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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Housing (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Janet Anderson
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
Fisher, Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Streeter, Mr. Gary (South-West Devon) (Con)
Tredinnick, David (Bosworth) (Con)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Walley, Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Twelfth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 7 December 2006

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Draft Housing (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Anderson. We shared an office following our first election to the House in 1992, although that seems a long time ago, and I am sure that you will still be impartial as Chairman.
A draft of the order was laid before the House on20 November 2006. The purpose of the order is to transfer responsibility for the management of thesocial housing development programme from the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the great work that the Housing Executive undertakes in Northern Ireland. The principal reason for transferring that function to it is to provide greater public transparency and accountability by separating operational and strategic responsibilities in housing. The case for the Department for Social Development divesting itself of operational and direct management functions to concentrate on its legislative, policy and strategic responsibilities is that that will mean the better efficiency and management of the housing service in Northern Ireland.
This is a purely operational matter, and the Housing Executive’s role as the regional housing authority for Northern Ireland places it in a much better position to manage the programme, leaving the Department free to deal with the many strategic issues that come before it, such as legislation, inspection and setting standards for housing in Northern Ireland. The measure will also bring the Housing Executive and registered housing associations into a much more direct relationship, enabling them to work together closely to deliver social housing for those in need.
I hope that the order will be welcomed, because it carries through recommendations from two different Committees: the Northern Ireland Assembly’s own Social Development Committee, which examined the issue in 2001, and, at Westminster, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which examined the issue in 2004 and agreed that the measure that I am introducing today is an appropriate way to manage housing in Northern Ireland.
The order focuses on transferring responsibility for the management of the social housing development programme to the Housing Executive, enabling it to pay grant directly to registered housing associations. Transfer of the function will place the management of that programme at the centre of the full range of housing programmes.
We have undertaken extensive consultation with political representatives, including district councils; the Housing Executive; registered housing associations; and a number of voluntary and community bodiesin Northern Ireland. I am pleased to report to the Committee that there has been unanimous support for the proposals before us. We are committed in Northern Ireland to ensuring that we invest in social housing, put social housing on the agenda and support the development of alternative means of housing people.
We have an affordability review examining the question of social housing and affordability. This measure will support the existing role of managing a large stock of houses, integrate the social housing development programme and ensure that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is ideally positioned to oversee the management of that core housing programme.
I thank the officials in the housing division of the Department for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for their work over a long time in bringing the measure together. Today is the culmination of that process. Although our proceedings might be relatively brief, I can assure hon. Members that the work that has gone into them has been quite significant. I pay tribute to those officials and their work, and I commend the order to the Committee.
2.33 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mrs. Anderson. I hope that I will not disappoint the Committee by saying that I have no objection to the order and so do not intend to speak at length on it.
2.34 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Anderson.
I, too, welcome the order, although I have a couple of questions. Paragraph 4 of the schedule to the order inserts new article 33A into the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, which provides that the Department may designate any registered association and, where it does designate an association, the Department itself will continue to pay grant to that association. I would like the Minister to clarify why the Department will still pay grant to some associations, but the Housing Executive will do so to others. That seems to be a duplication of function. Will he explain the reason for that?
In addition, the explanatory memorandum states:
“Staff currently involved in the payment of grant will remain in the Department.”
That will be the case even after that function has been transferred to the Housing Executive. I would have expected the staff to have been transferred along with the work. Will the Minister clarify the reasoning behind that?
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute for raising that issue. First, on the Department for Social Development retaining the right to pay grants to designated associations, the provision will apply in only one place, and that relates to paying grant for the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association. We are looking at co-ownership as a means to help and support home owners.
The Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association is a registered housing association that assists individuals to access home ownership through Northern Ireland’s only equity-sharing scheme. Itdoes not directly provide social housing, in that the individual owns part of the property and rents the other part. It is not essentially a social housing scheme. The Department is retaining that possibility, so that we can continue to fund co-ownership schemes while divesting ourselves of other responsibilities to the Housing Executive.
There will be no staff transfer as a result of this measure; the responsibility is moving. Staff responsibilities in the Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development will remain the same because, essentially, we can manage that within the two organisations without any change in staffing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with that clarification.
2.36 pm
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson, on the day after your birthday? What a joy it was for me and so many others to occupy two tables in a very expensive restaurant last night to celebrate that. I am glad to be here to serve on this Committee. Northern Ireland has given those of us who sit on the Public Accounts Committee so much pleasure over the years when we have investigated various activities. It is only fair that I should explain why I am here. I suspect that some Members have been sent to serve on a Committee on a Thursday afternoon as a punishment for having missed a vote a couple of weeks ago. Taking these responsibilities seriously, I have an hour and a half’s speech on various aspects of housing in Northern Ireland that I hope to deliver.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I should like to make it clear that I have not missed any vote and I still find myself serving on the Committee, which is considering this extremely interesting and important statutory instrument.
