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Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I want to make two brief but important points about this short Bill. The first has to do with accountability, and the second with the Bill's retrospective nature.

On accountability, clause 1 provides very broad powers to all sorts of committees and sub-committees. It states that the Housing Corporation will be able to

That is a very large responsibility to hand over to almost anyone who comes into any sort of contact with the Housing Corporation. By comparison, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) pointed out, the present situation is very restrictive, in legal if not in practical terms. What is proposed is the opposite of the current legal requirement, which is that all decisions must be taken by a very small board of directors meeting about five times a month.

I accept that, in practice, that is not what has been happening since the 1985 Act came into force, although it has become much more common since the problem with that legislation was discovered in January. However, the Bill seems to be taking the legal position to the opposite extreme, allowing almost anyone with any sort of connection to the Housing Corporation to make a decision on the corporation's behalf. The Minister would do well to consider that point in some detail before the Bill completes its passage.

The simple fact is that the Housing Corporation is answerable to the House and thus to the Minister, which leads me to highlight a wider point that concerns me somewhat—the composition of the Housing Corporation and its accountability to this place. At the last count, the corporation was answerable to the Housing Commission, the Audit Commission, the Charity Commission, the Financial Services Authority, the Public Accounts Committee and something called the finance, management and policy review committee, which meets once every five years. That is an awful lot of lines of accountability, before we even get to the Minister and the House itself and I am concerned that as clause 1 allows such wide-ranging powers to such an enormous number of individuals, with only a vague connection to the corporation in some cases, we may be making the kind of drafting error to which my hon.
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Friend the Member for Wellingborough referred. We must look carefully at those lines of accountability and not simply take it for granted that we have got the legislation right this time.

My second point is about the retrospective nature of the Bill, which has already been touched on. Like most Members, I accept that some legislation can be retrospective, but I am concerned that the House should consider such legislation on every occasion. We should not enter into it lightly.

There is some expert opinion on the matter. Professor Charles Sampford has argued that

In other words, will the Bill be reasonable in its imposition? Many, though not all of us, probably consider it reasonable in the circumstances, especially because its impact will be not on the rights of individuals but on those of housing associations. It is probably sufficient.

However, I give this caution. If we combine the two factors that I described—the potential for lack of accountability given all the different strands, including the Minister and the House, and the retrospective nature of the Bill—the Minister must be aware that he has to take into account not only everything that happened in the past, but everything that will happen henceforth. When so many people have accountability or authority in respect of the Housing Corporation, implementing retrospective legislation is an enormous responsibility. Those are the issues that most concern me.

Will the Minister consider whether the matter could have been handled differently? Could non-retrospective legislation have been used to tidy things up? I understand that in reality decisions were made as the Bill now proposes, although they were outside the remit of the law, as we have discovered, but in the light of my cautionary tales about accountability and the retrospective nature of the Bill I urge the Minister to ponder whether there might have been another way.

David Taylor : Would the hon. Gentleman care to contrast the model of accountability that he has just described, involving housing associations and a highly delegated Housing Corporation, with the rather more satisfactory model of local authority housing departments responsible, through elected councillors, to the community that they represent? Which does he think is the best way for social housing to operate and be responsive?

Grant Shapps: One thing that is quite obvious—it has happened since the formation of housing associations—is that a huge amount of private sector money has gone into building social housing. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is an extremely good thing. I do not have the figure to hand, but I recall that it is about £28 billion, as opposed to about £4 billion of public money, enjoyed in the context of the whole set-up, including the Housing Corporation. I am sure that he will recognise that it is the total amount of money that goes into funding local and social housing that is important, not necessarily how that funding takes place.

The hon. Gentleman touches on an important subject that I tried to address in my points about accountability. As he indicates, there are a huge number of bodies
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involved in the management of the situation. I worry that the accountability that should correctly come straight down to this place through the Minister is muddied in many ways during a process that involves the Housing Commission, the Audit Commission, the Charity Commission, the Financial Services Authority, the Public Accounts Committee and the finance, management and policy review body.

