HC Deb 26 June 1974 vol 875 cc1669-79
Mr. Teddy Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 9, in page 18, line 24, at end insert: 'and specifying whether the plans for the area are for demolition, improvement, or both'. We are all aware that many of the residents in housing action areas will be elderly people who get confused by official forms. The purpose of this amendment is simply to express the hope that the Government by this amendment, by circular letter or by other advice to local authorities, will ensure that people who receive such notices receive them in such form that they will clearly understand what is planned for the area—in other words, whether it is demolition, improvement or both. We sometimes forget the extent to which old people can be confused by official forms, as indeed even young people can. I hope the intention for the area can be made clear by the local authority.

Mr. Ancram

I am very glad to support this amendment because the point was raised during the Committee stage of the Bill where a different amendment was put forward to change the definitions within the Bill. The Minister of State made it clear that this would cause complications but at the same time gave an assurance that he would make sure it was made clear to those who would be affected what kind of improvement or demolition was to be done.

As I am sure the Minister of State can see, the purpose of this amendment is not to change the definition. It is merely to add to the power under which already every owner, lessee or occupier is to be notified that action is to be taken, and that the house is in a housing action area, to make sure that the person concerned knows what kind of action is to be taken.

At the Committee stage it was suggested that this was of such importance that it should be made clear in capital letters because it is the experience of those who have to deal with people in the old-housing treatment areas and other housing treatment areas that it causes a great amount of confusion to people when they receive official notification of this kind. They do not know whether they are to have a house at all, whether they have to move out and go to a different area or whether they will be able to come back to their house after it has been renovated. I hope the Minister of State realises the importance of this amendment and accepts that it is in line with the assurances he gave during the Committee stage.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. David Steel

The spirit of the amendment is extremely important, whether or not the Government feel able to accept the wording. In my view, if in subsection (6) of the clause the Minister is willing to spell out the kind of formal notice the Government have in mind, that possibly meets the case. Certainly, I support the point made by both hon. Members about constituents who under the present procedure come bringing these notices. These are issued in different form by different local authorities and in my experience are couched in pure lawyers' language rather than layman's terms and many people find them confusing and difficult to understand.

In a sense this is a public relations job. If the Scottish Office can give guidance to local authorities by showing not just the legally required notice and the legally required form but a clear explanation, preferably using a model of the kind of literature which should be distributed, that might meet the case. This is an area in which there is a tremendous need for an improvement of present practice.

Mr. Millan

I am happy to give all of the assurances that have been asked for, while at the same time recommending that we should not accept the amendment. By itself it would add nothing to the Bill because subsection (5)(b) already provides that the effect of the resolution has to be intimated to the individual owner, lessee or occupier.

Not only would the words add nothing, but they would slightly detract from the notice because they talk about the "plans for the area" whereas what the individual is concerned about more than anything else is his individual house. The matter can and will be dealt with by the Secretary of State prescribing under the following subsection the forms to be used.

This is the point I made in Committee. I give the assurance that it is our intention that the form shall be as clear as possible, both as to the effect of the resolution generally and especially as to the effect of the resolution on the individual recipient of the notice.

We shall see in drafting the forms that we avoid technical and legal language as far as we can and put the forms in such a way as to make them thoroughly intelligible to those receiving them.

Mr. David Steel

It is to some extent impossible sometimes to draft a legally required form in a way that is intelligible. What may be required are two forms, one carrying out the legal obligation and an explanatory leaflet setting out what is happening.

Mr. Millan

There may be a difficulty in the Secretary of State prescribing the explanatory leaflet. I am not sure that we have any authority to do that. I believe that the powers we have to prescribe the forms and the information contained therein and so on can take care of this point. I give the assurance that we are conscious of this, and not just in this area. Large numbers of people receive official notices about large numbers of things which they find quite unintelligible although the officials who send them out often do so in good faith, believing that they are perfectly intelligible. There has to be an effort made in this area. We will do all we can to see that these forms are put in an intelligible way.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I am grateful to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) for his support. I am glad that action is being taken but I would not recommend the method suggested by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles because of our own experience in Government in implementing the Rent Act. Then we had two forms going to people, one of them saying, "You are being evicted fro m your house. You have to leave it," and another, explanatory, note saying, "This does not mean you have to leave your house." We should have one clear form. I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Barry Henderson

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 18, line 24, at end insert: (c) make arrangements for public meetings at which the plans can be explained in detail by the officials of the authority. This amendment follows logically from what the Minister said in a previous discussion concerning the individual. We take the view that there is no substitute for personal contact. The spirit behind the amendment is that there should be an onus on the local authority to make direct personal contact with people involved. It was argued in Committee that it would be difficult to hold a public meeting if only a small housing action area were involved. But that is not a valid argument, because it is surely much easier to have a small meeting for the few people involved. If objection is taken to the "public meeting" point, I have no doubt that the Minister can produce more elegant language to cover the point more precisely.

