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9 Jun 2009 : Column 709

Under this Labour Government, more people are being caught, more people are being sentenced, and more people are receiving longer sentences. We have seen the doubling of the maximum sentence for the possession of knives and an increase in the minimum age for buying a knife from 16 to 18. People are now 55 per cent. more likely to go to prison for these offences than they were last year. The number of offences resulting in immediate custody has gone up by 23 per cent., and the average immediate custodial sentence has risen from 133 days to 184 days during that period. The outcomes mean that we have secured a 22 per cent. fall in knife-crime hospital admissions for teenagers. We have a culture of change, and we have had fewer deaths so far this year than last year. Those are all objectives that the House shares.

I commend the Government’s work and I thank the Opposition for their constructive approach. I give a commitment on behalf of this ministerial team that we will continue to press hard with our Education and Justice colleagues to ensure that we drive down the incidence of knife crime and, ultimately, the deaths resulting from it.

Question , That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7 pm

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I beg to move,

I offer a warm welcome to the new Minister for Housing as he takes up his post. I know that his background and experience will be an asset to this important Department. He actually becomes the ninth Housing Minister since this Government came to power. He is the fourth that I have faced across the Dispatch Box in the last two years and the third in the last nine months. I therefore hope that he enjoys better security of tenure than his three immediate predecessors, who lasted 211 days, 254 days and 246 days respectively. I would not want to bet my house, however, on the right hon. Gentleman lasting beyond the next election.

I would like to offer the Minister a piece of advice; I encourage him to look at the recently produced Conservative green paper on housing, which puts forward a number of ideas that the Government could adopt immediately for their own housing programme, although it seems to have caused a little confusion with the right hon. Gentleman’s immediate predecessor, who seems to have taken our “right to move” policy a little too literally.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman sat around the Cabinet table for the first time this morning. He may have harboured concerns that it was his rugged good looks that had won him a seat around the Cabinet table, but I am absolutely confident that he is there for much more than window dressing and that he will do a fine job. I wish him every success.

Let us start this evening’s debate by thinking about those people who are lucky enough to own their own homes, but who are desperately trying to keep them by paying their mortgages. The Prime Minister likes to stand regularly at the Dispatch Box and claim that he is offering “Real help now” through the home owners mortgage support scheme, intended to allow people to postpone paying interest on their mortgages for up to two years. It was announced on 3 December, but not launched until 21 April, with an estimated 17,000 people repossessed during that period of delay. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how many households have so far received help under that scheme.

The Chancellor called the new scheme real help for home owners at risk of repossession, but it is not even available to many home owners. When first announced, the then Housing Minister claimed it would cover some 70 per cent. of the mortgage market. She said that she
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wanted to see “all lenders” signed up to the scheme, but the reality is that fewer than half of mortgage lenders are signed up to the scheme, with some estimates suggesting it may not be much more than a quarter. Since the former Minister for Housing claimed she wanted to see them all signed up, can the present Minister for Housing tell us when he thinks that might eventually happen?

When the scheme finally launched on 21 April, the then Minister also said that six other lenders would shortly join the scheme. She described that as happening “as soon as possible”, but the new Minister was kind enough to reply to a parliamentary question just yesterday, saying that only one additional mortgage lender had so far joined the scheme. Will he tell us when the other five are going to join it?

If the home owners mortgage support scheme has not worked, how about the mortgage rescue scheme? Now this is a scheme that invites registered social landlords to buy up equity in the homes of anybody struggling to pay their mortgage. It was announced on 3 September, but not launched until 16 January. This was a two-year, £285 million scheme designed to help 6,000 of the “most vulnerable families” to avoid repossession. Four months into the two years, instead of anything like 6,000, just two families have been rescued. Perhaps the Minister will therefore confirm that on the current trend, only 12 families will be helped by this scheme over the two-year period. I understand that that is despite more than 4,000 home owners approaching their local authorities for help and an estimated 31,000 homes repossessed since the time the scheme was launched.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentions the most vulnerable people, so will he explain why the motion by Her Majesty’s official Opposition makes no reference to council housing, social housing or affordable housing?

