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Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, it has been an interesting and constructive debate on an extremely important issue. There have been many valuable contributions from all parts of the House, and I shall endeavour not to detain the House too long at this stage of the evening.

The need for secure housing is one of the most crucial issues facing today's society. It is a basic right that those holding a position of influence—like us—must acknowledge and respect, and that those disadvantaged and alienated must expect. Housing has a fundamental impact on an individual's life chances. Put simply, without a stable home environment, both education and health opportunities are likely to suffer. Equally, employment prospects will be seriously affected. For people caught in the cycle of despair, access to housing is crucial in attempting to break free from its shackles. I have said that because I wanted to
 
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echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, and the noble Lord, Lord Rix. We very much support them on the issue of disabilities.

I fear that the Government have missed a valuable opportunity to bring about a real change and improvement to the housing sector. What could have been a progressive and forward-looking Bill is still rather undistinguished. What could have been a clear and insightful Bill is somewhat muddled and confused. Furthermore, the Bill introduces unwelcome elements that will do nothing to ease the current problems in the housing market. Indeed, the Government have taken the opportunity to load even more bureaucracy and burdens on almost everyone involved in housing, from the private individual who merely wants to sell their house, to the good landlord who will have to cope with additional form-filling.

Paradoxically, there are also significant elements missing from the Bill. There is no mention, for example, of rural housing—several noble Lords mentioned that, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—and the particular problems of affordability in rural areas. We all know of those difficult issues. There is also nothing on the problems experienced in national parks, and nor is the issue of empty homes adequately dealt with anywhere in the Bill.

I would like to turn in detail to some of the key issues in the Bill. The plan for mandatory home information packs is an unnecessary and ill thought-out measure, merely acting as a burden and additional stealth tax on the individual. It will do nothing to speed up the house-buying process. It has received criticism from all quarters except one or two noble Lords tonight. Although the issue of sellers' packs has received the most attention, it is by no way the only contentious issue in the Bill. I must stress that in case the Minister thought that he would get off lightly in the scrutiny of the rest of the Bill.

If the Government feel that transactions will be quicker and more user-friendly, with reduced gazumping and benefits to the consumer, we would like to hear more about that. However, we feel that the packs will do nothing to speed up property transactions, as purchasers will still more than likely wish to commission their own surveys, hence the proposals will simply duplicate the number of surveys undertaken, adding to the cost of selling one's home.

As my noble friends Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market and Lord Caithness have so adequately covered all the problems with that part of the Bill, and as we shall follow up much of what they said through amendments and scrutiny of the Bill, I need not say much more about that tonight, except that comparisons with Denmark and Australia are irrelevant as their processes and, especially, their volumes are nothing like those in England.

Furthermore, I am especially worried about the problems of the elderly. Much of our correspondence has come from elderly people. The introduction of such complex, expensive legislation with potential
 
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legal problems has concerned many elderly and other disadvantaged people who could be dissuaded from moving until an absolute crisis point has been reached. Again, the issue was most adequately raised by my noble friend Lord MacGregor, who referred to those who sell a house but do not buy another one—such as many elderly people. Those issues need to be scrutinised and queried as we examine the Bill.

The Bill also seems to attack the principle of the right to buy by introducing restrictions in what the Government deem to be high-demand and rural areas. We have doubts about the Government's real commitment to the scheme, but we are of course willing to consider and support any measures that stop naked abuse of it. We want an assurance that those restrictions are in no way likely to have a negative impact on people's ability to acquire property of their own.

The right to buy has allowed ordinary people who would otherwise not have been able to do so the opportunity to own their own home. Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us what assessment has been made of the restrictions that have been introduced during the past year about the number of people taking part in the right-to-buy scheme. My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith raised an issue that we shall pursue further in Committee concerning the right-to-buy scheme and private developers. We will consider that further.

The licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation is also an important part of the Bill. Although we must be mindful of the balance between regulation and the proper protection of vulnerable citizens, we are concerned about the intrusion of officialdom into private residences, together with the resulting red tape and bureaucracy. We support the intent to bring a degree of order where genuine abuses are occurring. However, a balance must be struck that does not act as a disincentive to those who want to provide much-needed accommodation for rent, as several noble Lords have mentioned tonight. Also, would such a licensing scheme cover those in greatest need?

