HC Deb 03 November 1986 vol 103 cc689-707

Lords amendment: No. 1, before clause 1 insert the following new clause— .—In Schedule 5 of the Housing Act 1985 (exceptions to the right to buy: certain dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age), there shall be substituted for paragraph 11— 11.—(1) The right to buy does not arise if the dwelling-house—

  1. (a) is particularly suitable for occupation by persons of pensionable age, having regard—
    1. (i) to its location, and
    2. (ii) to its size, design, heating system and other major features so far as those have been provided by the landlord, a predecessor of the tenant or a person qualified to succeed the tenant by virtue of Part IV of the Housing Act 1985,
  2. (b) was let to the tenant or a predecessor in title of his for occupation by a person of pensionable age or a physically disabled person (whether the tenant or predecessor or another person).

(2) In determining whether a dwelling is particularly suitable, regard shall be had as to whether the dwelling—

  1. (a) is easily accessible on foot;
  2. (b) is on one level;
  3. (c) being a flat located above ground floor access by lift is available;
  4. (d) has no more than two bedrooms;
  5. (e) has a heating system serving the living room and at least one bedroom."."

Mr. John Patten

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

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take amendment (a), in lieu of the Lords amendment, and Lords amendments Nos. 57 and 191.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I was expecting the Minister to say why the Government are asking the House to accept amendment (a) rather than Lords amendment No. 1. There is a difference between the two and I was hoping that the Minister would explain briefly why the Government feel bound to make a minor change in wording but a fundamental change in substance to the Lords amendment.

Mr. Patten

Alas, it is not possible to give a short response. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) wants a response, it will have to be long and detailed because this is a complex issue.

This is an important group of amendments. They affect the rules for excluding non-sheltered housing for the elderly from the right to buy. We discussed that issue at length in 1980 and 1984, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is a point upon which many local authorities and individuals have strong views and, indeed, their Lordships in another place clearly had strong views on that as well.

This is not the first time that we have had a dispute with another place over the right to buy for elderly people. For all the arguments that we hear on this point, and very persuasive many of them are, some parts of the amendments that were carried in another place smack of discrimination on grounds of age. I never expected to have to accuse their Lordships, of all people, of agism, at least in part, if not in whole.

Under the present rules introduced in 1984, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was responsible when he was the distinguished occupant of the seat of the Minister with responsibility for housing, it is open to landlords to apply to the Secretary of State to have a house or flat exempted from the right to buy if they consider that it is particularly suitable for the elderly and that it was let for occupation either by a pensioner or by a physically disabled person. There have been few difficulties over the letting test, but there have been many more difficulties with the way in which the test of "particular suitability" has been applied.

Against that background, the Lords amendment would make two main changes. First, it would simplify the test of "particular suitability" which has to be satisfied before a house can be exempted from the right to buy. Secondly, it would take away the Secretary of State's jurisdiction in the matter, an important issue, and leave decisions on exemption to the landlords themselves.

Taking the latter point first in answer to the implicit questions posed by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, the Government cannot accept that decisions on exemption from the right to buy should be left to individual landlords.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

The Minister just said that the Lords amendment will take responsibility away from the Minister and give it to local authorities. Surely the Lords amendment takes it away from the Minister and gives it to the county courts, which is the case in most other disputes under the right to buy.

Mr. Patten

In the first instance, the Lords amendment gives the responsibility to the local authority. I shall reply in detail to the hon. Gentleman's point.

The suggestion in another place was that that would have the advantage of giving the courts, not the Government as the hon. Gentleman said, the final decision on questions of exemption. That is a puzzling assertion by some of their Lordships and now by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), because decisions taken by the Secretary of State under the present arrangements are in the same way subject to the final jurisdiction of the courts. Therefore, it would be a substitution of the first in line, the local authorities, for the courts, rather than the courts for the Secretary of State. There is no real difference in that respect between what happens now and what the Opposition appear to propose.

