First of all, though, I heartily welcome the many measures in the bill to tackle antisocial behaviour, in addition to the powers given to social landlords in the new Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, passed in the teeth of Liberal Democrat opposition. The mandatory national licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation will, I hope, not only help make sure that such accommodation meets necessary standards of fitness but will help clamp down on the use of such houses for antisocial and criminal purposes.
The planned licensing regime for private rented accommodation can, if it is made to work, deal firmly with excesses committed by private landlords and/or tenants with whom they may collude in drug-dealing or in using the premises as brothels.
It is an especially scandalous that housing benefit is misused to fund such offences – public money that is all too likely to be part of the swag shared between landlord and tenant.
I would have preferred such a scheme to be national and all-inclusive – however, I accept that this would have imposed an administrative burden that may have made the scheme less effective. The next best thing may have been to give councils the power to designate areas where the new rules are in effect, subject to approval by the secretary of state. This will be easier to administrate.
Housing benefit is all too likely to be part of the swag shared between landlords and tenants
I like, too, the restrictions on mutual exchanges where one (or even both) parties may have been involved in antisocial behaviour. At present there is doubt about whether powers to remove or restrict the right to buy for those involved in antisocial behaviour will be included in the bill.
I hope they are.
One other provision shows how things change. When I was a housing minister in the mid-1970s, the government provided powers (and loan sanction) for local authorities to buy up unpurchased properties intended for owner-occupation but, because of the then mortgage famine, standing vacant. The new bill will provide powers for the Housing Corporation (and the Welsh assembly) to provide funding not only for social housing but for private developers who provide affordable housing for would-be purchasers. This is a very good idea – provided it does not reduce the kitty available to the Housing Corporation to fund social housing.
And there is one other provision that might usefully be built on in committee stage. The present text will provide for a social housing ombudsman system to be inaugurated – but only in Wales. Yes, I know that at present in England there is a housing ombudsman system within the local government ombudsman umbrella. But, looking at my own constituency as an example, with housing still accounting for a high proportion of my casework (as it has done for more than 33 years), I would very much welcome one name and address that I could contact on my constituent's behalf – or, better still, that my constituents could contact directly.
Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee.