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I was struck about what my hon. Friend said on this matter, but I share her vision that the private rented sector should not be a tenure of last resort for those in housing need. To achieve that, standards need to be raised. She was kind enough to mention my constituency, where absentee landlords help to fuel antisocial behaviour and an exodus away from really decent communities. We need to stop that, which is why I believe that we need to increase the professionalism within the private rented sector.

By working closely with our stakeholders within and outside government, we have shown that people’s aspirations for increased quality and choice can be met by the private rented sector. One example of what I mean by that will be well known to my hon. Friend. In the east midlands, the regional housing board sponsored the creation of Decent and Safe Homes in late 2004. Since its establishment, DASH has held several regional events and has delivered both advice and training courses for landlords. I am also encouraged by Northampton council’s landlord forum and its student accreditation scheme, which looks at property condition.

A key theme in my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution was the need for better regulation. I was struck by a phrase that she used, and I shall take it on board when we discuss the private sector review. She was absolutely spot on when she spoke about how we should stimulate, as well as regulate, the private rented sector market. However, as she recognises, targeted regulation to back up voluntary approaches is important.

We are not starting with a blank sheet of paper. Measures that were introduced in the Housing Act 2004 are having a positive benefit. First, we introduced mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation. Real progress is being made by local authorities that use their powers to tackle what are potentially the most problematic parts of the sector. We are now beginning to see applications from some councils to establish discretionary licensing schemes. So far, we have approved five selective licensing schemes—my own borough of Hartlepool is about to put one forward—and, in the summer, I went up to the north-east and saw that Gateshead council’s excellent scheme is working incredibly well. Several more such schemes are in the pipeline, so the knowledge that local authorities can and will take targeted steps to deal with problem areas will, I believe, give confidence to people when they make their decision about where to live.

Secondly, we introduced the housing health and safety rating system. Conditions across the private rented sector are already getting better. The English house condition survey found that 49 per cent. of private rented sector dwellings were non-decent in 2001, which reduced to 43 per cent. in 2004. My hon. Friend and I have spoken in Adjournment debates about decent homes in recent months, so I know that she shares my passion to ensure that decent homes are available to all. I remain concerned that some vulnerable people, who are least able to change their housing circumstances, live in non-decent conditions, but our focus on such households is paying off. In 2001, only 57 per cent. of vulnerable people were living in a decent home but, by 2005, that number had risen to 66 per cent. Those are real step
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changes, and we are on target to achieve our aim of having 70 per cent. of vulnerable households living in decent homes by 2010.

Thirdly, it is a little more than a year since the Government introduced schemes to safeguard tenancy deposits, which was another potential abuse of the system—I take on board what my hon. Friend said on the matter. In that time, 1 million deposits have been protected, and around £885 million of cash has been safeguarded. I am confident that we can build on those successes and meet people’s aspirations for greater housing quality and choice, but I recognise that there is still some way to go—the issue raised by the Citizens Advice report, “The tenant’s dilemma”, which my hon. Friend mentioned, gives just one example of that. I am conscious of the issue of retaliatory eviction and have pledged to look at it, and to ensure that the review of the private rented sector also considers it.

My hon. Friend was spot on when she said that there needs to be a delicate balance of rights and responsibilities in the landlord-tenant relationship within the private rented sector. I have every sympathy for tenants mistreated by their landlords and letting agents, and I am keen to protect their rights as much as possible, but for every letter that I receive detailing tenants’ heartbreaking and harrowing experiences with bad landlords, I receive a letter from a landlord about their experience of unprovoked damage caused by tenants and the thousands of pounds that it has cost them to set it right. I know that my hon. Friend is aware that it is a delicate balance. When that is upset, the image of the whole sector suffers, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline. It is something that we need to address.

That, in a nutshell, is why we commissioned the independent review of the private sector to which my hon. Friend referred. The review is being carried out by Julie Rugg and David Rhodes at the Centre for Housing Policy at the university of York. It has a wide remit. It will look at how the sector meets current needs and expectations, and whether and how both landlords’ and tenants’ experiences might be improved. In the context of future demand and supply pressures in the private rented sector, the review will consider what needs to be done to ensure that private renting offers people the right type of homes of good quality both now and in future, and what more should and could be done to raise professionalism.

