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Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill

Second Reading

12.30 pm

Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I was very fortunate to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills in a position where I felt I could do something that would make a difference to people’s lives. I know that everybody says that when they do well in the ballot, but I realised that it was important to do something in an area in which I had some interest in the past and in which I believed I could build a consensus in the House. My short experience has told me that that is the best way to make any progress. I thank Members in all parts of the House who have helped me with the Bill, including the current and previous Governments. Having been through most of my right hon. and hon. Friends and colleagues, I can say that I have had unanimous support.

The Bill has one clear objective—to prevent the fraudulent use of social housing, which has gone on for so long. Constituents and others who wrote in once the Bill had received some publicity found it strange that illegally sub-letting social housing—a flat or house that formerly would have been known as a council house and which is now part of social housing—is not a criminal offence.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in the ballot. He mentions that the problem has been going on for a long time. Is there any particular reason why he felt it necessary to introduce the Bill now? Is the problem getting worse? How have we managed without such a measure for so long?

Richard Harrington: My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a considered point. I do not quite know the answer. I do not know why the problem has not been dealt with before. When researching the subject, I noticed that it had been talked about for a long time. Bodies such as the Serious Fraud Office and the National Audit Office have identified the problem, and for years Governments have had it on their mind, but it is one of those small things that slip through the net of legislation.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): An important question has been put to my hon. Friend on this point. Is he aware that in a consultation carried out with housing associations, which are obviously very worried about the problem, they identified as one of the main concerns in this area the lack of sufficient deterrent penalties available for people who engage in such activity and thereby enrich themselves?

Richard Harrington: I am aware of the consultation. Having researched the matter, I know that the problem has increased over the years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested. I hope that there is a general consensus that it is time to do something about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) has been in the House since 1992 and so might remember speeches and contributions right hon. and hon. Members have made on the subject.

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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, I was quite surprised that it has not been included in legislation by this Government, the previous one, or indeed the one before that. In my humble way, I can simply deal with the problem as it is today.

Clearly there is a problem. This type of sub-letting is something I am sure the public think is a criminal offence. It is an outrage that an estimated 150,000 social housing tenants—50,000 is the most conservative figure, but the National Audit Office’s estimate is 150,000—are illegally sub-letting their properties. Typically, it is done by someone who qualifies for a social tenancy because they have the necessary points in the scoring system. They sign a contract with a social housing provider but then illegally sub-let it to a tenant, who in many cases pays a market rent for the property, and then pockets the difference between that rent and either what they are paying themselves or what is being paid as part of their housing benefit.

That is not simply taking advantage of the situation financially; it also means—in many ways this is a worse aspect—that a family who are on a waiting list and would be entitled to the property cannot occupy it. I know from correspondence with hon. Members across the House that this is a problem in their constituencies; I know of no area where it is not a problem. The shadow Minister, in my discussions with him, explained that he thinks it is a greater problem in the London area, but that is only because properties in London are rented out in the private sector at a much higher rate. I have yet to meet a Member of the House who is not aware of this being a problem in their constituency.

Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that this is a problem not only in high-rent areas? East Kent has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the whole south-east—indeed, they are some of the highest levels in the country—and families who have been on the waiting list for a very long time find it deeply offensive that this kind of practice goes on in low-rent as well as high-rent areas.

Richard Harrington: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I know that it is a problem in Scotland, Wales and other places a long way from London, but I think that the numbers are accentuated in the central London area, and in terms not just of the total volume of social housing property, but of the value of the rent. The problem is still the same. It is depriving people who are entitled to social housing and in desperate need of it and who, in many cases, are having to live in really sub-standard temporary accommodation, which is a burden to them and comes at a high cost to the taxpayer. It is keeping very suitable properties provided in the social housing field from them, and I think that it is very wrong.

What would the Bill do? It would create some new criminal offences of sub-letting social housing without permission. It would introduce appropriate penalties, ranging from a fine to a maximum custodial sentence of two years, in order to provide a proper and correct punishment and also an effective deterrent. It would allow local authorities to prosecute for offences in the Bill on behalf of housing associations and other local

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authorities. It would allow social landlords to recover the profits made by tenants who sub-let their property without permission. If such activity is a criminal racket and people have made money out of it, the Bill would allow social landlords to recover the money. It would make it easier for housing associations to gain possession of a property from tenants who have moved back in having previously illegally sub-let it, because that is something that has been reported a lot.

In promoting the Bill, I am trying to outline why I believe these measures are most effective in creating the right legislation to deal with this problem. There is no point making the effort and for the Bill to become law without it once and for all dealing with the problem, but it should not do so too severely, by victimising genuine social housing tenants or those who have a reason for temporarily not living in their property, because life is like that, and there are genuine reasons. A lot of thought has therefore gone into the Bill, and I thank the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Opposition Members who encountered the issue when they were Ministers, for their help in creating what we believe is sensible and balanced legislation.

In my own world of Watford, the Watford Community Housing Trust has been helpful, and I have consulted it regularly. In a letter to me early on in my time as a Member, it outlined several measures that it thought would make a difference in preventing social housing fraud, and each one is covered in the Bill. With due respect to colleagues, we hear things from a certain angle, so I have tried my best to speak to people in housing associations and local authorities who deal with these issues on the ground, because as things filter upwards they can be changed; there might be political factors and things can be sanitised. I hope that I have included both levels of the issue, and I thank Ruairi McCourt of the Watford Community Housing Trust for his helping in dealing with it.

It was unbelievable to me, as a new Member dealing with constituents for the first time, to find that so much of our constituency work involved dealing with extensive social housing waiting lists. I am sure that colleagues from all parts of the House have heard similar stories, but properties owned by housing associations are sub-let by tenants, often on the private market and in estate agents’ windows, in all our constituencies. I had seen it with my own eyes, but little seemed to have been done to marry the two issues, so I was grateful this year when the Government, based on work that they and the previous Government had done, launched a consultation on social housing fraud and started to look seriously at criminalising the activity I have been talking about.

I was a little naive about the way things worked, however, because I thought, “Ah! There will be consultation, then it will become legislation.” I have since learned that things do not always work like that, and to my frustration it was not possible to pass any legislation—or at least not until now. So when I was given an opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, I really wanted to introduce this one. However much my political career to date and in future may lack an illustrious aspect, whatever may or may not happen electorally, and whatever I may or may not contribute to the House, I should like to feel that this Bill is going to become law, and that my

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name will go down in one little footnote in history—not to make a political point, but because I believe that this legislation is an important part of social justice.

The Bill represents a little gap in the market, but like so many small things that are debated in the House, it will have a significant effect on people’s lives and remedy not just an injustice to all of us as taxpayers who fund what is happening, but a real injustice to people throughout the country who are desperate for social housing and are told that there is a four or five-year waiting list, while people who do not deserve it occupy properties and people who pretend that they deserve it profit from it. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to do something about that.

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): I very much congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. I hope that he gets that footnote in history, because if he is responsible for taking even only one family off the housing list or out of temporary accommodation, he will have done a great service to the many people throughout the country, in my constituency and in everyone else’s, who we know are waiting desperately for social housing.

Richard Harrington: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments.

I find it strange that many other types of social housing fraud are already criminal offences. It is well known that making fraudulent right-to-buy applications, lying on forms when applying for social homes and misrepresenting financial circumstances to obtain social housing are all caught by criminal legislation, but sub-letting is important, because the authorities perceive it to be the most prevalent abuse and it has never been included in such legislation.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend could be forgiven for not knowing the answer to this question, but I hope that he may able to assist me. As we have heard in his excellent speech, this problem is prevalent throughout the country. What action has been taken in the past when it has occurred? Surely the courts and the police could have prosecuted for offences such as obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception.

Richard Harrington: I will make every attempt to answer my hon. Friend’s question. There are two answers. First, it is possible to bring prosecutions for fraud under the Theft Act 1968. He mentioned obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception, which is what the offence was called when I last studied law in 1979, but that may have changed; I was not very good at the subject then, and I am certainly a lot worse now. I think that there have been some criminal prosecutions. However, I know from speaking to people at the housing associations and enforcement officers at local authorities that it is quite hard to prove in court that there was a fraudulent intent. Far too many cases of blatant abuse have not gone through the necessary hoops to be caught by the Theft Act but are still basically fraudulent in the context of my argument.

The second answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that—

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I know that it is difficult, but could the hon. Gentleman please address the House so that his voice is properly picked up and everybody can hear it?

Richard Harrington: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Obviously if the choice is between facing you and facing my hon. Friend, there is no contest.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I can now see why the hon. Gentleman did what he did.

Richard Harrington: I was brought up in an old-fashioned way and told that it was rude to speak to people with one’s back to them, but clearly that is not the case in this House. I apologise and will proceed to face you at all times, Sir.

The second answer to my hon. Friend, to whom my back is now turned, is that until now the main way of dealing with this matter has been through civil proceedings. Those have proved very inadequate because, at best, the council or housing association will get vacant possession of the property, but that does not provide a deterrent or punishment or prevent the people involved from going somewhere else in the country and doing the same thing.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): This is a particularly big problem in Enfield. My hon. Friend may be interested to know, further to the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), that last April Enfield council managed to secure a prosecution on the basis of representations dishonestly made—in effect, fraud—and the person in question received a suspended sentence. The current way of proceeding is unsatisfactory because it means going to extraordinary lengths to find a means of bringing people to account. My hon. Friend’s Bill is therefore well timed in providing us with a much more straightforward process.

Richard Harrington: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I had heard of the Enfield case he mentions. The fact that it was reported makes it very rare. The authorities in Enfield were delighted that they had managed to get through all the different hoops despite the fact that it is very difficult for them to deal with these cases, of which there are many, as elsewhere in the country, with the weapons they have available. The Bill would help the authorities in Enfield and elsewhere that have been pursuing such cases. It would give them teeth and ensure that they do not have such difficulties in proving their case before a court and then end up allowing people to escape following blatant misuse of their social tenancies.

The National Fraud Office estimates that such social tenancy fraud costs the Exchequer and taxpayers over £900 million a year. I do not know how it arrived at that figure, because the nature of the crime makes it difficult to work out how widespread it is. However, one can understand its having done so given that most conservative estimates predict that about 50,000 properties are affected, while some say that the figure is 150,000.

