Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Clause 60

Index of defined expressions: Part 1
Amendment made: No. 113, in clause 60, page 27, line 24, leave out
‘Social Housing
Section 36(8)’
and insert
‘Social Housing (and its provision)
Section 36(8)’.
[Mr. Wright.]
Clause 60, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: Hon. Members will have noticed that amendment No. 134, to clause 67, appears in the wrong place on the amendment paper. It will be reached, but not yet.

New Clause 3

Report on HCA activities
‘(1) The Secretary of State must within 12 months of the coming into force of this Act, and afterwards annually, prepare and lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on the activities of the HCA.
(2) A report under this section must, in particular, include or contain information about—
(a) the main activities undertaken by the HCA during the period;
(b) a value for money and efficiency statement in respect of such activities;
(c) how the HCA is achieving its objects and exercising its powers;
(d) the management of risk in respect of HCA projects;
(e) how the HCA is co-ordinating and consulting with the government departments and other public authorities involved with its work;
(f) details of HCA income, expenditure and borrowing (under section 26); and
(g) any loans made by the Secretary of State under section 24.’.—[Alistair Burt.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is not uncommon for attempts to be made to ask a new agency or Government organisation of some significance to lay an annual report to Parliament, to give Members the opportunity to raise matters concerning it and find time for a debate. I am keen on the new clause, even more so following the events of last week.
The purpose behind the new clause is obvious. A number of the debates that we have had have centred around the concern that the agency’s powers will be extensive. As we have said more than once, the sum of the parts will be rather greater than the extent of the individual parts. An agency that combines the power to acquire, deliver and build will be extensive. We have discussed conflicts of interest; guidance on the extensive powers to be given; local authorities’ concerns about the circumstances in which powers might be used to take over their planning functions; compulsory purchase; whether the agency will be driven by the numbers game, and whether it will concentrate fully on wider regeneration issues. All those matters have been raised both in the Committee and by a number of the outside bodies that have been interested in the creation of the new agency and beyond.
On those grounds alone, there is more than good reason for the HCA to produce a report such as we describe in the new clause. I am tempted to think that the Minister will be sympathetic to it, because it is not in his nature to restrict information. From how the matter has been handled on all sides, he will have seen a genuine interest in the agency’s work from Members who, in many instances, have seen things in their own constituencies that will relate to its activities. Many hon. Members have a real interest in both housing and regeneration, and would want the time and attention of the House directed towards those matters. I would have thought that the Minister was sympathetic to and interested in allowing such scrutiny, and that it might just have been missed out. It seems to me that creating such a large body and not providing for an annual report to Parliament is an oversight.
I shall now relate the clause to the written statement last week, in which for the first time we had a chance to see how extensive the agency’s powers would be and what new things it would take from the Department, which the Minister for Housing was able only to hint at when she gave us evidence. She fleshed them out in that statement. We now have an even stronger right to demand that the Bill include a clause requiring the production of a report on the agency’s activities. I do not want my arguments to be too wide, but I can fairly draw attention to two matters in the written statement for which responsibility is to be transferred from the Department to the new agency: housing market renewal and the Thames Gateway.
Currently, if things go wrong with housing market renewal—it has been known—we can question the Minister and the matter is dealt with in Parliament. The transfer to the agency of powers on pathfinder schemes and housing market renewal does not negate the Department’s ultimate responsibility, but the matter will be handled by the agency with its extensive powers. We need a mechanism by which the agency can inform Parliament how such a major project is going. I will not linger on pathfinder, but the recent NAO report on the pathfinder programme said in one of its conclusions:
“There is no guarantee that intervening in the housing market in this way will address the causes rather than the symptoms of the problems experienced in these neighbourhoods.”
It was not a very good report and we are talking about £2.2 billion being spent over five years.
As I am leaving this post—
Mr. Wright: No!
Alistair Burt: Thank you, a great cry. None from my side, but a very strong appeal from the Minister. [Hon. Members: “No, no.”] My hon. Friends’ development is coming on now.
I am sorry to raise the Thames Gateway again, but I feel I must. I raised it in business questions and Members of the Committee will know how concerned I am about the handling of it. I was not best pleased with the stage at which the written statement was produced, for reasons that we discussed last week. This is a project for which the Department has had responsibility and has recently received very extensive criticism. Three conclusions from the PAC’s report were, first:
“The Department does not know how much the regeneration of the Thames Gateway will cost the taxpayer.”
“The Department has not translated the vision for the programme into comprehensive and measurable objectives, nor are there robust systems to measure progress.”
“The Department's management of the programme has been weak, and has not demonstrably added value to the programme.”
Those are pretty damning criticisms, but now, conveniently, the whole thing is passed, as a result of the Minister’s written statement, to the Homes and Communities Agency. That seems to me to be a pretty big responsibility on its own, so why not report to Parliament? Why not take the opportunity today of saying, yes, these are big things, we want the agency to be required to report to Parliament, we think by statute, on matters as important as this. It would be sensible to have the report in the terms that we have suggested. If the Minister takes up our suggestion, I suspect that the report will be more extensive. But we are asking specific questions through the new clause.
