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6 May 2008 : Column 226WHcontinued
we have to face the facts about the future of postal services in this country...we fully expect the network to shrink in size. We have never given a guarantee that no post offices will close.[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]
Across the parties there is acceptance of the size of the challenge facing the post office network, which is to do with lifestyle, technology and competition.
Mr. Drew: The whole point of the attempt that I have been describing by Stroud town council to save the branch was to bring in new money. The town council was not naive enough to think that it would save it by waving a magic wand. Is it not a little surprising, at least, that the notice that I received today does not even mention that Stroud town council offered negotiations? That fact has been washed away. That is not a sign of how a public body should operate.
Mr. McFadden: I am happy to come to the specific points that my hon. Friend has made about Stroud town council, if he will bear with me, but I want to say something about perspective. He talked about the viability of the post office network in the future. It is not easy to call for a sense of perspective when post offices are closing, but is important, because even after the closure programme, there will still be a network across the country that is three times larger than that of the top five supermarket chains put together, with a presence in rural and urban communities throughout the country.
That brings me to the subject of the network change plan for my hon. Friends area. Even in the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire area, 92 per cent. of customers will experience no change in the post office branch that they use, and more than 99 per cent. of the areas population
will either have no change in the branch they use or will remain within 1 mile by road of an alternative post office branch. Although it is a difficult matterand I accept that it is difficult and unpopularit is important to stress some sense of perspective about the remaining network.
My hon. Friend talked about outreach and its costs. I am happy to take those points up with Post Office Ltd. However, I think that outreach is a valuable way of providing post office services. When I visited outreach services, it struck me that we should have been providing services more flexibly in the past. He made a critical comparison between the way in which branches were selected for closure in the present programme and the way it was done in the urban network reinvention programme several years ago. I have received representations both ways about that. It is true that during urban reinvention, Post Office Ltd concentrated closures on the areas where the sub-postmaster wanted to leave. The problem was that asking people to come forward to take redundancy packages and leave the network did not entail a plan for the future of the network. It meant that closures were dictated by those who wanted to go. This time round the Post Office has said it does not want to proceed in that way, but wants proper coverage in rural and urban areas, using the access criteria with which my hon. Friend is familiar. Other hon. Members have told me that they are glad that that is happening, because the other way left holes in network provision. The downside is that branches run by sub-postmasters who do not want to go are selected for closure. It sounds to me as if that may be true in the case raised by my hon. Friend. The reason is that Post Office Ltd is trying to go about the process in a way that adheres to proper criteria for distance between post offices.
My hon. Friend asked about Stroud town council. The Governments position on discussions between Post Office Ltd and any third party or local authority was set out in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to Post Office Ltd and the Local Government Association on 19 March. We have encouraged Post Office Ltd to discuss the matter with any local authority that is interested in the issue. However, certain criteria will have to be considered in deciding whether to proceed with proposals, including whether the authority in question is committed for several years. The full costs of the branch will have to be taken into accountnot just the cost to the sub-postmaster. I counsel caution before saying that a particular branch is profitable, given that the sub-postmaster does not see the central support costs for any branch. When those are taken into account, three out of four are not profitable. The impact on neighbouring branches will also need to be taken into account, as was mentioned in the e-mail that my hon. Friend read out. With those criteria set, we have encouraged Post Office Ltd to talk to third parties who are interested in potentially supporting post office branches in the future.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this important debate. The collapse of Ujima housing association is a warning to the entire sector that must be taken extremely seriously by the Government. If more disasters of a similar nature are not to occur, lessons must be learned, and quickly. There is a danger that we will believe that what happened to Ujima is an isolated case, but we cannot be so complacent. When I consider the scale of what happened there, I am astonished by the national medias lack of interest in the matter, for example. Ujima is the first housing association ever to have become insolvent and effectively gone into receivership, putting at risk the homes of more than 5,000 families in London, Slough and Reading, including a number of families in my constituency.
The case came to my attention at about 4 oclock on new years eve, when I received an e-mail from the Housing Corporation, which regulates the sector. Perhaps I am being unfair, but the fact that the e-mail had been sent on new years eve made me think that there might be a little more to the matter than the Housing Corporation was letting on, and I asked myself whether late on new years eve was perhaps a good time to bury bad news. I decided to dig deeper into the matter, and I quickly found a series of whistleblowers who felt that the whole episode had, at best, been handled incompetently. I found fraud and corruption on a sizeable scale within Ujima, as well as considerable incompetence. The Housing Corporations management were asleep at best, and negligent at worst.
I shall deal first with the fraud and corruption within the housing association. I reported the case to the police on 17 January this year. They came to see me, and I provided them with an extensive dossier of information. In a letter of 20 February, they confirmed that an investigation was under way. I have now heard that it is coming to its first fruition, as three arrests have been made on suspicion of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud Ujima housing association. I sincerely hope that the police will be able to make further arrests, but as a formal criminal investigation is under way, I must be careful about what I say, and I will avoid referring to particular individuals.
