House of Lords
Thursday 3 March 2016
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.
Student Loans: Muslim Students
My Lords, the Government are aware that some students whose religious beliefs may prevent them from taking out a loan that bears interest may feel unable to take advantage of student loans. In April 2014, the Government conducted a consultation on a sharia-compliant alternative finance product for students. Upon review of consultation responses the Government supported the introduction of a takaful alternative finance product available to everyone. Work on this product is ongoing and, subject to Parliament, the Government hope to introduce the new system through legislation.
I asked the Minister the Question because the head teacher of the Preston Muslim Girls High School asked me the question and I could not answer it. I am not sure that the head teacher and his students will find much present comfort in the Minister’s reply. Every year that passes without a solution, thousands of Muslim students are disadvantaged. As she said, the Government identified the solution two years ago but still cannot say when it will be delivered. Will she agree to meet me so that we can discuss how to have a sharia-compliant system in place without further delay?
As I said, the Government did a consultation in 2014 and are continuing to work closely with experts in Islamic finance to develop the product but, at the moment, the Secretary of State does not have the power to just introduce it. We need primary legislation, which is why we are hoping and looking for a suitable opportunity to bring it forward.
My Lords, given that the student maintenance grants are now to be ended, this will be far more urgent because it means that a whole swathe of students will not have grants available to them. It really is not any good saying that the Government have been doing this for two and half years now; it has to be in place by the time the grants are withdrawn. Can we have that commitment from the Government?
As I said, we will be looking for a suitable vehicle with which to attempt to introduce the system. There is strong interest in it: of the consultation responses, 94% believed that there would be demand for such a system and 81% thought that the proposed scheme being developed was acceptable. We of course want to ensure access for all students to higher education, which is why we would be the first Government to introduce such a scheme, but we need primary legislation to do so.
My Lords, talking of the growing influence of sharia law in this country, is there any truth to the press reports that the Government have mortgaged Richmond House and other buildings with sharia bonds, which ban alcohol on those premises? If true, how would that affect the habits of Members of the House of Commons if they move into those premises during refurbishment of this Palace?
I am happy to. The takaful model will operate as a type of mutual fund. Students will apply for finance from the fund the same way that they would apply for an equivalent student loan and will enter a contract promising to repay a contribution. When they are earning above the repayment threshold, as with an equivalent student loan, they will make their contributions, which will be used to fund the education of future students. It is a type of mutual fund, which is why BIS cannot introduce it without primary legislation, as the Secretary of State does not have those powers.
My Lords, the Secretary of State does have the power to initiate legislation. I ask my noble friend to urge him to take the opportunity as soon as Parliament reassembles after State Opening to introduce a Bill—a small Bill—for the simple purpose of introducing this change, rather than waiting for some great wagon train to assemble for the next 18 months.
As I have said to noble Lords, the Government hope to introduce the system and will be looking at the appropriate legislative way to do so. As my noble friend says, the up-and-coming Session will be detailed in the Queen’s Speech in due course.
My Lords, on this occasion I think it is the turn of the Lib Dems.
My Lords, could I follow up the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about the passivity of the Government on this issue? The Minister has said on several occasions that they were looking for a suitable vehicle, as if they were waiting for a bus to come round the corner. Can I underline the views that I think the whole House has on this issue? It would be a minor legislative tool but, in terms of the life chances of very many Muslim students, this change could make all the difference to whether they get a proper education or not.
My Lords, 45 years ago today the first British nuclear submarine reached the North Pole. It did that only courtesy of the engineers and their skills. In the interests of helping out on this, any Muslims who wish to join the Navy as engineers will get their courses paid for.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments and add my congratulations on this important occasion. As I said, we want to ensure that all young people who wish, and have the ability, to go to university have the access to do so. That is why we are looking forward on this and we would be the first Government to introduce such a product.
I am sure that I shall see shrugs and groans, but I repeat that the Government understand the strength of feeling. We had an extremely high level of responses to the consultation and continue to work on developing this product. We are looking for a suitable vehicle by which to introduce it through primary legislation.
My Lords, would the Minister care to advise prospective students as to whether she envisages this provision being in place this autumn? Noble Lords have made reference to it coming after the Queen’s Speech. As we have not been given that date yet officially, it would be helpful for students to know how long they will have to wait.
My Lords, the choice of meter type and frequency of meter readings is a matter for water companies and their customers. There is a trend towards smart meters. This varies by company and by customer, reflecting factors such as water scarcity and customer preference. Not all will benefit from sophisticated data and fitting new meters will affect the bills of all customers. Water companies therefore need to consider all the costs and benefits when taking any decision.
My Lords, I declare an interest as CEO of the Energy Managers Association. Our members are the ones who will be buying our water in the non-domestic marketplace. However, about 80% of all meters are not AMR or smart meters, so they cannot get the data on whether they are actually saving water or finance. As the purpose of deregulation of this marketplace was to introduce competition, will the Government ensure that this is kept under constant review? Also, following on from the Minister’s Answer, who is the customer? In the non-domestic sector the customer is the water retailer. There is no direct link between the company and the customer on the ground.
My Lords, the meter data, of course, belong to the customer. Therefore, any company wanting access will have to agree with the customer. Indeed, the new retail system that is coming in, which is designed to be of enormous benefit to the consumer, will provide an opportunity for greater competition. We believe that it will be of benefit, in this case, to the non-household customer as a beginning, but clearly we will consider how best we can bring better competition for the whole water market, because we think that competition in this sector is going to have benefits.
My Lords, that is certainly not the intention. As I have said, there is a trend towards smart meters. With the arrival of a smart meter, the tendency is to reduce consumption by about 10%. The water companies are very mindful of those customers in vulnerable circumstances. Schemes already exist to help 760,000 households, and the companies forecast that by 2020 they will help 1.8 million households. There are also social tariffs to assist them, which all companies will have by end of this year.
I declare my interest in the register. Does my noble friend agree that the voluntary use of meters has made a massive contribution to allowing people to manage their budgets? Will the Government go further and introduce legislative measures to tackle bad debt, which is adding £22 to the average bill for water services?
My Lords, I do not believe that it is the intention at this stage to introduce legislation. The water companies do not want to have bad debt; clearly it is not in their interest. But because there are such difficulties, particularly with customers in vulnerable circumstances, there are social tariffs. At the moment they help 30,000 households; by 2020, the companies forecast that it will be about 380,000 households. But, clearly we want to ensure that bad debt is reduced.
My Lords, I am afraid that I am not technical at all and will need to take advice on that. Because of the technicalities of all these matters, the best thing I can do is to write to the noble Lord with some of the very technical details. But it is a very pertinent point.
My Lords, genuine social tariffs would be enabled by universal smart-metering of water, but, unlike energy, we have no mandatory rollout of smart meters for water. Indeed, the smart meters for energy have some problems. Will the Minister consider having genuine smart meters—smarter than the current ones for energy—which incorporate water-metering, so that the next phase of mandatory installation would cover water as well as energy?
What the noble Lord says is probably the direction of travel. I know that at the moment the meters for water are, in many cases, not as sophisticated as those in the energy sector, but I am sure that this is going to be very important. I am particularly mindful of the non-household sector, particularly large consumers of water, where smart meters are definitely assisting in factories and commercial production a better understanding of where water is used. Of course, we all want to reduce water consumption, so it is very important.
My Lords, the noble Lord referred to social tariffs. Is it not the case that 14 of the 18 water companies have social tariffs but are failing to achieve their own targets for registering customers? Many people do not even know that that opportunity exists. At the same time, more than 1 million people are struggling to pay their bills. The noble Lord talked about the roll-out of social tariffs, but is there not a case for putting more pressure on the water companies to speed the process? After all, it is not such a difficult process. He talked about a deadline of 2020, but I am sure that it could be done before them.
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness and your Lordships that the Government will continue to work with Ofwat and the water companies to ensure that they continue to provide a fair deal for all customers. Indeed, average water bills will fall by about 5% before inflation by 2020, while at the same time there will be a very considerable amount of investment.
My Lords, the Government recognise the seriousness of this problem and are taking action to respond. We are trialling the use of body-worn video cameras, the Psychoactive Substances Act will introduce new offences to control supply and possession and we have reviewed the process for supporting prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm. We recognise that our prison system needs reform, and there is much more to do to ensure that prisons are places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.
My Lords, 2015 saw a record number of deaths in custody, a 20% increase in assaults and a 25% increase in self-harm incidents. Those increases were over record figures the previous year. The Justice Secretary appears committed, rightly, to prison reform, but has he been promised the resources to address the causes of these dreadful figures—squalid conditions, overcrowding, understaffing and prisoners locked for far too long in their cells?
The causes of violence are multifactorial. They include of course the increased use of psychoactive substances, to which the Government are responding positively. It is a ceaseless challenge to try to prevent them coming into prison, but we have a new offence, and we are taking steps to make it very difficult for these substances to be thrown over walls or secreted in parts of the body. It is generally a significant challenge. We are also looking at a two-year violence reduction project, to help us better understand the causes and characteristics of violence and to strengthen our handling of it. There is also the use of body-worn cameras. Ultimately, the best way to reduce violence may be to give, as the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have suggested, much more power to prison governors to give them the tools necessary to reform the way their prisons are run and to help rehabilitate offenders.
