§ Motion made, and Question proposed That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]2.30 pm
§ Sir Marcus Fox (Shipley)
I am sorry to intrude upon the Minister's weekend activities by asking him to realise—as I am sure he will by the end of this short debate—that there is a deteriorating relationship between the Royal British Legion housing association and the Housing Corporation. It is quite unnecessary and it can be rectified virtually immediately. I hope that common sense will prevail, which is all that I ask.
I regret that the Housing Corporation has not lived up to the expectations that many of us had at its inception. There is a feeling that it has become bureaucratic and that some of its officers behave autocratically in their examination of certain housing associations, and I am not restricting that criticism to the Royal British Legion. It is a great shame, because, after all, those who serve housing associations are volunteers. They give of their time because they feel that they are fulfilling an important social need. Anything that gets in the way of the good relationship that should exist should be carefully examined.
The debate is dealing with a housing association that is attached to the Royal British Legion, hence its title. I wish to use the debate to highlight one area of concern. The management committee consists of a majority of people from the Royal British Legion, as we would expect. I must declare an interest because I am a consultant to the Royal British Legion—although, I hasten to add, unpaid—and so is the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who would have been here to support me had that been possible.
The more that I know of the Royal British Legion, the more impressed I am by its wonderful work. If this House were packed, and it never is for an Adjournment debate, I should be surprised if there was any dissent from that statement. The Royal British Legion cares for those who gave so much not only in two world wars but in the other conflicts since then. I am thinking especially of the grievous problems in Northern Ireland and the suffering that has been caused. The timing of this debate could not be better because we are approaching Remembrance Day.
Some 25 years ago, in August 1964, the British Legion—as it was then—decided to take advantage of recently introduced legislation to form a housing association. The intention was to provide well-designed and well-built housing for ex-service men and women who had reached retirement age and needed to spend their remaining days in warden-assisted sheltered housing. Only two types of property are involved—single bedroom accommodation for a couple and bedsit accommodation. In other words, the accommodation is restricted to the sort of people who would need it.
I am sure that it will be generally accepted and appreciated that those who have served their country in the armed services have a special distinction and a disciplined approach to life's complexities. I am not sure that I can speak for both my hon. Friend the Whip and my hon. Friend the Minister, but two of us have served in the armed forces. I apologise if I have wrongly left out my hon. Friend the Minister, but he looks rather young to have been in the armed services. It is quite traumatic for service people to return to everyday civilian life where they have 650 to make their own decisions and do not have that comradely feeling that there are others who care and who are in close contact. If that is the case when people come out of the Army after three years, think what it is like after a lifetime of service.
Therefore, the conditions created by the Royal British Legion housing association are ideal. These courts provide the perfect conditions for ex-soldiers, sailors and airmen and their spouses or widows. There are two of these homes in my constituency and I know how well they are appreciated. One has been particularly well sited because it is next door to another development for retired licensed victuallers, and they seem to have a bit in common.
It is of interest that the original rules laid out when the housing association was formed are:The objects of the society shall be to carry on the industry, business or trade of providing housing and any associated amenities for ex-servicemen, their wives, widows and dependants and ex-service women, all of whom are of limited means.On that foundation, it is not surprising that in the next 22 years, the housing association built 12,586 flats and houses. It is now the landlord, and an acceptable one, for some 19,000 ex-service men and women. It has for several years been the second largest voluntary housing association in the country. By 31 March, it had invested £212 million.
Among housing associations, the legion is unique in that each housing court has its own local dedicated band of workers, mainly ex-service personnel and members of the legion. These committees are in daily touch with the warden and residents and thus are able to ensure their proper welfare on a regular basis. Considerable sums have been raised by each of the local committees to provide communal furnishing and amenities for the tenants' benefit. This is an almost perfect way to manage such housing, because it relieves the national and local welfare services of much of the stress in establishing need. Because all the legion's benevolent and welfare services are available, this is a model association for others to emulate.
In accordance with the Housing Acts—it is important for the Minister to remember this—from its inception the Royal British Legion housing association has continued to hold 50 per cent. of its tenancies available to nomination by the local authorities concerned. In the majority of instances, local authorities have selected as their nominees those ex-service people on their waiting lists whom they considered to be in need of sheltered housing, recognising the comradely atmosphere of the legion's courts. The legion's philosophy is—at first gradually, and then increasingly fast—over the next two or three decades to seek tenants from outside the service community, to enable the developments to be filled. This is the right policy to meet the considerable costs of development.
