I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time. The Bill was published on
Early last year, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out the Government's vision for sustainable communities. In that statement, he recognised candidly that for more than 30 years, all Governments had failed to meet housing need. In particular, Government investment in housing declined significantly during the 1990s, leading to an increase in social housing disrepair compared with the rest of the housing stock. As a consequence, in 1997, the Government inherited a colossal backlog of £19 billion in social housing repairs, and a declining number of newly built homes. More than 2 million homes in the social sector were substandard, and there were similar problems in the private sector.
Why are local authorities such as New Forest district council not being allowed to spend their housing budget on desperately needed new houses, but are required by the Minister's imposed policy to deploy that budget on repairs, despite the fact that their stock is in good condition? That policy might be appropriate to northern metropolitan boroughs with a history of neglect, but it is not in the south-east. Will he be more flexible?
The hon. Gentleman ought to be aware that opportunities for the new build of social housing are afforded by funding streams other than those through local authorities. As I shall explain, I make no apology for focusing the spending of a local authority on significant housing disrepair where that remains.
We responded to the challenge of disrepair with large-scale additional resources. We trebled council funding for homes from £750 million in 1997 to about £2.5 billion this year. Choices had to be made—we could not deal with everything at once—so in 1998 the new Government made tackling disrepair our top priority. We did so because we believed that it would benefit the greatest number of people and would make the biggest difference most quickly. It also prevented the further loss of stock. Accordingly, we introduced the decent homes standard for homes that are properly weather-proofed with central heating and modern bathrooms and kitchens. The approach is now showing results.
This year, we shall have reduced the number of substandard homes by about 1 million since 1997. We are making good progress and we aim to ensure that all social housing tenants will enjoy the decent homes standards by 2010. In other words, we shall have completed the huge task of bringing nearly 2.5 million substandard homes up to the decent homes standard by that date.
Funding for new social housing, through the Housing Corporation's approved development programme, also declined through the 1990s. The spending review of 2000 reversed that decline. Investment in new social housing will increase still further, to about £5 billion, over the three years from 2003–04—double the level that we inherited in 1997.
I am glad to hear that the Government have plans to start building some houses in the future. How does the Minister account for the fact that in the last six years of the Conservative Government, we built an average of 31,274 houses per annum, while during the first six years of this Government, the figure was 18,000?
The hon. Gentleman ought to bear in mind the fact that in that period, funding for social housing new build declined by half—a decline that we are now putting right. We took a clear decision that the priority needed to be dealing with the colossal £19 billion backlog of refurbishment and modernisation of social housing stock. We are now investing seriously in the building of new social housing, but there are problems, as I shall explain. There will always be a need for new houses everywhere, and we want that need to be met, but new build housing on the largest scale is required only in certain parts of the country.
That is why the Housing Corporation's approved development programme is increasingly targeted at the areas that need it most: London and the south-east. I have to tell the House, and Mr. Gray, that the blunt truth is that those areas are also the areas of highest cost generally and of mounting construction and land costs, which means that the number of housing units completed for any given input has tended to decline.
Nevertheless, we are resolved to accelerate new building where it is most needed. The sustainable communities plan, published in February 2003, announced the development of four growth areas in London and the wider south-east, which have the potential to deliver an extra 200,000 homes over the next 10 to 15 years. Affordable housing is a key part of that development.
The Minister will recognise, as I do, the enormous need for more social housing in London. Is he prepared to introduce legislation or amend the Bill to ensure that 50 per cent. of all developments are for social housing developments? Will he also prevent local authorities and public corporations from selling off existing buildings and land that could be used to meet the terrible housing crisis that many of poorest people in London face?
I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing and distinguished record for expressing concern about housing issues. I have to tell him that the Government have set out indicative guidelines on the proportion of social housing that we expect to be delivered in any major housing development. He will also be aware that for large-scale housing developments, the Mayor has laid down clear criteria that are, in most cases, being fulfilled. We are happy about that, but it is essentially a matter for local authorities and for local decision-making. We want to encourage local authorities to respond to the challenges in a way that best meets the needs of local communities.
I want to make some progress. The communities plan sets out the policies, resources and partnerships necessary to deliver a new approach to how and what we build—an approach that connects housing with transport, jobs, public services and improving the local environment. However, the communities plan goes wider than the particular challenges of the south-east: it represents a step change in our approach to development, in order to deliver decent affordable homes and a good quality local environment in all regions. It aims to tackle the challenges of rapid demographic and economic change, the legacy of poor health and conditions, serious housing shortages in areas of high demand, and the impact of housing abandonment in places, in the north and midlands.
We are continuing to find other ways of increasing housing supply and securing better value for money. For example, we are encouraging modern methods of construction and widening the scope of those who can receive Housing Corporation funding.
On that point, does the Minister agree that the current research in north Staffordshire, which is about using the most up-to-date and sustainable construction methods, will be essential to deliver his agenda? Does he agree that Burslem urgently needs funding from Advantage West Midlands to construct a construction skills centre? There is a real fear that the money will not be available in this financial year. If it is not, it could undermine the Government's intention to have a new construction skills centre there as quickly as possible.
I am delighted to hear about the commitment being made in my hon. Friend's locality towards modern methods of construction. I know that there are major regeneration issues there. She mentioned Advantage West Midlands, which I am sure will have heard her observations—and of course, I undertake to look further into the matter myself.
May I put the real problem to the Minister? The Deputy Prime Minister said that 3.75 million houses would be needed by 2011, but the former Conservative Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry, mentioned 4.25 million. We are not building that many houses. PPG3 said that they should be built on brownfield sites, but we are running out of them, so we have to build on greenfield sites. We are not building on greenfield sites, so the price of houses is going up as a result of a shortage. It is all a question of how we are going to build more houses. Until we build more houses, prices will not go down. If prices do not go down, we will not build more affordable houses unless the Government invest much more money. That is the problem.
The hon. Gentleman presents a far-reaching and comprehensive analysis, much of which I agree with—but let me reassure him about one point: as he is aware, the Government have adopted a policy of "brownfield first", and we have set a target of 60 per cent. new build on brownfield sites in London and the wider south-east. That target has been exceeded considerably, the figure now standing at 75 per cent. We are therefore making very serious progress, but part and parcel of the solution to further build on brownfield sites is our commitment to greater density of build. That gives rise to separate issues in respect of higher and greater build density, and I am delighted to say that recent statistics show that progress is also being made in that direction.
I am being inundated with requests to give way, but perhaps I can reassure Members on both sides of the House by pointing out that I have a lot more to say, and that there will be ample opportunity for me to give way and to listen to their remarks later. First, I should at least set out the Bill's context.
I was talking about the need to increase housing supply, a subject on which there is common ground on both sides of the House. I remind Members that it is for that purpose that we asked Kate Barker to review the issues underlying the lack of supply and responsiveness of housing in the UK. We welcomed her interim report and its analysis, and we look forward to her spring report.
We have achieved a great deal, but we do of course need to do more. That is why, in the next three years, we shall back the communities plan with a massive £22 billion worth of investment in housing and communities. That is why we are increasing the total resources devoted specifically to housing to £11 billion by 2005–06—a 30 per cent. increase on last year's spend. And that is also why, over the next three years, we are committing at least £1 billion to key worker housing—more than three times the rate of spend in the current year—tackling low demand and transforming failing housing markets through nine pathfinder projects, backed by a £500 million market renewal fund. We have already announced the £125 million pathfinder scheme for east Manchester and Salford, and we expect to make more announcements shortly.
Does the Minister agree that the private sector—particularly smaller-scale private building companies—also has a contribution to make in helping to meet the objectives that he has clearly explained to the House? Is he aware that the way in which current housing policy is being applied, particularly in respect of the number of houses that can be built in the north-west, is inhibiting the contribution that those private builders can make to achieving his objectives? Can he assure me that he will look into that matter in the context of the Bill, and subsequently?
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman carefully and with interest, and I am happy to assure him that I will consider his assertions and endeavour to respond to him in due course.
In addition to our commitments in respect of new build of houses, key worker housing and renewing failing housing markets, we have extended the decent homes target to the private sector, and we expect to make steady progress in increasing the proportion of vulnerable households living in decent homes in the private sector. In order to sharpen our housing delivery mechanisms, we are targeting housing investment on regional and local priorities through the regional housing boards, which we established to integrate housing with regional, economic and planning strategies.
The Minister has talked a lot about the need to increase the amount of social and affordable housing, and about some of the various things that the Government are doing. However, as we are discussing the Housing Bill, can he tell me which of its measures will actually increase the amount of such housing?
We have proposals to encourage investment through the Housing Corporation in companies that can engage in that area, and we are certainly in the business of restoring to use many properties that have fallen into decay, which is a central purpose of the Bill.
We continue to look to the future. We welcome the Law Commission's work on tenure reform, and its report, which was published in November. We look forward to proposals for a draft Bill later this year, and we expect to build on that work to move forward on some of the important issues that will not be addressed by the Housing Bill, such as tenant deposit protection, which could fit well with the models of written agreement proposed by the commission.
I am tempted to say, Mr. Speaker, that they do not like it up 'em. The Government have sought to turn round a record of housing decline and disaster—indeed, we are succeeding in doing so. I absolutely understand why Mr. Heald does not want to hear about our excellent record.
It is essential that we set the Bill's proposals in the context of our wider housing and regeneration policy. New build, regeneration and the modernisation of our social housing stock are vital, but so is the role of the private rented sector. We are committed to the promotion of quality and choice across all types of housing, as we set out clearly in our housing policy statement in December 2000, which was the first comprehensive review of housing since the 1970s. In that statement we expressed our belief that the private rented sector offers an important and flexible form of tenure to a wide group of people and a genuine alternative to owner occupation and social renting. A thriving, vigorous private rented sector can also encourage mobility and choice, and provide a step on to the first rung of the housing ladder, or starter housing. It can make a major contribution to the flexibility and success of the wider economy.
We are already improving quality in the private rented sector through extra money and new powers for local authorities' private sector renewal work, and through our funding of the £2 million private landlords project to work with private sector landlords to improve the management and condition of housing in selected areas with acute problems of low demand. Indeed, the importance attached by the Government to a vigorous and responsive private rented sector was reflected in last month's pre-Budget report by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who announced our intention to consult on the introduction of United States-style real estate investment trusts—REITs, as they are known—to remove the tax disadvantages currently faced by institutions and to promote investment in the private sector. He also indicated that we would consider a domestic business tax allowance to give more favourable tax treatment to private landlords who make capital improvements to promote energy efficiency.
Part 3 of the Bill will be very much welcomed, not least by local authorities such as Gateshead council, which has long campaigned for a system of licensing private landlords. The Bill refers to areas of low housing demand. Is my right hon. Friend aware that that means areas that have become run-down because of neglect, or sometimes because of the deliberate policy of absentee landlords who let to antisocial and sometimes criminal elements to reduce property values and build up their empires? In the meantime, decent people are either driven out or made subject to the criminal racist behaviour of such people. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the Bill will give local authorities all the powers that they need to put an end to that cancer in some of our urban areas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am aware that there are serious issues concerning antisocial behaviour and poor housing conditions as a result of abandonment in his constituency, and in a number of other local authority areas in the north of England and the midlands. That is why we are determined to take action through the Bill to curb the activities of a rogue element by introducing much needed reforms to both the private rented sector and the owner-occupied sector. The Bill will also introduce provision for social housing where action is needed, covering England and Wales.
The two worst cases of antisocial behaviour that I have dealt with have happened when social services departments outside my own local authority entered into contracts with private landlords and then set people who were not qualified in any sense to support the people involved, who have turned out to be antisocial tenants. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that social services departments have a responsibility to give support to tenants who have behaviour patterns that they may not be able to control. That is an important element to consider when we examine the licensing of private properties.
My hon. Friend is right. If we confer new powers on local authorities to take action in the private rented sector, it is equally incumbent on those local authorities to take appropriate action to limit antisocial behaviour in the properties for which they are responsible. The new powers are widely applauded and will go a long way towards addressing the problem of antisocial behaviour, but experience indicates that early intervention—not least through social services departments—is also important.
In March last year we published the Housing Bill in draft form. By the way, I should point out to Opposition Front Benchers that I have been talking about the Housing Bill for some time, as they would know if only they had been listening. In July the Select Committee published its report on the draft Bill. That exercise proved yet again the value of pre-legislative scrutiny. We were able to respond positively to more than 40 of the Committee's recommendations, including those on houses in multiple occupation and changes to the right-to-buy provisions.
The Housing Bill will provide new powers to tackle problems and inequalities in the private housing sector. Many of the most vulnerable in our society live in private sector accommodation, often in conditions that we should not tolerate, and will tolerate no longer. We will use regulation imaginatively and where the risks are greatest; we will not regulate for its own sake.
We all welcome the long overdue licensing of houses in multiple occupation. I was a member of the Select Committee, which had some concerns about the exemption of student accommodation. We accept that halls of residence are properly monitored and inspected by the educational establishment, but we are concerned about student accommodation in the community. I would welcome my right hon. Friend's views on that issue, because young people leaving home for the first time are vulnerable to problems such as dodgy wiring and unsafe gas appliances. Student homes should be included in the licensing provisions.
Order. Interventions are getting rather long. I have put a 10-minute limit on speeches to accommodate the many Members who wish to speak, and long interventions are unfair to those who are waiting to be called.
By that token, Mr. Speaker, it is appropriate for me to get on with my speech now, instead of being as generous as I have been heretofore in allowing interventions. I assure my hon. Friend that the proposals for the licensing of HMOs will catch a proportion of student accommodation. However, the purpose of the legislation is to improve the management of properties, not to determine the areas in which students live. I know that concern about student accommodation is widespread, especially among Labour Members, but the Bill includes provision for the extension of an HMO licensing system to areas with clear generic evidence of defective and unsatisfactory accommodation. That may embrace the possibility of extending the licensing system to cover student accommodation, but that is not the central purpose of the Bill, which is to improve the quality of management of the properties most at risk in the HMO sector.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, in opposition the Labour party campaigned vigorously for the licensing of HMOs. I have in my hand a document produced by the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire when he was shadow housing spokesman, which advocates the licensing of HMOs with four or fewer occupants. Mandatory licensing will apply only to larger HMOs, which will not cover the Bournbrook area of my constituency where there is a large student population, usually four to a house in two-storey houses. The prevalence of such accommodation causes environmental degradation and antisocial behaviour problems. What hope can my right hon. Friend give the permanent residents of such areas that the local authority will have the necessary power to deal with those very real problems?
I fully understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and other Members about that issue. She should remember, however, that the purpose of the legislation is to deal with the management of properties. Where there is clear evidence of defective management, in terms of the poor condition of properties and the antisocial behaviour of the occupants, there is a basis for intervention. We are trying to focus the legislation on the properties most at risk according to all the available evidence; for example, where there is the highest number of fatalities from fire. We are not in the business of regulating the whole sector—that is not our purpose.
In respect of areas of high student density, our feeling is that the appropriate response from the local authority should be threefold: first, to look carefully at accreditation; secondly, to give greater consideration to the opportunities available through local planning and guidance; and thirdly, to work more carefully with the university authorities. My Department is engaging in depth with the Department for Education and Skills so that we can co-ordinate our approach to problems such as excessive concentrations of students and their wider social implications.
I fear that I must not give way; as colleagues have pointed out, I have already spoken at some length.
I come to the issue raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Clelland. Decent homes and respectable neighbourhoods are vital to sustainable communities. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country the problems of house price collapse and of abandonment are exacerbated by the irresponsibility of rogue landlords who buy cheap and rent out properties that are often in poor condition, often to antisocial tenants whose activities further debase the local environment.
The Bill will give local authorities new powers selectively to license private landlords in such areas of low housing demand, or in other areas where there is a particular problem, perhaps of antisocial behaviour, for which licensing could be part of the solution. Local authorities will be able to set new and higher standards of management in such properties. If landlords do not comply, the local authority will have the power to take over the management of the property. We believe those measures will be a helpful addition to the armoury of weapons with which local authorities can already tackle antisocial behaviour. We are open-minded about other circumstances in which licensing, sensitively deployed, could make a vital difference to local communities.
Houses in multiple occupation often exhibit some of the worst housing conditions. They may be badly managed and in poor physical condition—
Let me make my point before giving way to my hon. Friend; it really will have to be almost the last intervention.
We intend to fulfil our manifesto commitment to introduce new mandatory licensing for the highest risk houses in multiple occupation. I was delighted that Shelter welcomed the proposal as a great step forward. We expect the new mandatory system to cover properties of three or more storeys and which house five or more people who constitute more than one household. Conditions on landlords under licensing will ensure that minimum standards of management are met and maintained, for example, by ensuring that there are safe gas and electrical appliances and that smoke alarms are in proper working order.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are about 1.5 million houses in multiple occupation, yet according to the Financial Times only about 120,000 will be included in the high risk category, which is less than 10 per cent. As we are trying to deal with both poor physical condition and bad management, will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that he will ensure that all HMOs exhibiting those problems are covered by the legislation?
I accept that the management of some smaller HMOs can also be of concern, and licensing could offer a solution in the areas where such concerns are widespread. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend. In such circumstances, local authorities will be able to extend licensing to other types of HMOs, following local consultation and with the approval of the appropriate Minister for their schemes. However, in all cases, licensees will need to show that they are fit and proper persons to manage the property and that arrangements are in place to ensure that adequate management standards are met.
I have taken 10 interventions, which is very generous. I am conscious that I have still to describe much of the Bill and that hon. Members have a great desire to participate in the debate, so I feel that I need to pursue my speech without intervention, as far as I possibly can.
I want to make it wholly clear to the House that we do not intend to license the entire private rented sector. The licensing provisions in the Bill target the highest risk and most problematic private rented accommodation. I say again that the vast majority of private landlords are decent and responsible people. They, along with decent tenants and the local community, will benefit from these provisions.
There are close links between housing and health, and poor housing has safety as well as health implications, particularly for older and vulnerable people. Tackling health and safety issues in housing requires an approach that looks at the impact of the property on the individual, as well as the state of the house itself. The Bill paves the way for that approach by replacing the existing housing fitness standard with new enforcement arrangements based on the housing health and safety rating system. That will help local authorities to prioritise their activities and target properties where the health and safety hazards and the risks to residents are greatest. I am glad to say that the British Medical Association has enthusiastically endorsed those provisions. It said:
"The housing health and safety rating system provides the best available assessment of the health risks of a dwelling and its use should be underpinned by primary legislation, introduced without delay."
We are happy to oblige.
The Bill will also continue the modernisation of the right-to-buy scheme, tackling exploitation and reducing profiteering. The Government remain fully committed to the principle of the right to buy. It has helped many thousands of ordinary families to realise their aspirations to own their own homes and it has helped to create stable mixed-tenure communities, but there are loopholes, and the Bill seeks to close them.
We proposed four changes in the draft Bill, including extending the period of qualification for the right to buy and the period during which discount must be repaid if a home is sold on. We have added further provisions following recommendations from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the home ownership taskforce, including giving social landlords a right of first refusal when an owner wishes to resell a property within 10 years of buying. Properties scheduled for demolition will be exempted from the right to buy, which is particularly relevant where regeneration schemes are proposed. Also, tenants who do deferred resale deals with companies will have to repay discount. Both measures will tackle the profiteering that has escalated the loss of social housing in areas of highest housing need. Making the RTB work better for existing tenants and prospective owners is essential to a comprehensive approach to local housing.
As I have indicated, we are devoting significant funding to the construction of new affordable housing, but it is clearly our duty to ensure that we get value for money from that investment. The Bill therefore provides for the Housing Corporation to pay grant to organisations other than registered social landlords. Similar changes will apply in Wales. That will encourage competition and increase the supply of affordable homes. Commercial developers who receive such grants will be required to reach the same high standards as registered social landlords.
I am sorry, but I have to continue with my speech as I am conscious of the pressure on the House's time.
More people than ever own their own homes. More than two thirds of homes are owner-occupied and at some point most people will buy or sell a property. But the process of buying and selling a house is, frankly, shambolic. Almost one third of would-be house purchases fall through. Surveys tell us that nine out of 10 people are unhappy with the process and want some change. For many people, the house buying process can be time consuming, expensive, unpredictable and extremely stressful. Our proposals need to be considered against that background.
We therefore intend to make provision for the introduction of home information packs. That is a further manifesto commitment. We have thoroughly researched such a system and a number of voluntary home information pack schemes are already operating successfully. We are clear that making key information available right at the start of the process makes home buying and selling easier, more transparent and more successful.
I am delighted that our home information pack reforms have the full support of the Consumers Association, which welcomes the inclusion of the packs in the Bill. The late Dame Sheila McKechnie was a strong advocate of the home information pack, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to her memory. We have also had support from a significant number of industry stakeholders, including the Halifax building society and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
Will the Minister now list all those professional organisations that are opposed to the home information packs?
If I may say so to the hon. Gentleman, on this occasion the Liberal Democrats have got it spectacularly wrong. Traditionally and historically the self-proclaimed defenders of the consumer, they are in this regard, like the official Opposition, simply playing to the game of the vested interests. They have got it wrong, and we will demonstrate in the course of proceedings on the Bill how wrong they have got it.
The fact is that these interests, these stakeholders, recognise with us that changes are needed in the way in which homes are bought and sold. Home information packs will make a difference, but we will address other aspects of the process as well. We are on the side of the consumer and we are confident of consumer support. If the Opposition remain in any doubt about consumer support for the proposals, I refer them to the excellent briefing prepared by the Consumers Association for today's debate, entitled "Home Truths". It is time that the Opposition learned those on this issue.
The main components of the pack are likely to be local searches, a home condition report including an energy efficiency certificate, and other legal documents such as evidence of title. We are continuing to work closely with industry and consumer stakeholders on the detailed components.
I accept that some people are very enthusiastic about the home information pack and that very reputable professional organisations and other experts are opposed to it. The Minister has prayed in aid the fact that various organisations support him. If the system is working well—I believe that it is in parts—and if he is minded to introduce this scheme, he should surely do so on a voluntary basis, at least for the first few years. He might be agreeably surprised to find that that removes much of the criticism. Further, can he confirm that the Bill will remove the criminal sanctions that he envisaged in the draft Bill, and instead include civil proceedings? That is a much better way of dealing with the problem.
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman—who has, I know, great expertise in such matters—an assurance about the removal of criminal sanctions and the introduction of civil penalties in the present proposals. However, for reasons that I propose to set out very shortly, I cannot accept the arguments for continuing the scheme on a voluntary basis.
Claims about the costs of the pack have been wildly exaggerated. Most of the documents have to be provided in any event. Only the home condition report is new, and even commissioning a survey is hardly novel. In most cases, the costs will be transferred from the buyer to the seller, who, in turn, will usually also be a buyer. What is very important is that first-time buyers will benefit the most as they will not have to pay those costs up front to get on the first rung of the property ladder.
We recognise, however, the Select Committee's concerns about the industry's readiness. As we have said before, home information packs will be introduced only when we are fully satisfied that all conditions are in place to make the scheme a success, including sufficient numbers of trained home inspectors and satisfactory insurance arrangements. We are consulting consumer and industry partners on the possibility of a phased introduction of home information packs as part of a national roll-out.
I do not agree that further piloting before the introduction of the packs would be useful. We have already had a voluntary local pilot to test the scheme's mechanics. Packs are being trialled successfully through several voluntary schemes in Britain and we know that the packs work successfully elsewhere in the world. I do not believe that further pilot testing would tell us much more than what we already know. We know what is required, so the task is to deliver that at a sensible pace after the proper scrutiny that good project management secures.
Does my right hon. Friend have any views on the preparedness of local authorities for the operation of electronic land and property records to support the introduction of the new approach?
My hon. Friend is right. We must ensure that work on e-conveyancing and online information from local authorities is in place at the earliest possible opportunity so that we achieve part of the purpose of the process—to have as rapid a house transaction process as possible. I thank him for his intervention because he is absolutely right.
The Bill will also introduce a new office of social housing ombudsman for Wales for the purpose of investigating complaints against social landlords in Wales. I referred earlier to measures to combat antisocial behaviour, when discussing the provisions on selective licensing, and the Bill contains three other measures that consolidate those in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. First, as foreshadowed in the draft Housing Bill, local authorities will be given the flexibility to extend an introductory tenancy beyond its usual 12-month period. Secondly, landlords of secure tenants will be able to refuse a mutual exchange application if successful court action has been taken against tenants or members of their households for antisocial behaviour or if such proceedings are in progress. Thirdly, the Bill provides that if a tenant is pursuing a right-to-buy purchase while a landlord is seeking a possession or demotion order against that same tenant on the ground of antisocial behaviour, the purchase cannot be completed until the possession or demotion proceedings have been heard. That will put an end to the abuse by which antisocial tenants exploit the right to buy to avoid the consequences of their actions.
Finally, the Bill contains two further measures to end inequalities. It will give unmarried different sex partners and same sex partners who do not enter into a civil partnership the same rights in relation to tenancy succession. It will also extend eligibility for disabled facilities grants to all those who occupy caravans as their only or main residence.
The Government have done much to create sustainable communities. We are addressing both supply and demand issues in the housing market in a way that has not been seen for many years. However, more needs to be done—and can be done—to create a fairer, more efficient housing market, and to protect the most vulnerable in housing. The Bill is central to the Government's agenda and will put in place the legislative framework necessary to deliver decent homes and decent places. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to a bill which introduces burdensome, ineffective and bureaucratic information packs;
fails to provide a sufficiently clear licensing regime;
weakens tenants' right to buy;
is unclear on the rules and standards that regulate private sector access to Housing Corporation funds;
and, overall, acts as a disincentive to offering property for letting in the UK's weak private rented sector."
I draw attention to the fact that I write occasional articles for The Builder.
I hope that the House will not think that I am eccentric if I devote my speech to the Bill. It is complex and will merit serious discussion in Committee because its outline raises an enormous number of questions. Parts of the Bill are welcome, subject to their effective implementation and full discussion of their implications, such as the new housing health and safety rating system, which extends to housing the hazard analysis at critical control point principles of risk assessment that apply in other parts of the economy, such as food processing. Further welcome aspects of the Bill are the introduction of the housing ombudsman for Wales and the fact that it includes an acceptance of the need to do more to tackle antisocial behaviour by, for example, strengthening the introductory tenancies that were introduced by the Government in which I served.
Other elements of the Bill need urgent clarification and, I suspect, simplification if they are to be capable of effective administration and enforcement, especially the licensing provisions. Other parts of it are simply unnecessary, obstructive, ill-conceived and burdensome, like the seller's pack and the intervention in the housing market.
Parts of the Bill are virtually incapable of assessment because it is an enabling measure and no details are given of how the provisions will work in practice, especially private sector access to the social housing grant. Finally, some clauses are presented as intending to tackle abuse, but, when taken in combination with earlier steps, seem set to challenge the operation of well-established policies—for example, the right to buy.
The most important part of the Bill is, by common acceptance, licensing. No one will object to measures clearly aimed at reducing loss of life and injury in premises that may often house vulnerable and insecure poor people and families, perhaps with low levels of competence. The measures must, however, be subject to sensible tests of their practicality and effectiveness. Are they as light as possible to deliver the job that they are supposed to do? Are they easily understood, clear and well defined? Are they properly enforceable on a consistent basis? Will they raise expertise, confidence and standards among landlords, especially in the private sector, to encourage them to place property on the market? We all talk constantly about the need for the private sector to play a fuller part in housing provision in the United Kingdom even though it is such a poor provider on any comparison with other western countries in terms of what it can do.