Mr. Davidson: That is very significant. I am not sure why my hon. Friend has been put on the Committee. She must have done something bad in another way. Perhaps her service on parliamentary Committees has not been up to scratch or up to the standard demanded by those who decide who serve on these Committees. I am not sure, as I look around, why everyone else has been similarly punished. [Interruption.] I know why my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is being punished—he deserves it.
Under the legislation as I understand it, the Department is given the right to designate any registered housing association and to pay grants to it. Will the Housing Executive therefore not handle any grants? If it does handle them, why do we have the anomaly of it handling some, but not others?
Mr. Hanson: That refers to the point I have just answered in response to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. We are trying to establish a clear division between the Department for Social Development—which is responsible for housing and will set legislation, monitor standards, hold inspections and set overall housing policy—and the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive covers the 1.7 million people in Northern Ireland and provides for a housing function, manages properties and deals with all those issues. If the order is passed by the House and another place, the executive will be responsible for paying grants to housing associations and managing the function inthat way.
I have indicated to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute that we are retaining the power to pay grants in the specific instance of co-ownership, which is commonly known in parts of the United Kingdom as shared ownership, where individuals retain the equity in their private property and have an element of social ownership in the property, too. That is the only purpose. We are essentially marking that divide so that we in central Government—or, as I hope, the Executive in Northern Ireland in due course—can concentrateon policy, legislation, inspection and standards andthe Housing Executive can be responsible for implementation and management, as well as the funding of social housing and affordability issues, in due course. That would give us a clear policy distinction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West, whom I have known since our joint election to the House, is very welcome to the Committee. I am sure that it is not a punishment.
Angela Eagle: It is a joy.
Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters. I appreciate that Labour Members are contributing to the debate and showing a keen interest. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend’s question. I commend the proposal to the House.
Mr. Davidson: I am glad that the Minister welcomes my contribution, and I shall therefore make another one. I seek clarification of what he believes will be the impact of the proposal, and any other changes that the Government make, on the supply of social housing in Northern Ireland, which is falling considerably as a result of the right-to-buy policy. Does the Minister believe that the proposal will allow more socially rented housing to be made available or that it will make no difference?
2.38 pm
Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend takes a keen interest in housing issues and it is extremely important that we all should do so. I am particularly keen to improve the availability of affordable housing in Northern Ireland. The proposed change is partly administrative, to make a division between policy and delivery. In itself, it will not make a difference to the number or supply of houses, but we are looking at the policy to determine how we can increase and support the development of further social housing.
As my hon. Friend rightly says, the right to buy has made an impact on the availability of rented housing and has increased home ownership in some of the more difficult estates in Northern Ireland. I hope that it will assuage the hon. Friend’s concerns to know that, through social housing, we are building approximately 1,500 houses a year, and we need to consider how to increase that number, if possible.
We have commissioned an affordability review under Sir John Semple, who will report to me initially in the next few weeks and produce a final report by March next year. His review will consider how many social houses we build and how much we invest in the private sector. It will consider whether we need to look at planning issues—it is similar in that respect to the review undertaken by Kate Barker in England—at the demolition and supply of properties, at the increase in the private rented sector and at improving properties.
My objective, like that of my hon. Friend, is to ensure that people have a decent standard of living and a decent home and that they are able to afford property in the public sector, the rented sector and, ultimately, I hope, in the private sector through help with mortgages and low-cost mortgages. I want people to have access to decent, affordable housing.
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Will the Minister clarify the use of the word “we” in the phrase “we are building”? Is it the Government who are building houses? If so, that is in contrast to the situation in our constituencies in the English part of the United Kingdom, where it is almost impossible for local authorities any longer to build council housing. In Stoke-on-Trent there is a housing waiting list of more than 8,000 people because the local authority is inhibited in building council houses. Is the situation different in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Hanson: The situation is different in Northern Ireland in a number of respects. Local authorities in Northern Ireland do not have a responsibility for building properties. The Housing Executive is a Northern Ireland-wide body that commissions the building of public sector houses from the social housing sector through a range of social housing organisations. At present, those organisations build approximately 1,500 houses a year. They are commissioned with Government resources, which levers in private sector resources, too. We need to invest further to increase that number in due course. We are trying, through the affordability review, to address those key housing issues in Northern Ireland, where the housing model is different from that in England, but it is working very well. However, we need to do more and we are trying to do so.
