HC Deb 21 December 1983 vol 51 cc467-73 'At the request of any person who is a secure tenant, the landlord shall permit him access at all reasonable times and without charge to any file kept in connection with his tenancy or repair of his dwelling house.'.—[Mr. Simon Hughes.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is wonderfully simple compared with new clause 13 which, it was alleged, was difficult to understand. It would give secure tenants the right to see, at reasonable times, the files kept by their landlord authorities in connection with their tenancies or properties. I hope that it will find support from all sides of the House.

When a similar discussion took place in Committee, the Minister indicated that in principle he and, therefore, the Government supported it. Indeed, it would be inconsistent if the Government were opposed to giving tenants access to information, as on four occasions, both in the 1980 Act and the Bill, they have given tenants the right to have more information. When an amendment in similar terms was moved in Committee by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), it received support in principle from everyone as well as support in practice from both Opposition parties that were represented.

6.15 pm

The only reason given by the Minister for not accepting that amendment was that it was too difficult to introduce quickly before sufficient consultations had been carried out and that the matter would probably be best dealt with by guidelines.

It is a matter of principle to the Liberal party and, I believe, to everyone with experience of local government that tenants particularly need information about their homes and tenancies so that, as far as possible, they have the same sort of rights as private sector tenants. It is a matter of principle that a tenant should know what records are kept on his property — for example, its history, structure, state of repair and decoration, fundamental modernisation, rehabilitation, prospects in terms of development programming and so on.

Because of that, I hope that all hon. Members will accept that guidelines will not achieve those objectives. It is often a cry from Conservative Benches that the right to buy, which is not a guideline but an entitlement, is not adhered to by local authorities in the way that they would like. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that guidelines will cause the most secretive authorities to reveal the files kept on tenants if such authorities are not even willing to adhere to the more stringent requirements imposed by the right to buy. Therefore, we do not believe that guidelines will be sufficient, nor will an undertaking that the matter will eventually be reconsidered and again brought before the House. We therefore ask the Government and Conservative Members to support the new clause now.

The importance of that is self-evident. So far, four specific provisions give tenants rights to have information held about them—three in the 1980 Act and one in clause 25. The clause proposes that tenants should be entitled to details of heating costs inflicted on them when they are part of a communal heating system. That is a good idea, and in broad terms we support it.

Sections 41, 43 and 44 of the 1980 Act go down the road of information and consultation. Section 41 requires authorities to provide information about the terms of the tenancy and the provisions of the 1980 Act. Section 43 requires that consultation should take place on proposals affecting the property, but sadly it gives no further rights. Section 44 allows tenants to look at information supplied by them to a local authority when they apply for allocation elsewhere, but it does riot allow them access to information supplied and put on file by the authority.

Three short and simple examples show why the new clause is of fundamental importance to tenants everywhere.

I went to a tenants' meeting in an estate called the Osprey estate in Lower Road. Rotherhithe, a fortnight ago. It is an estate, built by the GLC about 20 years ago, on the edge of a main road. About two years ago, major structural work was done with the result that angle irons were imposed to stop cracks developing and to shore up the sides of a relatively modern block of flats. The property was later handed over to Southwark council It is clear that, because of the heavy traffic with many large lorries on the roads, there has been much structural disturbance of the property. The tenants have been unable to see the reports about the structural condition of their homes. That is unacceptable. They should know their circumstances, and whether those homes are likely to have a life of five, 10 15 or whatever years.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that there are tenants who have purchased their council houses on a local authority mortgage and then tried to change it to a building society mortgage, only to discover that the building society has refused the mortgage because of structural faults in the property that would have been known to the tenant at the time of purchase had he had access to the files as the hon. Member describes.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is right, and he will be aware that I tried to persuade the Government to accept that and do something about it in Committee. Sadly, they did nothing. It is of fundamental importance that the history of a property into which a tenant moves should be known to him or her so that they can have the information to deal with the authority, or the property, as they need to.

My second example is one that I gave the Committee. There are tenants who are applicants for allocation elsewhere because they need a larger or smaller property or one in a different position. Often, changes in their status —the priority that they have for allocations—are made without them being told. They need to have a right to reply to those charges, and need to know the reason for the change, which affects something of fundamental importance to them—where they should live and the size of property in which they live.

My third example is when individual tenants have regular and recurring problems with the property in which they live. For example, they may be told that a problem is caused by condensation, but it may eventually be accepted that it is dampness. However, they do not know, when the work is done once, twice or three times, why the problem is not cured. If they could see the professional report on the property, it might be an incentive for the authority to put a better case for more funds or to do the work to correct the problem. Nobody would be better at making sure that the landlords did their job properly than the tenants concerned. Theirs is the greatest interest and they should be given the tools to make all housing authorities do their job to the best of their ability.

