HC Deb 03 November 1986 vol 103 cc708-25

Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 2, line 1, after "is" insert , (subject to any order under subsection (2A))".

Mr. John Patten

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 3 and 4 and the amendments thereto.

Mr. Patten

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 provide for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to have power to provide by order for higher discounts to be available to tenants exercising the right to buy. This is an important provision. Currently, as the House is all too well aware, a tenant of two years' standing qualifies to buy at a discount rate of 32 per cent., but if the tenant has more than the basic two years he or she qualifies for extra discount, in steps of 1 per cent. for each additional year, up to a maximum of 60 per cent. overall. Clause 1, of course, provides for the discount scale for flats to run from a minimum of 44 per cent. by 2 per cent. steps to 70 per cent. The proposed power will enable the minimum and maximum discount and the size of the steps to be increased by order.

Amendment No. 4 makes parallel provision for Scotland. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram)—who is responsible for housing in Scotland is on the Front Bench. The reason for making this amendment in the Housing and Planning Bill rather than the Housing (Scotland) Bill is timing. When the amendments were tabled in another place, it was too late to add new matter to the Scottish measure.

Mr. Maxton


Mr. Patten

I never give feeble excuses; my explanations are always telling and to the point. I draw the attention of the House to the important safeguards in the amendments. There is an important safeguard, and the House should reflect on it. The power to make orders is to be exercisable only with the consent of the Treasury, and orders are to require affirmative resolutions of both Houses of Parliament. So any orders which may be made will be subject not only to the due financial scrutiny of our friends in Great George street, but, and much more importantly from the point of view of Opposition Members, to that of Parliament. The reason for seeking that power is that it seems sensible at this stage to have flexibility to adjust the right-to-buy discount scales further in the light of experience.

5 pm

This is the third time that Parliament has legislated on this subject: the Housing Act 1980 provided for a maximum discount of 10 per cent., the Housing and Building Control Act 1984, which was brought to the House by the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), raised it to 60 per cent., and now we are providing for higher discounts for flats. We were pressed in Committee to go even further. It would not be surprising if, at some point, it seemed right to change the discount scales again. If that were so, it would be a pity if the pressures of the legislative programme held it up. That is why we propose a power to make changes by order, subject, as I have said to parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative resolution procedure.

We do not propose to make any changes at the moment. It would be misleading if I were to volunteer suggestions as to the sort of changes that might seem right at some future date. At the same time, it would be shortsighted of the Government, and certainly of me, if we did not open our minds to the possibility of future changes in right-to-buy discounts.

The public housing sector is very different from what it was in 1980. It is only to be expected that in two, four or six years the problems and opportunities could look very different again. That is why it seems sensible from the administrative point of view to provide that future changes could be made without the need for main legislation.

I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to look closely at the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). They are interesting amendments and tell us much about Liberal party thoughts on housing. The amendments would enable orders to be made reducing discounts below the levels for which the statute provides. It seems that that is what the Liberal party is up to, and it is surely not right. The right to buy—I am not speaking from a partisan position—is firmly established, and it is reasonable for tenants thinking about buying their homes in the future to make plans on the assumption that the option of exercising the right to buy will not be taken away or made less attractive at some future date. To argue by analogy, people entering into an agreement to buy their homes under mortgage conditions would want to know what mortgage interest tax relief would be available in the future.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)


Mr. Patten

I should like to know what my hon. Friend has to say about that.

Mr. Squire

I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that a large number of would-be purchasers in Havering in the early 1970s lost out when the council changed control and bitterly resented the action of the then Labour council in that respect.

Mr. Patten

That was with the Labour council in Havering then; now the Liberal party nationally seems to want to sow uncertainty in the minds of council tenants.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

I should not like my hon. Friend to think that it was only the Labour party and the Liberal party. The SDP parliamentary candidate for my constituency has come out against council house sales.

Mr. Patten

Exactly. It seems to be—

Mr. Ross (Isle of Wight)


Mr. Patten

May I please answer the first question? I do not want to get to the stage of intervening in my own answers, as it confuses me, and it certainly confuses the House.

We see that all parties, except the Conservative party, express doubt, both nationally and locally, on the right to buy, and the future of the right to buy.

Mr. Ross

Although the Minister was not in his present position then, roofing grants for houses built before 1919 were a marvellous give-away for about a year. There are now waiting lists of hundreds. That is what Conservative policy has done to housing and roofing grants.

Mr. Patten

I must restrict myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I would not wish to be ruled out of order by you. I must not go down the seductive road of discussing roofing grants as the hon. Gentleman suggests, because we are discussing the right to buy and the Liberal amendments.

The amendments would create uncertainty if tenants could not assume that discounts would be at least as favourable in the future as they are now. There is already enough uncertainty in tenants' minds because of the clear qualifications of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party on the right to buy. They both have qualifications and, incidentally, they do not speak with one voice on that issue. Neither the Liberal party nor the SDP supports the right to buy wholeheartedly and without qualifications. They are sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of tenants of council flats and council houses, just as their new, emerging views on mortgage interest tax relief are sowing uncertainty in the minds of home owners and prospective home owners.

