HC Deb 06 August 1980 vol 990 cc657-84

Lords amendment: No. 146, in page 95, line 19, leave out from "dwelling-house" to end of line 23 and insert is designed or specially adapted to make it suitable for occupation by persons of pensionable age, and which it is the practice of the landlord to let for occupation by persons of pensionable age ".

Mr. Stanley

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

I shall wish to move a maunscript in lieu of the Lords amendment, in schedule 1, page 95, line 23, at end insert— 5. The landlord has, within six weeks of the service on it of a notice claiming to exercise the right to buy the dwelling-house, applied to the Secretary of State for a determination under this paragraph, and the Secretary of State has determined that the right to buy is not to be capable of being exercised with respect to the dwelling-house; and he shall so determine if satisfied—

  1. (a) that the dwelling-house is designed or specially adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age; and
  2. (b) that it is the practice of the landlord to let it only for occupation by such persons.
As my right hon. Friend made clear earlier today, the Government have agreed to accept the intention of the amendment passed in the other place and to exclude from the right to buy those dwellings that are designed or adapted for elderly people—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear"]—and that it is the practice of landlords to let to the elderly. We have, however, accepted the amendment so that these dwellings, and only these dwellings are excluded, and at the same time scope is not provided for excluding tenants from the right to buy if the dwellings are not in the particular category of dwellings covered by the amendment.

For that reason, a local authority will have to apply to the Secretary of State within six weeks of service of the right to buy notice, if it wants to exclude a dwelling under this provision.

10.45 pm

Just as conditions are placed on the way in which the local authority must operate, so there is also a clear obligation placed on the Secretary of State. He will not be able to withhold giving a determination if he is satisfied that the application relates to a dwelling that falls within the terms of the paragraph. The amendment provides that in those circumstances he shall so determine.

The House will wish to know what sort of dwelling is likely to be covered by this provision. The paragraph will apply to any dwelling-house that is designed or specially adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age and that it is the practice of the landlord to let only to such persons. That definition is taken from the amendment made in another place, with the addition of the word "only". That addition is based on an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), which we thought was an improvement.

In practice we envisage that the amendment will extend the provisions in the Bill, as introduced in this House, to exclude a further category of dwelling for the elderly from the right to buy. The original provision in the Bill was intended to exclude what is widely known as sheltered accommodation for the elderly. That is the kind of dwelling that falls within what is known as category 2 for the purposes of granting subsidy. In essence the amendment extends the exclusions to what are known as category 1 dwellings for subsidy purposes.

The type of dwelling for which a determination would be made would be, for example, a bungalow specially designed for an elderly person. However, it would not be made for an ordinary dwelling that happened to be occupied by an elderly person. The amendment that we shall move is based closely on the Lords amendment, with the changes that I have described. It widens the exemptions in the Bill as introduced, to exclude what can broadly be described as all special-purpose accommodation for the elderly. I hope that the manuscript amendment which we have moved will meet with the approval of the House.

Mr. Kaufman

This is a very important day for Parliament because the amendment that the Minister is to move means that the Government have accepted the will of Parliament—not of one party but of many parties and of no party. They have accepted the will of all those who have felt strongly about this issue. When Parliament expresses its will, even a Government with a majority as large as this one, must give way.

I pay tribute to my noble Friends in another place who carried the amendment against the Government last month. They worked hard at it. The Minister now says that he accepts the Lords amendment, but when my noble Friends moved it in another place Lord Bellwin told my noble Friend Lady Birk that it was unacceptable, and he spent many minutes explaining why. One can tear up those pages of Lord Bellwin's speech in Hansard now, because in President Nixon's words "they are now inoperative".

I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friends in this House who made the Government concession possible. What they did on Monday night and yesterday made the Government aware of the power of my right hon. and hon. Friends to continue through today and tomorrow. Without that, the Government would not have made the concession. That being so, this is a victory for my noble Friends and my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Parliamentary Labour Party has shown that we are fighting the Government. Most of all, this is a victory for good sense.

Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that if we had single Chamber government in Britain it would be impossible for the amendment to be carried?

Mr. Kaufman

That is a hypothesis that might or might not be tested in the future. When I put such questions to the Minister in Committee he said that he was not prepared to answer hypothetical questions.

This is a victory for good sense, because many people of all parties, all persuasions and convictions asked for the amendment. In the House of Lords the Bishop of London begged the Government to grant the amendment. He was supported by other bishops and members of other parties, including former Conservative Ministers.

The Government derided the arguments. I cannot understand why they were so obstinate. It is an issue that might be small numerically but in social and human terms it is a large issue. It has spanned parties. In moving the amendment the Government agree that the judgment of local authorities should be accepted. The Government are accepting the judgment of local authorities and are placing a requirement upon the Secretary of State to accept their judgment.

Of course we accept the amendment. We are glad that the exclusion will be included in the Bill and that such houses will not be sold under compulsion. The day will come when no local authority houses will have to be sold. That day cannot come too soon. Meanwhile, we welcome the amendment and support it.

