8 Dec 2009 : Column 133

8 Dec 2009 : Column 133

House of Commons

Tuesday 8 December 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Queen's Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty, having been attended with its Address of 18th November, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

I also have to inform the House that the Address of 2nd December praying that Her Majesty will appoint Professor Sir Ian Kennedy to the office of Chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the right hon. Lord Justice Scott Baker, Jackie Ballard, Ken Olisa and Professor Isobel Sharp to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request. The appointments of Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, Jackie Ballard, Ken Olisa and Professor Isobel Sharp became effective from 3rd December 2009. That of the right hon. Lord Justice Scott Baker will become effective from 12th January 2010.

Beverley Freemen Bill [ Lords]

Bill read a Second time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked-

Private Rented Housing

1. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What recent progress has been made on his Department's plans for the private rented housing sector. [304597]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): We consulted over the summer on our response to the independent review of the private rented sector conducted by Julie Rugg. We received more than 250 responses, and I intend to publish a summary of them shortly.

Linda Gilroy: May I ask the Minister about the next steps? Might they include measures to address the concern that is felt in my area and others that contain a large amount of rented private sector student accommodation?

8 Dec 2009 : Column 134

John Healey: They may include such measures. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have also consulted on proposals to strengthen local authorities' ability to deal with houses in multiple occupation, which sometimes give rise to the concern to which she refers. She will have to be a bit patient and wait for my summary, which will be available shortly to her and to all other Members throughout the House who take an interest in the issue.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): There are 8 million people in the private rented sector. At present, if a landlord's property is repossessed, the first that such people know about it is when they come home to find that the locks have been changed. A succession of Ministers have promised to legislate. When will the Minister act? When will he take on mortgage lenders and keep his promise to tenants?

John Healey: In fact there are 3 million households in the private rented sector, not 8 million, but the hon. Lady has a point. The number is rising, and last year it was up to about one in seven.

The hon. Lady is rightly concerned about the position of those who may be renting from landlords who are struggling with their mortgages, and who may not be aware that those landlords are having problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) proposes to introduce a private Member's Bill, to which I am more than prepared to give every assistance and a fair wind because it constitutes exactly the sort of legislation that I think the hon. Lady wishes to see. I hope that, in the best tradition of private Members' Bills, it will receive support from Members in all parts of the House.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): May I suggest two measures that could be considered? First, the Government could try to persuade local authorities to become more proactive in dealing with the worst landlords, particularly through the use of discretionary licensing arrangements. Secondly, they could try to persuade institutional investors to invest for the long term in high-quality developments, and also in long-term management arrangements The properties should be built, and then there should be high-quality management.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and is one of the House's experts on these matters. He is right to suggest that local authorities have an important role which could be reinforced, allowing them to take action against the worst landlords who provide the worst housing, and we are considering doing exactly that. It is one of a number of actions that we need to take to bring the general standard of the private rented sector up to scratch.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), in May the Government pledged at the earliest opportunity to change the law and give tenants at least two months' notice if their landlords' properties were being repossessed. Here we are, six months later, and nothing has happened. Why have the Government not taken advantage of an amendment to the recent Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, and why did the Queen's Speech contain no measure to deal with the
8 Dec 2009 : Column 135
problem? Do not the Department's own estimates show that 1,200 people will be evicted at short notice in the next year simply because the Government have failed to act? We now understand that they will have to do so via a private Member's Bill. Is that not the opposite to "Real help now"?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman recognises that primary legislation is required. Perhaps I can take it from his question that he and his party's Front-Bench team will support the private Member's Bill to be presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East-and if so, I warmly welcome that.

Thurrock Council

2. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): What recent discussions officials in his Department have had with representatives of Thurrock council on the posts of its chief executive and senior managers; and if he will make a statement. [304598]

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): Officials from the Government office for the east of England discussed the appointment of a permanent chief executive and other matters with the leader and senior managers of Thurrock council on 9 November. In addition, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), will in his role as Minister with responsibility for the Thames Gateway meet the leader of the council on 9 December-tomorrow.

