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7 Jan 2003 : Column 105—continued

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that, since local management of schools came in, what is taught in schools, particularly in respect of sex education, is entirely a matter for the discretion of the governing body and therefore not affected by this legislation, which merely constrains what local government can properly spend its money on?

Kali Mountford: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Since those matters are the responsibility of governors, that piece of legislation should not be left in a Local Government Act when it is no longer required. It is an anachronism, and it is time that it went. We ought to tidy up the law, and now that we have given that responsibility to school governors, we should allow them to do their job, and use this debate—the earliest opportunity since we last discussed the issue—to say that the House of Commons has made its position clear in previous votes and now believes that it is time to remove a pernicious piece of legislation that is an outdated anachronism.

Communities, if they are anything at all, are the development of society, and society has moved on greatly in recent years. A Government who lag behind as society moves on not only fail to show leadership but are not even in tune with the very people they represent. Here we are, debating a Bill about the representation of the people at local level, yet we are leaving with them this onerous task that they have never wanted to use, have never used, and are never likely to use. Is not this the right day, the right time and the right place to say that we will have no more of it? Let us allow local democratic accountability to be more meaningful. The measures in the Bill relating to changing voting systems, bringing together timings, and looking at how we relate to people and engage with the business community, local tenants' groups or council tax payers all relate to people who are

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the parents of children who might be gay. They are the parents of children who are going to school and need to learn. They are the members of the community who are attending schools as governors. They are members of the local activist groups that engage in our community. These people are not split up into different salami slices for the purposes of one Act against another.

I feel encouraged by the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that during our consideration of the Bill, the Government will accept a sensible amendment and that the House will develop a consensus. If there cannot be agreement on some aspects of what I have to say, let us at least agree, given what the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has said, that section 28 is an anachronism. It is no longer needed. We have given the powers to somebody else. Let us allow that person to do the job that has come through the democratic process. Let us get rid of a pernicious piece of legislation during our consideration of the Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will accept my remarks.

8.36 pm

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I return to the problem of clause 11, which heavily affects debt-free local authorities such as those in my constituency: Waverley and Guildford borough councils. We heard graphically about the problems of new towns from the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). I shall cover some of the housing problems in what are apparently hugely prosperous areas. However, there are people living in these areas who are certainly not prosperous.

It is easy to think that certain constituencies are part of the gin-and-jag belt. It is easy to dismiss their needs and say that somewhere such as Surrey generates wealth for the rest of the country. We do not deny that we are successful economically. We pay our taxes and contribute to the wealth of the country. We do what we can. We accept that redistribution is part of the great economics of the United Kingdom. That is the role that we play here.

There are some, however, who are not participating in the process. We have a need for social housing and council housing as well as those in the poorer parts of the country such as the south-west, the north-east and the north-west. We have areas of social deprivation. We do not have empty homes or houses going for a song. On our council list, we do not have three and four-bedroomed houses available for people as their families grow. It may take many years to get a council house in Guildford or Waverley. Such housing is likely to become available only if someone's needs are so desperate that he or she finally gets the points that take them to the top of the list. The idea that a decent low-income family will get a suitable house is a myth in the area that I represent.

It is a scant comfort to know that people in other parts of the country may benefit from the pooling of revenues when a shop assistant is trying to find somewhere in which he or she can afford to live with their family. What is the position of a bus driver who is trying to house his family? We do not have enough bus drivers because they cannot afford to live in the area that I represent. They cannot find anywhere.

Week after week, Members who represent constituencies in my part of the world have people coming to their surgeries who present heart-breaking

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cases of desperation. For half the weekend, I had phone calls from a family who were again desperately in need of housing. There was abuse and all sorts of problems. They were almost losing the will to keep on trying to stay together as a family because of the lack of housing. They cannot move away.

What do I say to a couple in their late 20s—a nursery nurse and a gardener—who have never been able to move away from the family? The other siblings are still there. When the baby comes, they will have room for the crib in the house but there will not be room for a cot. What will that family do?

The average price of a house in Surrey is #250,000. Members will know that private houses for rent are affordable only to people with a large income. Private sector rents are high. Very few properties are available for less than #1,000 a month, and in the best areas, rents go up to #15,000 a month. I cannot tell constituents who come to me with problems to try the private sector—the houses are not there. The Government must recognise that we need our social housing and our council housing, and, above all, local authorities must be able to invest in those. We have problems with housing key workers and, in other schemes, those who do not even get to key worker level are desperately needy.

Mr. Swayne: Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that the problem is, at least in part, of the Government's making? New Forest district council wants to deploy more of its budget in building houses that are desperately needed, but it is prevented from doing so by a Whitehall-imposed policy that requires it to spend that money ripping out perfectly good kitchens and putting in new ones. Frankly, in the New Forest, the need for new houses is greater than the need for new kitchens, and such decisions should be made only by locally accountable politicians, not by Whitehall.

Sue Doughty: I agree that it is essential that councils can determine their housing needs and their strategies to ensure that they have adequately maintained housing stock. They should also be able to invest in new housing where necessary. That should be a local decision, not a national one.

When a constituent asks me, XWhat am I going to do with my three teenage children? We live in a two-bedroomed house, and by the way my husband has a mental illness, cannot stand the stress and is about to walk out," it is no good my replying, XWell, you shouldn't have had the children." The family, including the children, have needs. We must remember that there is housing need across the country, and it is not something that can be subsidised in one area by funds from another.

In Guildford, we have invested well in our housing stock and in maintenance. Maintenance has been paid for by rents, which are set so as to allow us to make that investment. Tenants invest in their own homes, and council tax payers invest in those homes. Properties built before the war have, over the years, received huge investment from local people and they are a local asset. Guildford has been prudent; it has been listed as above average in managing its housing by the Government

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office for the south-east. However, if property is sold off under the right to buy, we could lose that money. We need to build more properties. We have #35 million in the bank from right-to-buy income, and we cannot invest it as we would like.

Clause 11 is unjust and unreasonable. Local government has to mean exactly that, and it must be locally run. I support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said about the need for local government. Central Government have a role in allocating resources, but the notion that they can purloin a council's assets and give them to someone else is totally unacceptable.

On 18 July last year, the Deputy Prime Minister stressed that not only do we need more homes but more homes that people can afford. Councils work in many ways to develop affordable housing, but taking away their capital receipts is a way of preventing them from doing so. Councils such as Waverley need to be able to spend their receipts on meeting the decent homes standards. Waverley will struggle in that respect, and it needs that money. The council is patching up holes in woodwork instead of replacing windows.

The Government need to recognise our problems with our dwindling housing stock. They must recognise that not all high-cost areas are populated by affluent people. I spend a lot of time trying to explain the problems of the public sector and the pay and housing needs of its employees. There is a constant drain on the numbers of police officers, qualified teachers and experienced people away from the south-east, because they cannot afford to live here. The problem is even worse among lower paid people.

I urge the Government to rethink the clause. The towns and the countryside in the south-east need a balanced community, not only people who can afford to be here. It is essential that our communities have that balance, but the proposed pooling of receipts will not deliver it. The need for good housing across the country is not a party political issue—there is no logic in not housing bus drivers in the south-east so that we can house bus drivers in the north-west.

If the Government are not prepared to reconsider the clause, perhaps they will consider what councils want to do with the money and what investment they want to make. Before pooling the money, they could ask councils what they would otherwise do with it. Would councils use it to bring themselves up to a decent standard, and how many homes would they fail to provide if the Government took it away? If they are going to start putting controls on local government finance, they should use them constructively to encourage councils to invest as best they can in housing for people with the greatest need.

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