Mr. Bobin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I am grateful for the amendment. It avoids the potential abuses of the amendment carried in another place while achieving the substance which many of us in all parts of the House wish to be achieved. There was a defect in some of the earlier arguments, in that the relief that would have been granted would have been applicable to groups of old people's bungalows where there was, for instance, a warden in attendance. That applies to towns, but certainly it does not apply to villages that have only a few old people's bungalows.

The form in which the Government have drafted the amendment will achieve what many of us wish to achieve without opening the door to the abuses that could have been used to circumvent the major provisions of the Bill in a spurious manner. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the drafting of the amendment and thank the Government for introducing it.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I am worried that we might be on the verge of congratulating the Opposition on a confidence trick. The amendment uses the word "only". The regular practice in my part of the country, where there are a number of old people's houses, is that occasionally they are let to single-parent families or to someone else who at that time has a good argument for being on the housing list. I should like to know exactly how the word "only" will be applied. If the person asking to buy an old folk's flat can produce evidence that in the past five years one has been let to a single parent for two or three weeks or a couple of months, would that pre-empt the clause and invalidate the exercise? If so, I am doubtful whether we should so readily accept it.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

When the Bill came from the Lords it was perfectly plain from reading the amendment that the Minister was right in being prepared to reject it. It would have been easy to drive a coach and horses through the Bill. By introducing small amendments it would have been easy to say that the accommodation could have been let to persons other than old people. Further, there was no provision that the accommodation would be let only to persons of pensionable age. Those of us who have a large number of old people's homes in our constituencies, which are especially designed for the purpose and usually but not only let for such purpose, were in that difficulty.

For that reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), myself and others considered it necessary to include a provision which has been ably drafted by the Government, that it is the practice of the landlord to let only for the occupation of such persons. Additionally, there are two clearly defined objectives. The accommodation must be specially designed and adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age and let only to them.

I congratulate the Government with complete sincerity. The amendment has been ably and quickly drafted. They are to be commended.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)


Mr. Rees-Davies

No one has called me that before, and are not likely to again. In my 25 years or more in the House I have been the last person to be sycophantic. No one but the hon. Gentleman would ever dare to call me that. My hon. Friends and most hon. Gentlemen know that to call me a sycophant is pure buffoonery.

I told the Government that I wanted to see the amendment effectively redrafted. They achieved the redrafting in effective terms and in a way that retains the principles that they are following. They will also be able to provide what is necessary—that houses especially adapted for the purpose should not be sold and that we have houses that are let only to people of pensionable age.

Happily, both sides of the House support the amendment. I do not criticise the Labour Party for its opposition generally. Indeed, I approve of it. However, the Government have demonstrated ability and flexibility. As a result, the decision is supported by the whole House. The Ministers have recognised the importance of what they are doing. We should for once leave it at that.

11 pm

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

The occasion should not be allowed to pass with no more than the platitudinous twaddle uttered by the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies). The concession was not obtained from the Government by a consensus arrangement; it was won from them by the hard work of a number of Labour Members, with one or two Liberals, behaving as a united and determined Opposition.

We are giving notice to the Government that although they have an overall majority of 50 or 60 they will meet more determined opposition in the next Session, because we shall be representing the people of this country against the oppressive measures of what the Lord Chancellor called an elective dictatorship. That phrase is not used much today. The Lord Chancellor used the expression about the minority Labour Government. What about the present Government, whose Back Benchers have tramped through the Lobbies in support of all sorts of amendments and proposals, including the original provisions in the Bill as they existed before Labour Members got them altered?

The hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West talked about the amendment being drafted sensibly as the result of an arrangement reached yesterday. But why is it a manuscript amendment? Why was it not prepared yesterday? Why was it not drafted and printed in the normal way? The reason is that it arises as a result of the pressure exerted by the Opposition Front Bench because of the views expressed by Labour Back Benchers. It was determined opposition, lock, stock and barrel, to the whole of the wretched Bill.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is it not also appropriate to put on record that the activities engaged in yesterday by certain Labour Back Benchers—never mind what was done in another place—were not the result of any activities by the Gang of Three who have been telling us to fight the Tories? We do it every day and we shall be doing a lot more of it in the next Session.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend is correct. It ill behoves Conservative Members to talk about getting drafting alterations. I cannot remember their being thick on the ground yesterday, when we were arguing for parliamentary scrutiny of expenditure of £42 billion. I thought that Parliament was supposed to exercise scrutiny. I cannot recall the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West's scrutiny of that £42 billion.

It is a matter of concern that paragraph 5(b) of the manuscript amendment refers to: the practice of the landlord to let it only for occupation by such persons. If a local authority is to have the full, proper and unfettered discretion that the Tory Front Bench talk about in relation to private education—when it is called freedom of choice—the word "only" should not be included. A local authority should have the opportunity to switch some bungalows, for example, from ordinary dwellings to old person's dwellings if it wishes.

When a Labour Government are returned to office—and that cannot come too soon—we shall have a massive amount of legislation to put through in order to get rid of the pernicious and oppressive legislation that has been put through by the Tory Cabinet and its hacks who troop through the Lobbies. Occasionally, one or two of them abstain and tell their local papers that they are fighting their Government tooth and nail.

