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8.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): It is unfortunate that the Government's first essay into housing legislation should be on such a modest scale. The Government could profitably have tackled all kinds of issues. I am delighted, however, that they have responded in part to the all-party parliamentary group on blight.

May I draw to your attention on a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the fact that my name is not accurately shown on the annunciator screen.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I am sure that the necessary adjustments will be made very rapidly.

Mr. Rowe: Blight is one of the great issues dominating the house values of many. One of its most dreadful features is that public endeavours are largely responsible. Houses are affected for very long periods. By the time a road or railway is built, or almost any public work comes to fruition, a generation of people have found their property prices destroyed, and that not nearly enough has been done about it--although, as I said, the Government have made some response to the all-party group, for which I am grateful.

In Kent, the future property price of many households is dubious as a result of the floods. I hope that, in replying to the debate, the Minister will be able to say something of comfort to those who, with or without a seller's pack, find it difficult to sell their house.

The idea of a seller's pack is perfectly sensible. Indeed, over time, it would be sensible if all properties had a logbook, just as cars do. One could then trace the history of the property. That would surely make it very much easier for the administrators of housing benefit, for example, to insist that if the logbook showed that the property was below standard, it would not qualify for housing benefit. I know that there are such shortages of accommodation that hard-pressed local authorities say that they dare not close off supply of some accommodation, however grotty, because they have nowhere else to put people, but unless we take a grip on the quality of accommodation for which housing benefit is paid, the system will continue to be a disgraceful scandal. The first steps having been taken, I believe that we would see quite a sharp improvement in quality.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) was right when he said that we are talking about part of the country's capital stock when landlords who do not live in

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their property allow it to decay to the point at which it becomes offputting for those who live round it. I do not understand why it would not be possible in the Bill, or in another Bill in future, to introduce regulations to provide that if someone does not live in a property and it falls below a certain standard, he should be penalised. At the last moment, there should be the power to take over the property. To allow people to let their properties decay to the detriment of their neighbours is a scandal.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), having been an assiduous attender of the debate, has now left his place. I have perceived over the years that his approach to certain political problems is marginally different from mine. Nevertheless, I agree with him that we need to find better uses of young people's time in many urban areas, and in rural areas. A great deal of damage or harm to young people and to a locality is done because young people do not have enough to do. I would lay quite a large bet that, at the first sitting of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament at the end of February, the provision of facilities for young people to use their time constructively will arise.

I feel strongly with the hon. Member for Islington, North about the administration of housing benefit. It is a crying scandal, not merely a matter of incompetence, that housing benefit should be so slowly administered that respectable people are told that unless they obtain an eviction notice from their landlord they will not have their housing benefit paid as a priority. When confronted with this possibility, many landlords say, "You are too much of a hassle as a tenant. Would you mind going?" That, too, is homelessness.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Islington, North when he says that that is a matter of private provision. One of the local authorities in my constituency is so far behind with its housing benefit that it will give priority only to people who have an eviction notice from their landlord, despite their having an impeccable record up to that time of paying rent and doing everything properly. The authority is running the system itself, so it is not a question of whether a private company or a public corporation is involved. It is disgraceful that publicly administered benefit should lead to people being drummed out of their property and made homeless. If that is not part of the homelessness prevention strategy, it should be.

There is another element of housing that the Bill does not address, and it could easily have done so. Local authorities are extremely restrictive about allowing householders to modify their properties to make it possible for them to accommodate their ageing parents or relatives. Encouragement should be given to make this possible, and there could be many safeguards. For example, if the value of the house increases by a certain percentage because it has extra accommodation, but the old people do not move in because they die before they are ready to do so, or live in the property for only a short time, some of the money could be ploughed back into the local authority. There is a need for some imagination.

One of the reasons for the housing shortage is that elderly people are finding it extremely difficult to find places where they can be accommodated close to their relatives. If their relatives are prepared to modify their houses for that purpose, they should be encouraged so to do.

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There is a dreadful injustice when the definition of voluntary homelessness is aggressive and hard on people whose family may have broken up or some other disaster may have befallen them. In such circumstances they are often deemed to be voluntarily homeless by local authorities who are under great pressure to provide accommodation for families. They naturally want to try to define people as being voluntarily homeless.