Any future Government would be perfectly free to bring forward legislation to dismantle the right-to-buy scheme, or to reduce the discounts available. If that is what the Liberal party has in mind, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey might like to take the opportunity today to put his party's intention on the record and tell us the contents of its secret manifesto on the right to buy. If the intention of Opposition Members is to reduce discounts available to tenants, surely that ought to be the subject of main legislation. I invite the House to reject the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey to Lords amendments Nos. 3 and 4 on those grounds.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Minister is trying the trick that he tried yesterday in a different forum, which gave him the opportunity to try to expose differences in Opposition parties on matters of principle that are very important outside the House. Yesterday, it was mortgage interest tax relief. I shall return to that later. I shall deal first with the amendments in the round before, quite properly, answering the questions that the Minister raised. I make it clear that there is not only agreement between the party of the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) — the Social Democratic party—and my own, but that agreement will allay fears and, indeed, encourage people to trust our views on these matters rather than those of the Minister arid his colleagues.

The issue here is the old and familiar constitutional question of which matters come into primary legislation and which into secondary legislation. The starting point is whether it is appropriate that the raising and lowering of discount levels, which would affect tens of thousands if riot hundreds of thousands of people, should go through the House by way of an order with a short debate probably lasting a maximum of one and a half hours and probably late in the evening. On the constitutional principle, it seems appropriate that matters of significant importance to people contemplating buying or local authorities contemplating having to sell their housing should be the subject of primary rather than secondary legislation. The Lords amendments apply to England and Wales and also to Scotland, and provide that several matters will be subject to the secondary legislation procedure: first, whether the discount should be raised; secondly, the percentage by which the increase over the time scale provided in the legislation is arranged; thirdly, whether there can be different provisions in different cases. There is also a grey area that the Minister wishes to include in the subsidiary legislation, which is described as incidental, supplementary or transitional provisions". That may be a something or a nothing.

The most recent experience that we have had of such secondary legislation, dealing with many authorities in Britain or classes of them, on individual matters connected with financing and where extreme problems have been caused for those authorities and for the House, was in the context of the Rates Act. Under that Act, rate capping was permitted by the Government. The Government now bring forward an order, in which they list the authorities that they intend to rate-cap. In one debate all the finances of all the authorities—some of the largest city, borough or district authorities in Britain — come under the scrutiny of the House. The House will recall that there have been regular complaints that this mechanism for addressing the severe and important questions of the financing of local government does not provide a suitable opportunity or adequate time for sufficiently detailed debate. The underlying question is whether it is appropriate to debate such matters on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee or, more importantly, locally in the areas of those authorities. Experience of the rate-capping legislation has shown the procedures to be profoundly unsatisfactory.

I come to whether my amendment on the English provision and the similar amendment to Lords amendment No. 4 on the Scottish provision provide an acceptable alternative to the Lords amendment. The first question is whether the procedure should be carried out in the House by secondary or primary legislation. My view is that it should be primary legislation because of the number of people affected and the value of the matters under consideration. If that is not to be so, however, my amendment seeks to explore whether the Government accept that it is appropriate that they should be able to vary the provisions in either direction if they think that that is suitable. It is up to the Government of the day to decide the parameters within which the right to buy operates. That has been the decision that the Government determined when they legislated in 1980 creating an entitlement to buy for council tenants. That has come to be accepted increasingly across the country, and it seems unfair and lacking in even-handedness if the Government can always and only increase discounts but never reduce them.

The Minister asked for our view and I shall give it to him. It is clear that there has been some unhappiness over the years. As the Minister knows, we have recently spent some time making sure that we have a clear and correct position to put to the country. The alliance is now agreed that the right to buy will remain and that Parliament should set the limits within which it operates, but we should like increased local discretion over exemptions and discounts.

The reason for that, as the Minister should know well, is different areas, which may be Liberal, Social Democratic party, alliance, Labour or Tory controlled, have different circumstances. The Minister, with the Labour housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and myself yesterday watched a film on the now twice quoted "This Week Next Week" programme, from Woodspring district council in Somerset — [HoN. MEMBERS: "Avon."] I beg the pardon of the House. It is in Avon. The Conservative chairman of Woodspring council housing committee expressed to the watching world dissatisfaction with the way in which the right-to-buy system was operating because it was applying unfairly to the council in determining its housing priorities.

I hope that the Minister, as a Minister in the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for local government, will accept from his national knowledge and his local experience in Oxford that one cannot say that the same circumstances apply all over the country. There have been debates in the House on portable discounts for estates such as the Bournville estate in Birmingham, the Peabody estates in London or the Dulwich College estate in Southwark. There are different local circumstances in each case. I ask the Minister to agree that it is appropriate, whether in Labour-controlled Southwark, Conservative-controlled Woodspring or alliance-controlled Sutton, that within limits fixed by the House local authorities should be able to make certain decisions, because those decisions should depend on the pressures on the various elements in the housing stock — old people's housing, sheltered housing, and so on—at any given time.