I do not think that there has been an occasion on which the Tory hacks of the Back Benches have voted against Government policy and expressed a positive point of view. There is no doubt that there are one or two rumbles and grumbles swelling up from their ranks, but it is nothing compared to the concerned and dedicated opposition that is now swelling up throughout the country, which is being reflected on the Labour Benches, and which will continue to be so reflected.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As we are discussing a manuscript amendment, would it be in order for you to accept a manuscript amendment to the manuscript amendment changing the word "only" to the word "normally"?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Not being Mr. Speaker, it is not within my power to accept a manuscript amendment.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

I thank the Government for accepting the amendment in its present form. It is exactly the same as the proposal put forward by my city council. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) was not correct when he said that the amendment applies mainly to country areas with only one or two dwellings. It applies to certain older cities with ageing populations, which were quick off the ground and built elderly persons' dwellings before the time that the idea of attaching wardens to the dwellings was introduced. They would not have come within any other definition. They have been habitually and historically occupied by the elderly.

In my city only 270 elderly persons' dwellings would come within the definition and therefore not available for sale, but 700 other dwellings would be eligible for sale, which would leave us with an inadequate number of houses for our considerably ageing population. The number of old people in Lancaster is considerably higher than the national average. It is a matter of importance. We are accordingly most grateful to the Minister for agreeing to the amendment.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The question has been raised whether we could delete the word "only". You have ruled that you cannot accept such an amendment. Is it not possible for the House to request Mr. Speaker to return to the Chamber to enable such an amendment to be moved? Although the amendment is an enormous improvement on that which previously existed, it is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that I can assist the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Speaker is always available to anybody who wishes to see him on these matters. I believe that one hon. Member has already gone to see him. I checked on the position, and it is not within my power to accept a manuscript amendment.

Mr. W. Benyon

I had not intended to intervene in the debate until I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). Nobody could accuse me of being a hack in relation to this piece of legislation. As a signatory to the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), I welcome the concession that has been made. I wish to repeat a point that I made in an intervention during the speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). Whatever is said, and whatever the humbug that we hear from the Opposition, if we have single-Chamber government in Britain it will not be possible to reconsider matters. It must be rubbed home that it does not matter whether it is a Tory or a Labour Government—if we have a single-Chamber Government we could not reconsider matters.

If the Bill had remained as it stood, or if the pre-emption clause originally on the Order Paper had been moved, no Government—whether Tory, Labour, Liberal or Flat Earth—could ever build a custom-built old person's house again. We have made considerable progress in the sensible compromise that has been reached. I congratulate the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Alton

I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) on having been consistent in raising this point throughout our deliberations on the Bill. He voted against the Government on this question and on other questions. That courage showed also some practical common sense. It was clear that he had had experience of the problems which local authorities will be up against because of the compulsory nature of the Bill.

Again and again we have found that the sheer dogma which the Government have enforced on us through the Bill has taken the place of common sense. I have had to administer a city's housing committee, as chairman, for over a year. It would have placed us in an intolerable position to have to sell property which had been specially built for elderly people or for disabled people at a premium. It would have meant that these properties, which are very few in number and for which there is obviously great need on the part of people who have special problems, could have disappeared out of the local housing stock. That would have meant that people in special need would have gone without the kind of accommodation to which they are entitled.

In some ways, the amendment tries to rectify that. It was an amendment for which Liberal Members pressed on Second Reading. Regrettably, as a party we did not get the opportunity to press for it in Committee because, as hon. Members will know, the Liberals were excluded from membership of that Committee. That was a matter which we raised repeatedly because we were so disappointed by that exclusion.

However, this sheltered and special accommodation is prized by a local authority. It would be very foolish to allow it just to be sold off without trying to build in adequate safeguards. It is clear that the safeguard in this manuscript amendment is insufficient, because paragraph 5(b) says clearly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) have said, that it is "only" for occupation by such persons.

Not all property that has been built as sheltered accommodation is necessarily used by people who are elderly. Sometimes, on a short-term basis, for instance, a single-parent family might be moved in, or someone just appearing lower down the housing register might well be moved into a special-category style of accommodation. In that way it would still mean that there would be a loophole through which could flow some properties which had been built specially for people in need. That seems to be the point which the Minister and the Government have accepted in principle. Therefore, I hope that the House will consider replacing the word "only" with the word "normally". That would be one way of ensuring that this abuse does not occur.

In conclusion, I make one other point. It seems that the manuscript amendment demonstrates yet again this incredible act of folly by the Government in taking away decisions of this kind from local authorities and determining on the Floor of this House what we believe to be right in any district of the country regardless of the local circumstances.

I am one of those who believe very strongly in home ownership. My local authority sold off certain categories of council accommodation. We preferred to develop our build-for-sale policies in order to give the maximum opportunity of home ownership and to encourage people out of properties which were rented and into houses for sale. In that way we were able to create more home ownership as well as being able to provide properties for people in need. Having done that, we still felt that there was a case for some people to get the chance of owning their council homes if they wished. That was a decision taken in local circles by that local authority. But one man's meat is sometimes another man's poison. What might be right in that local authority—the decision taken by local councillors elected by their electorate—is not necessarily right in another part of the country, and anyway, the local councils there might well have been elected on a different mandate altogether.