I shall outline the areas in which I believe fraud and corruption has taken place in Ujima housing association. First, considerable funds were paid to suppliers without any recognisable form of the tender process required by EU procurement legislation. Secondly, large invoices flagged as dubious by loyal and committed staff were ordered to be paid by those in authority at the housing association. Thirdly, a director and shareholder of Ujimas primary maintenance contractor was also appointed as Ujimas acting property services director, in direct breach of schedule 1 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Corporations good practice note 3, Maintaining standards of probity. The note also sets out what action might be taken. Strangely, the Housing Corporation seems reluctant in this case to follow the advice in its own briefing note.
Fourthly, loan covenants were consistently breached, yet it is alleged that further loans were sought without the breaches having been declared to the banks concerned.
There is some evidence that banks are now much more careful about lending money to housing associations. Andrew Heywood, deputy head of policy at the Council of Mortgage Lenders, said that the demise of Ujima would exert upward pressure on the sector on its own, meaning without any reference to the current credit crunch. In a briefing note on the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which has just gone through the House of Commons, he refers extensively to the same subject and the results of Ujimas effectively going into receivership. As a result of what happened at Ujima, the cost of lending to the sector has risen, adding to the global credit crunch. That means that there is
no certainty housing associations will be able to raise the estimated £15 billion private finance needed to meet government house building targets.
That comes directly from the Council of Mortgage Lenders.
Fifthly, no management accounts were produced for Ujimas audit committee for nine months, yet no formal questions were raised about that, which I find astonishing. Sixthly, Ujima did a series of land deals about which the best that one can say is that they look unusual and irregular. Whistleblowers allege that some of the deals were actually corrupt. I have passed information about some of those deals to the police, and I hope that they will thoroughly investigate them.
As an aside, the matter throws up a wider issue within the sector. I have been alerted to the fact that a number of other housing associations are failing to get best value on deals for land development sites, thus failing to get full value for taxpayer money. However, that is not a matter for todays debate. Perhaps I will be able to return to that on another occasion.
Further allegations revolve around the expensive and luxurious redevelopment of Ujimas offices at a cost of several million pounds while tenants basic maintenance problems were not being fixed. A small number of the senior team were alleged to be leading lavish lifestyles well beyond their personal means.
I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to what I am about to say. If only a tenth of the allegations are true, it is jaw-dropping that the problems were not spotted and stopped. But, of course, many of them were spottedby Ujimas committed, hard-working and loyal staff. I have rarely seen such a procession of whistleblowers from a single organisation. Several were sacked for their honesty and dedication. One employee took his case to a tribunal, which criticised Ujima severely, stating:
We dont understand why an employer would want to get rid of this employee.
It is obvious to me and any other independent observer why Ujima would want to get rid of an honest, hard-working staff member: because of how the organisation was being run.
Where was the Housing Corporation in all this? What was the regulator doing while the company was being pulled apart and destroyed bit by bit? Some in the sector allege that because Ujima was a black housing association, the Housing Corporation backed off for fear of being accused of racism. We need to know whether that was the case and to understand whether there is any substance to that allegation. Unfortunately, the Housing Corporation has many more questions to
answer. For example, it called in Ujimas auditors, BDO Stoy Hayward, in both 2006 and 2007 to ask questions about Ujimas affairs, so it must have had concerns. What were those concerns, and what did the corporation do on each of those occasions? What answers did it receive? In early 2007, Ujimas development partner status was removed, yet it was given the green light for governance later that year.
In addition, the auditors say that they wrote a very critical management letter to Ujimas board on 11 December 2006. As I understand it, housing associations must submit such letters to the Housing Corporation. Ujima did not respond to the letter until May 2007. The response should also have been copied to the Housing Corporation. Despite those letters, in June 2007 the Housing Corporation gave Ujima a clean bill of health for viability, governance and housing. Why did it do that? How could that happen, given that six months later Ujima was nearly £200 million in the red?
In recent years, the Housing Corporation has received a number of complaints about Ujima and on several occasions asked it to carry out independent investigations, which in fact do not appear to have been very independent. What were those complaints about, and what happened as a result of the investigations? Did any of the complaints relate to financial health? If so, did the Housing Corporation look at the management accounts and cash flow projections? How was it reassured about Ujimas overall health? In 2006, Ujimas statutory accounts were filed late. Did that not ring any alarm bells?
In the light of the complaints to the Housing Corporation, did it attend any board meetings or look at any board minutes? If so, was it not concerned about the lack of management accounts produced between February and October 2007, which means that there were nine months without any management accounts? Was the Housing Corporation aware that Ujimas acting maintenance director was also its primary maintenance contractors director and a shareholder with a direct pecuniary interest? When did it become aware, and what action did it take when it did? Was it aware of the constant breaches of European Union procurement rules? Ujimas own rules restrict its chairman to 10 terms in office, but the chairman continued into his 12th term, before being removed in the middle of the crisis that then hit the organisation. Did the Housing Corporation know about that? If so, why did it let that happen?