Next year, moves will be made to have a Bill passed on freedom of information in local government. It would be a good start to Christmas and a good example of the progress that will be made towards greater freedom of information next year if the new clause were to be accepted. Millions of tenants would rejoice that they were at last being given a power over their own lives, which, so often and so sadly, they do not now have.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on tabling his new clause, which is similar to an amendment that I tabled in Committee, and thank him for accepting that the original amendment was tabled by the official Opposition in Committee, where the hon. Gentleman supported it. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government claimed to accept the principle behind the new clause, but gave spurious reasons for not accepting that it stand part of the Bill. I hope that the Minister has been able to reconsider the Government's position since then.

This important new clause is about open government, a principle already conceded by the House of Commons and the Government. In the data protection legislation that will come next year, access to the information on computerised tenancy and repair files will be made available. If the new clause or something similar to it is not included in this legislation, we shall have the anachronism of a local authority that has computerised files having, in law, to give the tenant access to the files and the information, and another local authority that has not computerised being able to deny tenants access to the files and information. That might even encourage some reactionary councils or chairpeople of housing departments to shy away from computerisation, which is now being developed in a way that is beneficial for both repair and letting purposes in local authorities. It would be sad if that were to happen.

There are good reasons why the principle of open government should be enshrined in this legislation. Much injustice is often done to individual applicants for transfers and council tenancies by ill-informed information that has been put on files and which often has no substance in reality, such as gossip from neighbours and letters sent to the housing authority. This is kept on people's files, referred to and used in an arbitary manner, sometimes, by the worst type of clerical staff and local authority officers.

This new clause would enable tenants and would-be applicants for council accommodation to have access to their files as of right. There is no real reason why it should not be passed or why the Government should not accept the principle of open government and give these rights to tenants. The Government often quote the tenants' charter if we criticise their housing record. The new clause, if passed, would be a demonstration of how much they support tenants' rights.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will recall discussing this matter in Committee not so long ago. I said then that, as a matter of principle, I was in favour of applicants having access to information along the lines that are proposed. I said that I should have a look at the possibility of giving guidance to landlords of secure tenants along the lines of the DHSS system, recently set out in a circular. I was pressed in Committee, and I am being pressed again, for legislation rather than guidelines. I hope the House will accept that this is a complex matter that raises a number of important issues, and that we need more time for examination and consultation on such a significant change.

My inclination then, as it is now, is that it is right not to pursue the legislation but to follow the DHSS and issue guidelines. Before the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey takes everybody into the Division Lobbies, I shall point out that his new clause is a statutory right with no exceptions. I can think of a number of cases where it would not be in the best interests of local authorities or tenants to have no exceptions. For example, a grown-up child living with his parents may discover that his parents had a criminal record or some mental disorder, a fact that would be on the files. There are good reasons why that information should not be made available to the tenant.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister accept that there are not nearly as many instances of confidential material on housing files as there are on the DHSS and social services files on which guidelines have been issued? The Minister could deal with this by saying that the Government would introduce, in the other place, a clause with the exceptions that the Minister thinks necessary.

Sir George Young

I have given but one example, and there may be others. To get it right, we need to talk to local authorities which would have to operate this, to get their views and advice on the best way to proceed. The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) made it clear that information on would-be tenants would also be available so that all the decisions that a local authority took into account would be on the file, and there could be some social services information in the file where there was social services support for that tenant. We must consider carefully what safeguards against disclosure of information there should be to protect landlords, tenants and third parties.

I regret that I cannot undertake to introduce an amendment at a later stage to give secure tenants a statutory right of access to files. My mind is not closed on introducing legislation but I am still inclined to the view that it will be best to issue guidelines or circulars. I hope that the House will accept that that is a step forward and that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey will agree to withdraw the new clause.

6.30 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes

I accept that the Minister has taken a small step forward. However, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I feel that we have raised a matter of principle consistent with the principle of open government which the Government have proclaimed when dealing with housing legislation. With your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall press the new clause to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 148, Noes 254.

