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Traveller Sites

6. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): What assistance her Department will provide in identifying publicly owned land for use as a transit site by Traveller families facing eviction from the unauthorised site at Dale Farm. [277604]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is for Basildon council to manage the process of managing the unauthorised development at Dale Farm. If and when it decides to proceed with eviction action, I expect the council to hold talks with neighbouring authorities to ensure that any eviction that takes place does so in a calm and orderly fashion.

Mr. Baron: The Minister will be aware that the 85 Traveller families at the illegal site have now exhausted their legal and planning options. The council rightly seeks to reclaim the unauthorised site and return it to the green belt. It hopes to avoid a forced eviction, as we all do: I know that the Minister does as well. The ball is now in the Travellers’ court, and they have to move off peacefully if that is to happen. However, as the Minister will know, there is a shortage of sites.

Given the scale of the problem and given that the Government are partly responsible for it, having granted the Travellers two years’ leave to remain—during which time the number of caravans on the site shot up—will the Minister do what he can to help to identify transit sites outside the district, as Basildon has done more than its fair share locally? Will he also meet me to discuss this important issue?

Mr. Khan: I understand the concern felt by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents about the friction caused by the unauthorised development and the problems that it has caused for the settled community, but he was present during yesterday’s debate, and will have heard Conservative Front Benchers criticise the Government for trying to work in partnership with local authorities and complaining about the fact that authorities are not given autonomy and power to solve problems.

I told the hon. Gentleman a few moments ago that it was for Basildon council to work with neighbouring authorities. He is now telling me that he does not think it will be able to do so, and that he wants me to intervene and help. I am happy to meet him and discuss with him ways in which he feels that his local authority may need assistance, but it is worth my reminding him of the contradiction between what was said by his party’s Front Benchers yesterday and what he is asking for today.

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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): May I also ask my hon. Friend to do his utmost to find a solution to the situation at Dale Farm, and to do anything that the Government are able to do? As I am sure he knows, yesterday we launched Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month here in Parliament. It was a huge celebration of Gypsy culture, and hundreds of Gypsies, Roma people and Travellers were here. Overlying everything, however, was the worry about the lack of sites.

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the causes of the problems is the fact that large numbers of Traveller and Gypsy families are on unauthorised encampments and sites. We need to encourage local authorities to provide more and more authorised sites. There are pitches where Traveller and Gypsy families can go, which will lead to fewer of the problems described by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron).

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am puzzled by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that the problem at Dale Farm could be solved by Basildon borough council. In relation to the problem in Wiltshire, he has said that not the elected Wiltshire county council but an entirely unelected, undemocratic quango, the South West regional assembly, must make the necessary decision. How do those two answers stack up?

Mr. Khan: I am always happy to lecture Opposition Members about the planning framework. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs, and that the results of those assessments are passed to a regional planning body which uses them to allocate pitches to authorities as part of the regional spatial strategy. The proposals are assessed during a public examination at which arguments can be advanced for raising or lowering the number of allocations. It is then for local authorities to draw up development plan documents to accommodate pitch allocations. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explain how the planning framework operates.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Unauthorised sites such as Dale Farm exist the length and breadth of the country. What measures are in place to assist local authorities, as it is they—and therefore taxpayers—who have to pick up the cost of clearing up the damage done to sites? What tangible legislative powers does my hon. Friend have to sort this out?

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend asks a very important question. Last year, local authorities spent £18 million on enforcement action. There is a local authority in England which has authorised sites, and the cost of enforcement fell from £200,000 a year to £5,000. That is an example of authorised sites reducing the cost to local authorities, and also the huge distress caused to the settled community.

Mortgage Assistance Schemes

7. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): How many households have received assistance under the mortgage rescue scheme and homeowner mortgage support scheme. [277605]

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The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): Our objective is to ensure that repossession is always the last resort. The mortgage rescue scheme and homeowner mortgage support scheme are just part of a comprehensive package of measures that we have put in place to assist families at risk of losing their homes. The MRS has been operational across the country since 1 January 2009. Since its launch, local authorities have reported that more than 1,000 households each month have come forward and received guidance on what support may be best for their circumstances. Seventy-seven households are in the final stages of receiving assistance and have had repossession action against them frozen by their lenders. Two households have so far completed the Government mortgage-to-rent process, whereby a registered social landlord has agreed to purchase their property and enabled them to remain in their own home as tenants. We expect many more households to be helped in this way in the coming months.

The homeowner mortgage support scheme opened with the first group of lenders on 21 April. Official figures on the number of households entering the scheme will be published later this year, and we are working closely with lenders and money advisers to monitor progress and ensure that the scheme is working effectively.

Philip Davies: Well, there we have it. Since the Chancellor announced this scheme, a house has been repossessed every seven minutes, yet the scheme has helped only two families since it was launched. Is this not another example of the Government seeking publicity—in a blaze of glory—to pretend they are helping people when in reality they are failing to deliver any tangible help to people suffering hardship through no fault of their own?

Margaret Beckett: As I have just pointed out, thousands of households have approached the relevant authorities to seek advice. [Hon. Members: “Two.”] Only two have completed the full process. I also pointed out that more than 70 households—77 to be precise—are now well on the way to receiving a formal offer, and I can also tell the House that a further 10, making 87 in all— [Interruption.] I am glad that Opposition Members find this so amusing; 87 households in all are now in the final stages of having a formal offer of assistance. That is 87 more households than received any help whatever under the Conservatives when they were last in government and when repossessions were taking place. They did not lift a finger. I am glad that they think it is funny that people are at risk of losing their homes, but I do not.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that if Opposition Members were to consult the transcript of the proceedings of yesterday’s Select Committee on Communities and Local Government and read the remarks of the Council of Mortgage Lenders on this scheme, they would, perhaps, moderate their mirth? The CML is broadly supportive of these two schemes, and it pointed out that the MRS had been extremely helpful in making sure that many more people at risk of repossession were now approaching their lenders at the outset and getting decent advice, instead of burying their head in the sand and waiting for things to hit them. That might be one of the reasons why relatively few of them are going through this entire system and requiring the MRS; instead, they are coming to an agreement with their lenders early on. If the demand is in fact lower than envisaged, will the Minister
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consider sending the money through for the building of more homes, instead of leaving it in a scheme that might not be required to the level that was originally thought?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I agree that it would be wise for the Opposition to look carefully at the evidence that has been given to the Select Committee that she chairs. Opposition Members are so busy trying to be clever about this issue that they completely overlook the fact that, for everybody who is being considered for schemes of this kind, there is forbearance of action that could otherwise be taken against them that could lead to their homes being repossessed. One of the reasons we took the step of making the announcements that we did earlier in the year, which has been much criticised since by the Conservative party, was precisely to encourage people to go to their lenders and get advice at the earliest possible stage, instead of burying their heads in the sand. It is very clear from all the professional evidence that people believe that that has had a substantial effect.

The second effect that we hoped to achieve, which, again, seems perhaps to have come to fruition, was to get lenders to think more carefully about whether taking such as approach is worth their while—the suggestion is that repossessing a home costs a lender, on average, about £37,000. One of our chief aims was to convince lenders to consider the fact that for a lesser expenditure they might save all that misery and disruption to so many families. I am frankly appalled by the frivolous attitude of the Conservative party—I mean that quite sincerely, Mr. Speaker. It is a shattering blow to people when they lose their home—it is much harder than losing one’s job and much harder to recover from.

On the mortgage rescue scheme, it appears that what is happening is that those who are coming through to the end of the scheme—I appreciate that the numbers are comparatively small on the official statistics—are agreeing to forgo their home ownership in order to stay on as tenants. That, in itself, is a major decision, so we should not be surprised that people are taking time to arrive at it.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): The Minister will be aware that 75,000 families are expected to face the misery of repossession that she spoke about. Even if we were to add in all the package of measures to which she referred, tens of thousands of families would still be left facing that misery. Why then has she been unwilling to reform mortgage law—Shelter has consistently argued for this—so that we can give the courts the power to intervene? That would give the Government’s pre-action protocol some decent teeth. Why is she unwilling to do that?

Margaret Beckett: I simply say to the hon. Lady that we believe that the pre-action protocol has been really quite effective. I appreciate the point she makes, which is that, sadly, many people could still lose their homes, but she may be aware that even in the best of years over the past decade or so—it was in 2004, as I recall—some 8,000 families lost their homes. There are a variety of reasons why people may find themselves in those devastating circumstances. She referred to the forecast of some 75,000 expected repossessions this year. That forecast came from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, but it has recently said that it now believes that, as a result of the action that this Government have taken, it has been too pessimistic. We certainly all hope that that is the case.

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Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): To what extent have the banks, building societies and other lenders enthusiastically joined this rescue scheme?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot honestly say that everybody was enthusiastic, but the most important thing is that they have been willing to join. As my hon. Friend may know, 50 per cent. of the lenders in the marketplace have joined the home owners mortgage support scheme and taken advantage—or they could take advantage—of the Government’s underlying guarantee. Although some major lenders did not feel that they needed to use that guarantee, 80 per cent. of mortgage lenders are, in fact, offering comparable schemes.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady agree that although these two schemes are both welcome, the process can be slow and bureaucratic? Will she undertake a review to see whether it might be streamlined?

