HC Deb 20 July 1983 vol 46 cc521-39 1.51 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Chris Patten)

I beg to move, That the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved. The Conservative Government, elected in 1979, were committed to wide-ranging reforms of housing policy, designed principally to encourage home-ownership, give new rights to tenants and liberalise the housing market. Those reforms were carried through for England and Wales in the Housing Act 1980 and in Scotland in legislation the same year.

The Government have, of course, been equally committed to the development of the same policies in Northern Ireland. That was my predecessor's job. He carried it out in his customary fair-minded and conscientious way and was, I know, greatly helped in the task by many hon. Members. I have read the reports of the Northern Ireland Committee debates in June 1981 and February of this year and I thank hon. Members for their help in improving this legislation.

The draft order was also fully debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I know how prominent a part in that work was taken by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who, unfortunately, cannot be with us, and by other hon. Members.

The report of the Northern Ireland Assembly approving the proposal, subject to a number of specific amendments, was laid before this House on 16 March 1983. Arising out of the comments and recommendations made in the Northern Ireland Committee, by the Assembly and by 38 other bodies and individuals, a number of substantive changes have been incorporated in the draft order which is now before the House. All those changes have been set out in detail in the Government's response to the assembly's report. Copies of that response have been placed in the Library.

Hon. Members will, I am sure, be interested to know that the Government's response was generally welcomed by the assembly. We have throughout done our best to meet reasonable suggestions put to us.

This is—I state the obvious for those hon. Members who are not wholly familiar with the order—a very long one. There are 108 articles and 12 schedules. I attach particular importance to part II, chapter 1, which provides the right for secure tenants of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to buy their own homes. The housing executive has co-operated fully since 1979 in implementing the Government's policy of enhancing opportunities for home ownership.

I must go further and say that Labour Ministers in Northern Ireland before 1979 were reasonably relaxed about the sale of public sector housing. In terms of Labour party policy, they were to that extent ahead of the game. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will welcome as much as the rest of us the signs of adjustment in Labour policy on the issue. I hope that those shifts will be reflected in his speech, to which we all look forward with great enthusiasm.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Will the Minister tell us when he intends to extend the same right to private tenants?

Mr. Patten

That is not a difficult question, but it raises rather different principles, which I shall be happy to debate. However, I do not think that they are particularly germane to the questions that we are discussing in the order.

The housing executive has been to the fore in encouraging its tenants to purchase their homes. It is only now that housing authorities in Great Britain — this applies by no means to all of them—are beginning to achieve the kind of success rate that the housing executive has enjoyed since 1980.

There is no better justification for a policy of encouraging home ownership among sector tenants than the fact that almost 45,000 housing executive tenants have already expressed an interest in purchasing their homes. I had the great privilege yesterday of handing over to Mrs. Archer of Lurgan—the 15,000th tenant to purchase her home—the keys of her front door. I am sure that the whole House would like to congratulate Mrs. Archer and others who have done the same.

The proceeds from the sales have been of major assistance in carrying through the enhanced programmes of new house building and improvement which are so necessary if inroads are to be made into the Province's serious housing problems.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is it not a fact that, whenever a house is sold, someone on the housing list is deprived of the opportunity of getting a house? Does that not mean that the waiting list will get longer, and that no keys will be handed to the people on that list for many years to come?

Mr. Patten

No. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), in the debate in February in the Northern Ireland Committee, said: Perhaps more in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the Kingdom it is untrue to say that the transfer of houses to private ownership represents a loss of housing; often there is a gain in real terms." — [Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 23 February 1983; c. 15.] If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) knew a little more about the subject, his remarks might be a little more informed.

Given the continuing success of the housing executive's voluntary sales policy, hon. Members may ask why it is necessary to provide in statute a right that tenants seem to enjoy already. There are two reasons.

First, the Government have endeavoured, since they came to office, to provide a national statutory code of rights for public sector tenant. I believe that there is great merit in setting down clearly in law rights for public sector tenants in Northern Ireland similar to those enjoyed elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Secondly, there is, of course, the practical reason. Until now the housing executive has preferred, for its own good reasons, to restrict its sales policy to houses. Tenants living in flats and maisonettes do not yet have the opportunity of buying their homes. While I accept that that may have been a necessary restriction if the housing executive were to cope with the initial flood of applications for purchase, and while I acknowledge that sales of flats and maisonettes present more practical difficulties in conveyancing and management than sales of houses, nevertheless, I cannot accept that administrative difficulties should be allowed to override fundamental rights. Therefore, the draft order will extend the right to buy to all secure tenants of the housing executive, with some specific exceptions which I shall describe later.

Before turning to the detail of the right-to-buy provisions, there is another general po tilt that I should like to clarify. Hon. Members will have noticed that many of the rights extended to public sector tenants by the draft order apply equally to tenants of the housing executive and of registered housing associations.

The major exception is that tenants of registered housing associations will not have the right to buy their homes. The view put to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell), by the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations was that the voluntary lousing movement was still at an early stage of development, as it is, and that the extension of the right to buy to its tenants would have a detrimental rather than an advantageous effect. The major fear expressed was that the housing stocks of individual associations would be so seriously depleted as to threaten their viability. We accept that argument, and I am glad to have the fleeting endorsement of the hon. Member for Hammersmith. We agree that registered housing associations should be able to sell their properties to sitting tenants on a voluntary basis. Some sales have already taken place, and a code of practice for voluntry sales is being drawn up by my Department in consultation with the federation.

