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In fact, the Government have quite a clear view on that. The Departments own guidance,
which was considered in a court case only last year, states that material produced by an authority in a transfer ballot
should state both the possible benefits,
disadvantages of the options as determined by the investment appraisal... The informal material should never be written in such a way that tenants feel the authority is actively promoting a yes vote by presenting only the pro-transfer arguments.
I cannot explain why the Government allow that travesty to continue and insist on ignoring the 2.5 million council tenants who have voted, sometimes repeatedly, wasting £500,000 every time an authority is forced to have yet another ballot on a transfer that will be rejected. Why do the Government keep rejecting what those 2.5 million council tenants have voted for, by saying that they will penalise them? Why do a Labour Government, of all people, keep rejecting and ignoring what their own conference has voted for year after year?
If we believe in democracy, we must accept new clause 1. If we really want to tackle homelessness and improve the housing conditions of people who tend to be the poorest in society, we must accept new clause 8.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who makes his predecessor in the House sound like a raving right-winger. He truly represents the North Korean wing of the Liberal Democrats.
Paul Holmes: Will the hon. Gentleman explain exactly which part of my comments he found distasteful or extreme? Was it the bits about democracy, about recognising council tenants wishes or about providing a fair financial field? Which was it?
Mr. Jackson: I would not want to give the House the impression that I found anything distasteful or extreme. I just felt that the hon. Gentlemans views were slightly one-sided. Perhaps the Minister will want to comment on that.
It is worth repeating the situation in which we find ourselves with respect to the amendments that have been tabled, which Members, including the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), have mentioned. It is not satisfactory that 137 amendments have been tabled since the Bill came out of the Public Bill Committee, and that 379 amendments have been tabled in all. One could make the case that the Government have shown arrogant disdain for the House in how the Bill has proceeded. Not just Her Majestys loyal Opposition but all Members have the responsibility and duty to scrutinise legislation properly. However, we have not been given that opportunity on this occasion.
Memories of my days on the housing committee of the London borough of Ealing came flooding back to me during the debate. I have not had much to do with housing since then and I was not able to speak on Second Reading and was not called to serve on the
Public Bill Committee, so I am not qualified to say whether the Minister is a good bloke, as he was described. The hon. Gentleman has a winning way and an engaging smile. I shall not go further than that, but all those things stand in comparison with his right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing.
The debate is only part of our wider examination of the Bill so I do not want to take too much time. I shall focus on the kernel of the debatenew clauses 1, 8 and 9. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) presented new clause 9 in a typically intelligent and erudite way, with all his great experience in the housing field. I challenge the Minister to be mindful of the consensus in the House about the provisions in new clause 9 on repossession in respect of rent arrears. The new clause has gained support on both sides of the House so it is incumbent on the Minister to make a strong case as to why it should not be included when the Bill goes to the other place, especially given the support from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) and the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). As a general principle, the poorest members of society, who happen to live in social housing, should not be discriminated against because of the inefficiency of local authorities in paying housing benefit, so I hope that the Minister will look on the new clause sympathetically. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire for his work on the Committee, and to my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and for Poole (Mr. Syms).
Mr. Jackson: Indeed. What is not to like about the hon. Gentleman when he responds to the latest big policy initiative from his right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing in the following way? He said that her arguments
would have been better left unsaid rather than being dredged up from the graveyard of dead ideas in the basement of the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Mr. Jackson: I think we have already established that unity is not necessarily in evidence among members of the peoples party, particularly in respect of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. His was a lonely voice as he ploughed the Blairite furrow.
The Opposition are minded to support new clause 1, because we feel that a strong case has been made, for which I shall give some historical context. My party has been responsible for progressive social housing policies over the past 100 years. As Members know, in the 1950s the Macmillan Government delivered record amounts of house building. I can understand why the hon. Member for Great Grimsby is upset and somewhat disillusioned with his Government when we
look at the figuresthe killer facts. House building starts fell between 2006 and 2007. I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). As a Portsmouth city councillor of long standing and an erstwhile Hampshire county councillor he knows his onions, but I have to tell him that the average social housing build was 47,000 a year under the Conservatives and only 17,300 under the unlamented former Member for Sedgefield.
