HC Deb 09 July 1986 vol 101 cc399-409

10.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham)

I beg to move, That the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, which was laid before this House on 12th May, be approved. The draft order provides assistance for eligible owners of certain defective houses sold by the public sector in Northern Ireland. It also extends the right-to-buy provisions of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 for secure tenants of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and provides new statutory rights for secure tenants of the Housing Executive and registered housing associations.

The draft order was the subject of wide consultation. In addition to the Assembly, comments were also received from 16 other sources and individuals, and all these were considered carefully before deciding on the text of the draft order which is now before this House.

The method of assistance in part II is based on a similar scheme provided in Great Britain in the Housing Defects Act 1984. However, in Northern Ireland we have only the Orlit type of prefabricated reinforced concrete house and it is the intention that only this type of house will be designated under the draft order in the first instance.

Of course, we received a number of representations during the consultation period for other house types to be designated, notably aluminium bungalows and houses with defective flues. However, although the legislation provides a general framework within which other house types can be designated, I am not satisfied that these particular house types meet the criteria for designation as set out in article 4 of the draft order. I must tell the House that at the moment there do not appear to be any other substantial classes which are likely to be designated.

The Housing Executive has sold only 200 of the Orlit houses out of a total stock of about 3,000. Initially our proposals will apply only to those 200. The assistance to be provided under the draft order will be either a grant towards reinstatement or, in certain circumstances, repurchase. However, I think that it is only fair that I should say that in practice assistance will take the form of repurchase rather than reinstatement. That is because it seems very likely that the costs of repair on those Orlit homes will be higher than the market value of the houses after reinstatement.

As for the 2,800 Orlit houses which remain in the Housing Executive's ownership, I must stress that the process of deterioration is gradual, and I wish to assure the tenants who occupy them that the Housing Executive has carried out full technical investigations which have confirmed there is no immediate danger. Even those Orlit houses in which the corrosion is most advanced have a serviceable life of between five and 10 years without the need for remedial action, while the others have a life of up to 30 years. Many of those homes will provide good housing for a long time to come. None the less, I am conscious that there are genuine anxieties about the future of Orlit houses especially from tenants who will not benefit from the provisions in this order. Therefore, the Housing Executive is presently considering ways of dealing with the Orlit houses which remain in its stock. Some proposals have already been announced and other proposals will be developed on an estate-by-estate basis after the Housing Executive has consulted the tenants and their public representatives.

Part III of the draft order deals with the rights of secure tenants. Since 1979 over 30,000 houses have been sold by the Housing Executive under its voluntary sales scheme and it has provided tenants with better terms and conditions of purchase than the Government's statutory right to buy. The scheme already incorporates all the advantages for tenant purchases included in the Housing and Planning Bill at present before Parliament. Nevertheless, although we do more, it must be right that we bring the statutory scheme in Northern Ireland into line with the parallel legislation in Great Britain, although the voluntary scheme of the Housing Executive goes considerably further than the proposals in the draft order.

The order enacts the improvements in the right-to-buy provisions in the Housing and Building Control Act 1984. At the earliest opportunity I intend to introduce the further advantages contained in the Housing and Planning Bill currently before the House. Chapter I deals with the right to buy and makes some important improvements in the statutory scheme. The proposals before the House which have already been incorporated in the executive's voluntary sales scheme will, first enable tenants in property in which the Housing Executive has a leasehold to have the same right to buy as tenants where the executive owns the property outright. Secondly, they will reduce the minimum tenancy period before entitlement to discount starts from three years to two years, and, thirdly, they will raise the maximum level of discount from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. In addition, the range of public sector tenancies which can be considered for qualification for discount purposes is extended. Tenants of the executive will have the right to purchase their homes on an equity sharing basis. I repeat that on a voluntary basis we have been doing that for about a year.

Sheltered housing for the mentally disordered is added to the other types of sheltered housing already excluded from the right to buy and I am sure that hon. Members agree with that. The criteria used to identify sheltered schemes and housing for the elderly are clarified. These are designed to reflect the way that sheltered accommodation has expanded and will also ensure that only houses which are clearly identifiable as suitable for the elderly will be excluded from the right to buy. The remaining provisions of chapter I are designed to remove uncertainties and anomalies in the existing legislation.