This policy will enable associations to sell to sitting tenants where they are satisfied that they can do so without damaging their viability or potential for further development. I shall, however, expect housing associations to continue to be willing to sell voluntarily and I shall be monitoring their performance. If it appears to me that associations are being unduly restricive in their attitude to tenants' sales, I shall be prepared to look at the matter again.

In brief, the right to buy under the draft order will operate in much the same way as in England, Wales and Scotland. Article 4 gives a secure tenant of the housing executive an unequivocal right to acquire the fee simple of his house or the leasehold of his flat, provided that he has been a secure tenant of at least three years. The limited exceptions to the right to buy are set out in article 5 and schedule 1.

Articles 8, 9 and 10 deal with the calculation of the purchase price under the right to buy. The purchaser will be entitled to a discount on market value of between 33 per cent. and 50 per cent., depending on the length of tenancy.

I referred earlier to the extent to which tenant sales have until now been financed from private sources and the advantages that this creates. Nevertheless, there may be tenants who wish to buy their homes but are unable to obtain a building society mortgage. Article 13 enables tenants in this position to obtain a mortgage from the housing executive.

Finally, we are also making provision in article 17 for tenants who wish to purchase their homes but find themselves financially unable to do so immediately. The article enables tenants to receive a two-year option on payment of a returnable deposit of £100 to purchase at a valuation determined at the time of the original application.

I firmly believe that the proposals that I have described represent an important advance that will give many more people the opportunity of obtaining a stake in the community.

Part II, chapter II, of the draft order contains a code of rights for public sector tenants. The tenants' charter, as it is commonly known, is a vital complement to the right-to-buy. There will always be those tenants who cannot buy their homes or do not wish to do so. For them this chapter will introduce important new freedoms and responsibilities. They will be able to exercise their own personal preferences in the use of their homes. They will have a new framework of statutory rights and will be entitled to be informed about them and about their other rights and duties under the conditions of their tenancies.

I recognise, of course, that the housing executive and registered housing associations already adopt an enlightened approach to the relationship with their tenants. Many of the rights under the tenants' charter are already available to tenants through existing tenancy agreements. However, I see nothing to be lost and much to be gained in giving statutory force to existing good practice.

Article 25 provides security of tenure for tenants of the housing executive and registered housing associations who occupy the dwellings as their only or principal homes. The exceptions to the provisions are set out in schedule 2 and basically include tenancies that could not be construed as normal lettings. Later in the draft order, article 45 provides that security of tenure applies to tenants who hold their dwellings under a licence which is in all other respects similar to a tenancy, but this will not, of course, extend security of tenure to squatters.

Articles 26 to 29 give a minimum right to one succession to a secure tenant and lay down the procedure for possession of a dwelling let under a secure tenancy. Articles 30 and 31 provide new rights for secure tenants to take in lodgers or, with the landlord's consent, to sublet part of the dwelling. This should help single people.

Articles 34 to 36 give tenants the right to carry out improvements; prohibit rent increases on account of a tenant's own improvements; and provide at the end of the tenancy for the reimbursement of tenants for improvements affecting the value of the house.

Part III of the draft order deals with house renovation grants. The repair and improvement of the existing housing stock is an increasingly important element of our overall strategy to improve housing conditions. Expenditure in Northern Ireland has risen from about £1 million only in 1974 to an estimated £40 million in the current financial year. These grants have enabled owner-occupiers and private landlords to make a significant contribution towards the improvement of inner urban areas in Belfast and provincial towns; but, equally important, they help us with individual substandard dwellings in rural areas, as hon. Members will know.

I realise that there has been concern about the rationing scheme that the executive has had to introduce because the demand for grants has outstripped the considerable increase in the supply of cash. I understand that the board of the housing executive discussed improvement grants yesterday afternoon and that the chairman is writing to me urgently about the position. As soon as I receive the chairman's letter, I shall arrange an early meeting with him. I intend that it should be next week, so that we can review what action needs to be taken.

For convenience, part III replaces in whole the grants provisions of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and subsequent subordinate legislation. Much of the existing grants system remains unchanged. There are one or two changes, to which I should like to refer.

Under articles 63 to 66 special grants are to be introduced for the first time in Northern Ireland towards the cost of providing standard amenities and means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation. This new grant will complement the housing executive's revised powers under part IV, chapter I, to deal with overcrowding and means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation.

Chapter II of part IV deals with housing associations. Housing associations are making an increasing and indispensable contribution towards tackling the Province's housing problems. Article 76 extends the powers of my Department to grant-aid advisory services for housing associations. The other changes proposed are basically twofold.

First, article 77 ensures that there can be no obstacles in the rules of registered housing associations which might inhibit voluntary sales of dwellings to sitting tenants. This chapter also empowers my Department to pay grant to registered housing associations to improve dwellings for sale.

The second set of provisions in this chapter is intended mainly to strengthen the financial regimes of registered housing associations which will receive this year more than £38 million from the public purse.

I should emphasise that these changes should not be taken as indicative of any widespread malpractice by associations in Northern Ireland. They are preventive measures intended to satisfy Parliament and the public that these independent bodies are fully accountable for the large sums of public money they receive and, indeed, have been welcomed by the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations.

Finally, in this part there are a number of miscellaneous provisions. For instance, article 89 increases the size of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive board from nine to 10. This recognises the heavy work load faced by the board in recent years about which I am sure the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) would be able to inform the House.

