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The newly appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was meanwhile promising, in her letter of appointment to the Prime Minister, to make improving social mobility a priority. But last September the DCLG announced that it was axing the contract, after spending £11 million on Scout Solutions, which had failed to provide a viable scheme.

At the point at which it was brought down, the already available HOMES website was the largest and most used public sector website in the UK, with
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10 million hits a month and more than 800 new home swap registrations online every day. In January this year a “Yes Minister”-type letter went out from the Department to those in the housing world, saying:

This was code for, “We’re sorry, but the existing popular and successful mobility scheme has collapsed.”

Another letter went out to tenants who were trying to move. It said:

The excitement that was mentioned in the letter to housing directors had to be communicated in the letter to the tenants. Someone who wanted to move to another part of the country and was told that this was no longer possible would have been surprised to be told:

Move UK had taken over the existing services and HOMES staff, and those have gone down with Move UK. Move UK was contracted to link availability of houses to availability of jobs—a noble ambition. Not only has that not been achieved, but we have now lost the underlying scheme on which it was to be built.

Apparently all the IT arrangements originally operated by HOMES have transferred back to the DCLG, and I understand that it is possible without too much difficulty to resuscitate it; I want to return to that in a moment. However, it will very much depend on regaining the support of local authorities and housing associations alike, whose good will will have been dissipated by recent events.

There is now no way in which a tenant of Testway Housing in Andover could expect to move to a housing association based in Sheffield. That can be achieved only by laborious methods such as the ones that I recall when I first became a Member of Parliament some 33 years ago, with a tattered reciprocal exchange book and the individual negotiating skills of housing officers. Alternatively, tenants may rely on the newsagent’s board or unregulated and unmonitored swap schemes.

More importantly, growth schemes in the UK need a successful Government-supported mobility scheme, and London is depending on the Thames Gateway to assist with its housing pressures. Such a scheme as the one that we used to have would ensure that housing associations, as the providers of new homes, would look to mobility applicants as well as dealing with local demand.

A job that technology ought to have made easier, quicker and cheaper—matching property vacancies to housing needs—has been bungled by the Government.
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Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much Scout Solutions was paid for this fiasco.

What should we now do? I am in favour of choice-based lettings, but they are not the answer to transfers. Choice-based lettings go to high-need applicants, not people who want to transfer from one local authority area to another. Lack of mobility traps tenants in poor property, as no one will ever swap with them.

I hope the Minister will not tell me that this is an exciting time. I hope she can find it possible to apologise to tenants, local authorities and housing associations for what has happened, for which her Department—although not she personally—is responsible. The former HOMES scheme could, and should, be put back on the road within months, if not weeks. The staff will need to be re-employed, the existing software could be reused, and the IT kit made available or updated. Sufficient commitment from the Department for Communities and Local Government will be vital to persuade local authorities and housing associations to come on board, against the background I have just outlined. What the Department has announced so far will take far too long and is not comprehensive, so I hope that the Minister will come up with an urgent programme for recovery and restore her Department’s battered credibility in that important area of social policy.

9.40 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing this evening’s debate and on focusing it on an extremely important issue of real concern. I share many of the concerns that he has voiced.

I have been involved in the issue for almost as many years, if not more years, than the right hon. Gentleman. He referred to one of the embryo mobility schemes, which dates back a long time—the housing association liaison office, or HALO—and which, in a former incarnation, I was involved in creating. Like him, I feel a great sense of parentage towards the national mobility scheme that emerged from HALO, and whose collapse is the cause of our concerns, and of tonight’s debate.

The Hills report, which the Government welcomed only two or three months ago, highlighted both the difficulties facing public sector tenants in transferring from one home to another, and from one area to another, and the importance of facilitating mobility. It is a further example of the strong case for trying to facilitate moves for that section of the population. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, they often find great difficulty in making a move. Many Members will know, as I do, from constituency experience how difficult it is for individual tenants to find appropriate opportunities when they want to move across the border, to a neighbouring area or further afield, because the whole local authority housing mechanism is not geared towards such cross-border moves, which are important mobility opportunities.

I regard the collapse of Move UK as a regrettable outcome, and share the right hon. Gentleman’s disbelief at the language in the communications from
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the DCLG, referring to this as an exciting time. It is not an exciting time; it is a period of which everyone involved should feel profoundly ashamed, and which they should regret deeply.

