Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Andrew Bennett: Will my hon. Friend also make a plea to the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman to try to persuade the Liberal council in Stockport to be a little more liberal in its policy?

Ms Coffey: I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) heard my hon. Friend's words.

If I am wrong in thinking that council tenants may apply for the disabled facilities grant, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity in Committee to enable council tenants, as well as caravan dwellers, to apply for the grant.

I warmly welcome the measures in the Bill to enable social landlords to deal with antisocial behaviour. The quality of life of tenants is dependent on their landlords' ability and commitment to deal with the bad behaviour of the minority. The Bill will give social landlords extra powers to deal with such unacceptable behaviour, and it is therefore very much to be welcomed.

5.37 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Considerable attention has already been paid to the key issues that have been omitted from the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) highlighted the lack of measures to tackle the problem of empty houses and to support park home residents. I support the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) in identifying the omission of a tenancy deposit scheme, which is an overdue measure. I am also disappointed that the Government have excluded from the Bill a range of other measures to tackle problems with housing today, and I shall focus on a few of them.

It is disappointing that the Government have not taken the opportunity to tackle the problems in rent-charged housing developments. Under the current system, a company or trust is responsible for the upkeep of the common parts of such developments. Although the majority of the schemes work well, there is tremendous scope for abuse. One such example of that occurs in the Harmers Hay estate in Hailsham in my constituency. The company seems to be accountable to no one. It doubled its rent charges after giving assurances that it would not, and went on to try to apply them retrospectively. Steps are urgently needed to ensure that there is full transparency on rent-charged estates so that people may see where their money is going, why it is being raised and that proper accounting standards apply.

12 Jan 2004 : Column 568

Patricia Herridge, the chairman of the Harmers Hay company, has pointedly refused to provide information on how much the company has raised through rent charging, how that money has been spent or the payments that have been made to directors of the company. No audited accounts have been provided to local residents. That situation is unacceptable, as has been recognised by the Minister for Housing and Planning, who wrote to me on 6 October:

Surely the Bill offers us the ideal opportunity to do so.

I am disappointed that the Government are not using this opportunity to address the problem of land packaging, a scam whereby an unscrupulous developer breaks up a piece of land that is highly unlikely to be given permission to be developed into small portions, which he sells off at perhaps tens of thousands of pounds. A case in point is the proposed Groombridge Grove development in my constituency. Dishonest people are selling land, implying that a plot has full planning permission while in reality people are buying something that is good for nothing. The sellers even go to the elaborate lengths of producing glossy brochures and staking out plots to give the impression that the land has received planning permission. The scam is targeted at members of the Asian community because it is assumed that they know less about the laws relating to development. Will the home information packs stop that scam? Will they apply to plots of land as well as to homes that have already been built? If not, what steps do the Government propose to take to deal with that?

The Minister spoke about the need to license houses in multiple occupation. We all agree with that. He specifically referred to the problems that arise from the lack of smoke alarms in such properties. We all want that situation improved. However, a smoke detector that is placed in the recommended place in a property, at the top of a staircase, will not detect a fire that starts in a bedroom. By the time it does, when the smoke is moving through the house, it is almost certainly too late to stop devastating damage and possibly loss of life.

I hope that the Minister will go further than he currently proposes and consider making it compulsory to install water sprinklers, especially in houses in multiple occupation and, ideally, new-built houses. The right hon. Gentleman's colleague the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), recently met a delegation from my constituency consisting of Richard Kent, whose two sons were killed in a fire in their home, one of them a firefighter who was trying to save his brother. The fire occurred a year ago, in early January last year. Had water sprinklers been installed, the fire would have been extinguished within moments. The smoke detectors went off, but because the doors were closed it was too late for his son to be saved when the fire was identified. The Under-Secretary was sympathetic, and I hope that the Government accept that legislation should require the installation of water sprinklers in new properties, especially in houses in multiple occupation, to save lives.