Margaret Beckett: We are indeed keeping the schemes under review. The right hon. Gentleman may know that in the Budget we brought forward some extra funding, because early experience of the mortgage rescue scheme suggested that there was a greater problem with negative equity than had been anticipated. So, we have already made that change to the scheme and put forward the funding that will enable us to cover that. We are continuing to monitor how the schemes are developing because, obviously, as I said at the outset, our goal is to be as effective as possible in preventing repossessions, by whatever means.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is no amusement on this side of the House at the Government’s situation, but there is a great deal of anger at their unwillingness to recognise the failure of these programmes, however well intended they might be, to deliver in practice? She neglected to tell the House that, of the 1,000 a month who register and express an interest in the mortgage rescue scheme, more than half are told that they do not qualify on the Government’s own criteria. She neglected to say that on the current rate of progress the 6,000 who are supposed to be helped over the course of the scheme would, in fact, total about 12.

The Minister refers to the home owner mortgage support scheme. Would it not have been better if she had owned up to the fact that the 50 per cent. of mortgage lenders coming forward is fewer than the 70 per cent. that she said would come forward when the scheme was first trailed? Will she explain why major players such as Santander, Barclays, HSBC and Nationwide have all ruled out participation in the scheme? There is nothing amusing about this: indeed, the Government’s failure is tragic, if not scandalous.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman accuses me of misunderstanding the Opposition’s approach. I admit that I was guilty of thinking that people who were roaring with laughter were finding something amusing.

What the hon. Gentleman says is straightforward nonsense, as he should be aware. He talks about a failure to deliver in practice and about the criteria for the scheme. If he has been paying any real attention to the schemes, he will know that the mortgage rescue scheme was only ever intended for some 6,000 families,
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and was geared towards the most vulnerable households who would be legally entitled to be rehoused by their local authority. That was all announced at the time. It was precisely because that scheme was funded only to deal with a small number of households that the Government then introduced the home owners mortgage support scheme, which is designed to deal with a much larger number—potentially tens of thousands—of households. All the strictures that the hon. Gentleman has levelled against the mortgage rescue scheme are therefore misplaced.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that Barclays, Nationwide and Santander are not participating, but he is wrong. They are offering comparable schemes and therefore have said that they do not see the necessity for the underpinning Government guarantee, and that is why they have not entered the guarantee scheme. They are certainly offering similar schemes, alongside our scheme, which they would not be offering were it not for the fact that this Government have urged them to enter our scheme. They do not need the support and that is why they have not come into that aspect of the scheme.

Home Information Packs

9. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What her latest assessment is of the effect of home information packs on the housing market; and if she will make a statement. [277607]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Independent research into the impact of home information packs was undertaken by Europe Economics. The implementation of HIPs is being kept under review and an evaluation of the HIPs programme is currently planned for 2010 by updating “The HIPs Baseline Research Report”.

James Duddridge: In another survey, 89 per cent. of professionals said that HIPs would not benefit buyers. In the age of rhetoric and of trusting professionals, why should we believe what the Government say, not the professionals?

Mr. Wright: I dispute what the hon. Gentleman says. Professionals are telling us that information is vital, and giving buyers information about probably the biggest purchase in their lives benefits the whole home buying and selling process. Roger Wilson of Connells, one of the country’s largest estate agents, has said:

Professionals are actually welcoming the HIP.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Professionals such as LMS in my constituency are proud of the work that they do in providing HIPs to many people. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to say how he intends to continue his drive, after the review, to relieve the downward pressure on conveyancing by moving towards a system of electronic conveyancing?

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Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Electronic conveyancing can speed up the process hugely. We remain committed to ensuring that we can simplify and streamline the home buying and selling process. Some £1 million a week is wasted in abortive home purchases and sales, and that can cause heartache to the people involved and disruption to the economy, so we remain committed to HIPs. We want to provide information up front to allow buyers to make an informed choice.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Further to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), will he guarantee that the review will include consultation with estate agents up and down the country to assess the level of demand from house buyers for home information packs and to assess the number of packs that have been produced but never used, and the cost involved? If the demand is extremely low, as I predict it will be, will he at least make them voluntary and not a statutory requirement?

Mr. Wright: No, we have no plans to make them a voluntary requirement. The hon. Lady touches on an important point. Sometimes, buyers and sellers—particularly buyers—do not get to see the HIP. That is not in anybody’s interests. One key idea that we are trying to push forward, along with the industry, is that estate agents and others involved in the home buying and selling process should ensure that home buyers see the HIP. As I said in a previous answer, information is key. This is the biggest purchase that someone will make and it is important that home buyers get to see the home information pack and make informed choices accordingly.

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