Grant Shapps: I am grateful for that intervention because it gives me a chance to remind the hon. Gentleman that we held a debate about the lack of social housing in our last Opposition day debate on housing, although I am not sure whether he attended. He will also be pleased to know that I am coming to that subject in this debate because it is relevant to the Government’s overall housing record.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I think I heard the hon. Gentleman say that 4,000 households had approached local authorities with queries about the mortgage rescue scheme, but data given to the Select Committee only last week suggested that only a few more than 1,000 had done so. Will he explain where he got the 4,000 figure from?

Grant Shapps: I believe that the 4,000 figure came from the Local Government Association, but I would be happy to check the figure if the hon. Lady would like to drop me a line about it.

Several hon. Members rose

Grant Shapps: Let me make a little progress.

What I want to know is whether the Minister can tell us how much of the headline grabbing £285 million of “Real help now” under this mortgage rescue scheme has
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been spent on rescuing just two households. The previous Minister said last November that the mortgage rescue scheme would provide “Real help now” to homeowners facing “tough times”. Will the Minister for Housing say something today to the thousands of families who, having been given completely false hope, have been repossessed in the mean time?

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The Council of Mortgage Lenders recently announced that the original figures for repossessions in this financial year would be downgraded, following last year’s figures, which were lower than expected. How does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that there are going to be fewer repossessions than were originally expected?

Grant Shapps: Frankly, when repossessions are running at an all-time high, with the only exception being— [Interruption.] If the position is this bad with so many families having their homes repossessed—the highest number for a generation—it is no great success and nothing to crow about if perhaps only 50,000 rather than 75,000 families are thrown out of their homes at a time when there are a bunch of failing mortgage rescue schemes going on.

Several hon. Members rose

Grant Shapps: I want to make some progress.

The important issue I want to raise with the Minister is what he has to say to the many families who have lost their homes when these schemes, which have been so headline grabbing and achieved 24-hour news coverage on their immediate announcement, have done so little to help families in real distress.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): There is an important issue here, so I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman how long people had to wait under the previous Conservative Government to be eligible for help and assistance with their mortgages. Is it not this Government who have brought the time limit down to 13 weeks?

Grant Shapps: Under the last Conservative Government, the time limit was 13 weeks, and then it improved again when the economic situation improved, but the present Government have brought the limit back down once again. I am quite happy to stand at this Dispatch Box and answer all sorts of questions from Labour Members, but today’s debate is about this Government’s housing record and we want answers to the questions people out there are asking. I do not mean only people being repossessed; we are also talking about people who desperately want to buy their own homes, but who find it harder than ever to get on to the housing ladder. Affordability is now at an all-time low with average affordability having halved since Labour came to power.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noticed that since the introduction of the home improvement pack scheme there has been a big decline in the number of homes available on the market? Although that is not the only factor, can he reassure us that such expensive and unnecessary bureaucracy will be scrapped by the new Government?

Grant Shapps: I said that the new Minister might want to pick up some of the tips in our green paper, and scrapping HIPs should be at the top of the list. They are a pointless, bureaucratic waste of time, and they are
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causing so much heartache out there. They are limiting the supply of new housing on the market, and making it much harder for first-time buyers to purchase properties.

Several hon. Members rose

Grant Shapps: Before I take any more interventions, I should like to say a little about those first-time buyers. Their number has fallen by more than 60 per cent. since 1997. It is even lower than the lowest figure during the last recession. The Government’s policy has led to the lowest number of first-time buyers since records began.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I greatly enjoyed working with the hon. Gentleman when I held the housing brief. He has come on very well in the last 18 months. Does he agree that, for many potential first-time buyers, the key issue is the unaffordability of deposits? For all the promises made by the Government and, indeed, the banks, it is just not possible for first-time buyers with small salaries to find 25 per cent. of an enormous mortgage. That is one of the key barriers preventing the housing market from starting up again, certainly in Montgomeryshire and, I suspect, throughout the country.

