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Council Tenants (Fixed-term Contracts)

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2008

5. What plans she has to introduce fixed-term contracts for council tenants; and if she will make a statement. (236266)

The Government have announced plans to publish a housing reform Green Paper to create a fairer and more effective system for those living in rented housing. I am currently considering all the evidence and arguments in favour of reform.

The speculation in The Times on 10 November described proposals published by the Chartered Institute of Housing. They are not, as was said, Government policy.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. My purpose in tabling that question was to enable her to knock very firmly on the head the report in The Times on 10 November. For the avoidance of doubt, will she confirm that, whatever else it contains, the Green Paper will not contain proposals for issuing fixed-term tenancies to council tenants?

As I said to my hon. Friend a moment ago, I have made no decisions about what will be in the Green Paper, but I can certainly tell him that I am not at all sympathetic to the notion that council housing residents should somehow lose their security of tenure. Indeed, I cannot think of a worse time to make such proposals. However, I fear that my hon. Friend—who I know is himself a distinguished journalist—may be mistaken in thinking that it would be easy to knock this notion on the head, since I have observed that, once something gets into the press cuttings, it is liable to be repeated, whether it is accurate or not.

The Minister’s words will be heard with support and encouragement by thousands of constituents who are council tenants in boroughs such as mine, Southwark. May I therefore ask her to be explicit about what I understand to be her view? Is she saying that no council tenant in England will have their status changed and their security of tenure removed, and that the Government will not force those who wish to remain council tenants into a different relationship—one that they do not support—with the council, for example through the involvement of an arm’s length management organisation?

I am tempted to make a joke about “Focus leaflets,” but I will refrain from doing so as the hon. Gentleman is in agreement with me. I can certainly say that we have not the smallest intention of removing security of tenure from existing tenants. I understand entirely his point about those who wish, for a variety of reasons, to remain council tenants, and to retain the mobility that comes with that. One thing is slightly worrying, and makes it important for us to look into and pursue these issues: it is counter-productive to say, on the one hand, that if people are beginning to earn a little more, perhaps they should think about moving out of council housing, whether they wish to or not, and to say on the other hand that we need mixed communities. I understand that right across the House there is acceptance that mixed communities are highly desirable. Let us see how we can maintain them.

I think all Labour Members thank my right hon. Friend for that good answer. As I think she knows, there are other council tenants, including those who live in pre-fabricated accommodation built after the second world war, when materials were scarce. There is a problem with some of that accommodation, including the Tarran bungalows in Bolsover. Will she meet relevant representatives to discuss the problem? It will need a bit of money, and will mean borrowing. We on the Labour Benches are in favour of that, and we can then solve the problem, and those council tenants can remain where they are.

I understand my hon. Friend’s description of the value and benefit of that accommodation. I think that Members across the House are aware that although pre-fabs were intended to last only a short time, they have been extremely popular, and I can completely understand the point of view of those who wish to see whether there is a way of extending the life of that accommodation. Of course I will meet his constituents. As to whether we would be able to find funds, and in what circumstances, that is not something that I dare guarantee from this Dispatch Box, but I certainly heed his remarks.

As year follows year under Labour, the number of people despairing and desperate in their pursuit of an affordable home grows and grows. There were 1 million people on the social housing waiting list in 1997, and there are 1.7 million people on that list today. Fewer than a fifth of the number of council houses built in 1997 are being built today. Given the Government’s inexcusable failure to provide affordable homes when times were good, how can they possibly hope to meet their targets when the Brown boom has turned to bust?

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, despite his remarks, 1 million more people are in home ownership than when this Government came to power? He talks about “inexcusable failure”, but it seems an utterly inexcusable failure that when this Government came to power, we found a backlog of £19 billion of needed repairs and maintenance, particularly in the social housing sector. Investment was made in putting roofs on while the sun was shining—they were left off by the Conservative party—and that has perhaps meant that fewer resources went into new build than might otherwise have done. That was a scandalous failure of the previous Government, but one that our party has rectified.