My Lords, we are all deeply concerned about the number of deaths in prison, but I wish in particular to raise the issue of the increasing number of trans people who are taking their own lives in prison. Are there special provisions for dealing with the LGBT community, in particular the trans community? If so, will the Minister publish them so we can ensure that they are fit for purpose?
There is a prison service instruction in relation to the care and management of transsexual offenders, which is being reviewed. People with particular experience of these issues are involved in the review, including Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust and Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence respectively. We are concerned of course to tackle this very delicate issue, so that those who are on the journey, very often to change gender, are properly looked after and their considerations taken into account, so that prison can be adapted in a way that most suits their requirements.
My Lords, in the light of the welcome announcement last autumn that a number of the old, unsuitable prisons were going to be replaced with purpose-built ones, will the Minister assure the House that the specifications for those new-builds will take very careful account of mental health issues, consulting with the charities that are dealing with this particular area and producing excellent educational, medical and spiritual facilities, so that we can minimise the level of mental health problems and maximise rehabilitation?
The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. He will have been reassured by what the Prime Minister said in his speech on 8 February—namely, that the design of these new prisons should be particularly directed towards helping mental health treatment. If necessary, that should allow individual governors to have appropriate control, with co-commissioning with NHS England to ensure that the significant numbers of inmates in prisons with mental health problems are adequately treated.
The NICE estimate is that 90% of prisoners have at least one psychiatric disorder. Of course, the precise nature of a psychiatric disorder will vary. With many of them, prison may not be the correct place to treat them—although there may be other factors that make it appropriate for them to be there. NHS England has developed national specifications for health and justice services in English prisons and all prisons have clear commissioning models that focus on outcomes specific to custodial settings. All judges who sentence offenders will, or should, have adequate information to allow them to sentence appropriately. It then becomes a matter for the prison estate as to how best they are housed.
My Lords, the Minister may be aware that there are about 82,000 men in our prisons and over 3,000 women. Those women are responsible for about 50% of the self-harm in prison. Furthermore, since my report published nine years ago this week, the number of women who took their own lives in English prisons last year was a record. Two have taken their lives this year already, in the first two months. What factors does he think underline the deterioration in the safety of women in our prisons?
On the positive side, the female prison population is now under 4,000—the lowest it has ever been. In the speech I referred to earlier, the Prime Minister made a particular point of the importance of finding alternative ways of dealing with women offenders, preferably avoiding sending them to prison altogether, which has been very much the trend with sentencing. Of course, there will be an irreducible number who have to be sent to prison. Although the noble Baroness is quite right that any suicide in prison is a matter of complete regret, and self-harm is equally concerning, we are in the process of modernising the prison estate to ensure that there are the best regimes and that women are held in environments that better meet their gender-specific needs.
My Lords, the Minister must have read the report in 2015 by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons—a devastating report that talks about violence and poor conditions in our prisons. The most disturbing aspect of the report and the allegation made by the then Chief Inspector, Nick Hardwick was that the Secretary of State tried to influence his report. Will the Minister make sure that that sort of thing does not happen in future? Public confidence will be eroded if independent reports by prison inspectors are interfered with by Ministers.
The noble Lord is right to suggest that the report by Mr Hardwick was unfavourable in a number of respects. The Government will learn lessons from what he said. It is important that we should take on board an objective analysis of that. It is perhaps an indication of the Secretary of State’s willingness to embrace criticism that he has appointed Mr Hardwick to have continued involvement in the criminal justice system, by his appointment as chair of the Parole Board. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that that is a real sign of somebody getting to grips with a critical friend of the system.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the publication on 1 March of the Chief Inspector of Prisons’ Report on an unannounced inspection of Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre: Harmondsworth site, what action they are taking to rectify the situation.
My Lords, the Government take the welfare of detainees extremely seriously. We have independent inspections and publish service improvement plans. We will closely monitor progress towards implementing the recommendations, and have recently announced a strategic response to Stephen Shaw’s report to provide greater protection for vulnerable refugees.
The unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth must cause us all tremendous disquiet, as it did the inspectors. What steps are the Government taking to rectify the dirty, overcrowded and poorly ventilated residential units, unsanitary toilets and showers, and disregard of mental health issues? Will the criticism that many of the 661 detainees in what is Europe’s largest immigration detention centre were held for an unreasonably long time—one for five years, 18 others for over one year—prompt the Government to end the indefinite detention of immigration detainees?
The report by the inspectorate was very serious and disappointing. Stephen Shaw made 58 recommendations, 50 of which were accepted immediately. James Brokenshire set out in a Written Ministerial Statement on 14 January the Government’s plans to deal with that, and already we have posted a service improvement plan—what we are going to do to address the very points mentioned in the report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons. We will continue to monitor that progress.
Currently in the immigration detention estate there are about 2,700 people. Of those, 40% are foreign national offenders. If one then takes into account those who have committed immigration offences, they are the overwhelming majority of all those who are held in detention. They are held in detention as a last resort in exceptional circumstances, just prior to departure.
My Lords, the Chief Inspector of Prisons states in his introduction that the report,
“highlights substantial concerns in most of our tests of a healthy custodial establishment”.
He also states that many of the concerns that were identified in 2013, when Harmondsworth IRC was run by the GEO Group, have not been rectified, and in some respects matters have deteriorated since then, even though since September 2014 the Harmondsworth site has been run for the Home Office by the care and custody division of the Mitie Group. What penalties under the terms of their contracts have been, and will now be, incurred by the two contractors concerned, since presumably the Minister can confirm, in the light of the adverse reports from the chief inspector in 2013 and again in his latest report, that neither contractor has run or is now running the Harmondsworth site in accordance with the terms of their contract?
That is something that is under active review at this point in the light of Stephen Shaw’s report. He identified that there had been some improvement in a number of areas since 2013, particularly in the physical infrastructure of the site, but nowhere near enough. There are very strict criteria set out for performance in the contract, and they are being reviewed by the Home Office. We will of course make public what actions will be taken when a decision has been reached.
No, we have just had a Labour question.
Yesterday I visited some houses in a Home Office scheme in a street in West Drayton, run by an adjoining hotel, Heathrow Lodge, which provides a few days’ initial short-term accommodation for asylum-seeker arrivals before they are dispersed. There are very basic bedrooms, with communal bathrooms and no kitchens. Will the Minister look personally into the numerous problems that I found there? I will send him a briefing, but they included people who seemed to have been effectively abandoned there for up to three months instead of three days; the quality of food provided; a lack of necessary Home Office communication and documents; ridiculous rules; a lack of facilities for a one year-old child who had been there for some time, and much more.
It is certainly the case that 92% have been there for less than four months, and the time is reducing. Of course, those who have been there for longer than four months—in fact, for longer than 28 days—are often people who are working very hard to avoid their removal. They are perfectly entitled to do so, but they are trying to frustrate the system. We have concerns about public safety. That is the reason why they are there and have not been granted bail.
Order. Why does not the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, ask a question?
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
Housing and Planning Bill
Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant document: 20th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 2: What is a starter home?
37B: Clause 2, page 1, line 11, after “purchase” insert “via a mortgage”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 41B. Amendment 37B would require a mortgage to be taken out when buying a starter home—in other words, cash sales would not be permitted. Amendment 41B would require a first-time buyer to occupy the dwelling as his or her principal residence.
I can almost hear the Minister’s reply—
My Lords, I shall start again in a moment.
I can almost hear the Minister’s reply, which may be to tell us that all this will be made clearer in regulations, but as the Minister well knows, we have no regulations. There are no draft regulations and it is essential that, before Report, we have regulations which explain clearly what the Government’s intentions are on matters such as buy to let, subletting for short periods and leaving and letting a starter home within five years. In the case of this probing amendment, we need to know whether payment for a starter home can be in cash. I hope that the Government will rule this out today.
The basic principle is that cash buyers do not need a starter home. The simplest way to address this is via a requirement that the purchaser takes out a mortgage. Indeed, a key part of the National Planning Policy Framework definition of affordable housing is an eligibility test, with its provision for those whose needs are not met by the market. However, that is not a cash buyer, whose needs can self-evidently be met by the market. Therefore confirming in the Bill that anyone buying a starter home must do so via a mortgage would restrict market abuse.
Amendment 41B would require a first-time buyer to occupy their starter home as a principal residence. Thus, starter homes must not become second homes, and buy to let should be prohibited. However, there may need to be some consideration prior to regulations being published about how a property could be let out for short periods, where, for example, a purchaser of a starter home has a six-month temporary work transfer to another place. Therefore I am very keen to know what the Government’s thinking is on this matter. In the face of the fact that the Bill lacks so very much detail—even the technical briefings lack detail to enable us to respond properly to exactly what is planned—I hope very much that the Minister will be able to clarify these matters.
My Lords, this group of amendments contains some important provisions that would be welcome in the Bill and should not be left hanging in the air to be covered by regulations at some point in the future. Amendment 37B, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, would add the words “via a mortgage”. It is extremely important that we are clear about this, because if the property was purchased in any other way, such as by a cash buyer, that would signal that the person or persons had no need to take advantage of a product with a generous discount that could be realised in a relatively short space of time.
