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Non-departmental Public Bodies

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 15 July 2010

6. If he will take steps to reduce the functions of the non-departmental public bodies for which his Department is responsible. (8505)

16. What steps he is taking to reduce the functions of non-departmental public bodies for which his Department is responsible. (8516)

We will definitely take steps to reduce the functions and cost of the Department’s quangos. We are reviewing each of our 27 quangos—a number that astonished me—in the context of the Public Bodies Bill. We are committed to increasing accountability and to reducing their number and costs and the overlap of their functions with local authorities. Announcements have been made on the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Standards Board and the National Housing Planning and Advice Unit. A review of the Tenant Services Authority is also under way.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. When I am talking to the leader of my local council—Wandsworth, a top-rated council—one of the great frustrations expressed is about the number of plans and strategies that senior officers are compelled to write in areas such as youth offending and adult social services, when their time would be better spent delivering those local services. May I have some assurance that we will determine what strategies are needed locally rather than centrally?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was looking at some of the figures for the Homes and Communities Agency, which delivered—or at least assisted in delivering—55,000 houses at a cost of £80 million, which is £1,500 on the price of every house built. Local authorities have building inspectors, planning officers and auditors, and much of the activity is clearly duplicated and wasted. We have cut the comprehensive area assessment and the regional spatial strategies, and we are giving local authorities the opportunity to take the decisions themselves, with the experts that, in most cases, they already employ. We must cut out the duplication and nonsense that flows from the system set up by the previous Government.

Can my hon. Friend outline briefly how he plans to democratise the decisions and functions currently undertaken by quangos that will shortly cease to exist?

The whole point—or at least a significant part—of what we are doing is based on restoring accountability for the decisions that these bodies have been taking. In some cases, we are ensuring that functions return to the local authorities, where they should have been. If we take, for example, the Standards Board, it cost £8,000 per complaint upheld. We are saying that we can sweep that away completely and restore the monitoring of standards to local councils; in addition, we are getting support from our colleagues in local government to provide a peer review process at a much reduced cost.

The Department’s biggest agency is the Homes and Communities Agency. That has had not one, but two cuts to its budget this year in just two months—more than 10% of the money agreed and set aside to build new, affordable housing. Why was it that no Minister made a statement in public or to this House about those cuts? The details were snuck out on the HCA website. Will the Minister confirm now to the House that the £450 million cut in the HCA’s budget this year will mean that nearly 6,000 new affordable homes will not be built and 5,000 house building jobs will go?

I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but when it comes to counting, he is not quite so good. We need to understand the dire situation this country was in. Emergency action was essential. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will shortly be able to give details of all the developments that will go ahead, now that we have had a chance to assess the financial situation fully.

I shall give the Minister the chance to put the record straight. There was no black hole and no house building commitments were made without the money having been agreed and set aside, as he and other colleagues have claimed. If there had been, I would have received an accounting officer’s letter, but I did not. Will he confirm, therefore, that there was £540 million in the Department’s budget last year that we planned and agreed with the Treasury to spend this year on affordable housing, and that it has been cut back by a further £220 million? Will he now admit that his Ministers and team have not had the strength to stand up to the Treasury and have not had the courage to come to the House to tell us about the cuts they are making?

I read in the newspapers that it was the previous Chancellor who could not persuade the Prime Minister of the day that he needed to stop borrowing and start tackling the deficit—but of course, that might have just been a press report. As I understand it, the housing pledge that the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) brought to the House was for £1.5 billion. We have now authorised the release of £1.25 billion of that pledge. There will be housing built on a scale that the Labour party never achieved while in power.