5.15 pm

The Minister referred to uncertainty about another matter, but there is no uncertainty there. As he knows, yesterday I made it clear to him publicly that the alliance is committed to sustaining a regime under which people buying their homes on a mortgage will get tax relief which they can set against the cost of the mortgage. It is mischievous of the hon. Gentleman to pretend that he does not know that and did not hear that yesterday. He knows that the alliance, like the Conservative party and all other parties, is committed to the retention of that form of interest relief.

Mr. John Patten

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

No, I did not intervene in the Minister's speech. He heard the argument yesterday and it is important that he should not misrepresent it when the subject is raised in a debate in the House the very next day.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

The debate is about whether the Government think that in the light of the Rates Act

Mr. Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

—and other experiences there should or should not be a summary procedure for determining important matters connected with housing supply. From the Liberal Bench, I ask the Minister to consider whether it would be better not to have a summary procedure and to keep changes to primary legislation. That is what we should like most. But if the Minister is allowing a summary procedure, he should put within it a range of options available to himself and his successors.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Sadly, everything that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has said will confirm the fear of council tenants around the country that, by foolishly voting for the Liberal or Social Democratic party, they will lessen their chances of purchasing their council house. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that one can have local variations so that in one council area there is a discount of 60 per cent. while someone's twin brother living in another area has a different discount right. That is deeply unfair. I know that the Liberals and the Social Democratic party do not believe very much in fairness and equity, but I thought that the hon. Gentleman would have noticed that one.

I return to more important matters because it is most unlikely that most local authorities will have the opportunity to choose discount rates. I refer to a matter that concerns many of my constituents greatly. Unfortunately, in many respects, the price of housing in the Thames valley and my constituency has risen dramatically in recent years. Many of my council house tenants who are eligible for 40, 50 or 60 per cent. discounts on the purchase of their council house find that they do not receive their maximum discount because when the Housing Act 1980 was passed a maximum of £25,000 was put into the Act as the discount that was allowable notwithstanding the percentage. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to review that in any order that he introduces because many people are being penalised unfairly. It might be thought that, if the house was worth so much money that one could get a discount above £25,000, one could probably afford the house anyway—

Mr. Rooker

indicated assent.

Mr. MacKay

I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. The majority of people eligible for those large discounts are fairly senior members of the community who are in their 50s or early 60s and their chances of getting a substantial mortgage, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) realises, are slim. Therefore, it has made the difference, in a number of cases in my constituency, between buying or not buying a council house. Without getting the full 60 per cent. discount, because of the £25,000 limit, they have had to withdraw from purchasing because they cannot obtain mortgage facilities on the number of years they have left before reaching retirement age.

It is to be hoped that very shortly we shall obtain the Royal Assent to this Bill. It is desperately important for the Department of the Environment to make it clear to all local authorities how quickly they can proceed to sell at the new discount rates and how quickly buyers can sell without having to repay the discount. Some of my constituents have exchanged contracts and are waiting to complete the sale of their council houses. They are waiting to confirm that the five years is reduced to three. There are long chains involved. At the moment Bracknell district council and the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead will not be able to say when those people can complete, even after Royal Assent. Therefore, I hope that clear guidelines are sent out to all local authorities quickly.

Mr. John Fraser

I listened to the Minister moving this amendment. He displayed all the qualities of the Tory party in relation to housing. He did not speak with the words of the builder, the developer, or the provider of housing but only with the philosophy of the Tory estate agent out to sell public assets and take his own political commission. That sums up Tory policy towards homes. They want to reduce the numbers being built and they are making no effort to meet the massive housing need in this country. The emphasis is on the sale rather than the provision of housing.

Our principal objection to this amendment is that it deprives the House of the ability to talk about council housing or local authority housing association housing in the round. It denies the House the ability to look at the problems and opportunities of the right to buy in a much more rounded context. The amendment enable, the Government not to vary the level of discount, but to increase it and assist in the sale of public assets — in some circumstances that is desirable—without considering all the other aspects of the matter. We oppose the Lords amendment because we believe that this is a matter that should be dealt with by primary legislation, so that there is an opportunity to discuss other issues.

This is not a debate about the right to buy. The Labour party has made it clear that we do not intend to repeal the principle of the right to buy, although we shall make some changes. One of the principal changes will be to ensure that much of the £6,000 million that has been derived from the sale of council houses and flats will be used to build replacement houses and flats.

One of the attractive features of the right to buy when the Tory party first announced it was that it was said that it would release homes that, people wanted to own for themselves—there is nothing capitalist or socialist about owning one's own home—and that it would also release money to provide other homes. To that degree, the proposition is one which can be fully supported. However, as soon as the sale of council houses had taken off, the Treasury intervened—the Treasury is mentioned in the amendment—to ensure that that money was not to be used for the replacement of stock. A Labour Government would ensure that, although the right to buy would continue, all money derived from the sale of homes would be used to provide more homes, which are so badly needed. We want an opportunity to put that proposition in primary legislation before the House. The Labour party will ensure that when homes are sold in areas where there is housing need a local authority—without any damage or injury to people who have bought their own home — will have a pre-purchase option to take the home back into its stock of homes to let. That does no harm to the purchaser. Indeed, it may help purchasers because they will not have to pay an estate agent's commission and will save some money.