Equally, Amendment 41B, which is also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, makes clear that the person who buys the property should buy it to be their home. Again, I am fully supportive of that.
On government Amendment 42A, I will be interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, explain the reasoning behind the proposed change to the words in Clause 2(3)(c).
Amendment 43, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Beecham, would add the criteria of “lives or works locally” to the Bill. That is aimed specifically at helping local people to take priority in getting a home in their local area rather than being forced to go somewhere else, and would help in building stable communities. I will be interested to hear the Government’s reasoning for their Amendments 44A and 44B in turn, which seem to turn on its head the requirement that individuals should be under 40. Is this because the Government have realised that in the present climate it will be very difficult for people under 40 to get a deposit together? Does the Minister envisage that this will apply to all areas of England or maybe just London in particular, where there is a problem with the affordability of housing?
Amendment 45, in my name and in the name of my noble friend Lord Beecham, would place a duty on the Secretary of State to consult the relevant local authorities and/or the Mayor of London when seeking to vary the price cap for starter homes. The requirement to consult relevant bodies when considering making this price cap change is good practice and will aid the Secretary of State in understanding the specific local circumstances that he or she should probably take into account when making such a change.
My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief intervention following specifically Amendment 43, which the noble Lord just mentioned. I note with some alarm that, as we approach the third day of this stage of the Bill, we have now reached line 11 of page 1 of a 100-page Bill.
Returning to the theme, Amendment 43 seeks to add a qualification for those who are eligible for starter homes. I think that this is going to be a very popular product and that it will be oversubscribed. That raises the question of how one prioritises those who bid for the starter homes. Amendment 43 suggests one such restriction or qualification—namely, that people should live or work locally.
There may be other ways of managing demand. On Tuesday, I suggested that the product should be targeted at existing social tenants in order to free up a re-let, or at those on the waiting list in order to enable those behind them to move forward. There may be other ways of managing demand. Historically, we have had schemes for key workers—for example, teachers or nurses—who may need to live in a particular area.
When my noble friend replies, can she indicate how demand for the product will be managed, given that it will be oversubscribed? Will it be first come, first served, or will there be some eligibility qualifications such as those mentioned in Amendment 43 or those that I mentioned on Tuesday to ensure that the maximum benefit to the community as a whole is achieved from this exciting government initiative?
My Lords, the thrust of these amendments, as I read them, is to try to deal with potential abuse of the system. I had thought of giving notice of my opposition to the clause as a way of dealing with these matters, but I think that I should deal with a number of issues on the back of these amendments because all my comments basically deal with the potential for abuse.
Perhaps I may go through some of the figures, because it seems that there are substantial profits to be made out of this scheme. Let us take as an example the starter price of £450,000 for a house or flat in London, which will probably be at the lower end of the market. I know that the Government say that there will be cheaper properties than that available in London but I certainly do not believe it from what I have seen recently of the property market in London. The market price of that property will actually be £560,000 but it will be sold for £450,000. Working out the figures on the basis of a 4% increase per annum, over five years there would be a 25% increase. I say that because the latest survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors predicts a 25% increase in prices over the next five years. An increase of 4% per annum compounded gives £582,000 in the first year, £605,000 in the second year, £631,000 in the third year, £656,000 in the fourth year and £682,000 in the fifth year. In other words, you buy a house for £450,000 and, at the end of five years, you make a profit of £232,000 on the back of the people, because essentially this is funded by the people.
Let us take a starter price of £250,000 outside London. The actual market price of such a property is £310,000. It is worth £322,000 after the first year, £335,000 after the second year, and it goes up to £377,000 in year 5. So if you buy a £250,000 house, you will sell it with a profit of £127,000 on the basis of the RICS valuation. I think that these valuations are very low. It is quite possible that in London the prices will go up substantially more than that and we will see far greater capital gains. The same obviously applies to the £150,000 purchase that we talked about the other day. The market price of that property would be £187,000 and you would end up with a £78,000 profit on the basis of a 4% increase per year. I was doing these calculations in bed last night at one o’clock in the morning and I think they are fairly accurate.
Substantial profits are available under this scheme, and we all know what happens when a lot of profit is available, particularly in schemes where the Government are involved. People very often will organise their private affairs to maximise the profit that they can make. Therefore, in the regulatory arrangements that are introduced we have to be absolutely sure that we have covered all the potential arrangements that might be introduced, and I will just give one or two of them.
A qualifying person is set out in Section 57AA(2) of the Finance Act 2003 as a person who has not acquired freehold or leasehold residential property in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in the world. In other words, it is their first home. What happens when the beneficiary to a will inherits a £40,000 house in, let us say, the area where the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is a councillor? That is the price of a house in Colne or other parts of Lancashire. Does it mean that the person who inherits that house—effectively, they have acquired it, which is what it says in the 2003 Act—loses the right to buy a starter home? They would already have acquired a house through their inheritance, and the Act does not say “purchased”, it says “acquired”. What would happen in that particular case? Would they still retain the right to buy a starter home, having already inherited that £40,000 terraced house in Lancashire?
What about the cash purchaser who the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to? The noble Lord argued that cash purchases should not be allowed in these circumstances. He said that we should be sure that these houses are purchased under mortgage arrangements. However, someone could buy a house under a mortgage arrangement but it is the scale of the mortgage that matters. In other words, if we are to preclude cash purchasers, the regulations have to define how much of the purchase price of the house can be cash if there is a requirement to have a mortgage on the house. Will the Minister answer that? Again, that should be set out in the regulations.
What about a sham mortgage followed by a cash payment? Someone could take out a mortgage but then, three months later, pay cash; they always intended to pay cash but knew that the only way round the scheme was to take out a mortgage. Again, that has to be set out in the regulations.
What about the circumstances where a parent or relative, or even a friend, purchases in the name of the legitimate purchaser and then takes a charge on the property to take out a proportion of the profit at the end of the five years? In other words, the purchaser in fact was not the person whose name is on the deed and, by way of some charge, the actual purchaser is able to take the profit out of the deal at the end of the five-year period. Some might say that I am going a bit over the top by suggesting that these things might happen. However, there is a lot of profit in this and a lot of people will see great advantage in getting involved in these deals to take out the profit at the end of the five-year period. So again, we must ensure that the regulations cover the circumstances in which something like that might happen.
What happens if people acquire by purchase another property during the five-year period; in other words, they now have two homes? They have the home which has been subsidised with its vast profit potential and then they buy another home during that period. Whereas at the moment it is the second home which is subject to capital gains tax, in those special circumstances it might be that the first home should be subject to it. If someone can afford to buy a second home, having bought the first home under a subsidised arrangement, surely the starter home should be treated as the second home and be subject to some sort of tax gain to the Exchequer.
I move on to the question of the developer. How do we know that the developer will not inflate the price? The developer is supposed to offer the property at 25% less than market value—
I am sorry, 20%. Having done that, the developer might simply inflate the starter price. Who will determine what the real market price is of that property? Again we are going to need some pretty subtle guidance here because, when I talked this morning to some local authority people in Bristol, it was made clear to me that one of the great flaws in this legislation is over the valuation of starter home properties. Although I do not have the quote with me, I understand that Jones Lang LaSalle, a firm that will be well known to Members of this House with an interest in this area, has expressed grave concern about the question of inflated prices by developers.
Further, how can we prevent developers charging excessive ground rents on the leasehold properties they sell? We have noticed over recent years that, when there is a boom in the market, the length of leases on flats in London invariably seems to shrink down to 99 or 125 years, but when the market is bad very often the same blocks, at new-build stage, are sold on 999-year leases. Developers may sell properties on shorter leases with high ground rents and then even with truncated review periods, whereby instead of the review being made every 21 years it might be every 10 years. The reason they do that is simple. When it comes to the enfranchisement of the lease, developers will secure a higher price when the leaseholder buys the freehold, because of course the sale of the lease is dependent on the annual ground rent for the property. In my view the law should provide that such properties cannot be sold with less than 999-year leases and regulations should define the review period for ground rents. I do not know how it would be done, but it might be sensible to set up an arrangement whereby even ground rent maximums can be defined. Some might say that the only properties that could be sold should be freehold or share of freehold to avoid the problems I am talking about.
We keep hearing references to repayable discounts. In my discussions this morning, no one understands them to be repayable at all. I keep being told that what is happening is that annually the property is simply sold at a discounted rate further down the line up to five years. I am finding it hard to work out how that will happen. We need at this stage an explanation of how the discount system is actually going to work on resales within the first five years, because as yet no one has given me a satisfactory explanation. Moreover, what happens in a declining market? The market dropped in 1973, 1981 and 1992, with a minor drop in 2008. I know, because I have lived long enough to have experienced those falls on all four occasions. The discount on a £150,000 property is £37,000, on a £250,000 property it is £60,000, and on one worth £450,000 it is £110,000. What happens to those discounts in a declining market? Since I do not understand how the system works in terms of preserving the discounts during the first five-year period, I cannot work out what would happen in relation to those discounts. Is there some calculation which proportionately affects the amount of discount which has to be allowed on the subsequent sale of the property?