Mr. Truswell: It is no use the hon. Gentleman quoting statistics. Labour Members, like most Members of the House, know that by 1997 the Tory Government had well and truly turned off the tap for council house new build. You had cut investment in housing by a half or two thirds in real terms, and the straw that broke the camels back was the fact that you forced local authorities to spend 75 per cent. of capital receipts from house sales on reducing debt rather than reinvestment in council houses. Is that not the sort of record
I was just getting into my stride on the historical perspective. The reason the housing revenue account had to be reviewed during the period of Conservative government was gross misuse of capital financing by irresponsible Labour councils. They all but bankrupted a large number of local authorities in London and outside. That is why the housing revenue account had to be looked at, although I realise it must be painful
Mr. Jackson: I shall make some progress and give way to the hon. Lady shortly, even though she has only just joined us for a cameo role and has not been in the Chamber throughout the proceedings. I shall make a little more progress with my historical tour de force if the House will permit me.
As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, 85,000 people are in temporary accommodation. I think he was cribbing from the speech my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made on Second Reading, because my hon. Friend made the same point and in fact collated the data on children in homeless households, among other things. In 2006, there were 526,000 overcrowded households and 667,000 empty properties in England alone. That is the historical perspective. I respect the sincerity of Labour Members and the fact that they care about the issues, so although it should come as no surprise to them that their Government have delivered that situation after 11 years in power I can understand their sense of resentment.
While the hon. Gentleman is still on the historical facts it would be interesting to know which local authorities he was describing as bankrupt. Many authorities, including mine when I was leader of
Lewisham council, were developing homes despite the strictures against them by the Tory Government. Does he believe that a £19 billion backlog in housing repairs and a doubling of homelessness under his Government is a proud record? In the dying days of the Tory Administration his Government removed the homelessness safety netintroduced after Cathy Come Homefor the most vulnerable people? Is he proud of that?
Mr. Jackson: I am proud that with the right to buy we gave ordinary working people a stake in their future. We gave them capital and the capacity to move up and improve their lives and those of their families and the rest of the community. We do not need lectures from the Labour party, which took the attitude, This is your council house. This is what youve been given and if we fancy repairing it or repainting the front door well do it when we get round to it. That totalitarian, Stalinist, top-down approach existed throughout the 1960s and 1970s and, incidentally, kept us in power for 18 years, because the Labour party was so backward-looking.
Alistair Burt: May I make a bid to help matters along? Does my hon. Friend agree that no matter what the history may be there is an outbreak of genuine angst and concern on the Labour Benches about housing after 11 years of Labour government? Opposition Members are trying to put that right through the new clauses they propose. The history does not matter; what matters is today and the fact that the problems Labour Members are raising are not being addressed by their Government. My hon. Friend is speaking accurately to that.
We are prepared to support new clause 1, as we accept that there is consensus across the House. In developing a historical perspective on housing, I am merely making that case. Conservatives built council houses; Conservatives believe in council houses. Some of the most forward-looking Conservative authorities continue to support social housing. We take a practical and pragmatic view of social housing. We accept that dogmatism does not have a place in housing provision. People are intelligent, and they know what sort of houses they want to live in, and what sort of estates they want to live on, so there is no point in our being dogmatic. It is worth repeating the success of right to buy.
We believe, too, in local autonomy, the empowerment of tenants and transparency, which is why we are minded to support new clause 1. We want a level playing field, and we want tenants to have all the necessary information. Hon. Members can make the point anecdotally, as the hon. Members for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and for Portsmouth, South and others have done, that in some local authorities there has not been a level playing field and the jury has been nobbled. In all honesty, before my local authorityPeterborough city councilundertook a large-scale voluntary transfer, it won an 87 per cent. yes vote, and it was scrupulously fair before the ballot. My predecessor, who was a Labour Member, supported the ballot, and hon. Members will know that she was not always keen on supporting the Government, and certainly not during her second term in the House. However, she saw what was good for her
constituentsthe tenantsand the transfer was made from Peterborough city council to Cross Keys Homes.