As I have said, the level of such fraud differs across the country. Where there are bigger profit margins, it is more commonplace. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), it is

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most prevalent in London. Westminster city council estimates that up to 5% of London’s social housing stock is sub-let. That is a huge amount.

In my constituency of Watford, a family living in a three-bed social housing property pay £111 a week in rent. A similar property on the market would cost £263 a week. If such a property was sub-let, it could make the person letting it a profit of more than £150 a week. That assumes that they are paying for the social rent. If it was paid for through housing benefit, the entire £263 a week would be kept. We are talking about profits of £7,000 to £15,000 a year with no tax. That is appalling, especially as there are 4,000 people on the waiting list in Watford. People wait for years for social housing to become available. This is an absolute affront.

While researching this subject, I chaired a useful seminar that was attended by a large number of leading organisations, mainly local authorities and housing associations. I heard several horror stories from local authorities. One organisation showed me their properties being sub-let on the websites of letting agents. That is being done brazenly and openly, not in the corner of a pub. People are saying, “This is my property and I’m going to let it out,” despite the fact that others are crying out for such properties. That has to be stopped.

People sub-let such properties for different reasons. On a small scale, some people sub-let their house while they are abroad for the month. I am not really concerned about that. I am concerned about the most extreme cases, which involve organised criminal gangs operating on a large scale. They get people to put themselves on the waiting list and help them to qualify, with the sole intention of providing the base for a fraud.

Housing associations, local authorities and Governments have not been blind to these issues over recent years. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who dealt with this issue under the previous Government, has been extremely helpful to me, although he is not in his place today. He and the current Minister for Housing and Local Government have made significant improvements in the rate of detection and the number of properties recovered by providing funding to help the officers of local authorities and housing associations track down fraud.

Peabody, a large housing association in London, made 700 visits and recovered 19 properties in 2009. It told me at the conference that, with some changes to its practices, it made 1,544 visits and recovered 63 properties in 2010. Those are still quite small numbers, but they show that if Government funding is used selectively, it can lead to more detection.

I hope that with this Bill, which contains greater powers and financial incentives for such organisations, the numbers will begin to increase. They need greater powers to do what they are currently trying to do with limited powers. Until now, the efforts have focused on detecting the problem. The resources made available by this Government and the last Government have helped tremendously in financial terms, but it is like saying that we will deal with shop lifting and training special officers to do so, without having a law that provides a proper sanction for people who steal from shops. We do have

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such a law, by the way. I believe that providing local authorities with extra powers will help dramatically to reduce this crime.

As I have said, the most common consequence at the moment is the shrugging of shoulders. The tenant returns to the property and then disappears, fully able to commit the crime again. I have every reason to believe that there is consensus on this issue. I hope that that is confirmed by the Second Reading of this Bill. We need to help social landlords tackle the abuse of their stock, and I believe the Bill will dramatically help them to do so.

If I may crave your indulgence a little longer, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am looking you firmly in the face now, Sir, as is my duty and honour—I wish to point out that clause 1 will make it a criminal offence improperly to sub-let a social housing property. That will cover people who sub-let either part or the whole of their property, and those who no longer occupy a property but take part in what is known, in what we might call in the trade, as key-selling. That is when people get hold of a property and then sell their key—either physically or theoretically—to a new tenant. I am told that the cost of that is typically £2,000 to £4,000. They then pocket that money and disappear back to wherever they actually live, and the new family occupy the place.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I have a slight concern about the provision on those sub-letting part of a property. Local authorities are advising some people facing the potential bedroom tax that they could take in a lodger, in other words sub-let part of their property to avoid paying the additional costs, particularly if they cannot be rehoused. Could such people be caught by clause 1?

Richard Harrington: The hon. Lady asks a valid question. If I may crave her indulgence, I hope to convince her that that has been taken into consideration in the drafting of the Bill. We want to catch people who pretend that they are still occupying a property by using what is known as the airing cupboard option—they pretend that a little room is theirs and that they occupy it all the time. We want to catch those people, but not those who just let out a room.

In fact, the Bill states that people can sub-let with the landlord’s consent, and circumstances such as the hon. Lady mentions are quite genuine. Such sub-letting is good from a social point of view, because it adds to the number of people living in social housing without depriving other people of it. I hope that the drafting of the Bill takes care of that. If the Bill continues its passage, I hope she will be interested in taking part in the Public Bill Committee, where we can get down to the details of it, because she makes a good point.

Sir Roger Gale: I know that you abhor over-lengthy interventions, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I hope to avoid making a speech.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) raised a point that is very important in east Kent. We suffer from what I might describe as horizontal mobility. People move from household to household and change partners on a depressingly regular basis. They take in lodgers and then move to stay with a fresh partner, leaving the lodger behind with the tenancy and then possibly moving back in later. There seems to be a grey

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area in the Bill, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) and the Minister might wish to consider that in Committee. My personal preference would be to say that that should not be done at all, but will my hon. Friend take that point on board?

Richard Harrington: I thank my hon. Friend, and that certainly will be taken on board. The key to the drafting of the Bill is that it has to be clear about what is allowed and what is not. We have to avoid a lack of clarity, which would allow loopholes—I think the mixed cliché in the trade is “creating a chink of light to drive a coach and horses through it”. I hope Hansard records that, because I do not think I can say it again, but I think it is relevant in this case.

I certainly assure the House that in creating the new criminal offence, it is not my intention to fill prisons with thousands of people who sub-let their properties. It is designed as a tool with which local authorities can take action against tenants who have defrauded them, and to create an effective deterrent to prevent others from doing the same.

The criminalisation of this fraud is long overdue, and many housing associations have called for it for some time. In its response to the social housing fraud consultation, the Chartered Institute of Housing stated:

“The majority of housing providers CIH has spoken with agree that tenancy fraud should be a criminal offence”.

Some 90% of respondents to the Government’s consultation supported the new criminal offence, and in Watford both the community housing trust and borough council have welcomed it.

Any criminal conviction needs to be met with an appropriate and effective punishment. There has been a lot of consultation on this with the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. The Bill makes provision for sentences varying between a fine and a maximum two years’ custody. That strikes the right balance for the crime and will deter others from committing it. I cannot reiterate enough that, currently, anyone planning on sub-letting has nothing greater to fear than having to return the property, after which they can try somewhere else.

The Bill extends the power of prosecution for local authorities. They can currently prosecute when it is deemed to be in the interests of people in their area, but the Bill introduces more flexible powers and enables local authorities to prosecute the crimes laid out in the Bill on behalf of other local authorities. Different housing associations operate in different local authorities and across local authority borders, and the measure deals with that anomaly. In this world of joint partnerships, and of landlords coming together regionally and sub-regionally, we must give those who want to enforce the law those powers.

I keep mentioning landlords, by which I mean not private landlords with thousands of problems, but social landlords. The Bill gives social landlords the chance to get the money back and to use it to fund more anti-fraud work. That will provide an incentive and resource for local authorities to investigate more, which in addition provides a further deterrent. The National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association, which are important bodies in this field, support that measure.

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Lastly, by removing assured status from the housing associations that sub-let the whole property, the Bill makes it easier for landlords to gain possession when a tenant who has previously sub-let moves back in. Currently, if the landlord wants to end such a tenancy, they must prove to the court that it is reasonable to grant possession for breach of a tenancy agreement. The Bill will enable the landlord to end the tenancy by giving notice, which brings housing association tenants into line with local authority tenants. That anomaly has been used as a loophole, but under the Bill, landlords will have the same powers as local authorities.

It is a pleasure to present the Bill with support from so many colleagues from both sides of the House. It is fair to say that the sponsors of the Bill transcend the full political spectrum. I hope that that alone satisfies both the Housing and Local Government Minister and his shadow.

The results of the Government consultation have been put into the House of Commons Library today. The timing is a bit unfortunate, because I have not had time to read the Government response in full, but I understand there is an overwhelming consensus on the measures. I take comfort in the fact that most of those who have contacted me—80% to 90%— support the Bill.

During my research, I have spoken to so many different people, and I thank Joe Joseph of Peabody; Kevin Campbell-Scott, the fraud director at Southwark council; David Clayton and Stephanie Toghill of the Chartered Institute of Housing; and Paul Keogan of Westminster council. I could go on. All those people deal with these issues on behalf of social housing providers. I am not playing politics and the measure has not been dreamt up—there is a real grass-roots need for the Bill. Lest anyone believe that the Bill is London-centric, I have also spoken to Stoke-on-Trent city council and people from all over the place. They are all in favour of the Bill.

I should mention possible opposition to the Bill—one problem was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, who asked whether existing legislation is enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) said, there have been successful prosecutions, but they are few and far between, and not all organisations have the resources or expertise to conduct the kind of case that was conducted in his constituency. This my final quote—I will not read any more out. The Chartered Institute of Housing said:

“Some are already attempting to”

prosecute

“using the Fraud Act 2006 and they are keen to make use of any new legislation granted to enable them to tackle social housing fraud more effectively.”

I want to give local authorities the rights and powers to bring charges against those who defraud them, and the Bill would only enhance the work already being done and the local laws already in place.

I would have liked to include other subjects in the Bill, but I could not, at this stage, because extra consultation would have been required. I hope that the issue of information sharing, which, as was pointed out to me, is vital, can be rectified in Committee. There has also been discussion about introducing a framework on the intention to return—if people leave with the genuine intention to return for a genuine reason—but on consideration I

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decided that it was far too complex to introduce at this stage. I feel that these Bills need to be as simple as possible.

The lack of social housing is of great concern to all housing associations, to me and to the Government, and although I do not flatter myself by suggesting that the Bill would solve these problems in one go, it would provide local authorities with the opportunity to make use of the stock they have and not to incur unnecessary costs from providing homes to people who could otherwise live in this stock. It is estimated that on average it costs £18,000 a year to house a family in temporary accommodation and about £150,000 to build a new property for social housing stock. It is not acceptable that local authorities and housing associations have to meet these costs when they already have properties that could be used for these purposes, but which instead are being used by people to make money illegally—off the back not only of the taxpayer but of decent people living in temporary accommodation who need these properties.

