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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness provided us with an interesting commentary on the

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amendment, which perhaps went a little wide of its starting point. Nevertheless, it has promoted some useful thoughts to be exercised on the issue. I do not know whether the noble Baroness will accept this point, but I can recall when I was chair of our housing committee and the leader of the authority, we did seem to have to produce many strategy documents which impacted in some way on housing issues. I remember signing off quite a lot of them. However, we were always left with an abiding thought: "Hold on, have we not already told them this and isn't that information already included in that document over there?". It was rather an irritating process and I was never sure whether we were actually saying the right things when bidding for HIP money and so forth.

When I read through the speaking notes for the amendment, I found myself thinking that it makes good sense. On the one hand, I can see that the provision might look like yet another statutory burden, but on the other hand, I would argue that it provides for a sensible rationalisation and a streamlining of the process so that all those housing-related documents are pulled together.

We are fully committed to rationalising the plan burden on local authorities, but we believe that imposing this framework on all local authorities is not the right way forward. What we have sought to do is set out clearly in the Explanatory Notes, to which I have just referred again, that all local authorities will have the option to rationalise housing-related plans such as the home energy conservation report, the homelessness strategy and the housing strategy within a single document.

We believe that that will give authorities the flexibility to address centrally mandated plan requirements, but to do so in ways that will suit their local circumstances rather than the Government adopting a top-down and prescriptive approach, which would unnecessarily increase rather than ease the plan burden on local authorities.

The noble Baroness also asked about homelessness strategies and home energy conservation plans. Yes, they will be included within the single approach.

Turning to the issue raised by the noble Baroness about regional housing boards, I think that she may be getting a little ahead of herself here, but yes, of course we shall have to ensure that those important regional housing bodies are effective and able to work well with local members.

I hope that that response satisfies the points made by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Maddock: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification. I accept the purpose behind this part of the clause, as I accept that we are always passing legislation requiring local authorities, in particular local housing authorities, to do a variety of different things. It is sensible to bring all those matters together so that they can interact properly. However, my main concern turned on whether we shall still place the right emphasis on the points of policy that we want to pursue and which require the information contained

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in these reports. I say that because it is quite clear that, under the old regime—certainly as regards the provisions of the Home Energy Conservation Act—the information was not produced as had been intended. It was on that point that I sought reassurance.

I am not entirely certain that I have received the reassurance, but I have no problem with the intention behind the clause. I am concerned that we will be able to ensure that the matters we would want to emphasise ultimately may not be given the right emphasis. If the Government have not thought about how they are going to distribute such information to the regional bodies, then it is about time that they did so. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 179 not moved.]

Lord Smith of Leigh moved Amendment No. 179A:

    Page 46, line 8, at end insert—

"( ) The provisions of this section shall not apply to those authorities identified as "excellent" under the provisions of sections 100 and 101."

The noble Lord said: First, I must declare my interest as the leader of an excellent council. One of the freedoms the Government have announced for excellent authorities is that there will be no need for them to fill in a number of strategic plans that they have in mind. This probing amendment seeks to test whether such a freedom is to apply to authorities falling into the "excellent" category. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock: My noble friend Lady Hamwee has explained several times why we are not really in favour of distinguishing between local authorities. In this case I am particularly concerned. We have just debated how important these strategies are, and if the best performing authorities do not send in the information, I shall be even more worried about how local housing boards are to be able to distribute the money if they do not know what the best performing local authorities are doing.

Lord Rooker: I welcome the fact that we have reached another amendment from my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh which enables him to give himself a damn good and well-deserved pat on the back as the leader of an excellent authority. Obviously it is a very well managed authority with good delegation of powers and authorities. I pay tribute to all those involved in achieving the "excellent" category award.

Amendment No. 179A would mean that the requirement to produce a housing strategy could not be applied to those local authorities identified as "excellent". We have already announced that we shall not require excellent authorities or authorities that have produced fit-for-purpose documents to submit housing strategies or housing revenue account business plans.

In the case of the remaining authorities, we are no longer subjecting their strategies and plans to annual assessments, but instead taking a more targeted approach in which the Government Offices will

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continue to work with local authorities to address weaknesses in their planning processes and service delivery.

Amendment No. 179A would have been appropriate if we were legislating to place a statutory duty on all local housing authorities to produce a housing strategy and we needed to specify any exceptions to that rule. But that is not the case. Clause 88 has been deliberately drafted so that it does not apply universally to all housing authorities. The duty will not apply to any authority until triggered by the appropriate person. This allows us to take a tailored approach to plan requirements and assessment which will depend on local authorities' circumstances. We will therefore not apply this provision to authorities that are either "excellent" or have produced fit-for-purpose documents.

The legislation as currently drafted already allows us to take a flexible and constructive approach that is entirely consistent with the wider policy to rationalise the plan burden on local government.