There are some parts of the country where the shortage of homes to rent is so enormously acute — I have mentioned central London—that it would be irresponsible to continue with the sale of homes. In those circumstances we should compensate the tenants by giving them a transferable discount to move elsewhere. There is no doubt that there are some parts of the metropolis where the shortage of land and homes to rent is so acute and severe that it is irresponsible for the Government to be concentrating a large part of their housing association expenditure through the Housing Corporation on stress area investment and homes to rent in central London. I agree with the proposition that they should do that, but it is irresponsible to be pushing money into that sort of exercise and at the same time stripping out the same kind of homes which are provided by local authorities. Therefore, although we shall keep the right to buy, we shall certainly want to make some changes to which no sensible person would object.

Our objection to this amendment is that it enables the Government to increase the discount without any other debate. The House would be restricted to about 90 minutes of debate, usually after 10 o'clock, on what could be a transfer of public assets involving many millions of pounds, without any guarantee that the money derived from that sale will be put back into housing. We believe that the housing crisis in this country demands more than a single-issue debate which takes place in 90 minutes. We are suspicious of the Government taking a power that may be used to give an extremely expensive bribe to the electorate shortly before an election. We demand to be able to debate not just the sale of council housing but the distribution and social effects. We want to debate the use of the proceeds and we challenge the ease with which the Government might make a crude and irresponsible bribe by giving away what amounts to another person's assets in order to achieve some electoral advantage. For those reasons we shall vote against the amendment introduced in the other place.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

This debate will be remembered because of the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) who purported to speak on behalf of what is known as the alliance. While he was addressing the House, the official spokesman on housing for the Social Democratic party was seated only a few feet from him. You will have heard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey move his amendment which would give my hon. Friend the Minister the power to vary by order the rates of discount downwards. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that it was the policy of the Liberal party and the alliance that there should be different rates of discount and variations in the right to buy according to which local authority a tenant happens to live in. In effect, he was saying that if the Liberals have their way there would be diminished opportunities for discount and the right to buy affecting some people according to the accident of the borough or district in which they happen to live.

I was watching the face of the housing spokesman for the Social Democratic party very closely as he listened to the exposition of his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. When the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) seeks to give his own gloss or interpretaton or, if he is a man of courage, his own repudiation of the exposition of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, I hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

A revelation has been made, not only to the House of Commons, but to those who listen carefully to what goes on here about the right to buy. The revelation is from the Liberal party and it has never before been spelt out so clearly. We have heard that the Liberal party is in the business of restricting not only the right to buy —because that would depend, in the Liberal spokesman's view, upon where one lives—but the right to discount.

5.30 pm

That astonishing speech, which I cannot believe has been approved either by the doctor or by the leader of the Liberal party, will be repudiated by both. My advice to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey is that when he is about to make a new policy statement on behalf of his party he would be wise to have it cleared by both those gentlemen.

Mr. John Patten

That also applies to helicopters.

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend must not lead me astray about helicopters. That was when the Liberal leader was summoned by the leader of the party of which the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) is a distinguished adornment from my constituency so that a meeting could be held at the House of Commons.

I agree strongly that the House should agree with the Lords in the amendment. The Housing Act 1980 set a three-year qualification period before a tenant could exercise the right to buy. The maximum discount was 33 per cent. after three years' tenancy and up to 50 per cent. after 20 years' tenancy. The Housing and Building Control Act 1984 diminished the qualification period from three years to two years and increased the maximum discount to 60 per cent. We are now talking about the third change that we have made in the discount level. We are moving from 44 per cent. to 70 per cent. in respect of discounts for flats.

I seek clarification from the Minister. Am I right in thinking that my hon. Friend is not able by order, even with approval by both Houses of Parliament, to vary the two-year qualification period? I believe that it would be a sensible change if we built on the reduction in the 1984 Act from three years to two years by making a further reduction in the qualifying period from two years to one year. I am a moderate man and I make only a modest proposal. On my reading of the Lords amendment, the Minister will not be able to do that by order but will have to propose primary legislation.

If it is reasonable, as I believe it to be, to allow a tenant of 30 years a 60 per cent. discount, why do we not carry the logic further and allow a tenant extra discount according to the total number of years as tenant? Not many people will have been local authority tenants for 30 years or more, but those who have, by definition, will be elderly and will find it difficult to obtain a mortgage. Most will be retired. It would be right to continue the principle that we have fashioned by increasing the discount along with each year of tenancy over the 60 per cent. discount for a house and the 70 per cent. discount on a flat.

Discount depends upon the value of the house or flat. I remind my hon. Friend of an anomaly illustrated by a case on which we had an Adjournment debate on 19 June. Sometimes before a district council places a value on a house or flat it invites the district valuer to give his advice on the open market value of the property. If a tenant disputes that value he has the right of appeal to the district valuer—to the very person who originally advised the council about the open market value of that property. That is manifestly unfair. The district valuer is invited to determine an appeal against a value which he fixed when asked informally by the council for advice.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Surely a tenant can appeal to the land tribunal.

