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Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Joseph Rowntree report and many of the reports on poverty and inequality that have been published in the past year are based on statistics that are two years out of date and predate almost all the significant anti-poverty initiatives such as the working families tax credit, this year's children's tax credit and many other measures? He paints a deeply misleading picture by implying that those figures reflect current circumstances.

Mr. Waterson: I am fascinated by that intervention. Those are the only figures by which we can work. I would be interested to know whether the hon. Lady genuinely feels as a result of her experience of looking after her constituents—which I am sure she does well—that things are getting better rather than worse. That is certainly not my impression from my constituency. However, I am happy to bow to her if she believes that things are getting better.

Mr. Bercow: Given that the Secretary of State reiterated the need for a healthy private rented sector but that the 85 changes to the housing benefit regulations since 1997 have consistently militated against that and have stifled the growth of the sector, does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State needs urgently to speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ensure that the housing benefit rules are clear, simple and intelligible and work in the interest of landlords, tenants and taxpayers?

Mr. Waterson: As usual, my hon. Friend makes a penetrating point. Housing benefit regulations are almost impossible to understand, whether one is a claimant or a landlord. How many landlords in the private sector have been put off by delays, or have ended up out of pocket because of those delays or because of bureaucracy and the often inefficient administration of the housing benefit system?

We heard a lot about empty housing from Labour in opposition. However, under this Government the amount of empty council housing in England has risen by 7 per cent., from more than 81,000 empty dwellings in April 1997 to more than 87,000 by April 2000. That development would not be so worrying if it were not taking place against the background of an enormous fall in the amount of social housing being constructed under this Government, which has plummeted compared with the amount built under the Conservative Government. Between 1993 and 1996, more than 150,000 new dwellings were built by local authorities and registered social landlords. Between 1997 and 2000, only 95,500 were constructed. The amount of new social housing built under this Government has already fallen by 37 per cent. Yet organisations such as Shelter estimate that we need 100,000 new units of affordable homes a year over each of the next 10 years.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Shelter several times. He must be

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aware of its research showing that 26 per cent. of English authorities that transferred their stock found it less easy to house homeless people after the transfer. I asked him a question during the Committee proceedings on the Homes Bill, and I did not receive an answer. It is groundhog day, so I ask it again. Is it still Conservative policy to transfer all council housing as quickly as possible? It is important to receive an answer to that question this evening, as council tenants are rather nervous about the Conservatives' proposals.

Mr. Waterson: I apologise profusely if the hon. Gentleman feels that I did not answer his question in Committee. One of the wonders of the Government's legislative programme is that such opportunities come round time and again. If I do not answer his question to his total satisfaction now, I am sure that he will be placed on the Standing Committee and we can do it all over again.

The hon. Gentleman must have peeked at my notes, because I was about to discuss large-scale voluntary transfers. Not only are large-scale transfers still our policy—in due course, we would transfer all council accommodation, with consent—but it is worth reminding him, although I am sure that he does not need reminding, that they were a Conservative policy in the first place. It is fascinating that, although the Government have failed in all sorts of respects, their flagship housing policy has been to adopt and put into high gear the Tory policy of large-scale transfers. Indeed, the figure had reached about 500,000 units by the time of the election.

Like me, the hon. Gentleman might have stumbled across the written answer on the subject the other day from the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Northampton, North. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Under-Secretary announced the names of 27 local authorities that will proceed with 32 transfers of all or part of their housing stock. She went on to say that

Dr. Iddon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: I will of course give way, although I hope that the hon. Gentleman will answer my question in intervening. Does he commend the adoption and success of a Tory policy, or is he against what his own Government are doing?

Dr. Iddon: There is a difference. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would answer a second question. At least we give the tenants the right to vote on the proposals. It is my understanding that, were Conservative policy to be adopted, council housing would be transferred not only as quickly as possible but without tenants being given the right to vote. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us the real situation?

Mr. Waterson: I thought that I made it clear in Committee, but I shall do so again on the Floor of the House: we do not believe in taking away the need for the consent of tenants, but want to encourage, if anything, a quickening of the pace of the programme. I am sure that

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the hon. Gentleman has grasped the fact that if, on top of what happened over the past four years, the policy continues under the present Government, there will be hardly any council housing left by the next election. When the Conservatives storm to inevitable victory in four years' time, or earlier if this Government collapse under the weight of their own rhetoric, the problem or challenge or opportunity will no longer exist.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Does not the difficulty for the Conservative party reside in its definition of tenants' consent? On the introduction of the policy in the dim, dark recesses of Conservative government, it then averred that tenants who did not vote were automatically voting yes.

Mr. Waterson: I would still love to know whether the hon. Lady, like the hon. Gentleman, agrees with her party's policy of speeding up large-scale transfers.

Glenda Jackson: It is about consent.

Mr. Waterson: She must take that up with the current Minister responsible for housing. Even if she thinks that such Conservative policy is flawed in some details, it is going full steam ahead under this Government. We commend them for that; we support it. They will not receive any criticism from us for carrying on with it. Our only criticism would be that it would be nice if they occasionally found some of their own policies in this field.

I should like to touch on another issue that was debated in Committee: the effect on social accommodation of housing asylum seekers, which seems particularly to be a problem in London. We discussed in Committee the comments of the Association of London Government's housing panel, which pointed to the increase in asylum seekers as a "significant contributory factor" in rising homelessness. The London Research Centre took a similar view. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister in reply whether the Government are taking that into account, particularly in the London context, in their policies on homelessness.

The Minister touched on the issue of houses in multiple occupation and the licensing system. It is as well that he did, because not only did that feature in the Labour party's 1997 election manifesto but the most recent manifesto repeated the pledge to do something about it. However, this Government have not introduced any such legislation on the matter, and this Bill does nothing to address it. There has been a chorus of disappointment and criticism from bodies such as Shelter, asking why on earth the Government are not tackling the issue. If I understood the Secretary of State correctly—I hope that I am not misreporting him—there will be a consultation document later this year. That sounds as though it is some way off and that any legislation is even further off.

It is important to make it clear that we as a party will continue to support effective action on rough sleeping. The initiative relating to people discharged from the forces is extremely important. Anyone who knows anything about homelessness has known for years that a very high percentage of those discharged from the forces cannot, for various reasons, cope with running their own lives outside a structured environment. I am sure that that important initiative is bearing and will bear a great deal of fruit.

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Will the Minister who replies to the debate confirm that it is still the Government's policy to wind up the rough sleepers unit when it has met its targets and to devolve its responsibilities, powers and funding to local housing authorities?

In their first term, the Government fell far short of meeting the expectations of those involved in social housing and homelessness; they have even fallen short of their own promises and rhetoric. The time for delivery is now. The Bill is a start, but it is only a start.

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