HC Deb 15 April 1981 vol 3 cc335-43
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement concerning intervention under the rightto-buy provisions of the Housing Act 1980.

On 21 February last year, during the Standing Committee proceedings on the Housing Bill, I gave an assurance that the Government would take the necessary administrative steps to indicate to a local authority when we were contemplating serving a notice of intervention under what is now section 23 of the Act. That section gives the Secretary of State power to intervene where it appears to him that tenants have or may have difficulty in exercising the right to buy effectively and expeditiously.

The right-to-buy provisions of the Housing Act commenced on 3 October last year. They have therefore now been in force for more than six months. That is an appreciable period, in which progress in implementing the right to buy can be demonstrated or not.

It is quite evident that in certain authorities there has has been very little progress. On 4 March and 1 April I named in the House 27 authorities with which we had taken up formally their progress in implementing the right to buy. We have since obtained further information from them all.

We are not satisfied with many of the replies we have received and further evidence of progress is being sought from these and other authorities. However, in the case of seven authorities it appears already that the rate of progress is so unsatisfactory that intervention under section 23 would be justified.

In accordance with the assurance that I gave during the passage of the Bill, letters are therefore being sent today to the seven authorities concerned stating that the Secretary of State is contemplating serving a notice of intervention on them. The letters ask the authorities to provide, by Wednesday 13 May, further information on their current and estimated future progress in implementing the right to buy. If at that point it appears that the tenants of any of these authorities have or may have difficulty in exercising the right to buy effectively and expeditiously a notice of intervention will be served under section 23 of the Act.

The authorities concerned are as follows: Barking and Dagenham, Camden, Greenwich, Newham, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton.

The rights of council tenants to buy their homes are legal rights granted by Parliament. The Government will take what steps are necessary to see that those legal rights are upheld.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the action he announces is vindictive and discriminatory? Is he further aware that the cumbersome bureaucratic machinery of the Housing Act makes it difficult for even willing authorities to sell, as evidenced by the fact that in the first three months only eight councils out of 367 sold any houses at all under the scheme and that the total number of sales throughout England was precisely 49?

Why is the hon. Gentleman including Sheffield and Barking on his list of scapegoats and not the Tory Greater London Council and Tory Westminster, which have issued a lower proportion of acceptances than Sheffield and Barking? Why is he including Stoke, Wolverhampton and Newham and not the City of London, which has issued a lower proportion of acceptances than those authorities? Although his latest list includes a nil return from Camden and Greenwich, is it not a fact that it includes a nil return from his own authority of Tonbridge and Malling as well?

Instead of taking punitive action against those councils, ought not the Minister and the Secretary of State to be subjected to punitive action themselves for slaughtering the council house building programme, which is at present running at the contemptible rate of less than 15,000 a year?

Mr. Stanley

The right hon. Gentleman described the action that I announced today as vindictive. Local authorities which seek to deny people legal rights passed by the House take action which is incompatible with our democratic practices.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to figures which, characteristically, are out of date. He totally misrepresented the position. The figures to which the right hon. Gentleman referred applied at the end of December, 11 or 12 weeks after the commencement of the right-to-buy provisions. The right hon. Gentleman distorted the position. As he knows, many authorities, including Tonbridge and Mailing, have sold several hundred council houses. Many authorities are proceeding under voluntary arrangements as well as under the right-to-buy arrangements. Their tenants have ample confidence in their willingness to sell council houses.

There is abundant evidence that many authorities have made substantial progress. For example, the London borough of Bromley has completed nearly 200 sales under the right-to-buy procedures. If the right hon. Gentleman believes that it is impossible for Labour-controlled authorities to make progress he should remember that Labour-controlled Nottingham has already issued over 1,000 section 10 offer notices and completed 200 sales under the right-to-buy arrangements.

After six months it is possible for local authorities to have made significant progress. We should compare that with the progress made by the authorities to which I referred in my statement. For example, the London borough of Camden has received 807 right-to-buy applications. The council has, in more than six months, managed to issue only 58 RTB2s. It has referred about 20 applications to the valuers. No valuations have been completed, nor have any section 10 notices been issued. The council has made no completions.

It is possible for authorities to have made more progrss. The right hon. Gentleman's response avoided the central issue of principle—that tenants have a legal right to buy their homes. That right is being circumvented and frustrated by too many councils, aided and abetted by too many Labour councillors.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that such action should be necessary under section 23? Is he aware that my hon. Friends believe that ordinary, working people, who merely wish to buy their council homes should have that right now that Parliament has approved it? How many houses are involved in the seven authorities which he named? How many sales of houses are being held up?