I come now to the part of the draft order dealing with the private rented sector. Hon. Members will recall that in March 1981 the Government published a statement setting out the findings and recommendations of the review group which had been established to carry out a review of policy in relation to the private rented sector in the light of the operation of the Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. The Government's statement identified certain areas where legislative change to achieve minor adjustments and improvements would be appropriate and the majority of the provisions in this part meet the commitment to introduce these changes at the earliest opportunity.

One of the more important conclusions of the review was that further consideration should be given to the question of shorthold tenancies in the private sector in Northern Ireland. The 1981 Act in Great Britain introduced the concept of the shorthold tenancy, and articles 91 to 95 make similar provision for Northern Ireland. Under these new arrangements, landlords, on obtaining vacant possession of a dwelling previously let under a protected tenancy, will be able to relet the dwelling for fixed terms of between one and five years, at the end of which the landlord will have the right to regain possession. During the terms of letting, tenants will have security of tenure. For the present, these new lettings will be at registered rents, although my Department is given a discretion to remove this provision by order should circumstances warrant it.

By allowing landlords to let in this way, without running the risk of taking on a sitting tenant for life, I believe that we are removing a major disincentive to new lettings. There are many groups of people, such as the young and the mobile, who are not yet seeking long-term security, and these provisions will play their part in meeting that type of housing.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

What will be the position of the tenant at the end of the stated tenancy period in relation to the housing executive selection scheme and housing scheme if he applies to the housing executive for housing?

Mr. Patten

I shall endeavour to give the hon. Gentleman the answer to that question later in the debate.

As a corollary to the shorthold provision, articles 103 and 104 are also designed to encourage lettings by facilitating repossession of dwellings let by temporarily absent owner-occupiers, by owners of retirement homes and by service men pending release from the armed forces.

The draft order could affect directly the lives of up to a quarter of a million tenants in the public and private sectors in Northern Ireland. It changes fundamentally the traditional relationship that has existed between landlord and tenant; it raises the status of tenants to a higher level than ever before; and it confers on tenants, particularly in the public sector, the freedom to enjoy their homes in a way best suited to their requirements and ultimately to take the steps towards ownership if they wish. It is a thoroughly sensible and desirable measure, and I commend it to the House.

2.13 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Conservative Members always make a great deal of the right-to-buy issue. They believe that it is a factor that helped them in the election, and I have no doubt that it did, but I have always said that winning an election does not necessarily prove that a policy is right. We need time to see how it works out.

The Labour party has nothing to be ashamed of in terms of home ownership. We have one of the best records of any British Government. We introduced the option mortgage scheme, rights for first-time home buyers and many other benefits for people wishing to buy their homes. What is so important about the right to buy? It is that sales in housing stress areas cause problems for tenants and are good neither for local democracy—because the policy is imposed on the local authority, or on the housing executive in this case — and it is bad for those on housing waiting lists. I do not mind what local authorities do in non-housing stress areas—whether they sell, do not sell or whatever—but let us consider the factors which operate in housing stress areas, because they are extremely important.

First, we know from bitter experience that the best properties— those with gardens and so on.go first. That means that, increasingly, people on housing waiting lists cannot get a transfer to a better property, no matter how long they wait. In certain circumstances—I shall define them shortly — it leads to a deterioration in standards of public housing.

Secondly, the policy leads to a decline in the housing stock available in the public sector. When the Minister quoted from the proceedings in Committee upstairs, he left out that vital aspect of the scheme. Unless new build, renovation or repair equals or surpasses the number sold, there must be fewer houses available to let. There is no way in which one can sell off house, build, renovate or repair fewer than have been sold off, and still have more than enough to let to those on the waiting list. If there is no waiting list, there is no problem, but where there is a waiting list, there is a major problem. Shelter in Northern Ireland estimates that the loss could amount to 40,000 homes. That estimate is, of course, based on the Minister's estimate of the number of people who may buy.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

if 40,000 dwellings were sold, how many fewer tenants would need to be housed? Would not that figure be 40,000 too?

Mr. Soley

That would depend in the circumstances. If there is a waiting list, or a transfer list, there would not be 40,000 fewer people whom one had a responsibility to house, or to rehouse in better conditions. One can honestly claim—as hon. Members have rightly done—that there would be 40,000 fewer tenants of the housing executive, but that will not help those on the housing waiting list or waiting for a transfer. It will not help the family with young children who are living in a high-rise block and want a ground floor property.

The other problem which the Government and the Tory party always duck is that local authorities—or, in this case, the housing executive — will have a greater problem of mismatch. There will be aging properties in bad repair and much newer stock with a high annual interest rate, and nothing in between. Those on the waiting list, however, will tend to want two or three-bedroom family houses. As long as the best are sold off first, they will not get what they want.

If this is such a marvellous basic right, why do we not extend it to the private sector? We could leave out the one-off landlord and give a right to buy from any landlord with, let us say, 50 housing units. If the Minister would like to tell me why the right is not extended to the private sector, I shall happily give way to him.

Mr. Chris Patten

It is extraordinary—although it may explain much that has happenec in recent months —that the hon. Gentleman and his party do not seem to understand the difference between private and public ownership. There is a difference, and we on this side of the House understand it.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)


Mr. Patten

Despite that urbane contribution, what I say is true. I am surprised that, even after some expensive lessons, the hon. Gentleman does not understand the distinction.

