Housing, Scottish Parliament, 25 June 2008

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement.
I recognise that there was a lot in it, particularly about people who face repossession and so on, with which we can all agree.
I look forward to further debate in committee on some of the detailed issues of the housing policy, including homelessness, that the statement could not address.
I recognise, as the cabinet secretary said, that "Firm Foundations" secured support for some of its proposals, but ultimately it did not secure support for its key proposals.
The document is troubling because, despite assertions, it did not respond to the coherent opposition to the central proposition around the role of housing associations in particular and developing that agenda.
"Firm Foundations" was unconvincing when it was first published, and the changing context of the current housing circumstances mean that it is now well past its sell-by date.
The current housing circumstances present a huge challenge to the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Administration, to which I hope that the cabinet secretary will rise.
I note in passing that the £2,000 grant for first-time buyers is now officially dead, and that the cabinet secretary has had sufficient sense to back off slightly from the single developer model and will consult further on it.
I urge her to hold on to the option of jettisoning that model altogether.
Regrettably, the key notion of driving efficiencies into housing associations remains, despite the strongly expressed views of housing associations and others that that will expose them to risk in the financial markets, will result in increasing rents and potentially will involve a raid on their reserves, which we all know should be used for the good maintenance of properties and to ensure that they meet the Scottish housing quality standard.
I have three specific questions for the cabinet secretary.
First, she said:
"We will work to ensure that house building is best placed to grow again when market conditions recover."
Does she acknowledge that private sector house builders and housing associations now argue that housing associations have a critical role to play as an anchor for the whole housing sector, in order to sustain the house building sector while conditions remain as they are?
I urge her to reflect on how she might use the housing associations creatively—giving them more resource, not less—in order to provide that anchor.
Secondly, what targets has she set for social rented housing in different areas of Scotland?
Given the fact that home ownership is not now going to be an option, the fact that repossession is a genuine possibility for some, and the level of homelessness, I am interested to know what her targets are.
Thirdly, does the cabinet secretary recognise the disappointment that many housing associations in Glasgow feel because her signalled commitment to independent scrutiny of the Mazars report—which would give confidence to the GHA and to those housing organisations—has not been honoured?
Does she acknowledge the significance of having public confidence in that matter?
Given the role of public moneys in the work of the GHA, will she at least take responsibility by convening the meetings between the GHA and housing associations?
I have said elsewhere that they require supervised contact.
Will she consider convening those meetings to ensure that the progress on which she is insisting is realised?

Speech on Tenancy Deposit Protection Scheme, Scottish Parliament 18 June 2008

It is important to congratulate groups such as Shelter, the NUS and Citizens Advice Scotland that persist in highlighting a range of issues that they want us to take up—I am grateful for the written and verbal briefings that were provided today.
I also congratulate the constituents who continue to bring cases to us.
As Jim Tolson said, the problem with deposits affects not only students.
The problem is largely invisible, but it can cause great difficulties for vulnerable members of our communities.
It is right that the Government should respond to it in the context of communities issues.
In a previous life, I was a schoolteacher, and I am always looking for object lessons.
The proposal in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 for a mandatory deposit scheme was an object lesson in how the Parliament can work effectively.
We hear a lot of talk about consensus.
There is a huge amount of rewriting of the history of this Parliament, but we built consensus around a number of significant issues.
The proposal was not originally included in the legislation as introduced to Parliament.
It was the work of committees and members of all parties, supported by groups outside the Parliament, that put it on the political agenda.
Members of all parties reflected on the scheme, and Christine Grahame, Tricia Marwick, Lib Dems and Labour members—I cannot remember the Tory position—all pursued the matter with me as the then Deputy Minister for Communities.
They raised it with me not to gain party advantage, but because they believed that it needed to be done.
At stage 2, the decision was taken that the proposal as it had emerged was to be supported. Nobody claimed victory or said that there were U-turns, but a little bit of political business was done to ensure that we could take it forward.
Acting in that way was important, because it gave a message about the importance of the Parliament's walls being breached by those who really understood how policy should be developed.
I hope that Government back benchers will recognise their role in challenging their own front bench members.
If I were still the minister, and if I were operating at the pace of the current Minister for Communities and Sport, I would not wait to be chided by the Opposition to act—Labour's own back benchers have a record of doing that.
It has been said that we need research and consultation, but there is concern about the pace.
I understand that the working group that was set up has met only once since May.
I understand the need for research, but there must be action.
The argument has been made that we already have landlord accreditation and registration, but we cannot be in a position where the argument is that if everything cannot be done, nothing can be done.
Mr Maxwell has my permission to disregard the commitments that I have made and to act more quickly.
Stuart McMillan identified problems with the scheme down south—in that case, other options should be consulted on.
We need a driver and a commitment.
The private sector has an important role to play, particularly in times of credit crunch, in meeting housing needs and homelessness targets.
The landlord sector needs to be open and transparent, and we want the sector itself to recognise the damage that has been done to its reputation.
Good landlords have nothing to fear.
I urge the minister to recognise that simple steps should be taken, such as bringing forward a timetable and committing to a mandatory scheme.
We will ensure that there is consensus in the Parliament in dealing with consultation in parliamentary committees and in our communities.
That will give students and families confidence as they make decisions about their accommodation ahead of the academic year.
The important small step of building consensus in the Parliament will make a difference in our communities.
I urge the minister to make the commitment tonight.