Mr. Gow

I wish that my hon. Friend were right.

Mr. John Fraser

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) is right because when he was Minister he refused to accept my amendment to that effect.

Mr. Gow

I think that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) is agreeing with me when I say that there is no appeal beyond the district valuer. I did not agree with his amendment, but I regret that the district valuer is both the court of first instance and the court of appeal. I do not necessarily think that the land tribunal is the right body to hear such appeals. However, the valuation issue is so important that there should be a change in the system. I know that we cannot make such a change at this stage, but I urge the Minister to consider the arguments.

When a district council places a value on a property following the application by a tenant to exercise the right to buy it should not at that stage seek advice from the district valuer. The local authority should seek advice from the private sector, from a local estate agent. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) will be pleased at that suggestion. If a tenant disputes the value decided by the district council, it is wrong that he should have to appeal to the person who originally fixed the value.

The House will have noted with warm approval that the one millionth council house was sold in August this year—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

It was in Scotland.

Mr. Gow

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary reminds us of that.

One of the reasons why so few flats have been sold compared with houses is that the values placed on flats, whether by district councils, frequently following the advice of the district valuer, or by district valuers on appeal, are too high. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister does not agree with me but that is so. Too often there is no comparison by which either the council or the district valuer can decide a value. The only way in which we can determine the open market value of an empty flat, whether on the 10th or the 20th floor, is to put it up for sale. That will tell us its value with unerring accuracy and indisputable logic.

I hope that in the next Bill which my hon. Friend the Minister introduces he will reconsider this vital issue of the value of flats. I congratulate the other place on having introduced this excellent amendment and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will very shortly submit to both Houses of Parliament proposals to increase the discount on the sales of houses and flats, so that extra discount will continue to be given according to the number of years that someone has been a local authority tenant.

Finally, I commend to all hon. Members a deep study of the astonishing declaration of policy made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

One of the benefits of attending this sort of debate is that one learns something new. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) for clearing up my misapprehension about appeals against a district valuer's valuation. I had been labouring under that misapprehension for some considerable time. But I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne will forgive me for suggesting that he is obviously labouring under a misapprehension too in thinking that I have any great empathy with estate agents, since I have no connection with that profession and not generally much sympathy for it either.

I wish to underscore a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) when he referred to the maximum level of discount allowable. In the outer south-east, and many parts of London, the average valuation of council houses is very high. The valuation of a council house in my constituency would have to be put at £40,000 or £41,000 or less for someone to obtain the maximum discount on it. One cannot buy any council house in my constituency for less than that price, and that means that someone who has clocked up his full 30 years is very much on the borderline at the bottom end of the market, and as he moves up the market he is increasingly penalised. Anyone living in a semidetached house — many were built by the former Commission for the New Towns and by the Hemel Hempstead development corporation—would automatically be penalised. Three or four-bedroomed detached council houses were built for middle and senior management. Some people moved from London and have been in them since they were first built. They have not taken advantage of the opportunity to buy, and have no prospect of doing so at the moment unless they have very significant savings.

That difficulty is compounded by the fact that house prices in those areas move up more sharply than in other parts of the country. The problem gets worse and worse. Thus, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give some sympathetic consideration to the points that have been raised.

I welcome the positive steps that my hon. Friend has taken in response to the pressure put on him by myself and other Back Benchers in Committee. The amendment represents progress, although I wish that the Minister had gone further. Someone contemplating buying a flat or house in the areas represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East and myself would find that prices were increasing too fast for any savings that he could possibly make. Therefore, we should review the maximum discount regularly simply to keep the price of those houses and flats within the reach of those who live in them.

5.45 pm

There is an opportunity for people to freeze the price originally for two years, and now for three years as, I am glad to say, my hon. Friend the Minister accepted my amendment. However it would have been much more satisfactory if that had been extended ad infinitum, as it would have brought all of the houses and flats eventually within the reach of those who live in them.

The Government have made a significant move. There is no doubt that it has certainly been more difficult to sell flats than houses. That to a large extent is because of the price. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that the absence of market indicators about what that price should be has been no help in trying to establish what people can afford. I hope that one consequence of the legislation will be to extend the same sort of opportunity to tenants of flats.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) was characteristically gentle, but at the same time hostile towards many of the people in his constituency and other parts of London who want to buy their council houses and flats. He suggested that, according to Labour party policy, portable discounts might be available to people instead of them buying the houses or flats in which they live. But that defeats the whole point of the exercise, because many of my constituents and, no doubt, those of the hon. Member for Norwood have bought their houses and flats because they are their cherished homes. They are not simply bricks and mortar, but the places in which they have lived and brought up their families, and to which they have made many improvements. They may have brought their gardens up to the standards that they want. They may like the neighbourhood because it is close to the facilities that they use.

If the portable discount scheme became a substitute for the right to buy, those people would have to uproot and shift out, thus bringing even more pressure to bear on land and housing in outer London and the south-east. That area already has enough problems.