I was taken by my hon. Friend’s point about institutional investment. To be terribly frank, I am keen for more players to come to the table. I want councils and private developers to expand their housing supply, and I am intrigued by her suggestions about institutional investment. Institutional investment tends to be by big pension funds, which need, quite rightly, a rate of return to ensure that pensions are paid out. That is important, but one of the things that the private sector review could consider is the current make-up of the sector and whether that acts as a barrier to a fit-for-purpose product. In particular, Julie Rugg has been considering incentives for large institutions to invest in the private rented sector. That is extremely encouraging.

Ms Keeble: I meant to intervene earlier, when my hon. Friend was talking about the rent deposit scheme. Could he arrange a briefing for me on how it works and
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what the rules are so that I can work out why my constituents cannot access it and how they might be able to?

Mr. Wright: I certainly pledge to do that, so that my hon. Friend can provide an even better service to her constituents.

My hon. Friend’s other main theme was security of tenure, and I have a lot of sympathy with what she said. The review is considering security of tenure in exploring whether more needs to be done to improve the experiences of both landlords and tenants in the sector in relation to their rights and responsibilities and the delicate balance to which I referred.

Because I hear about it in my constituency surgeries, I understand the point about security of tenure, six-month leases and shorthold tenants. The average tenancy in this country lasts between a year and 18 months. That seems to suggest that many landlords are happy to allow their tenants to continue their tenancy after the initial six-month or fixed-term agreement has ended. I suggest that that is a contractual matter, and that it is up to the tenant and the landlord to come to a mutually beneficial agreement on what can be achieved, but I am keen to take on board what my hon. Friend says.

Julie Rugg and David Rhodes have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders from across the sector, and I am keen for my hon. Friend to contribute. I shall ensure that a relevant copy of Hansard is provided, and I am happy to facilitate meetings with my hon. Friend. I am also grateful to other hon. Members and stakeholders who found time to take part in the review’s evidence-gathering. The review is due to report to Ministers this October, and I look forward to seeing the results.

I want a strong private rental sector that encourages and assists the well-intentioned majority of landlords to stay within it and shows less professional landlords the red card. That will mean striking a balance between the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants and between regulation and voluntary initiatives. It relates to my hon. Friend’s point about stimulating as well as regulating; I like that. I expect and hope that the conclusions of the private sector review will advise us on whether we have struck that balance or need to do more. I look forward to receiving it.

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Post Office Closures (Northavon)

4.45 pm

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I shall use the short time available to bring to the Minister’s attention the implications of the Government’s plans—they are the Government’s—to close three post offices in my constituency: Old Sodbury, Tytherington and Station road, Yate. I am tempted to sympathise with the Minister. I am aware that he has dealt with similar debates on post office closures in Cheshire, Clapham, the highlands and islands, Mole Valley, Lancashire and Adur and Worthing, and no doubt others that I have missed. The human side of me sympathises with him at having to listen to yet another hon. Member talk about his local post office, but actually, I do not sympathise. The Government are damaging our communities, and he needs to hear that over and over until they do something. I do not apologise for securing this debate.

Because we have had a series of debates like this, I asked my office to look up what the Minister will say in reply. I have a note that says, “In his speech, he makes the following eight points.” He starts by saying that he does not play a role in decisions about individual post offices, which I understand, and then he outlines the changes in lifestyle that the Post Office is facing, including direct payment of benefits into bank accounts, which has resulted in 4 million fewer people going through the doors than two years ago, and so on.

I do not want to spoil his fun, so I will let him do the other six, but I want to comment on the second point, because Post Office Ltd said it at one of the public meetings in my constituency. It said, “Well, it’s all changed now. People don’t use post offices so much. They all have their pensions paid into a bank.” The Government say that as though it were some neutral process, like osmosis—as though it just kind of happened, and that is why post offices must close. Well, I used to shadow the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Government drove that policy through with a sledgehammer. They bullied people, cajoled them and wrote to them. They as near as damn it forced them to give up their pension books.

