Schedule 1

Housing and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 10th January 2008.

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The homes and communities agency

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

I, too, welcome your benign chairmanship, Mr. Benton, as somebody who will be with our Committee proceedings for the next few weeks.

The schedule gets to the nuts and bolts of the HCA, and I shall press the Minister on one or two issues, particularly one that I raised in oral evidence. The last paragraph of the schedule states:

“The Secretary of State...may—

(a) appoint the first chief executive”.

I asked the Minister for Housing about that in oral evidence, and she said:

“We intend to appoint the shadow chief executive as soon as possible”.——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 142, Q234.]

That was four weeks ago, so I wonder whether the Minister can update us on the appointment of the chief executive.

The schedule also deals with the members of the board, and the Minister for Housing also said last year that she hoped to have a shadow board up and running “from April next year.” I take it that means that in April this year there will be a board. It would be helpful if the Minister were to outline the progress that is being made with the board’s appointment.

The schedule also deals in paragraph (4) with staff. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister were to outline whether the existing staff of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships will be transferred to the HCA, or whether the process that was used during the reorganisation of the health service will be adopted, whereby people in effect have to bid for their own jobs. Many people who work in those organisations hope to become HCA staff, and it would be helpful if the Minister were to outline their position during the transition period.

The schedule also deals with property, and it would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the Government propose to do what they have done with other departmental bodies or quangos, and re-locate them outside London, or whether they intend the body to stay in London. As he knows, the Housing Corporation is based on Tottenham Court road. Does he intend to base the HCA in London, or does he have other ambitions for it?

Again, this may be getting slightly ahead of the game, but does the Minister envisage a regional structure, replicating the organisation of the Housing Corporation? I take it that he wants the staff all in one place—that he wants to co-locate the relevant people from English Partnerships with the relevant people from the Housing Corporation, rather than have them continue to work in separate buildings. It would be helpful if the Minister were to share some details and colour in the schedule’s black and white prose, so that we have an insight into the way in which the organisation will start.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I am a great admirer of his; he is a great talent for the Conservatives, and it is a shame that he will spend the rest of his career in opposition, but we all have our crosses to bear. He mentioned that 1997 was not year zero, and I understand and appreciate that. I am a lover of history. I did a history degree and I have read about Lord Heseltine in history, but perhaps we can confine the issue to history and move forward. That is what the agency intends to do.

I also welcome the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who has considerable experience from his former remit as a Minister. He raised some interesting and pertinent points about the governance of the agency, and I hope that I can reassure him. The appointment of the chief executive is crucial if we are to ensure that the agency hits the ground running and its agenda moves forward quickly. I know that Members have been concerned about that, so may I point out that Sir Bob Kerslake, who was the chief executive of Sheffield city council, has been appointed as the agency’s shadow chief executive. He will start in March 2008. The recruitment process for the Chair will continue, and Sir Bob will be involved with that incredibly closely. His appointment is a good one, not least because the Committee will tease out the importance of local government in the delivery of homes; Sir Bob knows the local government sector extraordinarily well and will, I suspect, be a great champion of it. His appointment is very welcome.

I should like to make a wider point about the broader functions of the agency. I am sure that you will rule me out of order, if necessary, Mr. Benton, but I hope that you will not. During our oral evidence sessions, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said that various funding streams from various parts of the Department would be delivered through the agency. That is all part of the broader concept that the communities and local government will set the strategy for housing delivery and regeneration policy, and that various agencies, be they local government or the Homes and Communities Agency, will deliver that. At 9.30 am, my right hon. Friend is laying a statement before the House about this. I have advance copies for Committee members, setting out the functions of the agency in relation to delivery. It sets out in some detail what delivery functions  the agency will provide, including, to give a quick summary, decent homes, housing market renewal and the Thames Gateway. So, we have fair sight of the statement that will be laid in four minutes and we can have a chat about that.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire made some other points about schedule 1. He talked about approval of terms and conditions for staff. Given that the new agency will be a non-departmental public body under DCLG, staff terms and conditions will have to remain broadly in line with those for departmental staff so that aspects such as pay bargaining remain consistent. For that reason, the Secretary of State will have to approve the terms and conditions of staff in the new agency.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what would happen to current English Partnerships and Housing Corporation staff. I must point out that because we are talking about the skills base and, perhaps, skills shortages, this certainly is not a project about reducing staff numbers. It is about better using the expertise of existing bodies. The structure of those new bodies has not yet been determined. No compulsory redundancies have been identified and if any redundancies are required, it is estimated that they will be met through natural wastage. All staff who transfer to the agency will be protected. Similarly, although pension provision for staff is still to be determined, it is certain that staff who transfer to the new agency will be offered pensions equivalent to what they currently have. With all of that, the transition team is drawing up plans for the transition of the delivery of the various work streams to be achieved.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked where the HCA would be located. It is proposed that it should have a national and regional presence, with offices in London and each of the English regions. It is expected that it will be configured along the lines of the Government offices, but specific decisions about the location of the headquarters and regional offices will be made as part of the transition process. Ministers will look at the location of existing offices, and at their lease terms, as is consistent with the recommendations of the Lyons review. I hope that I have reassured the right hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

On a point of order, Mr. Benton, although I am grateful for the Minister’s good intentions in bringing to our attention the written statement that was laid before the House this morning, I must put on record my concern that something pertinent to the clauses that we are discussing has been produced half an hour after the Committee began its sitting, given that it could, presumably, have been produced at any time this week. This information is pertinent, as it refers to one of the amendments that I have tabled about the Thames Gateway. To produce it at half past 9 on the morning of our first sitting strikes me as most impertinent of the Department. I do not hold the Minister responsible. If he had not told us about it, we should not have known, but I wonder whether an adjournment would be in order, while we consider the matter and make the adjustments that we  need to make to the work we have to do in this morning’s sitting, so that we can start again this afternoon.

I thank the Minister for bringing the matter to our attention, but ask him to tell the Minister for Housing of my concern that something so important has appeared at this stage, when I see no reason why it could not have been dealt with yesterday, to give us much more notice and help us in our deliberation. Will he consider an hour’s adjournment of the Committee, so that we can consider the matter and get on with it this afternoon?

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle 9:30 am, 10th January 2008

Order. That is not strictly a matter for the Chair, although I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and have perhaps some sympathy with what he says. I do not think that it is appropriate to adjourn the Committee. Now that the hon. Gentleman has made the point, it will be observed and perhaps recorded in some other quarters for deliberation. It is a fair point, but does not justify my adjourning the Committee at this stage.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Benton. I welcome your ruling on the matter of an adjournment. I recognise and welcome the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman, as he set out his concerns. A balance was needed and I was keen to ensure that the whole House would be aware of the written ministerial statement that was laid down at half past 9, and that the Committee would, during its deliberations, have sight as early as possible of things that were extremely pertinent to the matters under discussion. The hon. Gentleman was very fair about acknowledging that. A balance was needed and I intended to give Committee members as much notice as possible.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. I think that it was a fair point, and I hope that it is noted in other quarters that, where possible, any information pertinent and relevant to the Committee should be made available well before the Committee sits.