The problem is that the licensing element tries to tackle too many objectives in too many ways. We risk ending up with a cluttered, confusing and congested landscape of regulation that may not even protect the most vulnerable. The Bill proposes mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation containing five people and of three storeys. It proposes discretionary licensing of a wider range of houses in multiple occupation. It also proposes selective licensing of all private landlords in designated areas of low demand, in areas that are likely to decline into areas of low demand or in areas that suffer from antisocial behaviour. Those powers may also be used outside areas of low demand to tackle bad landlords and antisocial behaviour. As the Minister said, enforcement is effected by interim management orders or final management orders, with the costs of licensing to be met almost entirely by the licensing fee.
The panoply of powers inevitably raises a host of questions. Who decides who is a good or bad landlord? On what basis is that decided? Against what test is the decision made? Is it objective, intuitive or, as the Minister said, generic, whatever that might mean? When can selective powers be used, and for what? In what circumstances would the Deputy Prime Minister expect to authorise licensing of all private landlords, and how extensive will the use of the new discretionary schemes be? What is the degree of antisocial behaviour that will trigger licensing? How is that to be demonstrated? Is it true that the Bill will apply licensing to some owner-occupied self-contained flats for which the duty to license and enforce would fall on freeholders or managers, who have no right to enter the premises to which the regulations apply?
The danger is that the Government are creating a complex, fuzzy-edged, overlapping and differently enforced heterogeneous patchwork of schemes, which will be a deterrent, not an incentive, to landlords and lead to situations in which, for example, five properties that are owned by one person are each under a different regulatory regime. I have no principled or ideological objection to licensing if it delivers a specific, defined, achievable and measurable benefit. I fear that the Bill is about to create a regulatory web in which all the players—tenants, landlords, regeneration agencies and local authorities—will become hopelessly enmeshed. We look to the Minister to unravel its operations in Committee before it unravels in the country at large.
The Minister reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the right to buy. We never quite believed their commitment because they forced it out through clenched teeth and took an awful long time to make it. It is worth recalling, as is stated in the Housing Corporation's report on affordable homes, that 1.5 million people and families have managed to own their own home through the process and 50,000 people a year are still doing so. The merits of the scheme, as spelled out by the Housing Corporation, are that it is accessible, simple and easily understood and that it operates easily.
The Barker report, which is a systematic indictment of the Government's failure to deliver even minimum levels of affordable and social housing, should perhaps be delivered in juxtaposition to the Minister's 20-minute prologue to his remarks about the Bill. I notice in this Government a wonderful tendency to elide the notions of affordable housing and social housing. They are not the same. Affordable housing is generally designed for people who want to purchase, perhaps through shared ownership, and social housing is for people who want to rent from a registered social landlord. I hope that the Government will maintain that distinction, rather than pretending that they are the same thing.
I notice in the Housing Corporation's report a recommendation that the right to buy ought to be extended across the social sectors because it is clearly unfair that somebody in a local authority house should have the right to buy and that, for a local authority house that has been transferred, the right to buy is carried with that transfer, whereas for a housing association property it is not, generally speaking, although there are some exceptions. We shall develop a policy that seeks to fulfil that objective of creating a level playing field, and the Housing Corporation has come up with some extremely sensible ideas for the way forward. Had it given more mechanisms on how to move forward, it would have been even more helpful. There are some fine aspirations in that report, but the mechanics need to be put in place.
We have never sold RSL properties in villages. There has always been a prohibition on such sales in villages of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. That was built into the very first right-to-buy proposals, and it would remain the case. I am a rural Member of Parliament, and I know precisely the problems of providing housing for local people. I support those measures that allow local authorities and social providers to limit access to people from the local community and to maintain that access.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in rural areas such as south Devon, there is a shortage of greenfield land, the only area where there is any spare land to build houses, with the result that councils are not building on such sites? There is therefore great scarcity and prices are going up. The Government are failing because they cannot build affordable or social housing—scarcity leads to the prices rising too high.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is the problem everywhere. The Barker report says that 39,000 additional houses ought to be built every year, merely to keep up with population growth and household formation, and that is almost certainly an underestimate. The work was done by Shelter in co-operation with the Barker inquiry.
Do I take it from the right hon. Gentleman's advocacy of all this extra housing that he is prepared to reverse the policy of the Conservative party, which was critical of Labour, claiming that we were going to concrete over the green belt? Is he now committing himself to putting all those new houses into the green belt?
Nobody is talking about the green belt. We all recognise that there is a major demand for property. We know that it comes from a number of sources, one of which is household formation—that is sociology. Immigration in south-east England causes a significant demand for housing because people are spilling out of London into the region. We also know that in the major metropolitan areas, with the possible exception of Leeds—it depends whether the census people have got their facts right—people are spilling out of the centre into the suburbs. I do not dispute the fact that there is a significant demand. The question is how and where we meet that demand. The idea that demand in London and the south-east is created by people from Yorkshire and Lancashire marching down the M1 or the A1 with soot or snow on their boots is entirely illusory; indeed, sane people are moving in the opposite direction.
The Government claim that the measures in the Bill will have no impact on the volume of sales. The explanatory notes, which are normally almost as incomprehensible as the Bill itself, state on page 61, at paragraph 361:
"There will be a limited effect on public expenditure. The number of sales under the scheme is unlikely to be affected."
I have to say that I treat that with a degree of scepticism. The changes to the discount already implemented may well have stopped the right to buy in its tracks in London—it remains to be seen whether that is so—and the Bill's other measures, including the extension of the qualifying period, a consequence of which is that discounts are repayable in the event of resale within that period, add to a significantly steeper barrier to right to buy.
I accept that some of the measures make sense. I agree that if a property is to be demolished within a reasonable period, people should not be allowed to buy merely in order to be able to claim compensation. I have no problem with giving rights of first refusal to social landlords on a market basis—provided that the process of putting property on the market is not delayed. Nor do I have a problem with the penalisation of deferred resale agreements, although it is worth stating that the Heriot-Watt university study showed a very limited use of companies and that many people used them because they had no access to finance from conventional sources, so one has to be careful how one uses that argument. However, I have still to be persuaded that the Bill does not form another chapter of the insidious Labour attack on the right to buy, which the party has never really approved or embraced. I hope that the measures are genuinely targeted on abuse and that it will be demonstrated that the volume of sales has not been significantly affected.
May I reiterate the incredible problems that the right to buy has caused in areas such as Tower Hamlets? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that extending the policy to housing associations, for example, would involve additional public subsidy of about £1 billion? Where would that money be found?
I really do not think that the hon. Lady has got it right in this instance. The people who produced the Housing Corporation report were not a bunch of card-carrying Conservatives, and one of the clear points they made in the report was that we had to consider some means by which we could create equal conditions across the social field. That is especially important given that the burden of development of social housing has passed from local authorities, and may pass from housing associations as well under the Government's proposals to bring in private developers, albeit into schemes that, I suspect, will be managed by housing associations. It therefore makes sense to search for a reasonable way in which housing opportunities can be made more generally available.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware of the vast ongoing scandal whereby council properties are bought under right to buy with money loaned to the tenants, then rented out at exorbitant rates to people, many of whom are entitled to housing benefit and whose rents are paid by the public? Does he not think that someone who exercises their right to buy should be limited to renting out the property for no more than the council or housing association would have rented it out for?
I have already said that in so far as the measures are designed to stop such practices, I support them. I am not in the business of promoting manipulation or abuse of the system—I want people's natural and normal aspirations to be fulfilled. I said that we would support the Government in so far as they are trying to deal with abuses.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned how he would like to standardise the right-to-buy regime across the social housing sectors. Does he think that we should standardise the discount regime as well?
The hon. Gentleman is using "standardise" falsely. I want people to have opportunities across the right-to-buy spectrum. Those may well be equivalent opportunities—
That is one of the recommendations in the Housing Corporation report, "A home of my own", but although the corporation was strong on possible sensible directions in which to move, it has not yet provided any of the landing lights showing how to arrive at our destination, so we must all try to work out the details.
The Minister may recall that when we were in government we toyed with the idea of introducing a social housing grant for private sector developers, but did not proceed. The Government believe that housing associations have grown lazy on the fat of the land and are failing on output, productivity and value for money. One only has to talk to people in the sector to realise that that message is coming over loud and clear, particularly from the Treasury. The idea is that the private sector will be brought in, particularly because of the need to meet targets in the communities plan. The measure must be seen against the background of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill and the introduction of a tariff system to commute section 106 agreements into cash payments. After all, the majority of social housing is the result of planning gain. Registered social landlords and housing associations fear that private developers will build on easy sites, many of which will be in the green belt, such as areas around Milton Keynes, undermining their ability to recycle surpluses from, for example, shared ownership into social housing construction. Housing associations and the private sector are developing partnerships in which developers have responsibility for the land and housing associations grant and management functions. They are working together effectively, especially in areas where land values are high, within the framework of section 106.
As with much of the Housing Bill, a great deal depends on the detail of how it works. Can section 106 agreements be replaced across the board with cash or tariff payments, or is it the intention that section 106 will remain a requirement for social housing provision? There is a lack of clarity about what is intended in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, but it is crucial that we know whether section 106 agreements can be replaced in principle with a cash payment at the demand of a developer or whether local authorities can insist that a quota of social housing be met when private developers are given planning permission?
That is not the subject of the Housing Bill, but I am happy to respond. We have made it clear throughout discussions on the Government's new proposals on section 106, that that will be for the local authority to determine. The local authority will determine the way in which the requirements of section 106 will be met, and whether that will be done wholly in kind, partly in kind, wholly by cash or partly by cash. However, that decision is for the local authority to make and for the developer to respond to.
We will pursue that in the course of our proceedings because, although the proposals are in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, they are relevant to the Housing Bill—the two are meshed together. However, my understanding was that developers would have the right to commute section 106 agreements across the piece. That obviously has significant implications, but this is not the time to deal with them.
What proportion of social housing grant are the Government willing to commit to private sector developers as opposed to registered social landlords? Is there a cut-off point? The Minister said that the standards and rules would be identical. With Sir John Egan's recommendations on productivity, training and techniques in mind, the issue of the level playing field becomes significant. What happens if a private developer goes bust? Who safeguards the tenant's interest, and who safeguards the public interest, given that public funds have been committed to the scheme? There have been rumours of objections from Brussels to the state aid provisions. I should therefore be grateful if, in Committee, the Minister clarified whether there are any such concerns from Brussels about the operation of those provisions.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised some issues that the Minister skipped over rather too quickly for many of us who are sceptical about the Bill's provisions. However, if public money is going to be used to provide social housing, the powers of the independent housing ombudsman in Wales and England are pertinent. Surely, tenants of such housing have the same rights as tenants of housing provided directly by registered social landlords. Does he agree?
The hon. Gentleman has added an extremely relevant question to my list of questions for the Minister. I am happy to endorse it, and shall point it out to my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes, who will be dealing with the Bill in Committee.
I have left until last the issue of the seller's packs—or more precisely, the son of seller's packs—because I like to keep some of the nicest parts until the end. It is a bad answer in search of a problem. The comparison with other markets has little legitimacy. The British mortgage market, which the Minister for Housing and Planning described as shambolic—a curious choice of words—is, with 1.5 million transactions a year, one of the most dynamic, innovative and high-volume in the world. Professor David Miles gave a strong endorsement to the operations of the British housing market, somewhat to the disappointment, I suspect, of the Treasury, which thought that there was a wonderful fixed rate interest solution to the problems of volatility.
The problems are easily stated. The seller's pack will add to the costs of transactions, which is particularly true in low-value areas. If we move, according to what the Government have been spinning, to a new band of council tax in areas of housing stress where houses can be sold for a few thousand pounds, it will be a measurable addition to the overall costs. It will require a new army of inspectors—the estimate is some 7,000 to 8,000 of them to produce home information packs. Who will recruit them, who will train them, and what will be their professional experience? Even more pertinently, what will be their indemnity or insurance position in the event of there being a problem with the information contained in the packs, given that no claims history exists on which to base it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an alternative proposal to assist both the vendor and the purchaser would be to have a fresh look at the work done by the Land Registry, which appears systematically, particularly in Devon, to provide inaccurate information in solicitors' searches, leading to many court cases and unnecessary legal costs for both vendor and purchaser?
My hon. Friend is right. If the basic information is incorrect, it does not matter in what form it is assembled, or in what sort of pack—the information remains incorrect and needs to be sorted out. The Minister mentioned the idea of a phased roll-out—that wonderful word that the Government use. Would it not be more sensible to roll out bits of the pack at a time, rather than to roll it out on a geographic or price basis? The danger is that there will be an unnecessary multiplication of systems and costs. We are likely to end up with a pack of some 55 to 60 pages, which will have been written for lawyers, and which will be valid for no more than six months—the length of time for which the lending industry will regard it as valid—to deal with the problem of failed transactions, which are much more likely to stem from relationship breakdown, relocation, the chain of selling, the difficulty with funding or change of mind than from technical problems with transparency in the process or deficiency in the information—[Interruption.] I give way to Mr. Love with whom I used to share the chair of the all-party group on homelessness and housing need.
I welcome the fact that this part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech comes at the end rather than the beginning. The Consumers Association has said that housing information packs will
"make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions about property instead of having to rely on the property details as put together by estate agents which are often misleading and inaccurate."
Does he agree?
No, I do not agree entirely. I do not think that the Consumers Association's pronouncements should be regarded as having biblical truth attached to them. Despite having the word "consumers" in its name, it has got many things wrong in its time, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to join me in a beer at some stage, I will be able to go into that in some detail.
Do the Government intend to exempt any properties—there was some talk about whether properties up to a certain value might be exempted? The danger might be that if some low-value properties cannot even get a home information pack, they really would be stigmatised for being at the bottom end of the market. The Government are already saying that landlords should warn right-to-buy purchasers of the burdens of home ownership and of what they are taking on. In that context, it seems curious that there is no requirement on the public sector to deliver home information packs or seller's packs, for example, on right-to-buy property. That seems a curious perversity in the Government's proposals. As has been said, there are much better ways to increase efficiency—e-conveyancing, improved efficiency and better searches by the national land information centre, and agreement of common data exchange formats.
My final point is that this measure is likely to lead remorselessly to demands for the licensing of estate agents. The only people in the housing world who are not licensed are estate agents, and they will be key players in the process, whether or not they have any expertise. I wait to see the inevitable bandwagon demanding licensing of estate agents rolling towards us—[Interruption.]
I knew that on using the wonderful word "licensing" I would receive a Pavlovian response.
Finally, let me mention a couple of absent friends. One is any reference to empty properties, a subject to which the Government have alluded on a number of occasions; another is the issue of park homes. The Government have recognised the need for legislation on park homes. Park owners and tenants have reached a consensus on a number of important matters, yet the Government have apparently said that such measures cannot be incorporated in this Bill, although it already includes measures to extend the definition of park homes so that gypsies and travellers can benefit from improvement grants that are currently not available to them. That seems perverse, given that there is all-party consensus on the issue and no argument between the two sides involved. After all, we do not have many opportunities to legislate in this way.
I agree with all that the right hon. Gentleman has said about park homes. The Government have already produced a hand-out Bill dealing with crucial issues such as the harassment of residents of the park home sector. Surely those provisions could be incorporated in the Housing Bill.
They were agreed by all parties, and I am sure that they could easily be incorporated. If the Government are not prepared to incorporate them, we shall seek to do so ourselves, because it would make a great deal of sense.
This could be made into a sensible, practical, forward-looking Bill that could garner a wide range of support. The Government could drop the whole idea of seller's packs. They could tailor the right-to-buy measures to ensure that they are really targeted at abuse. They could simplify the licensing measures to create a unified system that is easy to understand, administer and enforce. They could supply the essential details that allow us to make judgments on other parts of the Bill that are still very imprecise, such as the part dealing with the social housing grant. In its current form, however, the Bill is unwieldy, too often confused, constantly lacking clarity or clear definition of purpose and frequently deficient in basic, essential details.
In Committee, we will do our best to turn this Bill into the sort of Bill that it ought to be and—given imagination and hard work—could still become.
As I listened to Mr. Curry, it occurred to me that my maiden speech, made nearly 34 years ago, was about housing. Housing is still the principal issue in my constituency, at any rate, although the nature of the issue has changed over all those years. That is why I especially welcome the provisions relating to licensing of private landlords' properties, both houses in multiple occupation and individual properties.
One reason for the present problem involving empty owner-occupied houses in particular—a problem that we did not have when I was first a Member of Parliament—is the fact that the behaviour of private landlords is making those areas uninhabitable, while also driving down the value of owner-occupied houses. Worthy owners who take pride in their homes may find those homes less and less pleasant to live in, and certainly find that the value is falling more and more. For the first time since the worst days of the Conservative Government's housing policies, there are serious problems of negative equity in parts of my constituency. People who wish to sell their houses and to move are unable to do so because the sums offered to them, if any would be offered at all, are often derisory.
We have a much smaller private rented sector than during the Rachmanite period 40 years ago, but in a way private landlords behave worse than Rachman and his associates and that is leading to demoralisation and disappointment among, as I say, good worthy people with pride in the homes that they own. Private landlords are using houses not simply for antisocial purposes but often for criminal purposes. Again and again, I have complaints from my constituents, particularly in Gorton, south but also in Gorton, north and other parts of my constituency, about private landlord houses that are used for the sale and use of drugs and used as brothels. Often, the tenants of those homes are in collusion with the landlord. Often, they are, it is appalling to say, sharing their housing benefit in a crooked operation with the landlords. Therefore, I welcome very much indeed the licensing provisions in the Bill with regard both to houses in multiple occupation, of which I have a considerable number, and individual dwellings.
I hope that my colleagues in the Government will urge Manchester city council, as soon as that part of the Bill becomes operative, to introduce licensing for very large tracts of my constituency, so that we can start to deal with that problem and restore the pride of owner-occupiers and other residents of those areas in the neighbourhoods in which they live.
We now have precedents for the way in which those improvements can take place. Fifteen years ago, the Northmoor part of my constituency was an area of despair, depression and dismay for the people living in it. It was going completely downhill. Local people got together in the local Methodist church to try to work out a plan. It was only when the Government came to office and started the neighbourhood renewal schemes that we, together with the housing association and the city council, were able to reverse the trends in the Northmoor area. Regeneration is now so obvious that people wish to become owner-occupiers in properties there that they would never have considered buying 15 years ago.
Therefore, it can be done. That is why I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister, having introduced this extremely worthy measure, to go on with neighbourhood renewal. We have an on-the-street scheme in Gorton. As a result, neighbourhood wardens, using their spare time without being paid, have been able to draw more than 600 young people, sometimes with criminal or antisocial behaviour records, into the community. We need the renewal of the neighbourhood warden scheme in order that the wardens can continue that remarkable work. I will send the Minister the DVD that has been produced by the children and wardens in that area to show what can be done.
As I say, regeneration under the Government is not just a slogan. It is being achieved because of neighbourhood renewal schemes, the neighbourhood warden schemes and Sure Start, which has a remarkable record in my constituency, but we want more and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide it. I also ask my right hon. Friend to expand on the Government's policies for dealing with empty owner-occupied properties.
Another issue is the creation of a housing ombudsman for Wales. On paper, I understand why it is not literally necessary for England to have such an ombudsman, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider. I should like to see far more work done in relation to making housing associations accountable. God help me; when I was Housing Minister in a previous Labour Government, I piloted the legislation that gave housing associations greater responsibilities, duties and rights, and more money. I should like housing associations to be as responsive as local authorities, which may not always be wonderful but have to be accountable to councillors in a way that housing associations are not.
In one area of my constituency—Field street, Godwin street, Corrigan street, Gathurst street and Franklin road; I do not apologise for naming those streets—housing association properties are derelict and boarded up, which leads to criminal incursions into those areas. The proud people who live there want something done about it. It is a complex problem, but North British Housing, working with our city council, could improve the situation.
Housing will always be a huge issue. There was a time when we in the city of Manchester had the best record of any local authority in the country in terms of building new dwellings. That was destroyed completely by the policies of the Conservative Party in government. Nevertheless, using the funding that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made available at the beginning of the last Parliament, we are able to do a lot more neighbourhood renewal. However, we need still more.
I am proud of this Labour Government's record on housing. The Government have transformed a situation that got worse and worse during the 18 years of Conservative government. Now we have a Labour Government who care about housing and have practical policies to make housing better. I hope that the Government will build on what they are doing, that they will not weary of doing well, that they will address themselves in particular to the question of empty, formerly owner-occupied properties, that they will help with negative equity and that they will improve the situation even more for the benefit of my constituents.
The House should be grateful to Mr. Curry, for telling the House what was in the Bill—the Minister did not spend much time doing so—and to Mr. Kaufman, who gave real constituency examples of how the Bill could help. I say to the latter that I very much agree with his point about empty homes, as I shall go on to explain.
It is frustrating to be faced with a Bill that has some excellent elements coupled with some monstrosities. It is almost as frustrating to face a Bill that offers worthy and much needed benefits, yet omits so much that is needed possibly even more urgently. Unfortunately, that is the case today.
Some of the proposed regulation of the private rented sector should have happened many years ago. In particular, much of the regulation of the houses in multiple occupation sector is to be welcomed, although there are some criticisms of the detail. Updating the fitness standards should have happened decades ago; those standards go back to the 1920s and '30s and this House should have looked at them before. The proposal for selective licensing is a useful weapon in the fight against antisocial behaviour, and is one of the better things that the Government have done about that problem. The proposals to tackle right-to-buy abuses are also welcome.
However, we have real problems with the home information packs, which are unnecessary and represent regulation and intervention that will be costly and will have exactly the opposite effects that the Government intend.
We are also concerned that many much needed measures—for example, a tenancy deposit scheme and compulsory leasing of homes that have been empty for more than 12 months—have not found their way into the Bill. We shall certainly try to persuade the Government in Committee to think again on the omissions.
It is right to start by welcoming much of what is in the Bill and I also welcome the process to which it has been subject. It is not the first item of legislation to go through the draft Bill process, with evidence taken by the relevant Select Committee, but the changes that the Government have made between the draft and the final stage show that they have listened. The House owes the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee a real debt for the evidence that it took and the work that it did, which has improved the Bill. That is good for Parliament, allowing it to deal with the mountain of legislation emanating from the Government in a rather more considered way. The Government deserve credit for that.
I shall examine the legislative proposals for houses in multiple occupation in more detail. The evidence to suggest that people living in some of the HMOs covered by the Bill face real dangers from fire and other health and safety problems—and in a way that other tenants do not—is considerable. The Department accepts that, and other independent studies have demonstrated it, so licensing the HMO sector is welcome.
We will have some debates and disagreements with the Government on the fine details of the Bill. As was said earlier, the fact that university-provided accommodation is excluded does not make sense, and there are also some problems with definitions. We want to probe the Government in Committee on, for example, the definition that ties HMO regulation to three-storey buildings and five occupants. That might be rather too narrow. Perhaps we should decouple the terms to make it an "and" rather than an "or". Those are obviously debates that we shall conduct in Committee.
As Lynne Jones said, when in opposition, the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire argued for regulation of HMOs with just four occupants, so it appears that the Front-Bench team have changed their minds in passing from opposition to government, and they will have to provide good reason for doing so—
As the hon. Gentleman says, that has happened all too frequently.
The fitness standards needed updating, but we have some concerns about whether what is proposed will work. The Government went through a good pilot process, in which local authorities were involved in assessing whether the new housing, health and safety rating system would work in practice. Version one appears not to have worked in practice. Version two is now published and we have the guidelines, but it has not been piloted or trialled, so the House is being asked to accept a new system of regulation for fitness standards in housing without knowing whether it can be made to work. The House should think carefully about that.
The Minister will be aware that others—from the Local Government Association to various lobby groups for people with disabilities—are concerned that the rating system does not go far enough with respect to fire sprinklers or access for the disabled, so that is another issue for debate in Committee.
Selective licensing, as I have already said, is the right way forward and we are very pleased that the Government have dropped their proposals to cut housing benefit to people accused and found guilty of antisocial behaviour. The Liberal Democrats believe that that would have made antisocial behaviour worse. It would have seen people thrown out of their homes with no due regard to where they would have to go or how their problems could be dealt with. We are glad that the Government have dropped that proposal and believe that the Bill probably provides the right way forward.
On selective licensing, has the Minister considered selectively licensing individuals rather than areas? Many of us know from our constituency work that selectively licensing all landlords would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when only one or two landlords might be the serial offenders who are causing the real problem. If licensing were not just about areas, but individual landlords, we could perhaps have a slightly lighter-touch regime. It may cause problems, but we should debate whether it might be a different way forward that could achieve the Government's aims with less of a regulatory burden.
On the measures that I have described, the Liberal Democrats will enter into constructive debate with the Government in Committee. Regulation is sometimes needed, but we must ensure that we get the balance right.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon complained that this is a cluttered and confusing approach that will prove to be a regulatory web. He may have a point, but there is a balance to be struck, and I look forward to debating with him and his colleagues whether the Government have got that balance right. It is clear that to try to regulate the whole of the private rented sector would be to go over the top; such regulation is not needed. In targeting regulation, we should not create a burden and penalise good landlords. Indeed, it is worth acknowledging that there are some very good landlords in the private sector—a point that has yet to be made today. If we are to avoid having to regulate them, we may have to create regulation that does not look pretty, but actually gets the job done.
After describing all those good things, I want to spend most of my speech pointing out the ways in which we disagree with the Government; indeed, there are some serious areas of disagreement. The first problem and major criticism relates to the home information packs, and it is the main reason why we will vote against the Bill tonight, although we will do so in the hope that we can vote for it on Third Reading—if we can persuade the Government to improve it. We are surprised that the Government are persisting with the packs, given the amount of opposition to them not just from professional bodies, but from the people who actually buy and sell houses. [Interruption.] Labour Members are muttering about vested interests, but the only body that they seem capable of quoting is the Consumers Association, as if it had some biblical significance. I shall seek to argue that consumers will be badly affected if the legislation goes through, in terms of cost, delays and lack of choice of affordable housing. Indeed, the Government will experience a real political backlash from consumers.
The hon. Gentleman prayed in aid the Select Committee's preliminary scrutiny, but has he read the evidence from Maria Coleman, who demonstrated beyond doubt that a progressive and effective estate agent can make the seller's pack work to the benefit of a great many people who are buying and selling properties?
But many of those who gave evidence to the Select Committee, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, argued differently; indeed, the Committee's own report was hardly complimentary about home information packs. Paragraph 93 states:
"However, it is unclear to what extent the Pack will serve the Government's objective of speeding up the process of residential property sales".
Much of the evidence that the hon. Gentleman heard backs up that view.
Let me be clear: the problem is not home information packs themselves. The Government could go ahead with legislation setting out what home information packs are, and could make them available for the market to take forward. They could also legislate to make energy audit compulsory before sale, as the directive states. The problem with the Government's approach is that they are making such packs compulsory before marketing. If they could address that issue, they might be able to persuade us that the provision has some merit.
I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman says, and he is absolutely right to point out that specialist professional organisations are divided on this issue. However, if the Government are minded to put home information packs on the statute book, is it not all the more important that they should at first be used on a voluntary basis, to see how the system works? It is a complicated and complex system, and we should see how it works in practice across the whole country before making it a statutory requirement.
Absolutely—indeed, we should let the market decide. If consumers value the packs, they will roll out automatically and the market will take them up. So there is no need for the Government to impose this burdensome and costly regulation on the sector, thereby creating all the problems that I am about to allude to.
Is not the essence of the problem the fact that such packs are mandatory at the point at which people market their house? If someone puts their house on the market and nobody views it within six months, they will still have coughed up £600—in some cases, £1,000—in order to produce a pack. If they want to put the house back on the market a little later, they will probably have to update the pack, which will cost even more. People could shell out a lot of money and never sell their properties.