There are other points which underline the need for the amendment. It is in the interests of the local authority that if somebody is anxious about the situation an official should explain to him how a proposal will affect the area. This can often speed up the process and relieve the burden on local councillors and others. This line of approach might well be extended to other areas of planning activity. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment and the spirit in which it is moved.

Miss Harvie Anderson

I think that the Amendment will become of greater importance in future than might appear to be the case at present. When the new local authorities come into being, the new areas will range much more widely than those to which we have become accustomed. Many people in the old areas have got into the habit over the years of going direct to their local councillor and seeing him personally. This kind of contact may well be lost in future, and I feel that the amendment would help immeasurably to assist those who find themselves far away from the administrative centre.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the intention underlying the amendment. Rumours can abound when a housing action area is established and official forms are sent out. People in the area may say "That property is to come down" or "Those people are to be rehoused", and it is important that the faceless man who draws up plans for the area should be able to attend meetings and answer the public's questions.

I see one small defect in the amendment. It refers to "public meetings". There may be a problem if proposals in a housing action area involve only two or three people. Therefore it may not be necessary to hold a large meeting, and a small meeting with residents concerned might well be the answer. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that when a housing action area is established local authorities will be encouraged—and if need be compelled—to arrange for officials to ensure that there is a meeting at which complaints can be aired and questions from local residents can be answered.

Mr. Dempsey

Does my hon. Friend see anything in the proposed legislation to prevent local authorities having meetings with the individuals concerned? I get the impression that those hon. Members who are in favour of the amendment believe that officials are unable to have such meetings or are not interested in having them. In my own constituency, meetings of this kind occur. I have attended meetings with councillors and officials and the local people involved to explain in detail the implications of what was about to take place in specific areas.

The fact that this amendment has been spoken to so effectively makes me wonder whether there is any doubtful aspect of the legislation which may preclude such essential consultations taking place between the people involved and those responsible for closures, removals and transfers of families. I hope that my hon. Friend can clear up that doubt.

Mr. Millan

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) that there is no prohibition or restriction on meetings between officials or elected members and individuals involved. In fact, I believe that it is almost inconceivable in most circumstances that there should not be personal contact of one sort or another, in many cases perhaps by officials visiting individual houses. In view of that, the general idea behind the amendment is one which I wholeheartedly accept.

If the housing action area procedure is to be successful, it is necessary for the individuals concerned to know exactly what is happening and to be reassured about their position at every stage of the procedure.

The reason why I cannot accept the amendment is basically that which I advanced on a similar amendment moved in Committee, although I have considered it again since then. I said in Committee and I repeat now that I have considerable sympathy with the purpose behind the amendment but that I cannot accept it because it is too specific and would not fit all the individual circumstances likely to be involved.

There may be a housing action area involving only a small number of people where individual contact obviously is more sensible. There may be an area involving very large numbers of people where a public meeting would not be a suitable vehicle for letting the people involved know what was happening. We have to remember that the individuals concerned are not just interested in what is happening in the area. They want to know what is happening to them personally. Each individual will have his problems. That is especially true in the case of an area for improvement and demolition. Some people will have houses which are to be improved. Some will have houses which are to be demolished. Some will be tenants, others owner-occupiers and others landlords.

It is the experience of those of us who have attended public meetings to explain to local residents what is happening, even on a general issue where everyone is affected basically the same way, that it is very difficult to get such a meeting suitably organised so that people go away feeling satisfied, reassured and knowing what is to happen to them. That becomes more difficult with many individuals with different points of view and different problems. It would be a mistake, therefore, to believe that a public meeting by itself would necessarily do the job.

There is a danger that if we write the amendment into the Bill we suggest to local authorities that, regardless of the circumstances, provided that they arrange some kind of public meeting which not everyone affected will necessarily be able to attend, that is the end of the story. I should not like to encourage authorities to act like that. They will be encouraged to take every possible step, by public meetings and in other ways, to see that every individual concerned has the implications of the resolution explained to him clearly.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)

I understand what the Minister is saying, but would this provision prohibit further consultations? If someone was dissatisfied after a public meeting, he could discuss the matter further with officials. It is reasonable to encourage officials, especially in the new local government set-up, to explain problems to local people.

Mr. Millan

My hon. Friend does not understand my point. The new clause would not prohibit local authorities from doing other things as well but it would compel them, regardless of circumstances, to have a public meeting, which would not be justified—

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

What is wrong with accountability?

Mr. Millan

If the hon. Lady or any of her hon. Friends wishes to make a contribution, I shall be delighted to listen.