[Division No. 117] [6.30 pm
Alton, David Johnston, Russell
Anderson, Donald Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Kennedy, Charles
Ashdown, Paddy Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Ashton, Joe Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Kirkwood, Archibald
Barnett, Guy Lamond, James
Barron, Kevin Leadbitter, Ted
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Leighton, Ronald
Bidwell, Sydney Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Boyes Roland Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Brown, Gordon (DTmline E) Litherland, Robert
Brown, Hugh D (Pro van) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u- yne E) Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Loyden, Edward
Bruce, Malcolm McCartney, Hugh
Caborn, Richard McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) McKelvey, William
Campbell-Savours, Dale McNamara, Kevin
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McTaggart, Robert
Clarke, Thomas Madden, Max
Clay, Robert Marek, Dr John
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Martin, Michael
Cohen, Harry Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Coleman, Donald Maxton, John
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Maynard, Miss Joan
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Meacher, Michael
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Michie, William
Corbett, Robin Mikardo, Ian
Corbyn, Jeremy Milian, Rt Hon Bruce
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Craigen, J. M. Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Crowther, Stan Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Cunningham, Dr John Nellist, David
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) O'Brien, William
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'I) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Deakins, Eric Park, George
Dewar, Donald Pavitt, Laurie
Dixon, Donald Penhaligon, David
Dobson, Frank Pike, Peter
Dormand, Jack Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Douglas, Dick Prescott, John
Duffy, A. E. P. Radice, Giles
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Randall, Stuart
Eadie, Alex Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Eastham, Ken Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n SE) Robertson, George
Evans, loan (Cynon Valley) Rogers, Allan
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Fatchett, Derek Sedgemore, Brian
Faulds, Andrew Sheerman, Barry
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Fisher, Mark Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Flannery, Martin Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Skinner, Dennis
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'buty)
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
George, Bruce Soley, Clive
Godman, Dr Norman Spearing, Nigel
Gould, Bryan Steel, Rt Hon David
Hamilton, James (M well N) Straw, Jack
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Hardy, Peter Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Tinn, James
Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Haynes, Frank Wareing, Robert
Heffer, Eric S. Wigley, Dafydd
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Williams, Rt Hon A.
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Winnick, David
Home Robertson, John Woodall, Alec
Hoyle, Douglas Young, David (Bolton SE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport East) Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mr. A. J. Beith and
John, Brynmor Mr. Michael Meadowcroft
Adley, Robert Gardiner, George (Reigate!)
Aitken, Jonathan Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Alexander, Richard Glyn, Dr Alan
Amess, David Goodhart, Sir Philip
Ancram, Michael Goodlad, Alastair
Arnold, Tom Gow, Ian
Ashby, David Gower, Sir Raymond
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Grant, Sir Anthony
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Greenway, Harry
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Gregory, Conal
Baldry, Anthony Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'cfs)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Griffiths, Peter (Portsin'tli N)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Ground, Patrick
Beggs, Roy Grylls, Michael
Bellingham, Henry Gummer, John Selwyn
Benyon, William Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Berry, Sir Anthony Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Best, Keith Hampson, Dr Keith
Bevan, David Gilroy Hanley, Jeremy
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Hargreaves, Kenneth
Body, Richard Harris, David
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Harvey, Robert
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Bottomley, Peter Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Hawksley, Warren
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Hayes, J.
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Hayhoe, Barney
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hayward, Robert
Bright, Graham Heathcoat-Amory, David
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Heddle, John
Bruinvels, Peter Henderson, Barry
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Hickmet, Richard
Buck, Sir Antony Hirst, Michael
Budgen, Nick Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Bulmer, Esmond Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Burt, Alistair Holt, Richard
Butler, Hon Adam Hooson, Tom
Butterfill, John Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-.A)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Chapman, Sydney Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'Idford)
Chope, Christopher Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hunt, David (Wirral)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Hunt, John (Ravensbou-ne)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hunter, Andrew
Clegg, Sir Walter Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Cockeram, Eric Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Colvin, Michael Jessel, Toby
Conway, Derek Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Coombs, Simon Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Cope, John Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Corrie, John Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Couchman, James Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Critchley, Julian Key, Robert
Crouch, David King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Dicks, T. Lamont, Norman
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Lang, Ian
Dover, Denshore Lawler, Geoffrey
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Lawrence, Ivan
Dunn, Robert Lee, John (Pendle)
Durant, Tony Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Dykes, Hugh Lightbown, David
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Lilley, Peter
Eggar, Tim Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Eyre, Reginald Lyell, Nicholas
Fallon, Michael McCurley, Mrs Anna
Favell, Anthony MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Finsberg, Geoffrey Maclean, David John.
Fletcher, Alexander McQuarrie, Albert
Fookes, Miss Janet Maginnis, Ken
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Malins, Humfrey
Forth, Eric Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Mates, Michael
Freeman, Roger Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Fry, Peter Mitchell, David (NW Hants)
Gale, Roger Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Galley, Roy Moynihan, Hon C
Murphy, Christopher Stern, Michael
Needham, Richard Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Neubert, Michael Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Newton, Tony Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Normanton, Tom Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Onslow, Cranley Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Page, John (Harrow W) Stokes, John
Parris, Matthew Sumberg, David
Patten, John (Oxford) Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Pawsey, James Taylor, John (Solihull)
Pollock, Alexander Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Porter, Barry Temple-Morris, Peter
Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down) Terlezki, Stefan
Powley, John Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Proctor, K. Harvey Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Raffan, Keith Thornton, Malcolm
Renton, Tim Thurnham, Peter
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Tracey, Richard
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Trippier, David
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Twinn, Dr Ian
Rifkind, Malcolm Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Viggers, Peter
Roe, Mrs Marion Waddington, David
Rossi, Sir Hugh Waldegrave, Hon William
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Walden, George
Ryder, Richard Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Sackville, Hon Thomas Waller, Gary
Sayeed, Jonathan Ward, John
Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Warren, Kenneth
Shelton, William (Streatham) Watson, John
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Watts, John
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Shersby, Michael Wheeler, John
Sims, Roger Whitfield, John
Skeet, T. H. H. Whitney, Raymond
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wolfson, Mark
Soames, Hon Nicholas Wood, Timothy
Speed, Keith Woodcock, Michael
Spencer, D. Young, Sir George (Acton)
Spicer, Jim (W Dorset) Younger, Rt Hon George
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Squire, Robin Tellers for the Noes:
Stanbrook, Ivor Mr. Tristan Garell-Jones and
Steen, Anthony Mr. John Major.

Question accordingly negatived.

Forward to