Part III, chapter II, contains two new rights for secure tenants; the right to exchange and the right to repair. The right to exchange is an extension of existing practice and the right to repair will give registered housing associations new responsibilities towards their tenants. Under the right to exchange a secure tenant will usually be able to assign his tenancy to another secure tenant. Under the right to repair a secure tenant will be able to carry out, or to have carried out, repairs for which his landlord is responsible and to recover the costs. I will, of course, consult the Housing Executive and other organisations such as housing associations representing public sector landlords about the details of the scheme.

Part IV of the order contains a number of miscellaneous and supplementary provisions dealing mainly with recovery of grants to housing associations, indemnities to private sector lenders, and succession rights to statutory tenancies. The proposals on PRC homes are important to the private sector as they give relief to certain private owners who, through no fault of their own, purchased defective houses from the public housing stock. Part III of the legislation beings the law into line with existing practice and is a further step in giving tenants an individual say in the management of their homes. I trust that the House will agree that this is a sensible and a desirable measure. I am sure that the House will support it.

10.8 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I congratulate the Minister on his fluency, on his grasp of the order, and on the way he took the House through it. He will pardon me if I speak with less fluency in trying to make a number of small points about the order. As we know, and as the Minister said, it is designed to provide legislation in Northern Ireland which corresponds to the provisions of the Housing Defects Act 1984 and the Housing and Building Control Act 1984. Both these Acts are now consolidated in the Housing Act 1985. Thus, there is parity in United Kingdom legislation. It knits together provisions that are equally appliable to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The order has two primary objectives. The first is to compensate those who bought system-built houses which were previously in the public sector and which have now been found to have fundamental defects. The Minister sought to assure those who are living in the system-built houses that are not defective. We welcome his assurances. I am sure that Northern Ireland tenants will also welcome them. The second objective of the order is to promote the purchase of public sector houses by their tenants.

We welcome the first objective. Nevertheless, we should like to examine some of the discussions that took place in the Northern Ireland Assembly and some of its recommendations. The Northern Ireland Assembly scrutinised this order. I do not wish to bore the House by referring again to the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The decision to dissolve the Assembly was taken by this House, but it is a matter of regret that Northern Ireland Assembly Members are unable to continue their effective scrutinising role.

I have before me three reports of the Northern Ireland Assembly. One of the reports deals with this order. The others deal with homelessness in Northern Ireland. It must be a matter of some regret that those who best understand the problems of Northern Ireland and who produced these reports are no longer functioning in the interests of their constituents and in the interests of those in Northern Ireland who look to them for help. I hope that it will not be too long before those hon. Members who were members of the Northern Ireland Assembly again participate in our affairs.

It is also a matter of regret that the recommendations that were made by the Northern Ireland Assembly's scrutinising committee were not acted upon by the Government. The Minister referred to some of the recommendations. There were 24 further submissions by organisations and individuals, and their recommendations and suggestions were not taken up by the Government. I trust that their failure to take into account the views of others does not arise from indifference but, rather, from the weakness of the arguments that were put before the Government.

I have to confess that I was somewhat bemused by the illogicality of the Northern Ireland Assembly's first recommendation. It recommended that the Department of the Environment should consider means whereby the owners of house types in the private sector should he treated equally with those which had been in the public sector but which had been sold off by the Housing Executive. The Minister referred to aluminium bungalows and to those dwellings with defective flue linings and said that he was not satisfied that they ought to be part of the order. We must accept his explanation.

The Minister also said that that although the Government's reinstatement grant amounts to 90 per cent., whereas that Northern Ireland Assembly recommended that it should be 100 per cent., he is looking for the repurchase of those houses, in which case the reinstatement grant will not necesasarily be taken into account.

Is the Minister able to tell the House why the other recommendations in the report of the Northern Ireland Assembly's scrutinising committee were set aside and why other submissions by various interested parties were not taken into account? I am aware that copies of the Government's response to the Northern Ireland Assembly's report are in the Library of the House of Commons, but a brief explanation of why the recommendations were set aside would be welcomed.