I think that I have dealt with most of what came to mind overnight when I was thinking about these things. What I am basically saying is that this system will be abused by people who want to make a lot of profit very fast—they will regard it as very fast—over a five-year period. Under this scheme, if people can build it into an investment, they can make a 50% return over five years. That will be very attractive to a lot of people. It invites abuse. Therefore, the regulatory arrangements that govern the scheme have to be sophisticated enough to ensure that that abuse does not take place and that taxpayers’ interests are protected.
Does my noble friend agree that one reason for raising these points today is the wholly unsatisfactory way that the Bill has been put in front of us? We have no regulations and we will get none before the Bill is passed into law. It is a ridiculous situation and why we have raised these points.
My Lords, building on some of the things that my noble friend has said about Amendment 41B, what can be done to ensure that starter homes sold with a discount cannot immediately be sold on to second home owners or to people renting them out as holiday homes? As we know, in many areas of the country, especially rural and coastal areas, while properties are sold and people have homes, these homes are not lived in all the time. Therefore, notwithstanding that the homes have owners, the essence of these communities is hollowed out because people are not there all the time; they become real communities only at certain times of the year, and the schools, the pubs and the shops all close. Can anything be done, if we persist with this 20% discount, to ensure that communities still thrive and that people are not able to sell these properties on as second homes?
The Government, in seeking to enable people to buy these starter homes, intend that if a person is under the age of 40, as I understand it, they still qualify to buy one. I do not think that the government amendments go far enough. Is the Bill, even as amended, compliant with the Equality Act? There is discrimination, I would say, against people over the age of 40.
My Lords, I suspect that the Minister will be grateful that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours eventually managed to get some sleep, having burned the midnight oil on what has been an absolutely forensic analysis of these proposals in the Bill and the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley.
I had intended to ask the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, how much of a mortgage would disqualify and for how long would it have to be held under the terms of his amendments. How would the maintenance of a mortgage be monitored? If a mortgage were paid off after a year or two, or three or whatever, would that change the situation in relation to the discount? How would residence be monitored, for that matter? Is somebody supposed to call every so often to check who is occupying the property? On a lesser topic, would very short lets of the Airbnb kind interfere with the concept that the Government have advanced? I understand the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, but there are significant problems in realising the objective, with which the Opposition agree, of ensuring that only genuine first-time buyers are covered.
There is also a question about the meaning of locality. Amendment 44 states:
“The meaning of ‘locally’ … shall be defined by the relevant local authority or the Greater London Authority”.
If the Government are disposed to accept this amendment—which would be sensible because someone has to ensure that this is a locally based scheme—I wonder whether, in addition to the terms of the amendment as it stands, “local authority” could be defined as including combined authorities where they exist. Combined authorities will usually have a strategic role in the housing market and development—certainly some agreements have now been signed—and it would incongruous if, in an area designated as one for which it has some housing responsibility, the combined authority was not included in the process of determining the locality for obtaining a grant of this kind. If the Government are disposed to accept the principle of Amendment 44, perhaps that further refinement could be taken on board.
I agree with the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Young. It would be right to look at the range of issues that he has covered and I hope that the Minister will indicate a sympathetic stance—he has already made the point, so she has had a couple of days to think about it—and apply his suggestions to the scheme as it develops. It is to be hoped that, on Report, the Government will reflect at least that much in their own amendments.
My Lords, I have a simple question—this is not a speech—to ask the Minister. As far as I can see, the only effective constraint—apart from the price or value of the property—is the age of the applicant for a starter home, who has to be under 40. We all share a common wish to ensure that home ownership is available to people on modest incomes where it makes sense for their lives, but what about the displacement issue? In quite a number of cities where there are universities, colleges and so on, people do not expect to enter the home ownership market until they are around 30 or so—they are doing PhDs and so on—at which point they enjoy relatively generous salaries and could well afford first-time homes on the open market without taking any advantage of the discount. However, because the discount is there with no income-cap qualification to its retirement, we will see people who have quite generous incomes—and whose income increases will also be quite generous—able to pocket this public subsidy paid for by taxpayers, often with incomes much lower, and then trade up as soon as they get their first promotion. Why is the Minister not considering an income cap as well as an age cap to ensure that people who can buy without discount should?
My Lords, all sorts of scenarios have been put forward, many of which I agree with, including the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that there will be people who will find ways around the regulations and buy these houses unscrupulously.
I remember when I was a local councillor it was decided that local councils should not be owners of property and we sold off houses near to here on the basis that they were offered to sitting tenants at an incredibly low price. It is hard to believe that you could buy a house near Smith Square for £50,000, but that is what they were. After we sold all of these properties to the sitting tenant, one was left vacant and sold for £150,000. There was a huge difference between the property values; in fact, I think the sitting value was out of touch with values at the time. It annoyed me to discover that one of the people who had bought as a supposed sitting tenant was nothing but a front man for someone who could well have paid anything. So, a lot of the abuses suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will happen—I hope not too many, but someone is always working out a way around things to get a personal advantage.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, commented on the issue of whether a person has bought a property as a genuine place to live in and whether, to ensure this, there might be letting restrictions and various conditions applied. This leads me back to the point which has been made again and again, that until we have regulations we honestly do not know how we are going to care about and deal with this. That is the greatest worry of all.
My Lords, I want to speak to government Amendment 45B. I was wondering if I should wait until the Minister had spoken to it but I think it is probably better that I speak now and that she hears what I have to say. If the Committee is happy for me to do that, I will.
The amendment proposes quite an extraordinarily far-reaching Henry VIII power. It simply says:
“Regulations under this section may amend this Chapter”.
That is as far-reaching as is possible. It suggests that the Government are not quite sure—perhaps it is stronger than that—whether they have got it right in this chapter on starter homes, and therefore that they want a provision to be able to change it in any way and at any time, subject to parliamentary approval. Of course, we keep being told that the House of Lords is not allowed to oppose these things, anyway.
In what ways can this chapter be amended, either as we go through this procedure in Committee now or in the future by regulations, to deal with the fundamental problem, which I keep banging on about, that housing markets are different in different places? There are parts of the country—not just in north-east Lancashire but in lots of other areas too—where the housing market is not buoyant but flat and fragile. In these places, the introduction of starter homes into the system could have serious unintended consequences which harm the market rather than boost it.
I want to give noble Lords the prices of three or four houses for sale at the moment. In so doing, I refer to the asking prices in the property supplement of the wonderful newspapers, the Nelson Leader and the Colne Times, published on Friday—so they are up to date. I have to say that in our area houses often go for less than the asking price; the idea of forcing prices up is not known to us.
I was taken by one of the featured properties at the beginning of this supplement because it is in the ward I represent, which is normally not featured. It is one of their top properties and a two-fronted terrace house. It is described as:
“Immaculately presented and substantial in size … dwelling has two reception rooms … three bedrooms”,
et cetera. It is obviously highly modernised. It continues:
“The garden has an area of hardstanding … and views toward Pendle Hill”.
What more does anybody want? An offer—and this is incredibly high for a terraced house in this part of Colne—of £110,000 is being sought by the owners.
The auctioned houses are presumably being auctioned because they have been repossessed. From the look of them, they may well be repossessed buy-to-let landlords’ properties. Three of them are being sold: at £35,000, £40,000 and £50,000. They are all in Colne—and prices in Nelson and Brierfield are lower than in Colne. Good terraced houses in good condition, aimed perhaps at owner-occupiers, are being sold at £70,000 and £80,000. The one I have just mentioned is at the absolute top end: £110,000. I will refer to just one more. This is a new house. When I say that it is a new house, it was built about 10 years ago, so it is not brand new. I can confirm that it is a very nice property. The description is estate agent blurb. Nevertheless, it states:
“There are three good sized bedrooms and a family bathroom. Gas central heating … This beautiful family home offers both stylish and spacious living accommodation”.
And it is a nice house—a snip at £139,950.
The cost of putting a similar house on the market now would be about £150,000. There is a greenfield site which now has planning permission situated quite close to this house. That is the figure a house would be put on the market for. That is one reason why housing developers are not all queueing up to build lots of new houses, even on greenfield sites.
What effect will starter homes have? I asked the Minister three questions yesterday but she did not answer any of them. But I will no doubt get replies in due course. One of my questions was whether it would be possible for some purchasers of starter homes also to get the help-to-buy discount, which would then give them a 40% discount. This is just a factual question which I would like sorted out. But even if the figure is only 20%, a new house which is on the market for £150,000 would be sold for £120,000 as a starter home. In other words, it would seriously compete with, and undermine, the existing housing market. Therefore, good-quality terraced houses at the top of the range would be £110,000 or a bit more. Houses which have been built relatively recently would be at the same price, or not much different.
Brownfield development is simply not viable in this area—I will come to that on later amendments—and greenfield development is marginal and can take place only on the very best sites. The number of new completions each year in a borough of 90,000 people is in double figures. In fact, in one recent year it was in single figures. A couple of years ago the figure was under 100 and almost all the houses were properties which the local authority had built through its joint venture development company. The market is picking up a little bit but not very much. It will not surprise anybody to hear that the level of CIL which has been set locally is zero because, as soon as you introduce a CIL, everything becomes unviable, with all the other problems associated with that.
