Homelessness Bill

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

Mr. Waterson: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I remember doing so on a similar point in the Committee stage of the Homes Bill.

Mr. Love: Is not the important point the Government's commitment to improve social housing within a 10-year time scale, with the safeguard that it must have tenant approval? Are not those two commitments that were not given by the previous Government?

Mr. Waterson: At the risk of doing the ``Groundhog Day'' routine, in response to a similar intervention by the hon. Gentleman on the previous Committee, I made the point that that is not my party's policy that people should be forced into transfers. We certainly did not fight the last election on that policy and, even if we had, no one would have noticed.

We endorse the Government's stand. It is becoming a bit of an embarrassment that on a whole range of issues my hon. Friends and I must welcome and endorse what the Government are doing, and I will discuss the fallout from that in a moment. We are happy that this Conservative policy has been grabbed so enthusiastically by the Government and that they are running with it, heading for the touchline. We are cheering them on, on this occasion. If anything, they have been more rapid in this matter than even we would have been, although our policy would have been to speed things up and push ahead as rapidly as possible.

The only glum faces among the spectators—to continue the sporting metaphor—are members of the Labour party who belong to the old Labour syndrome. They are unhappy about the transfers because Labour in local government has traditionally seen council housing as a way in which to exercise power and patronage, in a semi-feudal fashion, over people living in a particular area. It is no coincidence, for example, that the late Alderman Andy Cunningham, when he was leader of his council—I forget whether it was Durham or Newcastle—used to present the keys personally to new tenants of council houses. He did that not because he was into public relations, but to emphasise the landlord-tenant—or vassal-lord—relationship that pertained between the Labour-run council and the tenants. That culture is disappearing, and quite rightly so.

We will deal with the question of demand for social housing in more detail in our discussion of allocations, but I want to make one quick point and move on. We know that massive differences in demand exist in different areas for social housing. A lady came to my advice surgery a week or so ago. She was a single lady who appreciated that she was low priority on the housing list, but she had been on the list in Eastbourne since 1997. That is an amazing fact, and I am trying to get to the bottom of it. She was not in any sense screaming the place down, but she thought that the time had come to visit her Member of Parliament and find out what was happening. That is a slightly unusual case, even for Eastbourne, but it shows the enormous gulf between our part of the country, in which there is great demand and limited supply and other parts of the country, where council estates, to an increasing extent, will be semi-occupied or wholly-unoccupied. All of that contributes to this problem.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The one area on which my hon. Friend has not touched is the provision of new social housing. The purpose of large-scale voluntary transfers is to enable the local authority to become a facilitator. However, it is housing associations that, by and large, build new social housing. Does that not further strengthen his argument that it is housing associations, which provide the new houses, that should be involved in the strategy?

11 am

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend makes the point succinctly. Not only are housing associations unable to build as many new units as they would want—the Minister will be able to grapple with that point in her answer—but, increasingly, the burden is being passed on to them. We would say that that is right—it is Conservative policy—and at least the Government have got it right in one area. It may produce some difficulties within the Labour party, but that is a matter for others to sort out, and the quicker that they do so, the better.

As my hon. Friend reminds us, there has been a sharp drop, as I have already said, in the number of new units of social housing being built, at a time when private sector housing has been growing fast. It may save time—and save the Minister's officials from dusting off the previous briefing—were I to touch on the three arguments that the Minister's predecessor made against similar amendments. The first argument was that the blanket nature of duties would not fit with what the Minister called the diversity of the RSL sector. That has some merit, because although some housing associations have enormous numbers of units up and down and right across the country, some are large but based in a particular area in which they have their roots, and others are small and do not even appear on the radar screen. At the end of the day, that does not really matter. However big or diverse RSLs are, the future—and to some extent the present—belongs to them. They, and not local councils, will be running social housing. We must get that point across. There is no point in Labour Members or others in the Labour party feeling sad about it; that is the situation, and it is not going to change.

The second argument—which had more force—was that the bodies concerned are predominantly voluntary, and, although they are subject to regulation, imposing statutory duties on them is not the same as imposing statutory duties on local authorities. That is one of the parts A and B arguments that we had in the previous Committee—I hope that we find a new terminology during the short life of this Committee—as to whether it is worth including this sort of thing in the Bill or whether it is understood that such bodies will of course be intimately involved in evolving a particular strategy. As a result of the way in which the legislation is currently drafted, that will in large measure depend on the attitude of the local authority. If it is a grumpy, old-fashioned old Labour authority, which resents what is happening and is trying to hold back the tide, it may not involve such bodies or it may do so in a perfunctory way. The fact that such bodies are largely voluntary should not make a difference. They may be voluntary, but they are already treated seriously by the public sector, because, as was conceded in previous debates, they are regulated. They are serious organisations, some of which are extremely large and well run. Some are less so, but, if they have not already grown up, RSLs will have to grow up rapidly. They should be treated as equal partners with local authorities, whose role they are usurping.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): The hon. Gentleman seems to be rather derogatory about local authorities. Does he not accept that the transfer to registered social landlords from local authorities is down to one word—money? I refer to Treasury rules. If local authorities were able to borrow more money, many of them could perform a service equally as valuable as that performed by the RSLs. I take exception to the fact that the hon. Gentleman used terms such as ``old Labour'' when referring to local authorities. I know many good local authorities. Indeed, my own authority has been a band 1 authority during most of the time that the banding system has been in force. Such authorities are extremely well managed.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. It echoes some of the previous discussions about a similar Bill. I am not saying that all local authorities are bad managers of their housing stock, but many have been in the past, which is why successive Governments have favoured such a practice. If the hon. Gentleman considers that the Treasury rules are wrong, he must take up that matter with his Ministers. It is not for me to remind him that they have won a second term in office, but let him and his friends of like mind agitate from the Back Benches on such issues. Let him be in no doubt that such policy is not that of his own Government.

The third argument advanced by the Minister in January against similar proposals was that they would undermine the strategic responsibilities that were being placed on local authorities. He said that reviews could be carried out in partnership, as part of a multi-agency approach and so on. The then Minister said:

    ``It is important that local authorities . . . are clear about where the buck stops. Sharing responsibility would simply dilute it''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 25 January 2001; c. 280.]

That represents a distinction without a difference, if I may respectfully say so. Like it or not, they are now the serious players in social housing. The Minister put forward just another specious argument to exclude them directly from being obliged to be involved in producing such strategies.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the only organisation in a local area that can have an overview of RSLs and housing associations is the local authority? Many Labour Members wish to strengthen the strategic role of local authorities even beyond that under the Bill. The hon. Gentleman was dismissive about diversity and RSLs. I was a chief executive of a small specialist association that dealt with the housing needs of women. Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that, by placing a statutory duty on RSLs, particularly those small associations that deal with specialist groups, he risks not having the opportunity to ensure that those who would not be accommodated by homelessness groups could also find access to housing? My association helped low-paid women who are essential to London's economy, and such associations may be pushed out of business altogether by such proposals.

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