New Clause 11 — Possession orders relating to certain tenancies

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 31st March 2008.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government 6:00 pm, 31st March 2008

No. The carrot comes before the stick.

New clause 11 stands, somewhat incongruously, at the centre of our present debate. As the Minister said earlier, and notwithstanding my complaints about the shortage of time, the Government have taken account of a number of points that were raised by Members on both sides in Committee. It is perhaps ironic that the Government new clauses and amendments in this group are, on the whole, uncontroversial and rather positive. I know that a number of housing organisations are encouraged by the fact that this Minister in particular has demonstrated a willingness to listen, which is to his credit. We are in the happy position of being able to praise him for the amendments that the Government have tabled so far. [Hon. Members: "But?"] But—the rest of the picture may not be quite so rosy for the Minister.

The need for amendments Nos. 14 and 15, tabled by me and by other Liberal Democrat Members, was brought to my attention by London Councils, an organisation of great standing that examines these matters in an objective and business-like way and seeks to add value to the Bill in that spirit. The amendments would do something very simple: they would protect both tenants and local authorities from having to pay any additional moneys after the completion of the sale of a right-to-buy property should it turn out that the valuation might not have been right at the outset.

As aficionados will know, the Bill will put in statute the ability to correct an incorrect statutory determination of value and replace it with a correct determination, as long as that is done within 42 days. On the whole, London Councils and other organisations welcome that. The problem here is that there is no restriction preventing the revaluation from taking place after the completion of a right-to-buy sale. To put it simply, an individual can buy a property and then discover that it is subject to revaluation.

As I am sure the Minister realises, that arrangement is potentially unfair, as people acting in good faith could be landed with an additional bill. I hope that, on reflection, he will either accept the amendments now or assure me that he will seek to introduce amendments containing exactly the same words—or, if he feels that it is better to save the Government's face, almost the same words—in another place. If he cannot give such an assurance, I may be inclined, in the light of what he does say, to seek separate votes on amendments Nos. 14 and 15.

That is all that I really need to say about the amendments. They are self-explanatory, and I cannot see for the life of me why they should evoke a partisan response, or anything less than agreement from the Minister that, in principle, this is a sensible suggestion. It is in the interests of the general public and individuals who are involved in right-to-buy purchases in good faith. It does not compromise any intent of the Bill, or any value or policy statement made by the Government at any time in the past.

Finally, let me deal with what are self-evidently the most controversial elements of the Bill. In a lucid and erudite speech, Mr. Mitchell laid the ground for consideration of the key subject in this part of the Bill. Explanations of new clauses 1 and 8 have already been given, and need not be repeated. However, I think it worth drawing attention to the passion with which Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members believe that these provisions are entirely consistent not just with the interests of housing policy, but with specific housing commitments made by this Labour Government during their time in office.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby has felt so strongly about certain subjects in the past that he has renamed himself "Mr. Haddock" in order to stick up for fishing; perhaps on this occasion, he may wish to change his name to "Mr. Housing", as he seems no less passionate about this subject than he was about fishing in his earlier campaign. The rest of us fall behind him, as, once again, this issue is shown to be a cross-party concern.

My worry is that the Government, as Mr. Syms implied in his interesting contribution, are using economic drivers to push forward a dogmatic agenda that assumes that a particular outcome is so desirable that they will bribe—a word that others have used—local people and to some extent local authorities to achieve that result. Why? Why use macro-economic tools to cause micro-economic effects in local governments? In non-jargonistic terms, why are the Government so certain that driving housing out of the council sector is a good thing that they are willing financially to incentivise that policy to the point where many local authorities will shrug their shoulders and say, "What are we supposed to do?" They wonder what they can do to protect themselves when the Government are throwing hundreds of millions of pounds towards a specific policy outcome.

I encourage the Minister to respond to John McDonnell, who rightly said that the existing circumstances in which housing stock remains under local authority control directly fulfils Labour's policy objectives. Will the Minister therefore explain to him and to the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Poole, my hon. Friend Mr. Hancock and myself—not to mention others who are yet to speak—what exactly it is that the Minister can see that we cannot? What is it that compels the Government to use those colossal amounts of money to enact such a ground shift in how we manage housing policy in this country?

Another worrying point, already raised by others, is the lack of investment in council house building. With the number of homeless estimated at 100,000—it could be substantially higher as there is an awful lot of hidden homelessness in this country—it is quite obvious that we have a housing crisis. Another compounding factor is that, as far as I can see, the Government's policy, which is challenged by new clauses 1 and 8, is directly responsible for sapping investment from rehabilitating existing housing for council use in order to construct new housing.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and others have pointed out that the average inflation rate for house prices is around 9 per cent., but in poorer areas, it is often a lot higher. A few years ago, house inflation in the less wealthy areas of my own constituency of Montgomeryshire—in Wales admittedly, so it may not be directly affected by this legislation—stood at 36 per cent. It compounds the offence of poverty when councils cannot ease housing demand because they do not have sufficient resources to tackle the problem.

One of the great culprits has already been mentioned—the housing revenue subsidy system. I will not say much about that, but should my hon. Friend Paul Holmes catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would find that he is a true expert on the subject in a way that I am not.

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