HC Deb 20 May 1980 vol 985 cc264-76

Amendment moved [19 May]: No. 9, in page 6, line 15, after first ' the ' insert ' regular '.

Mr. Speaker

I should inform the House that the timetable motion will come into effect at different times from those that we expected. The guillotine will fall at 5.54 pm instead of 5.30 pm, 6.54 pm instead of 6.30 pm, 9.24 pm instead of 9 pm, 10.24 pm instead of 10 pm and 12.24 am instead of midnight. The times are available for any hon. Member who has been unable to write them down.

I remind the House that with amendment No. 9 we are taking Government amendments Nos. 10 and 11.

4.3 pm

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)

I was explaining last night that the amendment associated with Government amendment No. 9, which I was in course of moving, was to bring about a small redefinition of members of the Armed Forces who will be able to benefit from the discount under the right to buy that we are applying to them. We thought it right to make it clear in the legislation that the Service men should be able to benefit would be members of the Regular forces. We have decided to adopt the definition in section 1 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, as amended by section 20 of the Armed Forces Act 1976. This is as follows: ' Regular armed forces of the Crown ' means the Royal Navy, the regular forces as defined by section 225 of the Army Act 1955, the regular air force as defined by section 223 of the Air Force Act 1955, Queen Alexandra's Royal Navy Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service ". That extends the scope of the legislation to those who were members of or would be normally regarded as the Regular Armed Forces, which I hope will meet with the wishes of the House.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Bearing in mind the recently published defence White Paper, which makes it clear that Service men will be allowed to purchase at similar discounts surplus Service accommodation, is there anything in the amendment to enable Service men who have previously lived in council accommodation to have that term added to the length of time in Service accommodation for discount purposes?

Mr. Stanley

The Housing Bill provision in chapter 1 relates to part V local authority accommodation and the equivalent of local authority accommodation provided by the new towns and housing associations. To the extent that the legislation has effect here, it applies only in respect of purchases of those dwellings. The question of the sale of existing houses or flats that may be in the ownership of the Ministry of Defence is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. It is outside the scope of this legislation.

Mr. Michael McNairWilson (Newbury)

The amendments are more than manuscript changes. Clause 7 is extremely important. It sets out the discounts available to council house tenants. The changes attempt to define more precisely what is meant by Armed Forces within the meaning of the Bill.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the definition that he has included? Why are the Women's Royal Army Corps and the Women's Royal Air Force omitted, together with the two nursing organisations that apply to the Army and Royal Air Force? Only the Women's Royal Naval Service and the nursing service applicable to the Royal Navy are included.

What are the criteria for deciding that members of the Regular Armed Forces should be given the benefits of those discounts but other Ministry of Defence personnel left out? My hon. Friend may say that the danger inherent in being a member of the Armed Forces has encouraged him and his colleagues to add them to this Bill to acknowledge that hazard. It that is so, has my hon. Friend considered the Ministry of Defence personnel who work at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, in my constituency? They are engaged in the active areas and contribute mightily to the production of nuclear material that goes into our Polaris submarines. My hon. Friend will know from the report produced by Sir Edward Pochin in 1978 that there is considerable hazard for those working at Aldermaston. If the Armed Forces are included for that reason, those people are also worthy of inclusion.

Ever since the Ministry of Defence decided to sell the houses occupied by personnel at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to the Property Services Agency, the question has been a bone of contention in my constituency. The agency was told that it could offer the houses first to the Newbury district council and only then to the sitting tenants. I took up the matter with the previous Government and more recently with my hon. Friend. I still await a letter to complete the correspondence.

The definition will make it all but impossible for hope to remain in the hearts of those members of the Ministry of Defence who work at Aldermaston. They believed, as perhaps I believed, that when the Conservative Government was returned last year they might have the chance to buy the houses in which many of them have lived for 20 years or more and enjoy the same discount enjoyed by a council tenant who could claim the same length of residency. Alas, because the PSA, prompted by the previous Government, had decided to offer the houses to Newbury district council, which took up the offer, because they were sold at unbelievable, knock-down prices of between £4,000 and £10,000, which bore no resemblance to their market value, no houses have been offered to the Ministry of Defence tenants who continue to live in them.

When the Government came to power, hope rose in the hearts of those tenants. The Conservative-controlled district council also thought that the fact that those people had been tenants in Government-owned properties for so long would give them a chance to benefit. Under the heading: Fairer deal promised for ex-MoD tenants ". the Newbury Weekly News reported on 5 July last year: Over 100 former Ministry of Defence houses throughout the Newbury district are to be included in the district council's sale of council houses scheme … Now, following a decision by the council's policy committee this week tenants' terms of residence will include the MoD period—thus making some eligible for full 50 per cent discounts. Those tenants were thrilled by that news and many thought that at long last the injustice done to them by the previous Government was to be put right. I need hardly tell the Minister how disappointed they were to find that they had been excluded. I plead their case again.

