HC Deb 21 December 1983 vol 51 cc486-94

'For the avoidance of doubt nothing in section 24 of this Act shall diminish or prejudice a secure tenant's right to enforce his landlord's obligation to repair or any rights of a secure tenant under the common law to carry out a repair and seek reimbursement from his landlord.'.—[Mr. John Fraser.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will he convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 16, in page 24, line 19, leave out clause 24.

No. 17, in clause 24, page 24, line 35, at end insert 'and

(c) providing that the right of a secure tenant to carry out repairs shall not arise unless the landlord has failed to carry out repairs within such periods of time as may reasonably have been prescribed by each landlord for different classes of repairs in a scheme published for its area and after consultation with its secure tenants.'.

No. 18, in page 24, line 44, leave out 'county court' and insert 'an arbitration panel which shall consist of one landlord's representative, one tenants' representative and one independent person'.

No. 20, in page 25, line 1, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 21, in page 25, line 10, at end insert— '(6) Where a tenant hires a contractor to carry out work in pursuance of his rights under this section and the contractor is negligent in carrying out the said work. the landlord shall either indemnify the tenant for all losses incurred or rectify the damage attributable to the contractor's negligence on the tenant assigning to the landlord his rights of action against the contractor'.

No. 22, in page 25, line 10, at end insert— '(7) The landlord shall reimburse the tenant within 21 days of receipt of a proper claim for payment. If such payment is not made within 21 days the contractor shall be entitled to recover from the landlord full payment of his account'.

No. 23, in page 25, line 11, at end insert 'or any part of the building of which the dwellinghouse forms part'.

No. 24, in page 25, line 11, at end insert— '(5) The landlord shall re-imburse the tenant for all approved costs incurred by the tenant in the exercise of his rights under this section'.

No. 25, in page 25, line 11, at end insert— '(5) No regulations shall be made under this section or the following section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

Mr. John Fraser

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

The new clause and the amendments are connected with clause 24 and the right to repair. Clause 24 will be supplemented by regulations and it will give the council tenant the right to carry out repairs himself and to recover the cost, provided that the cost is above £20 and below £200. There are a mass of objections to the way that the Government have gone about this provision.

First, the right to repair in the Bill weakens the fundamental duty of the landlord to carry out his responsibility for repairs. His responsibility is loosened. The landlord should not have a chance to offload his obligations on to his tenant.

The Government have based the provision for the right to repair on the Havering borough council experiences. In the next financial year that council is budgeting to transfer £1.7 million from its housing revenue account to its general rate fund. One way that council tenants can be made to subsidise other ratepayers in Havering is by diminishing the extent of its responsibilities for carrying out repairs for its tenants. The provision is unfair in terms of apportioning responsibility. It is a sloth's charter for local authorities.

The second objection to the provision is that it changes fundamental law. Under paragraph (b) the power to make regulations could relieve the landlord of his responsibility at general law, hence the new clause.

The third objection is that the right to repair will be disruptive of reasonable and effective planned maintenance systems. The opportunity will be given to interrupt planned maintenance cycles and to prevent local authorities from carrying out repairs in a reasonable time. That is why we have included amendment No. 17 which provides that: the right … to carry out repairs shall not arise unless the landlord has failed to carry out repairs within such periods of time as may reasonably have been prescribed by each landlord".

The next objection is that the provision is likely to be a brothers-in-law charter or a cowboys' charter. Door-to-door salesmen will go round council estates saying, "Let me do the repair. It's all right, you will be able to get the money back from the local authority." One of the greatest consumer abuses involves the door-to-door salesman. They will con little old ladies and other vulnerable people to pay them on the doorstep for repairs and leave the tenants to try to get the money back. They will not be able to do that if they have not gone through the bureaucratic process. Alternatively, the brother-in-law will present an exaggerated bill for shoddy work.

The next objection is that the provision exposes tenants to the risk of negligence. There is no reason why, if the local authority is offloading its responsibilities, it should not indemnify tenants against negligence by contractors. That is covered in amendment No. 21. The provision also exposes tenants to the risk of non-payment by local authorities within a reasonable time, hence amendment No. 22, which obliges local authorities to repay within 21 days.

We must bear in mind that two thirds of council tenants are in receipt of housing benefit and are not in a position to take on repairs themselves. Even less are they in a position to leave bills for payment by the authority if work has been done.

The provision will create a bureaucrat's charter. If a tenant wants to exercise the right to repair, what must he do? First, he has to look at the Bill and ask himself what clause 24 means. He has to try to digest it and then examine the regulations. Then he must look at his tenancy agreement and if one of our amendments is passed he must also examine the local authority scheme and work out the time span for various repairs. Then he must look at his bank balance to see whether he has the money. He must then serve notice on the local authority and has to wait for a counter-notice.