Speech on Small Business Bonus Scheme, Scottish Parliament 11 June 2008

I, too, declare an interest as an unwilling beneficiary of the bonus scheme.
I investigated whether it was possible to leave the money in the public purse, rather than keep it in my office, which was entirely reasonable, no matter how high the quality of the service presided over by my office.
I am concerned by the Government's approach to the small business bonus scheme, which is in sharp contrast to its approach to other areas of expenditure.
I am not anti-business—I am in close contact with businesses in my community—but it is the job of Government to reward good business and not simply to give a blanket reward to all business.
John Swinney recently explained that the small business bonus scheme could help those businesses in Edinburgh that are suffering disruption as a consequence of the Edinburgh tram scheme.
Of course, that proves my point.
It would reward them in the same way that it rewards absolutely every business.
The Government asserts that it is prudent and that it seeks best value and efficiency.
On the evidence, it does not apply any of those qualities to the scheme.
That is in stark contrast to other areas.
Only this morning, in the Local Government and Communities Committee, we heard housing associations' concerns about Government strategy.
Housing associations say that they will be driven out into the private sector.

Gavin Brown: We heard earlier that, according to its 2007 manifesto, the Labour Party was going to double small business rates relief. Would that have been applied in a blanket way?

Johann Lamont: It is clear that any Government expenditure has to be targeted, justified and evaluated if that Government is to be prudent in its approach.
This morning, in the face of those concerns from housing associations, we were told by an official that we need to make money work harder and go further.
Remarkably, that approach is not applied to the small business bonus scheme and we must ask why it is now being honoured in the breach.
Gain is asserted without evidence.
I cannot imagine any business saying that it does not want rates relief, but perhaps we could do other things to support businesses so that they thrive.
The scheme involves no conditions, no driving up of standards and no reward for good practices; all businesses are rewarded the same.
That lets down businesses that are connected and committed to communities, seek to employ local people, provide a safe environment for them to work in, offer good services and engage with the community.
I can understand that there is a debate about the merits of the SNP's approach as against other approaches.
If we were to target support, how would we do it?
If conditions were to be applied, which would they be?
However, it is surely remarkable that the SNP claims that it will evaluate spending for which it has no baseline, for which there are no constraints on whether and how money is spent, and for which there are no targets or goals, simply a remarkable faith that all businesses everywhere will do the right thing.
That faith does not apply to other critical operators in our communities and the Government needs to think about that again.
The reason why I find such laissez-faire largesse so remarkable is the context in which the choice was made.
The Government has actively chosen to spend £305 million on the scheme over three years with no conditions, but a lot of crossing of fingers.
At the same time, it is thirled to cuts in taxes and charges that, by 2010-11, will take £434 million out of the Scottish budget, which will have a cost for our capacity to deliver services.
The bonus scheme is without conditions, which is in stark contrast to our being reminded time and again of the tightness of the budget.
Yesterday, the Minister for Communities and Sport, Stewart Maxwell, said that child poverty is morally unacceptable and claimed that he had to fight poverty with one hand tied behind his back.
It is easy to reduce every challenging policy issue to an opportunity to make a constitutional point, even if it is depressing.
It is another example of government by alibi.
We must assert that ministers should not simply tell us what they cannot do and what powers they would like but must be held accountable for what they do and how they use the powers that they have.
Government back benchers need to seek more justification for how the powers over business rates are being used and what that says about the Government's priorities.
The fairer Scotland fund to tackle deprivation is being cut in real terms; projects to support communities in employment, child care, training and education—the ways in which our poorest people can get into work—are being cut; the Government is pressing down on community planning and local government budgets to improve efficiencies and best value with consequent and often invisible impact on the most vulnerable and claims that we cannot spend money everywhere.
What a contrast it is that that experience in local communities, which goes far beyond tough love, is not matched by any rigour in addressing the needs of business; instead, we are expected to rely on blind faith.
I recognise that members who have expertise on the operation of business say that the scheme might work. It might, but we should apply the same test across the board.
The scheme might be the Government's approach, but it is not a pain-free choice.
The Government must answer the charge that the way in which it treats different parts of its budget is inconsistent and unfair.
It is not good enough to say without any explanation that we need tax cuts and leave other people to live with the consequences.
It is entirely reasonable to ask the Government and its back benchers to justify its choices and be honest about how it can evaluate the scheme in the way in which we expect other organisations that spend public money to justify their spending.