I tend to agree with the Liberal Democrats on most housing issues, but not on this one. I should declare an interest, in that I am £400 out of pocket, having had a survey done on a house and then been gazumped. Is it not the case that one third of sales fall through and that home information packs could help those who are losing out as they try to buy houses? I would not be against some form of voluntary scheme to start with, but is there not a good idea in the Bill that needs teasing out?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments, but if he looks at the matter in detail, as I have done, I think he will change his mind. I originally had some sympathy for the idea, but the more I looked into it the more ludicrous it seemed and I questioned my initial gut feeling.
When one looks into the Government's rationale, it begins to become clear why this is a bad measure. The Government argue that the change will speed up the transaction process. First of all, however, we have to ask whether there is actually a problem that needs solving. A lot of transactions go through effectively: we have a thriving owner-occupied housing market, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said, and between 1.2 million and 1.5 million homes change hands every year without Government regulation. That does not suggest to me that there is a significant problem that needs the heavy hand of Government regulation.
Let us accept for a moment, however, that there is a problem and that perhaps 10 per cent. of home sales do not go through as smoothly as they might. What is the best way forward in that case? It is not necessarily the Government's approach. As has been said, many other things are happening that will speed up the process. The Law Society's transaction scheme will enable information to be provided far more effectively to all parties. Improvements to the National Land Information Service, e-lodgement at the Land Registry, e-conveyancing as it develops, and efforts at local authority level are all practical things that the Government need to address, and are addressing. When those developments come into place, home information packs will be redundant.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Government's first argument is not that these proposals will speed up the process but that they will give more information to the consumer? Will he also acknowledge that the figures that he has just given are wrong? The Government's research shows that about 1.8 million properties are offered for sale on the market each year and that about 580,000 transactions fail before they reach exchange of contract, which is a rate of about 30 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman must be careful when he quotes Government research. As I understand it, the original research commissioned by the Government for England and Wales was provided by PS Martin Hamblin, which even now does not list property as one of its specialist market sectors. The Scottish Executive, on the other hand, commissioned research by property experts, DTZ Pieda Consulting, which found results completely at odds with the Government's. There are two different sets of research results. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may try to suggest that Scotland is completely different. [Hon. Members: "It is".] I am afraid that it is not completely different. The evidence from the Scottish Executive says that delays in house transactions come from two main sources—sellers delaying the transaction to give themselves longer to find a new home, which, I am afraid, does happen in England and Wales, and delays caused by buyers whose mortgage finance was not in place, which is also the experience in England and Wales.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Minister's opening analysis that the packs will help first-time buyers? I recently met a couple who had attempted three searches on new properties, all of which fell through. The proposal will help first-time buyers. Is he against that?
It will not help first-time buyers. Fewer houses will come on to the market. [Interruption.]
Hon. Members may say "rubbish". Let me explain why it is not. If one must obtain a home information pack and must spend several weeks before then, paying the cost up front, that will be a deterrent for a lot of people who are coming on to the market. Someone may have gone out for the weekend, with his wife, and seen a house that they want to buy. They couple may want to sell their house as quickly as possible to make sure that they purchase the house that they have seen. In future, such speculative buyers will not arise and will not market their homes, which will mean fewer affordable houses and house prices going up. The effect will be the opposite of what David Wright said it would be.
Is it not bizarre that the first-time buyers who will be exercising the right to buy—people who have never bought a house in their lives—will not have access to the reports that the Government claim will be so helpful to purchasers?
I think that Labour Members are right. My reading of the Bill is that such people will have access to the reports. Local authorities may be worried because their housing departments may face some extra costs, and registered social landlords may also be worried. We may return to that debate in Committee.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it might be a good idea to cut down the number of people who speculatively put their houses on the market? Many people put their houses up for sale, get a prospective buyer and then pull out when they find that they cannot buy somewhere else. If they had had to prepare a buyer's pack, it would prove that they were serious sellers and not someone playing in the market.
It is not the Government's job to predetermine who is a serious seller. The process of marketing a property is not straightforward because people's lives change from week to week—they may be offered a promotion that means that they must move somewhere else in the country. Life is not as simple as some Labour Members wish to suggest.
If I can make some progress, I will take interventions later. The problem is that the proposal will increase delays in the system that it is supposed to speed up. I have suggested that delays will occur in marketing, and there is also the issue of duplication. The law of contract is about caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. The Bill changes that principle, which is a serious mistake. Buyers will examine the home condition report in the home information pack with a degree of scepticism. I would certainly want my own home condition report, so I would need a second one, especially if a home needed a structural survey. Such duplication would not speed up the process.
Another problem is the availability of sufficient trained staff—the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon made this point powerfully. It is estimated that we will need between 5,000 and 8,000 people just to do the extra surveys. Surveys will be needed for homes that will not be sold or repeated by buyers. Where will those people come from and who will meet the cost? If we get a new breed of inspector who is not a fully qualified chartered surveyor, will insurance companies indemnify reports completed by less well trained inspectors? I think not.
We have come to the point that gives the lie to the Minister's continual quoting of the Consumers Association. If consumers buy a property on the basis of a home condition report completed by a less well trained inspector, which may not have the backing of the insurance industry, their consumer protection will be reduced, not increased. I cannot see how it is in consumers' interests to have greater costs through duplication. The Government are laying the ground for a repeat of the mis-selling of pensions scandal. If the legislation is enacted, in a few years' time there will be the mis-surveying of homes scandal, and if that proves to be the case the blame will certainly lie with the Government.
Another element of the legislation that will work against consumers' interests is the fact that home information packs will reduce competition in the market for estate agents and people who help others to market homes. People increasingly use the internet to look for homes or to sell their own homes without going through estate agents. The legislation will prevent that and undermine competition.
The most staggering of the Bill's omissions is that the Government have failed to include a regulatory framework for a tenancy deposit scheme. There is a large amount of support on both sides of the House for such a scheme; there have been trials, a voluntary scheme, a consultation process and statements from Ministers suggesting that they were in favour of the scheme. The Bill offers a parliamentary vehicle for that much needed measure, yet the Government are blowing it. Even the pre-Budget report gave an indication that the Treasury thought the scheme would be a good idea, but the Government are not taking this opportunity to put it into practice.
There would be benefits not only for tenants but for landlords. The private rented sector would be far more attractive if people's deposits were secure and well looked after. What are the Government's arguments for not introducing legislation on the issue? First, they say that there is no parliamentary time. Well, the Bill certainly has enough parliamentary time—we shall be in Committee for quite a while.
Secondly, the Government point to the Law Commission. However, the Law Commission was given a completely different remit, which did not include the proposal for a tenancy deposit scheme. In November, when the commission published its interim report, the proposal was not even touched on. If we wait for the Law Commission to consider the matter, there will be a delay not merely of months but of years, as its final report will be subject to consultation. If the House misses this opportunity to legislate on a tenancy deposit scheme, there will be a delay of several years.
Tenants have waited far too long already. There will be much abuse and many deposits will not be returned by unscrupulous private landlords during the years that we shall have to wait.
Labour Members may have read the briefing provided for the parliamentary Labour party, which suggests that the case for a tenancy deposit scheme has not been well made. For example, it refers to finely balanced benefits and costs and suggests that the benefits of the scheme would amount to only £20 million a year whereas the costs would be £19 million. However, if Labour Members read that briefing carefully, they will find that the figure of £19 million is completely false. It is based on the assumption that every tenant in the scheme would go to the adjudicator with a quarrel about the management of their deposit. In fact, evidence from Australia and New Zealand shows that only between 2 and 3 per cent. of tenants take their case to the adjudicator, so the actual costs of running the scheme would be tiny compared with the amounts cited in the PLP briefing.
The briefing also includes an interesting line that refers to the interest forgone by landlords as one of the costs. Surely, the interest on the deposit should go to the tenant, not the landlord. Labour Members should ask Ministers why they have not answered questions properly and why they oppose a scheme that should have been brought in years ago.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton raised an issue about which I feel particularly strongly: the Government's failure to legislate on empty homes. They have circulated a consultation paper, which refers to empty property management orders. That would be a good way forward. The Government are consulting on the issue, but they could use the Bill to tackle the problem. The Minister made several references to affordable housing in his opening remarks. One of the quickest, cheapest and most environmentally sustainable ways of dealing with the problem of affordable housing would be to ensure that empty homes are brought back into use. It is a scandal that there are hundreds of thousands of empty homes that could be used for homeless people or people living in poor accommodation.
The Government should get on with the job. They should get on with the consultation process and ensure that provisions are included in the Bill before we lose this parliamentary opportunity. The provisions would fit well in the part of the Bill that deals with interim and final management orders. Such a structure has links with some of the proposals in the consultation paper.
The Government should introduce legislation on park homes, as has been mentioned. They should provide a new and up-to-date definition of overcrowding, as we need to understand the extent of the problem so that we can plan housing policy properly.
We have some concerns about the Government's proposal to enable the Housing Corporation to give grants to private developers, although the House may be surprised to learn that we are not quite as opposed to it as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who seemed extremely worried by it. In fact, the arguments are finely balanced. The idea that the private sector cannot be given money to build affordable social housing does not seem wrong in principle. Perhaps we should allow different types of provider—mutuals, RSLs and the private sector—to build affordable homes if that is the most effective use of taxpayers' money. There may be problems—such as those of accountability, about which we have heard—and we need to ensure that the RSL sector will not be damaged, given that some in that sector use that money to cross-subsidise the provision and repair of their other housing stock. We will want to tease out some issues, but we will not necessarily be completely against that proposal.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Wales—[Hon. Members: "Oh no."] The mention of Wales seems to have engaged some interest among Labour Members. Is he aware that, in Wales, the same social housing grant is used to subsidise the purchase of private accommodation by those who seek to buy their own homes, using the home-buy grant? That has been extremely successful in Wales, in working for both the private sector and people who seek affordable homes for the first time. Surely that combination might represent an alternative way to use such money in England as well, perhaps using those resources in conjunction with the private sector.
That is very helpful. I did not know that, and I am sure that that option will be considered as a way forward in Committee.
I am sure that they will be very happy. As the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of social housing, would he care to say whether he will have a word with his Liberal Democrat friends who run Islington council? At present, they are selling vacant council street property on the open market by auction, so many people who are desperate for somewhere decent to live have lost that opportunity altogether because those properties have been sold off to the private sector. Is it Liberal Democrat policy to reduce the size of the public sector, or to increase it?
I wonder what my friends in Islington are using that money for—perhaps it is being invested in more affordable housing. All I remember is that, when they took control of Islington, they were left a complete mess by the previous, Labour council and they are putting it right. That is why the Office of the Deputy Prime has increased their rating in the comprehensive performance assessment and thinks that they are doing a much better job than when Islington was under Labour control, so the hon. Gentleman should be slightly more careful.
In conclusion, when one is trying to dream up regulations whether for the private rented sector or the owner-occupied sector, one must tread very carefully. On the private rented sector, the Government have taken a very careful and sensitive approach. They have consulted and they have listened, and they are to be congratulated on that approach. However, with respect to the owner-occupied sector—with home information packs, in particular—they have failed to listen. They may have consulted—they have certainly done so for a while—but they have not listened to the logical arguments against their proposals. The Barker review suggests that the Government should not go down that route, yet, typically, their thinking does not appear to be joined up. The Government need to think again about home information packs, and I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, including Labour Back Benchers, will make them do so before we reach Third Reading.
I welcome the Bill, particularly those clauses that will give greater powers to social landlords, including councils, to deal with antisocial behaviour on the part of their tenants. I should like to take this opportunity to raise some issues related to those clauses. I fully support the extension of powers to deal with antisocial behaviour, but for those powers to be effective, it is important that front-line staff, particularly housing officers, who are being asked to take enforcement action feel confident to do so. After all, some tenants have a long history of persistent antisocial behaviour and can react to any enforcement action with threats and abuse against those who are seen to be the instigators of such action—usually other tenants, although housing officers also come in for their fair share of the abuse, so it is important that, at the same time as extending powers to deal with antisocial behaviour, we ensure that there is protection for the staff who have to enforce the legislation.
Of course, existing provisions to deal with antisocial behaviour against staff have been introduced—for example, in the Housing Act 1996 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Clause 13 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 introduced a new provision that included the possibility of obtaining injunctions where the behaviour in question was capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to staff employed by the landlord in connection with stock management. A power of arrest is also available where there is a significant risk of harm to staff, which can include emotional or psychological harm. Section 12 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 places a new duty on social landlords to publish antisocial behaviour policies. Antisocial behaviour for that purpose is defined as conduct
"which is capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person, and which directly or indirectly relates to or affects the housing management functions of a relevant landlord."
Those provisions give power to social landlords to deal with antisocial tenants and, clearly, that also includes antisocial behaviour to staff.
I have concerns, however, arising from the experience of one of my constituents about the effectiveness of the powers. My constituent is a senior housing officer working for Stockport council. Unusually, she is also a housing association tenant living on a council estate that has a history of antisocial behaviour by some families. The facts are not disputed. In the course of her job last March, she sent a letter to a tenant threatening enforcement action unless the garden was tidied up. Relatives of the tenant to whom she had written discovered where she lived. There then followed a campaign of harassment directed at her 11-year-old daughter, which included nuisance telephone calls that were reported to the police. There is no dispute that the telephone calls were made from the house of the tenant whom my constituent had threatened with enforcement action.
The council offered to start possession proceedings against the tenant, but said that that could be done only with my constituent's co-operation. She felt unable to co-operate because she was concerned that if the family had reacted to a letter about tidying up their garden with harassment and intimidation of her daughter, any further action might put her daughter further at risk. That is an all-too-familiar story from witnesses and victims of harassment.
My constituent asked to be re-housed by the council, but it refused to deal with her application for re-housing outside its allocations system, saying that
"the current assumption is that staff are treated like all other people" and that there is
"no policy of the council either in the allocations policy or in the human resources policy to suggest that employees suffering difficulty should have preferential access to service".
The council also said that
"our duty as an employer does not extend to your housing situation".
In a letter, the assistant housing director stated that in the interviews that my constituent had had to try to resolve the situation,
"you have seemed to be centring on your need for re-housing".
The letter went on to say that
"there are separate roles here as employer and as service provider".
I might add that the council re-houses people with priority needs outside the allocations system through a special panel. The issue is whether my constituent, as a senior housing officer, has such needs. Indeed, the position of the council would suggest that as a member of staff she is actually at a disadvantage in attempting to argue special need.
In the event, my constituent was awarded 25 points after applying for re-housing to reflect, according to the chief executive,
"a member of the household having being subjected to confirmed harassment, intimidation, physical/sexual abuse, violence/threatened violence or hate crime."
However, that is not a sufficient number of points for her to be re-housed where she would feel safe. No enforcement action can be taken against the family because she is afraid of further acts against her daughter. She has been off work since September with stress.
So, the powers cannot be used to deal with antisocial behaviour in that situation because my constituent feels that further enforcement will place her daughter at risk. The council will not re-house her because it has a policy that does not give its staff special treatment for its services. In that situation, a family is getting away with antisocial behaviour because without re-housing, the housing officer does not feel able to co-operate in using the available powers, which would deal with that family if they were used.
I do not think that it is our intention to put staff in that situation. All of us expect special treatment if our job makes us vulnerable. I would expect, as a Member of Parliament, that if I had concerns about threats from a particular constituent, I would get special treatment from the police. As home owners, we can move if we are concerned about our safety, but a council or housing association tenant cannot. They are dependent on their landlord, and I would suggest that if their landlord is also their employer who is asking them to take enforcement action, that puts them in a very special position.
Stockport council does not agree with me. I am worried that it will be insufficient to ask councils to have policies to deal with antisocial behaviour if they are not also asked to have policies to protect the staff who are asked to enforce those policies. We are asking front-line civilian staff to enforce more and more legislation to tackle antisocial behaviour. Why should they do that if they cannot also rely on our protection? I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for consideration to be given in Committee to the guidance issued to local authorities on how they draw up their antisocial behaviour policies, especially in circumstances in which a member of staff is also a recipient of a service.
I welcome the clause that will enable caravan dwellers to apply for the disabled facilities grant. I understand that both tenants and home owners may apply for the grant. In Stockport council, as in many councils, council tenants, such as my constituent Mr. Johnson, who apply for showers because they have difficulty getting in or out of the bath have to wait up to three years for them, but private tenants and home owners with the same level of need do not wait at all. The ability of older people to wash and look after themselves is important for their dignity and sense of independence. It is heartbreaking to hear from people who have to wait for months and years for adaptations such as showers because they are council tenants.
It is not open to that council tenant to apply for a disabled facilities grant for a shower because, as such a tenant, he does not receive the application form from the council. The council effectively has two systems for dealing with applications: one for council tenants and one for everyone else. That cannot be right because it has the consequence that council tenants with disabilities are discriminated against. If I am right in thinking that council tenants may apply for the disabled facilities grant, I hope that the Minister will make it clear that it is unacceptable for councils to exclude council tenants from applying for the grant if they wish to do so.
Will my hon. Friend also make a plea to the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman to try to persuade the Liberal council in Stockport to be a little more liberal in its policy?
I hope that Mr. Davey heard my hon. Friend's words.
If I am wrong in thinking that council tenants may apply for the disabled facilities grant, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity in Committee to enable council tenants, as well as caravan dwellers, to apply for the grant.
I warmly welcome the measures in the Bill to enable social landlords to deal with antisocial behaviour. The quality of life of tenants is dependent on their landlords' ability and commitment to deal with the bad behaviour of the minority. The Bill will give social landlords extra powers to deal with such unacceptable behaviour, and it is therefore very much to be welcomed.
Considerable attention has already been paid to the key issues that have been omitted from the Bill. My right hon. Friend Mr. Curry highlighted the lack of measures to tackle the problem of empty houses and to support park home residents. I support Mr. Davey in identifying the omission of a tenancy deposit scheme, which is an overdue measure. I am also disappointed that the Government have excluded from the Bill a range of other measures to tackle problems with housing today, and I shall focus on a few of them.
It is disappointing that the Government have not taken the opportunity to tackle the problems in rent-charged housing developments. Under the current system, a company or trust is responsible for the upkeep of the common parts of such developments. Although the majority of the schemes work well, there is tremendous scope for abuse. One such example of that occurs in the Harmers Hay estate in Hailsham in my constituency. The company seems to be accountable to no one. It doubled its rent charges after giving assurances that it would not, and went on to try to apply them retrospectively. Steps are urgently needed to ensure that there is full transparency on rent-charged estates so that people may see where their money is going, why it is being raised and that proper accounting standards apply.
Patricia Herridge, the chairman of the Harmers Hay company, has pointedly refused to provide information on how much the company has raised through rent charging, how that money has been spent or the payments that have been made to directors of the company. No audited accounts have been provided to local residents. That situation is unacceptable, as has been recognised by the Minister for Housing and Planning, who wrote to me on
"The Parliamentary Select Committee on housing has also expressed an interest in the issue and it is intended that the problems of abuses levied by some rent charge owners should be remedied at the earliest possible date."
Surely the Bill offers us the ideal opportunity to do so.
I am disappointed that the Government are not using this opportunity to address the problem of land packaging, a scam whereby an unscrupulous developer breaks up a piece of land that is highly unlikely to be given permission to be developed into small portions, which he sells off at perhaps tens of thousands of pounds. A case in point is the proposed Groombridge Grove development in my constituency. Dishonest people are selling land, implying that a plot has full planning permission while in reality people are buying something that is good for nothing. The sellers even go to the elaborate lengths of producing glossy brochures and staking out plots to give the impression that the land has received planning permission. The scam is targeted at members of the Asian community because it is assumed that they know less about the laws relating to development. Will the home information packs stop that scam? Will they apply to plots of land as well as to homes that have already been built? If not, what steps do the Government propose to take to deal with that?
The Minister spoke about the need to license houses in multiple occupation. We all agree with that. He specifically referred to the problems that arise from the lack of smoke alarms in such properties. We all want that situation improved. However, a smoke detector that is placed in the recommended place in a property, at the top of a staircase, will not detect a fire that starts in a bedroom. By the time it does, when the smoke is moving through the house, it is almost certainly too late to stop devastating damage and possibly loss of life.
I hope that the Minister will go further than he currently proposes and consider making it compulsory to install water sprinklers, especially in houses in multiple occupation and, ideally, new-built houses. The right hon. Gentleman's colleague the Under-Secretary of State, Phil Hope, recently met a delegation from my constituency consisting of Richard Kent, whose two sons were killed in a fire in their home, one of them a firefighter who was trying to save his brother. The fire occurred a year ago, in early January last year. Had water sprinklers been installed, the fire would have been extinguished within moments. The smoke detectors went off, but because the doors were closed it was too late for his son to be saved when the fire was identified. The Under-Secretary was sympathetic, and I hope that the Government accept that legislation should require the installation of water sprinklers in new properties, especially in houses in multiple occupation, to save lives.
Last year I asked a parliamentary question on the subject, the answer to which demonstrates the seriousness of the issue. Over the five years for which figures are available, from 1997 to 2001, not one person was killed in a property where a water sprinkler had been installed and there was a fire, although there were more than 500 fires in such properties. However, 2,465 people lost their lives in homes where water sprinklers had not been installed. The Government are investigating the matter, and the current Bill offers the ideal opportunity to require action to be taken so that we can cut down on such terrible and unnecessary deaths.
I also hope that the Minister will take the opportunity offered by the Bill to clarify the questions that surround people's entitlement to social housing, in particular the question of who is defined as a vulnerable person. Uckfield in my constituency has a tremendous project, the Malthouse project, run by the Kenward Trust, which does enormously valuable work helping people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, when those people try to enter society again having gone through a programme of perhaps two or three years of rehabilitation, it is difficult for them to find housing because they are not deemed a priority case and not classed as vulnerable. I have raised the issue with Wealden district council, which says that they are not included in the Government's definition of "vulnerable." Surely few people could be considered as being more vulnerable than someone who has come back from the brink of death through drug or alcohol abuse and who, after many months or years of trying to deal with those problems, cannot find accommodation in the community where they have support and friends, and where they want to go on living. They often find that they have to move back to the communities where they originally came from and risk encountering the same problems again. I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity to clarify how that issue can be tackled.
I support many of the measures in the Bill, including the licensing of HMOs to raise the standard of accommodation and the proposal to allow the transfer of tenancies to same-sex partners. The latter is overdue, and the current situation is iniquitous. However, many aspects of the Bill are misguided and unclear, and too many issues have simply been overlooked. In East Sussex, we are being forced by the Deputy Prime Minister—who has probably never even tried to squeeze his Jaguar down the narrow lanes to the county—to accept tens of thousands of new houses, which people overwhelmingly do not want. The Bill does nothing to reduce the threat of environmental destruction on a massive scale posed by the building of those houses. Nor will it help young people who are driven away from communities where they grew up by the lack of affordable housing—most of the new housing will be executive homes and therefore far too expensive for them to aspire to.
The Bill is a wasted opportunity; it shows that the Government talk a lot about improving the quality of our housing stock but duck the issues that would lead to the right solutions.
I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the Minister's speech. I was appearing before the social security commissioners, trying to plead on behalf of one of my constituents.
I want to place on record my appreciation of all those members of the Select Committee who did the pre-legislative scrutiny, all the staff in the Committee Office, who worked so hard, and our advisers, Dave Beach and John Bryson. I believe that we did a very good job in scrutinising the Bill, and I welcome the moves that the Government have made since our report was published.
My only caveat is that we had to do our work in a very short period. I welcome the Government's use of pre-legislative scrutiny, but I want to make it clear to them that if it is to work, we need a little more time. I know that this year proposals for regional assemblies will appear in pre-legislative form, and I plead with the Government to make sure that the Select Committee can see the draft Bill in time to report, so that the Government can then take the report into account before the legislation is introduced. Pre-legislative scrutiny is great, but more time is needed—not so much for the Select Committee, which suffers a bit, but for the people who submit evidence. We want as much time as possible to get evidence from as wide a range of people as possible.
When I used to teach—quite a long time ago, I admit—people talked about the Education Act 1944. Twenty or 30 years after it was passed, it was the one Act that dominated people in education. I have looked back over the time since 1997 and tried to pick out an Act that we remember as landmark legislation—[Interruption.] There is the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, but there is not much else. We have got into the habit of having salami slices, or even wafer-thin cucumber slices, of legislation. We get a piece one year, another the next year and so on. I plead with the Government, even at this stage, to make this a landmark Bill. Let us have everything that is already in it as well as everything that we were asked to add. It should be possible for both Houses of Parliament to scrutinise a big Bill just as effectively as they would a smaller one.
My next plea is for the Government to trust local authorities a little more. In the licensing of houses in multiple occupation and of landlords, the Government should be considering a general power to let local authorities set up licensing and then let them decide whether an HMO has to have two or three storeys or four or five tenants. Houses vary fantastically across the country, and there are places where two-storey houses with four tenants are just as, or even more, vulnerable than taller, bigger houses elsewhere. The Government have a good record on trusting local authorities, but they should be prepared to express that trust in the Bill.
We need a bit more information quickly about the practicalities of the fitness standards, and I plead strongly for a clear Government commitment to provide more money to train people to make the system operate. In addition, there should be a safeguard to ensure that applying the fitness standards and relating them to the people who are in the property does not discriminate against vulnerable people. That is one of the concerns about the standards. It seems logical to link the two issues, but we must be careful.
There is a lot of logic in favour of seller's packs, but we have to move slowly. I was surprised by Mr. Curry coming to the defence of estate agents. I should have thought that many people in this country are pretty dissatisfied with estate agents. The trouble is that a lot of people do not make a sensible choice of estate agent. I understand why that happens. Buyers do not go around a town like Stockport looking for the best estate agent; they look for the best house and have to put up with the estate agent who happens to be handling the sale. Many sellers get two or three estate agents to value their property, but the temptation is to go with the estate agent who suggests the highest price—I suspect that that is one of the reasons for the continuing escalation of house prices. In short, people do not often make valid decisions on estate agents, which is one of the reasons why there are so many problems.
The seller's pack can be made to work, although if it is to be compulsory, there must be plenty of time to phase it in, and two further issues have to be dealt with. We can solve the problem of areas of low demand if the Government provide that the seller's pack is to be paid for only when the house has been sold. Any talk of not having to pay for it if the property will fetch less than £20,000 or £25,000, and red-lining those areas that do not qualify, would be disastrous. The simple answer is for people get the seller's pack when they put their house up for sale, but pay for it only when the sale goes through. That would solve the problem of areas of low demand, although it might cost the Government a little.
Sadly, in all the evidence that we received there was none about the top end of the market. However, I have recently received a couple of letters about the problem that allegedly applies in parts of Cheshire where there are listed buildings or period houses, and—this is a bit unfair—footballers with more money than sense. It will be difficult to find people with the specialist knowledge needed to produce a seller's pack for some of those old houses, which may have listed status, where the questions asked might include whether the snooker table can be put in the master bedroom, or similar queries. Perhaps the Government will consider making an exemption at the top end of the market, or one based on the age of the property.
There is no excuse for not putting the tenants' deposit scheme in the Bill. The position of both good tenants and good landlords has deteriorated. Time and again one hears of good tenants getting ripped off because they did not get back their whole deposit, or any part of it—and landlords, especially those in student areas, getting ripped off because they implemented a deposit scheme, but the knowing student did not pay the last month or two months' rent as a balance against the deposit that they might not get back.
More must be done about overcrowding. The Select Committee visited the constituency of my hon. Friend Ms King and saw some horrendous overcrowding there. I agree with Shelter's assertion that there should be more in the Bill about that.
