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Mr. Hands: My hon. Friend may be right. There are some precedents on retrospective legislationfor example, the War Crimes Act 1991 was essentially retrospectivebut the Bill may open a can of worms. As I have said, legal action is being taken against housing associations, some of which relates to funding by the Housing Corporation.
Dr. Starkey: I am having some difficulty in following the hon. Gentleman's argument, because it is so wide ranging. Does he support his Front Benchers, who find the Bill not only acceptable, but necessary?
Mr. Hands: I support the Bill, but it could be more wide ranging. If it had been thought through properly, rather than being foisted on us suddenly, a lot more could have been included. I hope that it will be amended to include a lot of the matters that I have discussed in relation to the Housing Corporation.
The Bill is to be welcomed. However, it is a great shame that it does not afford us the opportunity to make other, much needed changes in the housing association sectornamely, more and better priced shared ownership schemes, an extended right to buy for housing association tenants and, most of all, greater involvement by tenants in housing associations and greater responsiveness to tenants by their associations.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con):
This short debate has been more interesting than some of us initially expected. It has given Members an opportunity to show their ingenuity in talking about many problems that are related to the Bill, if sometimes a little beyond its scope.
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As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, we give the Bill our full support, because it is important to regularise the situation. The Housing Corporation has given a lot in terms of making grants and selling property. The most important reason for that, which my hon. Friend cited, was the £36 billion of debt.
The main problem as regards housing is historical, and dealing with it through this Bill is a sensible way forward. Generally speaking, post-war housing has been a great success for this country, given the challenges in the 1940s and '50s, starting with the slum clearances. We have now reached a situation whereby, on the whole, our population is well housed, although as Members of Parliament we sometimes see those who are less well provided for. As a whole, the statistics on central heating and so on show that people's housing is improving.
However, the fact that we are a nation of owner-occupiers and high and rising house prices creates a major barrier and a major divide. That is why the Housing Corporation is a very important part of the housing agenda in providing shared equity, key worker initiatives and housing associations that can provide for those who have no hope of purchasing or do not wish to do so.The Bill has our full support. It is important that it reaches the statute book as soon as possible. I do not suppose that its Committee stage or Report stage will take very long.
I do not intend to rehearse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. I know that many Members want to get out and canvass, so this will be a short winding-up speech. I thank the Ministers from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who have been open in discussing the problem with the Opposition. Any amusement that one has about a problem popping up always disappears when we find that it started under the last Conservative Government. The Minister for Housing and Planning clearly set out the importance of the Housing Corporation, the 100,000 housing associations and the important programmes, missions and initiatives that have taken place over the years. She has our full support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath explained comprehensively why we support the Bill. He used the term, "compassionate Conservatism." It is interesting that a debate on a Bill that deals with an important social area such as housing has been attended mainly by those on the right of the political spectrum, who made some interesting contributions.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I hope that when the Housing Corporation reads the Hansard record of the debate, it will take note of his genuine concerns about the fact, or the perception, that those in need of housing in areas such as north Oxfordshire are not getting sufficient support. I am sure that if it does not, he will be vociferous on behalf of those of his constituents who feel that they should have more grant and be better housed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) used his experience as a member of a housing association to express concern about the way in which
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the Bill is drafted. When one has a lot of consensus, it is sometimes useful if hon. Members stand up and put a different point of view. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) started by saying that he had two points to make and, surprisingly for a Member of Parliament, he made only two points. The first was his concern about the Bill's powers and the second related to the general principle of acting retrospectively.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) showed her ingenuity as a Member of Parliament of some experience by now by mentioning many housing associations and former service personnel in her constituency. She also made some pertinent points about the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) also showed ingenuity by underlining the important part that social housing plays in his constituency and the number of housing associations there. I am sure that those whom he represents and for whom he campaigns will be pleased that he has managed to get on record his anxieties about the operation of some of those housing associations.
It has been a good debate. The Bill is necessarylet us hope that it reaches the statute book speedily. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath made clear at the outset, it has our full support.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this valuable debate. Before I respond to specific points, perhaps it would be helpful if I spent a few moments underlining and reminding the House of what my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said about the Bill and its function.
First and foremost, the Bill is being introduced as a consequence of the discovery that the Housing Corporation did not have the express power to delegate its decision making below board level. It therefore gives the corporation board that express power to delegate and deems the corporation always to have had such a power. It will not give the corporation additional powers. The measure merely grants it a power, which it was always assumed to hold, to delegate below board level, thus restoring what everyone perceived to be the status quo. It brings all parties back to the position in which they believed that they were before the problem was discovered.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and others asked about the housing and delivery review, part of which examines the roles and functions of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. I should make it clear that no decision has been taken at this stage to merge the two organisations. The review will consider several options, including closer working between the agencies, alignment of programmes and the creation of a new agency that draws together the skills, funding and objectives of a range of existing agencies and Departments. However, even if a decision to merge were the ultimate outcome of the review, it would not negate the need for the Bill, which deals with an immediate and pressing problem that must be resolved as soon as possible.
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The hon. Member for Surrey Heath also mentioned reducing bureaucratic burdens on registered social landlords following any possible merger or the review. The Elton review of regulatory and compliance requirements makes more than 80 recommendations, which should lead to a reduction of at least 10 per cent. in the total administrative burden that the Housing Corporation places on RSLs. As I said, the Government have yet to respond to that review, but are committed to measuring and reducing the burden of regulation on RSLs and keeping it under continuous review, regardless of the institutional structure. However, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman concluded that he was reassured about the nature of the measure.
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