After a faltering start, it is great to be back on the second day of the Bill. I welcome the Minister to her place. I do not have a problem with her sitting there, because, with the sun coming up, she looks positively angelic.
The amendment is cunningly disguised as a probing amendment. Conservative members of the Committee feel that there was not sufficient debate in the other place on financial provision for tenant representative bodies. The specific questions that my noble Friend Baroness Warsi put to the Minister, Baroness Andrews, and others were not properly addressed.
There is a wider issue about this clause. We have heard that, in many respects, the Bill contains the fag ends that could not be put in other Bills. As the appropriate Minister advised us, part 8, on construction contracts, should have been a separate Bill in the same legislative programme. It is not and instead, it was tacked on to the end of this Bill. In the same way, this clause should more properly have been included in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, which I was privileged to be involved with on Report and Third Reading.
The clause seems to be out of place, and there are issues with the definitions in it. There has been some debate about the concept of other residential property, and whether it is right in the Bill to give carte blanche financial responsibility not only to the representation of social tenants and the functions of the organisation set up in their name, but to the tenants of social housing in other residential property in England.
In Committee in the other place on 3 February, Baroness Warsi asked:
Once the Secretary of State has provided the money, who will spend it? What will it be spent on? Who will account for it, and to whom? I will be grateful if the Minister will explain the meaning of the words financial assistance so that we can read the explanation.[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 February 2009; Vol. 707, c. GC151.]
The terminology used in the clause is too wide, and on that basis, we do not feel predisposed towards supporting it.
As the hon. Gentleman played some part in the passage of the 2008 Act, he will presumably understand that the provision of social and affordable housing embraces a range of different landlords and different types of housing, including intermediate rent and what would traditionally be seen as social housing. Is he seriously suggesting that we should have a rigid distinction that limits the tenant voice solely to those people defined as living in traditional social housing, and that others in the more widespread tenure options that are rightly being developed should be excluded?
Obviously, I respect the right hon. Gentlemans knowledge and experience of housing. However, it would be remiss of me not to say that I would take his intervention a little more seriously had his Government in the last 12 years done something about, for instance, leasehold reform. They have had plenty of opportunities to make changes through primary and secondary legislation, and have failed to do so. This is about listening to and consulting people, and acting on perceived current failings in respect of leasehold.
I hesitate to intervene again, but the hon. Gentleman should reflect that the Government passed the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. It would be incorrect to give the impression that the Government have not legislated on this subject.
That is all very well, but, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, key provisions of that Act have never been enacted. That is still a source of contention in the housing sector.
I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but would the establishment of that body not enable tenants to press for exactly the changes he is talking about? Is he not actually arguing against the amendment that he has tabled?
That is one interpretation. The hon. Lady always likes a good argument. The clause and the debate around it encapsulate the whole problem with this Government. If they cannot in the space of seven years enact the proposals in the 2002 Act, I bow to the hon. Ladys optimism that establishing a consultative body across the whole housing sector is going to bring about those necessary changes.
In answer to the intervention from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, I believe that it is important for social tenants and tenants in the private sector to be consulted on significant changes in legislation that have an impact on their quality of life, housing tenure and their future. Indeed, I would commend our housing Green Paper to the right hon. Gentleman, as it touches on those issuesI am sure that he has read it from cover to cover. However, we are looking at the ramifications of the clause. It is too opaque, too loosely defined and possibly falls outside the remit of the Bill, which deals with local democracy. It is not a housing matter per se, and on that basis we would not seek to support it if we divide.
It is indeed a delight to see you back in the Chair, Mr Amess, however briefly this morning.
The hon. Member for Peterborough quite rightly proposed his amendment as a point for debatea probing amendmentso that we could discuss the Governments movement towards a situation which has been envisaged for some time, with tenants having a far stronger voice at a national level. I share some of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about the principles behind the amendment, which is seeking to create a stark distinction between social landlords and other tenants.
There was an opportunity to debate the housing policy of the main parties earlier this week, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) and others discovered, there does not seem to be a huge amount of enthusiasm among Conservative Members for social housing. That is something that I discovered during the recent council elections in my own constituency. A Conservative candidate who was not successful on this occasion was keen to point out in a public meeting the problems associated with social housing estates, describing them in a way I thought we had all moved on from. I am sure that the hon. Member for Peterborough and his hon. Friends in Committee would be of the opinion that that candidates views are outdated.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall, who is a fair-minded individual, would not wish to give the impression that the Conservative party is not committed to social housing, given our record in the period between 1979 and 1997. We saw lots of innovative methods of delivering social housingflats above shops, housing action trusts and tenant management organisations, to name but a few. If he read our Green Paper he would see that we remain committed, and because we have so many councillors at local level it is Conservative councillors who have been building council houses. In the past 12 years, Labour councils have failed to do so.
I am sure that councils of all parties would want to reflect on the housing records of various councils. In Conservative housing policy, I still detect a direction towards the selling off of social housing. That is a continued theme, and a problem when we are desperate to secure more affordable rented accommodation across the country. I suspect, Mr Amess, that if I continue down this line, you may well rule me out of order.
The Liberal Democrats are a bit more sympathetic to the idea of a commonality of problems and issues for all tenants who want to be sure that, in their relationship with their landlord, they hold some of the cards, whether their landlord is an RSL or a private landlord. We are somewhat less concerned about the sorts of distinctions that the hon. Member for Peterborough raised.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne questioned the need for the body, given that the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords has recently come into existence. The Government are reacting and jumping around rather than thinking ahead and planning. The Bill considers some housing measures, but it has become a hybrid measure for all sorts of areas of policy. However, there are some urgent issues that we need to consider. The Government have said that they will act to deal with the issue of repossession when landlords are in difficultythat problem has huge consequences for the tenants in that property in the buy-to-let market. They say that they will act at the earliest opportunity to do something about that situation, and perhaps the Bill is a missed opportunity, given that it considers housing matters. In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats are less concerned to make such a sharp distinction between tenants in social housing and other tenants, but we are sympathetic to the view already expressed that we are in danger of duplicating existing measures .
I have grave reservation about this whole clause and whether it is worth trying to amend it in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough seeks to do. It flies in the face of the whole concept we have developed in this country of representative democracy. Normally if a body is to be representative, we required it to be elected and to have the authority to fulfil the wishes of those who elect it. In the Bill, we are told that the Government are going to appoint a body, and so this body represents those people. They do not choose it: it is imposed on them and set up on their behalf. It is a soviet-style council elected and imposed from the top. That is unless I am sadly mistaken and there is some proposal for this body to be elected by the social tenants whom it claims to represent. However, I see no such clause in the legislation.
Nor does the body have any power to implement the policies which it is supposed to introduce, support, sustain or promote on behalf of those whom it represents. The people who do that, of course, are councillorsthey are the people who, in the past, have been held to be the representatives of the social tenants and residents of other residential property, not people who are appointed undemocratically by a Government whose Prime Minister is not even elected himself and who fears elections at every level. I therefore have grave reservation about the measure.
I was, and I helped to secure his re-election. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman will achieve that in the case of his leader. The other reasons for my reservations are the specific ones that brought me onto this Committee as a result of my having taken part in the debate on Second Reading. I want to reinforce the principle that representatives are accountable to those whose interests they serve and whom their policies directly affect. That means that if a council chooses to build in the area of another council, and that affects both the social tenants and the residents of other residential property in that area, that is a monstrosity, because the council will not be accountable to those whom it most affects.
I have some sympathy with the argument that local government should be more involved in these boards in the way the right hon. Gentleman says. It is a wee bit rich of him, however, to be arguing that case, given that under Mrs. Thatcher, his Government stopped local councils building council houses and restricted the budgets to local level. Saying that democracy should be enhanced at local level is one thing; starving it of funds, as the right hon. Gentlemans Government did, is another.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will treat me with the generosity of spirit for which he is renowned as a sinner who repenteth. I hope in the same spirit to have his support when we come to a Division on this clause and particularly on the new clause that I will later introduce and which may remedy some of the defects in the measure.
Whatever representative body existsI hope that it will be councils rather than something appointed on high by the stateI want it to have responsibility for what it does in its own area, and not be allowed to do things in other peoples areas where it is not accountable to those whom it affects. Why does the Minister think that that is satisfactory and what sort of representation would she like to provide for the inhabitants of Cockernhoe, Mangrove and Lilley in my constituency, who may find their homes in their part of north Hertfordshire swamped by housing built by Luton and South Bedfordshire councils. They will have no say in the matter; they cannot vote against the councillors who proposed the matter; they will have no influence over it; and they will have no one to represent them, other than myself at parliamentary level. I would like the Minister to tell me why she has not provided any representation for them and restricted the responsibilities of the councillors in Luton and South Bedfordshire to meeting the needs of their own inhabitants in their own areas.