We note what the Minister said about the sale of council houses, but we are anxious to ensure that the overall level of public housing in Northern Ireland is not reduced. Housing is a major issue for those who live in Northern Ireland, as it is for those who live in the rest of the United Kingdom. We acknowledge the work done by the Housing Executive over the years to ensure better standards of housing for all people in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the housing lists are long enough without their being made longer by the sale of council houses.

There is no doubt an ideological difference between the two sides of the House about the sale of council houses, but many who buy their council houses are unaware of how difficult things can become when one loses a job and ends on the dole and finds it difficult to meet mortgage payments. A reduced housing stock would make it even more difficult to house people who are already homeless, and also those who might find themselves unable to keep up with the purchase of their house and need to move back into a council house.

The Minister has told us that council houses have been sold for a year. What happens to the proceeds from those sales? Are they held by the Housing Executive as capital receipts and subject to the same rules as those that affect local councils in this country, so that only 20 per cent. of such proceeds can be used to reinvest in housing, or will there be, or is there, a special dispensation for Northern Ireland? The Opposition feel that the present levels of funding will mean that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will be forced to end virtually all repair and renovation grants and to cut its new build programme.

Articles 38 and 39 deal with other rights of secure tenants, whether the rental will increase as a result of certain improvements, and the right to carry out repairs. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) has already welcomed a report published by the Private Housing Action group which touches on these articles, but relates to the operation of the Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. My right hon. and learned Friend pointed out that the timely publication of this report, coming so soon after the McDowell judgment, which highlighted the predicament of private housing in Northern Ireland, provided valuable information on the true situation of those covered by the court ruling.

The report made a clear and cogent case for reform of the Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which refers to rent-controlled tenancies. It is our view that until such reforms take place many thousands of tenants will be left without any recourse to the law, even if injured by the failure of landlords to comply with the law. Such a situation clearly negates one of the central purposes of the rent order, allowing no effective remedy for those faced with dilatory or recalcitrant landlords. Private tenants in Northern Ireland are thereby left without the right that provides important protection to similar tenants in England.

I accept that we might be moving somewhat wider than the order, and I do not wish to detain the House longer on that issue. However, it is a matter of regret that the order cannot be amended and therefore we are not able to take into account the curious situation resulting from the McDowell judgment on private tenants.

We welcome the order and accept the thrust of the Minister's argument. We have expressed our anxieties, and no doubt at an opportune moment he will respond to them.

10.18 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

I do not wish to be disagreeable to the Minister when I say that this is a cock-eyed way to proceed. The Secretary of State, in his letter says: The main purposes of the Proposal are to provide legislation in Northern Ireland corresponding to the Housing Defects Act 1984 and to the housing provisions of the Housing and Building Control Act 1984. When the Bill that underlay the Housing Defects Act 1984 was first brought before the House, my hon. Friends and I asked that it might apply to Northern Ireland. We saw no reason why the benefits to purchasers of ex-public authority housing which were provided in Great Britain by the 1984 Act should not become available at the same time to those similarly situated in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who was then the Minister, at one stage believed and hoped that that might be possible. That hope has not been realised. A glance at the order will show that it comes into force two months after the order is made following the approval of a draft, which will no doubt take place tonight. In other words, for between two and three years the citizens of Northern Ireland have been deprived of the advantages accruing to those in identical circumstances in Great Britain simply because of the determination which has hitherto existed to legislate for Northern Ireland separately from the rest of the United Kingdom and by Order in Council under the 1984 Act.

There was no practicable difficulty in bringing Northern Ireland within the scope of the 1984 Act. It is true that the provision of public housing and the public housing authority in Northern Ireland is of a different character from the public housing authorities in the rest of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, there is nothing outside the scope of the skill of parliamentary draftsmanship to have devised either clauses or a schedule which would have applied the provisions of the 1984 Act simultaneously to that part of the United Kingdom.

I followed with interest the speech of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) when he drew attention to the scrutiny given to this order at an earlier stage by the late, defunct and, by some, unlamented Northern Ireland assembly. It could not be accepted in the House that our procedures for dealing with legislation by way of Committee and Report stages and the scrutiny to which legislation is submitted by the means available to this House are less satisfactory than any alternative methods that are available for giving effect to the wishes of constituents and to opinion in this country.