3.45 pm

The practical difference is that under the arrangements proposed in the Lords amendment decisions would be taken by one of the parties interested in the outcome. This answers a point alluded to by the hon. Member for Bootle. The council is an interested party in the outcome, just as a prospective purchaser is. It is extremely good to have someone who is disinterested, such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, taking this important decision.

A reason why we have had problems with this issue since 1980 has been the difficulty of drawing a clear, objective distinction between non-sheltered housing particularly suitable for the elderly and the general run of ground floor accommodation. Even if all authorities could be expected to apply the test impartially — I do not know whether that would be the case — they would apply it differently and the result could be that tenants in one local authority area might find themselves excluded from the right to buy, whereas tenants in a similar property in a different area might find themselves included in the right to buy. That would make nonsense of the law which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne and his predecessor helped to carry through the House. This is the main point of disagreement. In the Government's view, decisions must rest with the Secretary of State.

The other aspect of the Lords amendment is the simplification of the test of suitability. My noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale has made it clear that we are prepared to respond to responsible and constructive criticism on this point. I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr and other hon. Members who served on the Committee will recall that we tried to be as responsive as we could to points put in a constructive spirit. Having reflected on some of the problems of the past two years, we agree that some simplification of the test is necessary and we are prepared to see it. The Government amendment accepts the substance of the Lords amendment on this point. In future the suitability of a dwelling for the elderly will be assessed aganst the list of five features set out in subsection (5) of amendment (a).

There are two main respects in which we have made changes to the Opposition's proposal and now I shall answer specifically the question asked by the hon. Member for Bootle. First, we have included a reference to proximity to shops and public transport facilities. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is an improvement on the Lords amendment. Hon. Members will agree that that must be considered in assessing a dwelling's suitability for the elderly, although in practice the standard will have different effects in different locations.

Secondly, I propose that there should be power to vary the list of features or to add to it by order. I hope that we have got the list right this time, but we may not have done so. I hope that we shall have the power to vary the list by order in future. However, I give the House an undertaking that there will be consultations with the local authority associations and other interested bodies before any order is made under this provision.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

We are talking about the right to buy of certain people. I brought to the attention of my hon. Friend and his predecessor the problems of people on the Bournville housing estate. On that estate, the land has been partly financed by charity, but all the building has been financed by state and local government funds. A problem arises in that one set of people can buy property and another set of people living as far away as the area of this House cannot even though 95 per cent. of the money has come from local authorities. I have not been able to have this injustice put right. If people are not allowed to buy a house, why cannot they at least have the discount? There is a terrible injustice when one person can buy and another cannot. The other day the other place stopped the Government when they tried to help. Is that justice?

Cannot something be done to help people who feel a real sense of injustice? We all want to be able to encourage people to buy their homes.

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend is right. I know how long and hard he has campaigned for his constituents about this matter. He has made his views known to me by letter and at a meeting. We tried to make it possible for his constituents to have the right to buy, like everyone else, but, alas, we were defeated in another place. That defeat was a mistake and we shall have to return to the issue on a future occasion.

I have two final points to make about the Government amendment. It is drafted in such a way as to provide that, where the letting test is met and the Secretary of State is satisfied that all the features are present, he will have to grant an exemption. We accept the Opposition's point that not all tenants' improvements should be disregarded in deciding whether to exempt a property from the right to buy. But the Lords amendment went too far. It would have limited the disregard to features that had been provided by the present tenant. That goes too far in other directions. It could, for instance, mean that where a widow had succeeded to a tenancy on the death of her husband, she could be denied the right to buy because her late husband paid for the installation of central heating. That would be unfair. The Government amendment requires the Secretary of State to ignore not only features provided by the present tenant, but also those provided by a predecessor in title of that tenant.

I hope that Opposition Members will see this as a reasonable and constructive response to their amendment. In the technicalities, amendments Nos. 57 and 191 were consequential amendments to the main Lords amendment, but they are also necessary as being consequential to the Government amendment.