It seems to me, therefore, that this is just another example of sheer bloody-minded dogma. I am pleased that as a result of a lot of pressure in the House, particularly yesterday, when much feeling on the subject was expressed by Opposition Members, there has been some response. I hope that the Government will not hoodwink the House by pushing through what is not an adequate amendment, but will accept the common sense of replacing "only" by "normally".

Mr. Penhaligon

Will my hon. Friend, as chairman of a housing committee, confirm that it was perhaps not the practice but at least an exception to a general rule that property clearly designated, designed and built for the elderly was occasionally used for other purposes? I cannot see how any other translation of the clause could lead to the conclusion that that would exclude such properties.

Mr. Alton

Of course that is the guts of my argument. There are occasions on which this very expensive and highly desirable property for people who are disabled or elderly is used for people from other categories of housing need. If the amendment goes through in its present form, there will still be a loophole, as a result of which that property can be sold. It will be taken out of the housing market for people in special need and will go for sale to someone with no particular need.

For that reason, it would be wise for the House to reconsider passing the amendment in its present form.

11.15 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston-upon-Hull, Central)

I do not wish to delay the House, because the argument has been advanced from both sides of the Chamber. However, I should like to give some personal examples.

I have a close friend, who is aged and living in accommodation specially built for the elderly in my constituency. She has a disabled daughter below pensionable age, who lives with her. Under the amendment, the word "only" would take that house out of the category of protected dwellings. If the word "normally" were used instead there would be protection, because the house is let to a particular aged person. In the way in which my local authority works, that accommodation would normally go to the disabled daughter. It then ceases to be "only" let, and becomes "normally" let. If we allow it to be "normally" let, my constituent and the house are protected. If we leave "only" in the amendment, they are not protected in the way that we desire.

The matter of sheltered housing for the aged has caused more concern than any other matters that have been raised with regard to the sale of council houses.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

My hon. Friend has given an instance that could well come up in a court of law. It would be most unfortunate if that case, or any parallel case, became case law and any matter was raised that perhaps went against the general wishes of the House.

Mr. McNamara

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It may assist the House if I say that Mr. Speaker has accepted a manuscript amendment to leave out "only" and insert "normally ". It is my intention at the correct time to put that amendment to the House. With that knowledge, we may be able to proceed.

Mr. McNamara

I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I said that I was making only a short intervention, and in fact my object was to ascertain Mr. Speaker's decision. Having got it, I shall sit down.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Is it in order for me now to move that amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Can you give me guidance as to when that may be done?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the House so wishes, it will disagree with the Lords in the said amendment, the Government manuscript amendment in lieu will be moved formally, and before any decision is reached on that the other amendment will be moved. It will then be put to the vote, and if agreed to will be included in the Government amendment.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

I do not wish to speak at great length, but there is one aspect of the matter of which it might be useful for the House to take note. Slightly less than a week ago I presented a petition on the selling of bungalows. I doubt whether, in the several hundred years of this House's history, Parliament has responded to a petition with the same speed. Therefore, it is only right that on the behalf of the Rotherham borough council I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) and those who encouraged him.

There is one difference between the decision reached by the House today and the request made by the Rotherham local authority in its petition last week—namely, purpose-built accommodation for the handicapped. I hope that the sensible views of local government—and local government should have had a fulsome tribute from my hon. Friend as well as others of my hon. Friends, both here and in another place—will be heeded by the Minister. I hope that in due course the hon. Gentleman will seek to ensure that purpose-built accommodation for the disabled receives rather more consideration than the contemptous way in which the matter has been dealt with by the Government. I hope, too, that the amendment, which represents an improvement, will be acceptable to the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendment disagreed to.

Manuscript amendment to the Bill proposed in lieu thereof, in schedule 1, page 95, line 23, at end insert— 5. The landlord has, within six weeks of the service on it of a notice claiming to exercise the right to buy the dwelling-house, applied to the Secretary of State for a determination under this paragraph, and the Secretary of State has determined that the right to buy is not to he capable of being exercised with respect to the dwelling-house; and he shall so determine if satisfied—

  1. (a) that the dwelling-house is designed or specially adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age; and
  2. 671
  3. (b) that it is the practice of the landlord to let it only for occupation by such persons.—[Mr. Stanley.]

Mr. Alton

I beg to move, as a manuscript amendment to the manuscript amendment proposed in lieu thereof, in paragraph 5(b), to leave out "only" and insert "normally".

Hon. Members have heard the argument for the amendment. I hope that the Government will accept it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Manuscript amendment to the manuscript amendment proposed in lieu thereof, in paragraph 5(b), line 2, to leave out "only" and insert "normally".

The Question is, That the amendment—

Mr. David Steel

Before you put the Question, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that we shall have the courtesy of a ministerial reply to the points that have been made. It would be quite monstrous for the Minister to sit quiet and have the House vote on it. Surely a reasonable case has been put and we are entitled to an answer to it.