After all, when the House and its Members are confronted with a Bill, it is the business of hon. Members concerning themselves with that legislation to ascertain and put forward for improvement or amendment matters which are brought to their attention by interested parties in their constituencies. Obviously, that does not occur when part of the United Kingdom is deliberately omitted from such legislation. It is not practicable or within the scope of human nature when a Bill by its terms excludes part of the United Kingdom for the representatives of that part to be in a position to bring forward arguments, amendments and suggestions for the improvement of that legislation on the basis that in due course, by Order in Council, it will be applied to their constituencies. The fact that the Northern Ireland Office has been scrutinising the orders is no substitute for the scrutiny which would be available, if the principal legislation had in the first place applied to Northern Ireland, as it always was intended to apply and was stated that it would apply, so that Northern Ireland Members could have the same opportunities as anyone else to participate in debate upon it and on measures for its improvement.

The same considerations apply to part I of the Housing and Building Control Act, relating to the sale of houses by public housing authorities to sitting tenants, which is the other named subject matter of the order. Again, I agree with the Minister that from the beginning it was obviously desirable, if such sale was to be regulated by statute, that those statutory provisions should apply to Northern Ireland as they applied to the rest of the United Kingdom and as they are being applied by this Order in Council. There was no practicable reason why part I of that Act should not have extended to Northern Ireland and why the facilities for debate and for scrutiny should not have been available two years ago in that context.

The Minister was right to say that the massive sale of houses by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to tenants has been one of the most important and gratifying social events in the Province in the past 12 years. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the sale of public housing to sitting tenants was piloted by the schemes which were voluntarily promoted by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

Anyone who is acquainted with Northern Ireland and its housing can bear witness to the improvement of the scene that that sale has brought about. Hon. Members for other parts of the Kingdom may not be aware of the extraordinary phenomenon of what is called in Northern Ireland labourers' cottages — houses of a standard pattern which were provided at the end of the last and in the early years of the present century and which must at the time have represented a revolutionary improvement in the conditions of living for the class which was then without shame designated as labourers.

Those houses, instantly recognisable throughout the countryside by their standard pattern — window, door, two windows—are extraordinarily popular to this day. It may seem surprising, but large prices are paid by sitting tenants to secure possession of those labourers' cottages, often dating from the early years of this century, which have to some extent been improved by the addition of porches and kitchens, but which, once they come into the hands of those who have previously been their tenants, become the object of frequently grant-aided improvement which makes a very real addition to the usable housing stock of the Province.

Nothing gives more pleasure in travelling the roads of Northern Ireland than to pick out the labourers' cottages and see those which have undergone that process of improvement over the years, not least because so many thousands of them in recent years have changed hands from the property of the Housing Executive to the property of those who were their tenants.

Perhaps I might be permitted, since it illustrates how deeply housing is woven into the social fabric of Northern Ireland, to relate one particular fact about these houses which puzzled me in my early years as a Member of Parliament for a Northern Ireland constituency. A wing was attached at right angles to the main frontage of the house. What seemed to me to be curious about that wing was that it did not look like a later extension because it was covered by the same roof-tree and the same pattern of roof.

One day, when I had been a Member for some years, I happened to be visiting a constituent who lived in one of those houses and I referred to the extension. I said, "I suppose that was an improvement." "Oh, no," he said, "that is the weaving room." These houses, built in the early years of the 20th century, were unacceptable to many of those who would be their tenants unless they included a weaving room which was either short for one loom or long for two looms, and which is still to be seen today as an important addition to the living accommodation in these houses.

Therefore, I dissent in no way from the stress that the Minister placed upon the value of the sale of Housing Executive houses to sitting tenants and his admission that in many cases the facilities that have been voluntarily extended under the scheme by the Housing Executive go beyond those which are rendered compulsory by the legislation which by this Order in Council we are now applying to Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding that, it is right that there should be a common code for the sale of housing to tenants, that that should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, and that it should be so made belatedly by this order, although it could perfectly well have been made two or three years ago by the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the original legislation, to the general saving of the trouble of the House and the improved participation of representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

In case the Minister should say that there are other minor items in the order to which the same stricture does not necessarily apply, I notice that even the amendment which is made in the law relating to housing associations is a carbon copy of an amendment under the Housing Associations Act 1985 for Great Britain. In short, we are engaged in a duplicating process which is not only unnecessary but is inimical to good legislation for the Province of Northern Ireland.

