HC Deb 18 June 1969 vol 785 cc605-16
Mr. Clegg

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 18, at end insert: (3) The Minister shall lay before Parliament from time to time the draft of a booklet to be entitled House Improvements Code which shall contain, in summarised form, the statutory provisions and the current Ministerial orders, directions and advice concerning the said grants and the works in respect of which they may be made; and if each House of Parliament shall by resolution approve that draft the Minister shall, through the agency of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, publish the booklet in such quantity as may be requisite for informing all persons who may be interested therein provided that nothing contained in the said booklet which has not otherwise the force of law shall not gain the force of law solely by its inclusion in the said booklet. We have just listened to a debate on a matter of great principle. We are now coming to the more bread-and-butter parts of the Bill and the details of its working. This Amendment is designed to achieve what we have tried more than once in Committee and this afternoon in the House to achieve. That is to make as clear as possible to all concerned what their rights are under the Bill and what help is available to them. We want them to have the best advice. We have tried many times to get this principle of informing the public enshrined in the Bill and given statutory authority. This is one more attempt.

We have adopted a similar system to that concerned with road traffic. The Highway Code is well known and here we suggest a house improvements code. It would be more than a pamphlet, an authoritative document which would have the sanction of a Statute behind it. It would be a document required by Statute to be published. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are too many informal debates at the moment.

Mr. Clegg

The Amendment lays down the matters which the new house improvements code shall contain. They would be statutory provisions and the current Ministerial orders, directions and advice concerning the said grants and the works in respect of which they may be made". Parliament would have the advantage of seeing the code before it went to the general public. In the past Government literature which has not been subject to the scrutiny of the House has sometimes misled. I refer in particular to the option mortgage scheme.

We want the new code to be in the hands of all those connected with the administration of grants—local authorities; I hope rent officers, because the Government acknowledge that they have a real interest in these problems: builders; and so on. If the Amendment were accepted, Parliament would show that it cares about people being told in the clearest possible way what their rights are.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that this is the eighth of 43 Amendments.

Mr. Maddan

It is, nevertheless, an important Amendment. The first thing to be borne in mind is the enormously complicated nature of the various provisions of grants which are available, the many sources from which details of them can be gleaned, and the many ways in which they are administered. This is a subject which it is difficult for the ordinary citizen to understand and a headache for professional men such as surveyors and solicitors.

The second thing to be borne in mind is, as the Minister said on Second Reading summarising various surveys that had been made, that the proportion of individual landlords owning one rented dwelling is between 61 per cent. and 78 per cent. of all landlords."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1969; Vol. 777, c. 973.] Those who will have to act upon the provisions of the Bill are not, in the main, large property companies with professional staffs to devil and beaver away and familiarise themselves with all the sources and even understand them correctly. The success of the operation will depend on our having to deal with individual landlords.

It is essential that a simplified code should be prepared, not a hand-out prepared in the Ministry and published by the Stationery Office at, say, 2s., but a document which has been scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament. The interpretation of these provisions to a whole range of local authorities leads to a position in which Whitehall does not always know best.

The reason why we are to have 43 more Amendments on Report is that hon. Members very often know more about circumstances on the ground and have something to say that is more useful and constructive—and I hope that that includes what I am saying now—than the gentlemen in Whitehall, who normally prepare the booklets.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I have no wish unduly to prolong the discussion, but there is a very important thought behind the Amendment. The House is entitled to what time it needs for this important matter. I have pursued the same thoughts as my hon. Friend on a number of occasions with a number of Ministers. I am as anxious as he that the best possible use should be made of our older buildings, not just through the conservation of museums, but for housing people. The Amendment is directed to that very problem—so that people seeking to make improvements, on the whole to older buildings, should have available in a readily accessible form all the help and information that they can possibly need.

What was said about Whitehall not always knowing best was surely to the point. There is a wealth of knowledge in this House which can be brought to bear on this matter if the Amendment is accepted. I remember on one occasion tangling with a Minister in this Government on the subject of building regulations to do with historic buildings. I got out of that Minister, now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, that the local authorities have the power on any occasion they wish to waive building regulations as they apply to a listed building if they see fit because the regulations could not be so applied without severely damaging the building. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) has had experience of this. He was asked to do something impossible about a listed building which he got round only after much tribulation. If this Amendment was accepted and a booklet was produced every local authority could benefit.