I hope that the Bill will become an effective and lasting piece of legislation that will make a real difference by preventing such social housing fraud; will have the necessary measures to punish those who cheat and profit from the system; will create punishments that deter offenders; will help local authorities and prosecutions; and will allow social landlords—in a way, all of us—to recoup profits made by tenants in their properties and to use that money to provide more genuine social housing. The Bill aims to bring about a fairer system and rectify the anomaly whereby the incentive to cheat is so much greater than the risk of detection and the penalty incurred. It would also free up thousands of properties that could instead be given to hard-working individuals and families who play by the rules and deserve this social housing.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I point out to Members that we are under time constraints—a lot of Members want to speak, we will want to listen to both Front-Bench spokesmen and there is other business before us.

1.7 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): In the light of the number of people who want to speak, I will curtail my comments. I must start, however, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on how he has introduced the Bill and on picking such an important subject. I am sure that by getting the Bill through Parliament he will make a real difference to many hard-working families and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. That will be something of which he and his whole family will be proud and a legacy of his time in Parliament. I look forward to working with him and all other Members who have volunteered their time to support the Bill and its safe passage through Parliament in the months ahead.

Like my hon. Friend, I have many constituents who are desperate to put a decent roof over their families’ heads. There cannot be a single Member who does not, in their weekly or monthly surgeries, face heartrending

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stories of people who have been languishing on council waiting lists for long periods—hard-working people who are trying to do the right thing to look after their families but who cannot get decent accommodation—so any measure that enables us to use better the housing stock we already have must be welcomed.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is shameful that people who have benefited from a decent council home provided by a housing association are denying someone else that opportunity. Any measure that cracks down on that and introduces proper and effective deterrents is therefore to be welcomed.

The issue that I would like to raise with my hon. Friend is perhaps one that we can discuss further in the Bill’s progress. In my research for today, I noticed that some parts of the country are particularly good at identifying fraud. He mentioned London, but sadly there are other regions, such as the one that I represent, that are very bad at identifying fraud and taking action, yet I am sure that the research that has been carried out will show that the problem is occurring all over the country. The Government have recognised the problem and have launched the unlawful occupancy fund for 2011-12, to help local authorities with the resources needed to introduce mechanisms to detect such crime. The fund is worth £19 million and about 51 authorities are benefiting from it, but for such measures to be effective we need to see prosecutions all over the country.

If there could be just one prosecution in each local authority, the message would go out loud and clear to those thinking of entering into such fraud that they will be found out and that they will be prosecuted. I agree that the deterrents that are being introduced—fines and potential custodial sentences—will send out a strong message. However, I wonder whether in Committee we could look at ensuring that every local authority—particularly those in the south-west of England, which are clearly not making the most of the opportunities that already exist to detect such fraud—are encouraged to do so and given any available resources from the Government, so that we can quickly reach the point where there are prosecutions that act as a genuine deterrent.

That was the main point I wanted to make. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, and I look forward to ensuring that the Bill gets on the statute book, so that we can get on with securing more homes for people who really need them.

1.11 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on introducing what I believe will be a valuable piece of legislation that will ensure that those who need to have their accommodation provided for by housing associations or local authorities are given better access to the available housing stock. I say that because, without wishing to labour the points that other Members will no doubt make, the illegal sub-letting of social housing distorts the supply of limited and valuable housing stock, prevents those who most need social housing from securing it and, of course, rewards and motivates fraud. This Bill is about ensuring that the housing stock is used to best social effect. Given current pressures on the supply of, and demand for, housing, the Bill is also very timely.

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There is, of course, genuine difficulty in assessing the sheer scale of the fraud. The National Audit Office offers a figure in the region of £900 million a year, but this counts only fraud committed against local authorities and misses many of the sums lost to housing associations, which regrettably do not collect as many data. The true scale of the problem is therefore unknown. I would like to pay tribute to the largest housing association serving my constituency. Aster Communities is fortunate to suffer from relatively low levels of tenancy fraud, but that in no way makes it complacent. In fact, it is probably its vigilance and checks—these include collection and use of photos at sign-up, effective sharing of information protocols, and acting swiftly and rigorously on reported problems—that account for Aster Communities suffering from low levels of fraud locally.

Our experience from our constituency surgeries often gives us the opportunity to help housing associations to identify where there might be fraud. We are often the people who hear about it first from our constituents who, in many cases, are desperately seeking either accommodation in the first place or larger accommodation, but have not been able to access it. I have found from my constituency that residents are quick to tell me where they believe there is illegal sub-letting. In 2010—the year I was elected—only five three-bedroom family homes came forward for occupation via the local authority and housing associations in the Test valley part of my constituency, which means that families looking to move to larger accommodation often find themselves blocked by illegal sub-letting.

I vividly remember one such case, involving a gentleman in desperate housing need. He was a single father with three children, and they were living in significantly overcrowded accommodation. He used to update me regularly on the situation in the village that he wished to move to because of family connections—he was seeking assistance from his parents to look after the children. He e-mailed me daily with information on the road that he wanted to move to, telling me about a number of houses that he believed were being illegally sub-let. I duly reported all that to the housing association, but I was surprised to learn that my constituent was not deemed to be a priority because he was already the tenant of another housing association property in a different part of the region, which he had let out. That just proves that what goes around can also come around.

There is a need to get this Bill right, and with the intention of assisting in that aim, I wish briefly to mention an issue that I am sure the Minister will have anticipated. It has been difficult to obtain the submissions given to the consultation, yet the Bill Committee would certainly benefit from having access to that material. I understand that the Government have yet to publish all the submissions received, but I trust that that will not affect the efficacy of the final legislation, and that the Minister will ensure that all the submissions will be made available for consideration.

The Bill provides for many genuinely positive outcomes. The creation of a new criminal offence of illegal sub-letting will certainly be the biggest benefit. Local authorities will also have the power to prosecute those who illegally sub-let, and the Bill will ensure that the courts can recover fraudulently obtained funds. I believe that making illegal sub-letting a criminal rather than a civil offence will demonstrate the seriousness of abusing social housing

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in this manner, deter it as a practice, punish those who engage in it and protect housing stocks for those who are genuinely entitled to them.

Those who work in this field in my constituency—whether as lawyers servicing housing associations, or representatives of the associations themselves—have made a number of interesting points to me. In the course of our discussions, I was informed of a case in which a lady who was renting a social housing property had sub-let it and, subsequently, under a different name, obtained a second property for herself. This came to light when she moved into a property that she was able to own, having accrued thousands of pounds of illegal income over several years. There was no ability to recover those moneys, and the woman simply moved the illegal tenants out of the first property. The Bill will remedy such situations and make it far simpler for housing associations to deal with that kind of troublesome tenant. In the light of such blatant abuses, it is no wonder that associations such as the Guinness Trust are now piloting schemes in which officers are employed specifically to deal with tenancy fraud. That illustrates that the problem is growing, and that the Bill is therefore timely.

An important aspect of the Bill is the removal of the anomaly in the way that the law treats assured tenants and secure tenants. I commend my hon. Friend’s efforts to close that loophole. Social landlords with assured tenants are often disadvantaged owing to the loopholes that the Bill intends to close. I return to the case of my constituent to illustrate this point. The Bill will close the loophole and prevent assured tenants who have committed fraud from regaining their security of tenure, thus creating a level playing field between the two types of social tenant, and empowering housing associations to ensure that their properties are being put to best use.

There are of course some problems that the Bill cannot resolve, such as the difficulty of proving a tenant’s real intention—or otherwise—to return to a property. This is one of the defences regularly employed to prevent eviction, as intent is hard to prove in law. The Bill will be of enormous help to housing associations in that regard, because if they can prove that sub-letting is taking place, they will be much more likely to get a mandatory order for possession. That might encourage housing associations to seek possession.

I shall end as I began, by congratulating my hon. Friend and the Minister on bringing forward the Bill. It has cross-party support, and it is clearly welcome, timely and much needed.

1.19 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on introducing this Bill, which is very timely given the current housing crisis facing the nation. Sub-letting for financial gain prevents people from obtaining a home, and we support the Bill. Its proposals build on the work done by the previous Labour Government, as the hon. Gentleman said, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who launched the first ever national crackdown on the fraudulent sub-letting of social housing. Almost 150 councils signed up to that concerted effort, including every London council and every top-tier Labour council

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that was responsible for its own housing stock. Under that initiative, councils got a share of a Government grant of £4 million, which was established to assist local authorities in developing their own anti-fraud initiatives. Councils and housing associations were also given practical advice on how best to tackle this problem. The initiative made a considerable impact.

Before the last general election, Labour committed to making the unlawful sub-letting of social homes a criminal offence. There have, however, been a number of successful prosecutions in cases where tenancies have been unlawfully sub-let. The Fraud Act 2006 has been used by both Camden and Westminster councils, and the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) said his council had taken action using current legislation as well, but I think explicitly making unlawful sub-letting a criminal offence will assist local authorities to deal with the problem. This Bill will make that a reality. It will assist local authorities to extend the work they are already doing. It will provide them with an additional tool to address the problem, and thereby to make the best use of their existing housing stock.

Notwithstanding the horrendous examples of abuse that Members have outlined in this debate, it is important to put on the record a point that the hon. Member for Watford made in his contribution: the overwhelming majority of council and social housing tenants pay their taxes and play by the rules. It would be very wrong if we were in any way to stigmatise people living in council homes by giving the impression that large numbers of them are abusing the system. There is no evidence that that is the case.

Richard Harrington: May I confirm that I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s point? The fraudulent ones are, in effect, an insult to the vast majority of genuine tenants who pay their rents, pay their taxes and are in social housing by right.

Chris Williamson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments, and I think we both agree that it is important that we stress the fact that we are talking here about only a small minority of tenants. We must tackle their behaviour, in the interests of fairness and what is right.

The Bill has received cross-party support, and support from housing professional organisations and pressure groups, including the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association. The LGA posed a number of questions in a briefing note, to which I am sure all hon. Members will have had access, that could be addressed in Committee. For example, the briefing suggests that restitutionary payments should be made to social landlords where it has been found that a tenancy has been unlawfully sub-let. The LGA also perceives as narrow the definition of who would fall within the terms of the Bill and it seeks a wider one. Perhaps that could be taken into account as the Bill is scrutinised further in Committee.

