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Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I applaud all the policies that my right hon. Friend describes because they have had a major effect in my constituency, but I want to take this opportunity to remind him of some crucial figures for my borough that are typical for London: 260 new units of accommodation last year, 15,000 people on the waiting list and almost 1,200 homeless families. May I impress on him the continuing need to address the housing shortage in London, while applauding him for the fact that so much has been done?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. Indeed, she is absolutely right: we are putting more resources into London's housing than before. Tonight, I shall visit her constituency as part of a national conversation, where housing will be an important element, and I look forward to debating that as we continue our discussion with the people.

We have introduced new freedoms and flexibilities for our best-performing local authorities and there will be referendums next autumn on elected regional assemblies in the three northern regions.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): To pull the right hon. Gentleman back to a very serious note, does he accept that there are now record numbers of homeless people in this country, and at the same time there are three quarters of a million empty houses that should be brought into use? Why has he not addressed that in his legislation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We are doubling investment over these years, but the hon. Gentleman points to a fair concern—there are an awful lot of empty properties. That review is under way at the moment. English Partnerships, working with the Housing Corporation, is looking at precisely how we can utilise those properties to meet the housing demand. He is right to point that out. It is a pity that his party did not do anything about it when it was in office.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The Deputy Prime Minister talks about empty homes, and his Department has a consultation paper on compulsory leasing. Why is that proposal not being included in the housing Bill that is due to come before the House, as the Select Committee recommended?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comment. That was a recommendation of the Select Committee, which largely welcomed this Bill, for which I am grateful. The Law Commission report, which we are studying, deals with some aspects of

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tenancy and compulsory purchase that we will be considering. Perhaps that point will be made during the progress of the Bill, and we will look at it again.

The achievements that I have mentioned are within the framework of the £22 billion sustainable communities plan, which committed us to increase the provision of high quality and affordable housing in areas of high demand, particularly in London and the south-east; to regenerate deprived communities; to address housing markets in decline, especially in the northern areas; to bring all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010; and to improve the efficiency of the planning system while protecting the countryside and improving the local environment.

The housing Bill announced in the Gracious Speech will help to create a fairer and better housing market and protect the most vulnerable tenants, particularly in the private sector.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend on everything that he has said so far. However, are not the Government in danger of missing a great opportunity to reform the law on park homes as part of their housing legislation? The work has been done, the working party has reported, and the Government have pledged themselves to reform. Should not we take this opportunity to protect the most vulnerable people living in the private sector?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is well known for doing an awful lot in this area, and has been campaigning for park homes to be covered by this legislation. I do not mean this as an excuse, but we gave serious consideration to the matter, and again it is affected by the Law Commission's report, which we are considering. I have no doubt that he will be as active making exactly the same points when the Bill comes before the House. At present, however, we have made the choice not to put the matter in the Bill.

I am grateful to the Select Committee on Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions for its report on the draft Bill. It has once again demonstrated the value of pre-legislative scrutiny—there is no doubt about that, and anyone reading the report can see how it adds to the value of the Bill. I am pleased that the Committee broadly welcomed the Bill's aims. In our response published on 10 November we were able to respond positively to 40 of the Select Committee's recommendations, out of approximately 72, and to its conclusions, including those on houses in multiple occupation, the right to buy and the possible phased introduction of home information packs.

The housing Bill will provide new powers to tackle problems and inequalities in the private housing sector. Many of the most vulnerable in our society live in private sector accommodation, often in conditions that we should not tolerate. In some parts of the country, areas are suffering from housing market collapse, which can often be attributed to the actions of bad landlords and antisocial tenants. The Bill will give local authorities new powers to license selectively private landlords when there is a particular problem such as antisocial behaviour. If a landlord is not fit and proper, a council will be able to take over management of that property until a decent manager can be put in place.

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Houses in multiple occupation represent some of our worst properties. They are often badly managed and in poor physical condition. We therefore intend to fulfil a manifesto commitment and introduce a licensing scheme for the highest risk houses in multiple occupation. Licensees will need to show that they are "fit and proper" to manage the property and that arrangements are in place to ensure that adequate management standards are met. Responsible landlords, decent tenants and the local community will all benefit from those provisions.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West) (Lab): Perhaps only my right hon. Friend and a few others in the Chamber understand the depth of appreciation that the Bill is to come before the House. The devastating effect that houses in multiple occupation have had on certain communities is shown by the way in which he described his intentions. When considering such issues, it is important to bear in mind the devastating consequences of a high concentration of houses in multiple occupation and the way in which my constituency of Leeds, North-West has been seriously damaged by the transfer of 60 per cent. of its housing to houses in multiple occupation.

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has made those points many times and we intend to do something about that. I think that I am right in saying that we had hoped to implement a relevant measure in a Bill that fell after negotiation between the two Houses during the previous Parliament. The sound arguments that we made then are applicable now, which is why we are bringing forward the Bill. It must be implemented because there is great need for it.

The House is aware—this is connected with my hon. Friend's point—that there is a close link between poor housing and poor health, which is a point that has been made for some time. Our proposals, together with the new housing health and safety rating system, will help local authorities to target the properties in which health and safety hazards and risks to residents are greatest.

The housing Bill will also continue the modernisation of the right-to-buy scheme and will tackle abuses and reduce profiteering. Both the Select Committee and the home ownership taskforce, under the very able chairmanship of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, welcomed the provisions in the draft housing Bill. However, they called for more, so we amended the draft Bill to give social landlords the right of first refusal if owners wish to resell a property within 10 years of exercising their right to buy. The provision will not be retrospective. In addition, we will suspend the right to buy from properties that are scheduled for demolition. That is especially relevant in areas in which regeneration schemes are proposed, because if people want to make a quick buck that will be prevented.

It is our duty to ensure that we get value for money from funding for new affordable housing. The Bill covers both England and Wales and will thus provide for the Housing Corporation and the National Assembly for Wales to pay grant to organisations other than registered social landlords. That will encourage competition and increase the supply of affordable homes. Private developers who receive such grants will be required to reach the same high standards as registered social landlords.

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More people than ever own their own homes and that trend has been evident for decades. In 1940, 32 per cent. of homes were privately owned and that figure rose to 57 per cent. in 1980. The figure today is 70 per cent., and the housing stock has doubled from 10 million to 21 million homes over that period. However, the process of buying and selling a house is shambolic and stressful for many people. It gives consumers a raw deal and nine out of 10 people are unhappy with the process. The Consumers Association strongly supports change. We therefore intend to make provision for the introduction of home information packs. Our research so far indicates that making key information available right at the start of the process will make home buying and selling easier and more transparent and successful.

I am aware of concerns about the cost of home information packs. The main components will be a search, a home condition report, an energy efficiency certificate and legal fees, although people have to spend money on many of those items within the current process. That said, we recognise the Select Committee's concern and we are discussing with consumer and industry stakeholders the possibility of a phased introduction of home information packs as part of a national roll-out.

The housing Bill will improve the quality of people's lives by making a difference to where they live and by protecting the most vulnerable. Above all, it will contribute directly to the creation of sustainable communities. The delivery of new housing and sustainable communities will require a flexible and quick planning system, as we set out in the 2001 Green Paper.

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