Mr. Love: I have been listening to what the hon. Gentleman has said about the renewal areas and the Thames Gateway. What makes him believe that setting up the HCA will lessen the scrutiny and auditing arrangements that he has talked about that are carried out by the NAO or by those investigating the Thames Gateway? Surely they will continue and if there are problems, they will be exposed.
Alistair Burt: Yes, there will still be scrutiny by those bodies, but I am troubled by how much attention is then paid to them and how they are brought to light. We have had no response from the Department to the two reports that I have mentioned on pathfinder and the Thames Gateway. There has been neither a written nor an oral statement defending the Department’s position in relation to those. If we want information, it is difficult enough at the moment to get it from a Department that is responsible directly to the House of Commons. How much more difficult might it be to obtain information from an agency? The Minister shakes his head. If he would like to commit to a written statement from his Department about both reports as soon as possible, I would be pleased to hear it. However, the point is that we do not have the opportunity for scrutiny that we would really like now. This afternoon, I asked the Leader of the House for an urgent debate about the Thames Gateway.
The new clause is a belt-and-braces measure, offering a report in particular terms so that we might examine the information brought forward by the agency without requiring the scrutiny of those bodies in order to bring information to the House’s attention. We have not heard much from the Department, and I doubt that we would if those bodies had not been doing their job.
2 pm
Mr. Wright: Housing market renewal is an area for which I have ministerial responsibility, and about which I feel passionately. On the Opposition’s scrutiny of the Government, will the hon. Gentleman tell me how many oral questions the Opposition have tabled on communities and local government and HMR, and how many Adjournment debates his colleagues have requested on HMR? There are mechanisms in place to scrutinise the Executive, and I suggest to him that they have not been used.
Alistair Burt: That is not entirely fair. I have asked oral questions on the housing market renewal initiative. I remember one exchange with the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), in which the whole issue was swatted away. He said, first, that the Tories did not understand the north of England, and secondly, that we had got it all wrong. Some months later, the fallacy of his position was laid bare for us all to see in the reports.
The response from Ministers was extraordinarily patronising and arrogant, and it turned out to be completely wrong. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has responsibility for the issue, because I expect a complete change of attitude in all those respects. The issue was raised, and the concerns were dismissed as scaremongering, which was connected with groups in towns, such as Liverpool, Salford and other parts of the north-west that were making trouble because of demolitions. It was suggested that that was our interest, but it was not. I have gone on record and tried to maintain a balanced opinion about pathfinder, saying that there are reasons for it, but that there are also places in which it is breaking down and not working.
Some of the situations in Liverpool are a scandal. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), at a public inquiry, described some of the practices as social cleansing. My concern that there were problems that needed scrutiny and discussion still stands. There are of course other mechanisms, but I am talking about an opportunity for the HCA to recognise that up to now, the scrutiny has not been as good as it could be. With a balanced approach and an acceptance that some criticism has been valid, it would be good to offer more information to the House in order for the Government to say, “We recognise the things that might have been wrong, and here is a way in which, annually, we can present our view on the issues, so that there is no reliance on people burrowing into information, finding things out and producing them.”
That is why the new clause talks about looking for
“value for money and efficiency...how the HCA is achieving its objects and exercising its powers...how the HCA is co-ordinating and consulting with government departments and other public authorities”.
In both areas of departmental interest that I have mentioned, there have been complaints that such work has not been done effectively. That is my point.
There is nothing to lose; the work will be done. It seems admirable to bring more information to the House rather than less, and I cannot see a good reason against the measure. Already, there is a series of annual reports to Parliament. Some are on massive, world-shaking events such as climate change, some are on constitutionally important issues such as judicial appointments, some are on socially important issues, such as the annual report of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, and some are on rather more obscure issues such as the pharmaceutical price regulation regime. I cannot see that the work of the HCA does not fit somewhere into that spectrum as also requiring a report to be presented to Parliament and I humbly ask the Committee to support the new clause.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I support my hon. Friend, who is as eloquent as usual.
If this agency is to do all that the Government say they want it to do, there are some issues about which Parliament is going to have a view. One such issue would be equity. How fairly are the resources of the HCA being spread across England? The hon. Member for St. Ives asked about rural areas and the balance of resources going in. Will the agency be centred on our cities, or will it pay a lot more regard to the real problems of homelessness and the provision of homes facing people in rural areas? So I do think that there are issues on which Members might like to contribute, and I think that that is relevant.
Also—value for money and efficiency was mentioned earlier—one of the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was not only who was going to run the agency, but where it was going to be based. We know that the Housing Corporation is in Tottenham Court road. It is as if we are saying to the agency, “Here is an envelope with £2,300 million to spend on doing the very worthy things that you are going to do”. There may well be an argument that it could be more efficient to put this agency somewhere else, not necessarily in central London—maybe on the outskirts of London.
Mr. Wright: Hartlepool?