I recognise the right of members of the Armed Forces to be given discounts, but when talking about the Armed Forces it is difficult to draw a line between the members of the Services and employees of the Ministry of Defence who, I hope I have shown the House, are involved in hazardous work that is vital to the maintenance of our Polaris fleet.

I have suggested that the amendments are defective because they leave out the WRAF, the WRAC and two of the women's nursing services which are just as much part of the Regular Armed Forces as is the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service—and the Royal Marines do not seem to get a mention, though perhaps they are subsumed in the Royal Navy. If I am right, the amendments will have to be looked at again before the Bill becomes law. I hope that at that time my hon. Friend the Minister will give a thought to the 100 house-holders in Ministry of Defence property who find that their homes are owned by the Newbury district council and that they are to treated as though they were council house tenants of one year's standing.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, in equity, that cannot be right. Those tenants are performing hazardous and nationally important jobs. I suggest that, when we are considering discounts, they deserve as much recognition as do members of the Armed Forces.

Mr. Frank Allaun

(Salford, East): The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) made an interesting speech and pointed to other categories who, because they undergo risk and hazard, should be entitled to the benefit of being able to buy council houses at a high discount. However, there are others who undergo greater risks and hazards—for example, miners, spidermen and trawlermen.

I am not opposed to Service men having their full rights. Indeed, I believe that they are entitled to better pay and conditions and should have the right to belong to a trade union in order to achieve those benefits. However, if giving enhanced discounts to Service men or council tenants who buy results in the great majority of would-be council tenants being deprived of the opportunity either to buy a house or to get similar discounts, I am opposed to the proposal.

The case of the hon. Member for Newbury seems fair enough, but he is pleading that even more people should get discounts on the purchase of houses. The effect of that would be higher rents for all council tenants who do not buy and higher rates for everybody, because of the losses incurred by local authorities who will have to go on paying the interest charges on those houses for the next 60 years. It would also be disadvantageous to the community as a whole, for the reasons that we have outlined in other debates.

4.15 pm

The right to buy should be available to nobody. Everybody who has a council house should continue as a tenant. We should certainly not approve the worst feature of the Bill, which is that councils who do not want to sell houses to tenants should be compelled to do so. That is contrary to all our ideas of local democracy and, therefore, I cannot agree with what the hon. Member for Newbury was saying.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made it clear that he opposes all sales of council houses. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) was suggesting that the miners, to whom the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) referred, who undoubtedly undertake hazardous jobs, will enjoy the right to buy by virtue of being tenants if they live in council houses. My hon. Friend was suggesting that, in equity, the same right should be extended to those to whom he was referring.

Mr. Allaun

I accept that if we agree to the principle of the sale of council houses it is inequitable that those to whom the hon. Member for Newbury referred should be excluded.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I hope that I shall be forgiven for intruding on an English and Welsh Housing Bill, but the Minister's reply about the lack of reciprocal arrangements for those in Ministry of Defence houses surprised me. He cannot get away with making the bland statement that it is a matter for the Secretary of State for Defence. In fact, almost every other Government Department is involved.

On the equivalent Scottish Bill we were assured that a certain percentage of prison department houses would be sold, as would health board houses. In considering the definition of Armed Forces, we are not discussing only the extension of the categories who will have rights once they become council tenants. We are surely entitled to some indication of the Government's thinking.

The Government are forcing the sale of council houses on local authorities and if I were a member of the Armed Forces or an employee of the prison department, I should want to know why I could not be given an opportunity to buy a Government-owned house. It is appalling that the Minister should hide behind the traditional reply that it is a matter for his colleagues. I hope that he will expand on that.

Mr. Garel-Jones

Before my hon. Friend the Minister replies, I should like to draw his attention to the fate of police officers and serving policemen. I have had many representations by police officers in Hertfordshire. They recognise that the police authority is having discussions with the Home Office to see whether some arrangements can be made for certain police houses to be offered for sale, but it is unlikely that the discounts will be as great as the discounts offered to council house tenants. I hope that some arrangement can be made whereby these people—to whom the general public are indebted—can be offered the same conditions as those that are being offered to everyone else.

Dr. Mawhinney

As the hon. Member who raised the question originally, may I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) in asking the Minister to give further consideration to this amendment. One of the most advanced Air Force bases in the country is situated in my constituency, and it is critical to the defence of Britain. It would be somewhat invidious to separate those people in the operational wing from those on the support side of that base. They all contribute to the defence of the country.