I do not wish to strike a discordant note, because, as I have said, there is cross-party support for and cross-party sponsorship of the Bill. However, it is important to state that the Bill will not make up for the failure of the Government’s housing record. As the hon. Member for

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Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) rightly said, there is clearly a desperate need for social housing in this country. We need to step up to the plate, but the Government are not doing so at the moment. They will need to do that to address the housing crisis gripping the nation.

There is broad agreement on the fact that we are gripped by the worst housing crisis in a generation. Waiting lists are increasing all the time; I believe the hon. Member for Watford said that there are 4,000 people on the list in his local authority area. We therefore need to do more than is contained in the Bill, although it will make a helpful contribution to tackling the inadequate supply of affordable housing. A renaissance in house building would also have huge benefits for the wider economy in jobs and growth, which are vital to get the economy moving again. We need to get people back into work, and if the Government would only take the measures necessary to increase the supply of new housing, that would provide a benefit by addressing some social needs and helping economically; it would help to generate growth and jobs, which are desperately needed at the moment.

What was extremely unhelpful in dealing with the housing crisis was the fact that the Government decided to make a £4 billion reduction in the funding available for affordable housing, which led to a disastrous collapse of 97% in new social housing starts and a 68% collapse in affordable house building over the past year. Labour Members have warned the Government time and again that their policies would make the housing crisis worse. This Bill will go some way to dealing with the problem, but we need to go much further. Young people, families and elderly people have all been affected by the Government’s disastrous housing policies—that is the only way they can be described. Regrettably, the Minister for Housing and Local Government has refused to listen and has insisted that things are getting better when the evidence demonstrates that they are clearly getting worse—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I think that even the shadow Minister may sense that he is going a little wider than what is contained in the Bill, so perhaps he could focus on its contents.

Chris Williamson: I am grateful for that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will endeavour to abide by your guidance.

The Bill is helpful in dealing with a problem, particularly given that people are often being forced into private sector accommodation because of the inability to find suitable social housing. The hon. Member for Watford and others made the point that forcing people into more expensive and often less suitable accommodation is unhelpful and unfair to individuals in such circumstances. We must therefore take measures such as those contained in the Bill to protect people from rogue landlords and being trapped paying high rents, which make things difficult for them. Even if they aspire to move into an occupation, they cannot do so because the rents are so high that they cannot set aside the money necessary to build up the deposit. It is clear that the Bill will ease the pressure on the housing list if we can release more accommodation through it, but unless more social housing is provided, councils will have to place more people in

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the private rented sector, including in expensive bed and breakfasts, and that will lead to an increase in the cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, the impact of the Bill will be further undermined by the Government’s decision to reduce the rights of tenants by creating insecure tenancies. As Members will be aware, the Government plan to link rents to market prices, which undermines the very basis of social housing. Although if the Bill finds its way on to the statute book that will be good news, as it will increase the supply of social housing, we must consider the consequences if the rents charged in the social housing sector are so high that it becomes difficult for people to access it at entry level.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is going off at that angle. The point is that a small number of people are deliberately playing the system, either making money out of it or trying to hold on to properties. That is what the Bill is trying to deal with, not some of the more general challenges he is talking about in the context of social housing, which we all support. I am quite surprised by his speech.

Chris Williamson: The hon. Lady will concede that the hon. Members who have spoken so far have made the point that there is a desperate shortage in social housing and we therefore need to find ways to increase that supply. The need for the Bill is brought into sharp relief by the fact that there is such a dearth of social housing, particularly in certain parts of the country, where the waiting list runs into the thousands. For many people, the prospect of ever obtaining a social housing dwelling is virtually zero. It is therefore important that we set the proposal in its wider context. Members alluded to the suggestion that the Bill would go a long way towards eliminating and eradicating the problem of the insufficient supply of social housing. Clearly, it will not go anywhere near that so we need to take further measures to address the problem faced by millions of people in the country today.

Sarah Newton: I do not think that anybody on the Government Benches suggested that at all. The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that we make better use of the social housing that already exists. We are all absolutely aware that other measures need to be taken to address the wider issues that the hon. Gentleman is raising, and the Government are taking many of them, but today is not about a general debate on housing. The hon. Gentleman can raise that question in an Opposition day debate during their parliamentary time and it is very disappointing that he is bringing partisan points into something that is, generally speaking, a widely accepted and positive step forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Before the shadow Minister responds, I should tell him that although he is being masterful in doing so, he is straying into a wider debate on housing. I ask him to focus his attention on the contents of the Bill.

Chris Williamson: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion in any event. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for her intervention. I am sorry that

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she feels that I am striking a partisan note; all of us acknowledge, as she did in her intervention, that there is a much wider issue that needs to be addressed. I hope that we can get cross-party consensus on the importance of housing, and of ensuring that the Bill is just one of a number of measures that helps us to deal with the problems that confront far too many people in society.

We certainly welcome the Bill, but the Government must do better. Ministers should take steps to boost the number of new social homes, and abandon their proposals to abolish secure tenancies and to kick tenants out of their homes when they get a promotion or pay rise. They should make affordable housing genuinely affordable again, rather than proposing to link social housing rents to 80% of market rents. The problem with that proposal is that it will undermine the basis of the Bill; if rents are 80% of market rents, it will be a pyrrhic victory in some ways, because people moving into the dwellings will not be able to afford to go to work. We need to make work pay; that is an important goal, as all of us on both sides of the Chamber would agree.

We certainly welcome the general thrust of the Bill. I hope that the Government will support it, but go a lot further, and listen not just to Opposition Members but people right across the housing world. Our country faces a massive housing crisis. The Bill will act as a mere sticking plaster on the problem unless the Government step up to the plate, do better, ensure that we build the houses that people need, and ensure that the Bill has a much more meaningful impact on the availability of social housing in our society.

1.36 pm

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I do not want to speak for too long, but I want to say why, on one of our very important Fridays, which we spend in our constituencies, I am here in Parliament, supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) in his endeavours to ensure that the Bill becomes law. This is an incredibly important issue in all our constituencies, because we all know from our surgery appointments that constituents who come to us may be in social housing, but not the appropriate social housing. They need to find the appropriate housing for them and their families. They may be in two-bedroom accommodation although they have two children, who need separate bedrooms. They cannot move into homes that would be much more appropriate because, as has been said, many constituents are sub-letting those homes. That is why we should support the Bill. It is a small measure, but it could make a significant difference to so many people.

This is a matter of basic, common justice. Society as a whole has decided that some people should have the benefit of social housing, having qualified for that support. That is absolutely right; there are people who need that support. However, when they do not need to live in that home any more, because their family circumstances have changed, or they have moved to another part of the country for work, or whatever the reason might be—I am sure that many of the reasons are very innocent to start with—it is inappropriate and incorrect for them to sub-let their property fraudulently, instead of putting it back into the housing stock, where it is very much needed by people who would like to take it up. That is just common sense. Nobody could argue with the point that if a person is in a home that they no

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longer need, and are receiving from the state and society the benefit of living in that home, they should give it back to society. They have had the benefit of it; they should give it back, so that someone else can have that benefit.

Another point that I wanted to make derives from my work on the Work and Pensions Committee and the inquiries we have carried out on housing benefit. The Government and hon. Members in all parts of the House are keen to see the housing benefit bill come down. Housing benefit payments are based on the average market rental in an area. Where a tenant is sub-letting at a higher rent than they are paying to the social housing provider, because they are making some form of profit, or even if they are doing so at the same rent, the consequence is that they are distorting the market. That makes it harder to rein in the housing benefit bill, and makes it harder for people in genuine need who want to rent private sector properties to do so using housing benefit.

Dr Thérèse Coffey: I had a recent incident in my constituency. Residents in Aldeburgh were complaining that someone was renting out their social housing over the summer and raking in far more in one week than they were paying per month. This is the kind of thing we need to tackle.

Karen Bradley: My hon. Friend summarises the point well. We must make sure that such abuse of the system is not allowed. Even though it introduces small measures, the Bill will tackle those problems.

Finally, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford on the sensitive way in which he has dealt with the issue. The measure could easily be misinterpreted and be seen as an attack on social housing tenants. Other Members might have scaremongered about the issue. My hon. Friend has not done that. He has tackled it with great sensitivity. All social tenants should be reassured that the Bill is not an attack on them. It is trying to deal with the 150,000 social tenants who, we understand, are abusing the system, distorting the market and making it more and more difficult for people in genuine need to get the homes that are appropriate for them.

That I why I am here on a Friday to support the Bill. I very much hope that the Government and the official Opposition will support it so that it can become legislation as soon as possible.

1.41 pm

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). I join her in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on having selected this topic for his private Member’s Bill and on the way in which he introduced it today, giving the House the benefit of a detailed, coherent and compelling account of the background to the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford spoke with characteristic modesty, which is a very attractive trait but does not give an entirely accurate impression in his case. He spoke of leaving a small footnote. Having

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known him for many years, I would say he is somebody who finds it impossible to leave a small footnote behind him. He also spoke, again with modesty, about his academic legal career. I can tell the House from my own knowledge that that career encompassed at least one very rare achievement. His legal knowledge was no doubt reflected in how he introduced the Bill. Suffice it to say that he has convinced the House—he has certainly convinced me, as a sponsor of the Bill, that it deals with a real problem that is also widespread, although the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and others made the very good point that that is no reflection on the vast majority of social housing tenants, who are decent, honest people to whom it does not occur to carry out an illegal activity such as sub-letting.

It is as well to bear in mind that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the position not only of existing social housing tenants, but of the people who are in many ways the worst victims of such fraudulent activity—those on housing waiting lists, of whom there are a large number in my constituency, whose position I will deal with in a moment. There is a widespread view among housing associations and in the sector that this activity is not sufficiently covered by existing criminal sanctions. Indeed, there seems to be some doubt whether existing criminal law covers it. In those circumstances my hon. Friend is right to introduce the Bill, which makes it a definite criminal offence, avoiding the element of doubt whether the law captures the mischief in question. This is a definite measure aimed specifically at that mischief, and it should leave nobody in doubt about it.