Making new housing much cheaper in a market such as this will probably result in more empty houses in the existing housing stock, particularly terraced housing, as people—not unreasonably—move up. A good-quality, fully modernised terraced house in a good location will cost £100,000, whereas a brand-new starter home—certainly if it has two bedrooms—will cost not very much more than £100,000. Therefore, serious unintended consequences will come from the best of good intentions.
I tag what I have been saying on this amendment on to the Henry VIII amendment that the Government will be moving. I think that the Government need to think very hard indeed about how this legislation should be amended to take account of different housing markets in different places, whether they are rural areas, areas with lots of holiday accommodation, or—in my case and the areas that I am talking about—areas where house prices are really very low compared with the norm in a great deal of England.
It would be really helpful if the Minister could assure the House—we really do need this—that proposed draft regulations will be before this House before we get to Report. If not, we will have major problems in this and other areas. It is not too much to ask. The Bill started in the other place last autumn, so there has been abundant time for the Government to determine what their policy intent is behind these “anything goes” powers for the Secretary of State. We must know, otherwise some of us will seek the House’s authority to defer consideration until we have those regulations. We cannot do our job of scrutiny when so much of the information that we need is absent.
May I ask one question? We were told on Monday, I think, that there were so many hundred thousand people listed as wanting starter homes. Is there any information available on where these people are located—which counties and local authorities—and could we have that information quite early, perhaps even today? It might help us in our debates.
My Lords, we have started today with another interesting debate on starter homes. I am conscious that this is the third day in Committee and we still have some substantial issues before us.
I am not disputing that at all. I was going to give a bit of a recap of Tuesday if that is okay by your Lordships. Anyone who read Hansard for Tuesday will not be in any doubt that your Lordships’ House is passionate about social housing and the need to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society have safe and secure housing. The Government’s position is not as far removed from that as some noble Lords may believe. We, too, believe that social housing should continue to house those who need it most.
Some noble Lords suggested that the provisions in Chapter 1 mean that we no longer believe in anything other than home ownership, which is not the case. As I have said before, there is a gap in the market. An additional product is required to fill that gap and that is why we are legislating for starter homes. We are helping people to access homes that they can afford in a number of different ways and this Bill should not be seen in isolation. The Government have committed £4.1 billion in spending reviews to deliver 135,000 shared ownership homes and £1.6 billion to deliver 100,000 affordable homes for rent.
With help to buy, shared ownership, the affordable rental sector and social renting, market-priced housing and private rented sector housing, as well as the retirement housing that is coming forward, there is a whole range of tenures available and starter homes will rightly be a part of that mix. Just because this wider range of affordable housing is not mentioned in this part of the Bill, it does not mean that local authorities will not provide it. Local planning authorities know their market. We would also expect them to seek other forms of affordable housing, such as social rent, where it would be viable. Councils have the option to release more land for housing to ensure that they are delivering as much housing of all tenures as is needed.
My Lords, in that case will local authorities be able to claim Section 106 land which has now been earmarked for starter homes and which in the past has funded more than 50% of social housing in this country? The Minister says that they can do it but she is denying them the powers, the authority and the revenue base by which to do it.
My Lords, to go back to the first question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the councils will provide through various mechanisms different types of tenure, as they always have done. We fully expect that this will be the case in the future and I have outlined some of the funding mechanisms.
I am sorry, my Lords, but that is not good enough. In the past, local authorities and housing associations have relied on Section 106 but that is largely going to disappear unless some of the amendments that we will discuss later are taken into account. It is no use the Minister saying that she has no reason to think that this will not continue when it will not—unless she can tell us how local authorities will make good their loss in rents, their loss in capital grant support and their loss in Section 106 land.
My Lords, Section 106 can still be used for infrastructure but cannot be used where it would damage the viability of providing those houses on the site. Local authorities will continue to use Section 106 and a variety of other mechanisms to provide mixed tenures on their sites.
But, my Lords, the infrastructure in rural villages is already largely in place. We are talking about modest pockets of 10 or a dozen houses here and there. Infrastructure is not the point; that land has come through Section 106 from other private development which is already happening. How are local authorities going to add to the social housing stock when they face huge pressures with no land and no resources?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way but broadly speaking, it is right to say that in terms of Section 106, authorities have been accustomed to accepting some 15% of houses in development under that scheme. Can the Minister give any indication of what she thinks the future likely percentage will be under the regime which the Bill introduces? In percentage terms will it be around the same, less or more, and on what basis does she advance her opinion? I accept that she may not have an answer immediately across the Dispatch Box and if she does not, can she write to us about that?
I cannot say at the Dispatch Box what the percentage will be, because it will be out for consideration, but I can give my opinion. In my experience, it will not be too dissimilar from the affordable homes expectation that was previously in place. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, asked me another question in following the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on the previous point and I have completely forgotten what he said. Perhaps he could repeat it—it is going to be a long day.
My Lords, we need to know whether these are affordable homes for rent. Otherwise, what the Minister is doing is using starter homes to embrace the whole concept of affordable homes. That entirely ignores the need for affordable homes to rent. Following my noble friend’s question, can she say specifically whether the percentage of social housing for rent will continue?
My Lords, all I can say is that local authorities know their market, and they can use Section 106 for other types of housing on sites, whether for sale or for rent, in addition to starter homes where viability allows, as well as for infrastructure. I cannot answer more clearly than that at this time.
Those powers are a specific type of power for the Secretary of State, but that does not take away from any of the other powers that local authorities might wish to use, viability allowing, when agreeing Section 106 for development in terms of other affordable homes for sale or for rent.
If I may, I wish to make a bit more progress. Our analysis has shown that in regions outside London, we expect that, on average, up to 60% of eligible households currently renting privately would be able to secure a mortgage on a starter home. Within London, we expect that up to 47% of eligible households currently renting privately would be able to secure a mortgage on a starter home. For example, 59% of eligible households currently renting privately across London would be able to secure a mortgage on a starter home in Hammersmith and Fulham.
It includes all sorts of properties, and that is for first-time buyers. But the price cap is a cap; it is not an average. We can and we will argue statistics today, but the cap is not the average, and the average first-time buyer price of a home in London is £356,000.
I thank the Minister. I referred to this when we discussed similar matters the other day. The suggestion—I was quoting Savills as my authority—is that new-build homes are going to be more expensive than houses on the market, so the £350,000 figure is likely to be an underestimate—if I recall rightly, by around 10%. We will be looking at nearer £400,000 for a new-build property, which makes it a different story.
I apologise to the noble Lord and to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, because the figure that I gave was the implied first-time buyer price of a new-build in London. I think we will all get a bit confused with prices and statistics today, so I hope the noble Lords will accept my apology.
I turn now to the amendments. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, for Amendments 43 and 44, which suggest limiting starter homes to local people, and for Amendment 40, which would prevent starter homes being sold to buy-to-let investors.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his amendments, which seek to restrict starter homes to those purchasing via a mortgage, and to require first-time buyers to occupy starter homes as their principal residence. Finally, the amendments in my name introduce some modest flexibility to the age 40 cap.
I have just looked this up. The cost of a £450,000 mortgage on a new house in London, at 4%, is £28,000 per annum—out of after-tax income. How is it possible for her to say, as I think she did, that 40% of private owners in London can afford a mortgage like that? These figures cannot be right. With £28,000 after tax, we are talking about income of something like £45,000 a year before tax just to pay your mortgage. This is not affordable.
My Lords, first, if someone is paying 4% on a mortgage, they might not be getting the best deal on the market. Secondly, I just repeat my point that £450,000 is the cap on a starter home and £356,000 is the implied price of a new-build first-time buyer property. I do not think we are necessarily talking about the same thing.
But the point is that the figures she referred to are for the whole of London. The price of a property in the Elephant and Castle, around where I grew up, is £450,000 or more. This may apply on the edge of London, but not anywhere near here.
My Lords, I recognise there are vast variations in house prices in London. We talked about Lewisham the day before yesterday, and we could talk about every borough in London today, but I am simply giving an average implied price. I accept that Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea are more expensive—I could not afford to live there—but there are places in London that are more affordable than others. This is simply an average price.
Amendment 37B would restrict who could buy a starter home to those purchasing with a mortgage only. We are allowing starter homes to be purchased only by qualifying first-time buyers under the age of 40, with limited exceptions. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked whether this fits in with the Equality Act. I confirm that an equality impact assessment has been prepared for the starter homes provisions in the Bill, and this will be kept under constant review in line with the duties under the Equality Act. In addition, a further assessment is being prepared to accompany the Government’s consultation proposals for starter home regulations.
We need to prioritise our assistance to the generation of people in their 20s and 30s who have been disproportionately affected by the increasing affordability pressures over the last 30 years. My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham made the very good point that this is a very popular product and significant interest is already being generated on these homes. He was correct that this is done on a first come, first served basis. He also made the point about it being a good way of increasing mobility in the social rented sector and for those currently on waiting lists. I totally agree with that point—it is. We will be ensuring that resale letting restrictions are included in our regulations. The aim is to provide a place to live in. We are consulting on these requirements for the regulations shortly, to seek wider views and to ensure that they operate fairly and effectively.
Does that mean that the proposed draft regulations will be available to noble Lords before Report, so that we can see how the Minister ensures to target starter homes on those who most of us would accept need them most, given income and occupations that some may have which our society needs?