Mr. Rooker

I am grateful to the Minister. We should not pass this on the nod because the Lords will have to take account of what is said in this debate, given that they previously overturned the Government proposal. I share the distress of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). People locked into the situation that he described on the Bournville trust estate should at least have the right to the portable discount even if they do not have the right to buy because of the charitable housing status. Under present arrangements, those people cannot even get the portable discount. That anomaly should he put right, as it would be if positions in the House were reversed.

I come to this issue relatively new because the earlier debates between the other place and this House took place in 1980 and 1984. The Minister must be aware that this time the Lords have put the amendment into the Bill only because the Government previously operated in bad faith. That is why the Lords are so angry. Both they and Members of this House know that the right to buy has been applied to properties that meet all the criteria for houses for the elderly — houses on one level with no more than two bedrooms, with electrical facilities, wide doorways, and so on. That has been allowed by the Secretary of State. 'That is what has made the Lords so angry and upset the Association of District Councils and local authorities.

Nobody has put this to me on a crude party political or ideological basis. The Government have simply not operated their own criteria, or at least the Secretary of State has not. In 1984, the criteria were changed and the circular was issued. I pay tribute to the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), in this respect. Exemptions had been allowed, properties had been sold and post-war bungalows designed specifically for the elderly were allowed to be sold for reasons not always given by Ministers.

The Institute of Housing, in the survey organised by Harrogate, gave example after example of properties which met all of the criteria in the circular, in respect of which the Secretary of State was satisfied that the criteria had been met, but for which he still refused exemption. Such examples greatly distress local authorities because of the acute shortage of properties for the elderly. Everybody knows that one of the reasons for introducing the right to buy was to get money. As the Prime Minister put it on 5 November 1974: To offer them for sale would still bring a substantial profit to local authorities which they could use to build special units for old people, for which there is a serious need."—[Official Report, 5 November 1974; Vol. 880, c. 897.] There is still a serious shortage, not to mention an increased number of elderly people because of the structure of the population.

Can the Minister say that the Government will operate amendment (a) in good faith and to the letter and that Ministers will grant no more exemptions when the criteria are met? It is important for the Lords to have this put on record and it is central to whether we divide the House on this. The Government have previously been charged with acting dishonourably because they have allowed exemptions when properties meet all of the criteria. If the Government say that they will act honourably — that they will operate amendment (a) to the letter and that there will be no fiddling when a property meets the criteria—I could not in all conscience ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House. In such circumstances, I would merely say to the other place, "Three times we have had this debate and twice the Government have misled both Houses." It is to the credit of the other place that it has proposed an amendment which forces the Government to put in statute what is in the circular, although there is a change regarding transport. That is an important step forward. The other place would not trust the Government if decisions were made by the Secretary of State rather than by the county court because the Government's track record shows that they cannot be trusted. I cast no aspersions on Ministers, but I ask the Minister to be more specific as this is an important point.

I do not know how local authorities feel about my next question. I tried to put it to one this afternoon, but it could not provide an answer. I see nothing wrong in incorporating into the lease of properties particularly suitable for the elderly, which could be sold, a restriction requiring that they be occupied only by the elderly. That happens in the private sector under leasehold for the elderly schemes, but it does not apply in the public sector, even if properties are especially suitable for the elderly. The restrictions in the private sector are perfectly legitimate and are accepted by those who purchase leasehold, so why cannot the same apply in the public sector? When public sector properties regarded as especially suitable for the elderly come out of the public sector and are occupied by people who are neither elderly nor disabled, people feel that that is not right and that the system is not being operated correctly. I see no problem about imposing restrictions, but I am told that at present local authorities cannot operate in that way because the Secretary of State would say that it was unfair. I offer that point as something for the Minister to consider in the future. In my view, such restrictions would be quite fair, open and above board. The system operates in the private sector and could usefully be applied to the public sector.

The Minister must explain more clearly how he intends to operate Government amendment (a) before my colleagues and I decide whether to divide the House.