In 1986, the Royal British Legion housing association was subjected to undue pressure by the Housing Corporation, which wished it to amend its rules. The clear message was that failure to comply would mean the dropping of funding for new projects. The association had already, in 1982, amended its rules to provide that where no suitable ex-service tenant was forthcoming, it would house a non-ex-service man or woman in housing need. Some 8 per cent. of its tenants are not ex-service people.
In 1986, because of the pressure from the Housing Corporation, the legion reluctantly adopted the following rule: 651The object of the society shall be to carry on the industry, business or trade of providing housing by way of family housing, sheltered housing and higher care housing for persons in housing need and on appropriate terms giving consideration, where reasonable, to the ex-service community.The effect was to open up all the association's tenancies to all civilian classifications and to relegate ex-service men and women to an afterthought.
In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the increase in finance, which it was suggested would be obtained when the rules were changed, has not materialised. The stance of the Housing Corporation is that because the association draws its development funds from public sources, its tenancy selection process must be completely open. That denies the fact that there are tens of thousands within the ex-service community who would qualify to end their days in housing such as the RBL makes available. To emphasise the size of catchment area, the RBL reminds us that the ex-service community, inclusive of immediate family, totals 20 million people, or one third of the population.
A majority of those on local authority housing lists are ex-service people. In view of its stance, it is strange that the Housing Corporation is in the habit of stating its desire to be of special service to categories of people who meet with difficulty in life, such as one-parent families, time-served offenders and immigrants from the ethnic minorities and those suffering disability. It seems strange that housing associations are being set up to deal with some of those categories while the RBL is denied the right to look after ex-service people, when that is its prime intention.
The RBL and I would be happy to accept that when ex-service people cease to be available to take up tenancies the community at large should benefit from its imaginative initiative. Places could be filled by other deprived people who need housing.
In future, the RBL, like most other housing associations, will have to finance its borrowing needs in the private sector. It has much still to offer as a wise, skilful and successful association, but it sees no future if it cannot serve those who served us in such a remarkable way. It wishes to return to the position that obtained prior to the 1986 amendment to the rules, and proposes a reversion to the 1982 rule which allowed it to concentrate all its efforts in the ex-service sector.
The RBL expects its request to be listened to carefully. It is anxious to play a leading role in resettling ex-service men and women and wishes to do so, even for those who came out of the forces with less than 21 years' service.
I hope that the Minister will give the Royal British Legion housing association hope and will recognise that it has fulfilled a worthwhile role and wishes to continue to do so.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) for raising this subject because it gives me an opportunity to praise the work done by the Royal British Legion housing association and that of housing associations in general, with the help of public subsidy. He also mentioned the Housing Corporation, although not in glowing terms. The House will recognise that the Housing corporation plays a major part in promoting the work of the housing association movement and has a vital role in securing the 652 best use of funds from Parliament. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the timing of this debate. It occurs during the annual poppy appeal. In the week leading up to Remembrance Day services across the land, the importance of the Royal British Legion's charitable work is very much in our minds.
We should bear in mind that the Royal British Legion housing association is constituted as a body separate from the Royal British Legion itself. The housing association is a registered charity in its own right; it is a registered friendly society; and, under yet another statutory provision, it is registered with the Housing Corporation.
My hon. Friend has illustrated the scale of the work done by the housing association, which is one of the largest in the country, with more than 12,500 dwellings. They are let mainly to elderly people, and to those who need various forms of personal care. A high proportion of the tenants are ex-service men or their dependants. The association's housing can be found all over the country, with several hundred separate schemes or courts, usually with a resident warden service.
My hon. Friend has the advantage of me, as his constituency contains two such schemes; mine contains only one—Ironside court, in the centre of Southampton—which I know to be very popular and extremely well run.
My hon. Friend referred, modestly to the organisation. He also referred to the role of the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). The fact that two such distinguished Members of the House give of their time freely to the association is a futher indication of its importance, and of the high esteem in which it is held.
I hope that today's debate has given an idea not only of the scale, but of the quality of the service that is provided. As my hon. Friend has said, the association harnesses the generous voluntary help given by more than 3,000 unpaid helpers, who are organised through local "house committees". The result is a very high standard of service to tenants. My hon. Friend described it as an almost perfect way of managing this type of housing, and that, I believe, is also the verdict of the Housing Corporation, which has a statutory responsibility to monitor the performance of housing associations. It has, I know, been most impressed by this aspect of the association's service.
