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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Amess. I should like to make some general observations about the Bill, which has cross-party support. We recognise that social housing fraud affects a large number of people; something in the order of 50,000 people are estimated to be sub-letting across the country. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne was the Housing Minister, he took steps to crack down on social housing fraud. He launched an initiative in 2009, which I believe 150 local authorities signed up to, and, prior to the general election, he was planning to create criminal offences. We are pleased that this private Member’s Bill effectively gives form to the measures we were planning to put into place ahead of the general election.
I want to express one word of caution in relation to people who sub-let their homes in good faith. Hopefully, in such circumstances, the response will be sensible and proportionate, to avoid unnecessary and punitive action being taken against people who, perhaps through lack of awareness, took steps to sub-let their home, but were not intending to commit a criminal offence in the way we understand it.
I do not want to detain the Committee unnecessarily, but I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that, whereas to sub-let the entire property is clearly wrong, and hopefully that will be a criminal offence after today, it is entirely legal—in fact, in many cases it is the policy of registered social landlords—to allow the tenant to sub-let part of the property. I find that odd, but it is very much the case. If a person is the legal tenant of a two-bedroom property, the majority of registered social landlords, certainly in the London region, will allow that person to sub-let the second room for their own benefit. In many cases that is encouraged. How does that impact on the comments that my hon. Friend has just made?
Order. Before Mr Williamson comments, this is obviously quite out of order—we normally just have pleasantries at this point—but, because there has not been too much debate about matters, I thought it was only right to give the Opposition a chance to say something. Could I ask the hon. Gentleman to be fairly brief, and will the Minister reply briefly as well?
I will now draw my remarks to a close, Mr Amess, save to say, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, that with the changes to housing benefit rules—the housing benefit cap and so on—many more people will probably seek to sub-let their home to avoid the bedroom tax and other punitive steps taken by the Government.
In conclusion, although the Bill is a useful step forward, it is important to recognise that the real key to addressing housing need in this country is to look not at social housing fraud, but at the lack of housing supply. I urge the Minister to take more appropriate steps: to embark on a credible house building programme, perhaps by using proceeds from the sale of 4G licences to build 100,000 new affordable homes; to offer a stamp duty holiday on properties of up to £250,000; and, indeed, through a bankers’ bonus tax, to ensure that 25,000 more homes are constructed. That would be not only a huge benefit to people in addressing the need for social housing in this country, but a big boost to growth. It is important to acknowledge that the construction industry is now in significant decline, and any boost that we can offer it would be welcome, would help to generate jobs and would boost growth in this country.
I am very aware of that, Mr Amess. I share what I suspect you imply, which is a slight frustration that on a cross-party Bill—it has been very cross-party all the way through—we have suddenly moved into a political debate. I will not get involved in that. It is for another time and place to respond to the comments made about housing supply, otherwise I might be tempted to point out that we have unblocked some of the blockages left by the previous Administration and got rid of the top-down targets that stopped houses being built, and that we are moving forward in that way. That debate is for another time and place—this is not about the politics of it—but I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Derby North about the need for a proportionate response.
I want briefly to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford on introducing the Bill.
I am so grateful to the Minister for giving way. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North has made some important points, but I just want to add our congratulations to the hon. Member for Watford on bringing forward the Bill and on the way he has done so, with wide consultation and close discussion with my hon. Friend and his Front-Bench colleagues, as well as with our Back Benchers. It is good that the Bill is progressing today with strong support from our side, and I congratulate its promoter on that and the way he has achieved it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was opportune because I was about to thank him for his cross-party work on the subject, which I know is also appreciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford. I also thank the officials for their work with my hon. Friend to pull together the legislation, and you, Mr Amess, for chairing a very sweet and swift sitting.
It was very remiss of me to fail to congratulate the hon. Member for Watford. I got carried away with the occasion and therefore omitted to do so. I want to put on the record that I endorse the comments about the hon. Gentleman made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne.
Having known you for probably more than 20 years, Mr Amess, I am delighted to say that I never dreamed that it would be my great honour to be responsible for a private Member’s Bill, and I do not have the words to describe how well the sitting has been chaired today. I think that all hon. Members in this Committee Room agree with that. I congratulate you on keeping order—I had better not name names, which would not be parliamentary, but certain Opposition Members have not been known to make speeches of less than 15 or 20 minutes in magnitude.
To be serious, everyone has worked very well together on the Bill. It was actually the idea of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, who spoke extensively on the subject when he was a Minister. He spoke magnanimously about me, but he deserves to be congratulated, as he really led the way. This is an important Bill that will make a difference to the lives of many people by freeing up many social houses for those who deserve them, rather than leaving them for those who profit from them. I thank everybody for all their help.