HC Deb 12 June 1984 vol 61 cc878-86

Lords amendment: In page 3, line 13, leave out subsection (3) and insert— ("(3) For paragraph 5 of Part I of Schedule Ito the 1980 Act (circumstances in which the right to buy does not arise) there shall be substituted the following paragraph— 5. The dwelling-house is designed or specially adapted to make it suitable for occupation by persons of pensionable age, and it has always been the practice of the landlord to let the dwelling-house for occupation by persons of pensionable age; and in this paragraph "designed or specially adapted" means accommodation built or adapted in accordance with the principles of advice and guidance on the design of elderly persons' accommodation issued by the Secretary of State and available to landlords at the time of construction or adaptation.".").

Lords insist on their amendment to page 3, line 13, and disagree to the amendments proposed by the Commons in lieu thereof and to the amendment proposed by the Commons to the words so restored to the Bill,a for the following reason: Because the said Commons amendments fail to provide adequate safeguards for the stock of local authority rented accommodation specially suitable for people of pensionable age.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

I beg to move, That this House doth not insist on its disagreement to the Lords Amendment in page 3, line 13, or on the Amendments proposed by it in lieu thereof.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider the following Government amendment (a), thereto.

Government amendments Nos. 1 to 8.

The Motion relating to Lords reason No. 3 tabled by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel)— That this House doth not insist on its Amendments in lines 11, 12 and 14 of the Amendment proposed by the Lords in page 84, line 1, or on its Amendments to the Amendment proposed by the Lords in page 90, line 58. Government motions and amendments relating to Lords reason No. 3.

Mr. Gow

I should first like to apologise to the House for the fact that amendment (a) appeared on the order paper only today. When our original amendment appeared on the order paper on Friday, representations were made to my noble Friend Lord Bellwin by, Lady Birk and to me by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) that its wording did not meet some of their anxieties. The amendment was revised to take account of those representations. It may be helpful to the House if I give a brief background to these amendments. To understand that background fully we need to go back to debates in this House which took place during the passage of what is now the Housing Act 1980.

When introduced, and when it left this House, the Bill provided only for the exclusion from the right-to-buy of "sheltered" housing for the elderly. On 21 July 1980, an amendment moved by the noble Baroness in another place was carried against the Government's advice. That amendment provided that a dwelling designed or specially adapted to make it suitable for occupation by persons of pensionable age and which it is the practice of the landlord to let for occupation by persons of pensionable age" should be excluded from the right-to-buy.

On 6 August 1980, the amendment made in another place was considered by this House, which then agreed a further amendment in the terms now set out in paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the 1980 Act. It did so by 264 votes to 109. On the following day another place accepted that amendment and the Bill received the Royal Assent on 8 August 1980.

Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 provides that, where a tenant of an elderly person's dwelling applies to buy, the landlord can within six weeks apply to my right hon. Friend for a determination that the right-to-buy is not to be capable of being exercised The Secretary of State must make such a determination if he is satisfied that the dwelling is designed or specially adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age and that it is the landlord's practice to let it only for occupation by such persons.

However, the application of the two tests in paragraph 5 has proved a source of difficulty. The distinction between "ordinary" dwellings and those provided for the elderly has proved in practice difficult to draw in a consistent and logical way; nor is it easy to decide what lettings and declarations of policy go to make a letting practice. The difficulties go further than that. It became clear that a large number of authorities were making little or no use of the paragraph 5 exemption procedure. In fact, about one-third of authorities in England and Wales have made no one single application to my right hon. Friend. Where authorities are known to be hostile to the right-to-buy, and not selling willingly, the only explanation can be either that they have misled their tenants into believing that they have no right to buy, or that they are turning down applications unlawfully. Direct evidence has emerged that this was indeed happening in a number of authorities.

That is a very serious matter. It was against that background that we had to consider how to improve the 1980 Act. There were two options—to retain paragraph 5 with improvements, but to pursue individually those authorities apparently defying the law, or to go for more radical change. We chose the latter course. We proposed that elderly tenants should have the right to buy on the same basis as other tenants but that landlords should have rights of pre-emption where dwellings were re-sold within 21 years of the original sale. As the House knows, these proposals, though accepted in this place, were rejected by the House of Lords.