I hope that, with what I firmly believe are good reassurances, my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Smith of Leigh: I thank my noble friend for that response. Just before I reply, perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that I do believe that this is an important document because housing is such an important matter. But those authorities that think comprehensively might consider housing as part of a wider strategy and not just on its own.

In view of the comments made by my noble friend to the effect that this is not a duty on "excellent" councils, and provided that we do provide information about what we intend to do in some form, I am delighted to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 88 agreed to.

Clause 89 agreed to.

Clause 90 [Housing Revenue Account subsidy: payment and calculation]:

[Amendments Nos. 180 and 181 not moved.]

Clause 90 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 181A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

5 p.m.

Clause 91 [Housing Revenue Account subsidy: negative amounts]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 182:

    Page 48, line 35, at end insert—

"(6) The Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall keep for each financial year an account (to be called a "negative housing subsidy account") and—
(a) the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall keep each account in such form as the Treasury may direct, and

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(b) the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall at such time as the Treasury may direct send copies of each account to the Comptroller and Auditor General.
(7) The Comptroller and Auditor General shall examine, certify and report on any account sent to him under subsection (2) above and shall lay copies of the account and his report before each House of Parliament or in the case of Wales before the National Assembly for Wales.
(8) For each financial year, sums received by the appropriate person in the year under subsection (1)(b) above shall be credited to the account kept for the year.
(9) For each financial year, payments made by the Secretary of State, or in the case of Wales the National Assembly for Wales, in the year under subsection (11) below shall be debited to the account kept for the year.
(10) Before a financial year begins the Secretary of State, or in the case of Wales the National Assembly for Wales, shall estimate—
(a) the aggregate of the items of account that will be credited to the account kept for the year, and
(b) the aggregate of the items of account that will be debited to the account kept for the year under subsection (9) above.
(11) The Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall make payments to the housing revenue accounts of local authorities.
(12) The aggregate of the payments made under subsection (11) above shall not be less than the estimate made by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales under subsection (10)(a) above.
(13) The Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall determine a scheme for the payments to local authorities, and the scheme shall take account of the need for investment in the housing owned by that authority.
(14) In this section "local authority" means—
(a) in relation to England—
(i) a district council,
(ii) a county council that is the council for a county in which there are no district councils,
(iii) a London borough council,
(iv) the Common Council of the City of London, or
(v) the Council of the Isles of Scilly;
(b) in relation to Wales, a county council or a county borough council.""

The noble Baroness said: A similar amendment was moved in another place, where there was some discussion about it. Since then some of the figures given by the Minister in another place have been looked at. I am grateful to the Local Government Information Unit for its briefing. I understand that the surpluses accruing from the housing revenue account to several local housing authorities will go directly to the Treasury for the Secretary of State. Concerns have been expressed that the Bill really proposes that one method by which housing revenue accounts subsidise the Treasury—when rent rebates and their subsidies were within the housing revenue account—is being substituted for another, whereby rents and any surpluses from the housing revenue account are taken back to the centre.

Part of the Minister's response in another place was that the housing account is a national housing account and that they did not want to create a situation in which allegations of unfairness could be made because

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council tax payers complained of paying a subsidy towards tenants in their areas. That partly addresses the issue whereby council tenants subsidised others through the council tax benefit system. However, my main concern is that the provision is very centralising and that reassurances given in another place show that it does not help council tenants very much.

When the Minister answered in another place, he talked about what happens at present under the housing revenue accounts. Surpluses are offset against rent rebate expenditure to produce the net subsidy figure which is met by the Department for Work and Pensions. The total cost to the Treasury consists of payments to local authorities towards rent rebates plus a housing element subsidy. When that was worked out for the present system in 2000–01, the rent rebate expenditure totalled some 3 billion; the housing revenue account surpluses totalled about 1.5 billion, leaving net rent rebates subsidy of about 2.5 billion plus a housing element of 447 million.

Under the current system the net gain to the Treasury was a little over 1 billion from the surplus housing element subsidy. Under the new system there will be no rent rebate subsidy to the housing revenue account and housing revenue account surpluses will be paid into the pool which pays housing element subsidy. I think that is the central housing revenue account about which the Minister was talking.

Therefore, had the new system been operating in 2002–03, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister would have paid something like 943 million in housing element subsidy to local authorities but 660 million would have to be met through the housing revenue account surpluses and only 283 million would be supplied by the Treasury instead of the 943 million under the current system. So I am still concerned that this is very much a centralising project. I seek further assurance that this money will be spent on housing. I am very concerned that it is going back to the centre, rather than local authorities having the ability to organise their finances. Yet again in the Bill we think that matters are getting better and that local authorities are to have more ability to manage their own finances but, ultimately, there is a central grip over those moneys from local government. I beg to move.

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