My Lords, I do not think that I can undertake to provide the regulations by Report, given that the consultation will be happening shortly. As I have done with regulations on many occasions, I will elect to give noble Lords as much detail as I can possibly can, but I cannot give an undertaking that they will be ready by Report.
I am sorry; it may be a matter of when Report happens. The Minister should recognise that noble Lords all around the Chamber are floundering, because we do not know enough. We are not challenging the Minister’s good intent; I am sure that she is telling us everything she knows at the moment and that she does not wish to mislead the Committee, nor to pre-empt decisions that her department may go on to make. Some of us have been there and know the situation that she is in. However, the response to that should be to delay Report until we have those regulations, because otherwise most of this debate will continue on Report with questions such as, “What does this mean?” or “What does that mean?” and the Minister will say, “We have to await the regulations”. Then we will have an argument about whether those regulations will be affirmative or negative, and whether we can go back and amend legislation, given that we will then see the intent of the Government’s proposals, which the Minister was not able to share with us when we were discussing the Bill itself. She recognises this dilemma, as does the whole House—it is not unique to this Bill. Easter Recess is coming up. Either she must delay Report stage or she must get those regulations to us. For the sake of good scrutiny, we cannot afford to have the same sort of debate as we had on the previous day in Committee on Tuesday—and, so far, today.
My Lords, let me pick up the point my noble friend has just made. Given that there is a consultation, I completely understand what the Minister is saying. However, it is obviously sensible to delay Report so that this House can have a proper opportunity to peruse the regulations in detail.
My Lords, let me add that the danger is that the Bill will be treated as a skeleton Bill under the Cunningham report. I always oppose voting on fatals, but we may find ourselves having to vote on fatal Motions because it is the only way we will be able to deal with amendments that we should have been able to deal with in primary legislation.
During my modest contribution, I mentioned a number of abuses. Will the Minister assure us that each of those that I quoted will be considered and dealt with by officials, and that if they believe my comments were accurate, they will be dealt with in the regulatory arrangements?
My Lords, perhaps it is my fault that I have not noticed yet, but while we are on the question of the 40-year age limit, will the Minister tell me whether the cut-off will apply to a person trying to buy a house at the time they make an offer or the time they complete?
That is an interesting answer and I am grateful for it. May I suggest that we find a way of discussing this and thinking about it further, because if we think about the practicalities of buying houses, the answer that has just been given has all kinds of implications?
I appreciate that. I keep coming back to the point that this is to address a specific demographic in the market that has been disenfranchised from home ownership.
To return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I understand the frustration of the Committee. I understand particularly that when the House is frustrated by not receiving regulations, that then takes time that we should be taking to discuss the Bill. However, I also see the need for the consultation to be meaningful. I would not want to delay Report but I am happy to meet noble Lords once the consultation has been published, which they might find helpful.
My Lords, if that means we will not get the results of the Government’s response to the consultation until after Report, I suggest that through the usual channels they consider delaying Third Reading, or at least the use of Third Reading to take Report-style questions that we would not have been able to ask on Report because of the Government’s handling of their own timetable.
My Lords, I would like to revert from this dreadful series of process issues and assert that the Committee has every sympathy with the Minister; it is no fault of hers that we are in this dreadful situation. To go back to the last substantive thing that she said, which was about making sure that the houses are not let after being bought, what mechanism will there be for monitoring the situation? Unless it is effectively monitored it becomes a meaningless provision, and I am not sure how it might be monitored.
That is obviously right. The question is how it is going to be done. Will someone be going around and checking letting boards or with estate agents to see whether properties bought under right to buy are to be let? Or is it going to be an obligation, although how it would be enforced is another matter, for an owner of a right-to-buy property to notify someone about letting? Again, how could that be enforced? There are real practical difficulties here to which I find it hard to come up with an answer. I am not expecting the Minister to come up with an answer just like that, but I hope that someone in the department is giving some thought to how they can make a reality of the aspiration, which the Government and the Minister no doubt have, that the principle of not letting these properties is actually enforceable.
The noble Lord gets to the heart of some of the issues on which we shall be consulting and which we shall try to ensure do not happen—for example, abuse of the facility. The regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, so there will be time to debate them, although I am not losing sight of noble Lords’ frustration.
I have completely lost my place. The English housing survey, which was published in February, found that 83% of first-time buyers funded their first property with savings; 27% had help from family or friends, while 10% used inheritance. Many first-time buyers used a combination of sources and 96% required a mortgage to buy. I am not convinced that a mortgage requirement will prevent the gaming that noble Lords suggest, although I can see exactly where they are coming from. People can play all sorts of games with mortgages. They can get a mortgage and, six months later, pay it back. I am keen to prevent local gaming, but I do not know that this would actually prevent it. We will keep implementation under review and issue further regulations if necessary.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, talked about resale in the first five years. This is a very important point. For example, what would happen to any money from the 20% discount? If a property were resold in the first five years, it would be sold at a 20% discount during that period, so it would remain a starter-home type of product.
In a free market, how do you calculate the 20% discount within the first five years? Take year three. Who would decide the market price, and the subsidised—discounted—price? Would it be the estate agent; would there be some sort of independent valuer; or would it be the department? Who is going to do it? At that point, we would be interfering and trying to prejudge market values. I do not think that it will be possible.
The noble Lord is right. Market values can go down and they can go up. I would expect that an independent valuation of the property would be made and the 20% discount applied to the next person buying that starter home. It is true that the market might go down, in which case the price to any subsequent starter home purchaser would also go down.
I cannot see how you can calculate it. I am the purchaser. There is a house—a discounted property. How do I work out what I should pay? I might be competing with a queue of six people all of whom want to buy the house. Who is going to be the winner? In these conditions, there will be competition and one would have thought that the competition will take it above the discounted price. Unless there is some sort of preferential system built in, I cannot see how it can possibly work. We need a lot of information on this before we get to Report.
If the noble Lord is happy, we can discuss this further. There are all sorts of complexities in it and I am very happy to meet with him. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and I are likely to be meeting a lot over the next few weeks to discuss various things. But that would be the mechanism: money would not go anywhere but the property would come back on to the market as a starter home.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, also talked about a charge on a starter home, which is another good point. We will consider this issue further and will engage with lenders, developers and local authorities on the detailed implementation of starter homes, which will include such issues. The noble Lord also talked about the length of leases allowable on starter homes, which, again, is another good point. The Bill specifies that a starter home may be held as a freehold or a leasehold interest. The regulations will not specify the length of any lease but in practice they will be of a market-standard length so that it would be possible to obtain mortgage finance—that is, it would be very difficult to obtain mortgage finance on, for example, a leasehold property of 10 years—even if the purchaser does not intend to obtain a mortgage.
I entirely take the noble Lord’s point. As I say, that is our expectation, but we will continually monitor this. It is a new product and we will monitor it as time goes on.
I think I have answered the questions—or some of them—before I have introduced the amendments. Amendment 41B would not allow buy-to-let investors to buy a starter home but would require first-time buyers to occupy a starter home as their principal residence. I assure noble Lords that it is not our intention to allow those people who buy a starter home to become buy-to-let landlords, and nor do we want the properties to be second homes.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, brought up the point about what happens if someone inherits a house. If that happens and they sell it on, clearly they do not own that house, but once they occupy that house they own it and therefore they would not be a starter-home purchaser. I do not know what would happen if someone purchased a starter home and then one year into that purchase inherited a house. I can get back to the noble Lord on that.
What worries me is where someone inherits a house in the area where the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, lives, at £40,000, and then is disadvantaged because under the provisions in the Finance Act 2003, if they have acquired it—not purchased it but acquired it; in other words, inherited it—that would then deny them the right to have a starter home. That should be sorted out.
It would, but it would give them a very good deposit on a home if they were to then sell that property, and in the north-west, the implied first-time buyer price of a new build is £144,000. I am just giving an example which relates to the one the noble Lord gave, but in that case the properties would be well within the affordability range for a new-build first home.
I am not qualified to take part in these legal technicalities but this is clearly something that needs sorting out. If the Government are going to stop people buying a starter home and letting it during the five-year period, will they also be prevented from keeping it empty? For example, if I bought a starter home worth £250,000, having received a discount of £50,000, and with two years to go I unavoidably had to move somewhere else and could not live in that house, it would be altogether financially more beneficial to me to simply leave it empty for two years and pay the council tax on it rather than to sell it and lose the £50,000. What will the position be in that situation?
Theoretically a person could, within the five-year period, have to move somewhere else and therefore the house could be left empty for two years. The question is whether they sell that property within the five years. The person that the noble Lord is talking about would not sell the property; he would simply go elsewhere for work or for whatever purpose.
My Lords, there are all sorts of theoretical circumstances that we can put ourselves in but people may well move permanently—they may move to another part of the world or to another part of England where there are some jobs, unlike in parts of the north of England. Under those circumstances, they would not come back to the house and it would clearly be in their interests to leave it empty for two years. Therefore, the number of empty properties in that area would increase for purely bureaucratic reasons. All you have to do is leave the house empty for a couple of years, then sell it and make a profit of perhaps £45,000. That does not seem sensible. If the Government have not thought out the problem, they ought to do so and come back and tell us whether there is a solution to it.