The Bill would also allow local authorities to take and rent out property left empty. We have grave and substantial concerns about that aspect of the Bill, which gives rise to serious issues about the intervention of the state into the affairs of the individual. We will argue that hasty action by councils could cause distress where there is good reason for a property to remain empty temporarily, such as a family bereavement. We want to explore those issues further in Committee.

On the additional provisions on park homes, surely, as my noble friend Lady Hanham and others mentioned, it would seem sensible to include houseboat owners. Houseboat owners own their boats but not the mooring to which the boat is attached. The owners enjoy no rights vis à vis the licensed moorings manager. Surely the Minister will agree that they are in a similar position to owners of park homes and should be included in the Bill.

The Bill will give public money to the private sector for the construction of social housing. Does the Minister agree that such a step is being adopted merely to speed up the delivery of many more homes and an
 
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unwanted housebuilding programme in some parts of the country, including mine? Furthermore, questions need to be answered about the percentage split of social housing grant between the registered social landlords, local authorities and the private sector. What would happen were a private company using public cash to go bankrupt?

Finally, I touch on the issue of fitness standards and the introduction of new housing health and safety rating systems. Although we can support the intent of such measures, I wonder about the cost of implementation for local authorities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, there have been no guarantees about where that money might come from. Reports have suggested a figure of around £5 million. Perhaps the Minister could assure us that they have sufficient financial resources and capacity to cope with such new responsibilities. We all know, and it has been said many times, that local authorities are given responsibilities without any cash. This is an opportunity to explore that issue.

This is a wide-ranging Bill covering many extremely important issues. We have major concerns, and we hope to improve on the Bill as it stands. As I said at the outset, it is a very important Bill. The Government's legislation is now under scrutiny and will go into Committee, when I look forward to working with my noble friend Lady Hanham.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. Like my noble friend Lord Rooker, I think that this is one of the most interesting Bills that I have had the pleasure of spending time looking at and preparing for. From the wide-ranging comments made during what was a long debate given how late we started, I can tell that we will have fascinating debates in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading as we go through the detail of the legislation.

It was interesting to note the areas where there was consensus, where there was disagreement and where most of the disagreement was focused. It does not take a brain surgeon to work out that we ran into most criticism on the part dealing with home information packs. From what has been said, I can predict that we will spend a lot of time on that in Committee. That is fair enough. Having listened to the intensity and the detail of the questions on the matter, my noble friend Lord Rooker and I will deal with those as extensively as we can later, in the amending process. However, I will pick up some of the points raised during the debate.

The Bill is extensive; it covers a wide range of subjects relating to housing and the housing market. As such, it is part of a comprehensive action plan to create sustainable communities. We have set out our plans very clearly on several occasions. We have backed that with a marked increase in resources—some £22 billion. I think that I can fairly argue that there has been a positive step-change on the part of government in tackling the many different housing
 
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problems, north and south, that this country faces. The Bill is a part of that action plan to create sustainable communities and to raise housing standards.

I want to begin with Part 1, which surprisingly attracted least interest and commentary. However, I pay credit to our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock, made important references to Part 1, and I shall come to their points. Unlike some of his Conservative colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, also raised issues of concern; in particular, that relating to the cost of implementation for local authorities.

The current housing fitness standard dates back over 80 years, and there is agreement that it needs to be replaced. Tackling health and safety issues in housing is an approach that looks at the impact of the property on the individual as well as at the state of the house itself. The Bill paves the way for that approach with a rating system. This will help local authorities to prioritise activity and to target properties where there are health and safety hazards, and where risks to residents are greatest—that is its value. It will put those health and safety considerations at the front of the Government's drive to improve housing.

During the course of extensive scrutiny of the Bill, we have tried to pick up on many of the issues raised on that matter. One of the criticisms was that local authorities would not be able to take action to prevent houses falling into disrepair in future. We argue actually that local authorities will be able to take effective enforcement action where disrepair presents a risk to the health and safety of occupants. Of course, that will be a matter for local authority priorities. The housing health and safety rating system will become a useful evidence-based tool to tackle that range of problems.

From memory, it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who raised the issue of consultation on this section of the Bill. An unfinalised draft of version 2 of the technical guidance has been published by the ODPM and was posted on its website towards the end of last year. Research on version 1 of this guidance identified some practical difficulties. The comments made have helped us in the development of version 2. We will continue to consult on this, as we have already consulted on the enforcement guidance earlier this year. We are still considering responses to that, and we will be providing guidance for landlords before implementation.