Mr. Stanley

The manuscript amendment, which we brought forward earlier this afternoon, has been the subject of detailed study and discussion. We are satisfied that it fully reflects the intention of the amendment that was agreed in another place.

I assure the House that the situation to which the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) referred—which would be a short-term let for a week, or possibly a few weeks, to a single-person family in what would normally be elderly persons' accommodation and which it is the practice to let as elderly persons' accommodation—would be governed by the word "practice", which implies some measure of latitude. If we replaced the word "only" by "normally", it would substantially widen the intention behind the amendment, which is to provide an exclusion for category 1 accommodation and not a basis for excluding accommodation that may regularly be let to people of pensionable and non-pensionable age. That is why the Government do not feel able to accept the Liberal amendment.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the Government have changed the wording of the Lords amendment on this matter? Will he also explain whether, if it is the practice of the landlord to let only to people of pensionable age and a house is let to a man aged 65 and his wife who is 59, that would take it out of the exclusion? This is the kind of problem that arises from the inclusion of the word "only". Will the hon. Gentleman amplify the reasons for the introduction of a word that seems to reduce the effect of the Lords amendment for no reasonable purpose?

Mr. Stanley

Inevitably, there is no way in which we can say that every case is totally black or white. In the majority of cases a dwelling will be excluded from the right-to-buy provisions, or it will be within the right-to-buy provisions, but in certain circumstances there will be a slightly grey area in between. However, the dwelling has to be designed or specially adapted for, in addition to it being let to, a person of pensionable age. We are satisfied that that will exclude the category of dwellings that has exercised hon. Members on both sides of the House and their Lordships in another place—the category 1 type of accommodation, the genuine purpose-built, specially adapted accommodation for the elderly. That has been the subject of this debate and we are satisfied that it is covered by our amendment.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I press the Minister a little further? The Opposition wish to exclude, and wish to obtain an agreement to exclude, from the obligation to sell property that was intended and designed for old people. As I understand, the argument falls into two categories. The first is whether, by a change of words, there is an opportunity for councils to exclude from the provisions of the Bill houses and flats that were not intended for old people, but that are occupied by old people. I accept that the Government's position is clear on that, although I do not agree with it. I do not wish to disagree with the Government's insistence that houses and flats that are temporarily occupied by old people are not covered by the amendment.

Many hon. Members pointed out that unless this single word is changed, unless the semantic argument is altered, there may be flats that were intended, maisonettes that were built, and houses that were designed for old people, which despite the principle that the Government have conceded are nevertheless in the area of obligatory sale. If that is the case, the House will agree that the intention described by the Secretary of State has not been fulfilled. I ask the Minister in all humility—I do not understand the semantics and technicalities—to make clear whether the change of a single word makes a material difference between what the House intended and what he promised.

My position is clear. Our understanding from the Government is that accommodation that was intended for and designed for elderly persons shall be excluded from compulsory sale. I shall vote for every amendment that clarifies, stipulates and confirms that. I accept that accommodation that is temporarily occupied by elderly persons is a different matter. Does this amendment make a material difference to what the Secretary of State promised?

I accept the Minister's judgment, and I accept his word. This is an argument not about honour but about interpretation and clarification. If the Minister tells me that the difference between the two words is immaterial I shall not support the Liberal amendment, but if he tells me that there is a material difference, the understanding given by the Secretary of State to the House is of such a character that I shall regard the Liberal amendment as clarifying and confirming any implied agreement. I hope that the Minister will make the position clear.

Mr. David Steel

Will the Minister clarify one point? He said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) that if a category 1 house was let temporarily to a person who was not of pensionable age, that would be covered by his amendment, because of the word "practice". I know of cases in my constituency—let us leave aside the fact that the Bill does not apply to Scotland, because presumably it happens elsewhere—where category 1 houses are allocated to tenants who are below pensionable age because of specific needs. By no stretch of interpretation could it be said to be the "practice" of landlords to let such houses only for occupation by persons of pensionable age, when they may have been let for some years to people who are below pensionable age. Our amendment is designed to cover those houses.

I hope that the Minister will give an assurance on that point, and that if he is in any doubt about the matter he will consult a Law Officer on the interpretation. I believe that the assurance that he gave a few moments ago will not cover the sort of houses that I have described. That is why the word "normally" is essential. I do not believe that it opens any loophole. One still has paragraph (a) as well as paragraph (b). I believe that we have made a sensible improvement to this amendment.

11.30 pm
Mr. Skinner

Unless the Government are prepared to accept the new manuscript amendment, clarifying the position, they can be accused of ratting on the agreement drawn up this afternoon at a time, let it be said, when the Speaker of the House was trying to take part in some kind of agreement and ensure that the House of Commons could be satisfied as to the conduct of its Members during the course of the events later in the day.

I hope that the Secretary of State for the Environment will realise that we are not finished yet. He was gloating initially when reference was made to this matter, because he felt that he had got away with something by his sleight of hand. It is necessary for the Government to make it clear that they have not ratted on the agreement.