Mr. Soley

If the Minister really believes that there is any significant difference between, for example, renting from Freshwater and renting from a local authority, I should like him to explain that difference to the tenants. Most people know that there is no essential difference between a large private landlord and a large public landlord.

If I am renting from someone down the road with only one property to let, the situation is indeed different. There is a philosophical point which the Conservative party always ducks. Conservatives believe that in some way large corporate bodies with a lot of capital are in some way better than large public bodies. They are not. They have the same bureaucratic problems as large public bodies, and they have other problems in common. It is nonsense to pretend that there is any significant philosophical difference between the right to buy from a large private landlord and the right to buy from a large public landlord.

The way to extend home ownership is to make grants available to help people to buy at a reasonable rate. The Minister may find it difficult to face arguments that he does not like, but that is not a new experience. If we want to help people to buy, we should make the same assistance available to those who want to live in the public sector and want to buy as is available to those in the private sector. There is nothing wrong with that. The Minister can insist on their being able to buy their own houses in the public sector so long as he offers to replace that property so that housing is available to others who want to rent.

The Government are cutting back overall on renovations, repairs and building, but I accept that things are better in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the country. At the same time, the Government are insisting on the right to buy. Therefore, in housing stress areas people have less and less choice, not more choice. As rents have been dramatically increased in Northern Ireland, the difference between renting and buying is minimal. In a sense people are being forced to buy, because it is nonsense for them not to do so. What they pay in rent over a long period is equal to what they would pay if they were purchasing. The reason for that lies in the discounts.

If the Government were genuine in their attempts to help those in rented property—whether in the private or public sector—they would ensure that the subsidies available to them were as good as, and certainly not worse than, those given to purchasers. Hon. Members and the public know that the subsidies to owner-occupiers are way above those given to the people who rent in either the public or private sector. The Government have constantly refused to face that.

Mr. Chris Patten

It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that we give considerable help to people on group A of the housing executive's list. Thanks to the efforts of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell), we give them help to become home owners. Presumably that is precisely the sort of thing that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but perhaps he has not heard of that.

Mr. Soley

Obviously the Minister is not listening. I am saying that the subsidies go to those who buy, but not to those who rent, regardless of whether they are in the public or private sector. It is no good the Minister looking puzzled. If he does not understand, he will have to go away and do his homework. The Minister will not understand my point—right or wrong— if he does not listen. If someone buys his house from the public or private sector, he receives much greater subsidies from the state in the form of mortgage relief or grants than are given to those who rent. Nobody seriously questions that.

The Government constantly put all the burden on the rent payers—whether public or private—and much less of a burden on those who buy, because of tax subsidies. That is what is wrong. I have no objection to those who purchase receiving subsidies, but I object to the fact that one standard applies to those who buy and another to those who rent. That is fundamentally wrong.

In Northern Ireland in particular, rents have been forced up significantly and many people are being forced into debt for the first time. The Minister knows that debts have been increasing very rapidly because of that increase in rents. The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the DHSS have issued a draft joint code of guidance on homelessness. I asked the Minister's predecessor the same question as I put to the Minister now. Is it not time that we gave responsibility for the homeless to the housing executive? We do that in the rest of the United Kingdom, but not in Northern Ireland. When Shelter in Northern Ireland pleaded that case and suggested also that the housing executive should be responsible for providing temporary accommodation, it was on to a fair point. At the very least, the Minister should consider it sympathetically.

I deal next with the tenants' charter. I do not see why the rights available to tenants in Northern Ireland should be any less than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Article 40(3) denies consultation with tenants or their representatives on rents. How does the Minister justify that? We should not restrict the matters on which tenants or tenants' groups can have consultations to those which the housing executive believes to be relevant. We should go beyond that.

I believe also that there is a strong case for including a right of repair provision which could be waived by court order only.

There should be protection from summary eviction for tenants in the public sector similar to that enjoyed by private sector tenants.

My final point relates to the Government's attitude to those who have to rent or choose to rent. However one looks at it, the Government seem anxious to punish them and, if necessary, push them into home ownership so as to lose their responsibility for public and private sector tenants.

The Government recently relaxed rent controls in the private sector because they thought that it would enable landlords to do up their properties. There is no evidence that that has happened, and it does not surprise me that there is no evidence. Although the rent increases are significant and heavy for those who are renting, overall they do not bring small landlords much money.

All of us in the House who have studied the background to the Rent Acts and the development of housing since the turn of the century know that the amount of private rented accommodation has been declining steadily since about 1903. It has nothing to do with the Rent Act, as is sometimes claimed by the Conservative party. It has happened because it is uneconomic to rent property, and has been becoming increasingly so for many years. Yet the Government fall back on the old idea that if they allow landlords to increase rents as much as they like that will result in the property being renovated and repaired and brought up to a higher standard. It will not.

The only way in which the Government will achieve that is by intervening effectively and ensuring that grants are available to landlords to enable them to do up the houses, and, if necessary, the housing executive should have the power and resources to step in to do it in the absense of the landlord or if he, for any reason, is shirking his responsibilities.

The order, in the same way as the original Housing Act 1980, does little to help public or private sector tenants. They are left out because the Government are not and never have been interested in people who choose to rent or find that they have to rent because they cannot afford to buy. Until the Government adopt a housing strategy for Northern Ireland, or the rest of the United Kingdom, which responds to the needs of the people in the public or private rented areas of housing, they will be letting down those people badly. They will be introducing punitive rent levels and causing other problems which they do not impose on those who have the ability and who choose to buy their houses. In the buying sector that choice is being encouraged by large subsidies.

