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Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill

Volume 548: debated on Friday 13 July 2012

Second Reading

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.

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?

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.

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?

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. 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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—

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?

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

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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?

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.

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 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?

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.

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”


“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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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 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—

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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?

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.

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.

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.)