HL Deb 06 March 2002 vol 632 cc247-9
Baroness Knight of Collingtree

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is their policy to encourage local authorities to set up private housing sector departments and, if so, what the aim of this venture is.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, we want local authorities to think strategically about housing in their areas. That should cover all tenures, not just the housing they own. We are certainly encouraging local authorities to move their landlord functions into arm's length management organisations, leaving the centre to take this more strategic view.

We do not expect local authorities to set up private housing departments, but most local authorities already have officers who deal with private housing, administering renewal grants.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, will the Minister ask local authorities to take great care in operations of this kind? Is he aware that for local authorities to send teams of surveyors into thousands of private homes to inquire into the condition of those homes, the accommodation they comprise, and the needs of the residents is offensive to owner occupiers? Is it not against data protection law for councils to use the lists of names and addresses on the council tax register for any purpose other than that for which those lists were compiled?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am not sure what the noble Baroness is referring to when she mentions teams of surveyors going around. Each local authority has a strategic function in relation to housing, including private housing. They must perform that function appropriately and with discretion. One of the points they must look for is whether or not intervention is required in low-quality private housing stock. Without in any way offending the people who own such property, that is one of the factors they must keep in mind.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is considerable concern about the amount of housing disrepair, particularly in older, private housing? What priority will the Government give to providing resources for that purpose in the Comprehensive Spending Review? In asking the question I declare an interest as vice-president of the National Home Improvement Council.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree. There is considerable concern about the quality of some private housing stock. One knows that in particular towns, both in the North East and North West, there are concentrations of low-quality privately-owned stock, which is often of much lower quality than the social housing in that area. It is a matter that needs to be addressed. Like all other issues in relation to housing, it will be addressed in the Comprehensive Spending Review. It would be wrong for me to make any predictions in relation to that.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, the Homelessness Bill entitles several more categories of person to be given priority for housing. Does the Minister believe that there is a greater role to be played in that regard by the private housing sector? Does he think that the administration of the housing benefit system is sufficiently robust to enable that to happen? En asking the question I declare an interest as a member of a local authority.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with the first part of the question. The private rented sector has an important role to play in relation to homelessness. As regards the second part of the question, I fully accept that the administration of housing benefit requires to be improved. The Government have always accepted that. We have allocated resources to improving the administration of housing benefit. We are nowhere near being all the way there, but we are working on it.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, can the Minister provide some information about the consultation period for the registration of private landlords? Will the Government make resources available to ensure that such registration is dealt with efficiently?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Secretary of State issued a consultation paper a few months ago which raised the issue of whether there should be licensing of private landlords in areas of low demand. Landlords in such circumstances have often put in tenants without regard to their conduct, which has brought down the whole neighbourhood. That consultation period has just come to an end, or is about to come to an end. The Secretary of State will make an announcement shortly in relation to it.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, would the Minister be kind enough to answer the second part of the question asked by my noble friend Lady Knight regarding the Data Protection Act and the data on council tax lists?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the difficulty I have is that I am not sure to what the noble Baroness referred. She said that using a particular list, local authorities sent surveyors round to privately-owned properties. I do not know what list is being referred to, nor what the surveyors were doing, so I am not in a position to comment. I shall discuss with the noble Baroness precisely to what she referred. It would be wrong for me to comment on that at this stage.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, in asking my question I declare an interest as chairman of the Housing Corporation. Does the Minister agree that one of the problems the Government inherited with private housing is that, with the sale of some council stock in areas of regeneration, people who have bought their own homes from the council do not have the funds to maintain them and the taxpayer has to step in to buy back the property to regenerate the area?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, yes, that is a problem that arises in areas of regeneration, particularly in the North East and the North West. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, made the point that we need to consider what steps need to be taken as regards regeneration in areas that have a concentration of privately-owned homes.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following on the question asked by my noble friend Lady Maddock, does the Minister recall the recent debate on the private rented sector in which he participated? It is at the lower end of that sector that some of the worst housing conditions in this country exist. Irrespective of what might be decided in the Comprehensive Spending Review, can he tell the House what the local authorities are now being asked to do about that serious problem?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do recall that very important debate. All of us are keen to see the private rented sector rise in quality. As the noble Lord says, it has some very low quality property. In particular, the lowest quality housing in that sector is homes in multiple occupation.

Local authorities must make priorities. They must form a strategic view about where they should concentrate their efforts in relation to housing in their area. That is what we are urging local authorities to do.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the Northampton area 2,500 people, whose names were taken at random from the council's rateable value list, were sent letters saying that a team of surveyors had been employed to go into their homes to find out these details? They are, after all, people who have managed their own affairs perfectly well.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, obviously the Data Protection Act applies. I was not aware of what the noble Baroness has referred to. I shall write to her and make inquiries about the matter.

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