2.27 am
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

This draft order is rather lengthy and technical, and I assure the House that I shall endeavour to mention only some aspects of it and allow other hon. Members to cover the rest. The draft order is to be welcomed in many respects. First, public sector tenants in Northern Ireland for the first time are to be given the statutory rights which are available to their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, the proposed legislation would embody the right of public sector tenants to purchase their own dwellings in certain circumstances. I have listened to the arguments which have been advanced on that point and the interventions in the Minister's speech. I know that some hon. Members argue that such a policy will dangerously deplete the public housing stock, but it is also correct to say that the finance made available from the sale of such houses has increased the overall housing stock in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is to be welcomed.

I said in the previous debate that I was a member of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I was one of those who campaigned for the right of people to buy their own homes. I was also a member of the Northern Ireland Housing Council, and extreme pressure was put on the Government. If I remember correctly, parties on both sides of the House were happy to yield on the principle of house sales in Northern Ireland. I agree that in many ways it is nonsense not to buy, with the present level of rents in Northern Ireland. Some people try to tell us that rents there are lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom, but that is not so. The figures for Scotland have been hidden and are never mentioned, as if Scotland were not part of the United Kingdom. I assure the House that it is, and so are we.

I accept the Minister's statement and the document giving people the right to purchase their own house. I do not believe that the one opportunity that the working man has of gaining a capital asset should be taken from him. Therefore, it is vital to establish that right. I am delighted that it is in the order.

Following representations at the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Secretary of State revealed that the percentage of Housing Executive tenants excluded from the right to buy under article 5 would be only approximately 10 per cent. He said that even that would be considered in the light of overall United Kingdom policy.

The increase in the net annual valuation limit for repair grants to £225 is to be welcomed. That will be of great benefit to people who own their own houses, and the change will be welcomed in Northern Ireland. The Assembly gave it a warm welcome and I have great pleasure in doing so now. I appreciate the Government's movement on that matter.

I draw the House's attention to article 12. I welcome the provision under which the tenant would have the right to have the value of his house redetermined, but I feel that that should not be done by the valuer or one of his colleagues. If a house is to be revalued that should be done by an independent body. That was drawn to the Minister's attention by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am led to believe that the Secretary of State also mentioned to the Assembly that he and the Minister will consider the matter in the light of experience if the present system is not working. I appreciate that consideration.

I also appreciate the change recommended in article 67(2)(a) on the repair grant. Again the Secretary of State informed the Assembly that the Department would alter the cut-off date for eligibility for repair grants from 28 February 1946 to 31 December 1956. The view of the Assembly's Environment Committee, and that of the Assembly, was that the 1946 date excluded a great number of houses which could be of suspect quality as they were constructed in the year after the war. I am pleased that the order that was presented to the House has taken that representation into account. Indeed, 31 December 1956 is the actual date stated in the order.

Of the 28 recommendations made by the Northern Ireland Assembly's Environment Committee, 16 were accepted by the Government. I appreciate that movement. Now that the draft order has been substantially improved, I should be deeply indebted to the Minister if he would move on the remaining 12. The legislation would then be most enlightened and perhaps a model to be followed throughout the United Kingdom.

I express my thanks to the Minister for the concern that he has shown about the delay in grant is being paid owing to lack of finance. I am delighted that the Minister and the chairman of the board of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive are to have an urgent meeting. I trust that the position will improve in the near future and that the problem will be alleviated in the best interest of all concerned.

Although we have not got all that we asked for, it would be wrong not to say that the Government have moved quite a distance with the legislation. I trust that the Minister will consider further the points still outstanding.

2.37 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

This substantial order is in itself a housing code. Indeed, it is several housing codes in one, as each of the main chapters is a code in its own right.

This is the moment to say a word of appreciation to the captive audience at this debate, whose appearance of somnolence belies, I am sure, the great attentiveness with which they are following the speeches. I hope that the captive audience understands the importance function that it is called upon to perform.

That function will be performed the more speedily and efficiently as the Whips contrive a shift system whereby the entire Conservative party, after a certain lapse of time, has the privilege of attending these debates. They are to convert the Conservative party to the conviction that Northern Ireland should enjoy the privilege available to the rest of the United Kingdom of being legislated for in Great Britain or United Kingdom Acts. With one exception, the codes enacted in the order are identical with those already enacted for England and Wales and, I believe, for the northern kingdom as well.

The peculiar desire of successive Administrations, not excepting the present one, to maintain Northern Ireland in a state of artificial legislative isolation has meant that we have not had a debate in which all hon. Members could participate and in which these matters could be settled for the country as a whole. As the Minister pointed out, and as has been recognised, considerable work has been done on these proposals at earlier stages. Two sittings of the Northern Ireland Committee have been devoted to them and traces of what was argued in that Committee and agreed to by Ministers on those occasions are to be found in the order.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) has already mentioned one of the two major improvements to which I intended to refer — the extension of eligibility for repair grants to houses built before 1956, instead of 1946 as heretofore. I remember the debate on that in the Northern Ireland Committee and the agreement that was secured from the Minister on that occasion.

I refer with particular satisfaction to the extension of the right to buy to dwellings designed for occupation by physically disabled persons. This is my opportunity to try to alleviate the anxieties of the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) by assuring them, from direct personal experience as a Northern Ireland Member, that it is extremely rare for houses sold to sitting tenants to be in any natural sense of the term removed from the total housing stock available to the housing authority. It is perhaps difficult to convey to Members representing constituencies in other parts of the kingdom the passion, nay the ferocity, of the desire of the people of Northern Ireland to own their own homes.