We need new machinery, but where I may differ from the right hon. Gentleman is that I am not wholly convinced of the need to return to a national scheme of the previous type. I suspect that some of the problems are to do with attempting to create a national framework that can interface with the whole range of separate letting arrangements in individual areas. I have slightly more confidence in the development and expansion of existing choice-based letting arrangements. They have been successful in some areas of the country in providing cross-border opportunities, but they are limited, so there is scope for exploring how such schemes might facilitate wider moves. For the vast majority of tenants the likely move that is necessary or desirable from their point of view is not, as in the right hon. Gentleman’s example, from Andover to Sheffield but, if he will excuse me moving to my area of representation, from Greenwich to Bexley or Dartford—closer geographical locations where there may be family, kinship and other links. There could be some merit in exploring the scope for expanding existing arrangements to facilitate such moves.

Whatever mechanism is found, I stress the fact that the Government must act very speedily indeed. The current framework is really not acceptable; the existing machinery has collapsed and there is no realistic opportunity for social tenants in many parts of the country to move outside their area.

I am afraid that this is a very serious position, and it is wholly in conflict with the stated objectives of Government policy and those of the Hills review. So I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can at least give us an assurance that the Government take this problem very seriously indeed, and will consider ways to put back in place mechanisms that will secure opportunities for mobility for tenants, whether with a resurrected national scheme or, as I have suggested, possibly by the evolution and development of choice-based letting arrangements.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on raising this important issue. Both he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) share my concern that this issue should be resolved. The Government want social mobility to be a reality for people in the situations that they have described.

I shall briefly set out the history from 1997. Of course, I bow to the right hon. Gentleman’s superior knowledge of the period before that and pay tribute to his involvement in setting up a scheme some years before then. Before 1997, three housing mobility schemes were available for social housing tenants to register and to move house: the homes mobility scheme, which provided a format for relocation for tenants seeking priority house moves for fleeing domestic violence, taking up a job offer, or caring for a sick relative or receiving care from a relative; the
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seaside and country homes scheme, which enabled over-60s to free up their London property and move to a seaside or countryside location; and a mutual exchange scheme to enable tenants to swap their homes. They were supplied under grant agreement by HOMES Ltd.

In February 2001, the Prime Minister made a commitment, as the right hon. Gentleman described, to put the Employment Service, which is now Jobcentre Plus, on a new footing to let it help people find new jobs across the country by identifying housing as well as job placements. A review of the services provided by HOMES Ltd was undertaken. There were concerns that the sponsorship arrangements were based too much on process and did not provide sufficient scope for innovative thinking. It was also unclear whether HOMES presented value for money, given the lack of competition to drive down prices. It was considered that an integrated new employment and mobility service would provide better value for money.

Following the review of services, in February 2004 the Department awarded a contract, known as the housing and employment mobility services agreement to Scout Solutions Projects Ltd, to provide geographical social housing mobility services to social housing tenants and link them with employment opportunities via the Jobcentre Plus internet job bank. That contract was more commonly known by its branding as Move UK and had the following principal objectives: to facilitate housing and employment mobility; to enable individuals and professionals to access a national service, providing information on job vacancies and housing opportunities services electronically; to provide relevant information to allow individuals to make informed choices about housing; to continue and enhance certain existing mobility services; and to involve service partners and encourage innovation.

Unfortunately, as the right hon. Gentleman has described, serious problems arose with the contract. There were concerns about the performance and fitness for purpose of the software developed by the contractor. In addition, services provided by Scout Solutions Projects Ltd after transfer declined by 70 per cent. from what was already considered to be a failing service during the Department’s review of HOMES Ltd back in 2002. I do not have the figures on the number of placements that were made under the homes mobility scheme before 1998, but they were not at a high level compared with the demand. Whether that was the appropriate way forward and whether the scheme should be reinstated can be rightly questioned. The Department ended the contract on 20 January 2007.

Following termination, we put in place some interim services for our tenant applicants and landlords. The Department for Communities and Local Government wrote to approximately 2,300 landlords and 120,000 social housing tenant applicants to explain the change in arrangements and provided a general inquiries helpline telephone contact point, in an attempt to provide some comfort to tenants. I agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that it was not appropriate to use the term “exciting” in a letter to tenants on the issue.

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In addition, the letter included the telephone number of the Department for Communities and Local Government for any additional inquiries. We also provided each applicant with details of updated website information pages that described how to apply for mobility schemes. Links were provided to the Jobcentre Plus database and information on housing-related matters and local area information. Following our letter, our customer helpline received more than 4,000 calls. The volume of calls has now tailed off to about 15 to 20 a day.

