Sir George, a former Housing Minister, took the government to task for allowing the collapse of a scheme he helped establish 17 years ago to allow tenants of local authorities and housing association to move from one part of the country to another.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to share with the House the problems that confront social housing tenants who want to move from one part of the country to another. I am delighted to see in her place the Minister, who I am sure shares my concern about what has gone wrong in that area. I am also delighted to see in his place the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who has a longstanding interest in housing policy.
This is not a happy tale. Every Member of Parliament has some housing association or local authority tenants who want to move into or out of their constituency. Often there are compelling reasons for such a move. Elderly parents want to move to be nearer their families, perhaps so that they do not have to go into a home. Children want to move near their parents for help with child care and sometimes people have to move for job reasons. Therefore, there are important social and economic reasons for having an effective transfer market in social housing. Mobility is also important if we are to get the right-sized properties for the right households.
Unlike owner-occupiers or private sector tenants, who can simply up sticks and move, social housing tenants are less in control of their destiny. The stock distribution of their landlords is often based on local authority boundaries. If they want to transfer to a new landlord, the process can be complex. Over the years, several schemes have been set up to promote the mobility of social tenants, the history of which has been described by Simon Randall, in an excellent book called “Tenants’ Mobility”. I was a Housing Minister in 1981, when the national mobility scheme was launched by local authorities and new towns in England and Wales.
Later, in 1990, I was still a Housing Minister, although under a different configuration, and I took the view that there was a need for a new national mobility service for local authorities and housing associations. A new organisation, the Housing Mobility and Exchange Service, or HOMES, took over a multiplicity of different schemes, including the inter-borough nomination scheme or IBNS, the local authority mobility scheme or LAMS, the tenants exchange scheme or TES, the housing association liaison office or HALO, and the rest, as well as some successful London schemes. We had a target of 2 per cent. of local authority net lettings, and 4 per cent. for larger housing associations, to be made available to a central pool for tenants who wanted to move for social or economic reasons.
Some 100,000 tenants moved under that scheme. In addition, HOMES developed a separate home swap scheme to enable tenants across the UK to exchange homes. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people will have moved under that scheme. The popular and successful scheme was inherited by the new Labour Government in 1997. Last month, owing to mismanagement, the scheme collapsed, and a few days ago the remaining staff of HOMES, who had lost their jobs, left, and tens of thousands of tenants were left in the lurch. I understand that earlier this year, staff running the scheme were told not to deal with correspondence, leaving hundreds of unopened letters on the premises.
That failure has not had the national coverage of this Government’s other IT failures. It does not involve the billions of pounds spent in error by the tax credits scheme, or the careers of junior doctors ruined by the Medical Training Application Service. But thousands of people who might have used a perfectly good scheme to move from one part of the country to another without losing the benefit of their tenure can no longer do so. One in five social tenants in a recent survey claimed to be either certain to move or likely to move to alternative accommodation in the next five years.
So what went wrong? In 2004, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister awarded a seven-year£17 million contract to Scout Solutions Projects Ltd. Some surprise was expressed at the time about the choice of contractor. Scout Solutions took over HOMES, and the then Housing Minister said that the new scheme would make existing schemes more comprehensive. It has done the opposite.
By February last year, reports were appearing in Inside Housing saying that the scheme had ground to a halt because of problems making the software workable. One housing director told Inside Housing:
“Technologically I think it is a huge waste of public money. It has gone very very quiet. The emails have stopped.”
The ODPM admitted that it did not know when the new website was going to be launched. It was originally scheduled for 2005.
In March last year, the failure to get the new scheme, Move UK—the brand name under which it traded—going led a number of housing associations and councils to set up a competing scheme. Lesley Woods, the design manager at Circle Anglia, said of the site that it set up:
“The site was developed out of frustration with the problems of MoveUK...we had been trying to join for three years and finally decided it was going to be delayed.”
