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Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that traditionally government departments have a worse record of keeping empty properties than the local authorities, which were so badly berated by Members opposite when they were in government? Is it possible, now that funds are to become increasingly available to local authorities, for them or the housing associations, where they wish to do so, to enter into negotiations quickly to bring such empty properties into the mainstream for letting where they are so badly needed?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. It is incumbent upon the Government to put their own house in orderif I may use that phrase in this contextbefore lecturing local authorities, which have a better record than the Government in this area. We are exploring ways in which we can make better use of empty properties in the social housing sector. For example, if local authorities felt that, by applying their share of the additional resources released under the capital receipts initiative, they could use government empty properties to help meet priority housing needs in their area and it represented the best value for money, it would be possible to use the money in that way.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can the Minister indicate what effective action is being taken to ensure that unoccupied premises are now occupied? We shall not then have to face the ironic situation in which many people are short of housing and yet a lot of vacant houses are going spare.
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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is policy, whenever a home is emptyparticularly if it is awaiting disposalthat it should be let if at all possible. As I said earlier, the record has not been as good as it should have been and we are trying to improve upon it.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, bearing in mind that there is a shortfall of 350,000 houses or flats suitable for people who use wheelchairs, will the Government make certain that as many as possible of the units of accommodation that become available are adapted for wheelchair users before they are put on the market?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that suggestion. Bearing in mind that the capital receipts initiative may be used for upgrading and improving property, I shall make sure his point is transferred on.
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, will my noble friend examine the report bearing my name, the Ewing Report on Housing for Wheelchaired Disabled, and follow the point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, about adapting a number of these houses for the use of people in wheelchairs? Does my noble friend accept that this problem has not arisen since 1st May? May I congratulate her on the action she is taking to make sure that these empty houses are fully occupied as soon as possible?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for both those points. I shall certainly look at his report. It is true that the situation we inherited 10 weeks ago is not one of which anyone would be proud. We wish to make progress, but it will take time to put right some of the things that have gone wrong in this area for many years.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, the noble Baroness indicated that a relatively small number of derelict houses were in the ownership of departments. Nonetheless, does the guidance given to departments include a recommendation that they keep all the houses and flats they own in good condition?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we intend looking again at the guidance that is given to cover precisely those kinds of areas. It is important that we do not define as derelict properties that are habitable but simply need improvements.
Lord Bowness: My Lords, will the Minister return to the question of local authorities? Will she pursue with great vigour the local authorities that have the greatest number of empty properties? Those were vacancies which existed at 1st May and many of them accumulated in authorities under the control of the Labour Party. Perhaps I may give one example. In 1996, 4 per cent. of the Islington stock was vacant. The seven local authorities with the greatest number of vacancies are all Labour controlled. The number of local authority vacancies greatly exceeds the total number of government department empty properties. Does she
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agree that if the houses under local authority control were brought into use, that would be financially more cost-effective than releasing capital receipts, which would increase public borrowing?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it might take some time to de-construct all the elements of that question. It is inevitable that any list of local authorities will have a predominance of Labour authorities, given the inability of the party opposite to gain power in local government. It is important to recognise that in percentage terms local authorities have done far better in this area than national government. However, it is true that local authorities are greater owners of property and therefore overall numbers are higher in local authorities. Any home that is unnecessarily empty is a wasted resource and one that could provide a home for someone who needs it. Some authorities already have effective strategies for bringing empty homes quickly into use. We want to see the poorer performers brought up to the standard of the best. The noble Lord should not be so swift to rubbish the capital receipts initiative which will help in bringing substandard property in the local authority sector up to standard.
How they will ensure that it will be clear to all those visiting the projected millennium dome that it was built to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we recognise that the millennium is both a Christian anniversary and an important landmark for everyone who measures time by the Gregorian calendar. The Secretary of State for National Heritage has emphasised spiritual and physical renewal as central to the New Millennium Experience at Greenwich. We are willing to work closely with the Christian Churches, and with those of other faiths and none, to achieve this.
Lord Elton: My Lords, does the noble Lord realise what comfort there is in his Answer for those who were guided merely by the statement of the Government's position in the press release issued by the Minister without Portfolio 11 days ago which described the event as simply a chance for Britain to make a big statement about itself and to the rest of the world? Would not the omission of any reference to the central event we are celebrating, either in the dome or in the national programme, therein described as a "reaffirmation of faith in the nation's future", be an omission of the solid rock on which that faith ought to be built and which should be revisited?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am slightly puzzled by that question. The commitment to the emphasis on spiritual and physical renewal was
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made right from the very beginning and has never been abandoned. If it is not repeated on every single occasion, I think that is excusable.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, is the Minister aware of how much I and other Church leaders appreciate the Government's public welcome of the Churches' desire, together with other faith communities, to be involved at every level of the nation's response to the millennium? Can he confirm that this also crucially applies to the planning of what is to take place within the dome?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I confirm not only what the most reverend Primate says but pay tribute also to his domestic chaplain who is the chairman of the Lambeth Group, which is the Churches' and other Faiths sub-group of the Millennium co-ordinating group. It is working closely with the Department of National Heritage in the planning for the millennium and for the dome. I can confirm that the group, composed not only of the Christian Churches but of other faiths, is playing an active part in the planning to which he refers.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, does the House agree that we begin our proceedings every day with Christian prayer? Does the noble Lord therefore agree that this is a Christian country and that the millennium should be approached in that spirit?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I thought I had made our position clear. The emphasis of the millennium will be towards spiritual and physical renewal. That includes the emphasis on Christian prayer to which my noble friend refers. But, as will be recognised, that is not the only concern of the millennium celebrations.
Lord St. John of Fawsley: My Lords, while I fully support the wise words of the most reverend Primate, will the noble Lord let the House know what exactly is going to be inside this so-called dome? Is it not in danger of becoming the best kept secret since the contents of Joanna Southcott's box? Will he further confirm that it is not a dome at all, which is a well-known architectural form supported from the inside and found at St. Paul's, St. Peter's and Santa Sophia, but is better described, supported from the outside, as a marquee, a tent or a wigwam?
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