On that last point, we want to help people to buy a starter home if they have a good chance of affording it. On the one hand, we want to stop abuse but, on the other hand, we do not want to stop appropriate geographical mobility. The core of the problem is that after five years the 20% discount ends. I hope that the Minister will understand the overlap between a lot of these discussions and the subsequent amendments relating to trying to keep that 20% discount in perpetuity, because at that point the possibility of abuse reduces very sharply.
My Lords, I am sure that we will go on to talk about “in perpetuity” today. The Government are quite clear that not making these homes discounted in perpetuity allows mobility up the housing ladder and frees up property for other people to live in. Also, it does not restrict the person who has bought the starter home in making progress up the property ladder.
I want to revert for a moment to the conundrum posed by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, to which the noble Baroness has endeavoured to reply—with some difficulty, which I quite understand. His question is predicated upon a single person inheriting a house. However, if two or three siblings inherited a share in that house, on the face of it that would also invoke the problem he raised. Again, I do not ask for an answer now but this is yet another area that needs to be explored by those advising the Minister. On the face of it, one out of the three, four or however many siblings might have a share in this notional property would be disqualified.
Perhaps I may take that point away because, like other noble Lords, I am no legal expert. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked about the Help to Buy scheme being used to purchase a starter home. We are certainly exploring whether it can be used but as yet no decisions have been made.
Just to wrap up this point if we can, when might decisions be made? The point is that if there is a 20% discount on a starter home and a potential 20% discount in certain circumstances through the Help to Buy scheme, somebody could get a 40% discount out of public funds on the house they buy. That seems rather a lot, and I would like an answer to that question before we finish with this Bill.
My Lords, Help to Buy is a government loan guarantee scheme as opposed to a discount, but I shall be happy to discuss that further and, as I said, to bring forward in due course government thinking on Help to Buy being used for a starter home.
Putting the sales and letting restrictions in regulations will give us flexibility to amend the restrictions, should this be required in the future. It will also give the opportunity to consult with key stakeholders to ensure the regulations operate fairly and effectively, which is what we all want. Restrictions in any legislation will not prevent gaming at the local level, much as we would want it to, but I reassure noble Lords that we will be working with builders, lenders and local government to secure the best possible mechanism to ensure that starter homes are for owner-occupiers only. We are working to secure a practical mechanism that can be agreed with all parties to ensure that starter homes are real homes for those who will enjoy living in them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked a question about second-home owners. I cannot remember what it was but I have something written down in my notes. Would she mind repeating the question?
It was how to ensure that, once the starter homes are sold on, having been occupied for two or however many years, it is not possible to sell them on to second-home owners or to people who are going to rent them out to other people. It was about second homes and holiday homes.
My Lords, unfortunately you cannot really stop that, much as we would like to see a perfect housing system in which there is no abuse. Noble Lords have given many examples of when, once the five or however many years are up, in subsequent years some of these houses could be used as second homes. I wish it were not the case but, unfortunately, it is. The point is that they will go back into the market as a supply of houses for people to live in in the future.
My Lords, I think the idea is that we want to make the system as simple as possible, but I completely accept the fact that we do not want to leave it open to abuse. There are examples of that under right to buy, where properties might have been used as second homes. Of course, we hope that the second-home stamp duty should deter some people—noble Lords included—due to the quite substantial price now involved in buying a second home.
Could I just challenge something that the Minister said? The nub of this is a point that we are going to come on to debate later: the in-perpetuity issue. A lot of these potential misuses, both at point of purchase and at point of sale subsequently, could be resolved very simply if the Government were to relent and see these starter homes as being starter homes in perpetuity with a permanent discount. I was very unconvinced by the Minister’s argument that, otherwise, people in these starter homes would be unable to get on to the next rung of the ladder in the housing market. Do we really want to be persuading people to go up the housing market ladder in an inflated way? That is partly the problem with the housing stock at the moment: prices are inflated, and the steps between a small property and the next rung up the ladder are huge, particularly in areas of high housing cost such as London. What is the harm of them staying in the smaller property, if they have to, until such time as they can either achieve their aim with additional savings to buy into the next higher grade or get to the point at which they have a sufficient income level to be able do it? It seems to me that the system will struggle in the future with the sorts of abuses that the Minister is struggling with, because of the inability to control what happens after the first sale.
I take the noble Baroness’s point, but the Government’s wish is that people who want to move—and there are many reasons why people would want to move in the future—will be able to do so without being restricted by the same problems that they faced when buying before the starter home discount came in. Also, that mobility introduces a supply into the market. Noble Lords from all round the House have talked about the lack of supply and the lack of supply at a certain level. So it has a dual purpose, in allowing other people to come on to the market but also introducing supply when those people choose to move on.
I now move to non-government Amendments 43 and 44. Over the last 20 years, we have heard that the proportion of those under the age of 40 who are homeowners in England has declined by over a third, from 61% to 38%. There has been a 26 percentage point increase in the proportion of that age group who rent homes in the private sector, from 18% to 44%. Therefore, as one has declined, so the other has gone up. This is a problem faced by an entire generation. It would be wrong to say that some people cannot benefit from starter homes and buy a home in the location that works for them simply because they are currently living or working elsewhere. They could, for example, currently be priced out of the neighbourhood of their choice, or they could be relocating for work or other personal reasons. The effect of a local connections test on starter homes would be to restrict access for some people for no good reason. A starter home purchaser must commit to living in the property for five years and there will not be the opportunity to rent out the property, as we have already discussed. This must be a better test of commitment to an area.
It is also important that there is consistency, in order that our reforms and the commitment to deliver 200,000 starter homes are widely understood. This is particularly important for lenders and developers, and their support and engagement are critical to achieve delivery. Putting differential requirements in place as a matter of course, such as a local connection test, would introduce complexity that we do not want in getting housing delivery on the ground. However, my noble friend Lord Young brought up the point that a local connection may be warranted, and I recognise that. It has long been a common feature of rural exceptions sites, where opportunities for new housing supply are very limited. As part of our consultation on national planning policy, we sought views on whether local planning authorities should have the flexibility to introduce a local connection test for starter homes on rural exception sites. This would reflect the particular needs of some rural areas, where local connections are important and access to the housing market for working people can be extremely difficult. It would also be consistent with existing policy on rural exception sites. We are currently considering consultation responses on this point.
My Lords, I wonder whether it might not be sensible also to look at possible urban exception sites. Take the case of inner London—there may be other places as well—where there are very high levels of demand and very high prices, and even these homes will not exactly be cheap. Would it not be sensible to allow the local planning authorities in those areas to have the discretion to require a local connection, having regard to the pressures they are already experiencing with their existing population? I certainly support the rural exception point, and presumably it may be possible to have a similar mechanism for urban areas. Perhaps in conjunction with discussions with the LGA or combined authorities, the Government could reach an agreement about which areas should have that. Some element of discretion ought surely to be provided for in urban areas. The Minister represented part of Greater Manchester where, I suspect, there will be areas with precisely the same problem.
I support my noble friend in what he says. This morning, I was sent briefing data from the city of Cambridge. The average house price in Cambridge city, based on February 2016 data, is £483,625—in other words, £484,000. The lowest quartile price is £315,000, and there has been a 17% increase in the last 12 months. South of Cambridgeshire—so people would have to travel in, but none the less—the average price is £385,700. In the east of England, it is £303,000. These figures confirm the point that my noble friend was making: we are going to need exemptions for urban sites of high demand just as we will in rural areas. Cambridge city and university cities across the country face this sort of price explosion.
My Lords, as I said, we are keen not to introduce complexity generally. The reason I homed in on the rural exception sites was for those very reasons: lack of supply generally and people who want to work locally to whom that test could be applied.
I move on to government Amendments 42A, 44A, 44B and 45B. These amendments would allow for some modest flexibility on the under-40 age cap. Amendments 44A and 44B allow the Secretary of State by affirmative regulations to exempt the under- 40 age cap for specified categories of people. It would allow the Secretary of State to specify circumstances where a property may still be classified as a starter home if it is purchased by joint purchasers, not all of whom are under 40. Both exemptions would allow limited flexibility in the age threshold, for example, where joint first-time buyers wished to buy a starter home and one was over the age of 40. We consider that a reasonable amendment.
Amendment 45A would require the Secretary of State to consult local authorities, the Mayor of London and any other person the Secretary of State thinks appropriate, such as professional bodies, before amending the price cap for starter homes. A requirement to consult before amending the price caps was one of the amendments tabled by the Opposition in the other place.
I have made it clear that price caps are not an expectation of the going price for starter homes, and I am sure that I will reiterate that point again. The price cap framework has been set nationally to ensure that there is a clear and consistent product that first-time buyers, lenders and developers all understand. However, I expect that there will be regional differences, as we have discussed. We want the policy to work effectively across the country. That is why we have taken powers to amend the price cap through affirmative regulations, which will ensure that the provisions remain up to date. The Secretary of State can adjust the limit to reflect movements in the property market generally. Following further consideration, we have decided to amend the Bill so that it is a requirement for the Secretary of State to consult local authorities, the Mayor of London and any other person that the Secretary of State thinks appropriate, such as professional bodies, if we decide to change the price caps in future.