I would like to know whether my hon. Friend the Minister envisages publicising this measure so that people will become aware of it and its deterrent effect on those who might become involved in this activity can be maximised. There is one other point on which I invite my hon. Friend, if he feels able to at this stage. The Bill would introduce two different offences, the first of which is dealt with more seriously than the second. The offence set out in clause 1(2) provides, on summary conviction, for a fine and possibly a prison sentence and, on conviction on indictment, for imprisonment of a term not exceeding two years, whereas the offence set out in clause 1(1) is triable summarily only and does not provide for a sentence of imprisonment. I guess the offence under subsection (2) is dealt with more seriously because it involves dishonesty. I invite my hon. Friend to comment, if he feels able to do so, on what sorts of factors he thinks prosecutors would take into account in deciding whether to bring a charge under subsection (2), rather than subsection (1), when they feel that dishonesty is present.

The impact of the Bill is clear and I hope that it will have a deterrent effect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford has envisaged. Certainly everyone in my constituency with whom I have spoken about the Bill thinks that it is a good idea. There is huge pressure on social housing in Hertsmere, as there has been for a long time under Governments of both descriptions. My hon. Friend pointed out that this type of offence is more prevalent in London than elsewhere in the country because of the particular pressure on housing there and the high market rents. The same considerations apply in my constituency. I guess that this offence is taking place in my constituency and hope that the Bill will go someway towards tackling it.

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As I mentioned, the people I think of in particular in this regard are those who are in housing need but are on the waiting lists that my local authority and housing association keep, many of whom have families. The local authority and housing association determine those cases on the basis of greatest need, whereas that consideration does not arise in the case of those who are sub-letting their properties. We need to take these needs into account. I saw a case only this week involving a large family with small children in great need—I will say no more about it than that—and there were compelling educational reasons for keeping the family in the locality. I am sure that all Members deal with such cases. It is the people on housing waiting lists waiting for one of these valuable social housing tenancies to come their way whom the Bill will benefit the most, especially as there appears to be a substantial number of such properties that are not getting into the right hands and have been diverted away from social housing, and which are also, by the way, causing significant problem for local authorities.

I think that my hon. Friend’s Bill deals with a real mischief and meets a real need. I think that it is an excellent Bill and am happy to promote it. I congratulate those on the Opposition Front Bench on the attitude they have taken towards the Bill itself, if I may put it like that, and I hope that it proceeds to Committee and receives proper consideration and eventually passes into law.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. May I start by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on his success in the ballot and on introducing this valuable Bill? It is one that the Government are happy to support, and I am sure that, with support across the Chamber, it will have the fair wind that it deserves. I congratulate him personally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) has just done, on the way in which he has brought it forward and put his case. He made a carefully argued, powerful and deeply felt speech, which I think says a great deal about him, because he has sought to deal with this important issue in a serious and constructive manner.

I knew my hon. Friend for a long time before he became a Member, and I, too, know the qualities that he brings to the House. It is easier for some of us than for others to leave a small footprint, but I am sure that he will leave a large footprint in this place and be here a good number of years to ensure that this Bill is by no means his only achievement in the House. It is, however, a very powerful and impressive start, because he hits upon a serious issue.

I shall not dwell on the history, but I observe that the issue was recognised even before the coalition came into office, and I note my hon. Friend’s attempts to engage with a former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who has always known when to be partisan and when not to be in relation to this issue.

The Government have recognised that there is a problem not only by bringing in the consultation, which was discussed prior to the general election, but by increasing grant aid funding to local authorities over

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four years from £4 million under the previous Administration to £19 million under this one; by setting up a team of experts, based at the Chartered Institute of Housing, to offer free, practical advice to social landlords on how to tackle fraud in their housing stock; and by setting up a framework agreement to help local authorities to use credit reference agencies and data matching more effectively and cheaply.

Practical things are already being done, but real concern remains about abuse, which all of us will have come across in our constituencies and which has been highlighted on the television and in various aspects of the media. In some cases the sums involved are quite egregious, and in others fraud is carried out on what can fairly be described as a professional or near-professional basis. That is the abuse which rightly needs to be tackled. Members on both sides of the House have observed that this is a fraud not only on the public purse, but on the vast majority of social housing and council housing tenants who are honest, and above all on the people on the waiting list, who are done out of the home that is fraudulently let. We are therefore happy to support the Bill.

There are difficulties with the current law—an issue my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) raised in an intervention. He is not in his place, but I must tell the House that I too was a lawyer. He was an academic lawyer before having a distinguished career in business, and I was a criminal barrister—some people say, “Aren’t they all?” but I did spend 25 years in the criminal courts of this country, so I recognise that despite the successes from time to time when using the existing legislation, there were gaps in its effectiveness. When I was a prosecutor and a defender in such cases, the difficulty seemed to be that neither the offence of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception nor light fraud offences wholly fit these circumstances, because the deception does not operate upon the mind of the tenant—the illegal sub-tenant in this case—who parts with the money.

So making the activity fit the definition is not easy, and similarly, because the Theft Act 1968 involves the appropriation of property belonging to another, there is a difficulty in this case with the appropriation taking place at one point while the mind, or any element of dishonesty, operates on a different person—and one has to prove the intention permanently to deprive as well. The means of taking forward any such case is therefore slightly convoluted, and that is why everybody on both sides agrees that a tailor-made offence is the surest and safest way to proceed.

On the legal aspects, a point was made about the distinction between indictable and summary-only offences, and about the issues of knowledge as opposed to dishonesty. It is ultimately for the local authority, as the prosecuting authority, to take a decision on this matter. They have access to the general guidelines that the Attorney-General issues for Crown prosecutors, which are well known from Archbold’s “Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice”, the standard text in this regard. One would expect the lesser offence to be appropriate where a lesser gain is involved, and there is discretion to consider that. The nature of the behaviour may well affect the degree of dishonesty, and it is sensible to make that distinction. In some situations, a tenant might know that they were in breach of the tenancy agreement. Given that it is pretty standard for any tenancy agreement on which a

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public body lets out houses to have a clause expressly stating that sub-letting is forbidden without the written consent of the landlord, a tenant who breaches that will often do so knowingly.

In some cases, no money will have been made or the tenant will have moved out and sub-let to a friend rather than handing the keys back. However, that still deprives the social landlord—the local authority—of the ability to let the property to the person who is highest on the waiting list in terms of housing need. That is why this offence can incur a financial penalty. Where a rogue tenant goes in, that may be because the occupier’s own personal circumstances have changed so that they no longer feel in need of the social subsidised property and therefore let it out to make a profit. That is clearly a dishonest activity, and it is right that it should potentially be visited by imprisonment.

Mr Clappison: My hon. Friend is giving the House the benefit of a clear explanation of the difference between the two types of offences and what could be taken into account in determining how to prosecute. Does he agree that in order to avoid people casually letting out tenancies to friends, perhaps without great profit, and to maximise the deterrent effect on those who try to make a large profit by letting out tenancies, it should be made clear to tenants, on taking on the tenancy, that they will be committing a criminal offence and face the penalties in the Bill if they sub-let in the circumstances that it outlines?

Robert Neill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful and sensible point about deterrence. We in the Department, together with the Local Government Association, other local authority bodies and the social rented sector, will want to take this forward.

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Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Bill includes provision for an unlawful profits order, which strengthens and makes more specific the provision for an order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That means that someone can not only be fined or, in a bad case, go to prison, but can have the unlawful profit taken from them and returned to the social housing provider, as well as losing their status as an assured tenant. These are powerful sanctions that have not been drawn together before, and that is a great strength of the Bill. I should point out for the benefit of anyone who is anxious about this that an honest person who lets in a lodger will not be caught because in such cases the agreement of the landlord is secured and no difficulty arises.

I hope that that is a proper argument on which the Bill can proceed and that I have made it clear that the Government want to give it a fair wind. It is by no means, of course, the only area where the Government are determined to act to improve the affordable housing situation. We inherited a lamentable record of affordable housing starts, and we have been working hard to improve that through our affordable homes programme, which will provide up to 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. [Interruption.] Nevertheless, the Bill is a valuable piece of legislation in its own right.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I was about to interrupt in order to say that those were wonderful statistics, but that the Minister seemed to be straying down the same path as the shadow Minister. However, he has clearly now finished.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63.)

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International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill

Second Reading

1.59 pm

Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The world is in a state of continual change, with economies being reshaped and new Governments being formed, but the one constant is the stain on the conscience of the developed world: poverty. Having succeeded in the private Members’ ballot, I decided to introduce a Bill to ensure that the Government’s commitment to enshrine in law development assistance spending of 0.7% of gross national income was honoured. That pledge was made in the election manifestos of all three main political parties, and after the election it was included in the coalition agreement. The Bill would also toughen the remit of the independent body established to monitor the effect of aid spending.

The Secretary of State for International Development has stated that the Government Bill to implement this pledge is drafted and ready to go, and that the delay is due only to limited parliamentary time.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Would it not be a good idea for this measure to come forward as a Government Bill in the time in September that would have been allocated to Lords reform, but will not now be spent on Lords reform?

Mark Hendrick: All Governments, including the last Labour Government, have tremendous pressures on their time. However, this pledge was made by all three main political parties before the election, so there should not be a great deal of controversy. The Minister will speak for himself, but I know that the Government are keen for legislation to be passed on this matter, like all other mainstream political parties. I am sure that the Government would not want to be seen to be using the lack of parliamentary time as an excuse for not getting the Bill on to the statute book before the next election. We certainly do not want that to happen.

This Bill gives the Government the opportunity to legislate on this matter. The draft of the Government Bill was not forthcoming, so I put my Bill together based on a similar draft Bill that was published before the last general election by the previous Secretary of State for International Development. I have added other measures which, having spoken to the Minister earlier today, seem to be acceptable to the Government. Obviously, minor amendments may be needed if the Bill makes it through to Committee. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I hope that he and his colleagues will give the Bill a safe passage today.

The Bill would not only reaffirm Britain’s commitment to the world’s poorest people, but take party politics out of the debate about aid spending for the long term. That is important because the measure of any society—we are talking about the human race as a whole—is the degree to which it helps and works with its disadvantaged people. The fact that all three parties agree with that makes me optimistic that the Bill will make progress. I genuinely want an all-party approach. This issue must not be kicked into the long grass because of ideology or

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electioneering. Politicians from all parts of the House must realise that by supporting the Bill, they would be fulfilling the hope and trust that millions of the world’s poorest people have put in Britain to make their lives better.