I wonder what would happen if, for example, the finance, management and policy review body, which considers these matters every five years, decided that the Housing Corporation was doing part of its job very badly, but the Public Accounts Committee decided that the Housing Corporation was doing that part of its job well. Where does the accountability lie? Is it with the Minister, or with the House in general? There are rather too many bodies involved for my liking. I wonder whether the Bill might have taken the opportunity to tidy that up somewhat. That may be the great missed opportunity that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough referred to.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is growing unrest in our communities about accountability or, more importantly, lack of accountability by the Government? Let us take the example of Milton Keynes partnerships, the unelected, unaccountable quango that has been charged with the delivery of the expansion of my city. Tomorrow night, I will present a petition to the House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that tomorrow will be sufficient unto the day. The hon. Gentleman is trying to invite his hon. Friend to depart from the narrow confines of the Bill.

Grant Shapps: I have tried to confine myself to the two clauses in the Bill. In summary, there are, as I have outlined, one or two potential missed opportunities in the Bill. Perhaps there should be third and fourth clauses to tidy up one or two of those things and, in particular, to narrow those lines of accountability. Further consideration of the retrospective nature of the Bill—and whether that could have been handled differently or in a better way—would have been most welcome. I simply ask the Minister to consider those matters this evening.

4.58 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): As other Members have pointed out, this is a very brief little Bill, which consists of a few lines. I think that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) pointed out that there were 22; I have not counted them. Given that it is only a few simple lines, one might think, "Why do we need it?" We have run round the houses slightly in relation to some of the reasons why people might think that we need the Bill. In essence, the Bill is retrospective. We have been told that it will sort out a glitch or oversight in a system that has introduced doubt, confusion and perhaps even sclerosis and could introduce mayhem if things start to go dreadfully wrong.

The system is already complex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) has pointed out. It was supposed to be designed to ease the
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smooth running of our housing associations via the Housing Corporation. It is supposed to help them to discharge their duties effectively.

Housing associations serve our local communities but are not without their own problems, and the uncertainty that is hanging over them is not helping. Indeed, as my hon. Friends have said, some local housing associations have heavy burdens placed on them, and obligations are placed on them by the Housing Corporation itself.

The glitch or oversight in the earlier legislation—it was discovered in January 2006—is now promising mayhem or sclerosis, depending on how we look at it. Some hon. Members may feel that those words are somewhat wild in respect of a little 22-line Bill, but they should stick with what I am saying, because I should like to give a brief overview of how things stand.

We have been told that since the passing of the Housing Associations Act 1985, the Housing Corporation possibly has been operating by delegating its statutory duties below board level but without the express power to do so. That has caused some worry, and as the House is aware, that gap in the corporation's constitutional powers has come to light only recently. So we have had to undertake a finger-in-the-dike exercise, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who is no longer in his seat, to stem the flow of those delegated decisions that have been taken without express permission. As has been said, the result of that exercise is numerous board meetings that were possibly not happening before.

As the Minister, who is enjoying my speech, is probably well aware, under the 1985 Act, everything that the Housing Corporation wishes to do—from the allocation of large funding streams to registered social landlords, to the disposal of land under section 9 of the Housing Act 1996, which has been mentioned as one of the more contentious issues, or even possibly the switch to fair trade coffee, of which we are all in favour—would in theory require a board meeting. Those decisions are now delegated without express permission, and clause 1(2) seeks to get rid of that anomaly.

As I have said, fingers are rapidly being put into the dike, and I ask hon. Members to run with that thought a little and imagine any other business in which myriad decisions must be made at board level that would be made routinely by other delegated authorities, and we are being asked to stop the nonsense that seems to have occurred as a result.

Many Members would agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, who said that we should not feel too sorry for those hard-pressed board members and that theirs is a rather easy lot for not bad remuneration. However, if they are asked back too regularly, we can even imagine en suite and dining facilities being needed in the boardroom to stop them running around the country in a sort of haphazard manner trying to ensure that they can attend their day jobs, as well as attending board meetings. Having spoken to them today, I understand that they attend two meetings a week, not the one meeting that has been mentioned; but even so, we might not feel too sorry for them about the increased work load that results from that glitch.
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I will not try to labour the point too much to try to elicit too much support for those hard-pressed board members, but the reality is that that to-ing and fro-ing and confusion will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the efficient working of local housing associations, which await the decisions and are wondering whether they have been made correctly.

Those are housing associations such as the one in my constituency, the Hightown Praetorian, which is a regional housing association that provides a wide range of housing and support services for families and single people, including those with special needs. Despite difficult market pressures, the association is trying to deliver the social rented housing that other members have referred to in an area where land prices are prohibitively high. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who serves on the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, knows, that is very difficult to deliver, but it is what we are getting from our housing associations.

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