Let me give an example, which occurred many years ago when I was in local government. This example could be repeated many times. Often bungalows are built for old-age pensioners, but circumstances change because of a mine closure, for example, and there is a population drift. In 1959 about 30 bungalows were built for old people in my area. The Tories took control of Clay Cross council and broke an agreement by letting the bungalows off to single people. The following year I was elected to the council and we shifted the Tories out. We regained control, and those bungalows reverted to their original use—occupation by old-age pensioners. How would they fit into this proposed category? How would those who have retired at 60 under the miners' voluntary retirement scheme be dealt with? How do they fit into this provision if it is on the basis of "only" and not "normally"?

It is time that the Government spoke up clearly on this matter. They have been dragging their feet and trying to escape from the decisions made in the Lords weeks ago. It is time they made clear just what they mean by the amendment, so that we can vote for the amendment that gives most pensioners the chance to remain in their homes and ensures that fewer bungalows are sold.

Mr. Straw

We do not yet have the Official Report for this afternoon's proceedings, but I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said when he made his statement. My recollection—the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—is that at no time did he suggest that the manuscript amendment to be moved would be qualified by the word "only". The import of what he said was that the spirit of what was proposed in the Lords, which did not include the word "only", would be embodied in the manuscript amendment, subject to the Secretary of State's having the power to decide whether categories of dwellings came within the specifications of the Lords amendment.

At no time did I hear him use the crucial qualifying word "only". If I am wrong, I will give way immediately, to be corrected, but if I am right, the Minister and the Secretary of State appear by sleight of hand to be twisting the agreement that was reached—in this House, not behind the scenes—and that resulted in our withdrawing our opposition.

Therefore, I ask the Minister what the Secretary of State did say. Is our recollection right, that he did not use the word "only"? When the right hon. Gentleman claimed to clarify paragraph 5(b), he said that even where a landlord let a dwelling for a period to someone who was not elderly, that would not undermine the statement that it was the practice of the landlord to let it only for the occupation of an elderly person. Either words mean what they say or they do not. If it is said that it is the practice of the landlord to let the property only for the occupation of elderly persons, surely if the landlord lets it for occupation by someone else it is the practice of the landlord to let it for occupation by people other than elderly people. Therefore, the Secretary of State will refuse his consent.

Does the Minister intend to accept the Liberal amendment? If not, what will his administrative practice be to ensure that dwellings that are generally used by the elderly are not excluded from this amendment simply because, from time to time, they happen to be let to people who are not elderly?

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Many Opposition Members talk about the spirit and the intentions of the amendment. Many of us are aware what the spirit is among them. They want an amendment so loose that a dwelling with a longer toilet chain or a handrail on the bath can be called a dwelling for the elderly.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The hon. Member represents a part of the city that I represent—as does my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)—so he knows what examples can arise there. What happens in such cities, with many hundreds of tower blocks, the ground floor flats of which are, by and large, let exclusively for elderly people—they are, in effect, bungalows—but occasionally for the disabled? In other words, they would be covered by the word "normally", but not by "only". Are the ground floor flats that the hon. Member tries to secure for old folks to be denied the protection of the amendment?

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

The hon. Memmer speaks emotionally, as ever, but he used the phrase "by and large", so he knows that the situation would not be covered. Therefore, it does not matter. It always sounds good to talk as the hon. Member does, but we want to ensure that people are allowed to buy their own properties. What we do not want is a clause so widely drawn that friends of hon. Members opposite, by some minor amendments to property, will be able to frustrate what many of us were elected to do—give people the right to buy their own homes. If anyone withdrew the word "only" we should not vote for the amendment.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

I should like to put an idea into the Minister's mind to try to get him to agree that it should be "normally" and not "only". In my constituency a number of the dwellings that are normally reserved for old people are let to miners who are suffering from pneumoconiosis and need this type of dwelling in which to spend the remaining years of their lives. These houses are normally old people's dwellings.

The other thing is that the Bill refers to lodgers. Many an old person will take his son or daughter into that type of house, and that will become the only rather than the normal dwelling. Therefore it is imperative in my constituency that the word is "normal" rather than "only".

Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

The deep divisions that have arisen during the debate show the unwisdom of immediately accepting just a change of word. As I interpret the Government's intention, the sort of amendment that ought to be put in is not one concerned with "only" or "normally "but one that refers to the type of accommodation that is usually occupied. The question of "normally" or "only" makes no difference.

Mr. Keith Wickenden (Dorking)

I think that the House knows what the amendment to the proposed amendment is trying to achieve, but I question whether the word that is being used is the right one. My hon. Friend has stuck fast to his guns and insisted that "only" is the word to be used. Labour Members have said that "normally" was the word that should be used. Surely the phrase "normally occupied" demonstrates the manner in which the property is to be occupied rather than the circumstances under which it is to be occupied.