There is so much work done in the name of improvement to our older buildings which is bad, sometimes dangerous and often irreparably damaging to their structure which would not happen if those concerned had a little more information. They could get this if the Amendment was accepted.

A house improvement code could easily cover the sources of finance available. There is money available under the Housing Acts, there is the Historic Buildings Council for rather grand buildings, and there are loans which can be obtained. Local authorities are empowered to help, and I hope that this will be covered by the booklet.

I hope that no one disagrees about this. If they do it is obviously a matter for debate, and it is right that my hon. Friend should have introduced this particular Amendment. I hope that as a result of exploring this matter we shall get from the Government a firm assurance that they will do everything they can to make available to those seeking to improve older property every kind of information to help them with the structural work, where they can get advice, perhaps even where they can obtain suitable materials, because these are not always easy to get. I trust that it will also cover finance, which is a central feature of these improvements.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Allason

The House will agree that the Bill does not meet the high standard of obscurity which the Government have set with many previous Bills. It is nevertheless a difficult Bill which has to be understood by more than a million people. Many constituents will come to us for explanations about its intentions. Although we have laboured for a long time in Committee to improve it, and although improvements will be made tonight, it is still difficult to understand.

It is therefore essential that there should be a pamphlet which puts into simple, non-legal language the intentions of the Bill. I draw attention to the last three lines of the Amendment, which read: … provided that nothing contained in the said booklet which has not otherwise the force of law shall not gain the force of law solely by its inclusion in the said booklet". My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) says that we do not want the booklet to create further law, but we do hope that the booklet will explain the present law.

There was a signal failure to do this over the Rent Act. A booklet was produced called "The Rent Act and You". I had to draw to the Ministry's attention the fact that it was highly misleading and that people were led, by reading what was said in it with a certain amount of solemnity, into thinking something was the law when that was not the case.

It is important not only that should there not be statements tending to make fresh law but also that there should be a clear explanation of the present law.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Would my hon. Friend agree that the booklet should contain in every relevant place cases where the local authority, or whoever enforces the regulations, has discretion to waive regulations in favour of the public?

Mr. Allason

That makes a very important additional point. We know that the booklet is to be published. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that he can meet our requirement that it should be presented to Parliament first so that we can study it.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ifor Davies)

I am attracted by some of the persuasive arguments which have been advanced, but that does not mean that I am convinced by them. There is no difference of opinion about the extreme importance of getting across the information about the grants enumerated in the Clause. I agree with the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), who said earlier that the whole basis of this Bill is to get it across and sell it.

The hon. Gentleman also referred earlier to his increased responsibility, and I am sure that we all congratulate him and that he will carry it out with the same distinction as he does his duties on the benches opposite.

This is a matter not of what information should be given but of how far it should go. The hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) talked about statutory authority being enshrined in the Bill, and the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) referred to the difficulties of ordinary people in ascertaining the facts. I hope that I can prove that what the Government propose meets these requirements.

It is important for hon. Members to have clear in their minds what the Amendment asks. It asks the Minister to publish a booklet summarising the statutory provisions, orders, directions and advice about improvement, standard and special grants. A draft of the booklet would first have been approved by Parliament.

The Amendment is misconceived. Parliament has placed the day-to-day administration of the grants scheme upon the local authorities. Administrative guidance in this respect is necessarily of a general nature, and it must be left to the local authorities to apply the grants system to individual cases in their areas. An applicant who went to his town hall armed with an official house improvement code would soon find that he had only part of the story.

It would be pointless for Parliament once having given discretion to the Minister to make directions and specify standards by circular, to seek to approve or disapprove them together with any administrative guidance given by the Minister when the draft of the official code was submitted for approval. Similarly, it would be wrong for Parliament to attempt to influence by this means the way in which the local authorities exercised their statutory discretion. Time after time we pay tribute to the way in which the local authorities carry out their duties. We must also have a certain amount of confidence in them.

What has happened in the past and what is intended for the future is that the Ministry publishes a booklet setting out the main features of the grants scheme and directing prospective grant applicants to their local council offices for more detailed information. The most effective way of conveying advice to ordinary people is by personal consultation at local council offices. A growing number of local authorities supplement the Ministry booklet by their own publications showing how the scheme is administered locally. But, in the final event, the applicant can find out the local authority's likely attitude to his own scheme only by discussing it with the appropriate local authority officer.

The Minister is already accountable to Parliament for his actions in a number of ways, as respects both general policy and administration and in respect of particular decisions. There is no question of his trying to evade his duties and responsibilities.