By July last year, the Department was saying that it was unable to provide any details of the scheme because it was
“subject to legal confidentiality restrictions.”
A spokesman for MoveUK also refused to comment.
Numbers rehoused through the mobility scheme continued to plummet. A spokesman from Barking and Dagenham was quoted in Inside Housing as saying:
“The general sense is that there is a gaping hole with MoveUK.”
The newly appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was meanwhile promising, in her letter of appointment to the Prime Minister, to make improving social mobility a priority. But last September the DCLG announced that it was axing the contract, after spending £11 million on Scout Solutions, which had failed to provide a viable scheme.
At the point at which it was brought down, the already available HOMES website was the largest and most used public sector website in the UK, with 10 million hits a month and more than 800 new home swap registrations online every day. In January this year a “Yes Minister”-type letter went out from the Department to those in the housing world, saying:
In the next few weeks, a number of changes will be made to the way landlords and customers access mobility services. It is an exciting time, but it is also a period of transition.”
This was code for, “We’re sorry, but the existing popular and successful mobility scheme has collapsed.”
Another letter went out to tenants who were trying to move. It said:
I am writing to let you know that the housing mobility service you applied for is changing.
If you registered for Homeswap—the UK-wide mutual exchange register and/or the Homes Mobility Scheme, unfortunately these schemes are no longer available.
You can still apply to move home through your existing landlord or local council. However your landlord or local council may have limited opportunities to facilitate moves to other areas.”
The excitement that was mentioned in the letter to housing directors had to be communicated in the letter to the tenants. Someone who wanted to move to another part of the country and was told that this was no longer possible would have been surprised to be told:
“It is an exciting time but it is also a period of transition.”
Move UK had taken over the existing services and HOMES staff, and those have gone down with Move UK. Move UK was contracted to link availability of houses to availability of jobs—a noble ambition. Not only has that not been achieved, but we have now lost the underlying scheme on which it was to be built.
Apparently all the IT arrangements originally operated by HOMES have transferred back to the DCLG, and I understand that it is possible without too much difficulty to resuscitate it; I want to return to that in a moment. However, it will very much depend on regaining the support of local authorities and housing associations alike, whose good will will have been dissipated by recent events.
There is now no way in which a tenant of Testway Housing in Andover could expect to move to a housing association based in Sheffield. That can be achieved only by laborious methods such as the ones that I recall when I first became a Member of Parliament some33 years ago, with a tattered reciprocal exchange book and the individual negotiating skills of housing officers. Alternatively, tenants may rely on the newsagent’s board or unregulated and unmonitored swap schemes.
More importantly, growth schemes in the UK need a successful Government-supported mobility scheme, and London is depending on the Thames Gateway to assist with its housing pressures. Such a scheme as the one that we used to have would ensure that housing associations, as the providers of new homes, would look to mobility applicants as well as dealing with local demand.
A job that technology ought to have made easier, quicker and cheaper—matching property vacancies to housing needs—has been bungled by the Government.
Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much Scout Solutions was paid for this fiasco.
What should we now do? I am in favour of choice-based lettings, but they are not the answer to transfers. Choice-based lettings go to high-need applicants, not people who want to transfer from one local authority area to another. Lack of mobility traps tenants in poor property, as no one will ever swap with them.
I hope the Minister will not tell me that this is an exciting time. I hope she can find it possible to apologise to tenants, local authorities and housing associations for what has happened, for which her Department—although not she personally—is responsible. The former HOMES scheme could, and should, be put back on the road within months, if not weeks. The staff will need to be re-employed, the existing software could be reused, and the IT kit made available or updated. Sufficient commitment from the Department for Communities and Local Government will be vital to persuade local authorities and housing associations to come on board, against the background I have just outlined. What the Department has announced so far will take far too long and is not comprehensive, so I hope that the Minister will come up with an urgent programme for recovery and restore her Department’s battered credibility in that important area of social policy.