Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not being in the least bit squeamish. I am trying to put the record straight by saying that there will continue to be a significant council housing sector. However, although I entirely agree with him that there should not be a monopoly provision of housing because the public should have choice, I do not accept his negative and pessimistic view of council housing as being poor-quality, sub-standard housing in unimaginative layouts. Fine examples exist throughout the country of good-quality council housing that meets people's needs effectively. That will continue, and we shall encourage and support it.

Mr. Curry: The Minister has repeatedly mentioned the phrase ``monopoly provider'' and talks of monopolistic provision. Would he agree that he has some decisions to make on transfers, to ensure that they do not take in blocks that are too large, and that he does not allow the little wheeze of holding companies being set up with what appear to be diverse landlords who in practice are under one company's control?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have been emphatic on this issue. We have supported the view taken by the previous Government that there should be a maximum limit on the size of transfers. We have maintained a maximum limit on the size of transfers, and we have set out detailed guidance for transfers from large authorities to ensure diversity in the successor bodies. A holding body may sometimes be appropriate to enable the transfer to take place—for obvious reasons of financial common sense. However, the clear objective is that responsibility must devolve to the bodies that will have the job of managing housing locally. We have been emphatic that each of those successor bodies must have the right to secede and to be independent if they so choose. That will guarantee the independence of those bodies; they will not be forced to remain part of a wider consortium if they do not wish to do so.

I turn to the second of the concerns raised by the right hon. Gentleman. I did not entirely agree with his scepticism about strategies. I agree wholeheartedly that housing strategies have already been set up: that is required under the housing investment programme framework. Each authority must prepare a statement each year, for which a strategy is necessary. Their strategies are assessed by Government offices, to enable us to decide on several issues, including allocation of resources. All authorities already have housing strategies, so there is no need for a statutory obligation to establish them. There may be a case for refining current arrangements, and I shall be happy to discuss that at the appropriate time, but there is no need for a statutory requirement now. However, there is a need for a homelessness strategy requirement, because, although some authorities have well-developed homelessness strategies, others do not.

During consultation on the housing Green Paper we received clear evidence from organisations all over the country of a lack of joint working between housing and social services authorities in the relief of homelessness. Some authorities take a limited view of the scale of their responsibility to the homeless, and of the scope for intervention by them to prevent homelessness. A framework requiring all authorities to review homelessness in their area and the needs of people at risk of becoming homeless, and to establish strategies to tackle those problems, is essential. That is the reason for the clause. I hope that the document that we have circulated, which sets out the elements that we expect to form part of the review and the strategy, will help hon. Members to understand the scope of and need for the measure.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned that it was important that the views of tenants groups and homeless people should be taken into account in reviews and strategies. I wholeheartedly agree. When he has had time to peruse the document, which I accept has only just been circulated, he will see that we make specific reference to the need to take account, as far as possible—it is not always easy—of the views of people who are homeless or have experience of homelessness problems.

I hope that, after that lengthy review—I do not use the term tour d'horizon—for which I apologise, the Committee will recognise that the amendments are either unnecessary or inappropriate. I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Waterson: I think that we can all agree that our fairly wide discussion about strategy has been helpful, because it may save time later and it has helped to define some of remaining issues in the Bill. I do not want to embark again on discussion of statistics. The Minister and I will have to agree to differ about what is plain as a pikestaff in documents produced by his Department.

We have heard much and will no doubt hear more about alleged cuts in spending under a Tory Government and increased homelessness, but we are nearly four years—less three months, as the Minister pointed out—into the Labour Government. It would be interesting to hear hon. Members' view of their record so far. The Minister tried to put the best gloss on the figures, and I shall let matters rest for the moment.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon about the Minister being squeamish about the end of council housing. I suspect that Ministers of all parties try sooner or later to persuade themselves that they are wholly in control of events, but of course it would not really matter what party the Minister belonged to: he would preside over enormous changes. Mike Morris—to return to his article in Housing Today, which I again commend to the Committee—makes the point that we are in the middle of historic trends that we can do little to change, or even slow down or accelerate. In the article he discusses the historic trend of the decline of the social sector, which, he writes,

    will continue as the nation gets wealthier and the population exercises more choice, particularly in favour of owner occupation. But within this declining sector, the RSL sub-sector will increase, partly by new development but to a greater extent by transfers of stock.

Dr. Iddon: The Government have made great play of tenants having choice, so tenants who vote for stock transfer will be given a fair voting system. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon has already admitted that there would be accelerated stock transfer under another Tory Government. I want to ask the hon. Member for Eastbourne a question that has not been asked so far. Would the Conservatives stick to their previous and extremely unfair voting system for tenants? Would they even give tenants the chance to vote for a stock transfer?

Mr. Waterson: I do not accept the assumption that an unfair system evolved. I dealt with that final question in an intervention that I made on the Minister, when I said that people should have a choice. People like the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) miss the fact that we are talking about choice in a much wider sense. There should be choice about transfers, but transfers have accelerated under the Government. We have not been slow to praise the Minister for that. Lines on a graph will show that council housing will die eventually, and the Government are predicting its death. If the Minister is squeamish about that, that is his problem. I can see that it is not popular in some quarters of the Labour party.

Anyone in the RSL movement will see the point of growing consumerism. Someone—I think that it was a representative of the Institute for Public Policy and Research—talked about the difference being like that between colour and black-and-white television. No one will accept a black-and-white television these days, no matter how poor they are. People feel that they should have more choice. The issue also relates to some of the clauses on allocation, so I suspect that we shall have some interesting discussions on the matter.

Ms Buck: I am concerned by the analogy with television, which implies that social housing, especially that run by councils, is second best. That is surely not the point. If the hon. Gentleman pursues the argument that most people want to own their homes, I agree, but for those who cannot or want to exercise the choice not to, especially when there is a high demand as in London, we must not create the impression that renting from a council or another social landlord is a second-best option. That makes a mockery of the concept of choice.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, but she has a firm grip on the wrong end of the stick. Everyone hates the expression ``social housing''. I have never been to a housing event at which it has not been used, but we are stuck with the term as no one has come up with a better one. Perhaps the greatest challenge for a Government of any party is to deal with the problem of social housing becoming cut off from the rest of the housing world, and increasingly consisting of estates where people are not economically active. We have to break down the Berlin wall between social housing and other housing. If the hon. Lady thinks that I am making the opposite point, it is probably my fault for not explaining myself. She was twitching, in the nicest possible way, so she may want to respond.

Ms Buck: I wholly agree. We all want to do what we can about mixed communities, and we do not want residualised blocks of housing occupied only by people on low incomes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only way to make such communities work, given that many people cannot afford or choose not to buy, is to increase supply in communities that do not have accommodation run by councils and RSLs? Such choices will fall on representatives of the Conservative party as much as on us. It is incumbent on them to work with us to ensure that there are mixed communities in all areas of the country, not only in areas of low income.

3.15 pm

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