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9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper): The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) laid claim to an awful lot of passion, anger and care about the conditions of those in the poorest housing and on the lowest incomes. It is a shame that all that caring did not add up to much when his party was in government, cutting investment and running up a huge backlog of investment in social housing and substandard homes throughout the country.

Apart from the last contribution, the debate has been a good one, with many excellent contributions made on both sides of the House and hon. Members displaying

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considerable expertise. I want to pay tribute in particular to the work of the Select Committee in scrutinising the Bill and making it a better Bill. That was a valuable part of the process.

The Bill has been welcomed by a number of my hon. Friends, who expressed strong support for the licensing measures. Many have mentioned additional issues that they would like tackled in the Bill, and I shall come to those points in due course. Opposition Members also called for other matters to be included. The Front-Bench spokesmen broadly asked thoughtful questions, so much so that it was not clear from their speeches why both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats wanted to box themselves into opposing the Bill's Second Reading. The fact that the Opposition parties were unable to drum up many Back Benchers to speak against the Bill suggests that their spokesmen were misjudged in their opposition to its Second Reading.

The Bill is important. It builds on the work that is under way to create sustainable communities across the country, which includes investment to ensure that everyone can live in a decent home and investment in new and, in particular, affordable housing. That is investment not only in bricks and mortar but in sustainable communities, so that everyone can feel proud of where they live. The Bill addresses unfairness and injustice. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) pointed out, it provides help for those suffering the worst housing conditions and those enduring antisocial behaviour. It tackles exploitation and profiteering, and it will help ordinary consumers in the housing market.

The central measures that many hon. Members have raised are those dealing with the licensing of the private sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) pointed out, we need to expand the private rented sector. There is important, valuable work to be done there, so it is important that we tackle abuse by a minority of landlords. The Bill fulfils a manifesto commitment to license houses in multiple occupation, and rightly so because poor management by a minority of landlords, particularly in large properties with many tenants, puts lives at risk. The risk of death in a house fire is 16 times higher in a bed-sit house of three or more storeys than in a single-occupancy house.

Many Labour Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), welcomed the proposals and highlighted examples in their constituencies. They also raised the question whether the measures should be extended to smaller properties, and I acknowledge their points. We chose to concentrate on larger properties because that was where the evidence showed the greatest risk, particularly from fire. However, there is scope in the Bill to extend the measures to smaller HMOs where the problems are considerable. We take this issue very seriously.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made clear the impact of the measures on selective licensing in areas of low demand. We know what the impact can be in areas where absentee private landlords have bought up properties but are doing nothing to maintain them, where graffiti and vandalism on the front walls or doors of properties go ignored or unchecked, where landlords

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collude with drug dealers or abusive tenants and where no attempt is made to enforce tenancy conditions. Everyone else in the community—the council, the police, local tenants, community members and housing associations—is doing their bit to turn the areas round and tackle antisocial behaviour, but a small bunch of absentee private landlords are letting down the whole area and the community. They own the properties, they are making money out of letting the properties, and they have responsibilities to the local community just like everyone else. They should not be able to get away with ignoring those responsibilities, and the Bill will make sure that they cannot do so.

Hon. Members have raised issues of concern that they want included in the Bill, and I recognise that some extremely important points have been made. We do not pretend that the Bill can solve all the problems currently facing the housing market or housing provision in this country. The Bill has more than 200 clauses and 11 schedules and it addresses a series of major issues. Considerable work has been done over some time to get the details of the legislation right. There will, no doubt, be a need for further housing legislation in years to come.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and several other hon. Members expressed concerns about park homes. I agree that tenants in park homes do not have sufficient rights and are too often exploited. We have promoted a private Member's Bill on the issue and some of the problems that park home tenants face could be addressed via that route. Other matters require further work to reach the point at which legislation could be introduced. We are disappointed that the measure has not yet been picked up in the private Members' Bill process, but the Government are still open-minded on the issued and I am sure that we shall discuss it further in Committee.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Some of the worst cases of exploitation are found in the hundreds of thousands of park homes. Although fairer regulation of park home owners and tenants is not in the Bill, is the Minister confident that appropriate legislation will be introduced in Government time before the end of this Parliament?

Yvette Cooper: As I said, many hon. Members have raised the issue and we are open-minded about it. We shall give it further consideration during the Committee stage, but I reiterate that further work is required to reach the stage at which legislation could be introduced on many of these extremely detailed points.

Mrs. Browning: Will the Minister give way?

Yvette Cooper: I have to make some progress—there is a series of issues to address.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and others voiced concerns about tenancy deposit schemes. I assure him that we are examining the matter extremely closely and taking particular account of the Law Commission's work on tenure. We shall continue to consider it over the next few months.

My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke about overcrowding. We have commissioned research into the matter as a result of the concerns that they have expressed. We are worried that changing the law would not necessarily address the underlying problems, but we shall examine the matter further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow asked for clarification on housing benefit sanctions for antisocial behaviour. She will know that there has been considerable consultation on the matter. That has thrown up two important problems, the first of which relates to the substantial practical difficulties, including bureaucracy and the perverse consequences of such measures. Secondly, there is a serious question whether it is ethical to introduce a sanction that applies only to those who are poor enough to be on housing benefit, and does not apply to those who may be committing exactly the same behaviour but who are earning too much to get housing benefit or who are owner-occupiers. For those reasons, we shall not introduce the measure in the Housing Bill.

If I may, I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) about the constituency concerns she raised. I was concerned about the points that she made about the disabled facilities grant and protection for staff against antisocial behaviour, which are extremely important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke about site provision for gypsies and travellers. I agree that increased site provision is needed. We are considering a range of options, which I shall happily discuss with him.

Let me deal with major issues raised by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) complained about changes to the right to buy. The Government support the right to buy. Long-standing council tenants should have the right to make their home their own, and hundreds of thousands of people have done so since 1997. However, a small proportion of people and companies are exploiting the system at the expense of those who desperately need social housing, and that is unfair. There are cases of private companies and investors offering tenants incentives to exercise their right to buy so that they get the property at a discount, then they rent it out for a considerably higher price. An advertisement in The Sun said:

Those costs will only be paid if sellers are eligible for the right to buy. Little wonder that in inner London, 2,000 ex-council homes bought just four years ago under the right-to-buy scheme are now privately rented at rents of between £750 and £1,000 a month, compared with

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subsidised council rents of £300 a month. We simply cannot afford to let public money to be exploited in that way.

The Conservatives are guilty of double standards. Even they recognise the need to put safeguards in place on the right to buy in rural areas where social housing is sorely needed and where the right to buy was being exploited. Those safeguards are good enough for rural constituencies—Tory constituencies—but the Conservatives will not back safeguards in high demand urban areas where people are just as desperate for social housing and where private companies' exploitation can do just as much damage.

Opposition spokespeople expressed concern about home information packs, including the need for private indemnity insurance which, of course, is vital. We are looking at ways of ensuring that that important safeguard is in place, and I can assure the House that we will not implement the measures until we are confident that it is.

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