Compulsory leasing would make a huge difference in areas where the property market is going down. It is likely that few compulsory leases would, in fact, be needed: merely the threat would make a huge difference. If the Bill is to be a good one, it should contain something about that.
A plea from my constituency concerns ground rents. In 1978, my predecessor Ken Marks got a piece of legislation on ground rents through the House. They are an anachronism, but an increasing number of sharks buy up a lot of ground rents, then threaten people, saying that if they have not asked for planning permission for their garden shed or things like that, all sorts of penalties would apply. That legislation must be reviewed.
Park homes should be in the Bill. Gypsies made the point strongly to the Select Committee that the concept of homes should cover both static homes and gypsy sites.
My plea to the Government at this stage is to make sure that everything in the Bill gets through, but to make it a bigger Bill because there are an awful lot of housing needs that could be met and should be met, but are not being met.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Curry and others who have spoken in the debate said that we would table amendments in Committee to incorporate in the Bill reform of park home legislation. Mr. Dawson, who is nodding, has been a great champion of the need for such a reform. In a letter that he sent to me as a fellow member of the all-party park home owners group last July, he pointed out that
"In their response to the report of the Park Homes Working Group in July 2000, the Government identified 13 issues on which they are prepared to legislate".
If that was the case so long ago, the reform has been a long time coming. In their response to the recommendations of the working party, the Government categorically stated those parts of the document on which they were prepared to act, using language such as:
"We propose therefore to delete this provision from the legislation", and
"We will consider this option when taking forward the suggestions for changes identified to the implied terms."
In other words, those of us who take an interest in the issue have for four years expected the Government to make some much needed changes.
I realise that, as with all legislation, not everything we ask for will be agreed to or put into the Bill, but last year I introduced the Park Home Reform Bill, and although, being a ten-minute Bill, it did not get very far, the fact that I had a waiting list of hon. Members of all parties keen to put their name to the Bill serves to demonstrate the cross-party support for such a measure. My Bill generated a great deal of correspondence with hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Many aspects of park homes legislation need to be sorted out, but there are two primary reasons to implement reform. First, the people who live in park homes and who face problems daily should be treated with justice and fairness. Secondly, affordable housing is at the heart of the Bill, and if anything can be said to embody affordable housing, it is park homes. Park homes are less expensive than other types of housing, and they are probably one of the most economical forms of housing in terms of land use. Such housing favours the elderly in particular—although not exclusively—because people often buy a park home when they retire, perhaps after renting their accommodation throughout their working life. The vast majority of the 200,000 park homes in the country are owner-occupied, not let.
Many people who move into other types of property that we want to free up would move into a park home were it not for the increasingly loud warning bells ringing about park home ownership. Such warnings are starting to put people off buying a park home, which is a bad thing for our housing market. We have already heard about bullying and intimidation, which are fairly common. Site owners, as landlords, are not required to recognise properly constituted residents associations. That would be unthinkable if the property were provided by a local authority or housing association.
Park home residents should enjoy such rights, but their landlords do not share that view. Recently, I dealt with a particularly bad case in which the landlord insisted that the steps to the home—usually, there are just two or three steps—should be made of plastic. He said that any concrete steps would be demolished, and insisted that steps be purchased only from him at the cost of £325, even though their market value was £165. Similarly, if someone buys a new park home they must do so through the landlord, who is often involved in its manufacture and procurement. In any other field, that would be called a restrictive practice, and the Government could easily address it by introducing some basic reforms.
There are many other important issues to do with the economics of park homes, some of which are controversial. As I said, I do not expect the Government to embrace every single reform that is needed, but they could certainly include a few in the Bill. I am not asking the Minister for "totality"—I am quite happy to compromise and introduce only those provisions that everyone agrees are necessary. That would not be very time consuming, as the need for some of them is so self-evident that putting them on the statute book would not provoke very much dispute. When my Front-Bench colleagues introduce amendments on park homes in Committee, I hope that the Government will look again at this severe omission from the Bill. We have every expectation that something will be done, but Ministers have told us that the subject may be more suitable for a private Member's Bill. The ballot has just taken place but, unfortunately, no one has chosen to introduce a park homes Bill. Given the Government's involvement in the issue and their commitment over the past three years to listening to the problems, they should not leave the solution to the vagaries of a ballot in the House of Commons—they should work with Members on both sides of the House, including many Labour Back Benchers, who support progress in this area. I urge the Minister to take such action.
Finally, I want to touch on an issue that I raised in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. I am concerned about inaccurate information produced by the Land Registry. My experience is purely of the Land Registry in Devon, but doubtless the problem is nation wide and merits investigation. Solicitors must check with the Land Registry when making searches, particularly on purchasers' behalf, and some of them have said in court that they are concerned about inaccurate information. I intend to take up a particular case with Ministers, although I shall not reveal details to the House.
Solicitors often have to rely on information from Ordnance Survey, particularly when dealing with older houses that are not registered—we have many of those in Devon. As we know, Ordnance Survey maps do not cover the ownership of property, but deal only with geography and topography. All too often, features such as walls and fences, particularly when they are more than 25 years old, are not included by Ordnance Survey. There are cases in my constituency where people have lost land on a transaction as a result of that. I am not suggesting that Ordnance Survey should be made responsible for ownership in its maps, but the Minister must look at the way in which the Land Registry obtains information, collates it and gives it to solicitors.
What redress is available to people whose transactions go to court, with huge litigation costs, because the Land Registry has provided them with duff information? I am concerned about that problem, so I hope that the Minister will take it on board. If the legislation on the Land Registry requires modification, I hope that he will consider making such a change. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said in response to my intervention, if data about plots and the land on which houses are situated are not accurate in the first place, all the seller's packs in the world will be meaningless. We must do something to improve that situation.
First, I apologise to the Minister for missing the first part of his speech, and to other hon. Members. I was delayed by a funeral in Yorkshire.
I very much welcome the Bill, which keeps a number of important promises that we made at the general election. We have heard quite a lot about social housing, but the Bill's most important provisions deal with what might be described as antisocial housing owned by private landlords. The Bill begins to address problems in the private rented sector that have made life hell for some of the worst-off people in our most deprived localities, who feel neglected, ignored and dispirited because they have been denied something that we all seek for ourselves—to use the time-honoured phrase, the quiet enjoyment of our homes. Awful landlords are providing dreadful accommodation for some very decent people who are sometimes ignored in our debates. Such landlords conspire with criminal and, in some cases, downright evil people whom they accept as tenants, so we hope that the Bill will deal with that.
The Bill provides great help for people living at risk in houses in multiple occupation. Importantly, at a time of constant attacks on our democracy, it helps councils and local councillors who have been helpless in the face of problems caused by bad private landlords and tenants. They have wanted to help, but have been unable to do so. The situation is also the product of the failure of a substantial part of the market in run-down areas and inadequate regulation. It is our responsibility as legislators to introduce effective legislation, so I welcome the Government's recognition of both those causes.
In many parts of the country, house prices have rocketed, but that does not apply everywhere. In some areas, prices are static or have even fallen. Nasty absentee private landlords sometimes take over council flats or housing that used to belong to the Coal Board, which they buy for next to nothing. They rake in huge sums of housing benefit, often fraudulently, and hang on in the hope that a publicly funded regeneration scheme will greatly increase the value of their land and property. They are waiting to make a killing, but in the meantime their property is run down and empty. They get in some nasty individuals—people who have been evicted for being bad neighbours somewhere else such as drug addicts running crack houses and drug dens and irresponsible, criminal individuals—who drag down their neighbours' quality of life. They establish themselves in a street or neighbourhood, and gradually spread like a virus, making life intolerable for lots of other people.
People at the dodgy end of the private rented sector are heavily involved in housing benefit fraud, and are financed by the taxpayer. Housing benefit should be called landlord benefit in many areas, because the tenants certainly do not benefit, the standard of housing does not benefit, and taxpayers are being ripped off because they are getting bad value for money. That has been happening in areas ranging from Sunderland to Burnley and Stoke, so I welcome the Government's proposals, which give councils an opportunity to get a grip on the problem, with the selective licensing and registration of private landlords in areas suffering from antisocial behaviour. Such behaviour is not confined to areas with low housing values—there is some very nasty stuff going on in areas where the general value of housing has been going up. I also welcome the mandatory licensing of higher-risk houses in multiple occupation.
These provisions come not a minute too soon. They impose obligations on landlords and at long last give local councils powers to help local people: if they vote in the right councillors, they will get some action to look after them, which is important if we are to sustain our local democracy. Councils will have power to require landlords to bring property up to date, to manage it properly and to deal with bad tenants. If landlords fail, councils will have a duty to take over the management of property.
There may be shortcomings in the proposals—they may need strengthening. As the Tories have criticised the proposals, I look forward to them supporting changes in Committee and on Report to strengthen the measures to tackle the problem of private landlords. I know that the measures have been introduced partly as a result of representations made by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, who cannot be here, and by my hon. Friend Mr. Pike. What we are seeing is a Labour Government doing the right thing by the worst-off people in the worst-off neighbourhoods. Taken together with the recently announced measures to tackle loan sharks, we are giving a real boost to the quality of life of some of the most deprived people in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
Interestingly, all those factors demonstrate the failure of markets in relation to houses in multiple occupation and bad private landlords. The existence of loan sharks, too, shows that the finance sector does not always work properly in relation to people who want to borrow but are skint—many of us have been in such circumstances at one time or another. There is a need for regulation. These days, one might sometimes think that regulation had never achieved anything, and that the nanny state will be denounced. In the past, however, regulation has raised the living standards and quality of life of countless people, and we should not be afraid to regulate—most importantly, on behalf of those who cannot do anything through market forces about the evil circumstances in which they are forced to live.
I apologise again for being late for the opening of my right hon. Friend the Minister's speech. I welcome what is happening, however, which will be a real feather in the cap of the Labour Government. I also hope that the additional points made by other hon. Members, particularly by my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett, will be taken on board.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, and to say at the outset that unlike the other two Opposition parties who will vote on this Bill tonight, I and my colleagues will support a Second Reading. We share some of the concerns that have been mentioned on the Labour Benches, however, about what is not included in the Bill, and about how the Bill could be strengthened.
It would be churlish of me not to support the Bill, because in two regards—with regard to licensing of houses in multiple occupation and the right to buy—it is very similar to the private Member's Bill on housing in Wales that I introduced in the 2001–02 Session, which I am sure the Minister took time to read before introducing his Bill. The one thing that I am sure my Bill and the Minister's Bill shared, however, was an in-depth consultation with housing professionals in Wales. I was very grateful to the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Council of Mortgage Lenders for their help with my Bill. What I tried to achieve in my Bill reflected what the housing professionals and housing interests thought would be good for the housing market and for the provision of social and affordable housing in Wales. That is why some aspects of the Bill reflect similar aims and ambitions, which I welcome very much.
Briefly, I want to put the Bill in the context of my constituents' concerns, as they will ask me what the Bill will do to make it easier for them to find more affordable homes or to find social housing. The situation with regard to social housing and affordable homes in rural areas is particularly difficult at the moment. For example, the latest figures that I can find for average weekly earnings in Ceredigion would add up to an annual income of £19,000 a year as at April last year. If the Cheltenham and Gloucester affordability index is used, however, an annual income of £22,000 would have been needed for a terrace house in Ceredigion, so a gap already existed one year ago. I suggest that the average income in Ceredigion may have gone up by 3 or 4 per cent. in the intervening time. House costs, however, have gone up by 40 per cent.
That is the crisis now being faced in rural areas. Right-to-buy homes have gone, apart from those protected by legislation in some rural villages. In many areas, particularly in coastal districts, no social housing at all is available for local people, and the cost of homes has gone way out of the range of people's ability to buy. In addition, the private sector in Ceredigion is appalling—it is among the worst in Wales. For example, it has the highest percentage of overcrowded households, and 24 per cent. of private rented homes in Ceredigion are unfit dwellings. That is a large-scale problem in the context of Wales, which is why I want to reflect on the Bill and on what tools it will allow us to use to deal with that.
First, in most regards, the Bill devolves many powers to the National Assembly, which is to be welcomed. In particular, if we look at the purposes of the licensing system for HMOs, we realise that many Labour Members who have expressed doubts about definitions in relation to two storeys or three storeys, or four persons or five persons, may be interested to know that, as I read the Bill, devolution means that the National Assembly will define an HMO in Wales and how the licensing process will apply in Wales. In that regard, I have much sympathy with what Andrew Bennett said. In the English context, local authorities should perhaps have a little more power to decide on these matters. In Wales, however, we certainly need such powers, as these are real problems.
The Minister said that the Bill is selective about the licensing of HMOs because he wants to address priority areas. If we look at those priority areas, we see that 52 per cent. of fire deaths in HMOs occur in buildings that are three or more storeys high, and that a tenant living in a bedsit house of three or more storeys is 17 times more likely to be killed in a fire than an adult living in a similar single occupancy house. The link is therefore with storeys and the escape facilities in those homes, not with the numbers of people. That aspect needs to be examined in detail in Committee, and I hope that the National Assembly will use the powers in the Bill to develop a scheme that reflects more closely the needs of Wales.
In that regard, there may be good news, as the Assembly has indicated that it believes that between 32,000 and 40,000 properties will be subject to licensing provisions in Wales. Given that it is estimated that there are 72,000 properties in the private rented sector as a whole, Members can see that the Assembly intends to license a greater proportion of the private rented sector in Wales than the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister believes will be licensed in England. That difference may be of interest to English Members when they look at the details.
I must admit that I am fairly neutral about home information packs, but there are obvious advantages with a system that puts up-front costs on the purchaser in relation to speculative searches on a home in which he or she is interested. I agree very much with some of the comments about having a long run-in period and encouraging voluntary schemes in the meantime. The letters that I have received from estate agents in Bristol, for example, where the scheme was trialled, have been positive. The evidence given to the Select Committee was also positive in that regard. There is a lot of confusion, fear and distrust in relation to a new system, but I see the potential of a much-simplified system. In that regard, I disagree with Mr. Davey, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. The law in Scotland is very different, and there was no Scottish Member in the Chamber to put him right on that. I assure him, however, that the situation there is very different from that in England and Wales. We can be rightly open-minded, and I have no problem with interfering in the market if it enables people to enter a market from which they would otherwise be excluded, which is the key socialist principle that we should consider in this sort of Bill.
Another aspect that we need to examine in detail is the right to buy. My Bill would have changed the right to buy to the right to acquire throughout Wales—the provisions that applied to registered social landlords would also apply to council housing. This Bill does not do that. Can the Minister or the Under-Secretary address in the wind-up what element of devolution the National Assembly will have in the Bill? Will the Assembly have control over the right to buy in Wales, or will that be controlled by this Bill and previous housing measures? According to my interpretation, past housing measures control the legal aspect, and the Assembly's hands will, to an extent, be tied.
Perhaps the Minister could be a little more generous to the Assembly. As I pointed out in an intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, it has already used the social housing grant innovatively. Much of the grant is currently being used to support the private bought sector through the home-buy scheme, which encourages people to buy their homes in part-equity with the Assembly, a local authority or a registered social landlord. The scheme relates to privately built dwellings and to private persons who will sell them on. Any such dwelling will be eligible in Wales. We are talking about the open market rather than the social market here, and that use of a social housing grant to support aspects of the open market is as far as I would want to go; but the Bill gives the Assembly and local authorities powers to go further. It is a choice that they must make.
I think that the introduction of a social housing ombudsman for Wales is a reasonable, indeed a vital step. I understand that the job will be done by a local commissioner. We are currently examining the whole issue of ombudsmen and commissioners in Wales, and the provision will help to clarify their roles.
What is missing from the Bill? I agree with what has been said so far about the tenants deposit scheme. Shelter Cymru has estimated that tenants have been robbed of as much as £40 million by landlords through deposits in unregulated accounts. There are some innovative voluntary schemes, including the Ceredigion bond scheme, which is working very well. Landlords and tenants form a voluntary partnership. Nevertheless, nothing in my experience of that scheme suggests to me that a compulsory or statutory scheme would not work: indeed, all I have seen in my constituency suggests to me that we need such a scheme.
Finally, I think we should strengthen the Assembly's ability to control second homes in Wales. That may not be a priority in the Bill, but it should be borne in mind that in parts of Wales 30 or 40 per cent. of homes are second homes. The Assembly should be able to take more specific action to deal with planning aspects.
On the whole the Bill is at least a step in the right direction, and I shall therefore support it.
I welcome the Bill, which deals with historical problems in the operation of the housing market in different parts of the country. It deals with problems in areas of low demand, especially in the north, by introducing selective licensing; it deals with problems in areas of high demand, mostly in the south, by reforming the right to buy. The introduction of the seller's pack will be particularly important in areas such as mine, where a lot of new housing is to be built.
The Government are also right—and it is in this regard that Mr. Curry was so wrong—to try to influence the housing market by dealing with such matters as regulation, selective licensing and the right to buy. They have taken account of factors that affect the way in which an area is perceived, and the value of properties in that area.
What does not feature in the Bill is the problem of overcrowding, which—as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows—I have raised before. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is not possible to write the necessary standards into the Bill at this stage—that would make it unworkable—but I believe that it must be right that we work towards a standard that is more appropriate to the modern day and age. I believe that we must introduce a power in the Bill to upgrade the standards to something that is better than those introduced in 1935, which even then were widely recognised as being inadequate.
The problem is also that the 1935 standards are in existing primary legislation, so it requires primary legislation to change them. While it is not possible to do that in this Bill, I do not think that those standards should be left to serve as a safety net beneath the new housing health and safety rating system. I fear that in the absence of any other standards, and any experience of implementing a new system—which, in other contexts, might work quite well—people will fall back on statutory standards that are entirely inadequate. On occasion local authorities have introduced their own schemes and improved the position, but have then had to fall back on statutory standards. That is part of the reason for our present problem.
There was a time, when I was first in local government, when a young couple could obtain a one-bedroom flat when they were setting up home or having their first baby. When the second or even the third child came along, they would still be in the one-bedroom flat with no prospect of moving; and they would see the two or three-bedroom house that they had always wanted go to a family exactly the same size as theirs, or perhaps smaller, who had been on the homeless list. That produced a sense of unfairness, and tensions between people who wanted transfers and people who were homeless. It also meant that social housing capped some people's aspirations: they came to see it as dead-end housing.
I know that my hon. Friend Ms King, for instance, has had very different experiences. For her and for others, the problem of overcrowding relates to large families. In my constituency, however, it is usually young couples with one or two children—sometimes more—who are trapped in one-bedroom flats with no prospect of being able to improve their circumstances. That is especially true now, when prices are high and prevent them from moving from council flats to their own homes, which used to be possible in Northampton.
My constituency is suburban. When I was going around it recently, I was called in to see a young couple who had a child of their own, and also had one partner's eldest daughter living with them. She was a teenager with behavioural difficulties. The family lived in a one-bedroom flat, which was intolerable for all of them. The wife was near collapse, and there was totally inadequate space for a difficult teenager and a young toddler who was starting to explore. The present standards do not provide for people like that. It is appalling that there is no possibility of moving for that family.
The statutory standards are not, in fact, a safety net, because they are too low. It is wrong to expect people to sleep in kitchens. Families should have sitting rooms. Husbands and wives should not be expected to sleep in separate rooms to meet the gender segregation standards.
In one respect, the Bill makes the present situation slightly worse. Clause 115(2)(a) states that for the purposes of subsection (1)(b), which relates to gender segregation,
"children under the age of 12 are to be disregarded".
That seems a bit odd. Does it mean what I think it means—that those young people will be discounted in HMOs, which often contain vulnerable people in unstable units? That could have a considerable impact on safety standards, and on the number of teenage pregnancies. It is inconsistent because in the statutory standards the age for gender segregation is 10, not 12. At the very least, those should be aligned.
There is the expectation that, by increasing housing stock, the problem of overcrowding will be resolved. I do not think that it will. I think that there will always be an issue about the allocation of housing stock. We have to legislate to protect future generations. I would hate to think that in 70 years' time people will still be sitting around waiting for those standards to be improved. Given that this is a historic Bill and that it will set standards in housing, including public housing, for many years, it is important that, even if it cannot set a proper overcrowding standard, it at least starts the process by which that historic wrong can be put right; otherwise, it is very strong and important legislation.
This Bill is very interesting. The Minister has not referred to national parks, but I want to make a special plea to the right hon. Gentleman because Exmoor national park is in my constituency and we have a problem there with housing of any type.
The Government are well aware that national parks are areas of outstanding national beauty, but we have to be able to create homes for people who want to stay in the area in which they were born, and encourage people to come in to do jobs that need to be done, mainly in Exmoor, in tourism and to do with the contentious issue of hunting. The national parks, including Exmoor national park, have done extremely well over many years in creating houses, but, for several reasons, have found it harder and harder to get landlords, tenants or people to buy. The problem is compounded by the fact that West Somerset district council, which is the smallest district council in the United Kingdom, has a total budget of just over £4 million to do everything it has to do and the housing stock, for historical reasons, has never been large. We have an added complication. Most of the area is one of outstanding natural beauty, and what is not, happens to be flood plain, so the Minister can understand that it has been very difficult to build amount of housing that we require.
Over the past few years, the problem of second homes has grown and grown, but I accept that it has now been partly resolved. Many farms that used to be run by family owner-occupiers over many generations do not exist any more simply because people have sold them, dare I say it, to people who tend to live in the metropolis of London or some of the other conurbations. Those people have moved down and turned the houses into holiday cottages, not for rent to local people but for rent to people who want to enjoy the delights of Exmoor—something that I cannot complain about as it brings in income that we require.
That process has meant, however, that it has become more and more difficult for us to buy land at a price at which we can build affordable houses on it. It is a Catch-22 situation. We cannot get the asset that we require to build housing for rent at a sensible rate to the people who need it most—local people who want to stay in Exmoor.
The head teacher of my local college told me that the top 15 per cent. of its students—the ones the college wants to keep in the area—do not stay, their main reason being that they cannot find houses to buy at the bottom rung of the ladder because of the price. I urge the Minister to look at this matter. Areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, parts of Scotland and probably parts of Wales could be given some dispensation to build houses that would stay in public ownership no matter what and were used for the long-term social benefit of people who were trying to climb the housing ladder but had no collateral to do so.
Interestingly enough, the Government were very successful—I do not know which Government it was; I suspect it was the 1945 Government or just after—in doing that through farms. They had a very good sale and leaseback scheme.
It may well have been, but that scheme was successful. I urge the Minister to look at that again, because we cannot encourage people to stay in areas where they cannot afford to live. That problem is getting worse.
I make another plea. The other end of my constituency has an industrial town—unusual for a Tory, one might say—but three sides of it are surrounded by flood plains. At the moment we are unable to build social housing because of the pressure on the land that we are allowed to build on. In the old days, as the Minister is aware, it was easy to build on flood-plains, because people did not really get any permission and were able to do as they required. Rightly, the Government have introduced through the Environment Agency strict and rigorously controlled rules on building on flood plains but that has meant that we have lost a lot of land that was earmarked for building. I now have land in my constituency, as I am sure other hon. Members have, that cannot be built on because one cannot get insurance for the houses. That has created pressure on social housing.
Recently, we have had a new bypass put in, which has led to the creation of 900 extra homes. If the Minister asks how many of those are social, the answer is none. The cost of the land has risen to an extent that it is very difficult for us to buy the land and the council has none. Private landlords in my area of Somerset are determined to build private houses to be able to make, dare I say it, a profit. I should not complain about that as a Tory.
In most other parts of the country, the local or regional planning authority would assume that, with a development of over 15 dwellings, a certain proportion—25 per cent. in some areas, 50 per cent. in high-cost areas such as London—would be social housing. What is happening in the hon. Gentleman's local authority area?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman brought that up. It was remiss of me not to do so. That is an area where there was a failing—there is no doubt about it—but the district council had a problem. It was trying to encourage people to come in. We are not a natural industrial town—we are in the middle of the countryside. Indeed, ours is the furthest west industrial town in Britain. We have had to create many more expensive houses to bring in the people we need to work in the cellophane industry, a growth industry, but the hon. Gentleman's point was well made. It has been addressed but it is a chicken and egg situation. If we create the social housing, we do not have the infrastructure in either of our district councils to be able to look after people efficiently. That is a failing not only of this Government but of successive Governments over many years. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have brought that up.
In the longer term, we are going to find it more and more difficult to build houses that will be socially acceptable. I have been into many houses that are in multiple occupancy. That matter was also brought up by Ms Keeble, a former junior Minister. Many of those dwellings are not up to standard.When I told my district council that there was a debate on such accommodation today, it talked about the cost of bringing those homes up to standard. We have two housing associations to look after the stock and they do so well in most cases but the cost is enormous. That goes back many years and we are finding it harder and harder to keep up with the repair rate because of social changes, changes in legislation, certain changes from Europe and other things.
My final plea to the Minister is on park homes. I have a lot in my constituency. My predecessor, Lord King, over his entire tenure as the Member for Bridgwater, from 1970 to the last election, had park home problems. I continue to have them. This Bill without any shadow of a doubt will help, but I wonder whether it will resolve the problem of unscrupulous, difficult landlords. As my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning eloquently put it, tenants, elderly in most cases, are finding it harder and harder to take people on. I am sure that many hon. Members have had numerous approaches by constituents who find it harder and harder to take up these issues.
My plea to the Minister is that we ensure that the Bill is as tight as possible on behalf of those people. I have had enormous problems with drainage, access, people who have been threatened, and people who have found it very difficult to live in those homes. If an elderly person's home is such a park home, they bought it in the hope that they could retire there, but they are finding it tougher and tougher to live there because of landlords who, shall we say, are draconian in pushing their rules. It is difficult to know where they will end up. I do not want to see anyone homeless; no one does. Unfortunately, we are creating that at the moment—people get scared and feel that they cannot stay in that park home estate.
Since I have been the Member for Bridgwater, I have on various occasions come across people who have been compelled to sell because they do not believe that they can guarantee their safety as they get older because of things that are not being done by landlords, or things that are being done to the detriment of that park. In Committee, the Minister should look to close any possible loopholes to help some of the most vulnerable people in society.
I entirely support the hon. Gentleman in his concerns about park homes, on which the Bill, as it stands, does not propose any legislation. Will he support the amendments, which will be supported by both sides of the House, to bring about the changes that the Government have said they want? Does he accept that the proposals are supported not just by Members on both sides of the house, but by the industry and all the national residents' organisations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent intervention, with which I totally agree. Any MP with a park home in their constituency will have had such a problem, as this has been going on for generations. It cannot be right to have such a situation in this day and age and I urge the Minister to resolve it as quickly as possible. If we do not, we will let down ourselves and an enormous number of people who cannot protect themselves and need this place to ensure that their lives are happy and fruitful, as they should be.
I ought to declare an interest as a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing. I pay it money, not the other way round. More fool me, perhaps.
I should like to focus on four key areas: the selective licensing of private landlords in areas of low demand; the proposed licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation; reforms to right to buy to prevent abuse and exploitation of the scheme; and home buyer's packs, which seem to have generated a great deal of debate this afternoon. Like other hon. Members, I shall mention some matters that I would like to see in the Bill.
The private rented sector comprises 2.2 million households in England, but at just 10 per cent of the country's housing stock, it is the smallest in the western world. The recent Barker review of housing supply recognised that, at a time when we have a major problem with the availability of affordable housing, the sector could make a much greater contribution. We need to increase the availability of accommodation for key workers and those on low incomes. The sector could play a key role.
The private rented sector's reputation for poor standards is well known—49 per cent. of private tenants live in conditions that do not meet the decent homes standard, as defined by the English house condition survey in 2001—and the lack of security for tenants is a serious obstacle, preventing it from delivering on its potential. Historically, our strategies to tackle private sector disrepair and poor landlords have been weak. We need a strategy that provides fiscal incentives for people to enter the private rented sector as landlords and tools to ensure that they act properly. The Bill starts to go down that road.