I remind the House why we are introducing licensing regimes. A vigorous and responsive private sector is an important part of developing sustainable communities, and it offers flexibility of tenure to a wide group of people, and a real and genuine alternative to owner-occupation and social renting. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, the majority of private landlords in this sector are decent and responsible people. Licensing
 
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is important because it enables us to target and to improve the private rental sector and better promote its image. Good landlords will benefit from this scheme. They will not be tarred with the same brush as the bad landlords.

The licensing of houses in multiple occupation is an important part of our approach, and it has been welcomed notably by the Liberal Democrat Benches. Licensing will enable us to concentrate on management problems and the poor physical stock condition of many houses in multiple occupation. I do not think that anyone would pretend that this is a sector that can be left. Our aim is to use licensing to tackle poor management, and to identify properties where poor physical conditions will be targeted under the rating system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, definitions will be important, and questions of definitions will no doubt come up in debates on that part of the Bill.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock, raised questions as to the extension of the licensing scheme to cover student accommodation. That was based on some experience that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, had as a ward councillor. I recognise the issue, as it is one that affected residents in my city. Obviously, a range of measures can be used to tackle such problems, and the housing health and safety rating system, which will be used by local authorities, will be able to attack many of them. Licensing will tackle the worst problems, but in our estimation we need to get the balance right between protecting tenants and unnecessary over-regulation.

I want to spend a little time on home information packs, because that was a large part of the debate this evening. We had welcomes from the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, and concerned criticism from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor and Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I can best summarise their criticisms as saying that it would be better if we did not have this, but if we have to have it, it should be voluntary. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said that it was a good idea in principle, but perhaps not in practice. I understand the import of the questions that were asked. We have given a long time-frame for the introduction of this part of the legislation. I look forward to more extensive debates on the questions of detail that were properly raised this evening.

I recognise that there will be concerns about the practical implementation of the home information packs. I want to correct one profoundly wrong impression that was given in some comments this evening; that there is not support for this out there in the market and among consumers. Clearly, consumers welcome this. The trials that have been conducted, particularly in Bristol, showed that there is widespread and extensive support among consumers, and that people thought that it was a valuable and vital change to make.
 
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As to the market itself, and those who are in the business of property transaction, there is support from the Halifax Building Society and from TEAM Conveyancing, one of the largest groupings of independent estate agency firms. We have also had support for the scheme from the director of Legal Marketing Services, Andrew Knee. He was supportive of the HIP proposals, and he looked forward to the opportunities they represent. He made the point that,

We all accept that, and we recognise that it is an important point.

Noble Lords questioned the cost and its impact. We do not accept those arguments. Some of the costs identified as being additional that have been criticised are actually costs that exist at the moment and will be defrayed by the implementation of the scheme.

It is important to look at the experience elsewhere. The Danish experience and that in New South Wales give us encouragement. In the end, the home information packs will be widely welcomed by consumers. The cost implications are likely to be neutral, and there will be a benefit to those who receive the packs in terms of the way in which transactions are conducted. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, made the point that market forces are important in this regard, and my guess is that they will dictate how costs will be met. I look forward to listening to more of the detailed comments that will come forward on this in Committee, because I recognise the importance of the issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised the issue of water efficiency. I can, I think, reassure her and say that flood risk information is one of the items that will be considered for inclusion in the home information pack as part of the standard search agreements.

I shall move on to some of the other measures in the Bill, because they are important. There was extensive discussion of the changes we are intending to introduce to the right-to-buy provisions. We all recognise the important part that right-to-buy has played over the past two decades, and the Government remain totally committed to the principle of right to buy. This scheme has helped many thousands of ordinary families to realise their aspirations to own their own homes, and it has helped to create stable and mixed-tenure communities. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was concerned about the impact of the first range of changes that we made. I do not have that information here, but I am more than happy to write to him on that issue. We should move forward with the maximum knowledge and information about the impact of changes. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, supported the changes that we were making. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton was also supportive, because of his concern about the impact of what he described as scams and abuses that needed to be tackled.

We are trying to mitigate some of the adverse impact of the way in which the current right-to-buy scheme works and its impact on the availability of affordable housing in some areas. It is for that reason that we wish to close off some of the exploitation of the current rules
 
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to curb profiteering and tackle exploitation. My noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde said that we should consider going further to curb some of the more adverse effects of right-to-buy. Of course, if it is right for us to make such changes, we will, but they must be targeted and proportionate. That, I think, is the plea that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made.