I thank you for your indulgence in allowing me to finish my cup of coffee, Mr. Amess. I wanted to make a small gesture towards the modernisation of Parliament and I am glad that I have been allowed to do so.
Order. I have to confess that I had not seen what the right hon. Gentleman was doing and I have to enforce rules. Until there are changes, drinking tea or coffee is not permissible. I just turned a blind eye, given that there was some confusion about the start of proceedings.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Eccles should inquire of the Housing Minister what has happened to the Governments proposals to look again at the destination of housing revenue. At the moment, a significant amount is pre-empted by the Treasury. If he wishes to see more funds committed to the construction of social housing, perhaps he should ask the Under-Secretary what she intends to do about the very large amounts of money which is in effect taxed away from big authorities and which could otherwise go back into housing.
Further to the comments of the hon. Member for Eccles, does my right hon. Friend agree that in practice in the period 1979-97, a lot of housing subsidy was remitted from the south of England to the north of Englandto local authorities and Labour voting areasbased on housing need, which is as it should be?
It was, but one has to be careful before one sees hard geographic lines in that. This proposal comes from the Cave report. Our attitude should depend on what clarification and precision the Minister can give about how it will work in practice. I can see the argument for having such a bodyit was part of a well received bunch of recommendationsbut the question is how it will work in practice.
As for the expression, other residential property, I assume, along with the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, that that is intended to widen the net to embrace all categories of sub-market provision. If the Minister would clarify that phraseand if there is no better way of capturing that concept than that particular phrasethat might set some minds to rest. As things stand at the moment, other residential property, could mean that if Madonna decides to rent another mansion block somewhere, she could claim representation on the tenants body, which, I assume, is not the intention of the measure. Indeed, any MP who rents property in London could claim they were a tenant and demand to be part of the body, so I am just seeking some precision.
Secondly, what will the body actually do? How is it going to be formed, and who is going to sit on it? How are its members going to be chosen? We live in a world in which more people sit on quangos in England than sit on local councils as elected members. It is an astonishing statistic, but it happens to be true; local democracy has largely given way to quangocracy. We just need to be sure, if we are creating another quango, that it really is necessary to do a particular job.
The Bill says that the body could be an existing body. Will the Minister give us an example of an existing body which might qualify under this clause to be nominated as the tenant representative body? Moreover, who is the interlocutor going to be? Presumably it is the homes and communities quangois that its interlocutor, or is the interlocutor going to be the Department or the local councils? Who is it going to talk to, and about what?
Most of the complaints I receive from tenants are about the behaviour of other tenants. It is about anti-social behaviour, or people using drugs, or needles in the garden; it is basically about people whom they do not think suitable being put in next door and creating all sorts of disturbance and problems so that their lives become miserable. That is the overwhelming category of complaints I receive from tenants. If this gave some assistance to local councils in dealing with that issue, so that people in social housing felt they had neighbours they could trust and were at ease in their homes, that would be a great asset.
The next category of things people are concerned about is allocations. However many properties are transferred, the allocations usually remain with the local authority, so the allocation policy is a council policy, even if the ownership of the properties is moved elsewherewhether it is a transfer authority or an arms length management organisation. That is another area of concern.
Often, if there is a transfer, part of that deal is a programme of modernisation of kitchens or bathrooms or whatever. A common concern is that, if there is a modernisation programme going through the estate, its progress appears to be inefficient, too slow or not up to required standards. I would therefore like reassurance that the organisation, if it is set up, will focus on very practical issues of concern for tenants, and that it is not going to get itself into an ideological argument about the nature of housing, or the merits or demerits of transfer proposalsin other words, that it will deal with the nitty-gritty of life, which is almost entirely the material which comes into our surgeries.
If the Minister can reassure us about the practicality of how this will function, how it will represent the tenants, how its members will be chosen, how it will report back, and how it will be accountable to their tenants, and the nature of the interlocutors, there may be a case for not opposing the clause. However, a huge amount hinges on how the Minister responds to those points.
I will try to sum up the various points that have been made.
The hon. Member for Peterborough said that these were probing amendments, but he went on to say that he intended to oppose the clause. I am saddened that the Conservative party does not support the creation of National Tenant Voice, a body that will act as an advocate for millions of tenants, not least by enabling a direct dialogue between tenants and Government, and between tenants and the new social housing regulator. The amendments would restrict activities to matters concerning only social housing tenants, rather than tenants of other residential property. I do not think that that is right.