With the current economic hardship in Europe and the world’s wealthiest nations, it would be easy to dismiss a commitment on international aid spending, but those problems pale into insignificance compared with the fight for basic survival of people in the developing world.

For the Opposition, putting an international aid commitment into law would fulfil our values and our belief in helping those who need it most. Our history is built on battles against injustice, and until we make commitments backed by action, we will continue to let down those most in need of our assistance.

Let us imagine being unable to pay for the drugs necessary to help a sick child, or medicines not being available at all. Let us imagine not knowing where our next meal will come from, or living in a war-torn country with no basic infrastructure to support communities. Those problems are vast. The solution is not easy, but we can neither shirk our responsibilities nor shrink from the monumental task before us. The people snared in poverty’s trap cannot afford inaction.

In 1970, United Nations General Assembly resolution 2626 committed all economically advanced countries to providing 0.7% of their gross national income as official development assistance. The coalition agreement states:

“The Government believes that even in these difficult economic times, the UK has a moral responsibility to help the poorest people in the world. We will honour our aid commitments, but at the same time will ensure much greater transparency and scrutiny of aid spending to deliver value for money for British taxpayers and to maximise the impact of our aid budget.”

It continues:

“We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law.”

As I have said, there is concern that given the parliamentary agenda, there may be difficulty in getting time to secure that legislation. The Bill presents an opportunity to do that.

The UK remains committed to meeting the 0.7% target, but as we know, it has not yet done so. The Bill would therefore impose a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that the UK meets the 0.7% target in 2013 and each subsequent calendar year. It provides that whether the target has been achieved will be determined by reference to the overseas development assistance and gross national income figures reported to Parliament annually in accordance with the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006.

The Bill would require the Secretary of State to lay a statement before Parliament in the event that the UK failed to meet the 0.7% target in any calendar year from 2013. That would mean that the Secretary of State’s accountability for his duty to meet that target would be to Parliament alone.

Clause 1 covers the duty on the Secretary of State to meet the 0.7% United Nations target from 2013. Clause 2 sets out his duty to lay a statement before Parliament if that target is not met. It states that he must do so if his annual report laid before Parliament in 2014 or any subsequent year shows that the UK has not reached the

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target in the year to which the report relates. It also provides for the possibility that figures in an annual report may be revised. Subsection (2) states that if a revision is made to any year’s figure meaning that it no longer meets the 0.7% target, the Secretary of State must then lay a statement.

Clause 2(3) provides that a statement must explain why the 0.7% target has not been met, and that it may refer to economic or fiscal circumstances that have had an impact. It may also refer to the impact of

“circumstances arising outside the United Kingdom”,

for example the failure of a foreign Government to achieve the targets necessary to trigger debt relief. On the requirement for the Secretary of State to lay the statement before Parliament, he or she must describe in it any steps that have been taken to ensure that the 0.7% target will be met in the following calendar year.

Mr Bone: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being very generous and making a powerful speech. If we are in a recession, as we have been, does the 0.7% commitment mean that the amount of overseas aid will go down?

Mark Hendrick: Yes, it does. We are talking about percentages. If we have growth, the overall budget will increase in real terms, but the percentage will stay the same. If GNI contracts because we are in recession, the real amount will fall, but the percentage will stay the same. The Bill maintains a percentage commitment, not an absolute commitment in real terms.

Clause 4 provides for the repeal of the Secretary of State’s duty in section 3 of the 2006 Act to forecast when the 0.7% target will be met. That repeal takes account of the Secretary of State’s new duty—in clause 1 —to ensure that the UK meets the 0.7% target from 2013 onwards.

Finally, clause 5 sets up a new body, which for the purposes of convenience I have called the independent international development office. The new body would bear a great deal of relation to the current Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which the Secretary of State rightly set up just over a year ago to answer to the Select Committee on International Development so that it can oversee the effectiveness and efficiency of aid administered throughout the world. The new body would keep a much closer eye on the Department and its performance, and it would have a statutory footing—it would be established in law.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I support a lot of what the hon. Gentleman tries to do in the Bill, but I am concerned about clause 4. I wonder why we are duplicating functions, but the Bill also mentions

“a pre-appointment hearing by, and with the consent of, the International Development Committee”.

To almost resurrect a discussion on other Bills, why does he believe that this extra obligation of monitoring the Department is not the job of the Select Committee and Parliament as a whole? Why do we need that external body?

Mark Hendrick: If the Government’s commitment is written into law—the intention is that Governments of whichever party must keep to it—the body needs a statutory footing, which the current Independent Commission

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for Aid Impact does not have. The new body will also mean much tighter scrutiny: it will be able to oversee the work of the Department in a way that the current ICAI cannot because it does not have a statutory basis. I accept the hon. Lady’s point on procedures arising from the Bill, but we can iron those out in Committee should the Bill make progress.

It is right, during a time of hardship, that we continue to fight against poverty. I urge the House to grasp the opportunity and to support my Bill. That will fulfil not only a pre-election promise but, more importantly, a promise to fight, and one day to fulfil, that dream of eradicating poverty.

2.13 pm

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): Today stands to be one of the most important days in the history of international development. The United Nations and other organisations have been campaigning for more than 30 years to put a fixed figure on what wealthier countries should spend in the aid they give to those who are less fortunate. Today, the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) has moved a Bill that would establish just that. We bear him no grudge for pipping the Government to the post by moving the Second Reading of a Bill that would enshrine in law our having to spend 0.7% of our national income on official development assistance. He has beaten our Bill for reasons the House well understands, but I assure him that our Bill is ready and that we have—or had—every intention of putting it to the House. To a large extent, the first half of his Bill is almost identical to what we would have tabled.

Mr Bone: The Minister makes a powerful point in welcoming the Bill and saying that it should be for Government time. Does he agree that this is such an important Bill—by any standards, it is a major shift in policy—that it should have priority over Lords reform so that we can get it properly debated in the House?

Mr Duncan: I well understand my hon. Friend’s relative affection—or lack of—for either pieces of legislation, but this is almost a one-clause Bill. The principle is clear and well understood, but we would be delighted, were the House minded to give the Bill a Second Reading, to see him in Committee to discuss his concerns in detail. And, of course, there will be Report and Third Reading.

I want to make it clear to the hon. Member for Preston that Her Majesty’s Government support the Bill and have no intention of opposing it. We would like it to go into Committee, and hope that, in a few minutes, that is what will happen. Having said that, we only saw his Bill yesterday, and I saw that it fell into two distinct parts, the first of which we agree with. It is what we are setting out to do; it is in the coalition agreement and is agreed by all parties in the House—it will enshrine the 0.7% figure in law.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand, however, if we do not agree with the second part of the Bill, which would set up an independent international development office. To all intents and purposes, we have done that already by setting up the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which is working well and is inexpensive and effective. We believe that his proposal would do the same thing, with no particular added

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value, but at a higher cost. I hope, therefore, that, just as we welcome the introduction of his Bill, he will, in the spirit of give and take, accept our argument about removing this part of the Bill, so that we can focus on the 0.7% target and concentrate on the search for value for money and transparency in all that we do.

Mark Hendrick: I am sympathetic to what the Minister says. Does he not feel, however, that putting this body, whatever its name, on to a statutory footing would give it more teeth and greater powers over access to information from the Department that could be provided to the Select Committee? As a purely independent body without a statutory position, it is a weaker animal.

Mr Duncan: I understand the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but we are not persuaded by it because we believe that the body we have set up is working well and has adequate powers. Given the debate in this country about how much we spend on international development, it is essential that we are seen to spend it on those poor people who need the benefit of our spending on overseas development and assistance, rather than on this sort of body, which, under his proposal, would cost more. I think that with the current system we can achieve the same thing for less.

There is a debate in this country—we must respect it—about whether, in a time of austerity, we should be committing to spending 0.7% of our national income on official development assistance. I believe that everyone in this country can hold their heads high, both in the UK and when they travel abroad, because of what we are doing. If the Bill is passed, we will become the first seriously wealthy country to commit to spending in this way. The results we are getting across the world—in terms of saving lives, vaccinating children and ensuring that mothers and their children do not die in childbirth—are something of which we can be enormously proud.

We in the Department for International Development strive to get value for money. We have reviewed everything we do—from our bilateral relationships, where we have direct aid programmes in individual countries, to all our subventions and payments to multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations agencies and the global fund—not just with a view to ensuring value for money across our budget, but in a way that makes lots of other countries copy what we are doing, so that across the world others do what we do. Often, where DFID and the UK Government lead, others follow. By leading on 0.7%, I hope that others—who are falling way behind that figure—will follow what we do.

One of the great and most important principles of development is that we need continuity. It is no good darting into a development programme one year and abandoning it the next. Continuity and certainty of programmes over a number of years are essential to securing good development outcomes. That is why we have committed to budgets over four years—we have operational plans, so that we can follow through what we want to achieve from now to the end of 2014 and beyond—and why a Bill such as this, which commits us to spending 0.7% of our national income, is so important. There are few of us who, even if we were down to our last £100, would not give one of those hundred pounds to someone dying in the street. That, in proportion, is pretty well all that we are trying to do with this Bill.

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I hope that the House will give it the Second Reading it deserves today, so that the United Kingdom can be proud of being the first country to do what so many people have been campaigning for for so long.

2.21 pm

Sir Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): I do not intend to speak for long, because I want to ensure, if possible, that the Bill gets its Second Reading today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), not only on coming so high in the ballot, but on choosing a topic that I can only describe as—to repeat, to some extent, what the Minister said—one of the great issues of our time. Let me also say how pleased I am that the Government are supportive—even if for only half of the Bill—and determined, as I and many others are, that it gets on the statute book. However, there are some forgotten people as well. We should not forget the millions of people outside this Chamber who have campaigned on the issue—people from non-governmental organisations and all sorts of other organisations—and for whom, if the Bill goes through, it will be a dream come true.

People talk about the effectiveness of aid, but let me give the House just one statistic that comes to mind when people ask whether it does any good. As a result of aid involving malaria nets and all the work done with medicines and so on, over the last 10 years a third of the African children who would have died from malaria have not done so. There are many justifications for the Bill. We hear about how it can help deal with migration and terrorism, and about how it is good for business and trade, but at the end of day, we are doing this because it is the right thing to do. Recently I was in Zambia. We went from Lusaka down to Choma, and then out into the bush country—not even on roads, but through long grass and so on—to a little village. We saw mothers there who were pulling clean water from a well that had been provided by overseas aid. The look on their faces! When the words of one of those mothers were translated into English, we heard that she was simply saying how pleased she was that her children were not sick—that they had clean water and were disease-free.