It was with great reluctance that I agreed to the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne when he was Minister that portable discounts should apply to tenants of charitable housing association houses. Those people must enjoy the same privileges as any other tenant where public money is involved. They, too, should have the right to buy the houses or flats in which they live. The attitude of the other place on this matter is absolutely reprehensible. When I spoke to Lord Selkirk, one of the principal peers involved in defeating the Government on that occasion, and invited him to discuss the matter with charitable housing association tenants in my constituency, he refused point blank to do so. He said that he was not interested in their point of view. That is all too typical of the attitude of those in another place who enjoy the privilege of owning one, two, three or more houses but who have at every opportunity sought to restrict home ownership.

I have great pleasure in supporting the Government's amendment, although I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to my criticisms about its omissions.

Mr. Maxton

It is with some trepidation that a Scottish Member of Parliament intervenes in what is essentially an English debate and an English Bill. I must point out to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) that the Earl of Selkirk normally takes his seat in the House of Lords on the Conservative side—

Mr. Robert B. Jones

So what?

Mr. Maxton

Lord Selkirk is the uncle of the Conservative Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and the entire Housing (Scotland) Bill is about him. That Bill is largely about giving housing association tenants the right to buy. The Minister has shown the greatest concern for one housing association above all others — the Link housing association in Barnton in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West. One of the most of the interesting things about the whole debate has been how the uncle of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West has spent most of the time trying to ensure that that is not affected.

I rise to speak because amendment No. 4 is related entirely to Scotland. Even if the Government had had a complete change of heart and had decided to abolish discounts altogether at this late stage, I would still have objected, either from the Back Benches or from the Opposition Dispatch Box, to the fact that we have a major Scottish clause in a Bill relating to England and Wales. I accept that part II on planning covers Scotland, but part I is related to housing in England and Wales and does not cover Scotland.

The Minister's excuse for that is that it was too late to introduce a similar clause in the Housing (Scotland) Bill, the final stages of which will be dealt with by the House tomorrow. I do not understand that. The Housing (Scotland) Bill started its progress through the House of Commons in November, nearly 12 months ago. The Minister now tells us that it is too late to include an amendment that the Minister himself described as a sensible proposal. I said at the time that the Minister's reason was feeble and he tried to deny that, but he has made no effort to explain why this amendment is sensible now when it appeared to make no impact on the Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office in November. It did not even impinge upon him. Why, if it is sensible today, was it not sensible then? If it was not sensible in November, why was not it sensible when the Government came to change the discounts yet again on flats? That amendment was included in the Housing (Scotland) Bill in another place and we debated it here. It is an insult to Scottish Members of Parliament and the way in which Scottish legislation is considered in the House for a clause of this nature to be suddenly put into a Bill at this late stage.

It is time that the House took a decision about what is and what is not Scottish legislation. There should be a clear demarcation between Scottish and English legislation. A measure relating to housing in Scotland should go into Scottish legislation. That is the custom for most of our legislation and yet suddenly the Government consistently abuse that by including clauses relating to Scotland in other Bills.

The Minister tried to suggest that every party's views on the right to buy differed from those of the Government and that somehow or other this was a popular measure. That has always been the argument. The Government almost make it clear that discounts and the right to buy are a matter of buying votes among council house tenants. It is worth pointing out that since 1979, when the Government introduced the right to buy and then the first discounts, charging them once and now again, their popularity in Scotland has gone down and down. The latest opinion poll showed them enjoying the marvellous support of 14 per cent. of the Scottish people. Five Conservative Members of Parliament out of 21 will be lucky if they hold their seats at the next general election. That is what the Scottish people think about the Government and this type of legislation. [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) is bitterly disappointed that the Prime Minister overlooked him yet again in the reshuffle. I read in the press that he was expecting high office but did not get it.

The Minister will have a difficult job explaining to the House why this Scottish clause is in the Bill and he will have an even more difficult job explaining why such legislation is not in a Scottish Bill. I and my hon. Friends will vote against the amendment tonight.

Mr. Ancram

I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) question the popularity of the right to buy in Scotland. He said that its unpopularity was evinced by the fact that every time we put up discounts our popularity declined. The Labour party conference last March considered a report drawn up by an academic who used to be a Labour councillor. He discovered that 67 per cent. of Labour supporters wanted the right to buy. That is why at that conference the Labour party in Scotland decided to stop opposing the sale of council houses — [Interruption.] It did not follow the English and it did not pursue the path of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, (Mr. Rooker).

When I pressed the hon. Member for Cathcart, during the passage of the Bill, to tell us the policy of the Labour party in Scotland he consistently refused to do so. It is refreshing to hear from the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) that at least the Labour party is clear on its policy down here, even though he may disagree with it. I hope that he will advise his hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart before we get too much nearer a general election that it would at least be honest to tell the Scottish people what Labour party policy is.