I hope that I have satisfied hon. Members that the Amendment would produce an unnecessary and rigid duty which is less preferable than the present system.

Mr. Graham Page

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his kind personal words and for agreeing with us about the general principle of the objective that we seek in the Amendment.

I do not think that the Government can complain that in any of the debates on the Bill there has been obstruction of Government policy. We have tried to help all that we can and suggest ways in which Government policy can be put over to the public. We recognise that there has been a failure in this in the past.

In this case, where it has failed is that there was first a rather inadequate booklet to the public, a sort of "Kiddies' Guide to 'Granty-Panties'", which was not of much value to those seeking solid information about how to get grants and carry out the work. Then there was a handbook which went out of date. One could not obtain it in order to understand the basis on which the local authorities were working. The real meat seems to have gone into Ministry circulars.

I am one of those who are wholly opposed to government by circulars. What the Under-Secretary of State said about fettering the discretion of local authorities applies to Ministry circulars which fetter their discretion in administering discretionary grants. An applicant finds his application is rejected for some reason which is stated with all the force of law. If he has the courage to question it he is solemnly referred to circular something or other stroke something or other which the local authority takes as law. It is merely a direction from the Minister to the local authority of which members of the public know nothing until they have the courage to inquire.

I should like to see all this done above board and these directives not only made known to the public but vetted by the House first. If local authorities are given directions by the Minister about how they should exercise a discretion which they should exercise for the benefit of the public, the House should know about it. What would be better than to adopt the Highway Code idea, which has gone down very well in another context? Why not lay an authoritative document before the House? The fact that the House debates it gives it publicity, but, more than that, one gathers from a debate of that sort a great deal of practical knowledge from right hon. and hon. Members who have had to deal with local government matters in their constituencies.

This idea may be a little strange in this connection, but we want something dynamic to encourage grants, to get people to know what they are and how to take them up. Only by a gimmick of this sort shall we do it. We shall not do it through the sort of gimmick in the advertisement in the newspapers yesterday with a score of pictures of rent officers. That was the wrong way to put over a serious matter. We should deal with it seriously through an authoritative document approved by Parliament.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Walthamstow, East)

I feel that too often what we do in the House is not properly

understood, when it becomes law, by the people for whom we are legislating. Surely a booklet such as has been suggested would be an opportunity to turn a very important Bill into something which anybody could understand.

I follow what the Minister says about the discretionary powers of local authorities, but if we dodge the issue by not setting down clearly what the House has decided and what has become law we do not assist the people for whom we are legislating. Too often it seems that the House does not know enough about public relations. Too often our work is clothed in dry legalistic phraseology which means very little to those for whom we are legislating.

I therefore hope that the Government will consider very carefully producing a booklet written in a way which ordinary people can understand, and that, having produced it, they will not leave it at that but will ensure that it is widely available and is known to be widely available.

Question put, That the Amendment be made:

The House divided: Ayes 116, Noes 170.