Mr. Syms: That is the first bid. Denton and Reddish is an excellent place as is Poole or Montgomeryshire. This is of value because the thrust of policy over the past few years has been to try to ensure that there is equitable distribution of public bodies across the UK. Much of the BBC, for example, has moved to Manchester. Therefore, where the agency is based is an issue. Hon. Members might also wish to debate the general issue of how the delivery agency resources are spent across the UK. As with any kind of large scale regeneration scheme, particularly if we get into eco terms, I am sure that there are plenty of Members who will have a view.
New clause 3 may not be the right vehicle, but our point is that there has to be some vehicle for Parliamentary input and scrutiny on what should be a very important organisation for our constituents.
Mr. Wright: May I just put on the record how saddened I am to see that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire is moving away from his current post. I think that the whole Committee will agree that his skill and expertise on regeneration is high, and the thoughtfulness and manner in which he projects himself is held in sincere regard.
Mr. Love: Can the Committee have a vote on it?
Mr. Wright: I absolutely agree. With the greatest respect to his Front-Bench colleagues, the fact that he is leaving the Communities and Local Government team considerably reduces the average in terms of the calibre of the Tory Front Bench. I will miss him because of that. He is a real asset to the Tory Front Bench. I reiterate the point I made last week—he is more than welcome to cross the Floor. He would be most welcome.
Alistair Burt: I beg your indulgence Mr. Gale. That is extremely sweet of the hon. Gentlemen and I do appreciate his comments. However, I am not sure that I am tall enough to reach the sinking ship quickly enough with my feet if I were to seek to cross the Floor.
Mr. Wright: I do not wish to try your patience, Mr. Gale, but I have to say—and this is not something that I can say very often—that I actually think that I am taller than the hon. Gentleman. That is quite a feather in my cap.
Mr. Raynsford: Many Labour Members are somewhat puzzled by the presence of the apple sitting by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and are wondering whether a fate akin to that of William Tell’s son awaits him?
The Chairman: Order. I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The wife of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire is called Eve.
Alistair Burt: I shall tell her about that.
Mr. Wright: Having said all that, I cannot let his comments about housing market renewal and the National Audit Office report go unchallenged. The National Audit Office report says that in pathfinder areas prices have increased faster than comparable areas that did not have housing market renewal initiatives. It has been a success but it has been difficult to quantify. That is entirely understandable, given the massive amount of regeneration that has gone into these areas over the past decade or so—with Sure Start and so on. It is entirely reasonable that that work has gone on.
I have spent the past couple of months visiting these areas. East Lancashire was mentioned earlier, and I am going there on Friday to have a look at Burnley and the Elevate scheme, just to see what needs to be done before I make a decision on the specific allocation of that £1 billion for the next three years. There has been real success in these pathfinder areas. More needs to be done because we are suffering from generations of decline, so I take issue with what was said.
The views of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) are sincere. He gave early warning that he would introduce a new clause dealing with the annual reporting of the agency. I told him at the time that I did not think it was necessary. I feel quite strongly that the reporting requirements in the Bill are perfectly adequate. I draw the Committee’s attention to paragraph 11 to schedule 1, which says:
“(1) For each financial year, the HCA must—
(a) prepare an annual report on how it has exercised its functions during the year, and
(b) send a copy of the report to the Secretary of State within such period as the Secretary of State may direct.
(2) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a copy of each report received under sub-paragraph (1).”
There is a real requirement to provide an annual report on how the agency has exercised its functions and to prepare a detailed statement of accounts in respect of that financial year. The Secretary of State must lay both before Parliament and if, for whatever reason, the Secretary of State considers it appropriate, she can require the Homes and Communities Agency to provide any other information she requests about the exercise and its functions.
A short time ago we agreed that clause 49, entitled “Directions by the Secretary of State”, would stand part of the Bill. Again, the Secretary of State can direct what information is required. The new clause sets out a number of specific areas that the report must cover. However, I reiterate that it is quite unnecessary because the strong expectation is that the agency will cover each and every one of those areas in its report without the need to spell them out in the Bill. It is that dreaded principle again. Indeed, specifying particular areas—as the debate we have had about the list principle shows—risks the omission of others.
The provision is deliberately unspecific in order to allow maximum flexibility and to enable the agency to respond to changing circumstances, such as those that have been mentioned—housing market renewal and the Thames Gateway. The detail of what we would expect reports to cover would be set out in the tasking framework for the agency. As I have said before, the tasking framework is an administrative tool that will set out many of Ministers’ expectations regarding the way in which the Homes and Communities Agency will conduct itself.
Although I understand the view of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and accept that he is sincere, I strongly urge the Committee to agree that the new clause is not necessary and I ask that it be withdrawn.
Alistair Burt: In view of the reassurances that the hon. Gentleman has given about his intentions for the agency report—that it will cover the matters that we have raised—and the generosity of his remarks and because my mood is very high owing to the very kind reference to my wife made by the chairman and the fact that Bury dispatched Norwich 2-1 in the cup the other night and because I have got a nice apple sitting here, the ley lines coming through the Committee at the moment mean that I shall model this withdrawal on previous withdrawals. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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