Misgivings were expressed about the special problems of meeting the Housing needs of the elderly in rural areas, and about the practical value of the pre-emption provision. On two occasions another place has accepted an Opposition amendment which would have allowed landlords to exclude elderly persons' dwellings from the right to buy. Given the record of some authorities under the present provisions, the House will understand that that approach was unacceptable to the Government.

Because of the strong views expressed in another place, and bearing in mind the fact that an Opposition amendment was passed twice, against the advice of my noble Friend Lord Bellwin, albeit by one vote on the second occasion, we have decided that an approach based on the first option is the only one likely to win sufficient general acceptance. We shall retain the procedure basically in its present form but make what improvements we can. That is the effect of the Government amendments.

The most important is amendment (a), which provides a new paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the Housing Act 1980. The amendment reverts to the 1980 position in that all authorities may apply to my right hon. Friend to have elderly persons' dwellings exempted from the right to buy. At the same time, we propose to remove some of the difficulties that have arisen under the present system by clarifying the criteria to be applied. These criteria are set out at present in clause 7.

Subparagraph (ii) introduces new time limits within which the landlord must apply to my right hon. Friend for a determination. The present rule is that an application must be made within six weeks of the tenant's application to buy. However, section 5 of the 1980 Act provides that the landlord must respond to the tenant's right to buy application, admitting or denying it within four or eight weeks, depending on whether the landlord has to consult other landlords before he can respond.

The two actions—the response to the tenant and the application to my right hon. Friend—should be closely related. For that reason, we propose that the same time limits should apply to both.

The other amendments in the group are technical or consequential. The only one to which I want to refer is amendment No. 2. That deletes the provision at present in the Bill that would give landlords a right of pre-emption in respect of elderly persons.' dwellings. That provision was introduced in substitution for the exemption procedure, but if that exemption procedure is retained, as we propose, there is no case for pre-emption as well.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

My right hon. Friend the leader of ihe Liberal party and Liberal Members here tabled, together with members of the Social Democratic party, the original objection to changing what the other place has twice told the House was unacceptable.

The arguments have been canvassed ever since, in 1980, the Government were forced to accept opposition to their then Housing Bill, and that their provisions for the old were not acceptable. At a very late stage in the Report stage debates in the House, the Government came up with a proposal to introduce the right to buy for those in that very precious and limited sector of accommodation, namely property especially built, designed or adapted for old people. That is not sheltered accommodation. It is in a separate category and has always been exempted from the right to buy provisions.

The Minister described the law as it was between the 1980 Act coming into force and last December when the Bill was considered in the House, as a wholly undesirable position…I can assure the House that we do not operate provisions that can give rise to accusations of inconsistency without a feeling of considerable unease. Further on he said, That in itself represents a formidable case for reforming the present paragraph 5 arrangements and replacing them by something simpler. A paragraph later, he said: I am forced to conclude that the practice of denying claims to buy by elderly tenants without using the paragraph 5 procedure is quite widespread." —[Official Report, 21 December 1983; Vol. 51, c. 455.]

Here and in the other place, the Minister was pressed. to explain the Government's proposals and to give facts and figures as to how they would affect the old. The Government have consistently failed to explain the: implications for the old. As a result, my party has insisted that they should accept what the other place is trying to do. As the amendment now tabled in the name of the Secretary of State for the Environment does not do that, and returns us to the unsatisfactory position of 1980, we shall divide the House if the Government persist with it.

We shall press the matter for three reasons. First, in constitutional terms, the Government know that, unless they contrive this route through, there is no possibility of the Bill getting on to the statute book this session. On this subject, it has been rejected twice by the other place. The Parliament Act would come into force if we tried to send it to the other place again in this form. The Government are therefore trying to amend the Lords amendment, but in fact they are rejecting it out of hand, and replacing it with the unsatisfactory original procedure.

12 midnight

Secondly, the Secretary of State is reinserting a provision that allows him to determine what local authorities should be determining for themselves. It should not be central Government's job to decide on an arbitrary basis, which might affect different sorts of property in various parts of the country differently, which properties can be sold to those living in them and which cannot. We reject that method of determining which properties should be sold. Only six months ago the Minister said that it was highly unsatisfactory and expensive in terms of time and money, and caused delay.

