§ Order for Second Reading read.4.22 pm
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Shortly before the recess the Government agreed to amend what is now the Housing Act 1980 to allow an additional category of specially adapted houses for the elderly in England to be excluded from the right to buy. At the same time, an undertaking was given to bring forward amending legislation introducing into the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980 an amendment "to give similar effect" to the arrangements embodied in the Housing Act. This undertaking is met by the Bill which is now before the House. It has already been considered in another place and has emerged with its provisions approved and unchanged apart from a slightly narrower specification of what is meant by the term "elderly" in connection with amenity housing.
In describing the aim and effect of the one provision of substance in this Bill on the sale of elderly persons' housing, there are two points on which I intend to concentrate my remarks. The first concerns the drafting of the amending provision. The drafting of the Tenant's Rights, Etc. (Scotland) and the Housing Acts differs considerably in many respects and it would not have been appropriate simply to transpose the Housing Act provision into the tenants' rights Act. The Scottish Act already recognises two distinct categories of housing which are specially adapted for the elderly.
Those houses which are fully sheltered, in the sense of having a call system and a resident warden, are wholly excluded from the right to buy by section 1(11)(c) of the Act. In relation to the different category of houses which have substantial adaptations but where there is neither a call system nor a warden, there is provision in section 4(4) for the local authority to exercise a right of pre-emption once the house has been sold to the first tenant purchaser should he subsequently 1310 decide to sell. Introducing a third definition of a category of houses for the elderly would have been bound to cause confusion.
Consequently, the central definition of the category of houses which it is proposed should be able to be excluded from the right to buy as a result of this Bill is founded upon the form of words which already appears in section 4(4) of the Tenants' Rights Act and which has the advantage of having been discussed in detail by both Houses and found satisfactory as a description of houses in which the community has a right to retain an interest.
What the Bill does is to give local authorities a choice as regards that category of houses between the existing power to attach pre-emption conditions if they wish to sell and the new possibility introduced by the Bill, that is, seeking the authorisation of the Secretary of State for excluding the houses from the right to buy altogether.
There are a number of other reasons why the drafting of the Scottish provision must necessarily differ from the drafting of the Housing Act provision. The Housing Act has no equivalent of the provision in the Tenants' Rights Act which places time limits on the action to be taken by a landlord following an application to purchase, and it is clearly necessary that a drafting approach should be adopted which makes sense of the new provision within that framework. However, in its essential form, the procedure proposed in clause 1 of the Bill is directly modelled on the procedure now embodied in the Housing Act. If an authority believes that the houses in question are within the category that is defined in the new section 3A, which is being inserted into the pricipal Act, it may apply to the Secretary of State for his authorisation to refuse to sell the houses, and he must give that authorisation if the criteria set out in the subsection (1) of the new section 3A are met.
My second main point concerns the effect of the new provision. The main category of houses affected by it would be those known as amenity houses, that is, houses which are physically in all respects like fully sheltered houses but which lack the call system and the 1311 resident warden. This is a distinct and clearly understood category of housing for the elderly, introduced by the previous Government in 1975, on which detailed design guidance is included in the recently revised part 5 of the Scottish housing handbook. A number of other houses which have been adapted on an ad hoc basis for the elderly will also be likely to fall within the definition of affected housing given in the Bill.
The Bill approximately doubles the number of specially adapted houses for the elderly which are likely to be excluded from the right to buy. What the Government have done is to provide a sales approach which is both right for Scotland and consistent with what has been done in England and Wales, where the number of possible exclusions was also doubled by a similar change to the Housing Act. At the same time, we have kept in mind the wishes of many elderly people to own their own homes, and the Bill is designed to ensure that their right to buy is taken from them only if the community has an overriding interest in the continued availability of houses which are genuinely different from the general run of houses.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)
I accept that this is a narrow Bill concerning the elderly, but will the Minister say how he will cater for the elderly on the Brucefield Estate, Dunfermline, where the houses have been sold over the heads of the people on the estate in terms and circumstances that enabled James Miller and Partners, theoretically, to make £1 million profit by sitting on their backsides?
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that these houses, which are not the responsibility of the Scottish Office, were offered for sale. The company to which the hon. Gentleman referred put in an offer that was by far the highest amount. In regard to those tenants who wish to buy the houses, I understand that James Miller has indicated no objection to offering the houses to the individual tenants who wish to purchase. I hope that this meets the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.
Clause 2 makes a number of minor amendments which come somewhere in 1312 the area between the concern of the draftsman and the concern of the printer. The only one about which I wish to say something is clause 2(f)—the amendment which clarifies the interpretation of the term "heritable proprietor".
Section 1(11) of the Act provides, in part, that the right to buy does not exist where a landlord does not own the house in question. This is a commonsense provision. However, the provision uses the term "heritable proprietor" to denote ownership and it has been suggested by one or two local authorities that a technical quibble about Scots conveyancing terminology could give rise to some doubt about whether "heritable proprietor" covers all forms of ownership. The Government are confident that the Act as it stands is perfectly sound, and I understand that a number of local authorities have taken independent legal advice which has confirmed this view.
What the doubtful authorities seem to be saying is that local authorities which took over houses on the reorganisation of local government and did not formally complete their title to those houses could not be regarded as owners, and therefore their tenants do not have the statutory right to purchase. This view is untenable, and I repeat that the Government are entirely satisfied that the Act as it stands is not defective in any way. Our understanding has, I gather, recently been amply confirmed by advice given to one Labour authority by Professor Halliday, one of Scotland's foremost authorities on conveyancing law. It has, however, become clear in recent weeks that one or two Scottish authorities are intent on exploiting any shred of doubt as they see it about the interpretation of the term "heritable proprietor" in order to delay the processing of applications and to discourage tenants from exercising their right to buy.
Clearly, it is desirable that there should be no vestige of doubt or claimed doubt about a provision of such importance, affecting the right to buy of the majority of Scotland's public sector tenants, and this amendment is brought forward to provide the necessary clarification. With the amendment proposed, there can be no remaining doubt that we shall have an Act which does what Parliament always intended it to do.
1313 With those remarks, I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Craigton)
We shall support the Bill because its main provision is a concession to the main Act—the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act. The Bill is modest, and does not go far enough. I shall not go over the arguments that were expressed during the passage of the principal Bill, which was debated at considerable length, but I wish to put on record that the Labour Party is vehemently opposed to the compulsory sale of council houses against the wishes of local authorities in circumstances that are damaging to existing local authority tenants who wish to be transferred and to applicants on the housing lists. We believe that the Act is wholly repugnant in that respect. Of course, the next Labour Government will repeal the legislation.
Our short experience of the Act has demonstrated that the interest in buying houses is preponderantly, but not exclusively, in the best areas. Therefore, the best council houses are most likely to be sold and taken from the housing stock. That is damaging not only to the rights of local authorities to manage their stocks in the best possible way but to people who are interested in living in council houses, and particularly to applicants on the housing lists.
Not one of the authorities that expressed hostility to the legislation when it was going through the House has withdrawn its hostility and anger at the terms of the legislation. Many Scottish local authorities are being compelled, against their better judgment and against the wishes of those who elected them as recently as May this year, to sell some of their best council housing. We continue to oppose the Government's action.
The Bill deals with housing for the elderly. The Government would not have got into such a mess before the recess if they had not been so pig-headed and dogmatic and so unwilling to listen to the arguments in Committee, in the House and in the Lords. They ignored advice given in the other place by several members of the Conservative Party as well as by Labour, Liberal and independent peers. If they had listened to advice, particularly about housing for the elderly, 1314 they would not have got themselves into this mess and they would not have found it necessary to make the concession. They were also given advice about housing for the disabled.
The Bill was not volunteered by the Government; it was drawn from them with considerable difficulty. They were exteremely reluctant to make any concession. However, the Bill has emerged from the chaos which began before the recess and which continues. The concession is far too limited, and we shall return to it in Committee.
The Bill gives local authorities a discretion. It does not exclude completely from the right to buy the categories of housing covered by the Act. Local authorities are given discretion about whether to buy. In that respect it is an improvement.
When one takes into account the discussions in another place, one realises that the concession for Scotland is not as favourable as the concessions for England and Wales. The Minister said that the Bill will double the number of houses affected by exemptions. He did not say that it increases exemptions from about 6,000 to 12,000. In England and Wales, the exemptions are increased from 220,000 to 440,000. The concession for England and Wales is much greater than the concession for Scotland, despite the number of council houses proportionate to the population being much greater in Scotland than it is in England or Wales. The needs for housing for the elderly in Scotland are certainly as great as, if not greater than, they are in England and Wales.
The Minister made some attempt to explain why England and Wales have a greater concession, but I did not find it convincing. However, it was at least reasonably coherent, which is more than can be said of Lord Mansfield's explanation. He seemed to be incapable of explaining anything. At least today the Minister has tried to give a coherent explanation.
I do not accept that the drafting and framework of the principal Scottish Act is so different from that of the England and Wales Act that we cannot have a concession which is similar to the concession contained in Schedule 1(5) to the England 1315 and Wales Act. That Act does not include the restrictions that are contained in this Bill. The Bill contains a definition of a house with facilities which are substantially different from those in an ordinary dwelling house. The definition in the England and Wales Act could be applied to Scotland and it would bring many more houses within the scope of the Bill.
Anyone who knows anything about housing in Scotland is anxious simply to provide housing for the elderly, however the accommodation is designed or adapted. Large numbers of elderly people need houses of a manageable size. They need smaller houses than young married couples with the expectation of a family or married couples with families living with them. Elderly people need small houses which are suitable when they have retired and have no family responsibilities. There is a tremendous shortage of such houses in Scotland. When there is such a shortage, and when the needs of elderly people are growing simply because their numbers are increasing, it is scandalous to take out of the housing stock housing which is suitable for the elderly.
Many such houses will be sold eventually, following the death of the original occupants, to other people who do not need small houses. Many of the houses are suitable for couples without children. Even with the concessions in the Bill, there is no doubt that we shall lose many council houses which are suitable for elderly people. Many such houses will no longer be occupied by elderly people, and that is a scandal given the current needs of the elderly in Scotland.
We therefore do not accept that the Bill is adequate or that it meets the full obligations that the Government assumed at the beginning of August when they said that they would place Scotland on all fours with England and Wales in respect of the new legislation. The Bill does not do that, and therefore the Government have not discharged their promise.
Therefore, although we shall not vote against the Bill on Second Reading because it contains some concession, we shall seek to amend it in Committee to make it more acceptable in Scottish circumstances, so far as we can do that within the framework of the Act. We shall 1316 endeavour to make it meet the obligations and promises that the Government undertook at the beginning of August but which the debates in the other place have demonstrated they have not fulfilled in drafting the Bill.
§ 4.42 pm.
§ Mr. Allan Stewart (Renfrewshire, East)
I apologise to the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) for having missed some of his speech. I wish to raise with the Minister a point that concerns his remarks on clause 2 (e) and (f). I refer, of course, to the infamous Hamilton letter from the chief executive of Glasgow district council.
It seems that the council's efforts to implement or not to implement the Tenants' Rights, Etc. Act (Scotland) involves the question not so much of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, but of the left hand not knowing what the far left hand is doing. As a result, there has been enormous confusion. I appreciate that Labour Members may have slightly different definitions from mine of the terms "right", "left" and "far left".
Every tenant in the city of Glasgow who had applied to buy his house received a letter last week. Its key paragraph reads:As presently drawn, Section 1 of the Act, which confers on certain tenants a right to buy, does not apply where a landlord mentioned in any of paragraphs (a), (b) or (c) of Section 10 (2) of the Act is not the heritable proprietor of the relevant house.The Council takes the view that, in the strict terms of the Act, it is not the heritable proprietor of the house refered to in your application and that, unless and until sub-section 11 of Section 1 of the Act is amended, the Act does not and cannot apply to that house.I understand that the Government is promoting legislation to amend the said sub-section. If it does, you may wish to submit a fresh application—although the Council obviously hopes that you will not do so.That is an appalling letter. I commend Labour Members to read the excellent editorial about it in the Glasgow Evening Times. It is not my purpose to discuss that letter at length. However, one aspect has disturbed many people, What does the council tenant in Glasgow do now? Most people who received the letter naturally assumed that their application was no longer valid. That is totally incorrect. The letter is without justification. It is, frankly, an 1317 attempt, by legalistic jargon, to confuse people and to deny them their rights under the Tenants' Rights Act.
I hope that at an appropriate stage my hon. Friend the Minister will make clear to the council tenants involved precisely what they should do in response to that letter.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
It is a pity that the Government have lost the opportunity to alter the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act to deal with the great problem of houses for the elderly. Under the public expenditure cuts, housing grants are being cut, and in particular there will be an absence of money for the creation of sheltered houses and of general housing that might be suitable for the elderly.
Clause 1 has been drafted in a grudging and restricted fashion. Ministers have let go the opportunity to expand the availability within the principal Act of decent housing for the elderly.
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)
Is not the hon. Gentleman also saying that he will specifically deprive the elderly of the right to buy that is enjoyed by everyone else?
§ Mr. Wilson
In dealing with the elderly in particular, we should try to provide an adequate housing stock for those who are moving into their declining years and who have, because of their age, less opportunity to move into the private sector and to buy a house. Therefore, many elderly people apply to the housing divisions of the district councils for small houses—for one and a half-, two- or three-apartment houses—to deal with the altered circumstances arising from their families having grown up. For medical reasons they may require a house which, while not having been specially adapted, perhaps is all on ground level and has easy access. These houses are in greatest demand, as I find from personal experience in my constituency.
In the past the Minister has argued on the question of general housing that there would be no real loss from the housing stock because a house that was purchased would still be occupied largely by those who would be entitled to succeed to the tenancy. But with smaller houses it is more likely that the relatives of 1318 elderly people would be prepared to sell the houses and that would take them out of the stock available for letting. It is against that background that the Government have lost an opportunity to make a concession.
I was interested to hear the suggestion by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Milian) that the terms of the amending Bill in relation to the concession for the elderly is much less generous than the concession contained in the English legislation. I have made it clear in the House that I do not necessarily accept the standard that has been adopted in English legislation as one that should be applied to Scotland. On the other hand, when I see an opportunity developing to improve the circumstances of the Scottish people I pursue it. I see that as one isolated example of generosity that might be taken up.
It is a pity that the Government have framed the Bill in its existing form. The proposed new section 3A is remarkably restrictive in its application when it refers to a dwelling house thathas facilities which are substantially different from those of an ordinary dwelling-house and which has been designed or adapted for occupation".Their adoption of this phraseology means that they have lost a valuable second chance to put right one of the glaring difficulties in relation to the common housing stock that is likely to arise from the original Act.
§ Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)
My hon. Friend the Minister has got the Bill right. In addition, the principal Act is both briefer and better than the English Act. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Milian) and others spoke about the problem of housing for the elderly. I think that all would agree that the local authorities' record for providing houses specifically for the elderly has been extremely bad for a long period. The vast proportion of houses available specifically for the elderly have been provided by sources other than the local authorities, which have failed badly in that respect.
I believe that we need more houses for the elderly. The principal Act will positively assist us to have a larger total stock of houses for the elderly because 1319 from the product of the sale of houses funds will be available that can be used to build housing needed to meet current demands, of which the most pressing is more houses for the elderly.
I turn to clause 2(f). If Dundee corporation does not own its houses to such a sufficient extent as to be able to sell them, how is it that it owns its houses to such a sufficient extent as to charge rent for them? It is curious that that problem has not been raised by those who claim to speak for council house tenants in Dundee. I should be interested to know whether my hon. Friend can tell us anything about the cost to the ratepayer and the taxpayer of the bureaucratic nitpicking in Glasgow referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart). Surely nothing illustrates more clearly the need for the carefully constructed terms of the principal Act than such stupid nitpicking—which at the end of the day will be proved to be ill-founded in law—and the extent to which many Labour local authorities will go to frustrate the reasonable desire of a great many council house tenants to own their homes—
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, if it is legally ill-founded, the Government have thought fit to amend the Act?
§ Mr. Henderson
That is a perfectly simple matter. However, I cannot speak for my hon. Friend the Minister, who is extremly good at speaking for himself. I hazard a guess that it is to avoid the necessity for a great deal of time and money being spent unnecessarily by relatively not well-off people who wish to prove that they have such rights in law.
Clause 1(10) of the principal Act sets down the categories of persons who have the right to added discount by virtue of previous public sector tenancies. There has been an unfortunate omission in that part of the Act. I understand that an amendment to correct it would not come within the terms of the Bill before us. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would consider this point and determine whether any future review of Housing Acts for Scotland might cater for the problem. I refer to the provision in clause 1320 1(10)(1) for persons who have been tenants of the Crown. It states:in relation to accommodation provided in connection with service by the tenant or occupier as a member of the regular armed forces of the Crown".When the Committee considered the matter it thought especially of a large category of people, namely, the Armed Services. However, specifically including the Armed Services as a qualification of tenants of the Crown has deprived certain categories of established civil servants who might be in similar positions. They might even move to destinations around the world where the Armed Forces had been. They are not covered by that section. That is the only unfortunate aspect that I have found in the Act. I hope that my hon. Friend will pay attention to that matter on a future occasion.
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
I confess that I enjoyed the opening passages of the debate. We had the spectacle of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) standing as the champion of the Glasgow council house tenant. There will be cheers ringing in the steets of Newton Mearns and Whitecraigs tonight because of his courageous stand. I have news for the hon. Gentleman. If he goes to Barrhead, where he probably has council tenants, he will find that their views are different from his. It would be better if he talked to them before telling us what we should be doing with council house policy.
I thoroughly enjoyed the speech of the Under-Secretary. With all the precise erudition and skill of junior counsel, and praying in aid Professor Halliday and various other luminaries from the world of conveyancing, he explained quite definitively that there was no legal foundation in the apparent loophole discovered by Glasgow district council and other local authorities. He gave it as his professional opinion, backed in every way, that the loophole was without foundation. I hope that he will believe me when I say that it came as a sad anti-climax when he then pointed out that we were nevertheless legislating to deal with the apparent loophole. It is an extraordinary principle on which to draft legislation when Ministers come before 1321 the House and say "This change in the law is unnecessary, without foundation, and we do not need it" but then say "We shall introduce the change anyway as a fourth-line safety measure". That is an indefensible position.
§ Mr. Rifkind
If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the position of the individual tenant wishing to purchase his house he will realise that if we do not take the opportunity presented by the Bill to clarify an existing point, large numbers of tenants will have to go to the Lands Tribunal to resolve the matter before certain authorities will be prepared to budge. That might not be a good argument for bringing forward legislation, but as there is an amending Bill before the House it would be silly for the Government not to take the opportunity to assist the tenants to exercise the rights provided for them by Parliament.
§ Mr. Dewar
If the Minister is right in saying that there is no merit in the argument—and I do not intend to enter into that at this stage, as have learned counsel on both sides—it is wrong to legislate to meet such an argument. If the Minister has to get across the message that the argument is without merit, he should have the courage of his powers of persuasion and talk to the local authorities concerned. If he is saying that those local authorities will go ahead irrespective of the merits of their arguments, shutting the loophole will not prevent them from doing so. Inflammatory and knocking speeches about local authorities such as Glasgow, which has taken a constructive and responsible line in the argument, are not helpful. If the Goverment want a level of co-operation and a civilised and sensible debate about the measure, they should invest in some muzzles and gags—possibly for the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), from whom we shall no doubt hear later in the debate, and for, others on the Conservative Back Benches.
I turn to the most substantial point of the Bill, namely, the argument about housing for the elderly. There is no doubt that Hansards of the period are spattered with quotations from luminaries on the Government Front Bench to the effect that England and Scotland are to be treated exactly on a par—on 1322 all fours. The Leader of the House told us that it was simply a matter of technicalities, that the intention would be the same, and that the concessions north and south of the border would be the same. While we shall not oppose the few crumbs thrown to us, we are entitled to say that we are bitterly disappointed by what has emerged in this amending legislation.
It is quite clear—I do not think that this has been seriously challenged by the Minister—that the concession being given in Scotland is much narrower, and will not apply to anything like the same range of property, as the parallel concession south of the border. As I understood the Minister, he did not try to argue on the merits at all. He produced a number of drafting arguments. He argued that there was a certain form of words in section 4(4), and because they were familiar and had been discussed in Committee in the context of that section, it was right and proper that they should be deemed to apply in these circumstances in order to provide another option for that narrow group of housing described in section 4.
I was totally unconvinced by that kind of drafting expediency argument, which seemed to be the basis of his case. Perhaps the Minister can convince me that I am wrong, but I am left with a clear impression that we now have a situation in which housing in Scotland, which would qualify under the terms of the English exemption, will not be covered or caught by the equivalent Scottish legislation. I say that tentatively, because I did not sit on the Committee and did not suffer through those 1750 columns of Hansard.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Milian) quoted figures from the House of Lords debate to the effect that about 6,000 Scottish properties will be involved, whereas in England the equivalent number is 221,000. There are those of us who, in different settings and at different times, have juggled around with Goschen formulae. It would beggar our mathematical ingenuity to make any sort of argument suggesting that that was a fair comparison and an exemption on all fours.
My constituency is a typical Glasgow constituency with a high proportion of 1323 council housing. About 96 per cent. of my electors live in public sector housing. Scattered throughout the constituency are a large number of what are called old people's houses. People come to see me every week at my surgery and say "I would like to get into the two-apartment old people's housing down such-and-such a road." I know exactly what they mean. They mean housing which has been built especially to accommodate pensioners and old people. It is not physically adapted in the sense that one can go in and say "Here is a ramp and here is a special piece of internal equipment." It is two-apartment housing, perhaps round a little square of green, where everyone who is allocated a dwelling is a pensioner. That constitutes the vast majority of the stock of old people's housing in the city of Glasgow and, I suspect, in every industrial conurbation in Scotland.
I will be happy to be told that I am wrong, but as I understand it that will not be covered by the definition contained in the Bill. We may be told that this accommodation does not have facilities that are substantially different from those in an ordinary dwelling house, although it has been designed or adapted for occupation by an elderly person. There is no special alarm system or any other feature which will bring such accommodation within this exemption. The result is that in all these corner or special sites scattered throughout our housing schemes people will be able to come along and use their powers under the Act, and the local authority will be powerless to stop them.
I have no sympathy with this kind of sleight of hand. I do not know whether it is a blind loyalty or just an unfamiliarity with the reality of housing policy in the larger industrial conurbations which leads the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) to argue that in some sort of miraculous way this will lead to an extension of housing for old people in our cities. Along with him I pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Hanover, Bield, Christian Aid and the various other housing associations that are building special-purpose housing. I would not object strongly to a suggestion that the right to buy, irrespective of the wishes of the landlord, should be extended to those housing developments, I presume that the hon. Member for Fife, East would want 1324 that to be done on a natural extension of his own arguments.
The point that I am making is that there will undoubtedly be a diminution in the number of such houses because I am convinced that there will be frequent sales in regard to those sites that I have described. People talk about the rights of the elderly, and argue that they ought to have the same rights under this legislation as any other tenant. But in my view there are greater public rights which affect the elderly as a group. One of the most important is the right to a reasonable supply of special-purpose housing which is adapted for their needs. At present, we are fundamentally short of this form of housing stock. Many of the elderly have perhaps a lesser interest in buying their house because of their financial situation as pensioners and, to put it cruelly, their actuarial expectations. My fear is that quite a number of these special-purpose houses will be bought at second hand from the pensioner by the family. There is no doubt but that that will happen. It will be a temptation. We are all human and at times we give in to temptation. If an elderly mother or aunt lives in an attractive situation in a small flat of this kind, which can be picked up for a low price at a maximum discount, I believe that people will succumb to that temptation and that the housing stock which ought to be reserved for the elderly will be raided in this way. That would be a tragedy, which would lead to a significant diminution in the number of units available to old people in our community.
I want to defend the rights of elderly people, but I also want to defend the rights of the community to maintain a specific provision, which is badly needed, for hundreds and thousands of old people in Scotland who at present are unsuitably housed or housed in ways which are totally unsatisfactory, given their physical requirements. It is the duty of the House to ensure that we pass legislation which allows local authorities to maintain the stock which is needed in order to meet some of the saddest and most demanding needs which all of us as constituency Members of Parliament meet in our daily rounds.
All that we wanted in the context of this argument was what the Government promised us, which was something on all 1325 fours with what exists south of the border. We are not getting that. I appreciate that we shall have to accept what has been offered because as yet we do not have the votes in this House to obtain more. That is why I regard the Bill as a fraudulent amendment to what is essentially a bad piece of housing legislation.
§ 5.7 pm
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)
I welcome the amendments, particularly the amendment dealing with the sale of council property in Dundee disstrict, where a number of my constituents live. It is quite wrong that in Perth and Kinross district my constituents can now buy their council properties with little or no difficulty, provided that they can meet the requirements of making the purchase and get the loan, whereas constituents in the Dundee district are denied that right because the district council is more concerned about scoring political points and making its name in a way that is damaging to the city and its image.
This matter came up at a conference held in Aviemore last week. During a discussion on the problems of bringing facilities into areas, the Dundee district was specifically mentioned. It clearly came across that councils are often more concerned with the publicity that they generate.
At times it is a shock to remember that Labour Members represent a party which claims that it is concerned about getting workers more of a share of the national kitty. This legislation will give individuals an opportunity to get a bigger and better share of the national kitty, yet they are arguing against it. We understand their political view, and we understand why they often put forward such an argument. If I were a Member who represented a constituency that largely consisted of council properties I, too, would be worried if I felt that the sale of those properties might change the political view of the tenants. It will turn those individuals into property-owning individuals who will perhaps take a different view of State handouts and the way in which the State does things. I understand that, but I find it difficult to understand why Labour Members should suggest that Conservative Members are uncaring. If one looks at the record of individual constituency Mem- 1326 bers, one sees that there is equal caring on both sides of the House. We are talking about the difference in political ideology. It has nothing to do with caring. A caring local Member looks after the problems locally, regardless of his political colour.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
Does not the hon. Gentleman concede that local authorities will be able to take care of the needs of tenants if they are allowed to retain the power to decide whether they wish to sell council houses? That is denied in the main legislation.
§ Mr. Walker
The hon. Gentleman has just made my point. That is what happens in these areas, and in Dundee. People make noises that are designed to give them political exposure so that they can hit the media rather than doing something about caring for individuals.
I recognise that many Labour Members genuinely care. That was brought out clearly in the debates on the housing provisions of the Bill. A number of Labour Members care deeply about individuals and their problems. I should like them to acknowledge that many Conservative Members have direct experience of the problems that we are discussing. We realise that this is a way forward—we do not suggest that it is necessarily the only way forward—and I genuinely believe that it will go some way towards helping many people who want to help themselves and their families.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirling-shire)
This Bill is the only small limited concession by way of amendment to the main legislation, which will go down as one of the worst Acts in the history of public sector housing in Scotland.
Since the Wheatley legislation in the early 1920s we have seen a gradual expansion of public sector housing in Scotland. There were construction programmes not only in the 1920s, but even in the difficult economic period of the 1930s. A massive construction programme was undertaken by the post-war Attlee Labour Government. That was done not for doctrinaire reasons but for good commonsense reasons and because the people, including people of other political persuasions, saw the commonsense solution 1327 to Scotland's housing problems. They realised that the problem could not be solved simply by relying on free market forces. That is still as relevant today as it was 10 or 20 years ago.
Many people, including many of the elderly and disabled and people with special needs, would have virtually no housing opportunity and no roof over their head if it were not for public sector housing. If they had had to rely simply on free market forces, many of those people would now be officially categorised as homeless. But despite that expansion, and what appears to have been a consensus about public sector housing in the past, we are now in danger of seeing the clock being turned back. For the first time in the history of public sector housing we shall see a reduction in public sector housing stock, and that reduction will have resulted from the policies of the Conservative Party. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State should pay attention instead of reading during the debate. His Government are forcing local authorities to sell council houses—with a few minor exceptions such as those included in the Bill—and combining a legislative attack on the public sector housing with refusing to give local authorities enough money for new building.
Already, south of the border, the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose respect for public property is so scant that he even grabbed the Mace in this House and brandished it in front of hon. Members, is attacking public property throughout England and Wales by means of a moratorium on new council house building. It is incumbent upon the Minister to say in his reply whether there are any contingency plans in the Scottish Office for a moratorium north of the border. Even without a 100 per cent. ban on new council house building it is clear that the insufficient resources that the Government are giving to local authorities make it increasingly difficult for them to maintain any sort of housing improvement programme, let alone a programme for new housing construction. That has an effect on the specialised needs of the elderly and disabled. The disabled are not even included in the Bill. Why not? We cater for the special needs of the elderly—I wholly approve of that—so 1328 why should we not give equal weight to the disabled?
The housing associations have done and continue to do their best to provide for specialist needs, but their programmes are being severely curtailed because of the financial constraints on the Housing Corporation. Perhaps the Minister does not realise that. As well as encouraging housing associations to maintain their programmes, we should encourage the local authorities to continue to provide better housing for the elderly and the disabled. That means giving them money for better maintenance, improvements and building programmes. Most local authorities throughout Scotland are complaining not simply about the inadequacy of the rate support grant and housing support grant, but about the inadequacy of capital allocations for housing. Often the weakest members of society will suffer most as a result of the Government's policies.
I welcome this tiny concession, but it is insufficient, because the Government's policies will result in a continuing shortage of housing, especially for the elderly and disabled in Scotland.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak again on the Housing Acts in general. We should be thankful for small mercies that this Bill has been introduced.
It is extraordinary, when we consider the important role that Glasgow plays in the West of Scotland, that it requires hon. Members from other areas to put up a spurious case on behalf of the tenants. One wonders why Glasgow has so few Tory Members of Parliament, but there is no doubt a reason.
I wish to talk about two main points. We have to consider the numbers involved. We are told that substantially the provision will bring in equality between the number of homes for the elderly in Scotland and the number of homes for the elderly in England and Wales. The Minister of State in another place said that about 6,000 houses would be affected in Scotland and that the comparable figure in England and Wales is 220,000.
There are several things to be said about that. The first is to draw attention to the monstrous differential that now 1329 exists in those crude figures. Another is that those crude figures are against a background in which there is already a substantially higher proportion of local authority housing in Scotland. Something is wrong. There is no comparability or equality whatever. The only reason that one can find for this is in the nature and wording of the Bill.
The Minister shakes his head, but there can be no other explanation. If the purpose was to bring in equality of treatment in relation to the number of houses for the elderly, the number would have been substantially higher, perhaps by a factor of five or six. Since that is not the purpose, it must be because of the definition of the houses of elderly people given in the Bill. If the Minister has another explanation, perhaps he will give it, instead of shaking his head.
§ Mr. Rifkind
I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman the explanation. There has been much discussion about sheltered housing. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, according to the normal definitions of sheltered housing, whereas there are about 220,000 sheltered houses in England and Wales, there are only 6,000 sheltered houses in Scotland. As the Labour Party was in office and responsible for housing for at least five out of the last six years, that is something that Labour Members will have to take into account.
§ Mr. Buchan
There is, as we have said, a very narrow definition of the houses to which the measure is applicable. The point remains exactly the same. We are now working on the definition of the numbers of sheltered houses, but because of the definition that the Minister has now given us, it means that there is inequality to the extent of about 5 or 6 to 1 in regard to the houses occupied by elderly people. There is no way round that, and it is certainly sharpened by the kind of definition used in the Bill. The criteria given in the Bill are extremely narrow. This is presumably in order to try to relate them to what the Minister has defined as 6,000 houses, but this is a monstrous proposition. This is not the way in which local authorities handle their houses for the elderly.
For example, I have a block of flats in one of my towns in West Renfrewshire, 1330 and the local authority has a specific policy of giving priority to elderly couples. It also allocates some of the flats to younger couples in order to have a few young people in the various blocks so that they can be helpful to the elderly people around them. But that is by no means seen as sheltered housing. These are ordinary council houses, in regard to which the local authority can exercise a proper balance and a proper priority so as to have a reasonable community living in those houses. That priority will go the moment that these houses can be sold. They are not being protected under the Bill.
It is nonsense to say that the elderly people will not buy, because what frequently happens, and will frequently happen, is that the family of the elderly couple will buy. This will mean that the correct housing policy operated by the local authority will be thwarted because the balance and the whole concept will go.
The Government have established double criteria in regard to sheltered housing. I am always suspicious when the criteria are not A or B but A and B. This limits even more drastically the numbers to be protected. The first definition in clause 3A relates tofacilities which are substantially different from those of an ordinary dwelling-house".Councils operate a socially valuable policy in letting houses to elderly people and allocating them exclusively to elderly people. These houses are in no sense substantially different from other council houses, although they might perhaps be deliberately built a little smaller. In terms of facilities they are not substantially different and they are not intended to be substantially different from other houses, apart from moving a power plug up or down in order to make it more convenient for the occupant. On the whole, the intention is to give to elderly people the same standards and facilities as apply to any other council houses.
Under the provisions of the Bill that kind of housing will be eliminated. It will eliminate most of the two-apartment houses that my local councils have been building over the last few years especially for old people but with facilities substantially the same as those provided for other council tenants. Even that is not sufficient 1331 for this penny-wise Government, because clause 3A refers to houses which havebeen designed or adapted for occupationand so on. The Government are saying that where a council operates a policy under which it builds houses of a normal standard and type, but designed with a special intention in mind, such a policy will be excluded. That is quite monstrous. That is why we have a figure of only 6,000 houses in Scotland, compared with nearly 250,000 in England and Wales. This is against a background in which the figure should be proportionally higher in Scotland simply because we have a very much greater quantity of council property.
The restrictive definition in the Bill will result in a number of such houses being released into the private sector. I have emphasised that most of the houses used by elderly people are not specifically designed for them and are not substantially different. This means that such houses are a highly attractive proposition to a young couple or to a single person who is a member of the family. The opportunity for queue jumping will now be increased because of the narrowness of the criteria adopted. These houses will become an attractive proposition.
It is obvious that because such houses are occupied by elderly people they will become available that much sooner. They will be removed from the control of the local authorities, whose control over them has been such a valuable social exercise.
We heard the extraordinary proposition that because some people have complained about the existing law the Government have had to bring in an amendment to change it, although the Government believe that the law is perfectly sound as it stands. I have never before heard of a Government bringing in a sledgehammer to smash a non-existent nut. Obviously it is nonsense.
I draw the attention of the Minister to section 15(1) of the parent Act. My understanding is that the reference to paragraphs 1 to 6 should be to paragraphs 1 to 7, and my hon. Friend's have tabled an amendment to deal with that. Are we to understand that the Government do not understand their own Bill, or that they wish to avoid raising the issue involved? If the Bill is wrong in that 1332 sense, as we believe it to be, how can the Government claim that they are trying to clear up and explain the legalities? The whole thing is nonsense and the Government know it.
This is a tawdry Bill. Nevertheless it is one that we must accept. We shall try to improve it in Committee. We must accept it because the Government are beginning to understand the principle involved. Having made a monstrous inroad into the opportunities to develop a socially valuable housing policy, they are now at least going some way towards recognising their errors, even if they are going only a little way in rectifying their ill deeds.
§ Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I missed the Under-Secretary's opening remarks. However, I have read the remarks of the noble Earl of Mansfield, which probably will not be a million miles away from those of the Minister. I missed the Minister's honeyed words. He invariably sugared the unpleasant pill that we had to swallow in Committee in the 1,750 columns of Hansard for which he was largely responsible in the sense that he was probably the only person on the Government Benches who spoke at length in defence of the wretched piece of main legislation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] The consternation amongst my hon. Friends stems from the fact that it is alleged that a Glasgow Tory is within the building. I confess that in my short time here I have not seen many examples of that species.
However, I am glad that the Glasgow tenants will now be protected. I only hope that they will be protected by a better piece of legislation than the one that is presented to us today. This is a mean, grudging little Bill. It has been brought before the House because the Government were defeated elsewhere and were shamed into trying to make amends for a ridiculous exemption in the previous legislation.
My hon. Friends have referred to the undertaking that was given by the Secretary of State for the Environment, following his humiliation in the other place, that there would be an amendment to allow elderly people to live in houses without the threat of those houses being sold. It was said that this measure would 1333 be on all fours with the English legislation. One can go through the Bill and nitpick quite easily, as the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) said, but the nitpicking is of significanse. I take as an example the reference to an ordinary dwelling house.
Many of us are not clear about the difference between a dwelling house and an ordinary dwelling house. We are not sure about the concept of an ordinary dwelling house put forward by the noble Earl of Mansfield as he lives in Scone Palace. We all know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) lives in the attic of a noble pile, and it may be that he has a different view of what is an ordinary house.
If we are to legislate on this matter, we must be more specific than the generalities in which the Government are trading. This legislation is supposed to serve the elderly. In England the elderly are explicitly called people of pensionable age. There is no reference to that in the Bill.
§ Mr. O'Neill
The amendment serves to illustrate the slap-happy manner in which the Government have gone about this whole business. If they were keen to tidy up the legislation, why did they not make it more specific in relation to an ordinary dwelling? Are we to have more legislation? Are we to have another Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Amendment Bill to tidy up future mistakes which come out or, if not future mistakes, opportunities which will arise for local authorities again to consider their responsibilities?
§ Mr. Henderson
The hon. Gentleman's criticism of errors in the Bill is perhaps a reflection on those who served on the Committee from Christmas to Easter, some of whom made very long speeches which were not very much to the point. Perhaps it would be better to draw their attention to what he is criticising.
§ Mr. O'Neill
The quality of the information from the hon. Member for 1334 Fife, East today is no better than it was during the long periods in Committee when on occasion he offered erroneous information. Indeed, he was probably the most voluble Back-Bench Member on the Government side. He asked whether we let this error slip through. It is the Government's responsibility, not ours, to get the legislation right. We drew attention to other matters which are as yet still not resolved—for example, whether local authorities will have records establishing the length of tenancies. That is as important as the question of the heritable proprietor.
We shall accept the Bill because it is the best that we can get. Its provisions are not nearly as satisfactory as those for England. The legislation for England covers types of housing which do not exist in Scotland. Therefore, allowance should be made for the situation in Scotland.
The Bill is being palmed off on the House of Commons as a grudging obeisance to the undertakings which were lightly given in the summer by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Bill is being rushed through. It could have been left to the Queen's Speech and dealt with in a different way in the new year. I am sure that there will be plenty of time, because the Government are running out of matters on which to legislate.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman should have discussed that point with his right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), because it was his specific request that the Government should use the first available opportunity to bring this legislation before the House.
§ Mr. O'Neill
It is clear that it has not in any way been opportune in the sense that the Government have not made adequate provision to make the position in Scotland similar to that in England. If they cannot do that, they should withdraw the legislation and come back with a better Bill.
§ Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)
I apologise to the Minister because I suffer from the disadvantage of not having heard his opening remarks. I was arguing with the Daily Record, 1335 which did not get right who I voted for in the Labour Party leadership election. I thought that that was more important than listening to the Minister.
I want to mention two matters. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for mentioning them if he has already covered them.
The Bill is not a great concession to the spirit of what was promised. I am not proposing to argue about the difference in legislation between England and Wales; that will not take us very far. Nevertheless, this is not a concession, as I understand it. The responsibility is put on the Secretary of State. If a local authority wants to sell a house, as I understand it, that is the finish of the matter. It is only in the unlikely circumstance of the authority refusing to sell a house that the matter will go to the Secretary of State, who will no doubt bend over backwards to allow the house to be sold unless it comes within the very narrow definition which we went over at great length in Committee. If I am right, there is no significant change in the Bill as it is. The Minister shakes his head. I hope that he can explain it to me, because basically it does not alter the definition of a house other than to make it substantially different from an ordinary dwelling house.
There are two groups of houses. There are houses with a call system, which are excluded, and houses for which there is a different procedure provided that they come into a certain category. If the Minister has explained all that in detail, I apologise.
As for the other point which has created some doubt—the heritable proprietor—I am surprised at the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) trying to make fun of Glasgow district council on this issue. The noble Lord Mansfield referred to one authority in Scotland in a debate in the other place. He said:only one local authority—which has long-advertised its intention of exploiting every opportunity of causing delay and discouraging tenants—has decided to exploit this doubt as a pretext for refusal to sell any house which it took over on local government reorganisation in 1975."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 October 1980; Vol. 414, c. 528.]1336 We made no secret of the fact that Labour-controlled authorities in Scotland would take every advantage within the law of expressing opposition, and that if that meant delays, they would do that within the law. So what is all the fuss about? No one has done anything out-with the law, as far as I am aware. This highlights the fact that there must be a doubt about the law when the Government have to bring in such amending legislation at this stage.
Whether it is Glasgow, Dundee or any other local authority, it is within the authority's rights within the law to make its point, consistent with its policy. The authorities warned the Government that any opportunity such as this one would be used legitimately. Therefore, I do not understand what hon. Members are complaining about.
I wanted clarification of my interpretation of this amending Bill as regards provision for specially designed houses. I hope that the Minister will be able to give it.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)
We on the Opposition Benches welcome this opportunity once more to draw to the attention of people at large the provisions of a measure which we in Scotland do not believe Conservative Members have a remit to put on the statute book. I should like to associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown). We have made it clear from the Opposition Benches that we shall seek to find any and every loophole—
§ Mr. Ross
—to ensure that council houses are not sold until the electorate can exercise their right and rid this country of one of the worst Governments it has had since the 1930s. [An hon. Member: "The worst."] I would not necessarily disagree with that.
When we consider the heritable proprietors of the council stock in Dundee, we find that there is a very creditable record. I am sure that it is shared by all the old local corporations throughout Scotland. It is a record of providing very badly needed houses for tenants living in slum dwellings which were generally owned by private landlords. It is 1337 noticeable that even within this small amending Bill the Government have not taken the opportunity to give the same rights to tenants of private landlords as they are attempting to give to council tenants.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Provan said, we shall seek to exploit any loophole that we can find to delay the abuse of the sale of council housing, which can only lead to crises building up in the cities in our constituencies. The Government have made no effort to take any account of these crises.
The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) said that Conservative Members cared deeply and that Labour Members should understand that. I find it rather extraordinary that in the same time scale as this amending Bill was being drawn up the Minister should write and confirm that he does not intend to provide funds for the Scottish Special Housing Association to build houses on vacant gap sites in my constituency. It is also rather strange that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could not find any time to come to Dundee to meet the Dundee Building Trades (Employers) Association—not the district council or the trade union movement—and to discuss the serious problems facing the construction industry in Dundee.
Despite attempts made by Conservative Members to suggest that all Opposition Members do is simply seek to prevent people from owning their houses, I draw the Minister's attention to the recent announcement by the Dundee district council. That council has provided sites for private houses which could lead to 600 houses being built, but they will not build because the Government have put strains on the private house building sector. These sites are owned by the district council. They are being offered to the private sector if it will build houses now. Such houses would go some way towards helping the housing situation in Dundee. They would certainly satisfy a need on the part of those who wish to buy houses in the private sector, and people living in areas of bad housing could move into them. Conservative Members will do nothing to allow the building industry in Dundee to take advantage of this very generous offer by Dundee district council.
1338 There is not much that one can say about the Bill other than that it is just another little step by Conservative Members to prosecute a policy which does not enjoy any support in Scotland. Although they may argue about substantial numbers, when looked at in total in comparison with council waiting lists, the numbers pale into insignificance. If there is one amendment of the law which should be in the Bill, it is an amendment that would allow district councils to proceed with the building of badly needed council housing to alleviate the serious shortages in Scotland.
§ Mr. Michael Martin (Glasgow, Spring-burn)
I notice that almost every Conservative Member has attacked Glasgow district council. It is worth pointing out that before last May that council contained a substantial number of conservative members. Every Labour candidate in Glasgow made it plain to the electorate of the city that he was opposed to the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill and would do all in his power to prevent the sale of council houses. The result of the elections last May was that the people of Glasgow gave an overwhelming vote of confidence to the Labour Party in their city, to such an extent that there are now very few Conservative members on Glasgow district council.
The Scottish National Party could not make up its mind at any stage when it had members on the district council and was completely defeated in the election.
When my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) referred to housing associations and said that all of them would be suffering from severe financial restraint imposed by the Government the Minister nodded his head in disagreement. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to tell us exactly what the position will be concerning housing associations. In the city of Glasgow a great deal of work is being done to help to relieve housing problems particularly as regards elderly people. The associations are very worried that the Government will embark on yet another cutback in their budgets.
It is nonsense to say that to sell off two-apartment houses will make more houses available. Many of my constituents took up occupancy of their homes 1339 in the 1950s when they had large families. Their families have grown up and there is now under-occupation of four- and five-apartment houses. It is not uncommon to find an elderly widow living in a five-apartment house in my constituency. The only answer is for the local authority and housing associations to build two-apartment flats. They would be snapped up immediately by the elderly. That would mean that young couples with large families would be able to move into the larger houses. They will not be given that opportunity if houses are taken out of the local authority's ownership.
It is nonsense to suggest that more houses will become available. The housing situation will continue to get worse. In more and more instances tenants will find that they are under-occupying their large local authority houses when their families leave.
I am disappointed that the Government did not take the opportunity to discuss estate management when the Tenants' Rights, Etc., (Scotland) Bill was being discussed in Committee. I served as a councillor for seven years. The council of which I was a member was able to persuade people to take houses in what were known as hard to let areas. We were able to demonstrate to them that we would increase estate management, introduce more supervisors and install more community facilities.
If there is to be large-scale owner occupation, it should be made plain to the owner-occupiers that they have a responsibility to ensure that they finance estate management in their areas as well as the community facilities that the housing departments are providing. This measure will lead to a great many difficulties for local authorities. It is shameful that the Government, who tell us that they believe in freedom, should take power away from democratically elected local authorities.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
dare say that we should be grateful for small mercies. One of the small mercies for which we should be grateful—it is, indeed, a small one—is that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has opened 1340 and will close the debate. That will place us in a more advantageous position than those in another place who were assisted by the eighth Earl of Mansfield. The Under-Secretary of State may not believe in this amending Bill but there is a chance that he understands it. That may be due to the fact that in his constituency there are a few council houses. It may be due to the fact that he has a constituency. That is the major difference between those who represent the people of Scotland in this place and those who represent them in another place.
It seems that we have failed to get across to Conservative Members that the Bill is not being volunteered by a Government who are concerned about the impact of their legislation on the council housing stock of Scotland. They have not recognised the Bill in their hour of repentance as being in the caring tradition of Conservatives, including such self-appointed carers as the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker).
The amending Bill is before us because it was forced out of the Government. The concession was forced out of them by another place. It was forced upon them because the common sense of others dictated that there was something in that which the Government had set their face against. In the crowded timetable leading up to the Summer Recess the Government found that they could not escape the obligation that had been imposed upon them. It is nonsense when Conservative Members pretend that the Bill is being introduced in the spirit of caring for the community or, to quote the Minister, that it has been introduced in recognition of the fact that this is an area in which the public have an overriding interest. It is strange that that overriding interest that is now recognised in the Bill was ignored so clearly and absolutely during the 80 hours or so that we spent in Committee discussing the previous measure.
As I said, the Government were forced to make the concession. Although we shall not force a Division on Second Reading, that does not mean that we are contented with the general issue that is before the House. We shall refrain from dividing the House because the few crumbs that have been forced from 1341 the Government are better than the position that the Government took when they were master in their own house.
Those who have participated in the debate have highlighted the defects that exist within the amending Bill. They have drawn attention to the clear distinction that is now being drawn between the legislation for England and Wales and that which will apply in Scotland. Those defects and that distinction will remain, irrespective of the fact that there are more people in the age group with which we are concerned in Scotland and irrespective of the fact that Scotland's housing problems, especially for this age group, are recognised to be greater than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
There was no greater champion of the cause of sheltered housing and housing for the elderly than the Minister. That was his stance before he took office. Irrespective of all the facts and the needs of Scotland, we are being told that this mean, grudging and restricting little concession will be the Government's contribution to protecting the houses of the elderly in the public sector in Scotland.
The contributions of Lord Ross of Marnock in another place ably illustrated the scale of the problem that faces Scotland. There are 184,000 married couples in Scotland with a male member over the age of 65 years. There are 448,000 single people of pensionable age. There are 632,000 family units in the qualifying categories that we are discussing. All that we shall protect by means of this amending measure will be an additional 6,000 units. That will be the extent of the protection, despite the Minister's talk about the community's overriding interest. All the other houses built for the elderly, made suitable for the elderly, designed for the elderly and intended for the elderly can be sold off on demand and local authorities will be unable to make their own decisions.
I am not allowed by the rules of order to quote verbatim the words of those in another place, but the speech of Baroness Elliot of Harwood is one that Ministers should read carefully. I shall paraphrase it. The baroness seemed astonished when she was told by Lord Ross of Marnock that local authorities 1342 were to be put in the position of having to sell two-apartment houses that were clearly designed and built for the needs of the elderly in her area. If someone of her local government experience who is such a staunch supporter of the Government is unaware of the impact of the Bill, how many more local councillors in Scotland will suddenly wake up to the implications of this disastrous measure for their housing policies?
In the past local authorities have perhaps not done enough for the needs of the elderly. Gradually and perceptibly there has been an increase in the number of two-apartment and small houses that are being made available. In Committee the Minister's defence of the sale of council houses was that those who live in council houses and who would buy council houses are those who would be living in them anyway. However, by definition those who are in the qualifying categories would not be in long-term possession of the houses that are the subject of this measure. The loopholes that will be available under this measure will be available to those who wish to take these necessary houses out of the total council housing stock.
What sanctimonious humbug we have heard about the exploitation of loopholes. When the Conservative Party was in Opposition it paraded its belief in searching out every loophope. It now claims to believe in the spirit and letter of every word of the law.
When members of the Conservative Party who sit on the Front Bench are not in the House they work for consultancies whose purpose is to exploit every possible loophole. The chairman of the Conservative Party defended the use of loopholes in the tax laws so that the Vestey family could cream off substantial sums of money. That same party sanctimoniously comes to the House, without the benefit of learned lawyers, and tells us that it is wrong to exploit loopholes in the interest of the people.
We hear echoes of the speeches that were made on the subject of Tameside. Those echoes jar against the speeches made by the hon. Members for Renfrew-shire, East (Mr. Stewart) and for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson), and their outrage at the use of any loophole. The Minister is engaged in a pantomime and uses the 1343 heavy brute force of legislation to block loopholes that he claims do not exist. We shall comment on that in Committee.
The Government have embarked on an exercise that involves limiting the authority, power and role of local authorities. From the moment that the Conservative Party came into office it began to demolish the powers of local authorities and to restrict their right to take decisions and to look after the interests of their electors. Of course, Big Brother knows best when a Conservative Government are in office. That is clearly shown. That is why the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) isolated himself from the leadership and why he has often said that he cannot vote in the Government Lobby.
We welcome the concession and recognise it for what it is. However, it remains mean, restrictive and grudging. The Government have gone as far as they can without infringing the rights that they pretend to have conferred on individuals at the expense of the community's general needs. However many times this subject is brought to the Government's attention, they refuse to see the implications and the problems that will result from their blind attitude to local authority asset stripping.
It appears that we shall not change the Government's mind. The proof of this pudding is in the indigestion that it will cause. The problem will not go away. Indeed, it will only become worse for the elderly. As that problem grows, the poverty of the Government's policy will be seen for what it is.
§ 6.2 pm
§ Mr. Rifkind
Several right hon. and hon. Members have passed critical comments about the way in which my noble Friend the Minister dealt with the Bill in the other place. I listened to parts of that debate and read all the speeches that were made. My noble Friend gave a superb explanation of the Bill and convinced the other place of the arguments put forward.
In his opening comments, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Milian) said that when the Labour Party came to office—although it should be "if" rather than "when"—it would wish to repeal the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scot- 1344 land) Act. Although that saddens us, it does not worry us. We hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will go round Scotland telling council tenants that when the Labour Party gets into office it will withdraw their right to buy. I have no doubt that the more that statement is repeated, the further away the day will be when the Labour Party can carry out that promise.
The right hon. Member for Craigton also said that events since the enactment of that Bill indicated that there was no substantial or dramatic interest in the right to buy. He alleged that the Act was being applied selectively. There is no foundation for that suggestion. The Scottish Office alone has had over 3,500 inquiries from council tenants seeking application forms and information about the right to buy. Citizens advice bureaux and other bodies have been flooded with applications. The number of inquiries and completed application forms are far greater than the Government had expected. However, we are delighted.
Certain hon. Members referred to the Scottish Special Housing Association. They might like to know that the SSHA has 100,000 houses in Scotland and that 10,000 tenants have contacted the association asking for information or application forms. Given the allegations made by Opposition Members it is particularly interesting that the SSHA told me that the applications and inquiries came from tenants in all forms of housing, and not only from those living in what might be called the better areas. The SSHA has has already sold 1,000 houses to tenants, but it cannot see any pattern in the type of tenant applying, or in the areas in which they live. That confirms what the Government said throughout the passage of the Bill, namely, that these rights will be attractive not only to tenants in the so-called desirable areas but to all Scotland's council tenants, because they will benefit. We are delighted that the tenants, by their words and deeds, are responding in that way.
The right hon. Member for Craigton stressed the alleged differences between the provisions in the Bill and the changes made to the Housing Act. If he and his Front Bench colleagues take that view, they have left it rather late in the day to tell the Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the 1345 right hon. Gentleman on 7 October. He enclosed a copy of the Bill, as he had undertaken to do. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman has been aware of the contents of the Bill for about a month. We have not yet received any response from the right hon. Gentleman complaining about the provisions of the Bill or suggesting that they are significantly different from the provisions now before the House.
The Bill has been debated in the other place. I shall read what the Secretary of State said when he sent a draft of the Bill, which is slightly different from the Bill before us. He took a great deal of trouble to get the Bill to me on a particular day. I wondered then why he was so anxious that I should receive it that afternoon. I discovered the answer when I received the letter. He wrote:It will be most convenient to have the Bill introduced in the House of Lords and I am arranging for a print in this form to be introduced in that House as early as possible this week.In other words, I received the Bill just as it was being published.
§ Mr. Rifkind
The right hon. Gentleman should appreciate that the debate in the other place was not held until 21 October, or two weeks after the right hon. Gentleman received the Bill. During that period we did not receive any representation from the right hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends. They had a copy of the Bill and saw it before anyone else, in accordance with the undertaking given by my right hon. Friend. Yet they made no representations.
§ Mr. Millan
I shall take up that point later, when we discuss the next amendment. Normally, Bills are debated in this House. These provisions have been thoroughly debated in the other place and its deficiencies have been pointed out. So far, the Government have refused to amend the Bill. As far as we can tell they will do exactly the same thing today. It has never been suggested, either in that letter or on any occasion, that the Government are interested in amending the Bill. I received that Bill as a matter of courtesy a day or two before it was published.
§ Mr. Rifkind
Again, the right hon. Gentleman is incorrect. I am sure that 1346 he will remember that one amendment was accepted in the other place and it has been incorporated into the Bill.
I do not wish to continue this argument now, because it is relevant to the first group of amendments. During the major debates in the other place representations were made not only by Labour peers but by Liberal peers, several independent peers and several Conservative peers. However, the Government steadfastly refused to make any concessions on the most important issue, namely, that the drafting of the Bill should meet the Government's promise to place Scottish legislation on all fours with English legislation. That promise has not been fulfilled. By reading the appropriate section of the Housing Act 1980 and what is in this Bill—as I shall do when we come to the first group of amendments—I will show that the Bill does not place Scotland on all fours with England. Therefore, that promise, which was given solemnly in the House by the Secretary of State, has not been discharged.
§ Mr. Rifkind
As the right hon. Gentleman says, we shall have the opportunity in Committee to discuss these matters in detail. It is quite clear, both from the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman and those of his hon. Friends, that the only sort of Bill that they consider would meet the Government's commitment would be a provision entitling the local authority to refuse to sell any house that was occupied by an elderly person, simply on the grounds that it was occupied by an elderly person. That is quite clear from the speeches that were made. I do not necessarily dissent from the force with which hon. Members put their arguments, but basically they believe that a house which is occupied by an elderly person should not come under the right to buy provisions. That might be their point of view. But the undertaking that was given by the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Scotland did not cover all houses occupied by elderly persons. It covered a specific kind of house occupied by elderly persons. In that respect the two Bills are on all fours.
§ Mr. Dewar
The Minister is slightly misrepresenting the tenor of the speeches 1347 from the Labour side of the House. What worries many of us is that the very narrow legal definition does not cover the vast majority of those houses—usually two-apartment houses—which are usually grouped on a specific site, specifically preserved for letting to old people. We want a definition that would encompass these houses. Anything short of that makes this the most nominal and cosmetic of changes.
§ Mr. Rifkind
Whether the hon. Member thinks that this is simply a cosmetic change is a matter for him. He must realise that neither the English nor the Scottish measure talks simply about houses that are reserved for elderly persons. Both measures talk about houses that have been designed or adapted to meet the needs of elderly persons and that is the basic point at issue.
§ Mr. Dewar
If the Minister accepts—and I do not think that this has been seriously challenged—that the results of the English and Scottish exemptions will be very different, and if he is arguing that the basis of the definition is the same, the villain of the piece must be the Secretary of State's interpretation. That is thoroughly unsatisfactory. The Minister cannot argue that the Bill is on all fours with the English measure, either in terms of definition or interpretation, without destroying the argument that the results will be very different.
§ Mr. Rifkind
If the hon. Member is saying that there are far more houses in this definition in England and Wales than there are in Scotland, he is quite right. Even proportionately, there are far more houses in England. That is true, but it is not any fault of the present Government, nor is it a consequence of the legislation. We are dealing with two groups of housing. It so happens that there are about 6,000 houses in Scotland owned by local authorities that come into the category of sheltered housing. I am advised that in England and Wales there are more than 200,000 houses in the same category. That is not our problem, nor is it the fault of the legislation. It happens to be a fact of life.
On this question of the category of houses refused for sale by the English and Scottish provisions, when the Secretary 1348 of State for the Environment mentioned the figure of 200,000 he based it on a recent survey undertaken by the Oxford polytechnic. This survey suggested that there are in England and Wales 228,000 units specially designed for the elderly but which do not have an alarm call or a warning system, and which are therefore comparable in most respects with the amenity housing which is excluded from the right to buy as a result of the Bill.
Perhaps because of the different attitudes of local authorities in England and Wales, or perhaps because of the different priorities of the previous Labour Secretary of State for the Environment from those of the last Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, there are, even proportionately, far more houses in that category in England and Wales than there are in Scotland. That is not something that legislation can deal with, nor is it a consequence of any legislative provisions.
§ Mr. Buchan
The Minister is perpetuating the inequities. What is his definition of "designed for". If a group of houses were designed for elderly people but were in fact not substantially different from other council houses, would he regard them as falling within the criteria? If not, he has excluded them from the double criteria.
§ Mr. Rifkind
When the Department of the Environment mentioned the figure of 200,000, it based that not on its own estimates but on the survey of the Oxford polytechnic. These were the best figures available. Clearly a house which is a one- or two-apartment house cannot be said to be specially designed or adapted for elderly persons simply because it has one or two rooms. There are many such houses occupied by persons of any age in different circumstances. Therefore, one has to look at the specific circumstances of the house and that is why the provisions of the Bill enable a local authority, if it believes it is in such a category, to submit the application to the Secretary of State for Scotland.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) raised this point. If the Secretary of State for Scotland is satisfied that the provisions of the measure have been met a notice of refusal must be sent. There is a discretion that was not present before, and that is a considerable 1349 change, albeit that the Opposition feel that only a relatively small number of houses are affected. Obviously we can go into more detail on this matter in Committee.
I turn to the points that were raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart). My hon. Friends the Members for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) and Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) also mentioned the attitude that has been taken by certain authorities, notably Glasgow and Dundee, on the consequences of this provision. When Glasgow district sent to the tenants who had applied to purchase their houses the letter to which my hon. Friends have alluded I was very surprised. A couple of weeks earlier Dundee district had indicated its intention to try to delay the selling of council houses to its tenants on the basis that there was an apparent loophole in the Bill. Councillor John Kernaghan, the Labour chairman of the Glasgow housing committee, was asked at that time whether Glasgow Labour group took a similar view of the provisions of the Act and whether it would use the loophole. His reply was quoted in the Glasgow Herald on 16 October:We have looked in detail at the clause in question but have decided that it would be stupid to press the point.If it was stupid on 16 October surely it did not cease to be stupid some days later when this letter was sent out on the housing committee's behalf by the director of administration of the city of Glasgow. I am saddened by this stupid action—to quote the committee's own assessment of the matter—because clearly it is unfortunate for the tenants.
What should tenants do in such a situation? The Scottish Office's view—and this is a matter on which the Lands Tribunal may issue its own opinion—is that the terms of the letter from Glasgow district council do not constitute a refusal. Certainly this is a delaying tactic, but we do not think that the letter constitutes a refusal, and if the Lands Tribunal were to come to a similar conclusion that would mean that Glasgow district had not formally refused its tenants and would be obliged, given the terms of the amending Bill before the House, to process the application in the normal way.
The response of tenants throughout Scotland since the Tenants' Rights Etc. (Scotland) Act came into effect has been 1350 far better than the Government expected and better than the figures in the explanatory memorandum. That illustrates that even in the present difficult circumstances, with high mortgage rates and the other problems inherent in house purchase, so substantial is the interest of Scottish council tenants in exercising their rights under the Act and so anxious are they to acquire the same level of home ownership as people elsewhere in the United Kingdom, that over the next few months and years many thousands of them in all forms of council property throughout the length and breadth of Scotland will take the opportunity to buy their homes. That provision would not have been available to them but for the terms of the Act. It will he to the undying shame of the Labour Party that when council tenants were given the opportunity to become home owners Labour Members. for once in serried, unanimous ranks, tried to deny to Scotland's 1 million council tenants a right which they wanted, which Parliament has provided and which will transform the housing circumstances of the Scottish people.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]
§ Bill immediately considered in Committee.
§ [MR. BERNARD WEATHERILL in the Chair]