The creation of National Tenant Voice is part of the wider reform of social housing regulation, and the new bodys initial focus should be tenants in social housing. However, I do not want the benefits of National Tenant Voice to be confined to social housing tenants alone, although they should be its core focus. Many of the issues that concern social housing tenants are of equal concern to many tenants in the private sector. National Tenant Voice will be an independent body. Once it is established, it will decide whether to seek, at some later date, to give a voice to tenants in the private sector, particularly the most vulnerable of those tenants. We want the legislation to be sufficiently flexible to allow such a decision to be made. However, the clause does not envisage that National Tenant Voice would be able to represent private sector tenants alone. Where private sector tenants are represented, the body must also represent social housing tenants.
I shall respond to some of the specific questions that were asked, such as why the clause did not form part of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. That was because the original intention was for the National Consumer Council to house National Tenant Voice. However, on reflection, it was decided that that would be too great a burden to place on the new body, and it was recommended that we should have a stand-alone body. This legislation is coming forward because we cannot set up the body until we have the power to fund it.
Is it not the case that existing tenant organisations, such as the Tenants and Residents Organisations of England, and other bodies representing tenants and tenant management organisations, participated in that discussion and recommended the outcome that is now being brought forward: there should be a stand-alone body, rather than a body that forms part of the NCC? This is not just a good idea, but a proposal that reflects the responses and wishes of tenant representative bodies.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that salient point.
The other question, which was originally put by the hon. Member for Peterborough, before being picked up by other members of the Committee, was about to whom the new body will be accountable. National Tenant Voice will be a non-departmental public body and publicly accountable to Parliament. Its board will oversee expenditure on research, advocacy and support of tenant groups locally.
I welcome the Minister to her new postI do not think that I have had the opportunity to do so before. Will she explain how the membership of National Tenant Voice will be determined and tell us how large that membership will be? How representative will the organisation be of not just different types of tenants, but the different problems that might exist in different parts of the country?
Inspiration might come to me, but I cannot reply to that question right at the moment. However, I might be able to by the time that we get to the precise accountability[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Amess. I am able to confirm to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon that the new bodys accounts, activities and outcomes will all be subject to scrutiny by the NAO.
We are now coming to the issue of how the new body will be composed and who will choose its board. As the new body will be publicly funded, Cabinet Office guidelines require that the Secretary of State must choose the board. However, the Secretary of State will have no power to implement policy. Tenants will form a majority of the board members and will put forward names for the board to the Secretary of State. We also have a project board advising on the remit and composition of National Tenant Voice, and we are holding tenant awareness events this summer so that we can achieve the maximum involvement of tenants in the process.
Is it intended that somebody will write to, or communicate with, every single tenant whose interests will be represented by the board of the new body to invite nominations, or to set out a mechanism through which they can influence nominations? I ask because the new body sounds like another quango with the Secretary of State controlling it.
Our intention is that tenants will propose names to the Secretary of State so that the latter can choose the board. I have explained the reasons behind the legal requirement on the Secretary of State to choose the board. We will conduct a formal recruitment service, which will be informed by tenancy groups.
This body will represent tenants etc. Non-social tenants in my constituency who are lumped together under etc might feel rather insulted. However, could they propose, choose and elect representatives, and even recall them if they are useless, or are they to be treated with as much contempt as they are in being described as etc?
I see. The right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is not found in the substance of the clause, however.
I want to pick up on a point made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. By extending the enabling power to residents of other residential properties, we want to capture non-social housing tenants. However, those tenants must share the concerns of the social housing sectorI am not talking about millionaires who rent.
Private tenants can put themselves forward to sit on the board and oversee the national council. I must emphasise that this is an independent, non-departmental public body, and it will be for National Tenant Voice to make that decision. We are putting into the Bill the enabling power to include the concerns of non-social housing tenants. The idea is to provide a resource to support tenants locally, if they have complaints against the policies and practices of specific landlords that affect tenants as a group, not individuals.
The implication of the Ministers remarks is that there will be representation of only the needs of larger landlords with concerns similar to those of social landlords. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall made the point that one of the biggest growth sectors at the moment is the buy-to-let market, in which there are many individual landlords. The biggest problem for landlords is the threat of repossession, and that problem also means that tenants have no idea what will happen to them. I do not think that that major issue will be represented properly by this body. We need primary legislation at the earliest opportunity to address that problemthis would have been a great opportunity to do that.