I hope that the lesson, which I fear has been inculcated ad nauseam in one after another of these debates upon Orders in Council, will not be lost upon the House and the Government now that we have the opportunity, with the disappearance of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to consider afresh the manner in which Northern Ireland legislation is passed by Parliament.

10.30 pm
Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I welcome this order on behalf of the serried ranks of Liberal and Social Democrat party Members. I also welcome the presence of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), especially when he gives us such fascinating passages from Irish social history. I apologise to the Minister for missing the beginning of his speech and if I am unduly vulnerable as a result I hope that he will be characteristically generous. One regrets the absence of other hon. Members for the North of Ireland. One would have hoped that our colloquy would be graced by their contributions to the debate and I am sorry that that is not the case.

It is right and proper that the Housing Defects Act 1984 should be applied to Northern Ireland in the best possible way. I wonder whether the Minister could enlighten us as to what has been learned from the problems that have been faced by the application of the Housing Defects Act 1984 in England and Wales since its inception. Those of us who represent constituencies which are particularly affected by the Act are well aware of the imprecise nature of many of its provisions, especially since it applies to concrete houses and not particularly to those with timber frames. It is possible to envisage that it could be applied more generously to different types of housing in Northern Ireland?

The Minister will be aware that in the provision that has been applied in England and Wales it has been for the local authority to bear the burden of different types of housing included within the Act. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about whether that will be more flexible in the case of Northern Ireland.

I shall broaden my comments slightly. Can the Minister enlighten the House on the situation with regard to the Divis flats? I understand that the great campaign with regard to the Divis flats has come to some conclusions. I read in the paper yesterday that there is some confusion about the future. Can the Minister tell the House whether they are now to be demolished? I am sure that the House would be pleased to hear about that.

What provision is the Minister making to hear representations on behalf of different communities within the Province under paragraph (6) of article 4 where it states: Any question arising as to whether a building is or was at any time in a class designated under the Article shall he determined by the Department"? If the Minister is accruing to himself virtually sole powers to designate properties under the order, he should tell us whether he will be giving an undertaking to accept representations on behalf of different communities, different towns and different parts of the Province.

I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) as well as those of the right hon. Member for South Down that if we had more devolution within the United Kingdom we would all welcome, in our different ways, being able to deal with this in a different context. Nevertheless, one accepts and welcomes the order as it is presented.

10.34 pm
Mr. Needham

I thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for his kind comments about my fluency. They were particularly kind, coming from him, as I have always admired his fluency more than mine.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a pity that we shall not have the Assembly to give us the benefit of its advice in the future as it had done in this case. While I accept the arguments of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) about the need for close discussion and consideration before orders are brought forward, I believe that the Assembly and the method of devolution through the Assembly is a more effective way of going forward in the context of Northern Ireland than relying only on the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough referred to the responses to the proposals in the draft order. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not read out at great length the Department's reply to the other suggestions that were made. Of course, I shall provide him, if he so requires, with our responses to those proposals. Let me assure him that we took all of them very much into account. The order is based on the need for parity with United Kingdom law. Therefore, it would not make much sense for us to propose different legislation for Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asked what happens to the proceeds of council house sales. They remain with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and are then spent by the executive— 100 per cent.— in the provision of new housing. That takes into account the stress that the Government lay on the importance of renewing and upgrading the housing stock in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman referred to one of our problems when he mentioned the cutback in the housing budget. It is not so much a cutback in Government funds as a reduction in the number of sales that the Housing Executive had expected which meant that it did not have the funds that it had projected to spend this year on new housing. Unfortunately, because of the other current stresses and strains on the Northern Ireland block, it has been impossible for the Government to make up the difference between the reduction in capital receipts and what the Housing Executive hoped it would be able to spend.

The hon. Gentleman referred to articles 38 and 39, on rent control, and the McDowell judgment. I have taken careful note of the points that he raised. We are fully committed to the private rented sector in Northern Ireland. It has long had, and will continue to have, a valuable role in providing houses for those who, for whatever reason, cannot buy their own home or are not housed in the public sector. We shall ensure that that important role continues to be backed and understood.