The phrase that should be used is either "usually occupied" or "customarily occupied" which is different from "normally occupied". If that is so, the amendment to the proposed amendment is misconceived, and should be rejected.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I hope that the Government will take account of some of the specific points that have been made by hon. Members about the precise circumstances in which this phraseology would be unhelpful and that the amendment to the proposed amendment would make the matter more sensible. I think that discussions are still being held and advice is still being taken as I speak which may lead to that.

The hon. Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden) suggested an alternative that is no less acceptable to us, but we would not wish to complicate the proceedings. The hon. Gentleman suggested that "usually" might be a better word, but we are all trying to get at the same thing. We are trying to find a form of words that will achieve what the Minister said he wanted to do in practice.

The Minister said, quite helpfully, that in practice an authority that had special reasons to let—perhaps temporarily—such a property to somebody who was not a pensioner would not be covered by the word "only", but Ministers are not always the final judge of the law on these matters, and even if the Minister attempts, in the best spirit, to interpret this provision flexibly and freely, at the end of the day he may fall foul of the strict form of the law.

In the circumstances, I think that it would be sensible to take due account of the various suggestions that have come from various parts of the House. If the hon. Gentleman finds "normally" unattractive, there are still a few moments left in which to consider using "usually" or to find some other suitable word. "Normally" is a word that appears regularly in statutes in circumstances such as these, and I hope that in these few moments the Minister has found it possible to regard these words as acceptable.

Mr. Hattersley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House is confronted with a problem relating to a guillotine motion that will bring the debate to a close at 12 o'clock. The last seven hon. Members who have spoken have asked the Government a question, and the guillotine motion is such that the Government can simply not answer the question and wait for the guillotine to fall at midnight.

May I plead with the Government simply to answer the question, even though the guillotine will allow them to escape from doing so? The House was under the impression that the statement made by the Secretary of State and the amendment proposed by his hon. Friend made it clear that accommodation intended for the use of elderly persons should be excluded from the compulsion to sell. If the right hon. Gentleman makes it clear that his amendment will fulfil that principle, I for my part will accept his word without qualification. What we need from the right hon. Gentleman is a clear undertaking that, semantics apart, words apart, what he intends, and what he said, are met by his amendment, namely, that accommodation intended for elderly persons will not come under the provisions relating to compulsory sale. Even though the guillotine might allow the right hon. Gentleman to escape, I ask him to make a statement of clarification before midnight.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I should point out that this matter is bound to be put to a vote even if it continues to midnight. The Minister may speak again by leave of the House, but he cannot keep intervening while other hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. However, if hon. Members are agreeable, I shall call the Minister.

11.45 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

I should be grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I could catch your eye. I have listened to what right hon. and hon. Members have said, and I should like to try to clarify the situation. Of course, we gave an assurance earlier today that it was our intention to exclude those units of accommodation that are built, converted and used for the elderly. We have tried in honour to draft and agree an amendment that carries out the intention that I first announced to the House. I assure the House that in my view, having listened to the arguments, there is broadly no change in the commitment.

I appreciate that if we try to examine every word we shall run into the difficulty that we have always experienced with this legislation, and I do not try to escape from it at this late hour. The problem with this legislation is that it can deal with the issue from two points of view. It can be dealt with from the point of view of those who are genuinely trying to ensure that the accommodation built or adapted for the elderly is preserved for that purpose, and I have assured the House that that is our intention. It can also be dealt with from the point of view of those who are looking for different opportunities within the drafting. I do not suggest for a minute that the hon. Members who raised this point have such a thing in mind. However, as the Minister sponsoring the Bill, I must always have in mind the possibility that others less charitably disposed to what the Government are seeking to achieve might have such a purpose in mind.

I gave the assurance this afternoon in total sincerity and I still believe that that is the way in which the amendment will work out if it is incorporated by this House and their Lordships in the legislation.

I cannot deny to the House—and it is clear from the amendment—that there will be questions at the margin. There is no way of escaping that situation. We have tried to deal with that by taking the view that where the case is at the margin the discretion remains with the Secretary of State, to whom the individual authority will have to apply. If the amendment is accepted the Secretary of State will have to act within the law of the land. That is laid down, and it is quite clear what it will be.

Nevertheless, the sort of questions that are being raised enable the Secretary of State to look at the practice of the local authority. If it is the view of the Secretary of State, looking at that practice in the context of a specific house, that it has been the practice to let that house for the elderly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Only."]

Mr. Douglas-Mann


Mr. Heseltine

If it is the view of the Secretary of State that it is the practice of the authority to let the house for the elderly—[Hon. Members: "Only"] It is a question of the word "practice". There is an element of discretion in the hands of the Secretary of State, which is designed to balance the position of the local authority, which also has the discretion as to whether—

Mr. David Steel

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heseltine

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I want to try to explain the situation as best I can. It will be for the Secretary of State, acting within the law, to interpret "practice" and the relationship of the word "practice" to the word "only". It would be perfectly possible for the Secretary of State to say that although there had been the sort of exception that right hon. and hon. Members have raised, nevertheless it was the practice only to let to elderly people. This is totally compatible with the assurance that I gave the House. It is completely within the spirit of the amendment that I have tabled, which is also in keeping with my assurances.