4 pm

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I support the motion to disagree with the Lords amendment and I am in favour of the Government amendment. I do not think that it is possible to leave to district and borough councils—in effect, that is what the Lords amendment would mean— the decision as to whether a house or flat ought to be exempt from the right-to-buy provisions on the ground that such a property is particularly suitable for a person of pensionable age. If that decision were left to local authorities, I believe that some of them—alas—are so opposed to the right to buy in any event that capricious decisions would be made. [HON. MEMBERS: "Sheffield."] My hon. Friends are quite right. That is an excellent example of capricious local authorities responsible for housing. If the Lords amendment were allowed to stand, I believe that there would also be greatly increased delay in making decisions about elderly people who wanted to exercise the right to buy conferred upon them by this House. There would also be increased litigation, which would mean further protraction of the proceedings. We are therefore right to go back in substance to the provisions of paragraph 11 of schedule 5 of the Housing Act 1985.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said that the Government had not acted in good faith in making a designation about houses that are particularly suitable for occupation by pensioners. He also said that, although he was accusing the Government of bad faith, he was not extending that charge to Ministers. From my knowledge of this matter, I can say that all applications made by local authorities for exemption from the right to buy were dealt with by Ministers — [Interruption.] I am trying to answer the accusation made by the hon. Member for Perry Barr. He cannot accuse the Government of bad faith without accusing Ministers of bad faith. In that sense I plead guilty to the charge levelled by the hon. Gentleman, because it is not possible to accuse the Government of bad faith without also accusing Ministers.

Every application made by a local authority for exemption from the right to buy on the ground that the house or flat was particularly suitable for occupation by persons of pensionable age was carefully scrutinised by Ministers at the Department of the Environment. Every decision made by Ministers was made purely on the basis of the facts as presented, and in every case the decision was made in good faith. The hon. Member for Perry Barr is wrong to accuse the Government of bad faith without extending that charge to Ministers, and I reject the charge that Ministers have ever acted in bad faith in making such a decision. It is right to leave to the judgment of Minsters which houses should be exempt from the right to buy and it is right to specify, as the Government amendment does, with even greater clarity than is contained in schedule 5 of the Housing Act 1985, the criteria that the Minister shall take into account.

We must also get the balance right before denying to people, simply because they are of pensionable age, the right that Parliament has conferred upon others. We are talking about people who are entering the early evening of their lives, about depriving people aged 65 of the right to buy their homes when they might already be regarded as suffering some small disadvantage by being that age, which may some day come to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are talking about imposing on such people the added disadvantage of being denied a right that has been conferred upon others who are younger. We must ensure that we do not penalise people in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) referred to tenants of Bournville houses. I think that we and the hon. Member for Perry Barr are at one on this. I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the possibility of extending to such tenants, through the portable discount scheme, the right to buy conferred upon similar tenants.

I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr will decide not to divide the House, because I believe that the Government amendment fully meets the situation.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I am very much in the same position as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). The Government amendment is a useful step in the right direction, but I do not think that it goes as far as it might to meet a real problem.

I come to this issue comparatively fresh. What impresses me most about the Lords amendment is the breadth of support behind it. It was supported by the Association of District Councils, which is Conservative controlled, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which is Labour controlled, the Institute of Housing, the National Housing and Town Planning Council, Age Concern and Shelter. That is a pretty powerful group of organisations facing any Minister who is seeking to find consensus on this issue.

The broad measure of support behind what was done in the other place underlines what has already been articulated by Opposition Members about concern in respect of the practical way in which exemptions were being handled. I make no accusations of bad faith. I simply comment that many matters of very small detail seem to have been introduced when considering an individual case.

The Institute of Housing has provided us with one example — a letter from the Department of the Environment to the housing officer in Birmingham. It asks all sorts of questions about the property, such as the size of the bath, where the grab rail is in relation to the bath, the height of the bath, and whether the bottom of the bath is flat or non-slip. There are all sorts of questions about how the door of the bathroom can or cannot be locked. That introduces a whole range of detailed considerations that were never intended to be the sort of issues on which a judgment should be made in this admittedly difficult area.

