore been surprised by the general approach of Opposition Members and by some of the media in saying that no one wants to move out of small properties into big ones and that there are therefore no small properties to be moved into by those affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy.
By chance, I bumped into an old friend who is now the chairman of an organisation called HomeSwapper. Some 80% of local authorities belong to it, and hundreds of thousands of tenants have registered on it that they want to swap.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the problem with his presentation is that the Government expect to make a fairly substantial saving of some £500,000—they will not actually make it—from people not being able to move. What is the real aim of the policy: is it about people moving, or about trying to extract money from them?
Mr Lilley: The policy is about making better use of a housing stock that is in very short supply.
My friend pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people are registered: last year, about 40,000 swaps were arranged; this year, the number arranged on the site has increased by 23%. I went to my local authority to find out its figures. Some 500 or more people registered as council tenants in St Albans are seeking to move, of whom 260 are seeking larger properties, while only 62 are seeking to downsize. I therefore ask Opposition Members to go to their local authorities and find out the actual figures.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): We have.
Mr Lilley: Then the hon. Gentleman will know that nationwide, on HomeSwapper alone, 50,000 people with one-room properties are trying to move to larger properties that are available. It is simply untrue to pretend that such properties are not available.
I do not want to use up time unnecessarily in this important debate, so I will just draw the attention of the House again to the fact that we are dealing with a massive overcrowding problem resulting from a shortage of property. The Opposition are pretending that the reverse is the case and that we have a large surplus of rooms that we can allow people to have—it would be wonderful if we had an excess of cheaply available property, so that everyone who wanted an extra room could have it, subsidised and free, from the taxpayer—but we are not in that position. When will they wake up to reality, look at the facts and deal with the real social problem that most of us face, which is overcrowding in council and social properties?