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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Like my hon. Friend, I represent many council tenants, and many of them have great problems understanding the housing policy that governs their ability to transfer. My hon. Friend's amendment is a good one, apart from the use of the words
Mr. Hughes: I know my hon. Friend's constituency quite well, and I have visited the flats there when supporting his election campaigns. We are all the same boat, in that we are dealing with people who are trapped in a home and want to move.
The purpose of the debate is to get the Government to consider the issue, and I accept my hon. Friend's proposition. Provided that adequately sized accommodation with adequate facilities is offered, the best system would not offer the best properties to first-time tenants. They should start with the old property and work their way up the quality ladder. Long-serving tenants should get the new properties as a reward for their years in the old property wilderness. That is a matter of equity, irrespective of people's background, culture or anything else.
Mr. Hancock: People find themselves in a trap when, having been on a housing waiting list, they are made an offer of accommodation. The problem is particularly difficult for homeless people who, in the main, are made only one offer. Invariably, they take the first available property, and in many instances, it is not suitable. They remain in that property for several years, and inevitably, their family circumstances change. However, they are trapped in a property that they have little or no hope of leaving.
My local authority has a housing transfer list nearly as long as its housing waiting list. Fifteen years ago, it had 30,000 council properties at its disposal, but it has fewer than 18,000 today. As one can imagine, the vast majority of good properties have been sold off and the rump that remains is, in the main, made up of pre-war properties that require major renovation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, many families have been trapped in a property for a long time, with little or no hope of ever getting out. That is because--quite rightly in some respects--the housing authority believes that they are adequately housed. However, many authorities refuse to recognise the conditions in which many of those families live.
Surely the Minister has a responsibility to recognise that the Bill should offer hope to people who are trapped in properties while their children grow up. I hope that when he replies, he will tell us that the Government are considering the issue realistically and sympathetically, and that they intend to do something to help.
Mr. Raynsford: This short debate has identified two main issues. First, it has shown the importance of simplifying the provisions, which is what the Government amendments will do. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) for his support. Secondly, the debate has highlighted the position of existing tenants against that of new tenants.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) emphasised that there were two parts to amendment No. 56. First, the council should state its policy. The Bill provides for exactly that. It requires authorities to prepare a detailed policy that will apply to people who seek transfers. The measure gives them greater involvement in the allocation of accommodation than is currently the case.
First, we want to ensure that, unlike what happened under the Housing Act 1996, the allocation process takes full account of the needs of those who want a transfer. Secondly, we want to make a significant shift from bureaucratic allocation systems in which officials make the decisions, often with little regard for the feelings and interests of the tenants, to a more choice-based system. We acknowledge the constraints that are inevitable in areas of high demand. Nevertheless, we want to try to involve those who apply for council or housing association homes more in decisions about their future.
It is important to give more choice to the public and more respect to their views. That will probably lead to the results that the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Portsmouth, South want. When the public exercise more choice, the system has to respond to the wishes and aspirations of people who are aggrieved about the current arrangements. I hope that both hon. Members realise that the Bill is in line with their objective, but that we do not propose to achieve that objective through centralising diktats from Whitehall. We are providing the framework, but each local authority must develop its own system.
Mr. Hancock: The Minister has made a helpful point, provided that local housing authorities take note of the framework and intend to introduce transparent policies. An existing tenant has the right to know that his or her application for transfer has been considered according to proper criteria. Tenants should also have the right to know why applications are rejected. How does the Minister intend to ensure that local authorities effect that policy?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is fairly new to the debate; he was not a member of the Standing Committee. We had detailed debates in Committee about methods of ensuring that the new allocation policies were made available and that people had an opportunity to appeal against the assessment of the facts on which their allocation had been determined. It is not appropriate for every allocation to be subject to an appeal; that would not be feasible. However, every applicant must be confident that the basis on which his or her priority is being assessed can be challenged. We have provided for that.
We have invited bids from local authorities for imaginative new choice-based lettings systems. We have received substantive bids from 94 local authorities, and we will make decisions in the near future about the allocation of the £11 million in funding to support those initiatives.
Mr. Hughes: Will it be possible for the Department to state the new policy in simple, easily accessible form? Anyone who wants to take part in a tenants organisation debate on the subject can then obtain from a common website details of comparable systems, and be well informed for a local discussion. Tenants will be able to
Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman two undertakings. First, we certainly want to ensure that the new policy introduced by the Bill is fully understood, and we will arrange for appropriate publicity to ensure that tenants groups, local authorities and registered social landlords throughout the country are aware of the new arrangements.
Secondly, one issue that is exercising us at the moment is how we ensure that, with the great interest that I have described--94 bids for new innovative choice-based lettings schemes--information is shared throughout the country, and good practice in one area can be understood by others. We are giving a great deal of thought to that, but we have not yet reached conclusions about how best to achieve it. I hope that, having heard that assurance, the hon. Gentleman will accept that his amendment is flawed and agree to withdraw it.
Mr. Waterson: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may recall that a week or two ago we had a debate in this House on the Government's new regulations on secrecy in local government, on a prayer tabled by Conservative Members. The Liberal Democrats tabled a prayer in the Lords, which we supported, and which was to be debated tomorrow. It has just come to my attention that the prayer has been withdrawn. I wonder whether you have had a request from the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to come to the House to make a statement as a matter of urgency, explaining the Government's attitude, and whether this is another example of Lib-Labbery in action.
'(1) In section 177 of the 1996 Act (cases when it is reasonable to continue to occupy accommodation)--
(a) in subsection (1), after "domestic violence" there is inserted "or other violence"; and
(b) for the words following paragraph (b) of subsection (1) there is substituted--
"(1A) For this purpose "violence" means--
(a) violence from another person; or
(b) threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out;
and violence is "domestic violence" if it is from a person who is associated with the victim."
(2) In section 198 of the 1996 Act (conditions for referral of case to another local housing authority), for subsection (3) there is substituted--
"(2A) But the conditions for referral mentioned in subsection (2) are not met if--