That may be one reason why the rate of exemption has been so extraordinarily low—only 16 per cent. in 1985 according to the Haringey survey. I understand that the rate of exemption has increased in recent times to about 36 per cent., but it has been an extremely slow process. I understand the anxiety of Ministers to crawl over all the details and to make sure that justice is being done, but I am not at all sure whether that is the job of Ministers. However, if they do that sort of thing, it will clearly be a slow process.

The Department of the Environment wrote to Birmingham city council on 7 May in reply to a letter from the city council dated 22 February. It had taken a very long time to reply, but at the end of its letter the Department of the Environment had the cheek to say: I would be obliged if an early reply could be forwarded. That shows what happens if this problem has to be considered in such detail.

I welcome what the Minister intends to do. It will end extremely detailed consideration of minor issues. The amendment sets out clear and straightforward criteria upon which judgments can be made as to whether property has been purpose built for the elderly and whether it should therefore be exempted from the right-to-buy arrangements. Unlike the Minister, however, I am less attracted by the proposal to make one of the criteria convenience of location to shops and public transport.

I accept absolutely that in an ideal world shops and public transport are very important to elderly persons. However, we do not live in an ideal world. Local authorities have to build housing for the elderly wherever sites are available. Sometimes, unfortunately, they are not convenient to shops and public transport. I can think of examples in my constituency of purpose-built housing for the elderly which is not convenient to shops or buses. In certain instances, purpose-built housing was convenient to shops and public transport when the local authority erected it, but we all know what is happening to shops.

Mr. Allan Roberts

And we all know what has happened to public transport.

Mr. Cartwright

I shall be dealing with public transport in a moment.

Small shops are being closed. Shopping is being concentrated in the great out-of-town shopping centres and in hypermarkets, which often means that the small corner shop that was conveniently placed for the elderly is no longer there. The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) prejudged what I intended to say. We all know that bus services are not expanding and that often they are a casualty of the Government's deregulation policy. Therefore, I am less persuaded than is the Minister that it is reasonable to build in this criterion as a test of the suitability of the housing to be exempted from the right-to-buy provisions.

I accept that a difficult judgment has to be made. Given the tendency of some local authorities — my own included — to undermine the right-to-buy provisions, I understand the Minister's reluctance to give too much power to local authorities. However, this new clause provides a reasonable compromise. The initial decision lies with the local authority, but it can be challenged in the courts, as can any other local authority decision under the right-to-buy arrangements. That is the sensible way to tackle the problem. Therefore, I prefer the Bill as it left the other place.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The Minister said that the Government have had problems over this issue since 1980. I have been along for the ride ever since I served on the Standing Committee on the Bill that ultimately became the Housing Act 1980. Having served upon nearly every Standing Committee on housing Bills since then, I have witnessed the Government's difficulties and the way in which subsequent housing Ministers have taken up their portfolios, tried to deal with the difficulty and then have moved on to pastures new.

4.15 pm

The Government are in difficulty over their attempt to enshrine the right to buy in legislation because their claim that the right to buy is popular does not apply to the elderly. Public opinion is certainly not on the Government's side. That is why the other place defeated the Government on this issue. Local authorities and charitable organisations, including Help the Aged, oppose the Government's proposal.

The public believe that the elderly should be able to rent adequate, decent housing and that local authorities should be able to protect their stock of housing for the elderly so that when people reach retirement age and need bungalows or sheltered housing such accommodation can be provided for them, thus enabling local authorities to fulful their duties and responsibilities to the elderly. For that reason, attempts have been made to prevent the Government from selling elderly persons' dwellings arid sheltered housing.