The homes that are bought by sitting tenants are homes which in no circumstances and in no foreseeable future would have fallen back into the mobile pool available to the housing executive. They are houses in which-a family has lived and been brought up and in which another family and perhaps even a successive family will live and be brought up. The house will remain in continuous occupation in that way, the only difference being that as a result of exercising the facility, later to become the right to purchase, that house will be the possession of that family and not merely tenanted. The availability of housing stock is not in the least impaired thereby.

I assure the hon. Member for Hillsborough that I attach great importance to flexibility in the transfer of families from less to more suitable accommodation by the housing executive. I have stressed this in previous debates and said that I believe the Housing Executive should pay more attention to that, so I, at any rate, cannot be accused of being insensitive to the desirability of having available a pool of tenancies frequently or at least occasionally falling in, so as to allow for the matcing of family size and needs to accommodation. I must tell the hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Hillsborough, however, that those are not the houses involved in the context of sales to tenants.

The extension of the right to purchase to houses that have been adapted for occupation by disabled persons is a particularly striking instance of the case that I am making. It is a remarkable fact, but it is none the less a fact, that the people occupying houses, in some cases very elaborately improved and modified to suit the needs of one or more disabled occupants, are extremely anxious that those houses should become their possessions.

Indeed, I know of cases where, because the modifications available through the advice of health and social service authorities and the work of the housing executive did not fully meet the ambitions and wishes of a particular family, the family purchases the house first so that the modifications needed to adapt it for occupation by handicapped people could be carried out afterwards. I assure the House that it is not merely common, but normal, for there to be an expectation that houses that have been adapted for families containing one or more handicapped person should pass into the ownership of those families.

Mr. Soley

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Although there is considerable stability in the special houses to which he is referring and in the general population, there is no way in which, especially under the numbers about which the Minister is talking, a significant number of houses will not be lost in time. What happens to a house when the occupant dies? the house is left to someone else in the family and sold. The right hon. Gentleman faces an acid choice. Does he prefer to sell the house at a maximum discount of 50 per cent., in which case the house never returns to the housing executive, or does he prefer the tenant to be offered up to 50 per cent. of a house of similar value on the private market, in which case the house would return to the housing executive and another of his constituents could be housed?

Mr. Powell

I have further consolation for the hon. Gentleman. The latter process is what is happening under our noses, in one of the principal towns in my constituency —Downpatrick. There is a steady movement out of the housing execuive estate into a neighbouring private enterprise estate, thus creating and maintaining the very flexibility which the hon. Gentleman and I desire.

The hon. Gentleman referred to houses which eventually fall back into the pool following the death of the tenant. It would be interesting to have a statistical survey on that mattter. It would be a useful exercise for the housing executive to carry out. I believe that the houses that fall vacant because of the death of the occupier are usually those which are still tenanted. Moreover, they are usually those which are occupied by elderly individuals or couples. When such a house is acquired, it is and will continue to be a family house of which the date of falling in would be remote.

I am afraid that, between us, the hon. Member for Hammersmith and I have somewhat over-laboured that point, but it is extremely important. In Northern Ireland, one sees home ownership in an especially intense and beneficent form. Perhaps, therefore I have not entirely wasted the time of the House by placing that emphasis on it.

I want to deal exclusively with that part of the code which deals with grants for repairs and improvements, because there has been changes in circumstances in this respect since the order was last considered. That change in circumstances has been unfortunate, though not unprecedented. Some of us remember the consequences for the scheme for the improvement of rural cottages of a sudden imposition of a £50 million cut in the housing executive's budget two years ago. Expectations and undertakings that hon. Members had given their constituencies were defeated and delays were interposed which are only now being caught up.

This is not the first time that we have experienced what we are experiencing this year—the sudden cessation, the sudden seizing up of that process of grant-aided repairs and improvements, money for which the Minister pointed out had so dramatically increased from £1 million to £40 million per annum. I hope that the Minister will not take refuge in saying that we should be satisfied with so dramatic an acceleration and not be surprised if, with the peristent demand, a brake had to be applied.

The code provides a duty that is reciprocal to a right. The key sentence from article 49 is: Grants shall be payable by the Executive in accordance with this Part. The order holds to the people of Northern Ireland a right to improvement and repair grants. However, the right is qualified by conditions. Article 50 states: No grant shall be paid by the Executive unless an application is made to it in accordance with this Part. The "may" appears in some cases.

Article 50(5) states: The Executive may pay a grant to any person in whom the estate in a house of an applicant for a grant becomes vested by assignment. The wording of subsection (8) of the article, which states that the Executive may not entertain an application for a grant if the relevant works is curious and rather ambiguous. I can understand the statement, "The Executive may", as an alternative to "The Executive shall", there being an option in the former case and an obligation in the latter. I do not understand the relationship between no grant shall be paid by the Executive and The Executive may not entertain an application for a grant. The expression "entertaining an application" brings me to a matter that has caused great bitterness in my constituency. When the brake was put on a few weeks ago and the finance was suddenly tightened, initially demand was equated with supply by lengthening the process of approving the applications. Without explanation, applicants had to wait for months for their grants, which they had the greatest reason to expect would be forthcoming, only to be told eventually, after an inquiry was made on their behalf, that there had been a change in the financial background.

We are now informed that a system of priorities has been established and set out in documents issued by the housing executive. With the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster, I was relieved to learn what the Minister said about his transactions with the chairman of the housing executive and the urgency that he attached to putting this matter on a rational and explicable footing. At present we are defeating a right that has been created, destroying legitimately entertained expectations, and creating massive between tenants and house occupiers and the housing executive.

There must have been lack of foresight or a sudden change imposed upon the housing executive by the Treasury to account for the sudden application of the brake which occurred when the expansion of applications for improvement and repair were in full flight. However, it happened, and the consequences must he dealt with rationally. The House should be told as soon as possible about the modification that has been introduced into the availability of capital for this purpose. What was the estimated capital for the current financial year, and what is the revised estimate for the current financial year? What shortfall will result from the possibility of giving grants? How are the applicants to be marshalled in the queue which will inevitably form? I hope that it is the Minister's intention, in his transactions with the housing executive, to secure that information and make it public as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend and I must warn the Government of the severe disappointment—almost disaffection—which the sudden change that is observable is creating. If we are to avoid a long backlog, contracts being frustrated, and plans broken up, there must be rationalisation at the earliest possible moment of the consequences of whatever has unfortunately occurred to interfere with the remarkable course of the improvement and repair of the Northern Ireland housing stock.

On that more cheerful note, I conclude by saying—

Mr. William Ross

Will my right hon. Fried reflect on the fact that the number of houses that need major improvement is known and that it world be possible to have them all completed quickly if the grants were made available? Thus, over a short period, the need for such grants would greatly diminish, if not disappear entirely.

Mr. Powell

I follow my hon. Friend's argument, but I am not entirely sure that I agree with it. My impression is that in this matter, and very happily, the appetite comes with eating. The observation of the possibilities of improvement and the feeling that deficiencies can be removed represent a progressive and continuing process. I do not think that we shall soon exhaust the reservoir of improvable, recoverable and repairable houses in Northern Ireland. I stress that, because over the past five years in Northern Ireland the emphasis has tilted from the creation of new houses to the maintenance of the existing stock, and I believe that that tilt will go further. That makes it all the more important that the progress that has been maintained in improvement and repair should be interrupted as little as possible and that its future course should be as rational as may be.

Those who visit Northern Ireland are commonly astonished, above everything else, at the excellence of the houses, particularly in country districts. They are struck not only by the number and quality of the new houses but by the older houses which have been rehabilitated and improved. That is one of the hopeful aspects of the Ulster scene, and I am sure that the Government will therefore readily understand the sensitiveness and anxiety that have been expressed in this debate.

2.58 am
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

The first sentence of article 5 says: The right to buy does not arise unless the Executive is the fee simple owner of the dwelling-house. The next few sentences set out all the circumstances in which the right to buy does not arise.

At first sight, that seems to be simply a bar on the sale of a privately owned house, and it may well act in that way. However, I wonder what will happen in the unfortunately not too rare circumstances where the deeds of a dwelling cannot be found and there is a long delay in establishing title by the housing executive to a house which is plainly in its ownership.

I am sure that the Minister will already have come across a number of cases of undue delay because rural cottages have been built in the wrong corner of a field, on land not purchased for that at all. I hope to have an assurance that the sentence that I quoted will not be used to slow up or act as a bar to the sale of any house, because it could be so used. Certainly those who take an interest in this matter would be very annoyed if that were the case.

There are a vast number of points in the order which I should like to discuss and which have already been discussed in many other places. As the hour is moving on, for the second night in succession, I shall try to restrict my remarks to one or two things that are troubling me a little.

Article 17 says that the Executive shall be bound, subject to the foLowing provisions … to make to the tenant— (a) if the dwelling-house is a house, a grant of the dwelling-house for an estate in fee simple". In English terms, that is freehold. I understand that hitherto or at least until lately it was the case that it was an estate in fee simple. But I have been told — I am curious whether it is true — that the present sale document being prepared for the housing executive is not a grant of the estate in fee simple but is a 999-year lease. If that is so, can we have an assurance that is written here will be the course followed and can we be told why there has been a change from the freehold system to the long-term leasehold system?

I have recently come across a case in which the housing executive, in selling a dwelling, sold the right of way to a house next door and has not been able to get it back. I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) is also aware of that strange case of ineptness on behalf of the sales managers. It was a mistake, but, as the individual bought his dwelling freehold, the housing executive is in severe difficulty. Perhaps the Minister can clear up that point for me.

Article 50 deals with a reassessment two years after the previous application for grant was approved. That disappeared in 1978 and has had to be reintroduced. We pressed for it early on and I am pleased to see that it has come back. I hope that the order will come into operation as soon as possible so that the constituents who have suffered will now be able to resolve problems caused by rising costs.

The one difficulty that I see now lies in the fact that inflation seems for the moment to have run its course. If it does not continue at the high levels which persisted in earlier years, there will be less need for the improvement in article 50.

One could say a great deal more on the order, but enough has been said, I hope, to give the Minister room for reply. I hope that we shall shortly return to the housing problems of Northern Ireland because many things need to be said and done.

The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs took a great deal of evidence on dampness in houses in Scotland. I hope that it will be required reading for the officials of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive who have to deal with damp housing. There is much interesting information in it and the sooner the officials read it the better. I hope that in future there will be an absolute ban on the installation of flat roofs, the one cause above all others of dampness and condensation in houses. It has led to endless problems for tenants and endless frustrations for their representatives.