If the local authority disagrees with him he has to go through a form of arbitration at the county court. If he wins at the county court he undertakes the repair. He sends in a bill to the local authority for payment, but the local authority could disagree with him about payment and the matter could be put before the county court for a second time to resolve whether the work was up to quality and worth the amount involved. The tenant might eventually receive payment if he survives that bureaucratic nightmare.

I remember what the Financial Times said when I took the Unfair Contract Terms Act through the House. An editorial or feature writer said that as a result of the Labour Government's Act most companies would have no alternative but to do what they had promised to do. Local authorities should do what they promise to do and not offload the responsibility on to the tenant.

Mr. Chris Smith

I rise to support the new clause and its attendant amendments. The Government claim that clause 24 gives tenants a right to repair—a right to call in contractors to have work carried out if the local authority is unable or unwilling to do it. The Government claim that this will be a major benefit and an advantage to council tenants. It will be nothing of the kind, and I hope that the Government will be honest enough to admit that I am right.

The Opposition amendments seek to bring about major and real improvements in the half-baked attempt at a right-to-repair scheme that the Government have put before us. First, our amendments give the landlord—the local authority or housing association—a chance to carry out the repairs in accordance with an agreed schedule of repairs and an agreed time scale. In our view, it is important that tenants should know what their rights are in terms of timing and also that the local authorities, through their direct labour departments, should have an opportunity in the first instance to carry out the work in accordance with the rights spelt out to the tenant.

Secondly, in the case of a dispute between landlord and tenant, our amendments would allow for arbitration to be carried out by a small panel rather than through the paraphernalia of a court hearing. Although the Government appeared to accept that point in Standing Committee, there is no sign on the Amendment Paper that they propose to make such a change. We have therefore put down an amendment to do precisely that. Tenants should have a right to go to arbitration to a forum that is not frightening and which is easy of access.

Thirdly, we seek to protect tenants against negligence by the contractor. If a tenant is having plumbing work done, for example, and the contractor is negligent and floods the flat below, the tenant may well find himself with a large bill for repairs to the flat below although he has done nothing to cause the problem. In our view, the bill for negligence should not land on the tenant's lap.

Finally, we seek to make the system of payment easier and faster for the tenant. Under the Government's scheme, the tenant has to pay the contractor and then wait while the local authority processes his application for reimbursement. At a stroke, that procedure will deprive the tenant who cannot afford to shell out in the first place of the opportunity to avail himself of his so-called right. We should remember that about 50 per cent. of council tenants are on housing benefit or supplementary benefit and that the income level of council tenants is substantially lower than the level of average earnings. It is ludicrous to assume that most tenants will be able to pay for the repair in the first instance—the cost may be up to £200—and to wait for weeks or months for the local authority to cough up.

Furthermore, in their proposed regulations, the Government are allowing the local authorities to pay out only 75 per cent. of what it would have cost the landlord to carry out the repair. We believe that it is only right, proper and just that the tenant should be reimbursed for the actual cost of the approved repair. In all these ways, we are seeking to improve, for the sake of tenants who try to avail themselves of this right, the proposals of the Government.

7.45 pm

The Government's proposals will be available to only about half of the total of council tenants simply because, in forcing the tenants to pay in the first place, they are imposing an income test. However, those tenants who can avail themselves of the opportunities given to them by the Bill will find that they are running the risks of being sued for negligence, of engaging bad contractors to do the work or of waiting for weeks or months to be reimbursed by the local authority. I hope that the Government will have the decency not to trumpet this provision as a great new right but to admit honestly that it is a paltry scheme, available only to some tenants, and imposing enormous risks on those tenants who make use of it.

Mr. Simon Hughes

There is a substantial reason for objecting to the original clause, and for supporting the new clause and many of the opposition amendments as a residual alternative. What the Government are describing as a new right clearly falls short of being that. It is wrong to mislead people into thinking that they are to have a right to have a repair done. Anyone thinking only briefly about the provision, or indeed anyone investigating it, would assume that they would be repaid for the cost of the repair, because they know that it would not have been their obligation to finance that repair. The clause is fundamentally misleading.

Nobody doubts that there should be a residual entitlement to turn to someone other than the local authority when the local authority has failed to do the job that it is its duty to do. However, the Government should not say that there is a right to have the repair done when the proposal falls far short of reimbursing the tenant. The House should not accept the provision in its unamended form. I hope that the Government will accept that they are not giving the tenants what they say that they want the tenants to have—a clear entitlment to be recompensed when the local authority does not do its duty. The Government should think again and accept some of the amendments, if not the new clause.

Sir George Young

As hon. Members who were not already familiar with the provisions of the Bill will have gathered, the proposed section 41A to the Housing Act 1980 provides for a right to repair which can be exercised by secure tenants of local authorities, housing associations and new town development corporations. Listening to the first two speeches, it was difficult to believe that the Labour party professes to favour the right to repair. The comments about the whole principle—let alone the detail—were somewhat churlish.