Mr. Maxton

The Minister must be unable to read. The Labour party passed its policy document at the March conference. If his advisers are incapable of obtaining a copy, I will send him one. There are differences between housing in Scotland and England. That is why we have separate housing legislation. I wish that the Minister would accept that.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman keeps taking refuge in that document. On a previous occasion he offered to send me a copy. I have been waiting five months, but it has not yet arrived. I suspect that I know why. When the millionth council house was sold in Moray in September 1986 I was listening to the car radio as I travelled to London and I heard the hon. Gentleman making it clear that he opposed the right to buy. Obviously, he does not want to send me that document if it undermines his own arguments.

The hon. Gentleman asks "Why now?" The reasons for the amendment were set out most persuasively by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction and I shall not try to add to those. The proposal is sensible. We came to that view at the same time—[Interruption.] We come to many sensible conclusions together on the Conservative Benches even if Labour Members are unable to do so. At the end of July the Housing (Scotland) Bill had already left the House of Lords and returned to this House, so it was not possible to insert the provision. If the hon. Member for Cathcart checks our proceedings, he will discover that. It was therefore decided that the provisions should be inserted in this Bill. If we do not have similar provisions for Scotland and England, different discounts might apply in the future merely because of geographical differences, as my hon. Friends mentioned. That would cause great resentment among the 67 per cent. of Labour supporters in Scotland who want the right to buy.

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that we should have differences between Scotland and England. It is surprising how selective he is. When we have differences in the rating of sports clubs because the law in England is different from the law in Scotland, for example, the hon. Gentleman is among the first to ask me to legislate to bring the law in Scotland into line. On that, I rest my case.

6 pm

Mr. John Patten

We all greatly enjoyed that skirmish. I hope that it is clear from the debate that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and I are at one on this matter. We have had many consultations and have reached exactly the same conclusions at different times.

I listened with great care to the brief speech of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) in which he restated well-known Labour party policy on the right to buy. There are considerable differences between us and I shall not attempt to elaborate on them. There was nothing new in his position any more than there would be in mine if I repeated it this evening. We simply disagree on the constitutional propriety of changing discounts by order. To make even minor changes to discounts can be a long drawn out business involving primary legislation. It is for the convenience of good government and for the administration of the House to change discounts by order. I am sorry that we disagree about that because we agreed on many matters in Committee.

The speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was much more interesting in terms of new information. Those of us who were lucky enough to be present listened to it with great attention. I listened with some interest to what he said about mortgages, but I am still entirely unclear about the attitude of the alliance towards mortgage interest tax relief. The hon. Gentleman seemed to support the status quo, but he painted a completely different picture from that which he gave yesterday on the excellent television programme "This Week Next Week", on which we were privileged to appear together with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). We shall have to continue looking at the alliance position on mortgage interest tax relief.

We are on clearer ground about the right to buy because the hon. Gentleman was specific about that. He spoke on behalf of the alliance—that is, the Liberal and Social Democratic parties—although his hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), the SDP Front Bench spokesman, was also present. First, he said that this was a constitutional issue and that if one wanted to put discounts up or down one should have the opportunity to do so. That must mean that the alliance intends at least to consider reducing the discounts available to council tenants, should it ever have the opportunity. If not, why argue for such a power in the first place? That revelation is now on the record.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) almost shot my fox—a disgusting habit—on the hon. Gentleman's second point. I repeat my hon. Friend's comments. As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey was speaking as the alliance spokesman on housing, it is now clear that it is alliance policy to bring about substantial changes in the right to buy for council tenants of flats and houses if it ever gets the opportunity. Throughout the country, prospective council house purchasers will want to know whether they will be affected. They will want to know whether a person in place A will receive a bigger discount than a person in place B, and whether a person in place C will be given the chance to buy while a person in place D will not because the local council has so decided. The alliance cannot have it both ways. We now have it on the record as official alliance policy that substantial changes to the right-to-buy legislation will be made. We want to know who the losers will be, where they are, how many people will be threatened and how, and we shall find that out in the next 18 months. For once, we have had a straight answer from an alliance spokesman and it is on the record that the alliance is not fully in favour of the right to buy.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Patten

No, Sir. The hon. Gentleman did not permit me to intervene in his speech.

I now turn to friendlier territory—and what could be friendlier than the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) and for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones)? Both pressed me about the upper limit of £25,000. It is, indeed, a serious issue and applies to the right-to-buy discount by virtue of an order under section 131 of the Housing Act 1985. Many hon. Members have urged me to raise that limit and I am considering the matter now. I hope to make my views known shortly — to use that deathless ministerial parlance. On the second point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East — the question of making information available to local authorities such as his excellent authorities in Bracknell and the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which have done so much to promote the right to buy—I will ensure that they have full information about the new provisions of what I hope will soon become the Housing and Planning Act 1986 well in advance of the due date of the Act becoming law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne raised a couple of important points about the qualifying period. Alas, the powers which the House is invited to approve this evening do not extend to that and further primary legislation will be needed. Obviously, I must turn my attention to that in the future as well as to my hon. Friend's point about the valuation placed on flats, which he also raised in his interesting speech on Second Reading to which I had the chance to respond.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West spoke of the need to keep under continuous review the level of discount, the dates on which houses were purchased and their relation to the discount obtaining at that time. It has been a most interesting debate and I have been able to assure many of my hon. Friends about detailed points on the amendment, but above all this debate will be remembered by all of us as the one when the alliance finally revealed its policy on the right to buy.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 190, Noes 121.