Division No. 275.] AYES [10.28 p.m.
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Gower, Raymond Morgan-Giles, Rear-Adm.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempetead) Grant, Anthony Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles
Atkins, Humphrey (M't'n & M'd'n) Grant-Ferris, Sir Robert Munro-Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh
Awary, Daniel Grieve, Percy Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael
Baker, W. H. K. (Banff) Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) Nott, John
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Hastings, Stephen Onslow, Granley
Bell, Ronald Hawkins, Paul Osborn, John (Hallam)
Biffen, John Heseltine, Michael Page, Graham (Crosby)
Black, Sir Cyril Higgins, Terence L. Page, John (Harrow, W.)
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S. W.) Hill, J. E. B. Percival, Ian
Braine, Bernard Holland, Philip Pink, R. Bonner
Brewis, John Hordern, Peter Pounder, Rafton
Brinton, Sir Tatton Hornby, Richard
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Hunt, John Price, David (Eastleigh)
Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N & M) Hutchison, Michael Clark Prior, J. M. L.
Bullus, Sir Eric Iremonger, T. L. Pym, Francis
Burden, F. A. Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James
Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.) Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Carlisle, Mark Jones, Arthur (Northants, S) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Carr, Rt. Hn. Robert Jopling, Michael Russell, Sir Ronald
Clegg, Walter Joseph, Rt. Hn. Sir Keith Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Cooke, Robert Kaberry, 8ir Donald Silvester, Frederick
Corfield, F. V. King, Evelyn (Dorset, s.) Smith, John (London & W'minster)
Costain, A. P. Knight, Mrs. Jill Speed, Keith
Crouch, David Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Stainton, Keith
Cunningham, Sir Knox MacArthur, Ian Stodart, Anthony
Currie, G. B. H. McMaster, Stanley Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M.
d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry MoNair-Wilson, Michael Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) Maddan, Martin Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Dodds-Parker, Douglas Maude, Angus Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Maxwell, Hyslop, R. J. Tilney, John
Errington, Sir Eric Mills, Peter (Torrington) Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Eyre, Reginald Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Farr, John Monro, Hector Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John
Fortescue, Tim Montgomery, Fergus Waddington, David
Foster, Sir John More, Jasper Walker, Peter (Worcester)
Glover, Sir Douglas Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh) Wells, John (Maidstone)
Wiggin, A. W. Wright, Esmond TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Williams, Donald (Dudley) Wylie, N. R. Mr. R. W. Elliott and
Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro) Younger, Hn. Ceorge Mr. Bernard Weatherill
Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Abse, Leo Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Morgan, Etystan (Cardiganshire)
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Griffiths, Will (Exchange) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Anderson, Donald Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Armstrong, Ernest Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) Neal, Harold
Ashton, Joe (Bassetlaw) Hannan, William Newens, Stan
Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.) Harper, Joseph Norwood, Christopher
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Ogden, Eric
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Haseldine, Norman O'Malley, Brian
Barnett, Joel Hazell, Bert Oram, Albert E.
Bidwell, Sydney Herbison, Rt. Hn. Margaret Orbach, Maurice
Bishop, E. S. Hooley, Frank Orme, Stanley
Blenkinsop, Arthur Hooson, Emlyn Oswald, Thomas
Booth, Albert Horner, John Owen, Will (Morpeth)
Boyden, James Howarth, Robert (Bolton, E.)
Bradley, Tom Hoy, Rt. Hn. James Palmer, Arthur
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Huckfield, Leslie Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles
Brooks, Edwin Hughes, Rt. Hn. Cledwyn (Anglesey) Pardoe, John
Broughton, Sir Alfred Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Park, Trevor
Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan) Hughes, Roy (Newport) Parker, John (Dagenham)
Brown, Bob (N'ctle-upon-Tyne, W.) Hynd, John Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn) Jackson, Colin (B'h'se & Spenb'gh) Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Jones, Dan (Burnley) Pentland, Norman
Cant, R. B. Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.) Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
Concannon, J. D. Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Prentice, Rt. Hn. R. E.
Crawshaw, Richard Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West) Price, Thomas (Westhoughton)
Dalyell, Tam Judd, Frank Price, William (Rugby)
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Kenyon, Clifford Probert, Arthur
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham) Rees, Merlyn
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Richard, Ivor
Davies, Rt. Hn. Harold (Leek) Lawson, George Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Leadbitter, Ted Robertson, John (Paisley)
Delargy, Hugh Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Newton) Ross, Rt. Hn. William
Dell, Edmund Lever, Rt. Hn. Harold (Cheetham) Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.)
Dempsey, James Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.) Sheldon, Robert
Dewar, Donald Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Silverman, Julius
Diamond, Rt. Hn. John Loughlin, Charles Skeffington, Arthur
Dickens, James Lubbock, Eric Slater, Joseph
Doig, Peter Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Spriggs, Leslie
Dunn, James A. Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Dunnett, Jack McCann, John Taverne, Dick
Dunwoody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e) MacColl, James Tinn, James
Edwards, William (Merioneth) Macdonald, A. H. Urwin, T. W.
Ellis, John McGuire, Michael Varley, Eric G.
English, Michael McKay, Mrs. Margaret Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Enser, David Mackenzie, Alasdair (Ross & Crom'ty) Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Mackintosh, John P. Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley) McNamara, J. Kevin Wallace, George
Fernyhough, E. MacPherson, Malcolm Watkins, David (Consett)
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Wellbeloved, James
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Mahon, Simon (Bootle) Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Ford, Ben Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.) Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Forrester, John Manuel, Archie Williams, Mrs. Shirley (Hitchin)
Gardner, Tony Mapp, Charles Woof, Robert
Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Marks, Kenneth
Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony Marquand, David TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gregory, Arnold Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Dr. M. S. Miller and
Grey, Charles (Durham) Millan, Bruce Mr. Ernest G. Perry.
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)
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