Mr. Stanley

I agree with my hon. Friend. When the Bill was being discussed we made it clear that the intervention powers were reserve powers. We made it clear that we hoped that it would never be necessary to use those powers. It is a serious reflection on the authorities concerned that the Government have to consider intervening simply to enable people to exercise their legal rights. However, we do not shrink from that.

I calculate that we are speaking of over 15,000 applications in the seven authorities to which I referred. Many of the authorities have not completed the responses to the applications, so it is difficult to calculate how many tenants are eligible to exercise the right to buy.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

In view of what I said earlier, I propose to allow 20 minutes for hon. Members to question the Minister. The debate on the Northern region will not start until after 5 o'clock if the opposed Ten-Minute Bill is pursued in the Lobby.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

Does the Minister agree that South Oxfordshire is a desirable place in which to own a council house? Is it not therefore passing strange that at the end of February that council had still not sold any-council houses? Since no rural authorities appear on the Minister's black list, does that mean that the Government accept that their policy cannot be pursued inflexibly in rural areas?

Mr. Stanley

The authorities to which I referred are urban authorities. We look to rural authorities to allow tenants to exercise the right to buy effectively and expeditiously. South Oxfordshire has been selling council houses for many years. Hundreds of tenants have been able to buy as a result of that policy.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Will my hon. Friend accept my congratulations on trying to deal with the devastating bigotry, brutality and insensitivity exercised by some councils? Is he aware that members of the Greenwich council, the majority of whom own their own homes, are denying that right to 2,000 applicants? Does he accept that one of the reasons for allowing people to buy their homes is to avoid the type of situation which faces Mr. Diamond in my constituency? Is he aware that he gave up his own council home to move in with his mother in her council house 11 years ago, when she was 88? He cared for his mother until she was 99 years of age and has now to move even though he had been a tenant for 11 years?

Mr. Stanley

I appreciate the trenchant way in which my hon. Friend has represented the interests of Greenwich council house tenants. The tenants in Greenwich who are seeking to buy their council houses have had as frustrating a time as tenants in almost any other authority. About 2,200 right-to-buy applications have been received in Greenwich. So far only 361 responses—or about 16 per cent.—have been received, although such responses should be made within four to eight weeks.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

Does the Minister acknowledge that the Sheffield city council and most of Sheffield's citizens are opposed to the Government's housing policy? Is he aware that the council has never taken the decision not to implement the Act? Is he further aware, as he should be as the author of the Act, that the measure has placed enormous burdens on housing departments, particularly in Sheffield? Is he also aware of the dire financial threat by the Secretary of State for the Environment that unless expenditure is reduced the rate grant will be cut and that in order to carry out the provisions in the Act more staff are needed? Sheffield has made some valuations and issued some offers to tenants who wish to buy.

Mr. Stanley

The right hon. Gentleman says that the people of Sheffield are opposed to the right-to-buy policy. However, nearly 4,000 tenants in Sheffield have already applied to buy their council homes.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to staffing difficulties. I have in my hand what is apparently an application for two additional staff posts in Sheffield. The object is to employ two people whose main function will be to try to dissuade tenants from buying their council homes. If it is possible for Sheffield to employ people to deter tenants from seeking to exercise their legal rights, surely it can employ sufficient staff to help people to exercise their legal rights.

Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

Is it not a fact that the 4,000 applications would not have been registered but for the Sheffield Conservative Association, which took over the administrative work for the city council? Is it not disgraceful that no section 10 notices have been issued and that not a single house has been sold in Sheffield?

Was it not deplorable that Conservative councillors and members of the Right-to-Buy Tenants Association had to come to see the Minister to discuss whether the defiance by the Labour council was against the law? Is that not proof that Labour is against house ownership and against putting money into the coffers of a broken city's council by the sale of council houses?

Mr. Stanley

I agree that the Conservative representatives on the Sheffield city council and my hon. Friends have made an important contribution in assisting tenants in Sheffield who seek to exercise their legal rights. They have been a source of encouragement to the tenants.

My hon. Friend is right in what he says about progress in Sheffield. Nearly 4,000 tenants there have applied to buy their council houses. According to the latest information from the local authority, no completions have taken place and no section 10 notices have been issued. About 4,000 RTB1s have been sent to the council and precisely five valuations have been completed.

Mr. Robert Edwards (Wolverhampton, South-East)

Is the Minister aware that the Labour majority on the Wolverhampton council has never been opposed to home ownership and is not fundamentally opposed to the sale of Council houses? The problem is that there are 9,000 people on the housing waiting list, desperately in need of shelter, and the council's Labour majority is opposed to the Government's arbitrary decision, which gives local councils no choice in the matter.