Surveys of tenancy preferences show that most people wish to own their homes rather than to rent accommodation, whether from a local authority, a housing association or a private landlord, but that that does not apply to those of retirement age. Tenancy research shows that the majority of elderly people prefer to rent their homes. Indeed, the statistics show that both the young and the elderly prefer to rent their homes. Many elderly people prefer not to have to deal with repairs or to look after a garden, especially if the husband or the wife has died. Therefore, they want to sell their homes and to move into rented accommodation. The Labour party's policy would enable that to happen. In our view, the right to rent is as important as the right to buy. Therefore, public opinion is on the side of the other place arid the Lords amendment.

There is also concern about the fact that if dwellings rented by the elderly are sold relatives may he involved in the purchase, especially if the elderly person concerned cannot really afford to purchase the property. Their intention may be to acquire the property for their own use when their elderly relatives die or have to be moved, because of infirmity, into other accommodation.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the spurious view that most elderly people want to sell their houses and move into council accommodation, apart from some anecdotal point that has been made while standing at a public bar, what evidence is there of that kind of nonsense? Although many elderly people want to sell a large property and buy a smaller one, I do not know of one elderly person who wants to swap freedom for becoming a council tenant. Could the hon. Gentleman tell the House where this evidence is to be found?

Mr. Roberts

I did not say that most elderly owner-occupiers want to sell their property and become council tenants. I said that a study of tenancy preferences shows that about 60 per cent. of people of retirement age would prefer to rent rather than be owner-occupiers. That is also true of young people.

Any survey of tenancy preferences shows that the vast majority of the British people want to buy their own homes, but many elderly people wish to sell their homes in order to rent and they make such a request to local authorities. That is not bar gossip; it is direct constituency experience. People come to my advice bureau with such a request. Furthermore, I was chairman of the city of Manchester's housing committee for five years; many people said that they wanted to sell their homes and become local authority tenants. But nobody has suggested or implied that the vast majority of owner-occupiers want to become local authority tenants. Nevertheless, a significant minority want to do so, because of the difficulties associated with running their homes as owner-occupiers, especially if the husband or wife has died and if there are problems over repairs and other matters.

I was mentioning the potential for abuse in the system. Relatives who join elderly tenants in purchasing a property may eventually acquire it for their own use. Our great fear is not that elderly people will buy their homes and live in them as owner-occupiers. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) said, if that is what it is about, why should they be denied the right to buy?

However, old people's properties are specially built with public money for the purpose of providing accommodation for the elderly, and such properties could in future be occupied by a young person, a married couple or a couple with children. Many local authorities have letting policies that ensure that children do not live next to old people, because that can be a recipe for conflict. There will be problems if more and more of the properties that were built for the elderly become occupied by people who are not elderly while many old folk are left looking for rented housing.

The Government talk glibly about the better use of the housing stock and sometimes present that as the answer to our housing problem, almost suggesting that we do not need to build new houses or increase the supply of houses, but the essential requirement for a better use of the housing stock is special accommodation for the elderly, so that those people can transfer from their three-bedroomed or four-bedroomed council houses.

Elderly people queue up at our advice bureaux asking for specially built bungalows or flats because they cannot manage their big houses. If the local authority has properties available, it can release larger council houses for families on the waiting list or for families with children who are trapped in deck access properties or in high-rise or walk-up flats. In that way, two needs can be met at the same time. The denial of that possibility to local authorities makes public opinion and the other place conscious of the need to safeguard the stock of housing built specially for the elderly.

The proposed test reasonably convenient location in relation to shops and public transport which the Minister alone will interpret is difficult for us to accept, because of the way in which Ministers have interpreted such tests in the past. I was glad that the hon. Member for Eastbourne owned up to some of the decisions that he had taken. Ministers have agreed for insignificant, seemingly irrelevant, reasons that property could be sold. If the proposed test is applied, the Minister might say that because a bus stop is 100 yds away the location is not "reasonably convenient", whereas it would be if the bus stop were only 90 yds away.