3.5 am

Mr. Chris Patten

I shall refer the commendation of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) of the Scottish Affairs Committee's document on dampness—a subject with which I am perhaps not as familiar as I should be — to the officers of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

There were some Neanderthal views on housing policy from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) which, I trust, do not reflect the policy of the Labour party. It is curious that the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult to understand the distinction between what is privately owned and what is a public asset.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) made the reasonable point that for many working men the only chance of acquiring a capital asset is through the purchase of their home.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) argued cogently about the particular problems in Northern Ireland and the effect of the sale of housing executive property on the housing market.

I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will not be too scandalised if I tell him that no housing policy will be pursued more vigorously in Northern Ireland than the encouragement of home ownership.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the sale of housing executive property. He should recognise that, as the right hon. Member for Down, South said, the sale of a public sector house to a tenant does not remove it from the total housing stock. The hon. Gentleman should be prepared to recognise that the potential loss of a relet does not arise in the short term, since the tenant, were he not given the right to buy, would continue to live in the house as a tenant. It is worth mentioning that in recent years, when the Government's house sales policy has been in operation, the housing executive's waiting list has been falling. The advantages in social and economic terms of permitting tenants to buy their homes, and of encouraging the spread of home ownership, far outweigh the theoretical disadvantages to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Soley

The waiting list has been falling because for many years, as the Minister knows, there was no good policy of house building, renovation and repair in Northern Ireland. It was not until direct rule was introduced—[Interruption.] It was not until direct rule was introduced—Official Unionist Members may not like it, but it is true—that there was a major effort to expand building. We all know that in areas where sales have taken place the housing waiting list has increased.

Mr. Patten

I detect a difference of view on that matter between the hon. Gentleman and some Official Unionist Members. I fancy that the major reason for the difference between the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members is that the Official Unionist Members know rather more about Northern Ireland than he does.

Mr. Flannery

They made a mess of governing Northern Ireland from Stormont.

Rev. William McCrea


Mr. Patten

We welcome with scarcely disguised enthusiasm the return to our councils of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), but I think that we would be able to get through them more rapidly if he were a bit quieter.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith talked about homelessness. I know that Shelter in Northern Ireland has put pressure on the Department to introduce provisions in the draft order similar to those that are contained in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. We considered that proposal but rejected it because in practice we do not believe that that legislation would confer any greater protection on the homeless than is already provided by the housing executive's selection scheme, under which homeless applicants receive priority. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is a regional housing authority, and that makes a difference.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith discussed consultation in the context of article 40 of the draft order. I do not believe that rents or service charges are suitable matters for consultation arrangements under the article. The executive and registered housing associations must raise sufficient rental income to make an appropriate contribution towards meeting their revenue expenditures. The provisions in the draft order mirror those that apply in the rest of the United Kingdom under both the Housing Act 1980 and the Tenants' Rights Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980, with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is familiar.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster welcomed a number of the proposals in the draft order. He said that he wished that we had accepted the other 12 recommendations made by the Northern Ireland assembly. The reasons for not accepting those recommendations, which are fully set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his response to the assembly, are available in the Library.

The right hon. Member for Down, South, apart from his interesting remarks about the effect of the sale of housing executive homes on the rest of the housing market in Northern Ireland, spoke primarily of improvement grants, to which he refered during the debate on the Appropriation Order two weeks ago. I can only repeat that, as a result of the board's meeting yesterday, I am expecting a letter from the chairman. I shall respond to the letter straightaway and suggest a meeting next week at which we can go into these issues, which put in question the objectives of our housing strategy in Northern Ireland, the best way of securing the objectives and the precise balance to strike between new build and improvements and repairs. That is a fundamental matter that I look forward with the executive.

It is only fair to my distinguished predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell), to stress that provision for improvement grants agreed between my hon. Friend and the executive during last winter's public expenditure discussions was £40 million. That was the amount allocated to the executive for the present financial year.

The right hon. Gentleman's points on resources and policy will form the agenda for my discussions with the chairman and senior officers of the housing executive.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked about a tenant who seeks housing executive accommodation when his shorthold tenancy comes to an end. At that time I was not able to respond as accurately as I should have done. The information is now to hand. Such a person would be entitled to apply to the housing executive for accommodation and his application would be dealt with by the executive under its statutory housing selection scheme.

Mr. William Ross

Would it be dealt with as a priority case or as a normal application?

Mr. Patten

Perhaps I can let the hon. Gentleman know the precise answer to that question later as that information is not immediately to hand. I fear the answer was not as satisfactory as both of us would have liked.

The hon. Gentleman referred to title difficulties in house sales. I am aware that the housing executive faces difficulties in establishing title to some of the dwellings that it inherited from 65 housing authorities. However, I am happy to say that the delays caused by these difficulties have been substantially reduced through the procedures available through the Land Registry. I am also happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he sought that article 5 is not intended to avoid the right to buy in cases of title difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned completions under article 17. The executive has until now preferred to dispose of houses on a leasehold basis, even where it holds the freehold interest. The right-to-buy provides for the sale of the freehold, and the executive will consider bringing it voluntarily into line.

I hope that I have dealt with the substantive points that were raised in the debate. If I have not done so in my reply, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that I will take up any outstanding queries in correspondence at the earliest possible moment.

I hope that the House will approve the order, which I think will do a great deal to help those who wish to become home owners and those who wish to be tenants.

I commend the order to the House.

Resolved, That the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.