The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): I am today publishing a policy paper which sets out the Government's plans to reform the social housing system. These changes will provide greater freedoms for local authorities, make better use of resources, promote fairness, and ensure that support is focused on the most vulnerable people in society.
The case for reform is strong. Our social housing is an enormously valuable national asset, providing essential support for millions of families. However, the current social housing system is failing the people it was designed to help. There are nearly 1.8 million households on social housing waiting lists-many of whom have little chance of ever receiving a social tenancy. In far too many cases the allocation of a social home leads not to independence and self-sufficiency, but appears instead to reduce incentives to work and to leave people trapped in poverty.
Social landlords provide lifetime tenancies as the default option-so that households continue to occupy a social home and to pay low rents, even if they no longer need this support. This cannot be right when so many other households in need are unable to access social housing. It is also not sensible that decisions on the types of tenancy to be awarded should be rigidly set at national level: these are decisions with local consequences which should be taken locally.
Currently, people owed the main homelessness duty can effectively insist on being offered social housing, whether they need it or not, taking around a fifth of new social lettings. This significantly restricts the number of social homes that could be made available to others in need on the housing waiting list.
We have already announced that-from April 2011-we will introduce a new affordable rent model for housing associations to offer to new tenants on a flexible tenancy and at a rent of up to 80% of local market rents. I can now inform the House that I intend to introduce a new power for local authorities to offer fixed-term, "flexible" tenancies where they consider it is appropriate when letting social housing. This will be in addition to, rather than replacing, the power to grant lifetime tenancies. With these new powers, and with a more flexible approach to regulation of both local authorities and housing associations, social landlords will be able to provide tenancies with a range of fixed periods that take account of the needs of individual tenants and the needs of the local community, and that enable the efficient management of their stock.
These reforms will only affect new tenancies. I will ensure that the security and rights of existing social tenants continue to be protected and respected. Important rights for new flexible tenants will be protected in
legislation, and through new provisions to regulate social landlords through a "tenancy standard", on which we are seeking views.
On succession rights, my intention is that all new secure and flexible tenancies will include a right to one succession for spouses and partners, but I will provide all social landlords with the flexibility to grant whatever additional succession rights they choose. No changes will be made to the succession rights of existing tenants.
Local authorities will regain the freedom to decide who should qualify to be considered for social housing and go on to their waiting list. Government will retain a role in determining who should have priority, to ensure that social housing continues to be available for those in greatest need.
We will also make it easier for social landlords to help existing tenants, previously trapped in unsuitable housing but unable to move because they lack sufficient priority within the allocations scheme. We propose to enable tenants who are not in housing need to transfer from one affordable home to another outside the allocations system. This should make it possible for more moves to take place.
Local authorities will also be able to discharge fully the main homelessness duty by arranging an offer of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector, without requiring the applicant's agreement. We will provide protection: we will ensure that the private rented tenancies offered must be for a minimum fixed-term of 12 months; and that, if the person becomes homeless again through no fault of their own within two years of accepting a private sector offer, the homelessness duty will apply again.
The policy paper which I am issuing today provides details of these changes and sets them in the context of the wider reforms to social housing which were announced in the spending review-to reform the way council housing is financed and to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing-as well as our plans to provide for greater housing mobility and to change the way social housing is regulated. The paper makes clear that we are seeking views on the content of a tenancy standard; on the case for further reforms to social housing allocations; and on the need for further reforms to address overcrowding. We are also inviting local authorities and housing associations to comment on how they would expect to use the new freedoms and flexibilities. Copies of the consultation document have been placed in the Library of the House.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb):
I am announcing today that the Government will introduce a phonics screening check for children in year 1. This will be a short, light-touch screening check based on phonic decoding designed to
confirm that children have grasped the basics of phonic decoding and identify those pupils who need extra help at an early stage, so that schools can provide support. The results of the test will provide valuable information to parents.
This screening check will play a significant role in improving reading standards in our schools. Despite the hard work of teachers and pupils, a significant minority of pupils persistently under-achieve-in 2010, 15% of seven-year-olds failed to achieve the expected level in reading. Early literacy is crucial so that children can access the whole curriculum, and are able to read for enjoyment and understanding.
The evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics, taught in the first years of a child's education, is a highly effective way of teaching children to read. A year 1 phonics screening check will enable us to pinpoint those who are struggling with phonics at an early age so they can receive the help they need to progress.
The Department is launching a public consultation today asking teachers, parents and the public to submit views on how the test should be structured and administered. The screening check will be piloted in summer 2011 and rolled out nationally in the 2011-12 academic year.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I am pleased to update the House with regard to the UN special session on Sudan I chaired at the UN Security Council on 16 November in New York. The session was attended by: UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon; Head of the African Union high-level implementation panel, President Mbeki; Sudanese Foreign Minister, Ali Karti; Secretary-General of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, Pagan Amum; UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) Special Representative, Haile Menkerios; UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) Joint Special Representative, Ibrahim Gambari; US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton; Austrian Minister for European and International Affairs, Dr Michael Spindelegger; Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sven Alkalaj; and Nigerian Foreign Minister, Henry Odein Ajumogobia. Deputy Foreign Ministers from Brazil, Uganda and Japan also attended as did Permanent Representatives from China, Russia, France, Lebanon, Gabon, Mexico and Turkey.