The right hon. Member for South Down told the House that this was a cock-eyed way in which to proceed. Perhaps that is a fair comment on much of what happens in the House with regard to Northern Ireland. In my judgment, it is a cock-eyed way to proceed that we do not have Northern Ireland Members present when we are talking about an extremely important matter, and when the Assembly has disappeared and there is no other forum where those issues can be thoroughly and properly discussed. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss if I say that his contributions to the debate are extremely important to the Government because they give a view of the feelings of the elected representatives in Northern Ireland.

I cannot go into a historical analogy of why the Housing Defects Act 1984 did not apply to Northern Ireland. All I can say is that because it is the Government's policy and preferred option to work towards devolution—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

It was.

Mr. Needham

And it still is. These issues would form part of a devolved administration were that to happen. Therefore, we have followed the course of separate legislation.

The right hon. Member for South Down rightly said that the voluntary scheme that we have applied in Northern Ireland is considerably more advanced than the statutory scheme that now underpins it by this order. I hope he will agree that the voluntary scheme has in some ways allowed us greater flexibility to introduce proposals at an earlier stage than would have been the case with a statutory scheme. For example, we have raised the discount from 50 to 60 per cent., and that began in June 1986. We have reduced from five years to three years the period for which someone must own a council house before losing discount, also from June this year. That is an advance on anything that has happened in that connection on the mainland. The right to repair has been in existence through the Housing Executive for more than a year, as have the equity sharing proposals which form part of this legislation.

While I accept that it is important and necessary that the schemes should have statutory backing, I hope that the right hon. Member for South Down will accept that the relationship between the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland and the Housing Executive is close enough for it to bring forward the Government's intentions as early as is practicable for the benefit of those people in Northern Ireland who, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly states, have benefited to such a great extent from the right-to-buy provisions.

With regard to the point raised about Orlit owners having suffered, the fact is that only very recently has a scheme of repair been brought forward by PRC homes for these houses. I do not think that these owners have suffered either more or less than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), I can state that only 200 Orlit houses in Northern Ireland have so far been designated. Therefore, the problems in Northern Ireland in that respect are not of the extent, breadth or scope that exists in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds, West, or in mine for that matter. That does not mean that we are not worried about the problems to which I referred at some length in my opening remarks. Because of the cost of repair of these homes, I stress again that, with hardly any exceptions, we shall re-purchase these homes. That would be the sensible way to proceed.

The issue of the Divis flats does not fall within the scope of the order. I can tell the hon. Member for Leeds, West that what happens at Divis has to be determined in the first instance by the Housing Executive. As yet, I have received nothing from the Housing Executive to suggest that it has any intention of changing the policy that it has laid down over a considerable period of time. However, I stress that in the first instance it is for the Housing Executive to determine. If it has any change of heart, I hope that it will inform me before I read about it in the newspapers. One can never be too sure about that when dealing with the problems of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Meadowcroft

I accept the Minister's comments on the Divis flats. However, on the question of defective housing, is he referring to the 200 that are PRC problems, or is he including timber-framed houses, which are not covered by the English and Welsh legislation but which are known to be a problem?

Mr. Needham

I cannot give a full answer to that point. Article 4(1)(a) states: buildings in the proposed class are defective by reason of their design or construction, and (b) by virtue of the circumstances mentioned in sub-paragraph (a) having become generally known, the value of some or all of the dwellings concerned has been substantially reduced. The key point is that not only are they defective by reason of design or construction, but that because that has become widely known they have lost a substantial amount of their value. If, in those circumstances in Northern Ireland, owners who have bought from the public sector a class of building that meets the provisions of article 4(1) (a) and (b), I shall ensure that under 4(6) we look carefully at any submissions that come to us from those owners. We have looked carefully at all submissions currently before us, but there are no substantial classes of buildings that fall under the provisions of article 4.

The House has discussed this order with the usual degree of interest and depth that applies to Northern Ireland business. It is important that we have this statutory backing to a voluntary proposal. Nevertheless, I believe that the current voluntary scheme is a major and significant benefit to the people of Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, which was laid before this House on 12th May, be approved.