Thirdly, it would have been possible for the Government to come forward with provisions that could properly have defined the position, and allowed tenants to be informed of it. The principle which the Government have failed to apply is that the elderly should be able to continue to live in low-level or bungalow accommodation that is most suited to them and that is built at cost. Once that housing stock is no longer needed, it should be retained in the public sector — as it is in such short supply — for the tens of thousands of those on the waiting lists. The Government's proposals will not achieve that, and we are returning to an unsatisfactory system.

Therefore, we reject the compromise, because it does not go far enough in dealing with the real problem. It conceals the Government's failure to propose policies for housing the old, who represent one of the most substantial and vulnerable groups in our society, in a way that any Government with a conscience should do. We await an answer, and until we receive it, we shall press the Government in every way possible, and hope that they will eventually see the folly of their ways.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

The Government have twice been defeated in the other place, and the preservation of homes for the elderly has been saved. Indeed, great tribute should be paid to Baroness Birk and her noble friends—Liberal, Conservative and alliance—for their persistence, determination and advocacy of the case for homes for the elderly during the Bill's passage in the other place.

The amendments that stand in the Government's name represent a victory for the opposition to the Government's original proposals, for compassion for the elderly and for common sense as against the Government's original obsessive desire to proceed with sales at any cost even where the property is particularly suited to an elderly person. As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has said, we are not talking about sheltered accommodation for the elderly. That has always been exempt from the right to buy. However, we are talking about housing that is particularly suitable for the elderly. Nobody knows quite how many such houses and flats there are, but out of the total local authority stock in England and Wales of about 4.5 million homes probably at least 250,000 are particularly suitable for the elderly. But nobody quite knows because there has never been a complete count and we are not talking about sheltered accommodation which is more easily counted.

We also know that of the 1.5 million people on housing waiting lists in England and Wales, probably between about 100,000 and 200,000 people are elderly. Therefore, one has a special responsibility to those who are fragile and in the evening of their lives to try to make provision for good housing for them.

We know that sales of houses which are particularly suitable for the elderly are proceeding at the rate of around 3,000 to 4,000 a year and that the sale of homes suitable for letting to the elderly is about equal to the construction of new homes which are non-sheltered. As fast as new homes are being provided which are suitable to people of pensionable age the same number of homes is being sold under the Housing Act 1980.

The Government have accepted the argument—they have done it reluctantly but I shall not try to rob them of the credit for doing so—that housing that is particularly suitable for the elderly ought now to be preserved. The argument that we have put forward, as have Cross Benchers and others in the other place, is a recognition that there need to be homes for rent as well as for sale and that there is no golden or absolute rule. People ought to have choice.

The evidence is that the elderly are much more likely to need somewhere to rent, particularly when their incomes shrink, and there is probably a large market in Britain, so far untapped, for the elderly of pensionable age who want to sell their dwellings and release capital which they need in their old age. There is probably a much wider need for housing for rent for the elderly than any other income and age group.

Sales would be a disaster, not just in rural areas. The sale of one or two homes in a sparsely populated area would rob an area of the entire stock of homes suitable for elderly people. But it is no less of a tragedy and disaster to urban areas where older people often feel themselves unsafe and threatened in areas which have changed their character in the past few years. There is no distinction at all to be drawn between homes in rural and urban areas. The turnover of homes which are suitable for people of pensionable age is likely to be much greater in that section than it is in others simply because of the fact of people's age. The loss of homes for renting in that sector is likely to be even greater.

At the end of the day, if I have to make a choice between the Lords amendment which has been persisted in twice in the other place against the Government's advice, and the Government's amendment (a) on the Order Paper in starred form — altered because of representations that I and my noble Friends have made to the Government—I will choose the Government's amendment for four reasons.

First, I have consulted local authorities, particularly the Association of Metropolitan Authorities; and its view is that the Government amendment would in the long run be preferable to the way in which the present Lords amendment works. Secondly, and this goes to the root of the matter, the Government's amendment does not tie the exemption to the original design. If one looks at the Lords amendment it says that the property has to be designed or specifically adapted. It talks about advice available to landlords at the time of construction or adaptation. It may well be that houses which were not originally designed for people of pensionable age later on turn out to be adapted for their purpose, and therefore it is best to make it clear that over the passage of time housing which was not originally designed for the elderly can be used for that purpose. In my constituency, a tower block, which was very unpopular with families with young children, was later used for warden accommodation. That change has proved to be extremely successful. It is preferable to look at the current state of the use of premises, rather than the original adaptation and design.