As I said, this is an independent body. We are giving it an enabling power to include those matters in its remit, if it so wishes, but its primary core concern will be social housing. However, this clause will enable it to consider the concerns of the private sector as well.
How will the Government raise the awarenessto use one of my favourite expressionsof private sector tenants of the imminent existence of this body and of how they can propose candidates? There might well be a framework of local organisationsan architecture through which voices can be expressedwithin the social housing sector, but that is not the case with the private rented sector. With shorthold tenancies of, say, six months, there will often be quite a rapid turnover. How will they feel that they have just as much of a crack of the whip as social tenants? I agree with the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that their needs might be very similar, and in many ways, given that they do not have security of tenure, their situation might even be more acute.
Again, I return to my earlier point. We have provided for flexibility so that the national tenant voice can include private sector tenants if it so wishes; however, its core focus will be social housing. The awareness-raising, which we will do in the summer, will probably be done through those groups, although it will not exclude private sector groups from having an input and proposing names. This is a real step forward for all tenants, especially social housing tenants, and I shall be very disappointed if Opposition parties vote against the clause.
We were waiting for the Minister to assuage our significant concerns. I fear that the clause is an example of mission creep from the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. We have some serious concerns on a number of bases.
We have to ask whether the body is truly independent. Listening to the good fist that the Minister made of a sticky wicket, I suspect that the answer is no. Next, we are being asked to make a carte blanche commitment to financial assistance to a body whose efficacy we are not entirely convinced of. We have significant concerns on the basic, practical issue of the database. Who will maintain it? Is it possible to maintain a private sector tenant database to feed opinions to the independent body?
As I said right at the outset in my remarks on Tuesday, if the clause did not exist, would we need to invent it? Would housing be demonstrably any worse without it? I do not think that it would. As the Minister will know, many registered social landlords have effective and successful communications with their tenants. I suspect that the body may not be needed.
It is bizarre and surreal to measure the vulnerability, or otherwise, of private sector tenants. Surely, it is not for a Minister or an organisation to measure how vulnerable tenants feel, by making a value judgment under primary legislation. That point was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. We have serious concerns.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that a number of existing RSLs and other social landlords have existing arrangements for relations with tenants that work well and ensure that there is feedback to those landlords. That is absolutely correct. But does he not understand that the whole purpose of the National Tenant Voice is to provide a national voice, bringing together the various disparate tenant representative groups throughout the country? The absence of a single voice at the moment makes it much harder for the Government to understand the priorities and concerns of tenant groups. That is the basis of the National Tenant Voice.
The right hon. Gentleman is clearly in favour of the clause. The irony is that the Bill effectively ignores the importance of housing in the relationship between local voters, people whose opinions should be sought and any proposal. That does not assuage my concerns. In fact, it undermines the representative capacity of local councillors and MPs who are dealing with housing issues.
More particularly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made an important point about the tenure of his constituents, and how they were going to be represented in, for instance, decisions regarding residential development in his area made by Luton unitary authority and other local authorities. I do not believe that the clause is well written; it is far too oblique.
The Labour Government have had a very robust debate on tenancies that was initiated by the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) and the lamented right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). Although the Minister has made a good fist of it, huge questions remain unanswered. On that basis, we feel disposed to divide the Committee.
I will deal with one point of order at a time. I did put the question again and Members seemed to remain silent for a while, but they said something eventually.
I am very grateful to you, Mr. Amess, for your judgment, with the wisdom of Solomon, in suggesting that I respond now, rather than on the amendment. My first concern about the clause is what it will cost. It refers to assistance that may be given in financial form by way of a grant, loan or guarantee, as the Secretary of State considers appropriate. To put it more crudely, it is an open-ended opportunity to disperse financial patronage, and I would like to know what sort of order of magnitude of moneytaxpayers moneyis likely to be disbursed on this body.
My second concern is why is it necessary. We have a system called parliamentary democracy. On average, one in five of our voters is a resident of social housing. Do we not represent them? Are we not the representative body that determines policy affecting the social tenants that elect us? Is it not our duty to make sure that we know about their concerns, their opportunities, how we could improve the system and how policy can be introduced? To hive off that responsibility to another body is to reduce to the responsibility of parliamentarians. Last year, I introduced a Bill designed to relate the remuneration of Members of Parliament to their responsibilities. It suggested that a principle should be established: if we reduce MPs responsibilities, MPs should be paid less. It was not universally popular in the House, but it seemed to resonate in the country.