We have procured a team specifically to work with applicants and landlords of the seaside and country homes scheme. That high-demand scheme helps tenants aged 60 and over who want to move out of London and thus free up a property in a London borough. Nominations to void properties under the scheme are being made by the Department until alternative providers can take over the delivery of mobility schemes. The LAWN mobility scheme is a landlord-to-landlord scheme that facilitates moves out of London to properties in lower-demand areas in the north of England. The scheme remained unaffected by the termination of the housing and employment mobility services agreement. The mutual exchange, or home swap, scheme allows social housing tenants to swap their homes. It is facilitated by landlords, local advertisements and specialist websites that offer free-of-charge services.

For national mobility housing moves, we are keen to encourage the extension of choice-based letting schemes—this is where I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich—whereby housing tenants can apply for a vacant property that best suits their specific needs to cover low-cost home ownership options and properties for rent from private landlords, as well as social housing. We will continue to encourage the development of sub-regional choice-based letting schemes through our £4 million regional fund, which is available over three years to 2008. As the main demand for mobility schemes comes from London-based tenants, we have been working with London Councils to prepare proposals relating to the transitional delivery of mobility schemes.

I am pleased to report—this will be of some comfort to my right hon. Friend—that following negotiations with the Department for Communities and Local Government, London Councils will provide an initial interim service that will reinstate LAWN and the seaside and country homes scheme. London Councils is keen to establish a new mechanism to assist residents in social housing to exercise their right to execute mutual exchanges with other social housing tenants. It is examining possible options to provide a London replacement for the home swap service operated by Move UK. Discussions with the Department are under way on options including commissioning work to evaluate the options for facilitating mutual exchanges between tenants in London.

We have agreed with Directgov a short and medium-term plan to adapt the Government website to ease access to customers to facilitate moves. Local and sub-regional choice-based lettings schemes that would also be accessible through Directgov would then produce mobility moves other than those from out of
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London. Directgov already provides access to a wider array of mobility services and relevant information than Move UK was designed to do. There is also now direct access to a new section on the website. That section includes information about the changes to Move UK’s services and directions on what tenants can do to make alternative arrangements; a facility to make direct applications to local authorities and housing associations and their housing exchange schemes throughout England; links to other service providers of mutual exchange services and information throughout England—most are free, although some charge a small fee—details of other housing schemes, such as home buy, right to buy and low-cost ownership home schemes, including the key worker living programme; and other information related to social housing.

As my right hon. Friend said, the Secretary of State commissioned the John Hills review of social housing. The report showed that social housing had improved in some areas and that several recent policy initiatives were having a positive impact. However, there are a number of areas of concern. In particular, it recognised the importance of social housing supporting social and economic mobility and it pointed out that there is an important link to employment services. We therefore need to ensure a wider range of housing options that are tailored to individual circumstances. We are working to address all the issues raised by the Hills review, including concerns about low levels of mobility. The review provides an objective, comprehensive platform that can inform our future development.

I can tell the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that, according to the statistics that are available, there are about 120,000 applicants on Move UK records. Scout Solutions moved fewer than 2,000 people per year and even before the change, we are talking about a figure of roughly 7,000. The number was no higher than 9,000 in 1999-2000. It is appropriate for us to consider the situation comprehensively and to deal with the issue of social mobility, because we entirely support the view of the right hon. Gentleman and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich: people need social mobility if we are to support sustainable, cohesive communities.

Sir George Young: The Minister has outlined a range of proposals that the Government are working on to replace what we have lost. How much has been paid to Scout Solutions, and does she envisage moving towards a national scheme rather like the national mobility scheme or HOMES, or is she thinking more in terms of introducing a network of much smaller schemes to replace the scheme that we have just lost?

Meg Munn: I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman with the figures on Scout Solutions; they may well be in my briefing, but I do not have them at my fingertips. We want to respond properly to the John Hills report, and to consider the proposal and the issues together in the round, so I am not able to give him the details that he requests today. What I have described is a range of interim measures that we put in place when Move UK was terminated, as well as a range of transitional schemes that enable people to experience some of the benefits that were previously available while we move to a point at which we can
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provide something that addresses both the issues raised in the Hills report and the matters discussed by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich today.

I conclude by thanking those who participated in the debate. The issues are important and they were right to
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raise them on the Floor of the House. I hope that I have reassured them that the Government continue to take the issue of housing mobility for social housing tenants seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Ten o’clock.

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