As I made clear to the UN Security Council in my statement, this is a defining moment for Sudan and its people, as they enter the final stages of the comprehensive peace agreement. It is a period of great risk and therefore a situation that the Security Council cannot ignore; but it is also a time of opportunity that the world cannot let go by. It is vital that the international community stands united and steadfast in its support of the CPA. That is why Sudan is the top priority for the UK's presidency of the Security Council this month and why I convened a special session of the Council last week to discuss Sudan.
I welcome the start of voter registration for the referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan which began as scheduled on 15 November. This is the first of a series of essential steps. Early indications
suggest that registration is proceeding in an orderly manner. We must all encourage timely and calm completion of this process. The process must be peaceful, credible and reflect the will of the people of southern Sudan.
We must support the parties in their efforts to agree outstanding CPA issues, particularly on the status of Abyei. I am encouraged by political talks between the parties to address issues of fundamental and long-term importance to both north and south, including citizenship, security arrangements, natural resources, assets and liabilities and the north/south border. I welcome the strong leadership of President Mbeki in bringing the parties together and welcome the work of the UN under Special Representative Haile Menkerios.
We must not lose sight of the situation in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands have suffered and died. We must work intensively with all parties involved towards a peaceful and inclusive political settlement, addressing the violence and insecurity, including by combating impunity, and supporting the peace talks in Doha. As I reiterated in New York we strongly support the work of the International Criminal Court in Darfur and urge the Government of Sudan to comply with their obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1593.
I strongly support the role of the UN/AU mission in Darfur under the leadership of Joint Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari. Access for humanitarian workers and peacekeepers must be improved and kidnappings in Darfur must end.
I welcome the role played by the Chief Mediator, Djbril Bassolé, and the support of the Government of Qatar. I urge all parties to participate in peace talks to put a definitive end to the misery in Darfur.
A stable Sudan will help build security and prosperity in the region. It will mean that Sudan does not again become a base for terrorism, or a source of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. And most importantly, it will help the Sudanese people receive the tangible benefits of peace that have eluded them for so long. We must continue to strive to this end. I will be discussing Sudan at the Foreign Affairs Council today and will use the opportunity to stress the importance of finding solutions to the issues facing Sudan and supporting the parties in their efforts to bring a lasting peace to Sudan.
The presidency statement on behalf of the Security Council can be found at: http://ukinsudan.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=Speech&id=92388682.
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell):
I wish to update the House on my visit to Sudan between 8 and 11 November 2010. During my visit to Khartoum, El-Fasher and Juba, I met with: Vice President, Ali Osman Taha; President of the Government of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir; presidential
adviser on Darfur, Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani; other Government Ministers; a range of Sudan's political leaders; the chairman of the southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC), Professor Ibrahim Khalil; and members of civil society. I also met with: visiting UN Under-Secretary Generals, Baroness Amos and Alain Le Roy; UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) Special Representative Haile Menkerios; UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) Joint Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari; members of the UN Country Team; humanitarian actors; and NGOs. In Juba, I opened the new HMG Office, which will house staff from DFID, the FCO, the Stabilisation Unit and the Ministry of Defence.
In north and south Sudan, I stressed the importance of the referendum being credible, peaceful and on time. I delivered messages on the importance of both parties agreeing the outstanding comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) issues such as Abyei, citizenship and the border. The UK is actively supporting the referendum, including through financial support to the UN development programme basket fund for the referendum process which will provide voter education, civic education, practical assistance and technical support. We are also providing technical assistance to the talks on border demarcation and security arrangements.
I made it clear to the Governments in the north and south that the UK is committed to the longer-term future of both north and south Sudan whatever the outcome of the referendum. Through successful completion and implementation of the CPA and progress towards peace and justice in Darfur, the north has an opportunity to change its political relationships with the international community. The Government of southern Sudan must set out a vision for the future with which its citizens can engage, including making appropriate investments to support diversification of the economy into non-oil
activity. The UK has a substantial development programme in south Sudan, an area where thousands of adults are illiterate and women and children are more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary education. Among other benefits, this programme has already provided basic services for over 1.8 million people so far. We remain committed to supporting the long-term future of southern Sudan, and working with the Government to help improve the lives of those who live there.
I found the situation in Darfur much changed since the Prime Minister and I visited in 2006, but in discussions with Government Ministers and advisers, I underlined my concern about the security situation in parts of the three states. I called for the immediate and unconditional release of the four European nationals currently being held hostage (one Hungarian UNAMID peacekeeper and three Latvian world food programme pilots), and stressed the need for the full and unhindered access for humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. I urged all sides to refrain from military escalation in Darfur, and to engage constructively with the AU/UN mediation to work towards an inclusive and sustainable peace agreement for Darfur. I reiterated the UK's support for the International Criminal Court and urged the Government of Sudan to engage with the Court.
I underlined to senior UN representatives that the international community could not be caught short in its preparedness to respond to a referendum-related humanitarian crisis in Sudan. I stressed the need for the UN and its agencies to have comprehensive contingency plans in place to address any potential future challenges.