I hope that that provides reassurances that local authorities will be able to make representations before any change to price caps is made through regulations, and we will consider any responses carefully. Although I thank noble Lords for tabling Amendment 45, the government amendment makes it unnecessary.
Amendment 45B is linked to Amendment 45A and allows regulations under the clause to amend the starter homes chapter of the Bill. For example, if the Secretary of State were to use that power to create a list of different categories of people to whom the age requirement does not apply—for example, a specific professional group—the list could be inserted into Chapter 1 as a new section. This will add further flexibility, should it be required.
Amendment 42A is technical, amending the Secretary of State’s power in Clause 2(3)(c) to make regulations which specify the characteristics that an individual must possess to be considered a qualifying first-time buyer for the purposes of Clause 2. We consider that the term “criteria” more accurately reflects the imposition of things such as a minimum age requirement that an individual must meet to be a qualifying first-time buyer.
My Lords, I understand why the Minister has been unable to pick up all the questions that have been thrown at her, but one question I asked was: have the Government considered an income cap as well as an age cap? If they have rejected that idea, why?
If there is the demand that the noble Baroness thinks that there will be, how will she reconcile that with the fact that many people on a higher income who could afford to go into the open market—those in jobs with a professional qualification, such as accountancy, law, medicine, teaching and so on—will not start earning their salaries until their late 20s, at which point they will be thinking to buy? They could go into the open market but now—sensibly—will choose to go into a starter home because there will be no limitation on them. Two such people may well have an income of £70,000 or £80,000 outside London and could well afford to go into the open market but, if they acquire a starter home, will be displacing someone else who is possibly in greater need. Why have the Government not explored that? There may well be good arguments on the other side, but it is odd to have an age restriction but not an income restriction; frankly, it is not age that stops people going into the open market, it is income.
My Lords, if you look at the demographic, you see that it is this age group that is restricted. I take the noble Baroness’s point about accountants and doctors, but it takes quite a long time to earn a decent salary in either of those professions—I am married to someone in one of them. It is the age group that has been so badly restricted, and that is why the age group was selected.
My Lords, I am very sorry to interrupt the Minister yet again, but on various occasions during this debate she has talked about abuse. The biggest abuse of all, which will be a consequence of the Bill, is very highly paid young people in their 30s benefiting from a very large discount—in London, it could be £80,000 or £90,000. Surely the Government should be concerned about that. It will bring the legislation for starter homes into disrepute, and rightly so. I reiterate the concern around the House about this issue and ask the Minister to reconsider whether there should not be a government amendment on this issue.
My Lords, the Minister has ruled out a mortgage but, in this context, perhaps the Government could right here, right now, today rule out cash buyers. That gives us something more specific to hold on to here. Or can the Minister envisage a cash buyer in this scenario who would not have an unnecessary advantage?
My Lords, I hope that I have demonstrated—I do not think anyone is disputing it—that if this market was so open to people of this age, they would be buying. The fact is that, over the past 20 years, they have not been buying; purchasing has hugely declined. Yes, we may be talking about a few people in London on a high salary, but the statistics show us that that is not the case. We should not be restricting it geographically or by income, because it is a problem facing an entire generation. That is why we do not want to restrict them from being able to buy, should they wish to.
My Lords, I am sorry to keep saying this, but I shall keep saying it until the Government start to engage in the discussion. There are parts of the country where the housing market is stagnant, where there are real housing problems, but they are not the inability of a particular demographic—in this case, people under 40—to access the market. As I demonstrated earlier, where a lot of good-quality properties are already available for the same price as new two and three-bedroom semis would sell for, if they were starter homes and attracted the 20% discount, the introduction of starter homes is likely to have a severely disruptive effect on the whole housing market. There may be answers to this, but for the Minister to suggest that the demographic of under-40s is excluded in the same way in all parts of the country is simply not true. Moreover, the solution being put forward is, as I say, likely to have a severely disruptive effect on the whole housing market and potentially do more harm than good.
This is not particularly my view; it is one that has been put to me strongly by our local council officials who are involved in all this. They are the ones dealing with empty properties and trying to get new build going right across the field: housing officers, planning officers and senior council officers. They say that this proposal as it stands will do more harm than good, possibly far more harm than good, and actually will not seriously improve the prospects of the under-40s to get their own homes.
I am sorry; I do refer to the place I know best, but this is not about a single place in England. We have the same sort of housing market across a range of areas, many of which are in the north of England, but there are some in the Midlands, the south-west and others in amazing places where I did not really know that this problem existed. It is generally those places where the housing market is stagnant, and there are quite a lot of them about.
My Lords, I shall reiterate the point I made the other day. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the housing market is stagnant in some parts of the north-west of England and employment is not like it is in the rest of the country. I think that the interventions that the Government have made in, for example, transport and infrastructure will put some of those areas back on their feet again, playing their economic part in the country.
Coming back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, about cash buyers, I do not know a single person aged under 40 who is a cash buyer, although of course there will be some. But our overriding principle here is that we do not want to disenfranchise people who work hard from the housing market.
My noble friend Lord Shipley has tabled this amendment on mortgages for precisely that kind of reason. No, of course there are not many people aged under 40 who are cash buyers, but if someone subsidises them to become cash buyers in order to acquire a property, that is the loophole we are concerned about here.
I think I have explained that having a mortgage will not stop gaming. There are always going to be abuses of the system, but we are trying to address an age group which has been disenfranchised from the purchasing market. I hope that what I have said gives to some extent reassurance to the noble Lord and that he will feel content to withdraw his amendment.
Can I push the noble Baroness a little further on this? I do not think it is good enough to say that there are always going to be abuses; we need a little more than that. There will be scams and shams, so we have to make sure that we will be able to identify them and sort them out.
Perhaps I may add to the point made by my noble friend. Many of the abuses will indeed be made if not by the mortgage principle then by continuing the discount in perpetuity. Can the Minister tell us why she thinks, if the discount in perpetuity were to apply, that would disadvantage first-time buyers in the future: those who bought the first time round, the second time round or the third time round? The only people it would disadvantage are those who seek to pocket a profit.
My Lords, the effect of introducing 1 million more new homes into the housing market by 2021 will be to increase supply, which should, first, deal with some of the problems of demand and, secondly, start to moderate house prices in a way that has not been the case over the past few decades.
My Lords, I realise that I am ploughing a different furrow from other noble Lords in these interventions, but I have to say with all due deference to the Minister that my concerns about our local housing market and that of many other areas are not answered by her saying that the Government are going to introduce better infrastructure and invest at that sort of level. If that happens it will be extremely welcome. There is not much sign of it in east Lancashire at the moment, but even if there were, investing in infrastructure takes time. There is no doubt that it takes 10 to 15 years and has a long-term payback. As I understand it, we are talking about the housing market over the next few years. Building new roads, reinstating railways and doing all the other things that people are talking about under the heading of the northern powerhouse will not have any significant effect on our housing market and that of many other parts of the north of England in the next five years. Meanwhile, we have to deal with the problems that result from a stagnant, fragile, flat housing market next year, the year after and so on.
I am not trying to be awkward about this. If starter homes are a wonderful thing, I am all for them. But what I am saying is that in these parts of the country the introduction of starter homes risks having a disruptive effect on the existing housing market. While starter homes might be built if anyone can be found to build them, which is a question in itself, the result may well be that the rest of the housing market in the area becomes even more depressed than it is at the moment. That will mean more empty properties and a general reluctance on the part of developers to build, whether for social rent, private rent or owner-occupation. If the return from building houses either through selling them or from rents is less than all the costs put together of building them, they are not going to be built. Because of this bonus—this subsidy—we might get some starter homes, but that will put a severe damper on the rest of the housing market.
All I am asking is for the Government to discuss this with people on the ground in areas like those I have mentioned. We should set up a mechanism for doing this and see how it works, and then perhaps bring forward different rules, exceptions or whatever it might be—or just reach an understanding between us—to see how things can be improved. There is no point in having a starter homes policy or anything else in areas where it is actually going to make things worse.
My Lords, before my noble friend answers, this has gone beyond a joke. My noble friend has given as many answers as she possibly can and, as a result, has been battered by yet further questions exemplifying the miscellaneous points which have been made. My noble friend has offered meetings with any and all noble Lords who want to pursue their points quietly so that they can pursue them again, if necessary, on Report. Surely, this is enough.
No, my Lords; the problem with the noble Lord’s comment—I do not know whether he was here when we were discussing this earlier—is that we are dealing with what is essentially a skeleton Bill. We do not know how this scheme is going to work in any sort of detail. We have spent some time today and some time on Tuesday trying to tease out the detail. We do not blame the Minister; we entirely sympathise with her in the situation she is in, but she is trying to answer questions to which she cannot know the answer because, deeply foolishly, the Government have started a consultation exercise on all these questions so late that the results of the Government’s thinking, as affected by that consultation exercise, cannot be fed into today’s discussions in Committee.
The fault is with the Government’s timetabling. It is not the Minister’s fault—she is doing her best and we have every sympathy with her; none the less, the Government have put her in this position, trying to answer questions she cannot answer, because they have not banked their consultation exercise in appropriate time, but they expect this House to go ahead with scrutiny of major policy developments without the detail that should inform it.