In his pre-Budget report, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor indicated that he was considering measures to encourage a stronger and better-quality private rented sector, and the introduction of real estate investment trusts has been identified as a key tool in doing that. I hope that my right hon. Friend's forthcoming Budget statement will provide further details and a time scale for these reforms, which are overdue. Alongside those changes is the need to ensure that tenants have a clear understanding of their rights. MPs often have people coming to our surgeries who have been badly treated by poor-quality private landlords. Better-quality written tenancy agreements are essential; these are backed by the Law Commission.
Part 3 of the Bill focuses on the selective licensing of private landlords. I welcome the concept of discretionary powers, allowing local authorities to license. Perhaps we need to expand that beyond areas of low demand, and I know that the Bill proposes some powers in that area. However, it is not just in areas of low demand where there are poor private landlords; indeed, some of the worst are in areas of high demand. Those landlords can put into the market a product that is below standard, but people have to accept it because they have no other choice. We need a widespread licensing scheme that will help in areas of low and high demand.
We also need to make sure that people who are managing private rented sector properties are fit and proper persons. We need to keep records of those guilty of harassing or unlawfully evicting tenants and make sure that they are excluded from the sector and cannot hold a licence any more.
I represent a new town. People might think that we do not have problems in the private rented sector or with poor landlords, but we do. In the 1980s, the former Conservative Government encouraged Telford development corporation to pursue what we called locally a fire sales policy with regard to its social housing stock. Much of the stock found its way into the hands of fairly unscrupulous private sector landlords, many of whom were absentee landlords holding two or three properties on large former TDC estates. We have major problems in those areas because the sector has not been regulated for a long time. It is difficult to trace those landlords and properties are often left empty and abandoned. We need to make sure that we regulate effectively in those circumstances.
I am proud to say that Telford and Wrekin council has brought in a landlord accreditation scheme on Woodside estate in south Telford. The very best landlords—there are some very good ones in the town—have signed up to the scheme. Such schemes can be a real boost to private sector landlords; they are almost a badge of honour. They enable the landlord to market private rented accommodation more effectively in the locality and people find renting from such landlords more appealing.
Landlords want some flexibility, but accredited and regulated landlords can market themselves as just that and can reap the rewards of being seen to be responsible. That should be combined with stronger powers to encourage local authorities to develop a strategic approach to improving the sector, and with fiscal measures to increase supply by putting professional landlords on the same tax footing as other small businesses. That approach was a key recommendation of the Shelter and Joseph Rowntree Foundation's commission on standards and supply in the private rented sector. The approach is supported by a wide range of organisations and interest groups, including landlords. The Select Committee backed a similar carrot and stick approach, recommending that landlords who demonstrate competence in housing management should be allowed to offset some additional management costs against their tax liability. That would be a good way of promoting flexibility and would encourage more people into the sector.
I have covered the private rented sector in some detail and my remaining remarks will be brief. Some 1.5 million people live in houses in multiple occupation, many of them vulnerable people, often living independently for the first time. The conditions in which they live are often unhealthy and sometimes dangerous. The English house condition survey found that 10 per cent. of HMOs were unfit for human habitation. There are no universally applied standards for fire safety, and because most occupants have little security of tenure, they stand every chance of losing their home if they ask their landlord to undertake repairs or improve safety.
I welcome the Government's attempt to try to regulate the HMO sector more effectively, but we need to look at the issue of university accommodation, which should be included in regulations. Also, registered social landlords need to examine their role in relation to HMOs, and it would be helpful if the Minister considered that in detail in Committee. The mandatory licensing regime should also cover all HMOs of three or more storeys, or four or more occupants. The sector needs to be better regulated.
Some 1.5 million sitting tenants have exercised the right to buy, which has been a superb scheme. The problem is that we have not acted to replace the houses with enough affordable housing. The House should remember that, during the Conservative years, the capital receipts from the right to buy had to be used to offset debt and were not reinvested effectively in the social housing stock. Since the Chairman of the Select Committee is here, may I say that I agree with the Select Committee's view that we should standardise the right to buy with the right to acquire and make it a seamless system for acquisition across the social housing sector? There is probably some agreement between the Benches on that. Levels of discount would be an issue. Tenants who have the right to acquire get less support than those who have the right to buy as former council and secure tenants, but we should work together to try to come up with a better system of standardising and regulating the right to buy.
Home buyer's information packs are an excellent idea, certainly for first-time buyers, and help to reduce the enormous costs that people face when trying to acquire their first property.
In closing, I should like to speak about what I would have liked the Bill to contain. It is no surprise that hon. Members on both sides of the House have already mentioned several of those issues. My hon. Friend Mr. Dawson has done some excellent work on park homes. My constituency includes some park homes and I want the legislation to deal with that sector.
There is clearly cross-party support for a tenants' deposit scheme, which could usefully be included in the Bill. An updated definition of statutory overcrowding would also be welcome, as would powers compulsorily to lease long-term empty homes.
The Bill will give us much to do. I greatly welcome the fact that a substantial piece of housing legislation is before the House. It will allow us to cover a lot of ground and deal with many problems. It will allow the Government to deliver some of their commitments for the housing sector. There is still time to ensure that it includes additional provisions, but I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for the work that he has done on it.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on the Housing Bill. Housing is the issue most frequently drawn to my attention by my constituents in my weekly surgeries. My local district council has a housing waiting list of about 2,000 people, so my constituency certainly has a severe shortage of social and affordable housing, which I am keen to see remedied. My own district council has plans afoot to build between 6,000 and 8,000 houses up to 2016 in order to meet local housing needs. I fully support that Conservative-run council, which is quite right to have such plans in place.
I must respond to the Minister's opening remarks about the sustainable communities plan, because my South-West Bedfordshire constituency is right in the middle of one of the communities plan areas. In their kindness and wisdom, the Government have seen fit to provide some houses for my constituents. However, it is not the 6,000 to 8,000 that we are looking for; nor even 12,000 or 16,000. No, they are planning to build 43,000 houses in the middle of my constituency. That is the equivalent of a new Dunstable or Leighton Buzzard, in an area that is already extremely congested. Many of the roads in Leighton Buzzard, Houghton Regis and Dunstable are already difficult to get through. The motorways and commuter roads to London and elsewhere are already extremely congested and the trains are often packed to overflowing, with commuters regularly having to stand as they make their daily journeys.
There is no way local employment can be provided for the 80,000-plus people who will come to live in my constituency if the Government have their way and build so many houses. My constituents' reaction is to say that the scale and nature of the proposals are wholly unacceptable. I intend vigorously to oppose the plan under the banner of "local homes for local people". The Minister said that it was a question of building houses where they were most needed. I agree, but they are not needed on that scale in my constituency. That is how my constituents feel. I also put it to the Minister that the people he intends to occupy the houses will not feel that they are in the right place either if they have to commute 40 miles to London on congested roads or overflowing trains. On the Minister's own criteria, the plan will fail through its scale and nature.
One of the findings of the Barker review was that the previous regional planning guidance on the number of houses needed was much less than really required. As we all know that housing supply issues lead to house price inflation and homelessness, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the figures are the minimum required in each of the regions?
My argument is simple—that each local authority area should meet the housing demand in it. That is not complicated and is a reasonable argument. My district council is planning to meet the housing need in south Bedfordshire. What we need is for local authorities to adopt a similarly responsible attitude across the south-east and the whole country to meet needs where they really are, rather than force people to commute vast distances.
The hon. Gentleman and I are next-door neighbours and I understand the argument that he is making. But does he accept that it is not just Dunstable and South-West Bedfordshire, but the Luton conurbation that needs many more houses? There are 5,000 on the waiting list; 3,000 on the transfer list; and 500 in temporary accommodation in Luton alone. We need more houses in the Luton area, not just in south-west Bedfordshire. I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings, but he should take that matter into account.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but if he saw the scale of the figures that the Government are proposing, namely, 43,000 houses or enough for some 80,000 people, he would agree that south Bedfordshire is taking overspill housing from London and the whole of the south-east—an area far greater than south Bedfordshire or, indeed, his constituency, which borders mine.
I welcome many measures in the Bill, particularly those to deal with antisocial behaviour. The proposal to extend introductory tenancies is also welcome, but I would like the Bill to include measures that made housing associations in particular far more responsible for the antisocial behaviour of their tenants. I have become increasingly exasperated in recent months at the incredibly slow pace at which housing associations proceed when confronted with the severe antisocial behaviour of their tenants. It is unacceptably slow and I ask the Minister exactly to whom housing associations are accountable in that regard. In my experience, they often act as if they are a law unto themselves, and they see their first duty as to their tenants with very little regard indeed for the effect on the neighbouring community of the actions of an admittedly small minority of their tenants who indulge in severe antisocial behaviour.
Has my hon. Friend noticed the anomaly in the Bill in respect of the treatment of private landlords and those in the public sector? The private landlord will be branded as a rogue landlord if he does not do something about antisocial behaviour, but that does not apply to the housing association sector. Equally, the registration of houses in multiple occupation applies to the private but not the public sector. Is that not a huge anomaly?
My hon. Friend makes a fair and valid point. My constituents are not remotely concerned about the tenure of the person who is making their lives a misery; they just want something done about the problem. We were all struck earlier by the description by Ms Coffey of a case in her own constituency. The Government should realise that there is a great need for more independent witnesses in such cases of horrendous antisocial behaviour. Local people and neighbours living around the houses concerned are often simply too scared to give the necessary evidence to the police.
Other welcome measures in the Bill include the proposal to extend disabled facilities grants to people living in caravans, which is excellent. I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen the life-changing developments that can be brought about by those grants helping families care for their members.
Further questions need to be asked about home information packs. During the debate so far, we have had no answers to questions raised about indemnity in respect of insurance matters. That is a very real and serious question, and as a former insurance professional, I can see significant problems arising, unless we get clear answers in respect of this part of the Bill.
I agree with the many Members who said that there are some extremely important issues that this Bill should deal with, but does not; that is to be regretted. The issue of empty homes is particularly close to my own heart. There are some 750,000 empty homes throughout the country, and well in excess of 100,000 empty homes in London and the south-east, where the pressure is certainly the greatest. One type of empty home that is dear to my heart, and about which I would love to see something done, is the flats that one sees above shops in every high street and shopping area throughout the country. I would urge a carrot-and-stick approach to such properties. With a little effort, many of them could be made into excellent homes for young people moving to a given area, such as young couples starting out, and families with a first child. Such properties are a hugely wasted asset of this nation. Their use in this way would add greatly to the security of our shopping centres, and bring life back to many of our town centres. It is a pity that the Bill does not consider this issue.
Like many Members, I very much regret that the Bill includes nothing on park homes, which seems to have been a theme running through today's debate. There are many park homes in my constituency, and I must admit that I was shocked to discover from the owner on an early visit to a park home that the residents had no more rights than if they lived in a caravan. In effect, such properties are settled homes, as if they were brick-built structures that had existed for hundreds of years, yet housing law regards them as having no more legal rights than a caravan. That simply does not reflect the reality. Such people are in a similar position to that occupied by leaseholders for many years, and the Government have tried to act on their behalf.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that, as some other Conservative Members have said, one major problem is that many who live in such homes are elderly people, and that they are put under great pressure by those who often behave extremely unscrupulously?
What the hon. Gentleman says is true, and there is another fact about park homes that shocked me. Often, local authorities back up park home owners to ensure that the tenants are living up to the standards expected of them. However, it is not clear that local authorities always ensure that there is fair play so far as the tenants themselves are concerned.
I regret the fact that the Bill does not include a tenancy deposit scheme, and in terms of antisocial behaviour there is one other category of person that it should have taken into account: those who are unable to sell, or to move out of, their homes because there is now a duty to reveal the behaviour of one's neighbours when one sells a property. When one finds that the local housing authority has allocated tenants to the neighbouring properties whose behaviour is such that the area becomes a nightmare to live in, yet one is unable to move from one's property, a huge problem is created so far as housing mobility is concerned. It is very unfair on such people, and in placing antisocial tenants in a given area, local housing authorities should have regard to the effect on those who own their own properties.
I want to begin by reiterating just how important this legislation is. Among other things, it seeks to improve some of Britain's worst housing. As we know, in 1997 we inherited a £19 billion repairs backlog and the Government doubled the money for social housing; indeed, in my constituency it was trebled. But because the situation was so dire, that was not enough, which is why the Deputy Prime Minister announced the £22 billion sustainable communities plan, which marks the Government's determination to end the scandal of poor housing and to address the desperate need for new housing. By April this year, we will have reduced the number of non-decent social sector homes by about 1 million. Our target is to make all social housing decent by 2010. That is an exceptionally ambitious target, but housing is an exceptionally important problem. Every week, many of my constituents contact me to explain how their housing is literally ruining their lives.
So what will the Bill do? It complements the actions taken under the sustainable communities plan, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, and it also supports the extra investment and new incentives to improve the private rented sector, which has been forgotten for too long. On antisocial behaviour measures, I should be grateful if the Minister would place on the record the Government's thinking on, and decision on, housing benefit sanctions. As we have heard, the private rented sector includes some of the most vulnerable people in the country, who live in houses in multiple occupation. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate my former colleagues on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, particularly the Chairman, my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett. Their work on HMOs and other issues is a remarkable example of successful pre-legislative scrutiny.
In the time available, I want to deal with four areas: HMOs, the right to buy, the tenancy deposit scheme and overcrowding. The east end is the historical home of the common lodging house, which was the forerunner of HMOs. These days, Tower Hamlets does not have many such houses, but the few that we do have have rarely, if ever, been identified and registered under the council's voluntary scheme. The only way to guarantee their registration, and to guarantee that they meet fire and health and safety regulations, is to require the landlord to license the property. Having said that, I understand why those HMOs that pose the highest risk must be the first priority. That is why the Government should extend the proposed mandatory licensing regime to all HMOs with three or more storeys, irrespective of the number of occupants.
The Government are committed to the principle of right to buy, and I agree with those who said that it is a very good scheme in principle. The problem in Tower Hamlets, at least, was that in practice it had a disastrous impact on the availability of affordable housing, and on the nature of the private sector housing then springing up. So I am very grateful for the fact that the Government are acting to end abuse, and to increase the supply of affordable housing in high-demand areas. I want to thank the Deputy Prime Minister for listening very carefully on the numerous occasions on which I raised with him the issue of the abuse of right to buy in Tower Hamlets, and the resulting reduction in affordable housing. This legislation recognises the need to update right-to-buy provisions.
For those who are exercising their right to buy as a way to move out to the suburbs, there are other schemes that would help them to do so, but which would still maintain their property in the council housing sector, so that someone else in housing need could access it. We must prevent private companies from exploiting the scheme and from asset stripping our public housing in areas where it is desperately needed by many thousands of homeless people and families in overcrowded accommodation. I thank the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Ministers and officials who have worked hard to develop the measures in the Bill that will help to end the abuse of right to buy.
I want to raise the issue of the tenancy deposit scheme on behalf of the many constituents who have contacted me about it. Back in 1996, during the passage of the previous housing legislation, the Tories told tenants that statutory protection of their rent deposits was unnecessary. They were reassured that the problem of unreasonably withheld deposits would be addressed by Lord Woolf's report on increasing access to justice through the small claims court. It was not, which is why the pilot voluntary tenancy deposit scheme was set up. That was why, when it became all too clear that landlords were refusing to sign up, Lord Falconer said in the House of Lords that legislation might be necessary. It is now necessary, and I hope that I detected the possibility in the Minister's opening remarks that a Bill might be introduced in the House of Lords.
The only part of the pilot scheme that really needs changing is the replacement of the invitation for landlords to join by a requirement that they do so. What, then, are the objections, as that change surely cannot be too testing? The original objection of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the costs of a statutory tenancy deposit scheme would outweigh its benefits is surely no longer a problem. We have seen evidence that the costs of independent adjudication would be only a fraction of the £19 million suggested back in June. The only other argument against including the scheme in the Bill seems to be that we would be better off leaving it to another Bill, but it is highly unlikely that there will be another housing Bill in the next Queen's Speech, and even if there were, it might not be agreed before 2005. This Bill provides us with the perfect opportunity to introduce an enabling power to allow the Secretary of State to set up a statutory scheme, and I urge Ministers to take it.
Predictably, I come to overcrowding. One of the Select Committee's recommendations was that the Bill should be used to update the Dickensian statutory definition of household overcrowding. I must say that "Dickensian" is exactly the right description of a standard that was actually introduced not in 1935 but in the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning for agreeing to my request for further research into the impact and extent of overcrowding. He is well aware of the problem and sympathetic to it. It is unacceptable that people should be expected—officially, so to speak—to sleep in living rooms and even kitchens, not just for a night or a week but for years on end.
The current standard does not even acknowledge the presence of babies until their first birthday, despite the blindingly obvious need for cot space and space to change and wash them. That is further evidence that the standard, like much else in housing legislation, was devised decades, if not centuries, ago by men who would not recognise a nappy if it slapped them in the face. Mothers could not expect much more of legislators in 1890 but we can surely do a bit better in 2004, not least because the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, is fully aware of what a nappy looks like and has to deal with them regularly.
My hon. Friend Ms Keeble mentioned to me that clause 115 appears to reduce the room standard. Section 325 of the Housing Act 1985 disregards children aged under 10 who have to share rooms with siblings of a different sex, but clause 115(2)(a) disregards children under 12. I would be disappointed if we were reducing rather than strengthening the standard, but that may not be so and I would be grateful for clarification.
I hope that Ministers will agree to include a new clause enabling the overcrowding standard to be set by secondary legislation at a later date. The Bill is a good one, but like most things in life it could be even better. The Government have demonstrated their willingness to make changes to it. The relatively minor amendments that I have highlighted would ensure that we deliver our extremely ambitious goal of a decent home for all. I implore Ministers to look seriously at those modest, yet crucial, changes.
We have had a very interesting debate and, with the exception of the two Opposition Front-Bench representatives, the majority of Members have spoken of what they favour in the Bill, where they would like to strengthen it and what they would like to add. I hope that the Minister will listen to what has been said on both sides. Several common messages have been strongly delivered.
I want to speak in particular about the Bill's provisions on houses in multiple occupation. The 1997 Labour manifesto on which I stood contained a commitment to implement selective licensing of private landlords. I regret the delay in enacting that pledge. Much damage has been done in the time that the Government have taken to formulate their proposals. However, in return we have a good Bill before us. It is not all that some have hoped for, but it is a vital step and perhaps as much as could be expected.
Before turning to the Bill's substance, I shall take a few moments to describe why the licensing of HMOs is so important in my constituency. Two wards in Cardiff, Central—Cathays and Plasnewydd—have experienced serious difficulties in the past decade because of a large increase in student numbers at the adjacent universities. With no serious expansion of student accommodation, there has been a resulting growth in private landlords providing short-term accommodation. Absentee landlords have replaced owner-occupiers as family households have moved out of the area.
The market has been unregulated, and as the consumers have little memory—they change every year—market mechanisms do not work. Irresponsible behaviour among some landlords has contributed to a significant physical decline in the neighbourhood. That has been bad for the students who have had to cope with some deposits not being returned, and on that I echo what many Members have said, including my hon. Friend Ms King, about the need for a deposit scheme enforced by legislation. I helped to initiate a voluntary scheme in Cardiff, which still operates, but that is not enough. We must have legislation.
As well as substandard and cramped housing suffered by students, things have been especially bad for permanent local residents who have seen their neighbourhoods transformed by landlords who do not take good care of the properties and students who are there only part of the year. Many now feel like strangers in their own locality, where they may have lived all their lives. National Union of Students research shows that 50 per cent. of students living in shared accommodation report repairs that need to be done to the house, but by the time they have discovered a problem and pressed for it to be dealt with, they are often coming to the end of their tenancy and the problem is therefore not dealt with.
The process also has knock-on effects for local services: schools have fewer and fewer pupils and eventually close, general practitioners move their practices elsewhere and bus routes become less popular and are closed. The character of entire communities has been transformed. Mine is not an isolated example—comparable university towns and cities have experienced similar problems. Over the next few weeks, we will vote on rather controversial proposals on higher education funding. It would be an extraordinary failure of joined-up Government if we were to expand student numbers only to blight the areas around universities and condemn new students to substandard accommodation. I hope that the Bill will ensure that that is not the case.
Two proposals in the Bill address some of the problems I have outlined. The first is the mandatory licensing of HMOs. At the moment, the notes to the Bill foresee the Government having a national scheme only for properties with five or more occupants and three or more storeys. I understand the Government's reasons for doing that. It would be odd to force licensing on areas with no problems or even a shortage of HMOs in even the smallest properties. I note, however, that that goes against the recommendations of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, and it may be a subject to which the Government will wish to return in future.
The scheme will apply to only a minority of HMOs in my constituency. NUS research has shown that 75 per cent. of students live in buildings with two storeys and 50 per cent. in groups of four or fewer. It is also not impossible to imagine bad landlords switching their holding to smaller properties to escape the measure, something which would bring no comfort to my constituents. This provision is therefore not enough to deal with the problems in Cardiff and many other cities.
The second proposal in the Bill that deals with HMOs is the selective licensing for private landlords, which—as I mentioned earlier—has long been a manifesto commitment. Initially, the provision was designed to deal with the problems of antisocial behaviour in areas of low demand. However, the Bill now says:
"The authority must consider that a significant proportion of the HMOs of that description in the area are being managed sufficiently ineffectively to give rise, or be likely to give rise, to one or more particular problem either for those occupying those HMOs or for members of the public."
Parts of my constituency seem to fit that description very well. However, I hope that the Minister will confirm when she winds up that areas of high demand in which problems arise will be considered sympathetically. I have some confidence that my constituency will be considered sympathetically, as I understand that the National Assembly for Wales will make the decision. I hope, for the sake of other hon. Members, that English areas will also receive sympathetic consideration.
It is important that Ministers listen to local authorities on the issue. It would create enormous bad feeling if both residents and councils believed that a serious problem existed, but were prevented from taking effective action by the Government. It is important to note that in areas such as mine there would be very little danger of displacement—bad landlords moving short distances to avoid the selective licensing—because there are huge differences in demand for, and quality of, accommodation a very short distance from the university.
If implemented properly, the Bill has the power to address several of the most fractious problems in parts of my constituency. Many people have waited a long time for the Bill. The last big expansion in student numbers occurred chaotically, often transforming neighbourhoods for the worse. With this Bill, let us hope that the next expansion, however it is funded, is managed more effectively and protects and enriches our communities rather than destroying them.
I apologise to Mr. Curry for my absence during his contribution to the debate. I was attending a Select Committee meeting, but I have otherwise been present for the whole debate.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Traveller law reform, which is one of the more recent additions to the list. In active partnership with the Traveller Law Reform Coalition, the group has already had a major impact on articulating and addressing the concerns of the Gypsy and Traveller community.
The all-party group and the Gypsy and Traveller community are indebted to the Government for the readiness with which Ministers were prepared to listen to our concerns. I welcome the intention of the Housing Bill to help the most vulnerable tenants in the private sector and strengthen the Government's drive to meet the 2010 "decent homes for all" target. In particular, I welcome attempts to crack down on landlords, tenants and companies profiteering from the council house sales system. One of the greatest priorities of any Government committed to social justice and equality is to ensure that everyone has the right to decent accommodation.
I fear, however, that one ethnic group—the Gypsy and Traveller community—is being left ever further behind. Lest I appear to be too dissatisfied, I should make it clear that I welcome the fact that the disabled facilities grant will be extended to cover caravan dwellers. The Government accepted the argument and included the change in the Bill, and that covers a major area of concern for the Gypsy and Traveller community.
In 1994, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Labour Opposition at the time opposed the Act. My hon. Friend Mr. Pike, then shadow spokesman on home affairs, said that
"the Government's proposals to repeal part of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 do not solve any problems but create more . . . What would be achieved by passing the Bill . . . To do so would criminalise some gipsies and increase homelessness; it would cause family breakdown and place added pressures on social and education services. It would certainly not solve any problems. Indeed, it is our view that it would create more problems and improve nothing."—[Hansard, 19 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 358–9.]
My hon. Friend's words were prophetic. Unfortunately for the Gypsy and Traveller community, time has shown those comments to hold a great truth. The present failed policy regime has had a negative impact on the health of the Traveller community and increased the number of unauthorised encampments, which has caused inconvenience for the settled community. Relations between the settled and the Traveller community have inevitably deteriorated as a result.
It is time that the Government addressed the issue of Traveller accommodation. Such action would bring benefits to both Travellers and non-Travellers. It would contribute significantly to ending the spiral of hatred in which the Traveller community exists. We had an example of that in Lewes at the turn of the year, and a fracas took place in Coventry today over issues that will—I hope—be resolved satisfactorily. In any case, it is certain that the additional pressures placed on the Traveller community—including the increased demand for settlements and the use of unauthorised pitches—are causing trouble.
My colleagues in the all-party group and I perceive action by the Government as presenting a win-win situation for Travellers and non-Travellers alike. An ever-growing body of opinion has called on the Government to address Traveller accommodation needs. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister commissioned research, and a report by Pat Niner, entitled "The Provision and Condition of Local Authority Gypsy/Traveller Sites in England" and published in 2003, noted the strength of opinion that exists. She stated:
"There is no clear, widely understood national policy towards accommodation for Gypsies and other Travellers in England; there is a general feeling that such a policy is needed involving local authorities and others but with a strong lead from central government."
The report notes that within the next five years between 1,000 and 2,000 additional residential pitches and some 2,000 to 2,500 transit pitches will be needed.
I am pleased to report that the Committee that considered the draft Housing Bill, chaired by my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett, recommended that the Government introduce a new statutory duty to provide or facilitate sites for Gypsies and Travellers. I regret that it is missing from the Bill.
It is not only Travellers and their representatives who have called for action to address the accommodation needs of Travellers. A range of groups—including the Commission for Racial Equality, Shelter, the Children's Society, the Local Government Association and the National Farmers Union—wants the Government to do more. The Institute for Public Policy Research has also written "Moving Forward", a report on Traveller accommodation that also addresses the issue and recognises its importance for social harmony and social justice.
Rather than reciting a wish list, I shall highlight two steps that the Government should take now. The first, as I have mentioned, is to create a duty on local authorities to provide and facilitate Traveller sites. The second is to legislate to enable Housing Corporation funds to be used for the construction of Traveller sites. That would create a positive opportunity to overcome a major social problem.
I shall conclude by reading a passage from a letter sent by the Commission for Racial Equality to the official in charge of the draft Housing Bill on
"The Race Relations Act 1976, as amended by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, gives public authorities, including the ODPM, a statutory duty to work to eliminate unlawful discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and good race relations in all they do.
Gypsies and Irish Travellers are defined as racial groups under the Race Relations Act, and by excluding Gypsies and Travellers from a piece of legislation which aims to provide decent homes for all ethnic groups in the settled community, the ODPM risks failing to promote equality of opportunity or to adequately address potential racial discrimination. Further good race relations are unlikely to be promoted if improvements are seen to be offered to certain groups, excluding others."
That letter presents a powerful argument that the Government cannot afford to ignore if they value our commitment to social inclusion and our pledge to create decent homes for all. The word "all" should, and must, include the Gypsy and Traveller community.
Finally, I want to make specific reference to my constituency. Many of my hon. Friends have described the problems of university accommodation, such as the fact that terraced houses of less than three storeys are not included in the Bill's provisions. My hon. Friends referred to the infamous habits of private landlords who buy up cheap council housing and do not care what their tenants do, allowing drug addicts and others to operate from those houses. I welcome the fact that the Bill will deal with that problem—at least I hope that it will.