Elderly people should be protected. The Minister accused the other place of discrimination on the ground of age, but I believe that the other place was trying to protect the elderly, especially those who need rented accommodation, those who are under-occupying council houses, those who run into difficulties as owner-occupiers and those whose children have left home or whose spouses have died.

It is not Labour party policy, but I think that we should consider offering rent-free accommodation to elderly people who have lived in council houses all their lives. The owner-occupier who receives Government assistance for 20 or 30 years, in the form of tax relief on his mortgage interest, has mortgage-free occupation after a lifetime of subsidy, and I do not see why elderly people in local authority properties should not benefit in a similar way.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I hope that I am pushing at an open door as I raise again the suggestion that I mentioned earlier, which seemed to have the support of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow).

I thought that it would be right to try to get a pledge today on the transferable discount. There is a problem not only about Bournville housing, but about housing provided by Rowntree, another great charitable family.

Tenants in homes on the excellent estates in Bournville —anyone who knows the area, as the hon. Member for Perry Barr does, knows that it is one of the best housing areas in Birmingham—know that if their houses were built on land owned by the city or the state they are able to buy their homes, but those living in houses built in areas where charitable money met only part of the cost are not allowed to buy their homes—it was the Government's intention that they should be allowed to do so, but some of their Lordships took a different view—but they suffer the great injustice of not being allowed to have the transferable discount that some other people enjoy.

Perhaps only hundreds of people are affected, but surely justice to hundreds is as important as justice to hundreds of thousands. I hope that, after all these years, we shall come to an understanding, which the Opposition seem to support, that those people will be given rights and that we will accept that their situation is not just. If government is not about justice to individuals, what is it about?

I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Minister, just as I corresponded with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne when he was the Minister. I believe that both of my hon. Friends favoured my proposal, but that their advisers did not. As we have present today a Minister, an ex-Minister and the hon. Member for Perry Barr, who hopes to be a Minister, can we agree that justice should be done to people who properly feel aggrieved?

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I shall be brief, because my view on the sale of council houses and bungalows is well known. I do not agree with the policy. I do not wish to discriminate against old people, but there is a shortage of such accommodation.

My postbag, like that of every other hon. Member, has its share of letters from people who want aged persons' dwellings. Unfortunately, such property is just not available. I can speak only for my own local authority, but in my area every suitable dwelling specifically built for an aged person has been designated as an aged person's dwelling. There were a number of reasons for that, and not least was the fact that designation was a great help in obtaining concessionary television licences for aged people.

There are insufficient aged persons' dwellings to go round. It used to be argued that if council houses were sold the stock was not diminished. That was true, but the letting was lost. An aged person's dwelling is built specifically to help aged persons. If it were passed on to another aged person, there would be some truth in the argument that the housing stock would not be diminished, but nothing in the Bill provides that a property that is sold must be bought by an aged person. When the tenant who has bought the aged person's dwelling dies, the property will be sold on the open market and anyone can buy it, irrespective of his or her age.

My own local authority reserved dwellings for people under 65 so that they could use the last years of their working lives to furnish that property.

Subsection (5)(a) of the Government's proposed new clause refers to easy access on foot to the dwelling-house". I hope that the Minister will enlighten us on the Government's thinking behind that provision. What is meant by that phrase? Within the locality which I represent there are old-age pensioners' dwellings that are not easily accessible on foot because of the area in which they have been built. Some of the dwellings are on hillsides and, therefore, they do not meet this criterion. If an elderly person is to reside in one of these dwellings, he or she must be physically fit.

4.30 pm

Paragraph (d) refers to "suitable heating arrangements". Heating difficulties have probably been overcome by the installation of central heating systems in most old-age pensioners' dwellings, but some still have only one fireplace on which the heating of the entire house depends. This is a problem that can probably be overcome in a few years' time.