The third reason why I prefer the Government amendment is that the measure does not now tie the exemption to continuous letting to a person of pensionable age. The Government amendment says that the property must be let to a tenant or to a predecessor in title of pensionable age. Under the Government amendment one is not tied to absolute continuity of use by a person of pensionable age. The Lords amendment says that it must always be the practice of the landlord to let the dwelling house for the occupation of persons of pensionable age.

The fourth reason why I support the Government amendment is that there is much greater flexibility for local authorities in relation to when the property was designed and adapted and the continuity of letting. That is an improvement over the wording contained in paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the Housing Act 1980. Under that Act, it always had to be the practice for the landlord to let only for occupations by persons of pensionable age. The protection of the 1980 Act was lost if there was letting to a person of pensionable age, then letting to a person who was disabled and then a reversion of letting to a person of pensionable age.

If I had total charge of these matters and were able to command a majority in the House and in the other place, I would choose a measure that was even more far-reaching. One must make a choice, and on the advice that I received and on my consideration of the matters, I find that the Government amendment is preferable. Those who advised me on these matters, especially the local authorities, take the same view. For that reason, I prefer Government amendment (a) to the amendment from the other place.

I hope that, at the end of this long debate—I mean "long" in terms of the past months, rather than tonight—there has been a growing recognition of the necessity to have the right to rent as well as the right to buy and that what matters above all, especially to the elderly people, is the right to have a choice. A choice, especially for those of pensionable age, would have been reduced if the Government had persisted in their original intentions. I believe that out of this legislation a victory for common sense and, above all, for the elderly has emerged, and I therefore welcome the change of heart that has been evinced by the Minister's statement.

12.15 am
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I welcome Government amendment (a). I congratulate the Government on the compromise that they have reached. Many Conservative Members would have preferred the Lords amendment to have been accepted in toto, but, nevertheless, the Government amendment is acceptable and meets the fears of many people who are concerned about purpose-built local authority homes in rural areas.

A good deal of feeling has been generated on this matter. It is a fact that elderly people do not necessarily want to buy their house. All the recent national surveys have shown that a much higher proportion of elderly people than of younger age groups wish to rent accommodation. The main reason is that the elderly are too old and too frail to cope with the problems of organising matters such as household insurance. In addition, all the statistics show that a high and growing proportion of elderly people are likely to have the same requirements. In many largely rural authority districts, enterprising schemes have been established to make life easier for elderly people living in groups.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said that he thought there might be the same difficulty for the urban elderly dweller as for the rural elderly dweller, but there is a specific difficulty. In my district of Harborough, which is a fairly rural district, there are 26 different communities of purpose-built housing for the elderly. The council is in the process of linking these units by radio and by a warden who can be reached by radio. The linkage will cover quite a large distance between many of the units. The same system has already been introduced by the Fylde borough council. The Harborough council is emphatic that it would be wrong to give the elderly the right to buy the houses in these circumstances.

In many villages there are only a handful of bungalows that have been built for the elderly. It is important to keep these pools of special accommodation available for the elderly.

I welcome the compromise solution which the Government have reached. I think that it will meet the bill for my council and I have great pleasure in supporting it.

Mr. Gow

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the speech made by the official spokesman for the Liberal party, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). It was clear that the hon. Gentleman had not understood the consequence of the Government's amendment.

We had a characteristically thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). As he rightly said, the Government's amendment does not go back to the 1980 position, which I described on 12 December as "very unsatisfactory". We have made significant improvements on the position in the 1980 Act, which I readily concede was not satisfactory.

One of the main problems with the 1980 Act was that the criteria there set out involved detailed research into the intentions of authorities, to which the hon. Member for Norwood rightly referred, when dwellings were built, and to the history of previous lettings, not infrequently involving inquiries about the practice of authorities prior to local government reorganisation. The new tests, which are spelt out clearly in the Government's amendment, avoid those difficulties. The test of physical characteristics, by referring to suitability, will focus on the present state of the dwelling rather than on its history. The letting test will involve only the present letting, except in the case of a succession.

If the Liberal party should divide the House, it will show that the party's official spokesman on housing has failed to understand the debate

Question put and agreed to.