We support such proposals, but we are concerned about the intimation from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, who told us about the ballot in Great Grimsby, that the new clause was a means of blocking further stock transfers, rather than a commitment to a more [ Interruption. ] If he wishes to intervene on me, I am more than happy to be corrected.
Mr. Jackson: I am happy fully to support new clause 1, given the hon. Gentlemans clarification. I pay tribute to his colourful and witty tour de force. I hope that there is not a causal link between the fact that his picture was on the literature in favour of the ballot and the fact that he subsequently lost the ballot. I am sure that that is not the case.
Over the years, the hon. Gentleman has made a big contribution to housing policy, and not just on his blog. Equality, fairness and transparency are important and, on the face of it, new clause 1 is about giving all the information pertinent to a ballot to all the people involved, including the tenants whose lives will be affected by any decision. I do not think that anyone in the House would necessarily disagree with that, and the Minister will find it difficult to support the arguments made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole spoke eloquently about the issue raised by new clause 8, as he did in Committee. He spoke from a local constituency viewpoint, and said that 20 per cent. of tenants in Poole unitary authority had to subsidise housing elsewhere, irrespective of demography, their relative poverty and so on. He made a well-balanced speech, as he did not make a knee-jerk attack on the housing revenue account subsidy system. Instead, he said that the general principle should be that national taxation should fund housing, and not the transfer of funds across the country without anyone apparently knowing on what basis the decision is made. In that case, a decision was made by many people. Having said that, the Opposition are not disposed to support new clause 8, which deals with a separate issue from new clause 1.
Paul Holmes: If new clause 1 was accepted and we had an open, honest, democratic ballot, it would still say, You can vote to stay with the council, but your house will fall down, you will be denied money, and your rents will be robbed by the Government. What is the point?
Mr. Jackson: Chesterfield is obviously hit by a plague of locusts on a regular basis, because the hon. Gentleman takes an apocalyptic view of the situation. One thing does not necessarily follow the other.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because it is incumbent on the official Opposition at least to give the Government a chance to make their case by virtue of the review. The House will know that the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette
Cooper), the previous Minister for Housing, promised a review of all council housing subsidies at the end of last year. On that basis, it would be wrong to support the provision before we have more information about the success and efficacy of the pilot scheme and the review of the HRA subsidy. I accept what hon. Members have said about the delay and the time that it has taken to establish a review, but one is now under way, so it would be precipitate of us to go ahead and join some Labour Members in the Lobby in support of new clause 8, notwithstanding the eloquent comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, and the speeches of the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey, and for Hayes and Harlington, all of whom made strong, persuasive points. At this stage, it is sensible, rational and responsible to wait for the outcome of the review before making a decision. We should not make a knee-jerk or precipitate response on the housing revenue account.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten that, two weeks agothis was mentioned in the debatethe pilot indicated that the fund was underfunded by 43 per cent. He is waiting for information that has already been published so, in the light of that fact, he can agree with new clause 8.
Mr. Jackson: It is appropriate to stick to our position. We are prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. There was an element of consensus, both in Committee and today, but unless the hon. Gentleman can answer every single question that will arise from the review, we will reserve judgment. We do not think it appropriate at present to support new clause 8. We do not wish to fetter our discretion in future, and we may well take a different position when we know the results of that review.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has set out the condition that would have to be fulfilled if the Conservatives were to support new clause 8 namely the evidence that the provision was not working very well. We have just pointed out that the evidence has been published, and he is now making a different argument. He does not have the luxury of waiting, as we are making the decision for the country today. To reserve judgment is to agree with the Government and it will be too late for him to say afterwards that he was going to change his mind. I therefore encourage him to support new clause 8, because in 15 minutes time, it will be too late.
We on the Conservative Benches are prepared to take new clause 1 at face value. We will support it, if it is pressed to a Division. We do not consider at this stage that we can support new clause 8. In so doing, we take nothing away from the sincerity and decency of the views expressed by hon. Members, but we do not consider it appropriate at this time to go forward with that.
Finally, on other new clauses and amendments, the Government should think about whether the Liberal Democrats amendments to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke are acceptable. On new clause 9, I make a final plea. There is a strong belief that this is a sensible and measured approach, articulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire. I hope the Minister will give it the time and attention that it obviously deserves.
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