I understand the point made by the Minister yesterday, which required him to seek a narrower definition within this clause. Having listened to his speech I would suppose that the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), was not present at that time and, therefore, is unaware of the need to define this clause more narrowly. Nevertheless, I share the misgivings voiced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, and I hope that the Minister will give some assurance that he he will look again at the clause before the Bill completes its remaining stages through this House and another place.

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) spoke eloquently on behalf of his constituents, and I am grateful to him for raising the extent of the coverage of members of the Regular branches of the women's Services. It is our intention to cover all Regular members of the Armed Services, both men and women. I hope that both the Regular women's Services of the Army and Air Force are covered within the relevant sections of the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955, the definitions of which I referred to. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall look again at the definitions in order to double check that they are included. I shall also look at the nursing branches to which he referred. If I may, I shall write to him to confirm the position in such a manner that the information will be available to all hon. Members. Should there be any need for a further amendment, I shall indicate that also.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury also raised the question of civilian members of the Ministry of Defence. A difficult judgment has had to be made, because there are many members of the public services who might have a claim to the benefit of the right-to-buy discount, which we felt it was right to extend to those people in uniform on a regular basis. We took account of the fact that the work of those in the military services is hazardous. We are conscious that they are under a special form of military jurisdiction. By the nature of their work, it is more difficult for them to establish a permanent home. They have to be able to move regularly, and often at short notice, and it is, therefore, more difficult for them to put down roots. They are in a different position from civilians who have a greater opportunity to establish permanent roots.

Inevitaby, wherever we draw the line, there will be some difficult cases. That is unavoidable. When we considered the possibilities that were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, we also had to consider other civilians in the public services, not only in the Ministry of Defence but in other branches of the public service where, on grounds of the hazardous nature of their job and the need to move to different parts of the country, a case could be made for them, too. When we looked at the possibilities, we decided that if we made the extension into the civilian branches it would become still more difficult to establish a hard-and-fast rational line as to where the statutory entitlement under the right to buy should be drawn.

We reached the conclusion that the only rational place where we could draw the line was between those who were under military jurisdiction—those people in uniform on a regular basis—and those who were not. I am sorry that that is a dissappointment to the constituents of my hon. Friend, but they can draw some comfort from the fact that, as a result of the right-to-buy discounts that I have included here, they will be able to benefit from a one-third discount after three years' qualification which has not been available previously.

In answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), may I say that it is right, in an English and Welsh context, that the terms of disposal of publicly-owned houses that are owned by other Government Departments must be a matter for individual Ministers who are responsible for those dwellings. The Government have considered the general policy on disposals. It must be a matter for each Department to decide, but we want to be satisfied that the existing enabling powers enable individual Departments and public authorites to make disposal on the same basis of the discounts under the right-to-buy legislation. It must be a decision for each Department as to how those powers are used, but sufficient statutory rules should exist on an enabling basis so that people can be offered discounts on the same terms under the right-to-buy provision in the Bill.

The same principle applies to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones). We have examined this matter in terms of the statutory powers that are available to county councils which own most of the police houses. We have ensured that where a local authority—a county council in this case—uses powers to sell a police house to a tenant, there is no statutory provision to prevent it from selling on the same discount basis under the right-to-buy legislation.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. D. A. Trippier (Rossendale)

I beg to move amendment No. 142, in page 6, line 17, at end insert— '; or (c) if the secure tenant succeeded to his tenancy under section 29(2) or (3) below—

  1. (i) the secure tenant,
  2. (ii) the secure tenant from whom he succeeded, or
  3. (iii) that predecessor's spouse, was a secure tenant.'
The purpose of this amendment is to extend the entitlement of discount rates to all those who are entitled to buy. The Bill extends the discount provisions in time of death to the spouse. I do not believe that that is sufficient. It should be extended to include another member of the family if he or she has succeeded to the tenancy and has been living in the same house.

My attention was drawn to this matter initially by a constituent who had lived with her mother for 57 years. Although she subsequently married, she continued to live with her parents. During the later part of her parents' life, she, not her parents, paid the rent. However, it was not until the death of the surviving parent that the tenancy was altered to her name. That often happens. Despite the fact that my constituent has been living in this house for such a protracted period, she is not entitled to the maximum 50 per cent. discount, and this is morally wrong.

4.30 pm

I am also aware of two other instances of injustice in my constituency. I have great sympathy with the tenants concerned. Where a son or daughter takes over the payment of rent, usually on the retirement of an elderly parent, it is not common practice to have the tenancy changed, and the House should accept that to make such a suggestion to the parent would be extremely difficult. There is no earthly reason why the Bill should not be amended to make provision for cases of this kind.

