Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. I shall speak to amendments Nos. 88, 98 and 89. It is a curious feature of our deliberations that, although the Liberal Democrat amendment is a rather belated affair and narrower than our own more thought-through amendments, it is the first in the group and the lead amendment for debate. That is the way in which our procedures are organised.

Mr. Curry: We have got it over with—that's the main thing.

Mr. Waterson: That is always a blessing.

We have now changed gear into part II of the Bill. We leave behind the pleasures and conundrums of seller's packs and move on to homelessness and housing. I appreciate that some Government Members regarded the consideration of part I as a chore, irrelevant to them and their constituents. Perhaps they will brighten up now and give the Committee the benefit of their views. They have, at least, tabled some amendments.

I shall start with broader points about part II, which might save time later on. We are debating the issues in the context of a series of Government failures—failure to tackle homelessness; to build more social housing; to tackle empty properties; and now the problem of a record number of asylum seekers competing for the same accommodation.

The Bill has been a long time coming. The Minister for Housing and Planning—and Labour in opposition for 18 years—has spent considerable time thinking about housing issues. Yet here we are presented with a Bill that, if we are lucky, might just sneak on to the statute book before the election. It is too early to say whether yesterday's events—not yesterday's happy event, which has warmed the cockles of our hearts, but the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—

Mr. Curry: I thought that you were talking about Liverpool's win.

Mr. Waterson: This is getting out of hand—

The Chairman: Order. The amendments deal with who should be consulted and our debate should not range too wide of that.

Mr. Waterson: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson. The failure to deliver on the pledge to license HMOs is another matter.

The hon. Member for Bath has, for once, got it right. We are debating housing in circumstances that are shifting beneath our feet as we speak. The Conservative policy, initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, was large-scale voluntary transfers, and the present Government have adopted it with alacrity—currently there are about 200,000 transfers. I hasten to add that it has not been endorsed in all quarters. Early-day motion 190 has been signed by Labour Members who want to ensure that

    further privatisation is halted to allow a proper debate including allowing local authorities to borrow directly and the long-term cost and other consequences of council housing privatisation.

Clearly, Conservative policy has not met unqualified agreement among Labour Members, and early-day motion 233, signed by 23 Labour Members, also criticises some aspects of Government policy.

Amendment No. 88 is the main amendment in this group. It goes further than the Liberal Democrat amendment and discusses strategic partners, which would include

    registered social landlords and housing co-operatives; landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority...members of landlords' forums, voluntary organisations and relevant bodies.

We might also have included homeless people in the amendments, as previous briefings have made the point that they are perhaps the most important people to consult on how a strategy is to be developed and to evolve.

The Conservatives party has always sought to encourage the widest possible range of housing tenure. In previous incarnations, the Labour party has always sought to promote social housing, and to offer a lack of choice to potential tenants. We have always sought to have a wide range of housing, including the private rented sector, social housing and the right to buy. As I have said—I make no apology for repeating it—it is a tribute to successive Conservative Governments, with no help from successive Labour Oppositions, that 69 per cent. of people in this country own their own home. It will continue to be part of any Conservative manifesto in future elections to try to extend home ownership and the right to buy even further.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the starter home initiative, which the Government recently announced. It will involve expenditure of £250 million in order to increase opportunities for low-cost home ownership. Will he give a commitment to the Committee that an incoming Conservative Government would honour that pledge in full?

Mr. Waterson: I do not want to risk your ire, Mr Stevenson, but we consider that the Government initiative is pretty paltry in light of the need. We are looking at homesteading policy, and other policies, to try to encourage home ownership in a substantial way. This Government have made it more difficult for people to apply the right to buy. The Conservatives wish to apply the right to buy across the board, to housing associations as well.

Mr. Curry: Does my hon. Friend accept that the purpose of elections is to allow the electorate to have a choice? It may be true that this Government got into power by promising not to alter the policy of its predecessors, but I hope that my party will not seek power by saying that it will not alter the policies of this Government. If both parties do that, there is no point in having an election is there Mr Stevenson?

The Chairman: Order. I recognise that it might be the time of the year, but I urge hon. Members to return to the amendments.

Mr. Waterson: Absolutely right Mr Stevenson. The Conservative party—and no doubt the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats—is currently developing its proposals for the election manifesto, whenever that might be required.

Ms Karen Buck (Regents Park and Kensington, North): Given the hon. Gentleman's commitment about extending the right to buy to people in housing association property and that the present homelessness crisis, which we have had for a number of years, is closely linked to the supply of accommodation, is he also giving a commitment that a Conservative Government would ensure that there was a replacement of stock to at least the same level as that lost through right to buy?

Mr. Waterson: That could not have been a more eloquent example of what I call Old Labour thinking—a denial of choice. Surveys have consistently shown that the great majority of people aspire to owning their own home. For some people that aspiration will never be achievable. We have always sought to make it as achievable as possible for most people.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: In a moment.

In answering the hon. Lady's intervention, I want to refer to an extremely thought-provoking article published in Housing Today of 11 January 2001,written by Mr. Mike Morris, chief executive of the William Sutton Trust. I am sure that those who take an interest in housing will know that this is the William Sutton Trust's centenary year. Mr. Morris makes a number of significant points about what he calls the need to integrate the housing market. He says that, overall, the social rented sector is declining and refers to a number of other forces that are all pressing to what he calls greater integration. He says that all new local authority lettings should become assured tenancies preserving existing tenant's right to buy. He also says:

    This, coupled with perhaps an extension of the right to acquire under statutory purchase grant rules to the whole of the sector would help integrate social rented housing, leading to greater acceptance by tomorrows' customers.

Does the hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) disagree with Mr. Morris?

Ms Buck: As I have a large William Sutton estate in my constituency, I would be interested to know how the Opposition, and Mr. Morris with whom I will discuss this, will also accommodate the needs of severely overcrowded families in that stock who are desperate for a transfer to more acceptable accommodation and who cannot realistically exercise the right to buy.

Mr. Waterson: I would be more prepared to take lessons from Labour Members about dealing with homelessness if, as we discussed on Second Reading, homelessness had not been increasing under this Government.

Mr. Love: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: I have not forgotten the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North and I did have an exchange on Second Reading about the reasons for the problems in London. As we know, priority homelessness is at its highest level since 1996. The figure for total priority acceptances in 1997- 98 was 102,650. In 1999-2000 the comparable figure was 105,520. Under the present Government, 3,000 more people were homeless and in urgent need.

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman please confirm that the figures he has given are incorrect? The correct figure for the last financial year, the year ending March 1997, during which the Opposition were in power, was 110,000 homeless applicants accepted by local authorities. The latest 12-month figure, under this Government, is 108,000. As I said on Second Reading debate, it is too high, but it is simply untrue to claim that the number of homeless households is higher now than when the Opposition were in power.

Mr. Waterson: The Minister might like to clamber down from this rather high horse. We had a similar exchange on Second Reading. He is not able to challenge the figures I have given because they come from his own Department—I have the document from the Department. For the Minister to try to rely on another measure of homelessness to achieve a 2,000 reduction, does not strike me as a very good legacy of four years of Labour Government, let alone 18 years of Opposition.

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Prepared 25 January 2001