Grant Shapps: Some credence can be attached to that intervention from a former Liberal Democrat housing spokesman—two or three housing spokesmen ago, I believe. Indeed, I think that while I have been in my present position, there have been three or four Liberal Democrat housing spokesmen, as well as the same number of Housing Ministers.

The Government’s response to the issue of unaffordability has been to offer a plethora of new so-called homebuy schemes. One of them, the social homebuy scheme, is nothing if not confusing, conflicting and often contradictory in terms of itself and other schemes. It offered 15,000 families, supposedly by this point, the ability to buy part equity in their own social rented housing. Well, at this point, a mere 306 families have benefited from the scheme. Another scheme, another headline, and more disappointment for hard-pressed families out there.

What about the HomeBuy Direct scheme? I hope that the House is keeping up with the many different homebuy schemes. HomeBuy Direct was a flagship £480 million scheme, announced on 3 September and intended to help key workers and those on modest incomes to buy new homes from developers. The Minister told us that 18,000 affordable homes would be sold in that way. However, we had to wait until the end of April— 233 days, which is time enough for a Housing Minister to come and go—for any sales to proceed. I should be interested to hear what the uptake has been so far.

MyChoiceHomeBuy was yet another homebuy scheme. I know that the former Housing Minister used to be confused by these schemes; I wish the current Minister luck in getting his head around them more quickly. MyChoiceHomeBuy was one of two very similar schemes. Both involved key workers—first-time buyers—owning a share in homes on the open market, and buying them with housing association help. However, MyChoiceHomeBuy ran out of money just one month after the beginning of the financial year, leaving thousands of applicants stranded.

In the course of his work as a constituency Member of Parliament, the new Minister may have received e-mails such as the one that I received from my constituents
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Derek and Ellen, who wrote to me about their experience of MyChoiceHomeBuy. Both are key workers. They work for the NHS, and have young children. They were delighted, they say, when the MyChoiceHomeBuy scheme was recommended to them, and were delighted to be accepted on to it. They started to get excited and to look around homes. They viewed a number of dream properties that they had previously imagined to be out of their reach. Then they were told that the scheme had run out of money. That is not just their experience, but the experience of thousands of first-time home-buyers on modest incomes working in key positions.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Did the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that the Chancellor did not do more about stamp duty in the Budget? What would his policy be?

Grant Shapps: There are so many things that need to be done to get the housing market moving. I shall take them in order: most of them are in my speech. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about many things done by the Chancellor, and by the Prime Minister before him, none of which have achieved the objectives in the housing market that the Prime Minister himself set out on entering No. 10.

We have already briefly mentioned home information packs. Only today we have had further proof, from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, that the housing market is suffering as a result of expensive and bureaucratic HIPs. According to RICS, new evidence released today suggests that HIPs are distorting the market, which is leading to fewer new instructions to estate agents at a time when people are struggling to buy homes. The Minister could act decisively today: he could do something practical to help the market. I offer him an opportunity to tell us now that he will use his temporary powers to suspend HIPs. In that way, he could give real help to real people.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): As my hon. Friend will know, when the Department for Communities and Local Government was looking into HIPs, even the then Minister had to admit to the Select Committee, in response to questions, that they were not delivering as they ought to have been and were having no real effect on the market. It seemed to all of us on the Committee that they were a complete and utter waste of time, and that the Department was having to beef them up to justify their existence.

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is right. It was clear to those who listened to the evidence given to the Committee that the former Housing Minister was not keen on HIPs, but curiously she never got around to scrapping them when she had the opportunity to do so. The new Housing Minister has a clean slate. He has an opportunity to do something positive today to help people. I hope that he will take the advice not just of the Opposition Front Bench, but of organisations such as RICS and many others which say that HIPs are completely and utterly useless.

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