Although some went for Post Office card accounts, which means that they still go through the doors of the post office, many of them simply gave up the fuss—not least because Post Office card accounts are hard to obtain—and went to the bank. Then another Department came along and said, “Ooh, gosh, there are fewer post office customers. We’d better shut some.” It is ludicrous for the Government to suggest that their hands are somehow clean: “It’s just social change, innit, guv?” I am afraid that it is not. It is deliberate Government policy. Yes, the trends have been happening over decades, but if post offices and sub-post offices had had the time, they could have done far more to adjust to new patterns of business and develop the new sorts of business that the Minister will no doubt mention in his reply. It is the speed of change that has caught so many of them on the hop. The Government forced through the loss of one of their major sources of business. The Government are responsible, not social trends.

Now that I have got that off my chest, what about the three post offices in my constituency? I shall give a thumbnail sketch of the impact of each closure, and
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then I shall ask the Minister some questions about rescue packages, financial arrangements and the closure and appeal process. Old Sodbury is a small village shop with a village post office. It is the only shop in the village, and neighbouring hamlets use it, as well. One of the interesting aspects of the comments that I have heard is that shorter hours could have been an option to save money. I think that the sub-postmistress would have been amenable to shorter hours. The post office would have saved money and the balance sheet would have looked a bit better, but the Government’s target is not budgetary; it is 2,500 closures. Post Office Ltd does not get a tick in its box if Old Sodbury post office stays open for fewer hours; it only gets one if it shuts.

Given that, as long as people know when the post office is open, they can juggle when they go there to some extent, shortening the hours would still have saved some money and would surely have been less disruptive than shutting it altogether. I wonder whether the target mechanism has created some perverse outcomes. I think that money could have been saved and the public could have retained that service, which would have been a better outcome for all concerned.

The second proposed closure in my constituency is in a Tesco Express store, on Station road, in Yate, in a part of my constituency’s main town that is less well-off, with fewer cars. On a map, it is not far from the Crown office in the middle of the town and looks fine, but it is not fine for the elderly residents of the sheltered bungalows who attended our public meeting. They cannot get a bus there because there is no direct service, they cannot drive and they simply cannot walk that far. Furthermore, when those who can get to the Crown office get there, they have to queue and queue—everybody says that the office cannot cope. People report having to keep returning every hour to find a time when they do not have to queue, because there is nowhere to sit down. Although those are not insurmountable problems, nobody believes that they will be resolved or that, given that this is a cost-cutting measure, the Post Office will spend the money on the receiving branch to provide extra counters and chairs or anything like that. Effectively, those people will be disfranchised.

I have particularly harsh words for Tesco. The staff in the store at Yate found out about the post office closure through reading about it in the newspapers. How shoddy is that? I spoke to Tesco’s so-called Government relations people and asked, “If we can put together a rescue package and bring the community together, will you play your part and allow the post office to continue to operate on your premises?”, but they were staggeringly reluctant to help. They simply were not interested. The Minister might say, “It is not a charity, so why should it help?”, but Members of Parliament receive letters from Tesco all the time telling us how community-minded it is and asking us to present computers to school kids. For years, I have refused to present Tesco computers to school kids, because it does not give a damn about the local community. When it comes to the crunch and something that really matters, it is not interested. That has been my experience with the Tesco Express in Yate.

The third post office that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention is the one in Tytherington—I would be grateful for his specific response to this—which is the
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one on which we are perhaps making some headway in putting together a package. Tytherington is a smallish village; the Post Office’s paperwork said that 331 people live there, but Postwatch told me that the correct number is more than 600. As far as we can see, therefore, the impact of the post office closure has been miscalculated by a factor of a half. That area lost its previous post office in 1996, but the community said, “This is not good enough; we need a post office and a village shop”, so it started one. Residents put their cash where their mouths were and now have shares in the village shop, which they run on a rota. The post office gets rent-free rates and its lighting and heating paid for, which is a fantastic achievement for a village that was at risk of dying, owing to the loss of its post office and school.