Amendment (a) proposed to the Lords Amendment: In line 2, leave out from first 'of to end of Amendment and insert 'that Part of that Schedule there shall be substituted the following paragraph— 5. — (1) The Secretary of State has determined, on the application of the landlord, that the right to buy is not to be capable of being exercised with respect to the dwelling-house; and he shall so determine if, and only if, he is satisfied that the dwelling-house—

  1. (a) is particularly suitable, having regard to its location, size, design, heating system and other features, for occupation by persons of pensionable age; and
  2. (b) was let to the tenant or to a predecessor in title of his for occupation by a person of pensionable age or a physically disabled person (whether the tenant or predecessor or any other person).
(2) An application for a determination under this paragraph shall be made within four weeks or, in a case falling within section 5(2) of this Act, eight weeks of the service of the notice claiming to exercise the right to buy.".'. — [Sir George Young.]

Question put, That the amendment be made to the Lords amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 133, Noes 6.

Division No. 362] [12.16 am
Alexander, Richard Gow, Ian
Amess, David Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Arnold, Tom Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Ashby, David Harris, David
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Hayhoe, Barney
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Heddle, John
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Henderson, Barry
Bellingham, Henry Hirst, Michael
Berry, Sir Anthony Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Hunt, David (Wirral)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Jessel, Toby
Boscawen, Hon Robert Lang, Ian
Bottomley, Peter Lester, Jim
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Lightbown, David
Braine, Sir Bernard Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin McCurley, Mrs Anna
Bright, Graham Macfarlane, Neil
Brinton, Tim MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Brooke, Hon Peter Maclean, David John
Bruinvels, Peter Malins, Humfrey
Burt, Alistair Maples, John
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Marlow, Antony
Cash, William Mather, Carol
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Chapman, Sydney Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Chope, Christopher Mellor, David
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Meyer, Sir Anthony
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Mitchell, David (NW Hants)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Moate, Roger
Conway, Derek Moynihan, Hon C.
Coombs, Simon Murphy, Christopher
Cope, John Needham, Richard
Couchman, James Neubert, Michael
Currie, Mrs Edwina Newton, Tony
Dicks, Terry Norris, Steven
Dorrell, Stephen Onslow, Cranley
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Ottaway, Richard
Dover, Den Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Dunn, Robert Patten, John (Oxford)
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Evennett, David Powell, William (Corby)
Eyre, Sir Reginald Powley, John
Fallon, Michael Raffan, Keith
Farr, John Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Favell, Anthony Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Fookes, Miss Janet Roe, Mrs Marion
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Rossi, Sir Hugh
Goodlad, Alastair Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Sayeed, Jonathan Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Thome, Neil (Ilford S)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Thurnham, Peter
Sims, Roger Tracey, Richard
Skeet, T. H. H. Twinn, Dr Ian
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Waddington, David
Soames, Hon Nicholas Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Spencer, Derek Walden, George
Spicer, Jim (W Dorset) Waller, Gary
Squire, Robin Watts, John
Stanbrook, Ivor Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Steen, Anthony Whitfield, John
Stern, Michael Wolfson, Mark
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Wood, Timothy
Stevens, Martin (Fulham) Yeo, Tim
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Sumberg, David
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Tellers for the Ayes:
Terlezki, Stefan Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and Mr. John Major.
Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Alton, David Wallace, James
Ashdown, Paddy
Howells, Geraint Tellers for the Noes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mr. A. J. Beith and Mr. Michael Meadowcroft.
Kirkwood, Archy

Question accordingly agreed to.

Consequential amendments made to the Bill:

No. 1, in page 3, line 16, leave out 'subsection (1) above and the provision made by subsection' and insert 'subsections (1) and'.

No. 2, in page 8, line 18, leave out clause 7.

No. 3, in page 22, line 11, leave out '18A(2) or' (inserted by a Lords amendment agreed to by this House).

No. 4, in page 63, line 32, leave out `18A(1) or'.

No. 5, in page 68, line 27, leave out '18A(1) or'.

No. 6, in page 85, line 10, leave out paragraph 10.

No. 7, in page 88, line 29, leave out from beginning to 'shall' in line 32 and insert 'Part IV of Schedule 2 to that Act (charges and other matters)'.

No. 8, in page 90, column 3, leave out lines 48 and 49. —[Sir George Young.]

Back to
Forward to