The Rent Act 1977 gives security of tenure not only for the lifetime of the original tenant but also for the lifetime of his statutory successor, that is, the first successor, and also for the lifetime of the latter's successor, that is, the second successor. A successor is defined as someone who must be either the spouse of the person he or she succeeds or, if there is no spouse, a member of the tenant's family who had been living with the tenant for six months.

Subsections (2) and (3) of clause 29 simplify the specifications for succession but extend the period of qualification for residence from six months to 12 months, which is very fair. If the principle of selling council houses to sitting tenants is right—and I believe it is—it is the Government's responsibility to clear up anomalies of this kind. I should be extremely grateful if my hon. Friend would give me an assurance that the Bill will be amended, either here or in the Lords, to cover the provisions to which I have referred.

Mr. John Lee (Nelson and Colne)

I support the amendment which has been initiated and moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier). It is a logical amendment. It encourages home ownership, which Conservative Members particularly support, and it has equity on its side, it surely cannot be right to deprive sons and daughters, who might have stayed at home to look after not only elderly parents but also handicapped parents, of the right to buy on attractive terms. I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Stanley

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for the way in which they have moved the amendment. I appreciate wry much the point they have made. It has concerned a number of hon. Members who have written to us about the position of discount entitlement in relation to those who have succeeded to a tenancy, particularly in the sorts of cases raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) where someone has been living in the house for a great many years, perhaps since birth, and may latterly have taken over a substantial measure—possibly the entire measure—of responsibility of maintaining the property and contributing a great deal to the rent, if not paying all of it.

We have been considering the possibility of an amendment to deal with such cases, and I am glad to tell my hon. Friends that we intend to introduce one in another place. What we have in mind would not produce precisely the same result as is sought in the amendment, but I hope that, when I have explained our intention, my hon. Friends will be able to agree with what we propose.

We have accepted that, like spouses, many adult children living with parents will have contributed towards the household's costs, and may even have carried the major share of them. We accept that a concession ought to be made in these circumstances if the child subsequently suceeds to the tenancy and exercises the right to buy.

We have concluded that a landlord should have discretion, however, to make discount available in respect of periods going back beyond the start of the tenancy of the person exercising the right to buy. We propose to adopt a similar provision to that in the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill, where such a provision already exists—that a tenant who has succeeded to a parents' secure tenancy should be able to receive discount entitlement in respect of time spent living with the parents since reaching the age of !6. Because of the great variety of personal and family circumstances, however, we think it is right that this discount entitlement, on succession, should be available at the discretion of the local authority.

My hon. Friend has introduced an important amendment. It is defective in one or two respects. I hope that he will seek to withdraw it, in view of the clear assurance that I have been able to give, that we intend to bring forward in another place the amendment that I have described.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

The amendment is an example of the kind of thing that happens when a Government embark along the road on which this Government have embarked in chapter I of the Bill, namely, that of dissipating public assets in this way. It becomes a situation in which the logic of the dissipation of the assets requires, at the margin, the enlargement of the dissipation, due to the perfectly valid case that the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) puts forward, where a relative lives with someone in the way described and contributes to the household expenses. To the official Opposition the dissipation of the assets is unacceptable, and therefore we would certainly have opposed the amendment. We are pleased that the Minister has not accepted it in the terms in which it was tabled.

We shall examine the amendment that the Minister tables for consideration in another place. We are pleased, at any rate, that any discount arrangements may be at the discretion of the local authority, but we shall have to examine precisely what those arrangements are. Our attitude to the amendment, when it returns from another place for consideration here, will be very much governed by the discretion committed to the local authority. If that discretion is not satisfactory to us, we shall oppose and vote against that amendment, just as we would have opposed and voted against this amendment if the hon. Gentleman had persisted with it.

Mr. Trippier

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 10, in page 6, line 37, leave out ' armed forces ' and insert ' regular armed forces of the Crown '.

No. 11, in page 6, line 45, at end insert— '( ) In this section "regular armed forces of the Crown" has the same meaning as in section 1 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975.'.

No. 12, in page 6, line 45, at end insert— ' (6A) Where the person or one of the persons exercising the right to buy, or the spouse of that person or of any of those persons, is a previous purchaser, a period shall be taken into account as a period during which the previous purchaser was, or was the spouse of, a secure tenant or during which he or his spouse occupied accommodation provided for him or his spouse as a member of the regular armed forces of the Crown, only if it falls after the completion of the previous purchase or, if more than one, the last of them. (6B) In subsection (6A) above "previous purchaser" and "previous purchase" have the same meanings as in section 1(5A) above.'.—[Mr. Stanley.]

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