There are real problems with HMOs: first, in respect of a few students who on some occasions, sadly, can be a social nuisance, although they are not the majority; and, secondly, on the maintenance of proper standards in those houses. As my hon. Friend Mr. Jones pointed out, the provisions should be extended to cover any house in multiple occupation. The Government are drawing a false distinction. Many problems exist in old, terraced houses that were shoved up as an outcome of the industrial revolution, and they must be tackled.
Antisocial behaviour is a serious problem in York, as it is in many parts of the country. No one should have to put up with six ball-bearings being shot through their front window, with people pushing an abandoned car over their garden, with a telephone box being blown up by high-power fireworks or with a primary-school-age child riding up and down the pavement and over other people's gardens on a quad bike, yet those problems are occurring in York. The Government have taken many steps to make it easier to deal with families who let their children and teenagers run out of control, but more support for local authorities and others is clearly needed.
Like the City of York council, I welcome the proposal in the Bill to extend the period for introductory tenancies, to make it easier to evict tenants who do not stick by the local authority's rules. The council also supports the right to withhold consent to mutual exchanges where the person who wants the exchange perpetrates antisocial behaviour. If we were to allow such an exchange, months of work building up the case for eviction would be lost when the person moved to a new address. The council endorses the Government's proposal to allow local authorities to suspend their obligations under the right to buy when the person who wants to buy their home is responsible for antisocial behaviour.
I especially support the proposal that the needs of the community will be taken into account when housing possession cases come before the court. Too often, the victims are ignored by the justice system but in this case the Government are putting the victim first.
The City of York faces two particular problems: first, the shortage of social housing for rent; and, secondly, the lack of affordable private and social housing for both rent and affordable housing for sale. The Government sometimes characterise the country's housing problems as those of shortage and affordability in the south and abandonment in the north, yet in parts of the north affordability is as great a problem as it is in the south. I have raised that point with the Prime Minister, at questions in July 2002; with the Deputy Prime Minister in correspondence; and, on
In York, about 3,625 people are on the housing waiting list, excluding those wanting transfers. From 1999 to 2003, 717 houses in York were sold under the right-to-buy scheme but only 428 new homes were provided by registered social landlords. Overall, including flats, 810 properties were sold but only 630 new properties were provided. Roughly, only three of every four properties sold were replaced. Only 70 per cent. of those replacement properties were homes for rent—the rest were for discounted sale or shared ownership—so, compared with 810 properties sold over the past four years only about 440 new homes for rent have been built, which has exacerbated York's housing problem.
Last year, 1,066 socially rented houses became available for new lets, yet the local authority accepted 1,300 new households as statutorily homeless. It is not surprising that the housing waiting list is rising and that few people on it have any prospect of being housed at all. The City of York council's housing needs survey in August 2002 showed that about 2,000 new lets were needed each year but that only about 1,000 homes were becoming available. The survey estimated that over the next five years about 950 additional homes will be needed each year to meet newly arising housing needs.
The council has been addressing the problems by requiring that 25 per cent. of all the houses built by private developers are affordable homes. I want the council to go further and to increase the figure to 50 per cent.—as it is in some London boroughs. Labour councillors supported that proposal when they were in power and I hope that the new Liberal Democrat administration will implement that increase. However, even if the council takes that step, more help will be needed from the Government.
The City of York council presented evidence on that problem and on the affordability problem to the ODPM Select Committee inquiry on affordable housing during the last Session. In 2001, the average cost of a flat in York was £96,000. That is higher than in Portsmouth, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Medway and many authorities in the south, yet earnings in York are lower. In York, the average male wage is 83 per cent. of the average in the south-east, while the average female wage is about 86 per cent. of that in the south-east. The ratio of average house prices to income in York is 3.4:1, which is exactly the same as for the south-east of England as a whole, but considerably worse than for some authorities in the south-east. The ratio is worse in York than in Reigate and Banstead, Vale of the White Horse, Rushmoor, Hastings, Gravesham, Maidstone, Chelmsford, Bracknell Forest and Chiltern and South Bucks. Some authorities in the south of England, such as Reigate and Banstead, receive special help under the amended right to buy regulations, but York needs special help, too.
In my constituency, the affordability problem is getting worse. Over the two years since these figures were compiled, prices in the north of England—especially in the hot spots such as York—have risen faster than in London and the south-east.
In York, local people are, quite simply, being priced out of their own city. A typical working-class young couple, with two incomes—the man may be a trainee motor mechanic, living with a shop worker—simply cannot afford to buy or rent in the private sector in York. We need a campaign to provide homes for local people in the city of York.
Last week, I received a letter from a notable local environmentalist, who emphasised the need to take account of the consequences of traffic in new housing developments. Of course that must be taken into account, but it is not an argument against development itself, because a lack of development also creates traffic problems, as people commute from neighbouring towns and villages, where house prices are lower. It is, however, an argument for a balanced housing development policy, and York is currently missing such a policy. The city of York council is accelerating building in the city centre, but it has put a block on the major development sites in the suburbs on the outskirts of York. We need some city-centre housing and some suburban housing, and we need some brownfield sites and some greenfield sites to be developed. To address the traffic problems, we need a balance of development, not overdevelopment on any one site.
York is a very attractive city. It attracts employers, residents and visitors, so we need additional housing, but that housing must be provided both in the city centre and in the suburbs, so that we can avoid the problems of overdevelopment, as well as the traffic management problems that additional housing can generate.
It is a great pleasure to speak in another housing debate under a Labour Government. Meeting the Government's decency standards by 2010 in Bolton will be a much bigger challenge in the private sector than in the public sector. Last year, the council carried out another housing condition survey and found that Bolton has 21,000 houses in the private sector that do not meet the Government's decency standards. Of those 21,000 houses, 8,000 are in low-demand areas and many of them would be considered irredeemably unfit by environmental health officers and therefore need clearance.
Of course low-demand areas are readily recognised because owner-occupiers vote with their feet, as they see the equity in their properties dwindling away. That leaves private sector landlords with opportunities to purchase properties at below market prices and to charge above market rents for them. In the opinion of Bolton housing officers, it is urgent that low-demand initiatives are introduced on a large scale to prevent the market collapse that we have already seen in the pathfinder areas.
Bolton is tackling low-demand properties by making them warm and weatherproof, mainly using enveloping schemes, with selective clearance of the worst properties. Some new build is being brought into those areas to restore the economic balance and support the local infrastructure of shops, schools and so on. Car parking is being improved and play facilities are being provided, often for the first time.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning came to Bolton recently and saw how one of those areas had been turned round. A few months ago, houses were selling for as little as £3,000 to £12,000, but house prices have risen to £25,000 or £30,000 and above now that the area has been turned round. That is a sign of whether the policy is working.
Since part 1 is about safety, as well as health, may I make a plea to the Government that all new build and refurbishment schemes provide hard-wired—I stress that term—fire alarms to prevent the unnecessary loss of life that we always see in such areas? Such alarms should be made mandatory. As recently as last week, yet another family—three young children and their mother—lost their lives in Manchester. Sadly, that is not an uncommon occurrence in areas of low demand.
The first housing action area in Bolton was established in 1979, when the then Government promised that houses in that area would be given an extra 30 years life. I am concerned that that HAA, in my constituency, and its successors are now reaching the end of that extended life, but we will not be back to those areas for a very long time yet.
The existing fitness standard makes no reference to the energy efficiency of dwellings; neither does it distinguish between defective dwellings and those that present a genuine health and safety risk to the occupants. Enforcement of the fitness standard also presents local authorities with problems. I therefore welcome the new housing health and safety rating scheme in the Bill because it represents an attempt for the first time to score the health and safety risks presented by properties in more than 24 different categories, including the presence of carbon monoxide and even radon gas, as well as things such as lead pipes.
Section 606 of the Housing Act 1985 requires local authorities to submit a written report to the authority regarding the unfitness of properties and potential for clearance, and requires the authority to consider such reports represented by environmental health officers. That will be repealed and replaced by clause 4, which will only require local authority officers to inspect premises on receipt of a complaint from a justice of the peace, or a parish or community council. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister assure the House that that will not effectively mean that our constituents have to live longer in unfit properties that might not be reported in such terms?
Some 10 per cent. of private sector HMOs are deemed unfit for human habitation. As other hon. Members have reported, properties with three or more storeys pose a significantly higher fire risk than others. In 1997, research commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and carried out by Entec Ltd. found that 52 per cent. of HMO fires are in buildings three or more storeys high. Occupants of houses comprised of bedsits are about six times more likely to die in a fire than adults in an ordinary house. I am therefore pleased that the Bill will begin to tackle that problem, and I remind the House of my previous comments on hard-wired fire alarms, which should be mandatory in HMO refurbishments as well.
I was pleased to hear the comments of Charles Hendry, who suggested that sprinklers should be provided in all HMOs. Sprinker systems are very high tech today. Some people think that, when a sprinkler system goes off, it does so in every room in the building, but that is no longer the case; the sprinkler goes off in the room where the heat is first generated and the system then follows the course of the fire, so the whole HMO would not be ruined by a fire in a single room. Many lives could be saved in that way. I am sure that the cost of providing improved fire precaution equipment will be offset by landlords' insurance savings.
One of the consequences of the right to buy legislation has been that there are now many privately let dwellings on council or former council-owned estates. In Bolton, more than half the properties on some of our better estates have been sold on. Local authorities or RSLs can evict their antisocial tenants only to find that they go just round the corner into a privately rented house and carry on in the same old way, under a landlord who does not care about their behaviour. I strongly recommend that the Government give local authorities the powers to tackle antisocial tenants and, indeed, antisocial landlords, where that habit is practised.
I strongly welcome home information packs. One advantage of such packs is that they will prevent sellers from putting their houses on the market merely to test the value of their properties. I am concerned, however, about the cost of the packs. A figure of £635 has been quoted in some of the literature that I have read, and lower-waged owner-occupiers would find that to be a high percentage of the value of their house when compared with what the figure represents when set against the value of a house worth £500,000 or one that is sold for more than that. As I represent a constituency with many low-value properties, I am concerned that the Government consider carefully the recommendation that home information packs should not be required for properties below a certain value. A figure of £30,000 has been mentioned in some reports that I have seen.
Finally, many people who have been persuaded to buy their former council homes cannot afford to maintain them. I therefore welcome the suggestion accompanying the Bill that council occupants be given careful advice on the cost of maintaining and running a mortgage should they proceed to purchase their council property. I am also pleased that the Government are stopping the abuses of the right to buy system that some of us have been aware of for a very long time.
It gives me particular personal pleasure to be called to speak in the debate on the Bill's Second Reading as a large part of it represents an enactment of the measures for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation that formed part of my recent Home Energy Conservation Bill. Like so many excellent private Member's Bills, it was sabotaged on the final stages of its passage through the House.
For far too long, HMOs have been a blot on our housing landscape. All too often, they represent the worst housing standards of any sector in the housing market. The need for regulation has been apparent for a long time, and I am only too pleased to see the commitment to that being honoured through this Bill. I hope that the many hours of hard labour that I spent with very helpful officials in the then Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in preparing the provisions of my Home Energy Conservation Bill are reflected in this Bill. Although it is hard to see from the face of the Bill, I am led to believe that it essentially contains the proposals and the details that we worked out at that time. I shall be sending in due course my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning an invoice for my consultation fees.
My city of Brighton and Hove probably has as many HMOs as any part of the country, including many inner London boroughs. The issue directly affects thousands of my constituents. It is a well established fact that HMO residents suffer a significantly increased risk of death from fire and suffer from cold, damp and hard to heat accommodation and poor amenities. Many HMOs in my constituency have SAP—standard assessment procedure—ratings in single figures. In other words, they are virtually impossible to heat because they are incredibly energy inefficient. This reminds me of my experience as a student many years ago when I lived in precisely the same sort of accommodation and sat in a cold, dank, draughty room huddled over a single-bar fire feeding coins into a hungry meter trying desperately to keep warm. I still have constituents living like that. That has to be completely unacceptable in this day and age.
HMOs contain the most energy inefficient housing stock in the country and some of the worst fuel poverty. In fact, it is estimated that 39 per cent. of HMOs house residents in fuel poverty. We have a magnificent opportunity to start tackling two important problems: our energy efficiency commitments and addressing fuel poverty. If we can crack those problems in HMOs, we shall make a significant contribution not only towards the comfort of future residents of HMOs but towards the realisation of our energy policy.
I have been assured in discussion with Department officials that the registration and licensing requirements for HMOs are essentially the same as those evolved for my Bill. That made a distinction between the nature of an HMO, which is a building occupied by members of more than two families, and the requirement for licensing. That distinction seems to have been maintained. Although the Bill does not say this, the expectation is that mandatory licensing will apply to the high-risk HMOs of three floors and five or more tenants. There is no question but that this is certainly the highest-risk category, but will Ministers consider the possibility of changing the wording to cover three floors and/or five or more tenants?
Such a provision would bring under the scope of registration—certainly in my constituency—many terraced houses that are occupied by students. Those houses are of poor quality, have poor energy conservation standards and questionable safety standards. Such houses are worth licensing. If it is up to a local authority to license them because they do not fall within the mandatory scheme, I suggest that Ministers consider carefully the conditions that local authorities are required to satisfy before adopting discretionary licensing of HMOs outside the recognised mandatory high-risk category. That could make a large contribution to the quality of housing occupied by students and the management thereof. None the less, I am happy with that key provision in the Bill.
I am also very happy—certainly in principle—with the new housing health and safety rating system. It is curious that the Bill does not say anything about it or even name it, but the provision would be much clearer and give people much more confidence if something were spelled out on the face of the Bill. The name would be a good start, and the provision should at least specify the principal factors that are to be taken into account in making up the HHSRS—fire safety, energy efficiency, room dimensions, amenities, condition of the fabric of the building and so on. All those factors and probably more—my list is not exclusive—should be specified in a minimum list. I hope that the scoring system will be so structured that a building cannot be given a pass mark unless it satisfies all the requirements. It should score adequately on energy efficiency, fire safety and on whatever other category is deemed to contribute. That is important, because if we are to require registered HMOs to fulfil the HHSRS, it is vital that the energy efficiency component of the index is clearly specified and has to be met. That is the only way to guarantee the increase in energy efficiency and energy conservation and the reduction in fuel poverty that licensing HMOs gives us the opportunity to achieve.
I would like the Bill to be made complete by addressing the opportunities that it presents but that it has not taken up. The first of those, which has already been mentioned, is a mandatory tenancy deposit scheme. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made a sympathetic concession toward tenancy deposits, but the best way of illustrating Front-Bench sympathy for a tenancy deposit scheme would be to include a provision to introduce it in the Bill. That need not add much bulk to the Bill because it would require only two or three enabling clauses. Much of the Bill's work will be achieved through associated regulations, so the scheme could be introduced in that way.
I, like several hon. Members who have spoken, would be interested to have measures to deal with empty properties. I would like the Government to consider the possibility of introducing the compulsory leasing of empty properties. That could make a considerable difference to areas such as mine that have a crisis owing to high demand for housing.
My only criticisms of the Bill are about its gaps and some of its drafting—I must say that some of it is the parliamentary counsel's best. I would be happy if those on the Government Front-Bench were sympathetic to amendments to make its drafting a little clearer.
Like several of my colleagues, I want to concentrate principally on several of the fuel poverty aspects addressed by the Bill—or, rather, not, at present, addressed by the Bill. I congratulate the Minister for Housing and Planning on the Bill and the listening process that has taken place throughout the consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny process. My only exhortation to Ministers would be to listen a bit more, so that we can get a landmark Housing Bill of which the House and the Government can rightly be proud. I shall concentrate on three aspects of the Bill that need to be strengthened: first, the absence of any reference to the decent home standard; secondly, home information packs; and, thirdly, the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.
There is a compelling case for including a new clause to set a consistent standard on decent housing that would apply both to existing properties and to new properties under construction. It is nonsensical to set standards for new housing construction yet not to set such standards for improvements required to existing housing stock. If we are to have a decent housing standard, it should be simple and consistent. The decent housing standard must be mandatory rather than something that figures only in ministerial guidelines.
The benchmark in relation to the incorporation in statute of such a standard can best be found in a piece of legislation that the Government have already passed and of which I am particularly proud. I refer to the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which, for the first time in our history, included a commitment—a commitment by a Labour Government—to the complete eradication of fuel poverty in Britain in 15 years. The target is enormously ambitious and something of which the Government can be rightly proud.
The problem is that we are moving from a position in which we have a policy to one in which we require a strategy to deliver that policy. Recent advice from the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group shows that the Government will be unable to meet the legal targets on the warm homes programme that they have set themselves in the required time scale. That situation makes a compelling case for adopting a mandatory set of regulations and standards that would allow us to meet such targets by regulatory means, in addition to through direct Government funding programmes. The advisory levels that define the decent home standard are currently so low that many properties and households are left in fuel poverty even after they have benefited from the warm homes programme, so if we do not set consistent and high standards in this Bill, we will be obliged to revisit the matter and do that in a Bill in the next one or two years. If we do not set such standards, we will be in a complete housing mess, but we could avoid that if we addressed the matter now.
When the English house condition survey reported in 2001, it made it clear that we had 1.125 million local authority properties that failed to meet the current decent homes standard. Additionally, some 360,000 registered social landlord properties failed to meet the standard. Those figures do not take account of conditions in the private rental sector in which, as my hon. Friend Dr. Turner pointed out, there is the greatest concentration of properties with tenants whose lives are blighted by fuel poverty. That situation makes the case for addressing the matter in the current framework of the Bill, and I hope that that fact will be taken on board in Committee.
I praise the Government for clause 133(5)(e), which makes it clear that a property's energy efficiency rating should be part of the information to be included in home information packs. I make only one plea about the provision. Reference has been made to SAP ratings—the standard assessment procedure ratings—but they are mind-bogglingly complex. The public now understand what an energy efficiency rating system looks like, because domestic goods are rated on a band of efficiency from A to E. There is a compelling case for simplifying the process so that people can be aware of the quality of energy efficiency that they can expect in a home in much the same way as they currently understand the efficiency of electrical goods.
Finally, I shall focus on the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. There are 1.1 million HMOs in England. It is essential that we deliver our fuel poverty strategy so that it benefits those who live in wretched concentrations in such fuel-poor households. The regulatory system for achieving that must be inclusive rather than focusing only on the properties at greatest risk or in greatest need. That requires the definition in the Bill to be changed so that it is inclusive. It makes no sense to exclude properties with two storeys or five occupants.
My constituency contains two universities. The reality of the situation there is that huge tranches of it are areas in which traditional two-storey properties in working-class areas are being priced out of the reach of the poor because speculative landlords suck them up, fill them up and make huge profits out of them. It cannot be right to allow the exploitation of our housing stock to the exclusion of the poor. Local authorities such as mine which cover university cities require a social tool to allow them to maintain balanced areas in which schools are viable, communities exist and crime and disorder partnerships may deliver social stability for those who live there. If the measure in the Bill addresses only properties with three or more storeys, we will miss the opportunity to deliver a comprehensive package that would invite landlords to make a move toward properties outside the definitional net. We would not be thanked if we left that open.
One specific aspect of the problem is "studentification." That is a horrible word, and I wish we had a better one. It is also a pretty horrible experience for both students and those settled communities where landlords take over properties. It has not been set out more graphically for me than in a letter that I received last week from Nottingham's Lord Mayor, who said:
"The situation is made the worse because speculators have moved into Clifton"—
Clifton is the constituency that he represents as a councillor—
"in a big way, buying up houses to rent out, not only to locals but also to Nottingham Trent University students. A speculator, with several houses, can notch up a hefty income. Thanks to the insane increases in house values, many of these landlords have become 'millionaires'. It certainly beats working for a living! What they offer is destructive of community and that's why the Government should take action"— and take action now. I do not have the subtleties of the Lord Mayor's turn of phrase, but I subscribe to the urgency of his view of why we need to include such a measure in the Bill. If we can do that in Committee, we will have a package for which the public will thank us. Perhaps even large numbers of Liberal Democrat supporters and Members would thank us for that. They oppose the inclusion of such measures in the home information pack, but no doubt they would welcome it in their daily lives.
The House will wait until Report to see how far the proposals made by Alan Simpson are incorporated in the Bill. There are arguments on both sides in relation to a significant number of issues. We certainly know from the home care standards legislation that going too far too fast has caused chaos in a large number of charity-provided and commercially provided care homes.
Worthing has the highest proportion of retired people in the country and nearly the highest proportion of people who work in and are served by residential homes, especially those provided by the ex-service associations for people with particular needs. We know that if legislation goes too far too fast, people suffer. It is also right, however, to have rising expectations of standards that will be met. That is why the argument about the number of floors and people is well worth discussing in Committee, even if I am not there to participate.
I am a charitable trustee of homes for the elderly, but I have no objection to those who provide homes commercially. I have also experienced owning a house in multiple occupation next door to the one in which my wife and I were living. We have seen some of the advantages and disadvantages of legislation. On the whole, I like to believe that we raise standards every 10 or 20 years. It is certainly right to raise standards on fuel efficiency so that fuel poverty becomes a thing of the past. It is also right to raise standards of safety. No hon. Member who has experienced the devastating effect of a fire in his constituency and the death of children whose parents have tried to save them would turn his back on the greater advantages of hard-wired fire-safety warnings.
In terms of heating, in my former constituency of Eltham, entire blocks that were built with public money and run by public authorities were in effect wind tunnels into which tenants or prospective tenants in greatest need and with the least income were put. It cost them more than £20 a week to be cold. When it was possible to get the buildings clad and better heating systems installed, they spent £5 a week to be warm. Anyone who doubts the value of the campaigns in this House and outside—I speak also as a rather inadequate officer of the all-party homelessness group—need only go into the home of a person on a relatively low income who spends a relatively low proportion of that income on heating to understand how it is possible to reduce the number of excess deaths in winter.
We should consider whether social landlords, housing associations or councils that still have large housing stock should be required to give a condition survey and report to those who are offered tenancies. It is no good saying to prospective tenants who are homeless or in great housing need that they should take the first offer that is made. The council or the landlord may have offered that home to several other people who have all taken their chance of saying no because its condition is inadequate. Why should that be hidden so that the person with the fewest options takes the place that has been turned down by the most people and has the worst experience living there?
In the same way, if I were to sell my privately owned house—subject to the consent of my right hon. Friend Virginia Bottomley—I would have to declare my experience with the neighbours. Were I getting trouble from my neighbours, which I am not, I would have to declare that. Why is it possible for a registered landlord or council to make an offer to someone in critical housing need and not tell them that the previous tenant and the one before were allowed to move because of the unacceptable and intolerable behaviour of someone living above, below or on one side of the property? We should increasingly ensure that the same tests exist for those who are tenants or who will be tenants of councils and registered social landlords, so that important information in a market of housing—whether it is a social market or a more enterprising market—is available, and the same standards are expected.
I could take up many issues, but I want to revert to what happened when I first became a Member of Parliament and the years after that. I was elected in 1975. There was a change of national Government after four years and the Conservative party, perhaps without knowing where it intended to go, moved—stumbled is not quite the right word—into the right-to-buy business. That business has allowed 2 million families and their successors—so by now it is probably 3 million families—to be independent. Self-determination is important. People should not have to go to a landlord and say, "I want a spare room for my granny or someone I care about, or for my model railway set". It should not be necessary to have to go to a landlord and say, "I want to come down to live in Worthing because I have no more reason to live in one of the large cities." That freedom of movement and self-determination reflect the value of autonomy. I am a great believer in social interaction and solidarity. I am also a great believer in people being able to make choices for themselves, and right to buy has helped that.
I challenge those who argue that in areas of housing stress, where more people are applying for homes from a social landlord or a council, the right to buy should be restricted. Take Peckham, for example. In the late 1970s, more than 85 per cent. of the homes in most of its areas were owned by the local councils—the Greater London council and the borough council. They did not need more social housing; they needed less social housing. They needed a mixture so that those with get up and go could get up and stay rather than get up and leave. We should be careful about taking a still photograph; we should take a moving picture so that we know how people move into and out of housing need.
I like to believe that when my party comes back into service in national Government it will restore an impetus to the right to buy and restore the discounts that the Government are restricting. The right to buy is good. The fact that someone manages to get social housing or needs to get social housing aged 18, 28, 38 or 48 should not mean that 10 or 20 years later, when their circumstances have changed, they are stuck.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the main problem with right to buy is that it pits two of the most vulnerable groups against each other? It pits those who cannot afford to rent or buy on the private market against those who are homeless. That was precisely the choice in Tower Hamlets. Surely someone with his background could not possibly agree to extending and continuing the abuse that led to that situation.
One reason why I shall probably not be a success in my chosen way of life is that I thought that that was exactly what I was arguing. There is a good case to make that anyone who has been a social tenant should not have to pay rent after 20 years because presumably the reason they are still a social tenant is that they cannot afford to pay the rent. Once people get to retirement age, many of them are on housing benefit, and it would probably be simpler for housing providers to say, "Here's the property, and we'll go on looking after the maintenance." How do most of us get our chance to become independent in housing? We get it through inheritance or because our earnings change. I do not want to get into the family life cycle or opportunities and income now; perhaps we could discuss that in another debate.
I want to make one last point that is often forgotten. It has been said that same-sex relationships should be treated in the same way as heterosexual relationships. What about siblings? Why, for inheritance tax or pension provision, do we say that a sexual or near-sexual relationship matters more than connections of chance, such as having the same parents? Why should pension provision exclude brothers and sisters who have been living together, supporting each other? Why do I even have to ask the Minister whether the provisions in clause 165 will have the same beneficial impact on a brother and sister living together as on a same-sex couple? If the answer is that siblings are covered, I am pleased, but we ought to be clear that relationships within a family are as important as those in which people from separate families choose to live together.
I want to let others speak, so I shall not use all my time. I simply want to say that over the 28 years I have been here we have acquired a greater sense of reality. We have achieved a great deal but, to put it bluntly, we will still be stuck with problems if we can have a debate such as this while ignoring the fact that house values have been going up by 10 or 15 per cent. a year for each of the last six or seven years, which has a massive impact on all that we are trying to achieve. We also need to understand that many more people will inherit homes, and the division between the haves and have-nots in housing is growing more than it ought. We should not have over half the value of a home in the land value—that is another set of problems.
I broadly welcome most of the measures in the Bill; indeed, I warmly welcome the arrangements for the mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation and the discretionary licensing powers to be given to local authorities. However, owing to the complexity and subjective nature of the assessment process, some of these measures will be difficult to enforce. Also, because the Bill's implementation will depend heavily on the expertise and commitment of local authorities, there will undoubtedly be a wide variation in the level of success achieved in different areas.
Nevertheless, overall the Bill provides local authorities with a number of useful tools to deal with rogue landlords without overburdening the majority of decent landlords who make a valuable contribution to meeting the nation's housing needs. I firmly believe that many of the Bill's provisions will be extremely helpful in my constituency, particularly in the town of Morecambe that lies at its heart. Following the sharp decline in the domestic holiday trade that occurred during the 1970s and '80s, Morecambe, in common with many other British seaside resorts, was left with a huge number of redundant hotels and guesthouses. Much of that former holiday accommodation is decaying and in a poor state of repair. In the main, it is used as cheap, substandard HMOs.
The availability of so much cheap rented accommodation has acted as a magnet for disadvantaged and dysfunctional individuals and families from all over the north of England. That has resulted in a largely itinerant population inhabiting some parts of central Morecambe and its west end. Unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and antisocial behaviour are rife in those areas. That, in turn, impacts on businesses, property prices and the quality of life in those and neighbouring communities. I am totally convinced that reducing the over-supply of cheap rented accommodation is the key to alleviating the problems that abound in those parts of Morecambe.