Some concern was expressed about the grants by housing corporations to non-registered social landlords. It is an important part of the Bill. Demand for affordable housing is outstripping supply, causing prices to rise, and we want to use grants to ensure that we increase the provision of affordable housing. In the past, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has given detailed information on that. No doubt, we will have to look at it more closely in order to assure colleagues and those who are concerned about the impact of those provisions, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock.

We want to ensure that we have value for money. The new approach is designed to ensure that more affordable housing is made available to those who need it while securing maximum value for money for our housing programme. We will work closely with the Housing Corporation to ensure that appropriate checks and balances are included in the appraisal procedure so that the respective merits or bids for grants from registered social landlords and their new private sector competitors can be accurately assessed by the Housing Corporation. That will consider not only the upfront costs of each bid but also the long-term sustainability of the products on offer.

A number of noble Lords referred to park homes. We should congratulate my noble friend Lord Rowlands on his part in keeping that issue at the forefront of people's thinking, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for her long campaigning on that issue. Your Lordships will be aware that the measures in the Bill are designed to afford protection, which is the overall thrust of what we are trying to achieve. Quite rightly, a question was asked about houseboat owners. I can give an assurance that those who occupy houseboats will be covered and will have an equivalent protection. I hope that that satisfies that particular concern, which was raised by a number of noble Lords.

The issue of overcrowding was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. We have included a provision that would allow Ministers to repeal existing standards and to empower, but not require, Ministers to set out overcrowding standards by secondary legislation. I can give an assurance that the Government will provide sufficient time and flexibility to consult widely and to consider carefully the way in which any changes to the standards should be made. We intend to use the consultation period to invite views on the role of national standards and the extent to which local authorities should have discretion to set their own local standards. We expect that consultation to take place during the summer.
 
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We gave an assurance that we would bring forward measures on tenancy deposit protection. The precise detail of that package is being worked out at present. Our intention is to legislate for the approval of schemes that will safeguard tenancy deposits. I am grateful for the support that we have had for that measure from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, who rightly described the exploitation that takes place in some areas and, in particular, his experience based in Brent.

We attracted some criticism from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for our empty homes strategy. In his opening remarks, he suggested that we were setting about dealing with the problem in a completely wrongheaded way and that our measures would not be very effective. We have to start somewhere. We think that we are right to bring forward a scheme, which will be based, I have little doubt, on the best practice that many local authorities have already established in that sector. The noble Lord probably knows more about that than I do. Certainly, the leaseback schemes that I was familiar with as the leader of a local authority in the early 1990s were very effective. Of course, we will consult very carefully on that.

Our intention is that local authorities will be able to make management orders on empty homes that are similar to provisions already set out in Part 4. We intend to make modifications to the Bill. Of course, we will table amendments in due course. That will provide us with the opportunity to have discussions in Committee. No doubt, we shall want to explore some of those issues in some detail with the Local Government Association and those interested in housing issues in particular.

Before I sit down, I should like to turn to accessible housing and the plea made quite rightly by my noble friend Lady Wilkins and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for careful measures in that field. We recognise the importance of that range of issues. The plea for equality of access was one which I am sure all members of your Lordships' House would wish to share. I look forward to the debate when amendments will be tabled for us to consider. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, argued perfectly properly for an opportunity for this measure to be given fair consideration.

We do not at present favour the creation of a registration scheme because it will place a disproportionate burden on local authorities. Some local authorities already exercise such a register to deal with the range of subjects which the noble Baroness outlined in her comments.

In introducing this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, set out how the Government are delivering their sustainable communities' programme and the important part that housing plays in that. We have backed that with considerable additional resources and have put increased resources into all areas of housing, not least rural housing, which was raised by a number of noble Lords this evening, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. We have trebled the amount of money that we put into that sector. We intend to continue to invest in rural
 
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housing and ensure that we provide housing through the social landlord route.

We are now tackling low demand and transforming failing housing markets through nine Pathfinder projects backed with £500 million worth of market renewal funding. We are accelerating our new building programme where it is most needed. We are developing four growth areas in London and the wider south-east, which have the potential to deliver an extra 200,000 homes and over 300,000 jobs over the next 10 to 15 years. These are significant measures. This Bill will complement those measures.
 
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We have had an extensive debate on what is a very wide-ranging Bill, and I certainly understand and acknowledge the important points raised. I hope that in Committee and during the other stages we can begin to explore those issues in greater depth and detail than we have had the opportunity to do from the Government Benches this evening. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time.


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