Entry: "Housing Bill second reading - Parliamentary debate 12th January 2004"

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I want to begin by reiterating just how important this legislation is. Amongst other things it seeks to improve some of Britain’s worst housing.

In 1997 we inherited a £19bn repairs backlog. The Government doubled the money for social housing, and in my constituency it was trebled. But because the situation was so dire, this wasn’t enough and that’s why the deputy PM announced the 22bn Sustainable Communities Plan which marks the Governments determination to end the scandal of poor housing and to address the desperate need for new housing. By April this year we will have reduced the number of non-decent social sector homes by about 1 million. Our target to is to make all social housing decent by 2010. This is exceptionally ambitious target, but housing is exceptional important problem. Every week many of my constituents contact me to tell me how their housing ruins their lives. So what will this bill do?

It complements actions taken under the sustainable communities plan, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act and Planning Bill. It also supports the extra investment and new incentives to improve the private-sector. On the ASB, I’d be grateful if the Minister could place on record the Governments thinking and decision around housing benefit sanctions.

As we’ve heard, the private-rented sector, houses some of the most vulnerable people in the country, who live in Houses of Multiple occupation, HMOs. I take this opportunity to congratulate my former colleagues on the ODPM select committee on the work they have done on this and other issues, in a remarkable piece of pre-legislative scrutiny .

In the time available I will mention 4 areas:

1. HMOs
2. Right to Buy
3. Tenancy Deposit Scheme
4. Overcrowding

HMO Licensing

The East End is the historic home of the Common Lodging House – the forerunner of what we now call HMOs. These days Tower Hamlet doesn’t have many, but the few we do, have rarely been identified and registered under the council’s voluntary scheme.

The only way to guarantee that all HMOs meet fire and health and safety standards, is to require their landlord to licence the property. Having said that, I understand why those HMOs that pose the highest risk must be the first priority. And that’s why the Government should extend the proposed mandatory licensing regime to all HMOs with three or more storeys – irrespective of the number of occupants.

Right to Buy

The Government is committed to the principle of RTB but wants to end abuse, and increase supply of affordable housing in high demand areas. We want to protect the most vulnerable in the hosuing market and expand home ownership schemes for all tenants to free up the avalibility of affordable homes. I want to thank the Deputy Prime Minister for listening very carefully to me when I raised with him the abuse of RTB in Tower Hamlets and the resulting reduction in affordable housing.

This legislation recognises the need to update RTB legislation. If people are exercising their Right to Buy as a way of moving out to the suburbs, then there are other schemes to help them do this, which still allow their council home to be re-let to someone in housing need.

We must prevent private companies exploiting the scheme and asset-stripping our public housing in areas where it is desperately needed by thousands of homeless and overcrowded families.

So once again, I thank ODPM ministers and officials who have worked hard to develop the measures in this bill that will help end abuse of RTB.

I now want to raise the Tenancy Deposit Scheme, not least on behalf of the many constituents who have contacted me on this matter. Back in 1996, during the passage of the last Housing Act, the Tories told tenants that statutory protection of their rent deposits, was unnecessary.

They were reassured that the problem of unreasonably withheld deposits would be addressed by Lord Woolf’s report of the increasing Access to Justice through the small claims court.

It wasn’t, which is why the pilot voluntary Tenancy Deposit Scheme was set up. And it was why, when it became all too clear that landlords were refusing to sign up, Lord Falconer, told the House of Lords that legislation might be necessary. Well it is now necessary and I hope I detected in the Ministers opening remarks the possibility that legislation will be introduced in the House of Lords.

The only part of the pilot scheme that needs changing is the replacement of the invitation for landlords to join with a requirement that they do so.

What are the objections?

The ODPM’s original objection that the costs of a statutory Tenancy Deposit Scheme would outweigh its potential benefits surely is no longer a problem. The evidence shows that the costs of independent adjudication would only be a fraction of the £19 million suggested back in June.

So it seems that the only argument against including it in this Bill, is that it would be better left to another Bill. But it is highly unlikely there will be another Housing Bill in the next Queens speech. And even if it were, it might not be agreed by both Houses before a general election in 2005.

This Bill provides the prefect opportunity to introduce an enabling power to allow the Secretary of State to set up a statutory scheme, and I urge ministers to take it forward.

Finally, I return, as usual, to the issue of overcrowded.

One of the select Committee’s recommendations was that the Bill should be used to update the Dickensian statutory definition of household overcrowded. I’m extremely grateful to the minister, the right honourable member for Stratham, for agreeing to my request of further research into the impact of overcrowding. He is very well aware of this problem and sympathetic to the issue.

It’s just unacceptable that people should be expected if you like, officially to sleep in living rooms, and even kitchens – not just for a night or a week, but for years on end.

The current standard doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of babies until their first birthday – despite the obvious need for cot space, and space to change and wash them. This is further evidence that this standard – like much else in housing legislation - was devised decades if not centuries ago, by men who would not have recognised a nappy if it slapped them in the face. Mothers couldn’t expect much more of legislators in 1890.

One thing I wanted to clarify, it appears that clause 115 reduces the room standard: under the 1985 housing act section 325 disregards children under 10 who have to share rooms with siblings of a different sex, but clause 115 part 2(a) disregards children under 12. I would naturally be disappointed if we were reducing the standard, but this may not be the case. Surely we can do better in 2004. I fully support the comments of my right honourable friend for Northampton north.

As my Honourable friend, the minister, made clearing answer to my recent parliamentary question (18 November 2003: c807W) a local authority is only required to give overcrowded households ‘reasonable preference’ in the allocation of social housing, not priority ahead of whose need may be more immediate.

So statutory overcrowding won’t be anything more than ‘a relevant consideration’ in deciding whether it is reasonable for an overcrowded household to continue to occupy their current accommodation.

Clearly, the general housing circumstances prevailing in the district will continue to constitute the most important consideration in the local authority’s decision. And so this wouldn’t lead to the increase in the numbers of overcrowded households being accepted as homeless, that the ODPM seems to fear.

I hope the ODPM will have another look at this issue.

And after a closer look, I hope ministers will agree to include a new clause enabling the overcrowding standard to be set by secondary legislation at a later date.

I hope, too, that this will include the powers for compulsory leasing of long-term empty homes proposed in the recent consultation paper, so that we can bring them into use for homeless families and key workers.

This is a good bill.

But like must things it could be better.

The government has already demonstrated its willingness to make changes to the legislation.

The relatively minor additional amendments I’ve highlighted will ensure we deliver our extremely ambitious goal of a ‘decent home for all’, so I implore ministers to look seriously at these modest, yet crucial, changes.