Mark Fisher: I am very interested by the Minister’s reply. Is he saying that the state is in loco of local authorities; it is acting in the same role in relation to housing need as, historically, local authorities have acted in England? If so, my anxiety is confirmed. I am happy that people in Northern Ireland should have their social housing needs met by the state, but that is not the position in most, if not all, English local authorities, where we are simply not able to build council housing.
The Chairman: Order. The situation in England is not relevant to the order.
Mr. Hanson: The point that I am making aboutthe Northern Ireland Housing Executive is that, at the moment, the Department for Social Developmentand the social housing associations commissionthe properties that are built. The social housing associations receive grants, build properties and attract private sector funding, thus ensuring that houses are built that are available through the social housing sector. Today’s order is about transferring the responsibility directly from my Department to the Housing Executive, which currently manages a range of housing properties. In future, it will be able to integrate the proposals to find positive ways of developing both the strategy, inspection and monitoring role and the delivery of housing services.
We are considering the results of a wider affordability review, which will show whether it is necessary for more social housing to be built—either by the state or by social housing associations—and whether we need to make changes in planning law, in the private rented sector and in how we support developments in the mortgage lending sector. That affordability review will report to me on an interim basis before Christmas and in full by the end of March. I hope that the local Executive, once reconstituted, will be able to respond in a positive way to that.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and for Glasgow, South-West, the Government are committed to ensuring that we give people choice, that their needs are met and that we provide proper housing at affordable rates, if possible within the social housing sector.
Mr. Davidson: Let me follow up the Minister’s point about the target being about 1,500 houses per year. In 2003, the target for new build was reduced from 1,750 to 1,300. Can the Minister clarify whether the figure of 1,500 is accurate and represents an increase? That would be welcome. Can he also tell me whether, as part of this measure or any other measure that he intends to pursue, he will try to persuade the Treasury not to keep the £37 million a year that it receives as a result of the sale of socially rented houses and to allow it back into the housing system? If the Minister is serious about improving socially rented housing—
The Chairman: Order. I should be grateful tothe hon. Gentleman if he restricted his comments to the contents of the order. He might like to refer to the annunciator screen, where he will see that there is a debate in the Chamber on affordable housing, in which he might find it more appropriate to raise the points that he is trying to raise here.
Mr. Hanson: I can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West has convinced the Whip that he should not serve on such a Committee again. He is doing a good job of ensuring that he does not suffer such proceedings in future.
We have a clear target of building 1,500 houses a year in the social housing sector in Northern Ireland, and there is a significant house-building programme in Northern Ireland. We shall have to consider the range of financial pressures that affect the period 2007-08. Beyond 2008, issues could be resolved by the comprehensive spending review. As yet, we do not know what we will get from 2008 to 2011.
With my Finance Minister’s hat on, I am currently in discussions with the Treasury about the comprehensive spending review. We are trying to ensure that we get 1,500 properties a year built, and I am sure that the affordability review will contain a view on that figure in due course. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West will maintain his interest when Sir John Semple produces his report before Christmas, because I anticipate that it might well address some of the points that he mentioned. I look forward with some joy to seeing what Sir John finally produces in the next couple of weeks and in the latter part of the report next March.
I also reassure my hon. Friend that, in Northern Ireland, receipts from house sales are retained to offset the capital expenditure undertaken by the Housing Executive. I appreciate that that is a difference, but Northern Ireland is a devolved administration that happens to be run on a non-devolved basis by Ministers at the moment. We currently retain house sale receipts, which help to offset the capital expenditure that the Housing Executive puts into repairs and transfers towards new builds.
I ask the Minister whether the way in which the order is implemented will have any impact on the existing sectarian nature of housing in Northern Ireland. I saw in the press that the first public housing estate in 40 years to accommodate Protestants and Roman Catholics together was opened recently under the management of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Given that the vast majority of public housing in Northern Ireland is segregated, is it part of the remit behind these new structures to pursue integration?
Mr. Hanson: I thank my hon. Friend for raising those points. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently opened one of the first shared housing schemes for many a year. We have a common waiting list and a common selection list, but housing is sadly still very much segregated according to the religion of the individual. Like my officials and, I hope, the incoming Executive, I wish to see greater integration in housing. We have made a start with the recent integrated schemes that have been built, and I wish to see additional schemes develop in due course.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West will be aware, there are still many tensions related to dividing lines in many parts of Northern Ireland, particularly in some urban areas, but I wish to see them broken down. In Liverpool, the city of my birth, there was segregated housing when I was growing up and it was still there when I left in 1964. Over time, that has changed and there is now integrated housing in the city. The same applies to my own constituency. I aspire to a shared future in Northern Ireland as well. We are making steps in that direction, and with future new builds, we will be looking to develop that policy still further.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
Committee rose at six minutes to Three o’clock.

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