In respect of young people who are leaving or want to leave home because they cannot get on with their parents or step-parents or for some other reason, and who are not yet finished with their education or training, the provision of foyers, with some adult support and education in how to look after their rooms, is enormously helpful in allowing them to make the transition without going on to the streets or becoming homeless. I hope that that is included in the Bill. The Minister may be able to reassure me on that.

In Maidstone, for example, there is the enormously successful conversion of an historic but no longer wanted church into a foyer. It has been an extraordinary success. It is in the heart of the town, which means that young people can walk to all the facilities that they want. It has caused no problems of any significance to the local community. We should encourage the provision of such foyers as much as we can.

Another element that goes back to the modification of homes for relatives is that more could be done to educate older people about the possibility of moving house before it is too late to do so. I am sure that there are very few Members who do not have constituents with elderly relatives who have left it too late and could not possibly move, and have no intention of so doing, but who might have been persuaded earlier to go. They will not be persuaded by their own family for many reasons, including generational pride. If such moves had not been left too late, larger accommodation could have been opened up for families in need. There should be a public education campaign to encourage older people to downsize their housing at an appropriate moment when they are still flexible enough to accept change. Possibly it would be a good idea to use older people to help with the campaign.

It is awful that in many local authorities small repairs are left so long that the entire house deteriorates. I would like to see encouragement given to volunteers and community groups to make it possible for such repairs to be made at an early stage.

8.28 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) who opposed, or claimed to oppose, the Bill. He made a deeply confused speech. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out in an intervention, the Opposition have tabled an amendment stating that they will vote against Second Reading. One Opposition speech apparently excoriated every single line of the Bill, yet apparently they will not vote against Second Reading. What is the solution to that conundrum?

Curiously, the Opposition claim that they will not vote against the Second Reading of a Bill that lays waste to the Housing Act 1996--one of the last pieces of legislation that the previous Government pushed through--but they also defend that measure. That is a

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puzzle, but it can be solved. The Opposition are still deeply committed to market dogma in housing, but cannot quite square that with the fact that, for good reasons, it is increasingly unfashionable to claim publicly that market dogma is the solution to all housing problems. That is why the Bill is so important.

An outsider studying house sales and purchases in this country would be astonished by the state of affairs because the most expensive and important financial investment that one is likely to make in one's life hinges on complete uncertainty up to the moment at which contracts are exchanged. Significantly, most Labour Members have spoken about buyers while most Conservative Members have spoken about sellers, although I do not know whether that represents an example of association, subconscious or otherwise. I want to concentrate on house buyers.

I had little money when I bought my first house several years ago, although I took the precaution of having surveys done. The purchase of the second house that I attempted to buy fell through three days before contracts were exchanged, and I ended up paying for four surveys, which was desperately damaging. At one stage, I was almost persuaded to give up on buying my house. Other countries think that state of affairs to be very strange.

House buying in France, for example, is more expensive in terms of add-ons, but it is a known quantity, not an undefined process that goes on until the moment that contracts are exchanged. An offer is made and a deposit required, which is forfeit to the seller if the transaction is not completed. A notaire deals with both sides of the transaction and the business is fairly orderly and straightforward. I accept that there are different circumstances in terms of volume of house and type of purchase, but nevertheless there is not the anarchic system that Conservative Members are happy to have continue here.

Occasionally, our system encourages otherwise perfectly honourable people temporarily to become wild west capitalists--to gazump and go back on verbal agreements, which they would never dream of doing in the ordinary course of life. Therefore, a system that can bring some sense and sanity to such a method of buying and selling houses must represent a step forward. The Bill will not by itself tackle gazumping, but to concentrate on that is to miss an element of the point of the proposals.

The Bill will ensure that buying and selling a house can proceed in an orderly fashion. One seller's pack, and one only, will be created and the possibility of having to undertake multiple surveys, to the detriment of the person buying the house, will be a thing of the past. That will be of inestimable value, particularly to first-time buyers in my constituency in Hampshire who are attempting to buy houses in a market in which the entry price is high. It also represents a tremendous step forward in providing both some stability to that end of the market in particular and some certainty in the minds of those buying their first home.

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