I should like to pay tribute to English Partnerships and the regional development agency, from which Morecambe is receiving help and support. In particular, I thank the northern director of English Partnerships, Bill Skilki, for his personal help and support in Morecambe. I am confident that the assistance of those bodies, coupled with the constructive application of these measures, will enable the local authority to deal effectively with the housing issues that have blighted our town for so long.
Part 1 replaces the current housing fitness standard with a housing health and safety rating system, and adapts and extends the powers available to local authorities to deal with poor housing conditions by means of enforcement. There is no doubt that the bricks-and-mortar approach of the housing fitness standard falls short of what is required properly to assess the risk to the health and safety of a property's occupants. The proposed rating system offers a much wider assessment of the impact on health. However, the methodology that is to be applied in producing the ratings appears to be heavily dependent on the personal opinion of a housing officer. Those subjective judgments will undoubtedly be open to challenge and could make it difficult to proceed with the enforcement mechanisms in the Bill.
Part 2 places a duty on local authorities to ensure that HMOs with three or more storeys and five or more occupants are licensed. Additionally, provision is made for local authorities to have discretionary powers to license other HMOs. Although I warmly welcome both those measures, like many Members I would have preferred that all HMOs were subject to the mandatory licensing arrangements. The three-storey, five-occupant criteria appear to be arbitrary and are no indication of premises' suitability for habitation. Of course, I welcome the fact that the granting of a licence will be dependent on applicants having suitable management arrangements in place, and the £20,000 maximum penalty for letting in breach of the licensing conditions is appropriate.
Part 3 gives local authorities the power to license private landlords in areas with high levels of antisocial behaviour. The suitable management criteria and penalties for breaching licensing regulations will be applied. I fully welcome those provisions. Equally, I welcome the recognition that the antisocial behaviour of tenants is not the sole responsibility of landlords, and I welcome the measures to support and assist them.
The additional control measures in part 4, interim and final management orders and overcrowding notices all appear to be soundly based.
Part 5 places a new legal duty on people who are selling properties in England and Wales to prepare a home information pack before putting their property on the market. I believe that the packs will be of great value to anyone who wishes to purchase a property. The information contained in the home condition report will enable prospective buyers to make a realistic estimate of the property's true value; it will also prevent the frustration and expense incurred by prospective buyers when fundamental flaws in the property's structure are discovered only at a very late stage. Although I wholeheartedly welcome the introduction of the home information packs, I think that there will probably be substantial teething troubles in the early days in terms of both delays in HIP preparation and the ability to police the scheme effectively and invoke the enforcement procedures. Despite those difficulties, the measures are well worth while and should be adopted.
Part 6 contains several important measures, including additional remedies to tackle antisocial behaviour, such as the extension of introductory tenancy schemes, additional powers to withhold consent for mutual exchanges, and the suspension of the right to buy of tenants who have a demotion pending or possession orders against them. Each measure will be a useful additional tool to bring pressure to bear on the elements of society who, through their disgusting and selfish behaviour, blight the lives of so many decent people.
Part 6 also contains measures to deal with abuse of the right-to-buy scheme and to protect the stock of affordable housing. That is a most welcome provision. That part of the Bill also grants same-sex couples the same right to succeed to tenancies as married partners of different sexes already have. That is a long overdue and welcome measure. Equally important is the extension of the disabled facilities grant to people living in caravans, who were previously excluded.
The final element of part 6 to which I shall refer deals with the proposal to extend the power of the Housing Corporation in England and the National Assembly for Wales to give social housing grants to companies other than registered social landlords. I fully support the proposal, which will inject much-needed competition into the provision of affordable housing and will tend to produce mixed and balanced neighbourhoods.
In conclusion, I believe that the Bill offers the opportunity to make real progress towards the eradication of poor housing and rogue landlords. I look forward to its passage through Parliament.
I draw hon. Members attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.
How could I not welcome the Bill, representing as I do a constituency where the housing was for decades synonymous with the worst abuses of private landlords, such as Hoogstraten and Rachman? I would have welcomed the Bill's provisions seven or eight years ago, when I was leading a campaign against a hostel on Edgware road that Westminster council had ignored for seven years. In that hostel at any given time 200 people, including dozens of children, shared 12 cookers. I shall never forget the couple—I know them still—who brought their new baby home to Clarendon court hostel and spent the night taking it in turns to stay awake in order to pick cockroaches out of their child's nose, ears and mouth. I am happy to say that I finally persuaded the environmental health department to prosecute the hostel's owners, who received the highest fine ever imposed on a private landlord.
I could have done with the provisions of the Bill when, not so long ago, I discovered in my own road a boarding house—one of several often used by labourers who come over from Ireland to work on the railways and the roads—where a 79-year-old man was renting a garden shed and had been for the previous 40 years. Despite being well overdue, the Bill is very welcome indeed because, as many hon. Members have said, we still encounter terrible examples of poor conditions in the private rented sector.
However, times change, and so do areas, and what is true in many parts of the country is now less true in areas such as central London. What were terrible private sector properties have, for the most part, although there are exceptions, either been turned over to housing associations—some of the properties in the Rachman-land of north Kensington have been turned over to bodies such as Notting Hill Housing Trust, gone up-market and now retail for £250,000 to £500,000—or been rented back to homeless families. One of the reasons I strongly welcome the provisions on right to buy is that although it has been a great success in terms of enabling sections of the population who would otherwise have had no access to equity to get it, in areas of extremely high demand the properties—often the worst—are being rented back in their hundreds and thousands not only to the people on housing benefit whom my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn mentioned earlier, but in my constituency to the local council. Properties sold under right to buy are now being rented back as temporary accommodation, and housing benefit covers the £250 or £300 a week rent charged for properties that are next door to properties that are being rented for £90 a week.
It is therefore essential to have a check on the right to buy, certainly until supply has expanded sufficiently to give us the luxury of such choices. I agree with much of the sentiment expressed by Peter Bottomley. However, under the right-to-buy scheme, the most desirable properties have been sold, including street properties, low-rise properties and properties in better neighbourhoods, which means that choice for the poorest and the most vulnerable, to whom he referred, has been removed. Properties on the 20th floor of a tower block or the worst of the deck-access estates are now the only ones available to many of my constituents. The problem was never the right to buy—it was the fact that we did not create the opportunity to build new stock of equivalent quality for 20 years.
We often discuss the increase in the number of people who are seeking to be categorised as homeless which, as I have said on a number of occasions, is connected to the issue of asylum. I remind the House that although the number of homeless acceptances is 10,000 below what it was 10 years ago, the number of new lettings has fallen from just over 40,000 a year to just over 30,000 a year. The problem is therefore supply, and we must deal with it before we can develop other opportunities, including the equity opportunity. Several colleagues have alluded to the omission from the Bill of a provision to deal with the pressure of supply. There should also be a provision allowing us scope to address the crisis of overcrowding, as we need an opportunity to deal with the problem. We cannot go into the 21st century with legislation dating not just, as my hon. Friend Ms King said, from the 1930s but from the 19th century.
Every time I speak about such issues in the House I raise new circumstances that should be treated as intolerable in the modern world. Just before Christmas, I met a family of seven who share a two-bedroom house. Three teenagers, three younger children and their mother live in a small two-bedroom house. Recently, environmental health services advised them to house one of the children not in the kitchen or living room but under the stairs. That may be a macabre but neat trick in the Harry Potter novels, but it is quite unacceptable in the 21st century. I accept that we cannot include detailed provisions about the nature of acceptable accommodation in the Bill. The Minister has kindly listened to our representations, and committed the Government to research enabling us to understand the scale of the problem. However, we have a chance to address the issue in the Bill—we cannot afford to lose the opportunity in what may be the last housing Bill for some years to grasp the nettle and make sure that it includes a definition of overcrowding to meet the needs of the modern world.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Minister kindly met us to discuss the issue and is sympathetic to our concerns. Does she share my concern that there may be a downgrading of standards if, in arrangements for same-sex siblings, the disregard of 10-year-olds is extended to cover 12-year-olds? Under those arrangements, one of my constituents shared a bedroom with her father until the age of 23.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will clarify the position, because under current legislation on overcrowding, a child under 10—we must wait to see whether that will be amended to 12—is treated as half a person. My son turned 10 on
A nine-year-old takes a lot of space; indeed, a baby under the age of one should also be treated as a human being and not discounted entirely for this purpose.
In our constituencies, we have families in which a baby or two, a toddler or two and teenagers are all crowding into the same accommodation. Partly by recognising the scale of the overcrowding pressures and the research on that, the Government must start using their influence with the Housing Corporation and others, and possibly even through the new private sector companies, to say that in areas of housing stress the need for larger accommodation must be recognised. The latest Joseph Rowntree study pointed out clearly that if we are to have a proper social mix in the cities, a financial imperative to create one-bedroomed and two-bedroomed properties is no good, because that is precisely what is driving families out of inner-city areas and unbalancing the delicate cohesion in the community in relation to all its different sections. I urge the Government to take that opportunity.
Finally, I want to support those colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara, who have raised the issue of Travellers. I have a Travellers' site in my constituency, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a Conservative council, has always been positive in dealing with some of the issues in relation to that estate. I am also grateful to the Government for the substantial investment that was put into that site a couple of years ago, which enabled the facilities to be upgraded, which in turn is very welcome. If my hon. Friend were to visit that estate, which is buried under several of the slip roads to the Westway, he would see a kind of vision of hell. As it happens, however, several of its residents would prefer to stay on that site to roaming around in a country in which, as the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's research have found, there is a pitiful shortage of sites. It is precisely because there are so few official sites that are properly regulated and managed that we have some of the tensions between the community and Travellers. If we are to look for a long-term solution, it is an imperative that the Government also take the opportunity to return to some form of the provisions that applied before the repeal in 1994 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. We must examine the responsibilities of local authorities across the country to ensure an adequate supply of caravan sites.
I welcome the Bill. In any hierarchy of human need, the shelter and security afforded by a home will always rank high. In a country in which the principal asset of many millions of people is their own home, and in which access to suitable, affordable, decent-quality housing is the dominating issue in many millions of lives, we will consider few more important Bills in this Parliament.
I agree with many who have already spoken in believing that this should and could be a bigger and better Bill, and I believe that it should be a flagship Bill. It is a good Bill so far, because it aims to address the issues faced by some of the most vulnerable people in our society in some of the most problematic housing in our country. In particular, I support strongly the Bill's aim to improve housing conditions, to license houses in multiple occupation and the people who own and manage them, and to introduce home information packs for use at the time of house sales. I deeply regret, however, the fact that the Government have so far resisted all efforts to persuade them to include measures that they have agreed are necessary to improve conditions, to strengthen licensing, to provide better information at the time of sale and to protect vulnerable people living in park homes.
The minority of rogue park owners who make their residents' lives a misery ensure that park homes are a significant part of the housing problems of this country. If we get rid of those people through the right legislation, I believe that park homes can be a big part of the solution, providing affordable, adaptable, good-quality sustainable housing. It is vital that the Bill is amended to include legislative proposals that are supported by 150 Members of the House, by the park homes industry, by the four residents associations, by the Local Government Association, and above all by the Government themselves. The Government's excellent response to the park homes review acknowledges that park homes are housing, and accepts the case for major reform in respect of three key issues. The time for that reform is now: park homes reform belongs here, in this Bill.
I welcome the introduction of a housing health and safety rating system and the identification of hazards included in the fact sheet issued by the ODPM, which certifies that it will apply to all types of dwelling. Among them are hazards arising from gas, electricity and water supplies, inadequate lighting, fire and inadequate arrangements for sanitation and drainage. Those are huge issues for people living in some of the worst properties in the country in the private rented sector, but they are also of major concern for people—often elderly—who live in park homes. The Government's October 2001 response to the park homes working party states:
"At a minimum model standards need to reflect current recognised best practice on the provision of services such as gas, electricity, water supply, drainage, sewerage and flood protection."
Park homes are housing, and park home reform belongs in the Bill.
Clause 3 requires local authorities to consider housing conditions in their districts. Many authorities will not be able to do that without considering conditions in residential parks. Clauses 5 to 37 set out local authorities' powers in relation to the enforcement of housing standards. Authorities will fail in their duties if they do not consider the plight of elderly residents in parks where the electricity supply is inadequate and vital equipments fails; where lighting does not work properly, creating dangers in the dark; where there are floods leaving people marooned in their homes; and where homes are too close together, presenting a danger from fire.
I strongly support the proposals in part 2 to license houses in multiple occupation, and to designate additional licensing areas. The Government have accepted—here again I refer to park homes—that it would be beneficial to place a duty on all local authorities to attach, monitor and enforce licensing conditions. Clause 55 contains excellent proposals relating to evidence establishing whether someone is
"a fit and proper person to be the licence holder or . . . the manager of the house."
When considering that, Members should also have regard to the Government's expressed intention that holders of park home licences and managers of residential parks should be fit and proper persons.
Some very good people own and manage residential parks: Michael and Julie Ward, for instance, own two excellent residential parks in my constituency, and at the end of this month will for the third time be acclaimed as park owners of the year. Decent business people can make a good living and provide first-rate conditions for those living in residential parks. Some dishonest and violent people own such parks, however, and some who own and manage them harass their residents. The Government have accepted the principle that the protection against harassment that is available to park home owners should be on a par with that available to private rented tenants, and they have a great opportunity to put that right in the Bill. The current maximum fine for breach of a residential park site licence is £2,500, a derisory figure. Clause 82 proposes a fine of £20,000 for a licence breach in the private rented sector; why not extend that to park homes?
Part 5 introduces a duty to provide home information packs. Some of the main problems affecting residential parks are caused by a lack of information or sharp practice relating to written statements, and a lack of clarity in regard to implied terms at the time of sale. The Government have accepted that statements should be provided in advance, and have agreed that one addition to the implied terms should be a pitch plan showing the boundaries of the plot where a person will live. Those commitments could easily be stated in the Bill.
It is more than two years since the Government set out their commitment to legislate on park homes, but so far they have said that there is no parliamentary time. Is there really no time? Is there no time for the elderly man being harassed by violent bullies who are trying to make him leave his home? Is there no time for the couple with limited means who are threatened with court action by a multi-millionaire when they try to mildly assert their rights? Is there no time for honest, hard-working people who put their savings into a park home and find that their park has been bought for cash by someone with a criminal record and an ability to cheat them? There is plenty of time—and the Bill is the time.
I have been delighted to hear around the Chamber today ringing endorsements of the need for park home reform. No one in the House should expect vulnerable residents in residential parks to wait a moment longer for a modicum of justice and fair play.
The ODPM Committee declared that there should be discrete park home legislation within two years. The Government have not given that commitment. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett support the call for the inclusion of park home measures in this Bill. The Government have a hand-out Bill for private Members, but last week none of the lucky 20 took it up. The Government have agreed 13 recommendations of the park home review. I for one am prepared to table 13 amendments to this Bill. I should not need to draft them myself.
The hand-out Bill covers harassment, the written statement and its terms and the age criterion for ending agreements. If the legislation is already drafted, and if there is any will to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society from rogues and criminals, those clauses at the very least should be incorporated in this Bill right away. Park homes are housing. This is an important Housing Bill and no one in the House should ignore the needs of vulnerable people living in park homes.
The Government have done an excellent job in setting up the park homes review, in responding extremely positively to the review and in setting out so many areas for legislation. They need to complete that excellent job by incorporating in this Bill all their promises to park home residents, to the park home industry and to anyone concerned about conditions in park homes. We can make it a really excellent Bill and bring real reform to park homes by that means.
I congratulate the Government on this measure and on the fact that it moved from manifesto to Bill, taking in not only pre-legislative scrutiny but substantial responses from the Government. It is clear that the Government have two completely opposite kinds of housing problem to deal with. In the Tees valley, where my constituency of Redcar lies, the prevailing one is low demand and housing market decline. That can have a devastating effect on communities.
It is a problem that starts easily and spreads unstoppably like a disease before the eyes of the resident community. It takes just a few voids in older terraced houses that are not attractive now—they do not have gardens or parking spaces and are located badly. In Southbank and Grangetown, the two worst affected areas in my constituency, the houses were built next to the Dorman Long's steelworks, which is no longer there. For modern taste, they are a bit close to the remnants of that industrialisation.
There are some excellent people living in those areas: the chair of my constituency Labour party, two councillors and a doyenne of my women's forum. Last year, we were visited by Lord Rooker. We were able to show him into some very comfortable and pleasant sitting rooms in houses that were situated in what was growing into a hell.
Those voids are not taken up and they are then vandalised. The area's reputation declines and prices spiral downwards. No one will buy houses to live there now—they would be a poor financial investment and a poor personal one because the community is falling away. The area is beset by problems of vandalism, noise, antisocial behaviour and drug dealing. In short, it is a miserable environment.
Occasionally in the morning in the streets of Southbank and Grangetown, there are knocks on the door, usually at the home of elderly owner-occupiers who are trapped in that life and cannot sell their house for a price that would buy them another one. It is a landlord offering them a bit of cash in hand to sell up and to move out quickly. The only other kind of purchaser is a different kind of landlord; one who buys empty houses cheap—half a dozen at a time, and usually unseen—at an auction many miles away. The common link between the two is that both are interested only in letting the properties to people who are on housing benefit, whose rent is paid directly to the landlord by the local authority. The reliability of their rent income being assured, the landlord has no interest whatever in the reliability of the tenant, and tenants—in what is now a fairly debased area—are not, to put it mildly, often very reliable. The spiral of decline turns into a whirlwind.
In addition to the Bill, properly resourced housing market renewal is critical. The Tees valley has 59,000 houses, or 23 per cent. of its entire housing stock, at risk of this kind of decline. However, that steep decline is in patches. The Tees valley is not totally a conglomeration of ailing north-eastern Coronation streets. There are some very pleasant places to live where the housing market is robust. The answer is not demolition, but some demolition and renewal. These patches of decline are close to more robust areas and are served by good facilities and public services. We need a change of mix and a new design to give fresh impetus to these urban cores.
The Tees valley is not one of the nine pathfinders, but in the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies report—the genesis of the pathfinders—a good case was made out for us being the tenth. Even without that status, the Tees valley has set up a housing market renewal project with a board made up of stakeholder partners and is working on a costed action plan for housing market renewal with a delivery framework. Even without the resources of a pathfinder, we intend to have a template for integrated strategies across the local authorities and a framework that will make better use of existing resources. Clearly, we want to develop and present a persuasive case for help, with additional public funding from the next comprehensive spending review.
In a situation of decline such as I have described, how welcome is the licensing of houses in multiple occupation provision that is in the Bill? HMOs are scattered through these areas of decline, with concentrations of poor physical conditions, threats to health and safety and poor management. They house often the most vulnerable people who are hostages to landlords who sometimes cannot even be found to fulfil their obligations, let alone be called to account.
In assessing whether someone is a fit and proper person to be a landlord, certain offences have been taken into account, violence and harassment being among them. Sexual offences are not on the list; clearly they should be. No one should be licensed to be a landlord who has been guilty of a sexual offence.
I join in the chorus that three storeys and five occupants is too narrow a category of HMOs to be covered. Smaller HMOs are just as badly managed, to just as much detriment to many thousands of tenants. I ask the Government to keep an open mind about that.
We need to be clear about the consequences to tenants when there is a licensing breach, a failure to apply for a licence or a refusal by a local authority. Clearly, no rent is due, but tenants need information so that they are not persuaded that they are in breach of their agreement, and not subject to harassment or threatened eviction. There may be problems about interruptions to housing benefit claims and their reinstatement. Although there is no express provision for this in the Bill, I suggest that tenants should be consulted on the terms of licence and the character of landlords.
There should be a link—I cannot now find it—between the licensing provisions and the housing health and safety rating system in part 1. For instance, it seems eminently possible that an HMO with a category 1 hazard could still be licensed to be occupied. That would be unwise. I worry about the hazards identified under the HHSR system, because they are measured as hazards against the most vulnerable tenants, and remedying them can be suspended while those most vulnerable sort of tenants do not occupy the property. I would suggest, first, that landlords may be less ready to rent to vulnerable tenants; secondly, that the system underestimates the fluidity of tenant changes; and, thirdly, that it will store up an awful lot of category 1 and 2 hazards, which in due course will overwhelm the local authority's enforcement provisions.
Selective licensing of other properties is also capable of having a major effect on the sort of suffering that I have described. I suggest that care is needed to ensure that the criterion of designation for licensing—that it is likely to be in an area of low housing demand—does not just drive problem landlords and tenants into the immediately adjacent areas, which might, because of their proximity, be problematic. I also suggest that some of the procedures are cumbersome, requiring the sanction of the Secretary of State or a trip to the county court, when they could easily be left to the discretion of the local authority.
Although the right to buy changes are mainly aimed at areas of high demand and low supply, my area will welcome the suspension of the right to buy when there is a demolition notice. In north Grangetown where local housing trusts need demolition, there has been speculative buying for a quick profit, which has proved costly and held back redevelopment to the disadvantage of the bulk of other residents who needed the change.
I would advocate the addition of simplifying and streamlining the process where owners are absent, abandon low-value properties and cannot be found. I have many more suggestions for changes and for inclusions, but I have no more time. I hope that the Government will continue to be as flexible as they have been so far, so that a currently very good Labour Bill can be turned into an excellent one.
It is a great pleasure to see how in recent years the Government's actions have demonstrated their commitment to raising the priority of housing policy, recognising how it touches everyone's lives. We have seen a welter of activities in recent years: the communities plan backed by substantial resources; the housing pathfinders, including one at north Staffordshire just up the road from my constituency; the key workers scheme; the home ownership taskforce report on low-cost housing, "A Home of My Own"; and now even the Treasury is involved in commissioning reports from David Miles and Kate Barker. Today we debate the Bill as a welcome demonstration of the Government's commitment.
My short contribution will concentrate on the requirements for home information packs and clarify why I support the Government's position on them. The packs will clearly affect all home owners who want to market their homes for sale, and a change in the law will definitely be noticed. We should bear in mind the fact that 70 per cent. of people are owner-occupiers and, according to Government research, 1.8 million of them in England and Wales put their houses on the market each year, so there can be no question of sneaking the legislation through. It will affect an important market.
The current process of buying and selling houses in England and Wales is cheap by international standards, but also long lasting. It involves many different stages: marketing the property, drawing up contracts, checking proof of title, making standard inquiries, applying for a mortgage and for a lender's valuation report, and various searches to local councils. Surprisingly, that list does not include obtaining a survey on the condition of the property by the person buying it. In fact, only one in five buyers obtains a survey.
During the lengthy process while all those activities are taking place, there is no binding contract—unlike in Scotland—between the buyer and the seller. So there could be several potential buyers chasing the same property, all incurring expenses in searches, fees and so forth. The seller is also likely to be in the same process as a buyer of another property. The Deputy Prime Minister's research shows that 60 per cent. of transactions are put together in chains of linked transactions, that the average chain has four such links and that the average time between accepting an offer and the exchange of contracts, which makes it binding, is nine weeks. So although there is no binding agreement during those nine weeks, either the seller or buyer can withdraw without any sanction at all. It is therefore no surprise to discover that the Deputy Prime Minister's research states that 580,000 transactions a year—30 per cent. of the total—failed. And of those failures, 28 per cent. were sellers who withdrew their property from sale.
I accept that some reasons for withdrawal—such as a change in employment circumstances or in the domestic situation, or even bereavement—are genuinely forced on the seller, but I am sure that a lot of withdrawals occur because the seller was not serious at the beginning. What an inefficient system we have landed ourselves with! There is a period of more than two months in which no one is sure whether it will be possible to deal with their transaction. And in addition to the period of uncertainty as to whether a binding agreement exists, there is a 30 per cent. chance that matters will not reach that stage. Nor should we forget the huge cost waste during that period, in terms of search and survey fees, which the Deputy Prime Minister's research estimates at £350 million a year.
It is true that estate agents generally get paid commission only when the sale takes place. However, lawyers tend to take payment for the services that they provided, whether or not a sale is achieved. So it is no wonder that the Consumers Association is at the forefront of support for home information packs. The current system may be tolerable for estate agents and lawyers, but it is nothing like what consumers should be able to expect. We should design it to focus on consumers' needs, which means that they should know very early on in the process the product that they are getting for their money, and what constitutes a fair price.
A home information pack allows potential buyers to see early on a condition survey, local searches and answers to standard inquiries, and it allows the seller and buyer to settle on a price at the outset. As a result, there should be no expectation of a later drip, drip of information, leading to both sides trying to renegotiate the terms of the sale. Usually, the result should be a shorter period of uncertainty between acceptance of the offer and exchange of the binding contracts.
I should like to quote the example of Maria Coleman—she has already been mentioned in today's debate—an estate agent in Bristol who gave evidence to the Select Committee. I know that she gave evidence because she wrote to tell me so, although I take it that she has not singled me out for this information, and that other Members have received a copy of her letter. I telephoned her last week in response, and spoke to her for more than 20 minutes. I discovered that she introduced a system of home information packs in her estate agency in Bristol in 1996—before a Labour Government, and before the promise was made to introduce such a system. She did so precisely because she saw that it was consumer-friendly. Some eight years later, she has dealt with more than 700 transactions by providing an information pack at the outset.
Maria Coleman says that in her experience, sellers and buyers routinely accept the surveyor's report as the basis of their negotiations. Surveyors accept liability to buyers, and all have professional indemnity insurance. Indeed, the premiums of the surveyors that she deals with have gone down during the period in which they have operated this system with her. She says that the surveyors routinely wait for payment until the sale has taken place. As a result, the failure rate in her practice has been slashed from the enduring national average of 30 per cent., to 3 per cent. She says that although 28 per cent. of sellers withdraw nationally, in her practice the figure is 4.6 per cent. It is no surprise that she says in her letter:
"How great is that for the consumers?"
So I said to Maria Coleman that as the system is a great success as a voluntary system, we can leave it as such, can we not? She said no, not at all. Although estate agents queued up at her door to find out how she was achieving such great success, hardly any are following her example. Most transactions are in a chain, and every person in it has to proceed at the speed of its slowest member. And all still run the risk of the 30 per cent. failure rate during the period in which they are exposed to that chain. She says that the scheme has to be compulsory if all consumers are to benefit. She gave the example of the only two chains that she has had in which every transaction was on her system of the up-front home information pack. A chain of four linked transactions, which is the national average chain, was completed in five weeks, while the national average from offer acceptance to exchange of contracts is nine weeks. In the other case, eight linked transactions—twice the national average—were concluded in nine weeks.
If we pass the Bill, estate agents and lawyers can change their practices to fit in and consumers will definitely benefit. We can reassure the estate agents and lawyers that they will have time to adjust to the new system because the Government need time to train up all the new surveyors we will need. The Bill is an important consumer protection measure. It has the support of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and while one can assume that it sees its members getting more business, the Bill is also supported by Maria Coleman; since she is an estate agent, one might also think that that implies estate agents must benefit, but if so, how come the National Association of Estate Agents still holds out in opposition to the Bill?
The Bill also has the support of the Consumers Association, which is the undisputed champion of our consumers, which is why I back it. I have also had briefings from the Disability Rights Commission and the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which not only accept and support the idea of the home information packs but would like more information in the packs about the accessibility of properties for the 8 million-plus adults in this country who have a disability. That is a good record to set against the estate agents and the lawyers who are holding out against the new system.
I would like to tell the Minister for Housing and Planning, before he runs away, that I thought I might help his career by saying that I shall vote for the Bill at 10 pm. He may want to consider his future career path, but I shall vote for the Bill and thought that he would be pleased to hear it. This is the first debate for as long as I can remember in which a Minister has sat on the Front Bench for nearly the whole debate: he went out for one cup of tea, but we can allow him that. [Interruption.] It may indeed be that he has no friends to go to, but we should thank him for being here.