Mrs. Ewing

I cannot see what is wrong with accountability and I do not think that anyone who is elected minds having a meeting. Is there a new breed of people who do not like facing the public? I entirely agree with the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Baxter) when he asks what is against officials having to hold meetings. Everyone in Scotland would be behind such an idea.

Mr. Millan

I have been explaining why I thought it was wrong to compel public meetings in all circumstances, whether by officials or by elected members. I was going on to say that the amendment would not prevent a local authority from doing other things as well but that there would be a strong implication that such a specific obligation would be what Parliament felt was the way local authorities should proceed. That would be an unfortunate implication.

There is no difference of view here about the necessity for local authorities to explain what is involved in a housing action area. It would be in their interests in any case. Nothing would encourage obstruction and difficulty more than a failure to tell people what was involved. My main objection to the amendment, however, is that it is too specific. It does not meet all the circumstances. This would far better be left to the good sense of local authorities and the guidance which we shall send out.

Mr. Frank McElhone (Glasgow, Queen's Park)

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) said that the amendment would provide not for public meetings but simply for meetings of people involved in a housing action area. He and the Minister, who are both Glasgow Members, probably know that Glasgow planners have for some time been holding meetings. In the case of motorways and expressways they have been public meetings, but for treatment areas they have been private, with local groups participating. This would be too difficult to write into the Bill. I share the Minister's view while appreciating the hon. Member's concern. Very few local authorities do not tell people what is going on in housing treatment areas. No doubt they will do that when we have housing action areas. I do not have the same deep concern about the matter that has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Cathcart.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am afraid that we cannot have intervention piled upon intervention. Mr. Milian.

Mr. Millan

I am not sure whether I had finished my speech. I have very little left to say.

To some extent one must give credit to the local authorities—first for a certain amount of common sense, and second for experience in dealing with housing treatment areas and in the ways in which it is desirable to let individuals concerned know exactly what is happening. I confirm, as my hon. Friend has said, that having public meetings for the people concerned rather than public meetings proper is something that local authorities already do. Other authorities may find that it is better to send an official or an elected councillor to a tenants' association meeting, which is not a public meeting but which could be an appropriate forum for letting people know what was happening.

There will be guidance on this matter from the Scottish Office, and it will take account of the view that has been strongly expressed tonight by all hon. Members that it is important that tenants and others should be fully informed. I think that is the way to proceed rather than to write into the Bill specific provisions which may not meet particular situations and which we may in certain circumstances regret.

Mr. David Steel

I am glad that the Minister has given support to the principal thought behind the amendment. May I press him to give an undertaking that if a re-draft of the amendment was submitted in the other place, the Government would be willing to look again at this matter?

I entirely take the point that a public meeting is not necessarily appropriate and, indeed, would be a waste of the public's time and money in certain situations. For example, I have seen projected housing action areas under the Bill which may consist of as few as eight or nine houses and some of even less. Clearly a public meeting might be entirely inappropriate. The Minister is right in saying that the correct way to go about this matter is probably to go into the houses themselves. That would meet the definition of a meeting as distinct from a public meeting.

The amendment requires no explanation in detail by officials of a local authority. That might be inappropriate in some circumstances. However, it should be the duty of elected members of a local authority to explain matters in major schemes.

I hope that the Minister will remain sympathetic to the idea of a statutory requirement, over and above the advertisements and notices for meetings of the kind he has described, so that an amendment may be incorporated in the other place. The only reason why I do not feel able to support this amendment is that it is generally incompetent. Other than that, I support the principle.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I appreciate the point which has been made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel). I am not a qualified lawyer. The amendment was not drafted as well as it should have been drafted. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is very sensible. He suggests that we should withdraw the amendment and that the Minister should give an assurance, as I hope he will, that between now and the passage of the Bill in another place he will reconsider this matter.

The important thing is that everyone who is to be affected by such a change should have an opportunity to ask questions of someone. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) said that local authorities acted with common sense and were always sensible. He rightly pointed out that in Glasgow we have had many public meetings of people affected by such matters in recent years. However, local authorities do not always show common sense when looking into the merits of various matters. I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman walked through Knightswood this week or next he would see that local authorities have not always shown a correct appreciation of people's problems in their plans.

I hope that between now and the next stage the Minister will think seriously about a better amendment which will cover the point. We shall withdraw this amendment.

Mr. Barry Henderson

The Minister of State has given an undertaking that guidance will be sent to the local authorities on this matter. The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) has championed his own local authority. There is an even better authority in my constituency. What we were trying to achieve in the amendment was to ensure that the practice of the best local authorities would become the practice of all. However, in view of what the Minister of State has said and of the difficulty of the wording, I take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor). I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

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