Homes Bill

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Mr. Don Foster: In the spirit of brevity, I thank the Minister and the other hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I think it is interesting to reflect that, during on Second Reading, at column 737, Mr. Waterson said:

    After all this time, and all their empty promises, the Government have failed to tackle the problem of gazumping.—[Official Report, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 737.]

Despite those brave words, I see not a single Conservative amendment to address that particular problem. I have tabled three new clauses in an attempt to ensure that we debate the issue and to give others an opportunity to contribute their own suggestions on tackling it.

The Minister has assured us at great length that the seller's pack is so wonderful that it absolutely must be applied to almost every transaction. However, the language he uses in responding to my new clause is somewhat different: he says that the culture in this country is different from anywhere else, so it is vital that we continue to use a voluntary approach. He is being incredibly schizophrenic. At least his words imply that the rest of part I will go some way to solving the problem and that mine is at least a legitimate argument.

Conservative Members have given no indication that they intend to address the issue—in fact, there appears to be some confusion among them. I noted with interest the comment of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who has come to the view that the problems no longer exist because they are increasingly addressed by the market. Perhaps he disagrees with his hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne.

10.30 am

Mr. Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous. Throughout our discussions over the past 10 days, we have given examples of how all the bodies involved in the property transaction market are making house buying and selling easier. The Law Society has its transaction scheme and mortgage lenders are speeding up their whole system, the internet is the speeding up searches, and so on. Things may not be changing quickly enough, but we are getting there without the need for any legislation.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is putting on the record the fact that despite the protestations of his hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne on Second Reading, Conservative Members intend to take no action to address the issues of gazumping and gazundering. Since they have also made it clear that they will not even support the introduction of seller's packs, they stand charged as the party that raised an issue but was not prepared to do anything about it.

Members on both sides of the Committee have made cogent arguments showing that while the broad principles in the three new clauses make sense, there are concerns about specific details. I do not find all their arguments convincing. The Minister says about new clause 2, for example, that information from a mortgage society might be in a form that would mislead the seller into believing that he could bump up the price, thereby making life more difficult. Life does not have to be like that.

Mr. Raynsford: On a point of clarification—I am sorry if I did not make the point clearly enough—I was stressing that, although we believe that in-principle agreements will become commonplace, confidence in the market will apply. I cited an example that demonstrated that. A statutory scheme requiring a buyer to show a precise figure to the seller or the seller's agent could have an adverse impact on his negotiating position in respect of the property price.

Mr. Foster: If a purchaser revealed to a vendor the fact that a mortgage company was in a position to offer the purchaser £100,000, say, when negotiating for a property priced at half that sum, the problem that the Minister describes may occur. However, the wording of new clause 2 taken in conjunction with new clause 1 makes it clear that the point at which the vendor has to demonstrate the ability to pay is the point at which an agreement is made on the precise sum of money in the contract. The vendor would have to show only that he was in a position to provide those funds. The showing of hands, as it were, would therefore not come until the point of contract at which the price has been agreed.

It is important that we have had a debate on the issue.

It is important that we have had a debate on the issue. I have had the opportunity to hear the concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. I shall reflect on any alternative proposals that I might table at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: May I just one point?

The Chairman: I am in some difficulty. We have had a fair debate and the hon. Member for Bath has sought the Committee's leave to withdraw the motion. I feel obliged to put that question.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16

Duty of local housing authority to formulate a homelessness strategy

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 101, page 10, line 4, at beginning insert

    `In conjunction with its strategic partners'.

The Chairman: With this we take the following amendments: No. 88, in page 10, line 4, after `authority', insert

    `and its strategic partners, to include registered social landlords and housing co-operatives; landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority under the Housing Act 1996, members of landlords' forums, voluntary organisations and relevant bodies (``strategic partners'').'.

No. 102, in page 10, line 8, at end insert

    `( ) For the purpose of this Bill strategic partners shall include registered social landlords and housing co-operatives, landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority under the Housing Act 1996, members of landlords' forums, voluntary organisations and relevant bodies (``strategic partners'').'.

No. 64, in page 10, line 12, at end insert

    `( ) The registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority shall give such assistance in connection with the exercise of the power under subsection (1) as the authority may reasonably require.'.

No. 98, in page 10, line 20, at end insert

    `(4A) The authority shall maintain a list of those organisations which are its strategic partners, which it may modify from time to time.'.

No. 65, in page 10, line 25, at end insert

    `( ) The registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority shall take the homelessness strategy for the district of a local housing authority into account in the exercise of their functions in relation to that district.'.

No. 66, in clause 17, page 10, line 34, after `authorities', insert

    `, registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority'.

No. 89, clause 18, page 11, line 10, after `authority', insert

    `and its strategic partners'.

No. 68, clause 18, page 11, line 29, after `organisation', insert

    `, registered social landlords holding accommodation in the district of the authority'.