While I welcome the Bill—I see that the Minister has run away now—I do have one or two doubts about some of it. In many ways, it is good as far as it goes and good in its aspirations, but two things are lacking. One is the power to see through some of the necessary changes to bring about social housing of decent quality for people. The other is that the Bill does not provide the means to achieve its aspirations. In his opening speech, the Minister outlined some of those problems.
I have received, as I imagine most Members have, a Shelter briefing on the Bill, which is interesting and useful. The tenancy deposit scheme issue is very important. Almost automatically, because of the way the housing market works, the number of people in private tenancies is increasing and likely to increase quite fast. That means that the national tenancy scheme is becoming more and more important to end the abuses and disputes that take place whenever private tenancies occur.
My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend Ms Buck, has changed a lot. There was a time, 10 or 20 years ago, when houses in multiple occupation were normal, indeed common, throughout most of north London. They are not now; most have reverted either to family houses or been sold and divided into flats. The number of places that one would call HMOs has reduced greatly, although I recognise that they are an enormous problem in other parts of the country.
The Bill helpfully deals with antisocial behaviour and the way in which many people simply make life hell for their neighbours, local residents and others. Those people can be drug dealers or pimps running prostitution rackets or just people who are deeply unpleasant in their behaviour towards others. We are all faced in our constituency surgeries with a desperation to get away from those people and those estates.
While that is a respectable thing to want to do, it is not a credible solution. The solution is to ensure better running of those communities and those estates.
The December issue of Housing Today contained an interesting article about the work of the antisocial behaviour unit of Hackney council, under its leader, Keith Veness, whom I know well. It has been successful in getting rid of many of the people who have terrorised communities on estates throughout the borough.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the most desperate antisocial behaviour, especially in London, happens when flats are taken over by drug dealers and become crack dens? In my constituency, we would like to see even more resources put into closing down such premises. Although Keith Veness is doing good work, as soon as one is closed down, another opens up.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Resources have to be put in consistently, over the long term. Sufficient police resources must be available to keep up the pressure, because—as we discover when London Members of Parliament meet, as we frequently do—the problem moves from one constituency that has had an effective operation to another down the road.
I shall concentrate on issues of social housing need—the need for a better supply of housing. I recall a time when my hon. Friend Mr. Love and I were active in politics in Haringey. We were both councillors at various times and in the late 1970s we could say proudly that we would never again put children in high-rise properties, that all the new properties we built would be houses with gardens, and that we would attempt to create decent community neighbourhoods. There are some wonderful examples of municipal development by Haringey, Camden, Hackney and Islington in that period, which was a high point for housing, with a Labour Government providing sufficient resources and local authorities with the imagination to develop new estates.
Tragically, a graph of the development of housing would show 100,000 new properties for council rent constructed in 1979, but only a handful—a few thousand—constructed last year by registered social landlords. The situation is desperate. The Government have commissioned a report from Kate Barker on housing supply, which demonstrates some unpalatable truths that we need to understand. It is all very well to assume that there is a market solution to housing need, but the reality is that 70 per cent. of all new households—they are mostly single person, but not all—cannot afford to buy a property. It is impossible to buy a property in my constituency even on an MP's salary without having a property to sell. That is the case for most of London. If someone who earns more than £50,000 a year cannot afford to move on to the housing ladder, what hope is there for a local authority worker, a nurse or a road sweeper?
It gives me no pleasure to say that of the 80,000 homeless people registered nationally, some 30,000 are in London. Over the past five years, the only big increase in London has been in the number of people registered as homeless, living in grossly overcrowded accommodation in hostels or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The number of new lettings has fallen and the number of new houses built has not increased. It is certainly not keeping pace with the number of people registered as homeless in London.
I congratulate the Government on the money that they have put in to estate improvements, including new roofs, new windows and new landscaping. However, the market created the housing crisis that the poorest people of London and the south-east face at present. The market will not solve that crisis. It will be solved only by sufficient public investment in new housing for build. The Government should not tell those living in overcrowded, badly run, dilapidated estates that the only way to improve their housing stock is to transfer to a registered social landlord who will be allowed to build dozens, if not hundreds, of properties to sell on the remaining bits of open land on those estates. Working-class communities which suffered 18 years of cuts and abuse under the Tories deserve better than that from a Labour Government, so I hope that the Minister will understand the strong feelings that arise when there are votes on housing transfer or, as occurred in Camden recently, on transfer to an arm's-length management organisation.
I represent an inner-city area and I see the desperation of the people who come to my advice bureau—children who are under-achieving at school and truanting, families who are breaking up, unemployment and everything that goes with that misery. Nationally, the picture is clear; there are empty properties in the north-east and the north-west. If people want to move freely from London to those areas that is fine—I wish them well. Good luck to them and I hope that everything works out for them. But for people with an extended community network or from a particular linguistic minority, that is not a credible alternative. We need to invest in council housing in inner London so that the poorest people, who have loyally supported our party for dozens of years, can have hope and aspiration for the future.
I welcome much that is in the Bill. I welcome the aspirations of the decent homes target, but that target cannot be met unless there is sufficient investment in, yes, high-cost areas to ensure that we have decent-quality housing for all those people. The Government will the ends, which are laudable, but they do not provide the means for us to achieve them. I hope that the Bill goes through and that it is improved in Committee, but I hope, too, that the Government will give us a much enhanced housing strategy in the future.
I am grateful that my speech could be squeezed in before the end of the debate.
I welcome the Bill, not least in these straitened times, as it implements two of our manifesto commitments at the last general election: the mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation and the provision of home information packs. However, the Bill focuses primarily on the private rented sector and the raising of standards in that sector. That is not surprising when we consider that the Government have already very much addressed the needs of owner-occupiers, with the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years. If we add to that the stability of the economy over the past six years and the high rate of employment, with an additional 1.5 million people in employment, it is not surprising that owner-occupation has risen from 68 per cent. to 71 per cent.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said earlier, the Government have also addressed the problems in the social sector. He referred to the £19 billion backlog of disrepair, the fact that 1 million dwellings have been improved over the past six years and the possibility that all those homes will have been improved by 2010. The Government are investing in housing itself; the amount will rise to £11 billion in 2005 by the end of the current spending review. They have also developed the sustainable communities plan.
The recent Barker report on housing supply revealed a number of things. I shall pick out two of them. First, most of the decline in housing supply is the result of the collapse in the supply of affordable housing since 1981. Earlier, someone claimed that the six years before 1997 offered some sort of excuse for the situation, but Barker shows clearly that the problems at the root of the difficulty have existed since 1981. When we further take account of the fact that since then 1.5 million properties have been sold under the right to buy, we can see that we face an enormous difficulty and that it will take a long time to replace those units of affordable accommodation.
Secondly, the Barker report showed that only 1 per cent.—just 1 per cent.—of institutional property investment goes into residential property. Other Members have commented on Kate Barker's suggestion that we should look into some form of tax-transparent, real estate investment trusts, on the American model. Although I should be happy to do that, we also need to consider the main reason why that investment is not being made: the image of the private rented sector.
All the studies show that, whenever tenants are polled, they always say that they do not want to live in the private rented sector. I could quote the National Union of Students report, which I assume all hon. Members have received, but I will not do so because of a lack time, although it is a very good indicator. Of course, there are many good landlords, but the image is undoubtedly formed by the bad landlords. The Hoogstratens and Rachmans of this world taint the whole private rented sector, and we have to do something about that if we are to get institutional investment.
The Bill makes a very promising start in two areas. As many hon. Members have said, the first is the mandatory licensing of HMOs. There is great evidence to show a concentration of poor physical condition in HMOs. The estimate is that 10 per cent. of them are unfit for human habitation. Bad management practices exist, and there are health and safety concerns. There have been a number of prominent accidents in HMOs. Of course, very vulnerable tenants live in that sector, so there is a high risk. As I suggested to the Minister earlier—I repeat this, and it is in line with what other hon. Members have said—we need to consider HMOs because they are in the high-risk category and have multiple problems.
Unlike my good Friend Andrew Bennett, I do not think that we can rely on a voluntary scheme for local authorities. All the evidence suggests that, although there are many very good authorities that will deal with the issues locally, that does not always happen, so we have to ensure that we cover them properly. I am sure that that will be considered carefully in Committee. We also have to consider the difficulties of landlords withdrawing from the sector as a result of mandatory licensing. There are different views about that, but the Government need to consider linking in to the homelessness strategies of local authorities to ensure that landlords do not withdraw from the sector.
The second area is, of course, the selective licensing of private landlords. We need to deal with some of the most unscrupulous practices in the housing sector and scams such as housing benefit fraud, harassment and unlawful eviction, specifically because many of the neighbourhoods involved are in decline and that sort of activity will accelerate that decline. Of course demand will disappear altogether in low-demand areas if something is not done. We need to address the standards issue, and I very much welcome the measures that will ensure that landlords must be fit and proper persons. Indeed, licences will be withheld if necessary.
In the very short time available to me, I cannot go over all the issues covered in the Bill, but I am moved to comment on the right to buy. As Mr. Curry, the Conservative spokesman, has returned to the Chamber, I want to explore his earlier comments, which appeared to represent a shift away from the rather dubious policy of extending the right to buy to RSLs. I say that not in a spirit of party political bickering, but to raise the prospect that a cross-party consensus could emerge. I have always held the view that we need cross-party consensus if we are to improve the possibility of people owning their properties, while providing a good standard of affordable accommodation. I hope that the Conservative party will continue to move in that direction so that we can make progress.
I want briefly to raise two issues, the first of which is overcrowding, on which other hon. Members have commented. I introduced a ten-minute Bill that raised a number of issues. Clearly, we need to end the Dickensian standards that currently exist; but more importantly, we need to collect more accurate statistics. I do not expect that to be done using measures in Bill, but I welcome the Government's move in that direction. We also need to inform policy in relation to the level of overcrowding. That is the missing link in all the housing stress problems that we face, and it could be dealt with in the Bill.
A national tenancy deposit scheme would begin to address the friction currently caused by all the disputes over tenancy deposits. That relates to the private rented sector's image, and it creates a lack of confidence in the sector and a loss of trust in the relationship between landlords and tenants. According to the Government's estimates, there were 127,000 cases of dispute. One in five tenants have their deposits withheld. That is not all caused by rogue landlords. There are rogue tenants. Often, when a tenant does not think that they will get their deposit back, they withhold the rent. Sometimes they take to trashing their accommodation. The Bill provides a chance to address the whole image of the private rented sector. Although I accept that the Government might not wish to move in that direction in the Bill, there is some urgency over the need to move at the earliest opportunity on a national tenancy deposit scheme.
Otherwise, I welcome the Bill's provisions. They will address the issues in the private rented sector that must be addressed if it is to contribute to the provision of good-quality, affordable accommodation in the future.
This has been a useful and constructive debate, conducted without political rancour. In that spirit, may I start by saying that the Bill, like the Minister for Housing and Planning, is good in parts? Most Bills, indeed, are good in parts. [Interruption.] Well, I suppose that it is true to say that most Ministers are good in parts, too.
Large parts of the Bill, however, are uncertain in purpose and unclear in method. I shall start by concentrating on the Bill's central element: licensing, on which most contributors have focused. It is true, in the words of Mr. Dobson, the hon. Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, that we need to deal with unscrupulous landlords. We have no truck with people who exploit tenants, run bad homes or hostels, or target the most vulnerable of our countrymen and treat them appallingly. It is appropriate that we deal with that problem in a sensible and reasoned way.
The Government's response, however, is a licensing regime that is, variously, mandatory, discretionary and selective. It is sometimes based on area of the country, sometimes on type of house, sometimes on the behaviour of tenants and sometimes on the behaviour of landlords. At best, it is confused and messy; at worst, it is inconsistent and ineffective. I do not say—I noted the words of Mr. Davey on this—that the licensing system should be universal. We call not for universality but for consistency in a system that is clear, easily understood and workable. In my judgment, it is entirely inappropriate that, in the words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry, a small landlord with five houses could be subject to five different, separate, regulatory regimes.
That would discourage the private rented sector at a time when the Government are telling us:
"We will pioneer new approaches not traditionally associated with the Left, including a vigorous private rented sector".
The Deputy Prime Minister, no less, has said:
"Most private landlords are professional and responsible"—[Hansard, 4 April 2000; Vol. 347, c. 813.]
That was repeated by the Minister for Housing and Planning in his opening remarks today. If we need a vibrant and vigorous private rented sector, we must not load it with additional burdens that would not have the effect, for which we all wish, of dealing with that small minority of rogue landlords.
Several contributors to the debate mentioned fitness standards. It is important to adopt standards that are enforceable, as Dr. Turner said. I hope that when the Under-Secretary winds up, she will tell us what the cost of implementing the standards will be to local authorities. I understand that some £4.5 million or £5 million has been mentioned. Will she tell us what extra manpower resources will be required and how long they will take to put into effect? Will there be retraining? In some cases, new staff will be needed. Will she also tell us what account has been taken, in assessing risk and fitness and in measuring vulnerability, of the particular needs of disabled people?
Will the Under-Secretary mention fire hazard and fire precaution, on which Dr. Iddon commented? My hon. Friend Charles Hendry mentioned fire precautions and suggested proposals for smoke and fire alarms. I understand that such alarms are now quite advanced and could be implemented practically—I think that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East also made that point. What specific measures will be put in place to deal with such matters?
The modernisation—we must assume that that is a euphemism—of the right to buy is noted by Conservative Members, but we have doubts about the Government's real commitment to the scheme. After all, the Labour party took 15 years to reach the conclusion that the right to buy was a good idea. We reached that conclusion quickly, and it was articulated with verve and enthusiasm, as ever, by my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley. I noted that one or two Labour Members, especially Ms King, were reticent about acknowledging that sound truth. Let us have an assurance that amending the right to buy will not have an adverse effect on the number of people who take advantage of it. We shall examine the proposals in detail and raise our concerns in Committee.
The seller's pack is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Bill, in public terms. Mr. Kidney became misty-eyed when he spoke about the packs. He was excited by the prospect of the effect that they would have on the market, but I do not share that boyish enthusiasm. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, which is a difficult business since I usually regard Liberals with a certain distaste, because I suspect that the packs may well slow down the process by loading up-front costs on the market and that they might well be uninsurable. The Minister for Planning and Housing said that much of the information that the packs will contain is already necessary. He told us that surveys are not novel. Nor will they be novel in the future, because if packs were to suggest that there might be problems with properties, I suspect that a substantial number of people wishing to invest in such properties would commission an independent survey anyway. Only people who could not afford to do that would have to rely on a seller's pack, which would not be indemnified by the insurance industry. I, like my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning, suspect that it would be better to tighten up and improve the existing process to deliver the intended objective, rather than introducing additional bureaucracy.
We have heard a lot about the seller's pack and the Consumers Association. Given the way in which it was spoken about this evening, I thought that it was going to appear on Mount Sinai and give us another set of commandments. I see that Labour Members know their "Exodus" as well as I do and can no doubt quote it chapter and verse. However, many organisations are rather less impressed with the prospect of the packs. The Empty Homes Agency believes that it is vital that exceptions be made for areas of low demand, which was a call repeated in the useful contribution made by Andrew Bennett. The Council of Mortgage Lenders is worried about the way in which the provisions will be implemented and says that the Government have failed to address adequately several of the issues associated with that. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is supportive of the packs, in principle, but thinks that issues such as the packs' influence on market slow-down and the need for proper definitions of marketing, enforcement, pack provision and insurance must be addressed. The House Builders Federation suggests that the initial sales of new homes should be exempted from the requirement to provide a home condition report. There are, indeed, reservations.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's important and, no doubt, erudite contribution to the affairs of the House on that occasion.
The truth of the matter is that the need for a seller's pack has yet to be persuasively made. The Minister says that the market is shambolic, but no one else seems to believe that that is so.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will explain phased implementation in more detail. What is the time period over which that will occur, and how and when will it happen? As for opening up social house building to the private sector, will the Minister give us a little more detail? Will the private sector be at an advantage over registered social landlords? What regime will be employed? How will standards be maintained?
All of those who argue for more affordable houses—the hon. Members for City of York and for Telford (David Wright), and my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger—were answered by the Minister merely by referral to the communities plan in his opening remarks. If the Government's only response is to point to the communities plan every time affordable housing is raised in earnest by Members, their argument will not persuade people in many parts of the country that are unaffected by the plan. We want more vision in the provision of social housing and more investment, as Mr. Love said.
So we have a Bill that is good in parts. As so often, however, what the Government say and what they do are different things. They want to make it easier to buy and sell houses, but they slow down the process by introducing the seller's pack. They want to stimulate a vigorous private rented sector, but they regulate, control and add costs to the point at which landlords are discouraged and expansion is likely to be frustrated. They support the right to buy, but they choose to make it more difficult.
The Government want to provide more affordable homes, but they have no empty homes strategy. That is a particular omission. After extensive consultation and the raising of expectations, it is not surprising that the Empty Homes Agency was profoundly disappointed by the absence of an empty homes policy. Similarly, despite raising expectations, there is no attempt to deal with fuel poverty. Alan Simpson, who always speaks in a measured and considered way, made that point persuasively.
The Bill does not concentrate adequately on fire precaution as part of the risk strategy that is at the heart of the business of raising standards, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown. There is no mention of park homes. Once again, the Government raised expectations and were expected to deliver, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and Mr. Dawson. There is no mention of rural housing and the particular problems of affordability in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater spoke powerfully, and with his usual commitment, on the needs of rural areas. He raised the interesting and important issue of the specific problems affecting national parks. There is also nothing to deal with the sharp practices by developers, again mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden.
The Minister claimed that the Bill is big in vision. If it is, he is not looking at the right picture. It is right that we deal with inadequate housing. Bad housing is frequently linked to bad health and a poor quality of life. Opposition Members speak with great energy, passion and commitment on the business of dealing with the disadvantage and poor quality of life that derive from bad housing, bad health and bad living conditions—[Interruption.] Labour Members chide us and laugh, but they should remember that no political party has a monopoly on compassion or care. We care just as much as they do about the vulnerable and those living in the most difficult situations.
The Minister is not looking at the big picture. It is not fair to say that the Government are wrong in detail. We have too little detail to come to that view conclusively. What is true, however, is that the Bill lacks the imagination and coherence necessary to make it the landmark Bill that is called for by a variety of Members on both sides of the Chamber. It is piecemeal, limited and uninspired. The Minister is a good man—he is genuine and I think that he will listen carefully in Committee. He can do better; the House needs something better; and Britain deserves better. I urge my hon. Friends to support the reasoned amendment.
Mr. Hayes laid claim to an awful lot of passion, anger and care about the conditions of those in the poorest housing and on the lowest incomes. It is a shame that all that caring did not add up to much when his party was in government, cutting investment and running up a huge backlog of investment in social housing and substandard homes throughout the country.
Apart from the last contribution, the debate has been a good one, with many excellent contributions made on both sides of the House and hon. Members displaying considerable expertise. I want to pay tribute in particular to the work of the Select Committee in scrutinising the Bill and making it a better Bill. That was a valuable part of the process.
The Bill has been welcomed by a number of my hon. Friends, who expressed strong support for the licensing measures. Many have mentioned additional issues that they would like tackled in the Bill, and I shall come to those points in due course. Opposition Members also called for other matters to be included. The Front-Bench spokesmen broadly asked thoughtful questions, so much so that it was not clear from their speeches why both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats wanted to box themselves into opposing the Bill's Second Reading. The fact that the Opposition parties were unable to drum up many Back Benchers to speak against the Bill suggests that their spokesmen were misjudged in their opposition to its Second Reading.
The Bill is important. It builds on the work that is under way to create sustainable communities across the country, which includes investment to ensure that everyone can live in a decent home and investment in new and, in particular, affordable housing. That is investment not only in bricks and mortar but in sustainable communities, so that everyone can feel proud of where they live. The Bill addresses unfairness and injustice. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson pointed out, it provides help for those suffering the worst housing conditions and those enduring antisocial behaviour. It tackles exploitation and profiteering, and it will help ordinary consumers in the housing market.
The central measures that many hon. Members have raised are those dealing with the licensing of the private sector. As my hon. Friend David Wright pointed out, we need to expand the private rented sector. There is important, valuable work to be done there, so it is important that we tackle abuse by a minority of landlords. The Bill fulfils a manifesto commitment to license houses in multiple occupation, and rightly so because poor management by a minority of landlords, particularly in large properties with many tenants, puts lives at risk. The risk of death in a house fire is 16 times higher in a bed-sit house of three or more storeys than in a single-occupancy house.
Many Labour Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), welcomed the proposals and highlighted examples in their constituencies. They also raised the question whether the measures should be extended to smaller properties, and I acknowledge their points. We chose to concentrate on larger properties because that was where the evidence showed the greatest risk, particularly from fire. However, there is scope in the Bill to extend the measures to smaller HMOs where the problems are considerable. We take this issue very seriously.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman and my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon made clear the impact of the measures on selective licensing in areas of low demand. We know what the impact can be in areas where absentee private landlords have bought up properties but are doing nothing to maintain them, where graffiti and vandalism on the front walls or doors of properties go ignored or unchecked, where landlords collude with drug dealers or abusive tenants and where no attempt is made to enforce tenancy conditions. Everyone else in the community—the council, the police, local tenants, community members and housing associations—is doing their bit to turn the areas round and tackle antisocial behaviour, but a small bunch of absentee private landlords are letting down the whole area and the community. They own the properties, they are making money out of letting the properties, and they have responsibilities to the local community just like everyone else. They should not be able to get away with ignoring those responsibilities, and the Bill will make sure that they cannot do so.
Hon. Members have raised issues of concern that they want included in the Bill, and I recognise that some extremely important points have been made. We do not pretend that the Bill can solve all the problems currently facing the housing market or housing provision in this country. The Bill has more than 200 clauses and 11 schedules and it addresses a series of major issues. Considerable work has been done over some time to get the details of the legislation right. There will, no doubt, be a need for further housing legislation in years to come.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, Mrs. Browning, my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett, the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger and several other hon. Members expressed concerns about park homes. I agree that tenants in park homes do not have sufficient rights and are too often exploited. We have promoted a private Member's Bill on the issue and some of the problems that park home tenants face could be addressed via that route. Other matters require further work to reach the point at which legislation could be introduced. We are disappointed that the measure has not yet been picked up in the private Members' Bill process, but the Government are still open-minded on the issued and I am sure that we shall discuss it further in Committee.
Some of the worst cases of exploitation are found in the hundreds of thousands of park homes. Although fairer regulation of park home owners and tenants is not in the Bill, is the Minister confident that appropriate legislation will be introduced in Government time before the end of this Parliament?
As I said, many hon. Members have raised the issue and we are open-minded about it. We shall give it further consideration during the Committee stage, but I reiterate that further work is required to reach the stage at which legislation could be introduced on many of these extremely detailed points.
I have to make some progress—there is a series of issues to address.
My hon. Friend Mr. Love and others voiced concerns about tenancy deposit schemes. I assure him that we are examining the matter extremely closely and taking particular account of the Law Commission's work on tenure. We shall continue to consider it over the next few months.
My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke about overcrowding. We have commissioned research into the matter as a result of the concerns that they have expressed. We are worried that changing the law would not necessarily address the underlying problems, but we shall examine the matter further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow asked for clarification on housing benefit sanctions for antisocial behaviour. She will know that there has been considerable consultation on the matter. That has thrown up two important problems, the first of which relates to the substantial practical difficulties, including bureaucracy and the perverse consequences of such measures. Secondly, there is a serious question whether it is ethical to introduce a sanction that applies only to those who are poor enough to be on housing benefit, and does not apply to those who may be committing exactly the same behaviour but who are earning too much to get housing benefit or who are owner-occupiers. For those reasons, we shall not introduce the measure in the Housing Bill.
If I may, I shall write to my hon. Friend Ms Coffey about the constituency concerns she raised. I was concerned about the points that she made about the disabled facilities grant and protection for staff against antisocial behaviour, which are extremely important.
My hon. Friend Mr. McNamara spoke about site provision for gypsies and travellers. I agree that increased site provision is needed. We are considering a range of options, which I shall happily discuss with him.
Let me deal with major issues raised by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. Mr. Curry complained about changes to the right to buy. The Government support the right to buy. Long-standing council tenants should have the right to make their home their own, and hundreds of thousands of people have done so since 1997. However, a small proportion of people and companies are exploiting the system at the expense of those who desperately need social housing, and that is unfair. There are cases of private companies and investors offering tenants incentives to exercise their right to buy so that they get the property at a discount, then they rent it out for a considerably higher price. An advertisement in The Sun said:
"Realise some cash for that dream home, business start-up, car purchase or debt clearance. We're purchasing properties to rent as homes. We do this hassle free with your legal costs paid by us".
Those costs will only be paid if sellers are eligible for the right to buy. Little wonder that in inner London, 2,000 ex-council homes bought just four years ago under the right-to-buy scheme are now privately rented at rents of between £750 and £1,000 a month, compared with subsidised council rents of £300 a month. We simply cannot afford to let public money to be exploited in that way.
The Conservatives are guilty of double standards. Even they recognise the need to put safeguards in place on the right to buy in rural areas where social housing is sorely needed and where the right to buy was being exploited. Those safeguards are good enough for rural constituencies—Tory constituencies—but the Conservatives will not back safeguards in high demand urban areas where people are just as desperate for social housing and where private companies' exploitation can do just as much damage.
Opposition spokespeople expressed concern about home information packs, including the need for private indemnity insurance which, of course, is vital. We are looking at ways of ensuring that that important safeguard is in place, and I can assure the House that we will not implement the measures until we are confident that it is.
I am short of time, but I will give way in a few minutes if I have time.
Mr. Davey and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon argued that there is not a problem, but in doing so they ignore the many cases involving not just Government Members' constituents but Opposition Members' constituents. A constituent of my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkins paid for three surveys on three houses because the first two attempts to buy fell through. One seller was just testing the market; another accepted a gazumping offer. Consequently, the buyer forked out three times over. Mr. Laws, a Liberal Democrat MP, wrote to us out of concern for a constituent who forked out £1,700 on two failed transactions. Mr. Amess, a Conservative MP, contacted us with his concerns for a constituent who paid £1,000, only for the seller to pull out and the transaction to fail. The hon. Members for Yeovil and for Southend, West asked if the Government were going to take action to protect their constituents. The answer is yes, but Opposition parties are doing nothing about the problem, which is a crazy and inefficient way of operating in one of our most important markets—the buying and selling of homes. It is conceivable that late emerging problems with a single house sale could lead to three or four buyers forking out for the same land searches and the same survey of the condition of the house. That information is not provided in the market, and it has to be forked out for again and again. Little wonder that 30 per cent. of transactions fail, even after terms have been agreed. That is an astonishing failure rate for such an important market.
Little wonder that the Consumers Association, the voice of the consumer, is adamant that home information packs are needed—[Interruption.] I am surprised by the dismissive response of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to the Consumers Association. They would rather back the Law Society or the National Association of Estate Agents. More than 90 per cent. of people surveyed by the Consumers Association thought that the home information pack would be useful. Opposition parties have a choice—do they want to be on the side of the home buyer or the conveyancer? Do they want to be on the side of the Consumers Association or the Law Society? They have decided to back vested interests, but the Labour party is on the side of ordinary consumers, tenants, residents and home buyers. The Opposition back vested interests that want to continue the exploitation of ordinary people, which is why they will vote against the Bill. In the interest of ordinary consumers, however, we need to support Second Reading.