This Bill is the right thing to do morally, but—to pick up the point the Minister made—it also puts the UK on the moral high ground where it deserves to be. That will enable us to say, in bilateral or multilateral negotiations with other countries, that we are the first country in the world to do this.

The Bill is important for us as a Parliament, for the Government and for the Opposition. It is important for the United Kingdom, but far more than that, it is important for millions of people in some of the poorest countries of the world. It is for them that we are doing this, and I hope that the House will support the Bill.

2.25 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham), and to welcome the Bill that has been introduced by the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick). He made a powerful speech, but I am afraid that he did not have as much time as he might have liked. That is what is wrong today. We have half an hour

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for a Second Reading debate on a major piece of legislation that represents a huge step change in the way in which Governments have looked at overseas aid over the years. We have spent several hours talking about scrap metal dealers, which I am sure is an important issue, but it is not as important as what we are discussing now.

This should be a Government Bill. The Government should have introduced it and made the arguments for it, so that we could have had proper discussions on it and heard all the views. The Chamber is not packed today because people did not realise that this Bill would be reached. I have reservations about the Bill, but I believe that it needs to have a proper airing and a chance to get on to the statute book. I am not convinced that the private Member’s Bill route is the way to do that, but the hon. Member for Preston was right to introduce it and to put pressure on the Government in this way.

I heard what the Minister said earlier. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented Ministers in the Government, and, as an aside, I would say that if we were not in a coalition, I believe that he would be a Secretary of State in his own right. However, on what is probably a wet Friday afternoon—I am not sure whether it is raining outside—this Bill is not the best way to deal with this issue.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): If my hon. Friend takes the view that this is an admirable Bill, and if all sides agree on it, would it not be better just to get on with it and allow it a Second Reading? In that way, the Bill could be introduced, with a full debate later. It is better to do that than to delay it in any way at all.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend makes a powerful intervention, but she is absolutely wrong. The whole point of Parliament is that we discuss these matters in detail and hear every point of view. I am not saying that this is an admirable Bill; the Minister has said that it has serious flaws.

Mark Hendrick: Is the hon. Gentleman not making the best the enemy of the good by insisting that the Bill should be introduced as a Government Bill?

Mr Bone: I am taking a purely parliamentary view of the matter at this stage. I do not think that major

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changes in policy should go through in half an hour on Second Reading. There are Government hand-out Bills that can, of course, go through in half an hour on Second Reading, but we should not do that with a measure that seeks to change policies that Governments have dealt with for years and years.—

Mr Duncan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words a moment ago, but the clock is ticking. I can assure him that I believe the Bill will, in effect, be cut in half. It will go down to one clause, which will provide for the 0.7% to which all parties have committed in their manifestos. May I appeal to his good nature and implore him to let the Bill go through on Second Reading today? I really implore him to do that, for the good of the many people in the world who need our help.

Mr Bone: I hear the Minister’s pleas. If he is serious—no, of course he is seriously committed to this. So is the Prime Minister and so is the coalition, so it has to be a Government Bill, done properly through this House.

In a Second Reading debate, we have to discuss the principles involved, so let us start with one of them. This is not intended to be a party political point. Overseas aid as a proportion of gross national income was at its lowest point in 1999, under the Labour Government, when it stood at 0.24%. [Interruption.] The Labour Government had 13 years when, if they had wanted to, they could, in those boom years, have increased the overseas—[Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) want to intervene, or does he want to chunter from the Front Bench? This Bill can come back on another day and be debated properly.

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 7 September.

Business without Debate

bank of england (appointment of governor) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 July), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 7 September.

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Green Belt (Broxtowe)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Goodwill.)

2.30 pm

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): May I begin by saying that I very much hope that this place changes its procedures so that one person cannot thwart a measure on which there is so much cross-party agreement?

I am grateful to have secured this debate. In my maiden speech, I referred to the green belt in my constituency. We do not have a great deal of it, as it has been developed over the years. As a result, the only land now available for development in Broxtowe is either brownfield or green-belt land; we have no greenfield land at all. We are the most densely populated borough in Nottinghamshire, and one of the most densely populated in the east midlands.

In my maiden speech, I referred to the threat to the green belt from development and from open-cast mining. I anticipated that there might be an application by UK Coal. I wish my prediction had been false, but, unfortunately, UK Coal has now made an application for an open-cast mine. I shall briefly address that issue at the end of my speech.

The real threat to the green-belt land in my constituency comes from development, however, and most notably from the borough council’s aligned core strategy document, which is currently out for public consultation. I know the Minister will be interested to hear my observations, which are supported by many of my constituents. We have had many public meetings, some called by me and others by Broxtowe residents. There is absolute agreement about the form that accompanies the so-called public consultation. I believe it is a form that we inherited, so I am not casting aspersions on my own Government alone; this form is a fault of all. It must be almost impossible for anybody to fill in the form with confidence unless they are either an agent or an extremely experienced clerk to one of our brilliant town or parish councils. I urge the Government to look at such forms and the notes that accompany them. When we ask for a public consultation, please can we make sure that ordinary people can fill in the forms that are provided, so that they can truly make their voices heard?

This aligned core strategy document that is out for public consultation in Broxtowe utterly contradicts the national planning policy framework, in which the Government have set out what I believe is an excellent policy on the green belt, and which stresses the need to protect it. I secured a 90-minute debate on green-belt land in Westminster Hall. I will not rehearse the history of the green belt and the reasons it is so special. It was introduced specifically to prevent urban sprawl, so that our communities kept their own identity and there was not coalescence.

In a letter to me dated 22 June, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), succinctly explains the following:

“The Government attaches great importance to the Green Belt. Our new National Planning Policy Framework provides strong protection to the Green Belt, and explains that only in exceptional circumstances should a Green Belt boundary be amended.

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The Framework not only reaffirms policy on the permanence of Green Belt and the need to protect it from inappropriate development, it also makes clear that policies protecting Green Belt are not overridden by the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The presumption should work through, not against, the Local Plan, and of course it is in Local Plans that Green Belt is designated.”

People throughout Broxtowe know that their green-belt land is seriously under threat within the borough because of this document produced by the borough councils and the other councils that form the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board—again those are not exactly words that trip off the tongue and are easily identified by ordinary people.

At its heart, the document is about setting a housing target that would mean that some 6,150 houses would be built within Broxtowe. The problem, as I have explained, is that we have only green-belt and brownfield land. We know that we have enough brownfield land for between 3,000 and 3,500 houses, which means that the remaining 2,000-plus houses would have to built on our green-belt land. My campaign began in 2008-09, before I came to this place, and when I have criticised the acceptance of this housing target, as I did recently, I have been accused of many things. I have been accused of telling lies and of scaremongering. I have been told that I am talking rubbish. I have actually been told that I should not poke my nose into these things because I do not know what I am talking about. I believe that I have some understanding of the consequences of what is in this document, but in any event it is absolutely my duty as the local Member of Parliament to come to this place on behalf of the people I represent and say what their view is. It is my duty to represent their views, not just here, but in my work in the constituency, in opposition to that target, because I believe firmly and fundamentally that the Government’s policy of protecting our green belt from development is absolutely right.

I know that the Labour party also takes the view that green-belt land should be properly protected and should not be developed, except in exceptional circumstances. I have asked the Minister for an explanation and an understanding of what “exceptional circumstances” or “very special circumstances” might amount to. My fear is that if a housing target is deemed to have been set and to be both legally compliant and sound, that will override Government policy. With great respect to the Government, may I say that that is going to put us in a very difficult position? If we do not resolve this, the fine words of Ministers across the board and up to the Prime Minister, who has talked about how special green-belt land is and why it must be specially protected, and the fine words in the national planning policy framework will all ring hollow. Those words will also be hollow if councils such as Broxtowe’s are allowed to establish a figure that they cannot meet without building thousands of homes on green-belt land.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Is it not the case that, unfortunately, because of some of the earlier campaigns about the NPPF, some developers and councils keen to have housing—no bad thing in itself—are blaming the Government by saying, “The Government are allowing us to build all over the place”? That is not the message of the NPPF, which respects the environment. I think that my hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of her constituency and her constituents.

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Anna Soubry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, but the difficulty is that it matters not what Ministers say—although they are important words, of course—unless we resolve the contradictions with the NPPF. Organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England have accepted that it protects our green open spaces, but it will count for nothing unless we resolve the conflict between what is said here and what is happening out in the real world.

Last night, I went to a meeting in Greasley that had been organised not by me—to those who say I am stirring up trouble, I say that I did not organise it—but by a gentleman by the name of Neil Hutchinson. I walked into a parish hall, which was packed. People were almost having difficulty getting in, such was the strength of feeling and the opposition to the council’s plans. It has set the target and has not got the land to fulfil what it says is the need.

I want to make it very clear that Broxtowe has formed a board with Nottingham city, Erewash, Rushcliffe—although it withdrew from the process and has set its own housing target—Gedling and parts of Ashfield covering the parts of the county to the north. They have taken up the target together. The overall target was initially established by the old regional spatial strategies, which I know the Government are trying to abolish, but those councils have supposedly looked at the housing need for the whole of Greater Nottingham, and that is the problem. Broxtowe has not looked at its own housing need and neither has it worked with its local communities. Neighbourhood plans have been mentioned only in the past two or three months. They had been ignored, despite my protestations, until recently, so we have not had all the great things that the Government want to do to bring communities together to determine their neighbourhood plans.

The first site proposed in the document is a green-belt site at Stapleford. Again, I went to a public meeting in a pub that, again, was standing room only. People were cross and angry. That meeting had been arranged by a couple of local people and I should give full credit to them—they are a woman called Jennie Phillips and a man called Richard McRae. He has delivered hundreds, indeed thousands, of leaflets to bring people together to have their say. People are angry that the first site that has been proposed is a piece of green-belt land.

