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Mr. Curry: The question arises of whether people should take proper care when purchasing homes. Should it be the Government's responsibility to provide for that or should people have the sense to do it themselves? It is not the Government's job to step in every time an individual makes an imprudent decision. The damage that that will cause to many people outweighs the benefits to a limited number of people. Many questions remain about how long sellers' packs will be valid and whether they will thwart the efficiency gains of modern technology.
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman makes some serious points that have been discussed inside and outside the House. We have now accepted that we can roll out the scheme in some areas to see how it works. Does he support that?
Mr. Curry: If the Government carry through their programme and the schemes become law, it makes sense to trial them effectively. So far, only the little, inconclusive trial in Bristol has taken place. It would make sense to trial it more effectively, if the Government get their way.
Mr. Edward Davey: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Government wish to make the sellers' packs compulsory. I believe that hon. Members of all parties would be happy if a standard were set for the
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest, as always. However, he misses a crucial point. What would he say to a constituent of mine who tried to purchase a house two years ago? He paid for three surveys on three houses because the first two attempts to buy fell through. The owner of the first property was merely testing the market and my constituent's second attempt failed because he was gazzumped. How can we simply say to him, "I'm sorry you lost your money but we haven't got a better way of doing business in this country"?
Mr. Curry: But how does the hon. Gentleman respond to people who consider selling their homes but may be deterred by the cost of providing the sellers' packs, and do not know how long they will last and how often they must be reproduced? One cannot build good law on isolated cases of things going wrong. That is not a practical proposition for legislation.
Mr. Betts: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I do not know whether he read the Select Committee report on the subject. The Bristol experiment included a scheme to pay the costs at the point of sale, not up front. The Select Committee had all the evidence, which shows that that scheme could be rolled out nationally.
Mr. Curry: I have read the Select Committee report, which states that the scheme is half baked, not thoroughly worked out and not properly tested. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Select Committee endorsed the scheme, he has not read the report.
The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned developers' social housing grant. He answered one important question about whether there would be a level playing field for private developers and housing associations on the standard of the homes. It is important that housing associations are regulated by the Housing Corporation, the Audit Commission and the Charity Commission. That is an expensive business. It is important that the regulatory framework for the private sector should ensure that competition is effective between them, and it should be possible to play any benefits that the private sector gets back into the housing association sector.
It is quite clear that the Treasury thinks that housing associations have become rather lazy on the fat of the land and that there is an efficiency gain of about 15 per cent. to be achieved by bringing in the private sector, although it remains to be seen whether that is the case. However, it is important that it should have the same terms in order to compete.
The right to buy is a crucial part of the proposals. The Housing Corporation study, "A Home of My Own", has been praised by the Deputy Prime Minister, and I am happy to praise it as well. It is a sensible, efficient
I do not dispute that circumstances differ across the country. The Heriot-Watt study, which the Deputy Prime Minister commissioned to consider the question of abuse, said that most users of companies for right to buy do so either because they cannot get a conventional mortgage, so they have to go for what I think is called in the trade a sub-prime offer, or because they wish to purchase property that the conventional market finds unattractivehigh-rise buildings, for example.
I accept that there has been abuseI do not pretend that there has not been anybut the Deputy Prime Minister has already tightened the rules significantly to the point where it may even be that sales are being strangled completely in London. We do not know whether that is a fact, whether a lot of sales took place before the cut-off point, which is what is being reflected in the low level now, or whether the market will resume. However, there is at least a danger that there is a strangulation in those schemes. Perhaps the discounts are now too small to bridge the affordability gap.
I want the Deputy Prime Minister to give the clear assurance that he is seeking solely to deal with abuse, not to deliver under the cover of tackling it a death blow to a scheme that still marks the fulfilment of aspiration for about 50,000 people a year. I commend the Housing Corporation study to the House. Some ideas are interesting and the unification of the schemes to promote affordable housing across the social sector, the rationalisation of the range of schemes and the means of getting value for money in social and cash terms are all important conclusions. The policies that have eased people into affordable housing may need to move forward by a generation as well.
On houses in multiple occupation, I accept the need to tackle problems of poor standards, bad landlords and nasty tenants. The difficulty I have is that what is proposed is potentially very confusing. The Deputy Prime Minister outlined three schemes: the mandatory national licensing scheme, which addresses the areas of highest risk; discretionary licensing in problem areas; and selective licensing to deal with bad landlords and antisocial tenants in areas of low demand or serious social dislocation.
The difficulty I see is the danger of a heterogeneous and variably enforced regime in different parts of the country, and perhaps an exodus from the small landlord sector. We know that the private rented sector is the smallest in the western world, yet it is a crucial element of housing provision in the UK. We know equally that where there have been new standards in care homes, we have seen an exodus of people from that sector as they were unwilling or unable to meet those new standards. There is a serious risk there.
Mr. Best: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the practice to which he refers leaves great numbers of houses not registered in such usage, which can be seriously detrimental to the surrounding community? I refer to the parent who might have bought for a student.
Mr. Curry: I am tempted to say that some parents can obviously afford property that is rather better than that which can be afforded by other parents. I do not wish to mention Bristol too much in this context.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I find myself in great agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. We would not want to discourage the private rented market, as that is one of the difficult areas in our housing provision. The Bill allows greater flexibility because the problems in the south are different from those of the north and because there are areas of low demand and high demand. We hope to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points in the advice given about the operation of the schemes.
Mr. Curry: One huge question is presented by the right hon. Gentleman's proposals and by the legislative programme, and that concerns the capacity of local authorities to deliver. Some 16 Bills in the Queen's Speech have implications for local authorities. Somethe housing Bill for examplehave enormous implications where local authorities will be in the front line. The Bill on school transport is smaller, but nonetheless has implications. The planning Bill has enormous implications for local authorities. In this complex, modern worldin which a lot depends on forecasting technologieswe are discovering that the capacity of public bodies to deliver is under-stressed.
Until recently, I was the chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which dealt with complex environmental legislation. There was a problem of capacity in terms of translating that into national law and administering it, especially when complex statistical or econometric calculations were required to create quasi-market mechanisms. Local authorities will be under immense pressure to deliver the mechanisms from the legislative programme. That is on top of the already severe demands from the army of gendarmes mobilised by the Government for inspection. Local authorities need resources, skills and capacity.
Local authorities will be under severe financial pressure this year. The Minister for Housing and Planning has been having fun, telling everyone that capping will be back for local authorities. Yet many will find that increasing council tax by two or three times the equivalent rise in the rate of inflation is inescapable. We
Some local authorities might increase council taxes more than might be necessary. No one has ever denied that a local authority, having some limited freedom, occasionally might try "swinging the lead", but, for many, there is no choice. Bills will rise and resentment will rise with them, at a time of continually mounting demands on local authorities.
The Government talk about lots of local authority freedoms, but they are imposing a large number of responsibilities on local authorities. Authorities will not wish to repudiate those matters and will be happy to undertake them, provided they get the means to do so. It is for the Government to make sure that they get the means.