Last year I asked a parliamentary question on the subject, the answer to which demonstrates the seriousness of the issue. Over the five years for which

12 Jan 2004 : Column 569

figures are available, from 1997 to 2001, not one person was killed in a property where a water sprinkler had been installed and there was a fire, although there were more than 500 fires in such properties. However, 2,465 people lost their lives in homes where water sprinklers had not been installed. The Government are investigating the matter, and the current Bill offers the ideal opportunity to require action to be taken so that we can cut down on such terrible and unnecessary deaths.

I also hope that the Minister will take the opportunity offered by the Bill to clarify the questions that surround people's entitlement to social housing, in particular the question of who is defined as a vulnerable person. Uckfield in my constituency has a tremendous project, the Malthouse project, run by the Kenward Trust, which does enormously valuable work helping people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, when those people try to enter society again having gone through a programme of perhaps two or three years of rehabilitation, it is difficult for them to find housing because they are not deemed a priority case and not classed as vulnerable. I have raised the issue with Wealden district council, which says that they are not included in the Government's definition of "vulnerable." Surely few people could be considered as being more vulnerable than someone who has come back from the brink of death through drug or alcohol abuse and who, after many months or years of trying to deal with those problems, cannot find accommodation in the community where they have support and friends, and where they want to go on living. They often find that they have to move back to the communities where they originally came from and risk encountering the same problems again. I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity to clarify how that issue can be tackled.

I support many of the measures in the Bill, including the licensing of HMOs to raise the standard of accommodation and the proposal to allow the transfer of tenancies to same-sex partners. The latter is overdue, and the current situation is iniquitous. However, many aspects of the Bill are misguided and unclear, and too many issues have simply been overlooked. In East Sussex, we are being forced by the Deputy Prime Minister—who has probably never even tried to squeeze his Jaguar down the narrow lanes to the county—to accept tens of thousands of new houses, which people overwhelmingly do not want. The Bill does nothing to reduce the threat of environmental destruction on a massive scale posed by the building of those houses. Nor will it help young people who are driven away from communities where they grew up by the lack of affordable housing—most of the new housing will be executive homes and therefore far too expensive for them to aspire to.

The Bill is a wasted opportunity; it shows that the Government talk a lot about improving the quality of our housing stock but duck the issues that would lead to the right solutions.

5.45 pm

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the Minister's speech. I was appearing before the social security commissioners, trying to plead on behalf of one of my constituents.

12 Jan 2004 : Column 570

I want to place on record my appreciation of all those members of the Select Committee who did the pre-legislative scrutiny, all the staff in the Committee Office, who worked so hard, and our advisers, Dave Beach and John Bryson. I believe that we did a very good job in scrutinising the Bill, and I welcome the moves that the Government have made since our report was published.

My only caveat is that we had to do our work in a very short period. I welcome the Government's use of pre-legislative scrutiny, but I want to make it clear to them that if it is to work, we need a little more time. I know that this year proposals for regional assemblies will appear in pre-legislative form, and I plead with the Government to make sure that the Select Committee can see the draft Bill in time to report, so that the Government can then take the report into account before the legislation is introduced. Pre-legislative scrutiny is great, but more time is needed—not so much for the Select Committee, which suffers a bit, but for the people who submit evidence. We want as much time as possible to get evidence from as wide a range of people as possible.

When I used to teach—quite a long time ago, I admit—people talked about the Education Act 1944. Twenty or 30 years after it was passed, it was the one Act that dominated people in education. I have looked back over the time since 1997 and tried to pick out an Act that we remember as landmark legislation—[Interruption.] There is the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, but there is not much else. We have got into the habit of having salami slices, or even wafer-thin cucumber slices, of legislation. We get a piece one year, another the next year and so on. I plead with the Government, even at this stage, to make this a landmark Bill. Let us have everything that is already in it as well as everything that we were asked to add. It should be possible for both Houses of Parliament to scrutinise a big Bill just as effectively as they would a smaller one.