Andrew Mackinlay: Since 2004, there have been two permanent chief executives and three interim chief executives of Thurrock council, at enormous cost and loss to the taxpayer, and now there is an interim treasurer and an interim head of housing. There is a culture of paying off people to go away, without any real examination of that. Is it not time that there was publication and full disclosure of these top salaries in Thurrock council and other councils, and that a kick up the backside was delivered in order to get this dysfunctional council working properly?

Ms Winterton: I can tell my hon. Friend that the Audit Commission is conducting its "boomerang bosses" inquiry. I can also assure him that the Government have been taking a close interest in developments in Thurrock because of the matters he raises. We have put in a level of support through the Government office for the east of England and local government organisations, which are supporting the council and the interim chief executive. We are working closely with them to ensure that a permanent chief executive is appointed, and the Government office and the Audit Commission will continue to monitor whether more formal intervention is required.

Housing Transactions

3. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): How many completed transactions there have been under the (a) mortgage rescue scheme, (b) homeowners mortgage support scheme and (c) rent to homebuy scheme. [304599]

8 Dec 2009 : Column 136

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): By the end of September, there had been almost 100 completions under the special mortgage rescue scheme and 1,800 rent to homebuy completions. Homeowners mortgage support scheme figures will be published later this month.

Mr. Mackay: Even without the unpublished figure, which is presumably pretty bad, is this not a sad little tale? It is all hype, spin and nonsense. It is about spending taxpayers' money to set up schemes that have benefited hardly anybody. Would the Minister care to apologise?

John Healey: I am stunned. What on earth does the right hon. Gentleman say to the 100 families who are still in their own homes because of this special back-stop scheme? What does he say to the 1,000 families whose applications are in the pipeline? What does he say, too, to the 330,000 families who have had help across the range of advice from Government over the past year, which has helped them when they have been struggling with their mortgage repayments and helped them to stay in their own homes without running the risk of repossession, and which is testimony to the fact that this Government have been ready to act, unlike what happened in the 1990s? That is why repossessions are running at half the rate of the last recession.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): As the housing market recovers and house prices rise, there will be a temptation for some lenders who have hitherto exercised forbearance to move to repossess properties. Will the Minister ensure that the measures that have been put in place to protect home owners are kept in place until we are completely out of the woods, in order to avoid a second spike of repossessions?

John Healey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our experience tells us and our forecasts say that, as the economy moves out of recession during next year, the pressure on repossessions will increase. I can do better than she urges me: we will not only look to keep the current support in place, but we will extend and strengthen it. We are extending the campaign that allows people to get access to free advice. We are toughening up the rules in court, too. Through the Financial Services Authority, we are also looking at toughening up the regulations on lenders, so that any repossession is genuinely a last resort. In this way, we can get ahead of the pressures we anticipate for next year, and try to ensure that more families are able to stay in their own home, which is where they should be, despite the pressures of recession.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Minister spoke of the need to extend and strengthen the schemes. Specifically, will the Department be looking at monitoring the impact that unsuccessful applications have on individuals? A constituent of mine took several months to make what was eventually an unsuccessful application. As a result, their personal financial circumstances were worse, not better. Does the Minister's Department not need to understand that impact, so that it can be sure it gets the scheme right?

John Healey: The hon. Lady did not mention which scheme she was talking about. I assume that it was the mortgage rescue scheme-

8 Dec 2009 : Column 137

Julia Goldsworthy indicated assent.

John Healey: She might like to know that we have almost trebled the number of housing associations that are part of the scheme. We have a fast-track team in place that takes referrals directly from lenders and we are doing exactly as she urges-we are learning from the experience of the scheme so far and improving it so that it is better at providing the support that is needed. If the hon. Lady would let me have the details of her case, I shall certainly look into it.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Minister is giving the House a lot of figures, so can we ask for one more? How many people to date have actually bought a home through the rent to homebuy scheme?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman might not have been listening when I gave my first answer. At the end of September, the figure was more than 1,800.