According to the whistleblowers, Ujimas board was informed that it breached its loan covenants throughout 2006. Why did the board not do anything? Was it minuted, and if so, what action did the Housing Corporation take? How did the board appoint a finance director with no accountancy background or qualifications? Did it ask any questions? What references did it take up? When did the Housing Corporation become aware that Ujima had a totally unqualified finance director, and how did the Ujima board appoint its chief executive? What checks were made on his previous employment and qualifications? What references were obtained from previous employers? What did the Housing Corporation know about his previous activities, and when did it know it? Who was checking that Ujima was getting best value for money for taxpayers with its land deals? What process does the Housing Corporation have in place to ensure that value for money?
As can be seen, there are a considerable number of questions about the performance and directors of Ujima. However, there are also questions about the Housing Corporation as the sectors regulator. Public money seems to have been used for personal gain and the glorification of certain individuals. The organisation was run at best incompetently and, at worst, corruptly. Either way, those responsible should be prevented from ever again taking up positions in public sector-related organisations. Is action being take to ensure that that happens?
I am aware that Simon Braid of KPMG is chairing an inquiry at the moment and I await his teams report with interest. We will see whether the scope of the inquiry enables the sector to learn lessons. Many in the sector who have spoken to me feel that it will be a whitewash, but I remain totally open-minded. Clearly, we need to be reassured that the current regulation system works. Was Ujima an isolated example of merely a few corrupt individuals taking advantage of the system, or is this kind of behaviour endemic in the sector? That question at least needs asking and, indeed, answering.
What can be done to ensure that such behaviour is not repeated and to prevent those responsible from continuing to work in the housing sector? What changes can be made to the Housing Corporation to ensure that whistleblowers are listened to more seriously? I believe that the collapse of Ujima requires full ministerial engagement and a persistence that gets those questions answered. The Government must take this matter very seriously. A regulator exists to ensure that public money is not misused and that housing association properties receive the investment that they fully deserve. Housing association tenants are often some of the most vulnerable in our society. It is a scandal that they have been left with a poor standard of accommodation while public money has been misused for personal gain.
Despite the investigation taking place, I believe that the Minister must launch a full departmental investigation into the actions, or indeed lack of action, of the Housing Corporation in response to Ujima. I would welcome today an assurance that measures will be put in place to ensure that no other housing association will find itself in the same situation as Ujima. This scandal occurred on the Governments watch, and it is incumbent on them to act to ensure, first, that it is not repeated and, secondly, that it is not being repeated now in other housing associations.
I look forward to the Ministers response with interest. I fully intend to continue to pursue this matter energetically. I cannot, and will not, accept a repeat of a situation in which thousands of families have their homes put at risk due to the incompetence and corruption of others, and I hope that he agrees.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I apologise for not being my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright); he had some difficulties with trains this morning. However, I am very happy to congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate and on his dogged pursuit of this matter, not only in todays debate, but through parliamentary questions.
The fact that this is the first such serious case in which the Housing Corporation has had to step in and use insolvency powers is a sign that, in the vast majority of cases, housing associations are very well run. However, that does not diminish the seriousness of the case before us and the importance of what needs to be done in respect of the police inquiry, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the work of Simon Braid.
I hope to demonstrate that we are taking this matter very seriously, to chart some of the history of the case, and to point the way forward. In October last year, the Housing Corporation placed Ujima under regulatory supervision using its statutory powers to appoint three additional independent members to Ujimas board. That followed a review of Ujimas governance and took into account a number of other matters of concern relating to the management of its business. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there have been whistleblowers and allegations dating back to 2006. The Housing Corporation got involved and, although it did not find problems of fraud, it found some control weaknesses.
The review was prompted by Ujimas very poor development performance. The Housing Corporation considered that such underperformance raised questions about the governing boards oversight of a key area of Ujimas business, which in turn raised questions about its oversight of the business in general. The review identified serious weaknesses in the governance of the housing association, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Following the statutory appointments, significant further changes were made to Ujimas board, including the appointment of a new chair. As a result of concerns about the management of the organisation, the new board suspended the chief executive and finance director and commissioned an urgent review of the financial position.
On the 30 November 2007, on the basis of the financial review, Ujimas board concluded that the association was in breach of its loan covenants, which meant that some £164 million of loans had become current liabilities. Management accounts to 31 October showed losses of more than £4 million and forecast a loss of £7 million for 2007-08, against a budgeted surplus of £1 million. Furthermore, cash resources were likely to run out by the end of December, with a £20 million cash shortfall by March 2008. The scale of the financial problems meant that further loan finance was unlikely to be available. The board of Ujima agreed that its financial difficulties were such that it could not sustain an independent future and sought to work closely with the Housing Corporation to identify a solution.
Having considered proposals from a number of housing associations, the board of Ujima concluded that the best option involved transferring its stock to London and Quadrant Housing Trust. London and Quadrant is a large London-based housing association which had sufficient capacity to manage the financial situation and a good track record of providing high-quality services to tenants. The proposal was unanimously supported by Ujimas board, but did not secure the necessary 75 per cent. majority of Ujimas shareholders at a meeting on 17 December.
Mr. Wilson: Is the Minister aware that the financial impact on London and Quadrant of the fall-out from Ujima is somewhere in the region of £30 million?
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