Ten years ago, the people of Tytherington got off their backsides and made something happen; and it is a beautiful shop, but now what is going to happen? They are going to lose their post office again. That does not guarantee that the shop will go as well, but it bloomin’ well does not help. It is a kick in the teeth—there is no other word for it. A village meeting was held, which I helped to organise with the parish council, and the village hall was so packed to overflowing that some people had to go away because they could not squeeze in. The Post Office people said that they had never seen so many people. It is interesting that some of the more rural and village communities feel most passionately about such closures.

What can we do about it? On Friday, people from Post Office headquarters are visiting my constituency to meet Tytherington parish council and the village shop committee, and we will find out the hard financial information about what it will take to keep the post office going. Getting financial information out of the Post Office has been like getting blood out of a stone. I think that I got the information about the financial savings to the Post Office of closing those shops only because I secured this debate. I understand the issues of commercial sensitivity, but a rescue package cannot be put together unless the numbers are known.

The worry is not that we will never get there, but that the post offices will have to close—most of us assume that they all will—before we can rescue them. That is what we are hearing from Postwatch. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point. The consultation is over, decisions are due in a few weeks and closures a few weeks after that. It is ludicrous situation. There is a serious live rescue bid from community leaders who might put money in—I am not committing them—and the local authority might play a part as well. Furthermore, we might have struck a deal with a neighbouring postmaster to come and operate an outreach service. With all of that happening, the Post Office could still shut it in the meantime. I thought that I had heard Ministers, or others, say that if there was a serious live rescue attempt—not something tokenistic—they would hold off from closures, but that is not what I am being told. Will the Minister clarify that point?

What pressure can the Minister put on the Post Office over its attitude towards such rescue packages and proposals? My sense is that it was caught on the hop by the idea of anyone putting together a rescue package. When Essex county council came up with its idea, everyone ran around like headless chickens saying, “Oh, we did not think that people might try to save these
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things or invest money creatively.” Will he assure us that he is banging heads together at the Post Office and saying, “Be as creative as possible within the framework that we have given you. If you can work with communities, give them financial information and some breathing space, and allow them to be creative and imaginative, do it”? I hope that he is taking that line with the Post Office.

For all the tea in China, I would not exchange jobs with those in the Post Office doing this—it must be a miserable job. However, I get the feeling that those to whom I speak hate what they do, because they came into the Post Office to run a network, not to kill one. And yet they have been given closure targets, so do they really want to invest a lot of time and energy in helping to put together a package that will make things work, when they will not get rewarded for it? Will the Minister assure us that they will get some sort of return or thanks for that sort of activity?

We would all like to save all the post offices on our patches. Of the three in my constituency, some sort of community initiative must be possible regarding the one that, historically, the community has rallied around in the largest numbers and has shown the most initiative in respect of. It is also the one that gives rise to no issues with a multinational such as Tesco, which, frankly, is the biggest problem with one of the others. However, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the financial terms of any such initiative will be as sympathetic as possible. That is a funny word to use, but in other words, I appreciate that common costs are incurred wherever the Post Office runs branches, that central costs are allocated locally and that a post office is not just the marginal cost, as it were.

If, however, we can get together a package locally, how can we be confident that the Post Office will not then say, “Well, to keep this going, we will charge you x amount for central computing, banking services, or whatever you buy in”? How can we be confident that that figure will be as low as the Post Office can keep it? What is the risk that the Post Office will say, “Frankly, we don’t want to save the post office anyway. It’s no skin off our nose if it shuts, but we can get some cash in here and help ourselves, so let’s bump it up a bit—they’ll never know that it only costs us x to run this branch, so we will charge them y.” How confident can we be that the terms of any arrangement will be fair?

Finally, will the Minister say more about the concept of outreach services? In a sense, I am slightly conflating two different things. First and foremost, we would like the Post Office to say, “All right, it’s a fair cop. It would be a disaster to shut Tytherington, so we won’t shut it.” That would be great. If it does not say that, I am not clear about what the appeal process is. I sense that there is virtually no meaningful appeal process. I have talked to Postwatch and I am not clear whether it can ask Adam Crozier or his mates to consider the matter again. However, I do not think that there is a meaningful appeal process that is likely to change anything.

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