Mr. Goodman: We are very grateful to the Minister for that answer. Perhaps he will be able to tell us in a moment exactly how much that cost per person, given that expenditure on the scheme was £115 million.

The mortgage rescue scheme was meant to help up to 6,000 households at a cost of about £47,000 each. Since it has helped only 92 households to date, that works out at about £3 million per person helped. Is that the value for money that we can expect from tomorrow's pre-Budget report?

John Healey: I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. He was on the shadow Treasury team for a while, and perhaps we have seen why he is now on this team. He confuses expenditure with budgets. Not only have nearly 100 families stayed in their own homes because of the mortgage rescue scheme back-stop, but some 1,000 applications are in the pipeline and more than 11,000 families have had help and advice directly from their local authority that is part and parcel of the scheme. That is only part of the help that we have put in across the piece to help home owners who are struggling with their mortgages to stay where they should be-in their homes.

Sustainable Communities Act 2007

4. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): What his timetable is for completing the implementation of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. [304600]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): The Government are committed to implementing effectively the Sustainable Communities Act. I shall update the House later this month on how we are progressing with local spending reports. The timing of decisions on whether local proposals should be implemented will depend inevitably on the number and complexity of the proposals shortlisted.

Mr. Lancaster: Given that the Local Government Association is due to submit its proposals by the end of the month, can the Secretary of State not simply commit to making a final decision by the Easter recess?

8 Dec 2009 : Column 138

Mr. Denham: We need to look at the proposals once they have been shortlisted by the LGA. As the hon. Gentleman says, they are due-this is my understanding, although it is not in my control-before the end of the year. We then need to assess the complexity and practicality of the schemes that are proposed.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): "Planning for Prosperous Economies"-planning policy statement 4-has a lot to say about sustainable communities and particularly about the viability and vitality of town centres. Will the Secretary of State say what the Government are doing to reaffirm a commitment to "town centre first" policies and adopt a presumption against out-of-town developments, which seem to be creeping back in, and whether there has been a definition of what is meant by "town centres"?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that some years ago the Government introduced the planning guidance to which he refers with the intention of protecting town centres. Further development of that guidance is under discussion, as he will know, but I assure him that we remain as committed as we ever have been to the effective protection of town centres from unplanned and badly planned out-of-town shopping developments.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Yesterday, the Government published a Command Paper, "Smarter Government", in which the Prime Minister himself claimed to "put the frontline first" by allowing flexibility in local spending, yet nowhere in all 68 pages is there a single mention of local spending reports. Is it the Department for Communities and Local Government or, once again, the Treasury that has no interest in supporting this flagship policy of the Sustainable Communities Act?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady perhaps has not grasped the fact that the proposals for making data publicly available set out in the White Paper published yesterday are far more extensive and ambitious than those discussed when local spending reports were proposed. I made these points in a debate in the House just a few weeks ago. At that time I promised that, as we developed the work being led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and his panel of experts on making local data widely available, we would not drop our commitment to developing local spending reports in the interim. That is why I shall bring forward our proposals setting out where we will go next on local spending reports, as I promised, before the end of the year.

Mrs. Spelman: There are of course only five sitting days left before the Christmas recess, but we look forward to receiving that information. There might have been no reference to local spending reports in the document, but there was a clear reference to arm's length bodies costing the taxpayer a massive £18 billion a year. What about asking those 750 quangos to reveal in local spending reports how much they spend, or would the Minister prefer taxpayers to be kept in the dark about how much money is wasted on central bureaucracy?

Mr. Denham: We have debated this point before. The hon. Lady regards the doubling of spending by the quango known as the Higher Education Funding Council
8 Dec 2009 : Column 139
as a waste of money, but I do not. I believe that it is represented by a significant investment in universities and by opportunities for young people and older people. It is right that we want to bear down on costs and on salaries that are too high. In our previous debate on this issue, I undertook to bring forward another report on local spending reports, because I took the point that it would be useful for local spending reports to give access to available data from organisations such as the funding council and the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Lady is quite wrong to say that every penny that is spent by an organisation that funds our universities is wasted money, but she keeps saying that.

Next Section Index Home Page