Division No. 305] [6.10 pm
Adley, Robert Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)
Alexander, Richard Carttiss, Michael
Amess, David Chapman, Sydney
Ancram, Michael Chope, Christopher
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Coombs, Simon
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Cope, John
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Critchley, Julian
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Crouch, David
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Currie, Mrs Edwina
Boscawen, Hon Robert Dorrell, Stephen
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Durant, Tony
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Dykes, Hugh
Bruinvels, Peter Emery, Sir Peter
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Eyre, Sir Reginald
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Fallon, Michael
Favell, Anthony Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Forman, Nigel Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Moate, Roger
Forth, Eric Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Franks, Cecil Morris, M. (N'hampton S)
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Mudd, David
Freeman, Roger Murphy, Christopher
Fry, Peter Neubert, Michael
Gale, Roger Nicholls, Patrick
Galley, Roy Normanton, Tom
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Norris, Steven
Garel-Jones, Tristan Onslow, Cranley
Goodlad, Alastair Ottaway, Richard
Gow, Ian Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Gower, Sir Raymond Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Greenway, Harry Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Pawsey, James
Ground, Patrick Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Porter, Barry
Hanley, Jeremy Portillo, Michael
Harris, David Powell, William (Corby)
Haselhurst, Alan Powley, John
Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW) Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Hawksley, Warren Price, Sir David
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney Proctor, K. Harvey
Heathcoat-Amory, David Raffan, Keith
Heddle, John Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Hickmet, Richard Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Hicks, Robert Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Hill, James Roe, Mrs Marion
Hind, Kenneth Rowe, Andrew
Hirst, Michael Sackville, Hon Thomas
Holt, Richard Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Shersby, Michael
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Silvester, Fred
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Sims, Roger
Jackson, Robert Skeet, Sir Trevor
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Jones, Robert (Herts W) Spencer, Derek
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Squire, Robin
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Stanbrook, Ivor
Key, Robert Steen, Anthony
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Knox, David Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Lang, Ian Taylor, John (Solihull)
Latham, Michael Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Lee, John (Pendle) Temple-Morris, Peter
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Lester, Jim Thurnham, Peter
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Lightbown, David Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Lilley, Peter Tracey, Richard
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Twinn, Dr Ian
Lord, Michael van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Lyell, Nicholas Wakeham, Rt Hon John
McCrindle, Robert Waller, Gary
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Warren, Kenneth
Maclennan, Robert Watts, John
McLoughlin, Patrick Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Madel, David Wheeler, John
Malins, Humfrey Wiggin, Jerry
Malone, Gerald Wolfson, Mark
Maples, John Wood, Timothy
Marlow, Antony Yeo, Tim
Mates, Michael Young, Sir George (Acton)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Tellers for the Ayes:
Mellor, David Mr. Richard Ryder and
Meyer, Sir Anthony Mr. Francis Maude.
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Anderson, Donald Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Janner, Hon Greville
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) John, Brynmor
Barnett, Guy Johnston, Sir Russell
Barron, Kevin Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Beith, A. J. Lamond, James
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Leadbitter, Ted
Blair, Anthony Leighton, Ronald
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Boyes, Roland Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Bray, Dr Jeremy McCartney, Hugh
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) McGuire, Michael
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Buchan, Norman McTaggart, Robert
Caborn, Richard McWilliam, John
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. Madden, Max
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Martin, Michael
Campbell-Savours, Dale Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cartwright, John Maxton, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Maynard, Miss Joan
Clarke, Thomas Meacher, Michael
Clay, Robert Mikardo, Ian
Clelland, David Gordon Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S) Park, George
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Patchett, Terry
Corbett, Robin Pavitt, Laurie
Corbyn, Jeremy Pendry, Tom
Crowther, Stan Prescott, John
Cunliffe, Lawrence Randall, Stuart
Cunningham, Dr John Raynsford, Nick
Dalyell, Tam Redmond, Martin
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'I) Richardson, Ms Jo
Deakins, Eric Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Dormand, Jack Rooker, J. W.
Dubs, Alfred Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Shields, Mrs Elizabeth
Eadie, Alex Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Eastham, Ken Skinner, Dennis
Fatchett, Derek Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Snape, Peter
Flannery, Martin Soley, Clive
Foster, Derek Spearing, Nigel
Foulkes, George Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Strang, Gavin
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
George, Bruce Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Tinn, James
Godman, Dr Norman Torney, Tom
Golding, Mrs Llin Wainwright, R.
Gourlay, Harry Welsh, Michael
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Williams, Rt Hon A.
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central) Winnick, David
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Wrigglesworth, Ian
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Heffer, Eric S. Tellers for the Noes:
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Mr. Ray Powell and
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Mr. Mark Fisher.
Hughes, Dr Mark (Durham)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords' amendments Nos. 3 and 4 agreed to. [Special Entry.]

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