Let me say a little about the work of the Housing Corporation and how it relates to individual housing associations. My hon. Friend expressed reservations about the corporation's actions. Far be it from me to deny that there are elements of bureaucracy and autocracy within it, although, if the corporation contains unsatisfactory elements we should certainly know about them with a view to discussing them with its chairman. Dealings that I have had with it, however, suggest to me that the corporation is a very well-run organisation with a team of dedicated employees, and that it is doing a very important job. I hope that my hon. Friend's remarks refer to particular examples, and are unrepresentative of the true picture.
The function of the Housing Corporation is to supervise a massive capital programme to provide new subsidised housing. This year it is running a programme of over £800 million in public funds for investment in housing associations that are building new homes for rent, renovating older housing stock or helping people on low incomes to get on to the first rung of the home ownership ladder. That capital programme is set to rise substantially in future years, with more and more private finance being drawn in to help the public investment to go further. 653 Housing associations are now in the forefront of providing new homes for people who could not otherwise afford them, and the Housing Corporation has a responsibility to ensure that the best possible results—in terms of value for money and meeting genuine housing needs—are achieved from the increased investment.
The Housing Corporation is also responsible for paying public subsidy—known as housing association grant—towards the schemes carried out under the capital programme. The grant that the House votes towards such expenditure currently averages about 75 per cent. of the capital cost of a housing association scheme. That is a generous level of subsidy, and it helps to ensure that accommodation is accessible to those in housing need at rents within their reach.
The Royal British Legion housing association has had enormous financial support from public sources over the years. During the last five years I understand that some £20 million of new public investment has been channelled through the association. In terms of grant, to date well over £150 million in cash terms has been paid from voted funds towards the cost of housing schemes developed by the association. That is a measure of the importance of the work that the association does. It is also, of course, a reminder that housing associations—even though they are constituted as voluntary, and often charitable, bodies—are heavily dependent on taxpayer funding. There is therefore a weighty responsibility on those who administer the funding to ensure that it is achieving the objectives for which the money has been made available. That is the task of the Housing Corporation.
My hon. Friend questioned the role of the Housing Corporation in connection with the aims and objectives of the Royal British Legion housing association. He says that there was a change in the rules in 1986 and that he and other members of the association would prefer a return to the rules that prevailed in 1982. Any proposed rule changes would have to be discussed with the Housing Corporation. I hope that that will happen. I am prepared to discuss with my hon. Friend or other members of the Royal British Legion housing association any issues that arise from those discussions, but in the first instance the discussions should be with the Housing Corporation.
654 Even under the existing rules it should not be impossible to meet the objectives to which my hon. Friend referred. He says that the new rules treat ex-service men and women as an afterthought. I am not sure that that is the intention of the new rules. They emphasise that housing need has to be examined, as well as the background of those who will use the housing. It would be wrong for a housing association to concentrate exclusively on the background of the people whom it houses. It should also have to take into account their housing need.
My hon. Friend says that a large number of ex-service men and their dependants are in housing need, but he foresees the time when there may be sufficient places in Royal British Legion housing association accommodation to accommodate those who are not ex-service men. His point, however, is that at the moment the demands of ex-service men and their dependants are so great that it is unlikely that many non-ex-service men can be accommodated. My hon. Friend also pointed out that about 50 per cent. of the nominations normally rest with local authorities and that it is within their absolute discretion to allocate housing to ex-service men and their dependants or to others.
I hope that the objectives and purposes to which my hon. Friend referred can be achieved without a battle between the Housing Corporation and the association. The worst outcome would be for that largely voluntary organisation to find itself at loggerheads with the Housing Corporation. I shall do everything that I can to ensure that difficulties, if there are any, are soon resolved.
My hon. Friend referred to other specialist housing associations. Certain associations concentrate on particular cultural, occupational, ethnic or religious minority groups. Their housing need is significant, but it is not fair to suggest that all those associations offer housing just to the members of those groups. When they examine their allocations they have to take into account the overall housing need. Nevertheless, if it is a specialist housing association, almost all the accommodation will be allocated to members of that particular group.
I hope that I have been able to put the matter into context. I shall be happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend, should he so wish. I thank him once again for raising the issue, and, once again, I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion housing association's fine work.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o'clock.