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Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill (Money)

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2012

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.

The Government are keen to move forward with this much-needed Bill as quickly as possible. Social landlords are very much in favour of this Bill and while I fully expect them to use the new powers the Bill provides, there will be no obligation on them to do so. Local authorities will be able to choose whether or not to prosecute the new criminal offences in the Bill, and decide if and when to use any of the enhanced data access powers that the amendments tabled last week would seek to confer on them by way of regulation.

Local authorities may incur some administrative costs if they choose to use the new data access powers. Any costs are unlikely to be significant and, in practice, I would expect councils to build on the arrangements already in place for housing benefit fraud. I remind the House that local authorities already have the power to prosecute, seek civil remedies and, for housing benefit investigation purposes, compel certain bodies to provide information on request. We are therefore not conferring new functions on them. I firmly believe that any costs incurred as a result of this Bill will be proportionate when set against the damage caused by those people who choose to abuse the social housing system.

This is a necessary Bill that builds on what Labour did in government. In 2009, the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), took action with the first ever national crackdown on tenancy cheats, and 150 councils signed up. Before the 2010 election, Labour committed to make the subletting of social homes a criminal offence and we therefore support the Bill.

With ever lengthening waiting lists, it is wrong to deny those in need. It is wrong to sub-let unlawfully—where a tenant becomes a landlord—and it is particularly wrong in London, where there is evidence of organised gangs preying on estates, encouraging tenants to move out and then letting out the homes, frequently changing the nature of those estates and streets as a consequence, to the disadvantage of the vast majority of the social tenants still living there.

We are grateful to the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for how he has gone about the Bill, including for the all-party dialogue. In that dialogue, we expressed but two concerns, both of which he has taken on board. The first is that although it is right to criminalise those who let these tenancies, we must avoid criminalising those who might inadvertently take out a tenancy without knowing that it has been unlawfully let. Our second reservation is that—dare I say it?—there is sometimes a tendency on the part of some Government Members to demonise social housing and social tenants. That is wrong. The Bill seeks to tackle the behaviour of a small minority—albeit a small minority engaged in absolutely unacceptable behaviour—but the vast majority of social tenants are decent men and women. In my experience, they are the first to complain about the nature of their area being changed, including as a consequence of the kind of behaviour that the Bill rightly seeks to criminalise.

The Bill will now be considered in Committee, and we will be supporting this necessary measure.

I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for their kind comments, because I have tried to build a consensus around the Bill.

There is a problem. Various estimates from such erstwhile bodies as the National Audit Office show that between 50,000 and 150,000 social houses are being illegally sub-let. The victims of this crime are the people on the waiting list for social housing, many of whom deeply deserve it. When researching the subject at the beginning of the private Member’s Bill process, I was surprised to find that this was not already a criminal offence. As the shadow Minister said, this is not an attack on social housing; it is actually quite the opposite. The intention is to free up social housing for those who genuinely need and deserve it, but who, at the moment, are in inadequate accommodation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way he has introduced his private Member’s Bill. The support of the Labour party has been articulated by the shadow Minister. From my constituency experience, I agree strongly that those on the housing waiting list resent greatly the idea that social housing is being let to people other than social tenants. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that unfortunately this measure will not make a huge difference to people on housing waiting lists, of whom there are 9,000 in Newcastle, or to the length of those lists?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I can back them up, because it would appear, having spoken to many housing associations and local authorities, that most of their information on illegal sub-letting comes from neighbours and fellow tenants in the building. So I agree totally with her. I must also agree with her substantive point about the difference the Bill will make to the need for social housing, but one can only do what is in one’s power. This is a limited Bill, but it will free up a lot of social housing. My constituency has 4,500 people on the list, and it seems to me that if it makes some difference, that is better than no difference at all. I hope she will agree however, that the most important thing is that it will deter new tenants from thinking that they can sub-let at will for personal profit, when their needs might be such that they are no longer entitled to social housing, despite there being plenty of people who are entitled to it. So the Bill creates new offences of illegally sub-letting, and there are ample safeguards within it that take the shadow Minister’s points into account. Members of all persuasions—indeed, the full political spectrum of the House—have supported this Bill. With that in mind, I have said enough. Our Bill Committee is tomorrow, and I hope we make progress with it.

I rise to underline the support of Labour Back Benchers for the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) and to congratulate him on bringing in this Bill. As my very good friend the shadow Housing Minister said, I was the Minister in 2009 who introduced the first ever national campaign against fraud of this type. The number of properties recovered as a result of that campaign went up by 75%, but there is still quite a long way to go—and this Bill will help.

This is, of course, a money resolution and there should be a net financial gain to the state from this Bill, despite the costs that the resolution will allow to be incurred. The Audit Commission’s estimate of the number of properties in respect of which social landlords have lost control of the allocation is about 50,000—a figure from about three years ago. As a minimum, then, for the costs of temporary accommodation local authorities will be out of pocket by about £900 million each year.

The penalties in the Bill will help to deter people from cheating the system and cheating their neighbours. It will help the detection of those who are cheating taxpayers and will help to take action against them. More than that, however, those who badly need the homes that are available for them and that they should have are being cheated when these homes are sub-let illegally for the private profit of those who cheat the system. I hope we make progress in the Bill Committee tomorrow, and I hope we pass the money resolution to aid that progress.

I, too, am delighted to support this measure. This must be a record in that I have been able to support in quick succession two items promoted by the Government. We seem to be making progress, Mr Deputy Speaker. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who has worked incredibly hard and pushed forward on this matter; he deserves credit for so doing.

I spent 10 years as a local city councillor, during which time I represented a large council estate. On that estate, housing fraud was a problem—though not a massive problem—and it was difficult to get to grips with it, as we were often unaware that it was going on. We would sometimes find neighbours or other residents saying that they thought someone was letting a property out. Sometimes it was to a family member, further down the family tree, which often made things even more complex. All we could do, of course, was to pursue the problem from a tenancy breach point of view. Frankly, it is staggering that we have got to this stage with it never having been illegal to sub-let. When a property is sub-let, other issues arise about the quality of the property, for example. There are strict rules on landlord liabilities, which obviously do not apply when a property has been illegally sub-let.

I like the shadow Minister a lot, but I do not agree with his phraseology when he talks about the “demonising” of social tenants. I thought it was a bit cheap to get that into a debate like this when we are all on the same page. There is certainly no demonising of social tenants from me. I come from a family with lots of social tenants—my dad and my grandparents—and I would not be a member of a party that demonised people living in council houses or other social properties. I thought that was a little bit unfair. As others have said, this Bill supports decent tenants and decent folk. That is why I think it attracts the support it does across the House.

I take the point of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah)—the constituency with the middle bit of Newcastle—about waiting lists. The Bill might not have a massive impact on those lists, but it deals with behaviour that we all agree is unacceptable. I thus entirely support it.

I join everyone else in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on bringing this Bill forward, and I thank all Members who have spoken in this afternoon’s debate. It seems that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and I have been in agreement in two successive debates, along the same lines mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). The shadow Minister might become my hon. Friend before long—who knows? I look forward to taking the Bill through Committee tomorrow morning.

Question put and agreed to.