My next plea is for the Government to trust local authorities a little more. In the licensing of houses in multiple occupation and of landlords, the Government should be considering a general power to let local authorities set up licensing and then let them decide whether an HMO has to have two or three storeys or four or five tenants. Houses vary fantastically across the country, and there are places where two-storey houses with four tenants are just as, or even more, vulnerable than taller, bigger houses elsewhere. The Government have a good record on trusting local authorities, but they should be prepared to express that trust in the Bill.

We need a bit more information quickly about the practicalities of the fitness standards, and I plead strongly for a clear Government commitment to provide more money to train people to make the system operate. In addition, there should be a safeguard to ensure that applying the fitness standards and relating them to the people who are in the property does not discriminate against vulnerable people. That is one of the concerns about the standards. It seems logical to link the two issues, but we must be careful.

There is a lot of logic in favour of seller's packs, but we have to move slowly. I was surprised by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) coming to the defence of estate agents. I should have thought that many people in this country are pretty dissatisfied with estate agents. The trouble is that a lot of

12 Jan 2004 : Column 571

people do not make a sensible choice of estate agent. I understand why that happens. Buyers do not go around a town like Stockport looking for the best estate agent; they look for the best house and have to put up with the estate agent who happens to be handling the sale. Many sellers get two or three estate agents to value their property, but the temptation is to go with the estate agent who suggests the highest price—I suspect that that is one of the reasons for the continuing escalation of house prices. In short, people do not often make valid decisions on estate agents, which is one of the reasons why there are so many problems.

The seller's pack can be made to work, although if it is to be compulsory, there must be plenty of time to phase it in, and two further issues have to be dealt with. We can solve the problem of areas of low demand if the Government provide that the seller's pack is to be paid for only when the house has been sold. Any talk of not having to pay for it if the property will fetch less than £20,000 or £25,000, and red-lining those areas that do not qualify, would be disastrous. The simple answer is for people get the seller's pack when they put their house up for sale, but pay for it only when the sale goes through. That would solve the problem of areas of low demand, although it might cost the Government a little.

Sadly, in all the evidence that we received there was none about the top end of the market. However, I have recently received a couple of letters about the problem that allegedly applies in parts of Cheshire where there are listed buildings or period houses, and—this is a bit unfair—footballers with more money than sense. It will be difficult to find people with the specialist knowledge needed to produce a seller's pack for some of those old houses, which may have listed status, where the questions asked might include whether the snooker table can be put in the master bedroom, or similar queries. Perhaps the Government will consider making an exemption at the top end of the market, or one based on the age of the property.

There is no excuse for not putting the tenants' deposit scheme in the Bill. The position of both good tenants and good landlords has deteriorated. Time and again one hears of good tenants getting ripped off because they did not get back their whole deposit, or any part of it—and landlords, especially those in student areas, getting ripped off because they implemented a deposit scheme, but the knowing student did not pay the last month or two months' rent as a balance against the deposit that they might not get back.

More must be done about overcrowding. The Select Committee visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and saw some horrendous overcrowding there. I agree with Shelter's assertion that there should be more in the Bill about that.

Compulsory leasing would make a huge difference in areas where the property market is going down. It is likely that few compulsory leases would, in fact, be needed: merely the threat would make a huge difference. If the Bill is to be a good one, it should contain something about that.

A plea from my constituency concerns ground rents. In 1978, my predecessor Ken Marks got a piece of legislation on ground rents through the House. They are

12 Jan 2004 : Column 572

an anachronism, but an increasing number of sharks buy up a lot of ground rents, then threaten people, saying that if they have not asked for planning permission for their garden shed or things like that, all sorts of penalties would apply. That legislation must be reviewed.

Park homes should be in the Bill. Gypsies made the point strongly to the Select Committee that the concept of homes should cover both static homes and gypsy sites.

My plea to the Government at this stage is to make sure that everything in the Bill gets through, but to make it a bigger Bill because there are an awful lot of housing needs that could be met and should be met, but are not being met.

Next Section

IndexHome Page