Mr. Kaufman

If the amendment is incorporated into the Bill and a resident of one of the dwellings in question seeks to buy it and the local authority does not wish to sell it, it will go to the Secretary of State and will say that it does not wish to sell the property because it is an old person's dwelling within the Act.

I trust that the right hon. Gentleman is giving an assurance that will meet the views of my hon. Friends and those of Liberal Members—namely, that where a local authority comes to him not wishing to sell, having been served with a notice to sell, the Secretary of State will not wilfully set aside the wish of the authority not to sell—[Interruption.] I am attempting to be helpful to the House.

I trust that the Secretary of State will not wilfully set aside the authority's wish and that its wish not to sell in such circumstances will be accepted by the Secretary of State in the spirit of the statements that he has been making today. If he is satisfied that that is the position—namely, that the wish of the authority not to sell will be accepted in those circumstances—my view is that the difficulty does not arise. If he can give that assurance, he can help to settle the problem.

Mr. Heseltine

I shall try to help the House—

Mrs. Peggy Fenner


Mr. Heseltine

With respect, it is important that I try to deal with the specific point that has been put to me. If I have time, I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Fenner).

Mr. Hattersley

Why is there a shortage of time?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman knows the problems of guillotines. He has used as many as anyone else in the House.

Within the definitions that my hon. Friend the Minister of State spelt out, there is a real area of clarity on the houses that are to be excluded, because they have been the subject of special subsidies. There is documentation, and the houses are known. There are perhaps a few more than 200,000.

It is difficult to foresee these things, but I may be the Secretary of State who has to bear the first responsibility of administering the legislation. If I receive a bona fide application from a local authority that has old people's accommodation of the sort that we are discussing and that is referred to and defined in the legislation, it will not be my intention to call for the record to try to find an occasion when, one night, the authority let the dwelling to someone of 59 years and 364 days and to say "Look, I have got you. You cannot sell because you once let somebody under pensionable age into the house." That is not my intention. I can only assure the House that that is the position.

Mr. David Steel

I give the House a specific example that cannot come within the assurance that the right hon. Gentleman has given the House. In a block of about a dozen specially designed houses built about six years ago, one house was allocated from new to a man with multiple sclerosis, under pensionable age. If a request came for that house to be sold and the authority told the Secretary of State "We do not wish to sell the property", it would be no use the right hon. Gentleman's saying that it was the practice to let it only for occupation to those under pensionable age. He could be taken to court.

Mr. Heseltine

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman comes relatively fresh to the complexities of this legislation. He may remember that the disabled are specifically dealt with elsewhere in the legislation.

At this late hour, I shall try to state the case. If local authorities genuinely co-operate in the spirit of the legislation and if, rather than frustrating the purposes of the legislation, they maintain legitimate accommodation for the elderly, I shall not try to use the minutiae of past practice to frustrate the assurances that I have given.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Heseltine

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way. I am trying to explain the situation. However, there are difficulties, because the amendment is in manuscript form. I am trying to give the House every reasonable assurance possible in support of the undertakings that I gave earlier.

Mrs. Fenner

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that this Bill is not concerned with the question whether local authorities wish to sell properties? It concerns the tenant's right to exercise the right to buy. My local authority has specifically sold a specially adapted disabled home. It was adapted for a severely paralysed tenant, who had asked to buy it. The Bill concerns the tenant's right to buy rather than the wishes of local authorities.

I deeply respect the view that, on the whole, elderly folk will not seek to exercise the right to buy. However, I should prefer to let them exercise that right if they so wish. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Bill concerns the tenant's right to buy?

Mr. Heseltine

No one has pioneered the sale of council houses to a greater extent than my hon. Friend. Nor has any hon. Member secured better results for his or her constituents. I shall repeat the assurances that I have given. The Government propose to define in legislation a significant number of people who will not be able to purchase their homes unless the local authority concerned is prepared to let them do so. In general, those people live in accommodation that has been built or specially adaped for the elderly and is being used for that purpose. That is the assurance that we gave, and that is the basis on which welcome progress has been made. I cannot go back on those assurances, and I do not wish to do so.

There is bound to be an element of discretion in the hands of the Secretary of State. However, I have tried my best to assure the House that the Secretary of State will behave within the spirit set out today. On that basis, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the manuscript amendment and to reject the additional manuscript amendment proposed by the Leader of the Liberal Party and his colleagues.

Mr. Alton

The Secretary of State has misunderstood the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel). We are well aware that other provisions in the Bill deal with the disabled. However, a property that has been designed for a person of pensionable age can be sold off.

I believe that the Opposition Front Bench may have been duped. The Secretary of State and his colleagues have drafted about 500 different amendments. If the right hon. Gentleman is sincere, why cannot he accept a change of one word to one line? If he does not accept it, he will be guilty of an act of deceit and subterfuge. He is deliberately pulling the wool over the eyes of Liberal Members.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 109, Noes 264.

See Division 451

in column 1093

Question accordingly negatived.

Manuscript amendment in lieu of the Lords amendment agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am now required to put the Question on any amendment that the Minister wishes to move to a Lords amendment.

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