We then move to other communities in my constituency, such as Greasley, which has been lumped into Eastwood and told that 1,400 houses will built in that area. None of the sites has been identified, however. Equally, we find that Kimberley now encompasses Watnall and Nuthall. Again, the figure that has been given is 600 but none of the sites has been identified. We know that there are green-belt sites there and our fear is that they are all now liable to be developed. We know that because we know what happened to Toton, which has a large piece of green-belt land that stops the sort of coalescence between communities that green-belt land was designed to prevent. At Toton, a green belt site had been proposed by the council as a preferred site and when the people rose up in anger, it was taken off the list. It has been made vulnerable, however, and we know that because we anticipate that a planning application will be made some time next month for 800 houses. So, green-belt land is being proposed before even brownfield sites.

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Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is a famous champion of the green belt in Broxtowe and is speaking knowledgeably and passionately. She is making a local point and, through that, highlighting a national issue. Does she agree that local people up and down the country are worried and anxious about how to protect their green belt?

Anna Soubry: Absolutely. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point because the danger when we have such debates about our constituencies is that people could say it was all about Broxtowe. Of course I champion my constituency, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments in that regard, but the question has huge implications, as identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Unless we ensure that there is no conflict between our stated policy of protecting our green belt and what is happening in the real world, all those fine words will ring hollow.

People will say, “Why is this being done? Why is the borough council—and the Lib Dems and Labour, who control it—doing this in the face of so much opposition?” The borough council talks about need; I have addressed the fact that it has looked at the housing market in the whole of Greater Nottingham, but now it seems that the planning inspectors, who are, at the end of the day, Government inspectors, are being blamed. In a letter, Councillor Steve Barber, the chair of the Greater Nottingham Joint Planning Advisory Board and a Broxtowe councillor, says:

“Our consultants and experts came up with a much higher housing figure”.

He does not actually say which figure it is higher than, but that does not matter; what matters is what follows:

“and the inspector indicated to us that in the absence of striking new evidence, he will not accept any lower than this.”

“This” is the overall figure given for Greater Nottingham, which councils have literally divvied up among themselves. I have looked at various minutes—I have some here—to see where the inspector has said that he wants “striking new evidence” before he will accept any lower figure, and I cannot find that comment. I have asked for evidence of that statement, and it is yet to be forthcoming.

My real message to the Minister is this. I do not know whether he is able to contact Keith Holland, the planning inspector, who I know is a very senior inspector, but it strikes me that what is needed is for the Minister to write to him, or arrange a meeting with him, so that I or perhaps others can discuss directly with the inspector what is happening in Broxtowe, and how Broxtowe can offer a figure that in some way matches up to the availability of non-green-belt land, so that we do not find ourselves in a position where so much of our green belt is under threat from development.

I also ask the Minister to give good, firm guidance to all inspectors throughout the country—this is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones)—to ensure that full, proper advice is given to our inspectors in their work with local authorities, so that local authorities are not putting in danger our green belt and flying in the face of our national planning policy framework document, and the words and policy of this Government—a policy of protecting our green belt.

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As ever, the clock is against me. I quickly want to say that the other threat to the green belt in Broxtowe is from an application from UK Coal that the county council will consider in September. The public consultation is completed. The application would allow, at a 325-acre site in a place called Shortwood, between Cossall and Trowell, the extraction of 1.5 million tonnes of coal and fireclay, which—if you can believe it, in this day and age, Mr Deputy Speaker—would be put into heavy goods vehicles, at a rate of some eight movements an hour. Those vehicles would go all the way along congested roads to the M1, and then to a coal-fired power station and back. I am reliably informed that it would take that power station about four months to burn that coal, which it would take more than five years to extract; it would take another year to restore the area. One wonders whether, in this day and age, that is worth it. In my judgment, that is certainly not right.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker for allowing me the time I have taken to speak. I look forward, as ever, to the Minister’s contribution.

2.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this debate, and on the typically thoughtful way in which she made the case on behalf of her constituents. I understand the concern that she, her constituents and many other people have about potential threats, general or specific, to the green belt. Like me, my hon. Friend is a lawyer, and she will know that in planning matters, there is a legal process that is gone through, both in the plan-making process and in the consideration of individual applications. Planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate—although it acts in the Secretary of State’s name, it has operational independence—Ministers and the Secretary of State, who has a role, potentially, in appeals processes, all play a part in that quasi-judicial process, so propriety means that we are not in a position to comment on individual applications; I know that she will understand that. The plan-making process has to go through a specific set of legal processes and tests; that is the important thing to bear in mind.

My hon. Friend raises a concern which was made worse by the previous Government’s policy of regional spatial strategies, which were seen as a top-down removal of green belt. Across the country there were some 30 instances where regional strategies proposed to remove land from green-belt protection. The Government have made clear their intention to remove those regional strategies, although we must act lawfully and give consideration to the environmental impact doing so. That is the legal process that we have to go through. The House made clear its view by voting in the Localism Act 2011 to remove the legal basis for any future regional strategies.

The core strategy, which has become known as the local plan under our new system, can be a single document for one authority or can, as in this case, be a joint document for a number of authorities. The strategy has to go through a process whereby, having been consulted on, it is submitted to the inspectorate for examination and to be tested as to whether it is sound. That is the important legal test to bear in mind, and it includes the

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opportunity for an examination in public in which not only must the council defend its proposals, but there is the opportunity for my hon. Friend, her constituents or other interested persons with a legitimate nexus who appear before the examination in public to make their case that what is proposed is not sound. I cannot prejudge that, and neither can the inspectorate.

With reference to some of the comments that might have been made or are purported to have been made to my hon. Friend, I can assure her that the Broxtowe plan has not yet been submitted to the planning inspectorate for examination. Although there may well have been some correspondence about preliminaries, no inspector is considering proposals yet. I want to emphasise that. When they are considered, the inspector will have to consider whether the proposals in the plan—the core strategy—are sound, in the sense that they are consistent with national planning policy, and whether they are based on sound and robust evidence.

In relation to green-belt matters, national policy is clearly set out in the national planning policy framework. That commits strongly to protecting the green belt. It says that inappropriate development is by definition harmful to the green belt and should not be approved, except in very special circumstances. It sets out, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, that existing green-belt boundaries should be altered only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process, which involves public consultation and a public examination by an independent inspector. As I understand it, the proposal that Broxtowe puts forward will purport to amend green-belt boundaries. It will have to be considered against that test.

The relevance of the regional spatial strategy in this case is that there are housing numbers that the council seeks to rely on. The council, like any local authority, is entitled to do that. Now that we have abolished the top-down system that we inherited, I cannot recreate a top-down system which says what my hon. Friend cannot rely on, any more than what she should rely on. Those have to be tested and found to be reliable. I am sure my hon. Friend and those who share her concerns will want to use the process to make sure that that testing takes place. That will be for the inspector, not for me, to decide.

In that context, while the regional strategies remain part of the present development plan prior to their abolition, the fact that they are proposed to be abolished is a matter which the inspector can take into account, as the council could have done. The weight given to the proposed abolition of those strategies and the numbers that go with them is again a matter which can be taken into account and could have been taken into account by the council when drawing up its proposals. It chose not to do so. The inspector will have to be the judge of that.

I understand that the east midland strategy was published in 2009, so the housing figures are pre-2009. It will be for the inspector in a public inquiry to look at the most up-to-date and reliable evidence put forward, so I will be careful about not prejudging that, but my hon. Friend will understand that where the issues properly arise that might be a matter for debate.

Within the process there are proper routes to challenge what is perceived to be a needless or inappropriate removal of land from the green belt if it is not based on evidence that meets robustly the very special circumstances

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test. My hon. Friend and her constituents might want to consider that as their way forward, but I cannot say more than that. That is the process. The Government cannot interfere and would not seek to do so, for reasons I know she will understand. Equally, because it is a joint strategy, where green-belt land straddles local boundaries, as housing markets can, local authorities of course must demonstrate to the inspector that they have actively met the duty to co-operate, which is also part of the NPPF.

Anna Soubry: I understand what the Minister is saying, but does that mean that a local authority such as Broxtowe borough council is duty bound to be part of a much larger housing market, because at one time this crossed into five councils? Is that what co-operation is about, or is it not about one council saying to another, “Well, we’ve got a bit here. What have you got? How can we perhaps take some of our need and you could soak it up?” Are they duty bound to be part of a very large single housing market, or should they be setting their own needs and their own target?

Robert Neill: No local authority is duty bound to follow a particular model for dealing with the duty to co-operate, which is why it is deliberately not defined in the NPPF. What amounts to genuine co-operation will vary from case to case and will depend on each authority’s circumstances, so it will be assessed by the inspector and the decision based upon the evidence put before him or her. In the same way, it is perfectly possible for local authorities to choose to collaborate if they so wish. As I understand the history my hon. Friend has related, one local authority has chosen to leave the joint strategy, which is its right, just as it is the right of another authority to stay in. That is their call; it is not for the Secretary of State to prescribe one way or the other. Similarly, the NPPF does not seek deliberately

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to define the very special circumstances because that issue has to be assessed by the inspector on the evidence base and then applied to the national policy.

I note that, now that the NPPF is in place, only today there have come to my attention two decisions—they are not green-belt issues, but the general approach adopted is significant—in which the planning inspectors have specifically said that they gave great weight to the NPPF, so these things are taken on board by the Planning Inspectorate. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), meets from time to time with Sir Michael Pitt, the chairman of the Planning Inspectorate, not to interfere in individual cases—we cannot do that or set up meetings along those lines—but to ensure consistency, and Sir Michael is aware of the importance of a consistent approach.

That is why I cannot do everything my hon. Friend has asked me to do, because that would breach the constraints relating to the quasi-judicial nature of the process, but I hope that I have made clear to her the criteria that have to be met to remove land from the green belt. It is a clear test and a high one, but it is not for me to judge whether it is met in any given case, and there are means of that being challenged and tested through the public examination process, which will come along shortly.

My hon. Friend mentioned minerals extraction. Again, I cannot talk about specific applications, for obvious reasons, but the NPPF makes specific reference to the test that is to be applied in relation to minerals in the green belt. It is slightly convoluted because it can only work in some circumstances, but it does restate strong green-belt protections around development of that kind.

Question put and agreed to.

2.59 pm

House adjourned.