Mr. Stanley

As the hon. Member will be aware, the principle of the right to buy was exhaustively debated at the time of the last general election and during the first Session of this Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman says that Wolverhampton council is not opposed to the right to buy, but it is taking an extraordinary time in giving tenants their legal rights. I have received correspondence from the council in which it estimates that it will take, simply to issue the offer notices—the section 10 notices—to those who have already applied to buy, and where the right to buy has been acknowledged, a total of 111 weeks, more than two years simply to get to the offer notice stage. That is an unreasonable time to expect people to have to wait to get offers on their council houses.

Mr. Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement will give pleasure and relief to over 2,000 families in Wolverhampon who have applied to buy their homes? Will he please confirm that unless the Wolverhampton council dramatically changes its attitude and its practice, he will intervene quickly after 13 May?

Mr. Stanley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe that in Wolverhampton and the other six authorities to which I have referred a real sense of hope will be given to the tenants, some of whom were believing that it would not be possible for them to buy their council houses. We can give a categorical assurance to the tenants in those authorities and elsewhere that the Government are absolutely determined that tenants shall have their legal rights and that those legal rights will be upheld.

As I said in my statement, we are writing to the seven authorities today, and we shall be waiting for the responses from those authorities to the further information that we have sought by 13 May. I have made it absolutely clear that, depending on those responses, if my right hon. Friend still takes the view that tenants in any of those authorities have or may have difficulty in exercising the right to buy effectively and expeditiously, a notice of intervention will be served.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

As the Government's policy appears to depend entirely on the sale of council houses, would not the talents of the Minister and his colleagues, as well as the resources available to them, be better utilised in putting thousands of building trade workers to work in building houses in both the public and the private sectors?

Mr. Stanley

As the right hon. Member will be aware, we have changed the rules on the utilisation of capital receipts as from 1 April this year. Those Labour authorities which succesfully and rapidly complete the sale of council houses will secure capital receipts, which they will be able to add to their housing investment programmes for the first time during 1981–82. I hope, therefore, that we shall have the right hon. Member's support in ensuring that right-to-buy sales are completed as rapidly as possible so that local authorities can get in the capital receipts and thereby add to their capital investment programmes.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham and Crawley)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that Crawley is one of the councils at which he is looking to see whether it should be included in the list of those to which he is to write serving notice, especially in view of the fact that about 2,000 applications have been made by tenants to buy their homes and that only six sales have been completed?

What does my hon. Friend think of the actions of a Labour-controlled council, some members of which bought their council homes when they were Commission for the New Towns homes and were enabled to do so, but now refuse to allow council tenants to buy their homes?

Mr. Stanley

As my hon. Friend is aware, in a number of cases Labour members of local authorities have at one time or another bought their council houses. One wishes that they would now show the same degree of support to others who want to buy their council houses.

I confirm that Crawley is one of the 27 authorities with which we have taken up formally the question of progress with the right to buy. We have received a response from Crawley. There have been more than 3,000 right-to-buy applications. We are at the moment continuing to monitor progress there, and we shall be asking that authority for regular reports on progress.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

The Minister and his right hon. Friend seem to find it necessary to conduct a vendetta against the London borough of Greenwich. Is he aware that last year the borough was threatened with being penalised under the rate support grant arrangement and was later found to be innocent, when the matter had been investigated? If the Minister wants to know why the London borough of Greenwich is slow in processing the 2,000 or so applications to buy that it has received he will find the answer in the fact that the council as a whole and the housing department in particular have obeyed the Government's demands to limit their manpower to Government targets.

Mr. Stanley

I hope that the hon. Member will look at the history of the discussions that have taken place with the London borough of Greenwich since the commencement of the right to buy on 3 October. He will be aware that Greenwich was one of the authorities which passed a formal resolution refusing to implement the right to buy. Since it decided to rescind that resolution—only after considerable delay—it has not made satisfactory progress. There is no vendetta against the London borough of Greenwich. The fact that it is listed in the group of seven is entirely of its own making.

Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Does my hon. Friend agree that those councils which seek to deny people the opportunity to exercise their own democratic rights are not friends of democracy? Will he state exactly how he sees protection being given to those tenants who wish to exercise their right to buy in the other 20 authorities, and particularly those tenants who exercised their right to buy by filling in the RTB1 forms by 3 April but who may inadvertently have done so incorrectly, thus possibly disqualifying them from buying at the August 1980 price?

Mr. Stanley

If a tenant has not completed the form correctly by 3 April, he may have lost the August 1980 valuation, but if the fact that he was not made aware of this was due to the failure of the local authority to issue the RTB2 within the statutory period the tenant may have a claim against the local authority. He would have to take legal advice about that.

