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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I should like to thank the Minister for providing the briefing to the spokesman who leads on Office of the
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Deputy Prime Minister matters for the Liberal Democrats. I also commend the Minister, as she appears to be following in the footsteps of Robert Dalgleish, a Liberal Member of Parliament for central Glasgow in the 19th century, whose great-granddaughter I met last week. I understand that he acquired a reputation for speaking in the House only when he had something to say. I commend the Minister for doing that, and I would commend that practice to other Members. She made a very brief contribution today, and I will do the same.

We could have had much fun with this legislative lacuna. The Housing Corporation has undoubtedly made a number of decisions, including consenting to loans, whose validity is questionable. However, this matter is much too important to jest about, and I am sure that if I were to go down that road, the Speaker would pull me up. This could also have been an opportunity to talk about the funding available to the Housing Corporation, particularly the funding available in London and the south-east to provide affordable housing in boroughs such as mine, the London borough of Sutton, where there are about 4,000 households on the council waiting list for affordable housing, of which there is very little. My office has now made four attempts to arrange a meeting with the Minister about this, and I hope that our fifth attempt will be successful.

Tony Baldry : There has been much speculation in the London borough election campaigns about the British National party increasing its share of the vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that prospect might have nothing to do with its members being racists? It might be that people in the London boroughs are worried that they cannot get affordable housing and are hacked off that they seem permanently to be denied access to the housing market?

Tom Brake: The availability of affordable housing is certainly an issue in the local council election campaigns in London, although I hope—as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does—that it will not prove successful in boosting the level of support for a party that has no role to play in a proper democratic society. There is certainly no evidence where I live that it is going to make inroads, and we shall be doing everything that we can, along with the other major parties, to ensure that it does not.

As Members will know, the Housing Corporation is a non-departmental public body that was established more than 40 years ago in 1964. Its function is to promote, finance and supervise the voluntary housing movement in England, and it has wide discretionary powers. As the Minister has explained, the need for the Bill arises from a failure to make it sufficiently clear in earlier legislation that the Housing Corporation had the power to delegate the exercise of its functions.

The necessary objectives of this short—indeed, diminutive—Bill are therefore clear: to give the Housing Corporation those powers, as the Minister has said, and to validate retrospectively decisions taken by the Housing Corporation's committees, officers and employees. The necessity for such legislative change is self-evident, and the Liberal Democrats intend to allow the Bill a swift passage. Before we allow it to proceed, however, we have a small number of questions, which I
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hope that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), will be able to answer.

Can the Minister explain the likely impact of rejecting this Bill? The official Opposition's spokesman has done a good job in describing some of the possible impact, but perhaps the Minister will have identified other concerns, which he might or might not want to share with the House and put on record. The Bill confirms what every Member of this House knows—that the legislative process is prone to, if not hesitation, certainly repetition, deviation and omission.

Can the Minister confirm whether the need for the Bill has prompted the Government to undertake a review of all non-departmental public bodies? It has been explained that, more than 40 years ago, such a body appeared to be the norm. More recent non-departmental public bodies have been established in a different way with different powers. I hope that an alarm bell might have rung in Government as to whether a review is needed to consider if such action needs to be taken in relation to other bodies. Can the Minister confirm whether such a review has been undertaken and whether the Government have identified other bodies that, retrospectively, require similar legislation to be implemented?

This Bill, although a mere 22 lines long, performs an important function. To say that we welcome it would be overstating the case, but we do see the need for it, and the Minister is clearly getting us out of a fine mess. We will therefore support the Bill on Second Reading.

4.27 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The House recognises that it is desirable to bring this business to a close speedily, as I suspect that everyone wants to get out to campaign in the local elections. In the case of Ministers, there is a new urgency, as today's opinion polls demonstrate that support for the Labour party and the Government has fallen to its lowest level for two decades. I recognise that it will be difficult to maintain oneself in order on such a Bill for any great period. I hope, however, that I can make one or two comments without getting out of order.

The housing market essentially comprises of three means of housing: home ownership, of which our home-owning democracy has probably the highest proportion of any country in western Europe; affordable social housing; and the private rented sector. For a long time, the policy on social housing was driven by district councils, but over time and under Governments of both hue, that responsibility has shifted to housing associations supervised by the Housing Corporation.

In a sense, where housing associations grew up and developed strength was something of an accident of history. In many areas of the country, housing associations emerged from the desire for large-scale voluntary transfer of former council property into housing associations. For the tenants of those properties, who moved via large-scale voluntary transfer into new housing associations, it was often a good deal, as those new housing associations could use
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funds to upgrade or install central heating and double glazing. Large-scale voluntary transfer has been a great success across the country.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman may talk about large-scale voluntary transfer, but in some recent cases it has been large-scale coerced transfer. Does not he agree that those affordable housing associations are much less accountable and in any sense democratically responsive to the group of 2.5 million tenants or more whom they represent? Is not that a step backwards?

Tony Baldry: I think that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Certainly the housing associations in my part of the country—including Banbury Homes, which is part of Shaftesbury Housing, and Charter Community Housing—have good tenant involvement. Only the other day, they organised an open advice day for local tenants at the Spiceball centre in Banbury, working with other agencies, including the district council, to explain such matters as housing benefit. I thought that that was a very good initiative, and I believe that tenants of both Banbury Homes and Charter Community Housing are very satisfied with their landlords. After all, the tenants had to vote, by a majority, for the large-scale voluntary transfers.

What concerns me is where the new social housing is to come from. The Housing Corporation is concerned about its members, committees, sub-committees and employees. My concern is this. When money is allocated through the regional housing boards, designated growth areas such as Milton Keynes and the Thames Gateway do extremely well, but shire districts are literally white on the map: they receive no money from the Housing Corporation. The Minister suggested that Banbury Homes and Charter Community Housing should apply to the regional housing boards, but the trouble is that those associations are below the size of those that the Housing Corporation appears to be funding. The Minister looks quizzical, but the corporation seems to have an unwritten policy of funding only certain areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) rightly referred to new development. Banbury and Bicester, in my constituency, are probably two of the fastest-growing towns in the country, and a great deal of new development is going ahead. The difficulty lies in the definition of affordable housing. Developers have sold a proportion of their housing at below market value for the first time, so for the first time it is affordable housing because someone buys it at below market value; but it is not affordable housing thereafter. We are not seeing new social housing being introduced as part of the planning process for new development.

Again, the Minister looks quizzical. Let me challenge her, as Minister for Housing and Planning. We have a huge housing development, which she has just decided not to call in, at Bankside/Bodicote. I shall be interested to see how much new social housing comes to that development as a consequence of the planning system. I suspect that very little will do so. As a result of all that, working families on low incomes with children are finding it extremely difficult to gain access to secure housing.

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