No. 71, clause 19, page 12, line 17, at end insert

    ```registered social landlord'' has the same meaning as in Part 1 of the Housing Act 1996'.

New clause 10—Co-operation between relevant housing authorities and bodies—

    `( ).—(1) Section 213 (co-operation between relevant housing authorities and bodies) of the 1996 Act is amended as follows.

    After subsection (1) there is inserted—

    ``( ) Where a local housing authority request a registered social landlord or a housing action trust to assist them in the discharge of their functions under this part, the landlord to whom the request is made shall co-operate in rendering such assistance in the discharge of the functions to which the request relates, if to do so is compatible with their constitution and does not unduly prejudice the discharge of any of their functions.''

    (2) In subsection (2)(a) the words ``a registered social landlord or housing action trust'' shall cease to have effect.''.'

Mr. Foster: It is me again, Mr. Stevenson.

We now move to part II of the Bill. I sure that while many members of the Committee are fascinated by the important issues in part I, they would agree that part II is equally important deserves the same degree of serious consideration that we have given to part I.

As the person moving the first amendment to part II, I could steal the Minister's thunder by giving a tour d'horizon of the first section of part II , as the Minister's hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), has done on previous occasions. However, knowing that the Minister for Housing and Planning will be keen to do that himself, I shall forbear. I hope that, having read the Bill in detail, members of the Committee will be well aware of the context of the amendments. In simple terms, the amendments pick up a point I raised on Second Reading. It is noted in the Official Report that the Minister nodded at my remarks about the second ghost at the feast, namely, the absence of any mention of registered social landlords in the clause.

The Committee will be aware of the importance of registered social landlords and the vital part they play in the provision of affordable housing. More importantly, the Committee will be aware that that importance is growing daily. Between 1997 and 1998, the number of RSL homes doubled to more than 1 million, while the total number of local authority dwellings fell by more than 1 million. Since 1998, more than 400,000 homes have been transferred from 100 local authorities to RSLs. In the housing Green Paper, the Government indicated that they would support a transfer programme of up to a further 200,000 local authority homes each year.

It is also worth reflecting on the role that RSLs play in meeting the specific requirements of local authorities. To give an example, last year, 1999-2000, local authorities nominated 16,459 homeless households for housing in properties owned by registered social landlords. In much of the country, the vast majority of local authorities have transferred their properties to registered social landlords through the voluntary transfer scheme. Equally important is the fact that they have contracted with registered social landlords to carry out a number of their functions, not least the handling of parts of housing registers and of the local authorities' homeless services. That brief summary makes it clear that in many parts of the country, registered social landlords play a crucial part in dealing with the issue of homelessness. My local authority, Bath and North East Somerset, has already conducted a voluntary transfer. The entire provision of affordable housing is in the hands of a number of registered social landlords, and the local authority has but a very small number of properties available to it.

The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that clear and specific reference is made to registered social landlords on the face of the Bill. The Minister will say that there are already references to voluntary organisations and that the registered social landlords fit within that group. In the past he has used argument A, the list argument, with great effect and the Committee has generally been ready to accept that there is disadvantage in adding baubles to the Christmas tree—adding a list of additional items to an existing list; the Minister's argument has always been the absence of some organisation from an expanded list would appear be significant. However, this is one occasion on which the absence of reference to the registered social landlords—the largest providers of social housing—is an indication that the Government have misunderstood the role of registered social landlords. The omission of RSLs from the short list that includes social services means that people will draw an inference that I suspect the Minister would not like to be drawn.

Putting registered social landlords on the face of the Bill is not enough. We have to make clear the role that we want such landlords to play. It is vital that they are involved directly in drawing up the homelessness strategy required under the first part of part II. In later amendments, I will suggest that, by itself, the drawing up of a homelessness strategy is inadequate and that that such a strategy needs to be part of a wider housing strategy. For now, it is vital that we set out a firm requirement whereby registered social landlords are directly involved in the drawing up of such a strategy, be it a homelessness strategy or a wider homelessness and housing strategy, as I would prefer.

Amendment No. 65 reflects my belief that, in their actions, RSLs should have regard to or take into account the local authority homelessness strategy. I suspect that the Minister will argue that the nature and status of RSLs makes it impossible to introduce such a provision. I have taken fairly detailed advice on that matter and I am now convinced that that argument is sound and that amendment No. 65 is probably inappropriate; therefore, I shall not press it.

None the less, I hope that, rather than spend time repeating my comments, the Minister will make it clear that his Department intends to provide clear guidance to registered social landlords regarding the importance of taking local authority strategies into account wherever possible. I do not ask that they be required to act contrary to their trust deeds or whatever system they operate under, but as long as such restrictions do not apply, RSLs should take local strategies into account.

I am trying to be brief and could go into much greater detail later if the Committee required it. I hope that the broad principles of the amendments are clear. I will not speak to each amendment; I shall respond to any questions later.

10.45 am

 
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