As for the other 20 authorities in the original list of 27 which are not in the list of seven to which I have referred today, I can assure my hon. Friend that we are continuing to monitor progress very carefully. In some cases we are very far from satisfied with the indications of progress. The fact that it has been necessary to serve letters today on those seven authorities does not necessarily mean that there may not be other authorities in future in regard to which it may prove necessary to take similar action.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

Will the Minister accept that I remain implacably opposed to this iniquitous legislation, particularly as waiting lists and the homeless are on the increase? Is he aware that his statement today and its timing will be seen by millions of people in the country, and certainly in London, as a futile attempt to retrieve his party's credibility in time for the forthcoming local government elections?

Will the Minister accept that his omission of any reference to industrial action, which has in many cases held up the alleged sale of council houses, will be seen as a further attempt to mislead this House and the country?

Is the Minister aware that the results on 7 May, certainly in London, will be a resounding defeat for him, for his party and for the legislation.

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman says that he is implacably opposed to the right to buy. I hope that he will be even more implacably opposed to those who seek to deny people legal rights that have been granted by this House. I am aware that there has been industrial action in Camden. However, that is the responsibility of the local authority. A clear responsibility lies on the Secretary of State to ensure that all tenants receive their legal rights. He intends to discharge that responsibility.

Mr. David Hunt (Wirral)

Is my hon Friend aware that his firm stand against the list of councils included in what can be described only as a roll of shame and dishonour is most welcome? Is he further aware that over 1,500 council tenants in the Labour-controlled borough of Ellesmere Port and Neston have been waiting to buy for more than six months? Not one section 10 notice has been issued Will my hon. Friend agree to accept evidence about that? Will he seriously consider exercising his powers against that council if such an intolerable situation should continue?

Mr. Stanley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having drawn our attention to the situation in Ellesmere Port and Neston. I shall be glad to accept evidence from him or from tenants who wish to exercise their right to buy.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will not the speeding up of the sales of council houses with gardens in the London borough of Newham slow down the rehousing of families with children in more than 100 tower blocks that the hon. Gentleman's Department once encouraged the council to build?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that nearly 2,000 tenants in Newham have submitted right-to-buy application forms. He should be urging his local authority to process them as rapidly as possible in order to gain the benefit of the capital receipts that will arise from the sale of those local authority houses. The authority would then be in a position to increase its housing investment programme.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Lambeth has been denying its tenants the right to buy since the enactment of the legislation? Recently it has at last introduced a programme to put the right to buy into action because of pressure from Conservative councillors. Will he confirm that he will intervene if there is any backsliding by Lambeth council?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend and Conservative members of Lambeth council have been extremely energetic and helpful in trying to secure greater progress in that borough. No doubt their efforts were a contributory factor, because we have been told by the London borough of Lambeth that it intends to send out all the section 10 offer notices by the beginning of October. I assure my hon. Friend that we attach great importance to adherence to, and possible improvement on, that timetable.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Will the Minister confirm that Sheffield city council has not broken any law? In those circumstances, is not his proposed action a crude piece of political bullying? Is he aware that electors in South Yorkshire will give him and the Secretary of State a robust slap in the face on 7 May?

Mr. Stanley

In chapter 1 of the Housing Act 1980 a clear statutory period of between four and eight weeks is laid down between the arrival of a right-to-buy application form and the issuing of the response notice. In Sheffield, that time scale has not always been adhered to. The Secretary of State's obligation is to take a view on an authority-by-authority basis about whether tenants have difficulty in exercising the right to buy. It is six months since commencement of the right to buy. In Sheffield, there have been no completions or section 10 notices. I understand that only five valuations have been completed, although nearly 4,000 tenants wish to exercise their right to buy.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member from each side of the House.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Will my hon. Friend condemn Socialist-controlled councils such as mine which attempt to dissuade tenants from exercising their right to buy by printing, publishing and distributing propaganda at the expense of taxpayers and ratepayers?

Mr. Stanley

I much regret that certain authorities seem to use their facilities to produce material to dissuade people from exercising their right to buy. However, that does not seem to have had much effect on the tenants concerned. They can see the good sense in buying their own homes, even if certain council members cannot.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Is not the Minister aware that there are growing waiting lists in Sheffield and that many people are on the exchange list? Does he accept that social problems will occur from piecemeal sales? Will he put his figures right and refrain from misleading the House? By Easter, 50 valuations will have been completed and 100 interviews will have been arranged as regards interim valuations.

Mr. Stanley

I am using the latest written figures that we have received from the council. We have not reached Easter. Nevertheless, even if 50 valuations will have been completed, nearly 4,000 right-to-buy applications have been received by the city council. That is the salient point.

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