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Housing: Transfer Ballots

Volume 691: debated on Monday 30 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will consider extending the mandate of the Electoral Commission to include ballots on transfers of council housing stock in order to ensure the fairness and transparency of such ballots.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission is currently planning to refocus its mandate on its core tasks in response to a recent review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that its current mandate was too broad and diffuse. To extend the mandate of the commission to require it to cover housing transfer ballots commissioned by local authorities would contradict the changes that are taking place.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is her department not aware that in many cases when such ballots have been held there have been very serious allegations of irregularities, ranging from questions misleadingly framed to tenants being denied the right to vote, those opposing the council’s position being denied access to the list of names and addresses of those entitled to vote, the council staff acting as both administrators of the election and advocates of one of the options and people other than tenants and residents who are entitled to vote—including Evening Standard journalists—being able to get hold of ballot papers?

In the light of these reports of cases, some of which have ended up in court, is it not necessary to have some establishment of the basic rules of democracy, whether through the Electoral Commission or some other body, so that these ballots are dealt with in the same spirit as the legislation covering national and local elections, referenda and trade union ballots?

My Lords, there have been 264 ballots to ensure stock transfers since the process began in the late 1980s. Very few indeed have raised any problems about the conduct or consultation or the ballot itself. I am interested in what the noble Lord said and would be very grateful if he could provide some evidence that we could look at. However, the process is safeguarded in two ways—first, by the guidance in the transfer manual guidance that we put out, which sets out how scrupulous local authorities must be in involving and consulting tenants, including on the ballots. The ballots themselves are overseen by the Electoral Reform Society—and there could be no more authoritative body than that. Tenants have to have knowledge about the options available; they have to have balanced information and be properly and fully engaged. Before any transfer is agreed, the Secretary of State has to be fully understanding of that, and there must be no evidence that tenants are opposed to the process.

My Lords, is there not a problem in this area with the financial pressures on local authorities, which makes it almost imperative for those ballots to be successful and for housing stock to be transferred to meet the decent homes standard and other regulations? Is not the real answer to this to change the funding regime so that local authorities or housing associations can ensure that the housing stock is properly looked after?

No, my Lords. Since the decent homes programme was set up we inherited a £19 billion backlog of 2 million homes that were below the decency standard. That is well on the way to being put right. We shall have £40 billion invested by 2010, and we would not have had that amount had we not put the decent homes programme in place with the ability to transfer stock so that registered social landlords could borrow on the open market. That has made a huge difference to the number of people who are now decently housed.

In the options appraisal, the local authority has to offer tenants a full range of options, and a significant number of ballots have been refused. Indeed, in 56 of the 264 ballots that I mentioned, they have rejected those options. So it is an open and democratic process.

My Lords, the noble Baroness seemed to disbelieve what her noble friend Lord Whitty said. He made a number of most appalling accusations about these ballots. The House is not accustomed to thinking that the noble Lord exaggerates. Does she think that he was exaggerating?

My Lords, I have asked the noble Lord to provide evidence. The ballots have been conducted by the Electoral Reform Society, which uses an extremely thorough process, with built-in safeguards on identity, balloting methods and procedure, and so on. We do not have the evidence that the noble Lord mentioned. Our evidence suggests that the ballots were secure and independent and that the procedures were as they should be. However, I am very willing to look at any evidence of irregularities.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that ballots must be fair and transparent, but does the Minister agree that transfers of disadvantaged and unpopular council estates have often not only released large sums of capital that have rejuvenated those estates, but have put the residents and tenants in charge, in control and involved in the ongoing management of their communities?

Yes, my Lords, very much so. One of the major differences is that they have voted in overwhelming numbers, because there is a higher turnout for these ballots than in local elections. The average turnout is over 70 per cent. Tenants now make up one third of the members of the boards that run those housing associations, giving them far greater involvement with and ownership of their terms and conditions.

My Lords, countless thousands of people in this country look to the possibility of local authority housing as their future—their only future, in many cases. Does my noble friend agree that in any form of ballot—whether it is run by the Electoral Reform Society, or whatever the Government decide after the outcome of their recent review—people on waiting lists should be included, because their future is very much tied up with the decisions made?

My Lords, that is an interesting idea. Tenants have the key vote, but as we look at how we might improve processes, I will think about what my noble friend said.