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Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches.

4.47 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): As I listened to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), it occurred to me that my maiden speech, made nearly 34 years ago, was about housing. Housing is still the principal issue in my constituency, at any rate, although the nature of the issue has changed over all those years. That is why I especially welcome the provisions relating to licensing of private landlords' properties, both houses in multiple occupation and individual properties.

One reason for the present problem involving empty owner-occupied houses in particular—a problem that we did not have when I was first a Member of Parliament—is the fact that the behaviour of private landlords is making those areas uninhabitable, while also driving down the value of owner-occupied houses. Worthy owners who take pride in their homes may find those homes less and less pleasant to live in, and certainly find that the value is falling more and more. For the first time since the worst days of the Conservative Government's housing policies, there are serious problems of negative equity in parts of my constituency. People who wish to sell their houses and to move are unable to do so because the sums offered to them, if any would be offered at all, are often derisory.

We have a much smaller private rented sector than during the Rachmanite period 40 years ago, but in a way private landlords behave worse than Rachman and his associates and that is leading to demoralisation and disappointment among, as I say, good worthy people with pride in the homes that they own. Private landlords are using houses not simply for antisocial purposes but often for criminal purposes. Again and again, I have complaints from my constituents, particularly in Gorton, south but also in Gorton, north and other parts of my constituency, about private landlord houses that are used for the sale and use of drugs and used as

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brothels. Often, the tenants of those homes are in collusion with the landlord. Often, they are, it is appalling to say, sharing their housing benefit in a crooked operation with the landlords. Therefore, I welcome very much indeed the licensing provisions in the Bill with regard both to houses in multiple occupation, of which I have a considerable number, and individual dwellings.

I hope that my colleagues in the Government will urge Manchester city council, as soon as that part of the Bill becomes operative, to introduce licensing for very large tracts of my constituency, so that we can start to deal with that problem and restore the pride of owner-occupiers and other residents of those areas in the neighbourhoods in which they live.

We now have precedents for the way in which those improvements can take place. Fifteen years ago, the Northmoor part of my constituency was an area of despair, depression and dismay for the people living in it. It was going completely downhill. Local people got together in the local Methodist church to try to work out a plan. It was only when the Government came to office and started the neighbourhood renewal schemes that we, together with the housing association and the city council, were able to reverse the trends in the Northmoor area. Regeneration is now so obvious that people wish to become owner-occupiers in properties there that they would never have considered buying 15 years ago.

Therefore, it can be done. That is why I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister, having introduced this extremely worthy measure, to go on with neighbourhood renewal. We have an on-the-street scheme in Gorton. As a result, neighbourhood wardens, using their spare time without being paid, have been able to draw more than 600 young people, sometimes with criminal or antisocial behaviour records, into the community. We need the renewal of the neighbourhood warden scheme in order that the wardens can continue that remarkable work. I will send the Minister the DVD that has been produced by the children and wardens in that area to show what can be done.

As I say, regeneration under the Government is not just a slogan. It is being achieved because of neighbourhood renewal schemes, the neighbourhood warden schemes and Sure Start, which has a remarkable record in my constituency, but we want more and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide it. I also ask my right hon. Friend to expand on the Government's policies for dealing with empty owner-occupied properties.

Another issue is the creation of a housing ombudsman for Wales. On paper, I understand why it is not literally necessary for England to have such an ombudsman, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider. I should like to see far more work done in relation to making housing associations accountable. God help me; when I was Housing Minister in a previous Labour Government, I piloted the legislation that gave housing associations greater responsibilities, duties and rights, and more money. I should like housing associations to be as responsive as local authorities, which may not always be wonderful but have to be accountable to councillors in a way that housing associations are not.

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In one area of my constituency—Field street, Godwin street, Corrigan street, Gathurst street and Franklin road; I do not apologise for naming those streets—housing association properties are derelict and boarded up, which leads to criminal incursions into those areas. The proud people who live there want something done about it. It is a complex problem, but North British Housing, working with our city council, could improve the situation.

Housing will always be a huge issue. There was a time when we in the city of Manchester had the best record of any local authority in the country in terms of building new dwellings. That was destroyed completely by the policies of the Conservative Party in government. Nevertheless, using the funding that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made available at the beginning of the last Parliament, we are able to do a lot more neighbourhood renewal. However, we need still more.

I am proud of this Labour Government's record on housing. The Government have transformed a situation that got worse and worse during the 18 years of Conservative government. Now we have a Labour Government who care about housing and have practical policies to make housing better. I hope that the Government will build on what they are doing, that they will not weary of doing well, that they will address themselves in particular to the question of empty, formerly owner-occupied properties, that they will help with negative equity and that they will improve the situation even more for the benefit of my constituents.

4.57 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The House should be grateful to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), for telling the House what was in the Bill—the Minister did not spend much time doing so—and to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who gave real constituency examples of how the Bill could help. I say to the latter that I very much agree with his point about empty homes, as I shall go on to explain.

It is frustrating to be faced with a Bill that has some excellent elements coupled with some monstrosities. It is almost as frustrating to face a Bill that offers worthy and much needed benefits, yet omits so much that is needed possibly even more urgently. Unfortunately, that is the case today.

Some of the proposed regulation of the private rented sector should have happened many years ago. In particular, much of the regulation of the houses in multiple occupation sector is to be welcomed, although there are some criticisms of the detail. Updating the fitness standards should have happened decades ago; those standards go back to the 1920s and '30s and this House should have looked at them before. The proposal for selective licensing is a useful weapon in the fight against antisocial behaviour, and is one of the better things that the Government have done about that problem. The proposals to tackle right-to-buy abuses are also welcome.

12 Jan 2004 : Column 556

However, we have real problems with the home information packs, which are unnecessary and represent regulation and intervention that will be costly and will have exactly the opposite effects that the Government intend.

We are also concerned that many much needed measures—for example, a tenancy deposit scheme and compulsory leasing of homes that have been empty for more than 12 months—have not found their way into the Bill. We shall certainly try to persuade the Government in Committee to think again on the omissions.

It is right to start by welcoming much of what is in the Bill and I also welcome the process to which it has been subject. It is not the first item of legislation to go through the draft Bill process, with evidence taken by the relevant Select Committee, but the changes that the Government have made between the draft and the final stage show that they have listened. The House owes the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee a real debt for the evidence that it took and the work that it did, which has improved the Bill. That is good for Parliament, allowing it to deal with the mountain of legislation emanating from the Government in a rather more considered way. The Government deserve credit for that.

I shall examine the legislative proposals for houses in multiple occupation in more detail. The evidence to suggest that people living in some of the HMOs covered by the Bill face real dangers from fire and other health and safety problems—and in a way that other tenants do not—is considerable. The Department accepts that, and other independent studies have demonstrated it, so licensing the HMO sector is welcome.

We will have some debates and disagreements with the Government on the fine details of the Bill. As was said earlier, the fact that university-provided accommodation is excluded does not make sense, and there are also some problems with definitions. We want to probe the Government in Committee on, for example, the definition that ties HMO regulation to three-storey buildings and five occupants. That might be rather too narrow. Perhaps we should decouple the terms to make it an "and" rather than an "or". Those are obviously debates that we shall conduct in Committee.

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) said, when in opposition, the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire argued for regulation of HMOs with just four occupants, so it appears that the Front-Bench team have changed their minds in passing from opposition to government, and they will have to provide good reason for doing so—


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