The substance of the clause lies in the first subsection, which gives the Secretary of State power to introduce a scheme by regulations whereby secure tenants could carry out repairs for which their landlords are responsible and, on their conclusion, claim payment for them. During the summer recess, we embarked on a consultation process by issuing a paper outlining the Government's provisional views on the detailed arrangements, including a number of important limitations and conditions to help ensure cost-effectiveness and practicability. We invited comments from representative bodies of public sector landlords, including local authority associations and organisations representing other housing interests. Nearly all those bodies have now responded, and many others have also offered us their views. The other amendments that have been tabled pick up some specific issues contained in the responses.

I will assume that the House is familiar with the main points of our proposal. We have to remember that the right to repair is an entirely optional extra for tenants. If they do not want it—if they believe some of the accusations which have been laid against the scheme—there is no reason at all why they should indulge in it. Opposition Members are free to advise their constituents not to make use of it. I shall certainly tell my constituents in Acton and Ealing that the scheme is of real advantage to them and the local authority and I shall, in certain circumstances, urge them to use the right to repair.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

What would the hon. Gentleman advise me to tell my constituents when unemployment in some areas is over 40 per cent. and people do not have the option to repair their dwellings because they simply cannot afford to?

Sir George Young

With respect, the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) was that if 50 per cent. of the people cannot have it, nobody shall have it. It is a typically Socialist response to deny a benefit to many people simply because not everyone can have it.

Mr. Chris Smith

The Minister is giving an utterly incorrect caricature of my argument. My argument was that 50 per cent. of the people will not be able to avail themselves of the right and that the other 50 per cent. will be able to avail themselves of a fundamentally imperfect and shoddy right.

Sir George Young

I shall deal shortly with some of the hon. Gentleman's detailed arguments. However, if he reads Hansard he will find that one of the arguments that he deployed against the scheme was that 50 per cent. of the population would not be able to use it.

We are not trying to shift any additional responsibility for repairs on to tenants. The proposed scheme simply provides an alternative method for execution of repairs which are the landlord's responsibility. The minimum extent of those responsibilities is already defined by statute in many cases. There are also additional contractual obligations in many tenancy agreements. Hon. Members know that landlords already have a duty under section 41 of the Housing Act 1980 to inform secure tenants about their repairing obligations. If new clause 6 is approved, we shall ensure that they all tell their tenants about the right to repair.

There will be some safeguards in the scheme for tenants if landlords do not do what is required of them. If a landlord withholds consent for a repair because he intends to do the work himself but then fails to do the work within a specified period, the tenant will be entitled to carry out the repair, provided that it is within the scheme, and to recover 100 per cent. of what would have been its cost to the landlord. Moreover, if a landlord fails to respond to the tenant's repair notice within 21 days, or does not specify the cost to the landlord of carrying out the repair, the tenant may carry out the work himself. In such a case the tenant would be entitled to recover 100 per cent. of the cost of doing that repair.

Hon. Members have many views of the proposal which was set out in detail in my Department's consultation paper. I must emphasise, however, that it represented our initial thoughts and not a final statement of what the regulations might, under the proposed new power, provide for. We have an open mind on many of the suggestions that have been made today, in Committee and in response to the consultation paper. Nevertheless, the Opposition still seem to think that the Government are hatching a sinister plot to do tenants out of their rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to help tenants to have the opportunity to do repairs to their homes.

In an earlier debate, hon. Members on both sides of the House identified real problems of long-standing repairs. New clause 24 will provide a positive opportunity for tenants to get such repairs done more quickly. Some tenants might have to devote a little of their own time and effort to achieve that but they should not ulitmately be out of pocket. In that process, they will have to take some responsibility and care. However, I believe that tenants have a much more responsible approach to these matters than, apparently, do Opposition Members.

The Government have not yet made up their mind about the final form of the regulations which will bring the scheme into effect. We have listened carefully to all the points that have been made today. All of those views will be taken into consideration with other responses to the consultation paper. It might be helpful if, when we come to a conclusion, there is a suitable opportunity for comment on the draft regulations before we put them to the House.

Mr. John Fraser

One amendment suggests that the regulations should be subject to approval by affirmative resolution by the House. Will the Minister accept that amendment?

Sir George Young

No. The Government will not accept any of the amendments. The amendment to which the hon. Gentleman referred would simply delay implementation and deny tenants the right to repair their homes until we have gone through the somewhat lengthy procedure that it identifies. I see no reason for dealing with these regulations different from what is already proposed.

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

The House divided: Ayes 145, Noes 235.

Division No. 118] [7.55 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)
Anderson, Donald Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)
Barnett. Guy Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)
Barron, Kevin Caborn, Richard
Beith, A. J. Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)
Bell, Stuart Campbell-Savours, Dale
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Bidwell, Sydney Clarke, Thomas Boyes, Roland Clay, Robert

Question accordingly negatived.

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