Paragraph (e) refers to reasonably convenient location in relation to shops and public transport. I represent a large rural area and many of the dwellings of aged persons are not in a "convenient location" for access to shops and public transport except perhaps the post office. What do the Government mean by a shopping area, for example? Does it mean a number of shops that will supply the needs of aged persons, or part of their needs? How many miles do the Government have in mind that aged persons should have to travel on public transport to reach a shopping area? What should be the frequency of the public transport? There are some places where a bus will be available for such a journey every two or three hours, but next year that service may not be available. If the Government explain their thinking in more detail, many anxieties will be relieved.

Mr. John Patten

It has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the transferable discount is a matter of considerable concern to the individual. Attention has been drawn to this important matter by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) and by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and it has been reflected in correspondence and meetings. The present transferable discount scheme rejoices in the name HOTCHA, and I can never remember what the initials stand for. Civil servants are always serving up things called HOTCHA. The transferable discount for tenants, which is called HOTCHA, applies only to dwellings excluded from the right to buy which were provided with what is known in the trade as HAG—housing association grant —or other public funding. That was not the position, as I recall—I do not have the papers in front of me—at Bournville, but I am willing to be corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak. We do not have a scheme which would enable us to look for transferable discounts in these circumstances.

There is much pressure from all sides for transferable discounts to be examined overall. Someone may not wish to purchase the house in which he is residing and may wish to move to another while carrying the transferable discount on his back, as it were. A number of councils of all political colours, for example, Brent — "Minister praises Brent, shock, horror"— and Bromley, are very sensibly considering paying sums to council tenants if they agree to move from public sector dwellings into private sector dwellings so as to free public sector accommodation. I learnt yesterday on "This Week Next Week" that another council, Woodspring — if this was on "This Week Next Week" it must be true — is about to do exactly the same thing. Within Government we must consider the overall effect of transferable discounts on different tenants in different positions. The present scheme that is operating under law cannot deal with circumstances such as those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak refers.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

The Minister has said that the HOTCHA scheme—Home Ownership for Tenants of Charitable Housing Associations — applies only to housing which was provided by HAG. He then used the phrase "or other public funding". That qualification is by no means clear. I have had complaints expressed to me by a number of tenants of housing association homes which were provided by public funds — sometimes with the assistance of a local authority subsidy — which, nevertheless, do not qualify for the transferable discount. I have been so advised by tenants of Peabody dwellings and of other housing associations. These matters are not entirely clear because we are dealing with an administrative scheme and not one that is governed by statute. It will be helpful if the Minister explains what areas of housing by public funds or subsidy will be subject to the HOTCHA scheme.

Mr. Patten

In the context of this group of amendments, I cannot help the hon. Gentleman. This is a complex subject and perhaps we should have considered it in Committee. I do not think that it is something that can be handled on the run this evening.

Mr. Rooker

The Bill is available to the Government.

Mr. Patten

Nor could I satisfactorily devise a scheme which could become part of the Bill, which is the suggestion of the hon. Member for Perry Barr made from a sedentary position. I shall write to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) to set out the present position exactly. I shall write also to my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak. The Government must give consideration to these matters, and that is something which we shall do.

I turn to the new criteria which are to be adopted and which were referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). They have been referred to as well by the hon. Members for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright). Shops and transport will be only two of the criteria. The Secretary of State will be able to grant an exemption if the availability of the criteria is marginal or not wholly satisfactory if he is satisfied on the evidence as a whole, taking into account all the criteria. Applications will not fail automatically merely because dwellings are a long way from shops. In the application of the new criteria, ministerial judgment will come into the matter.

I respond to the swingeing, broad-ranging and hard-hitting allegations of fiddling and lack of trustworthiness which have been aimed at some mysterious and shadowy figures in government, whatever that is, who have interpreted these rules in the past. They have not been aimed at my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) or myself. It is alleged that the interpretation has been against the interests of public sector tenants.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Why not blame the Minister who has responsibility for sports matters?

Mr. Patten

I must defend my hon. Friend from the vicious attack of my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak! My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is devoted to the application of fair and free play, whether in legislation or on the football field.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I withdraw.

Mr. Patten

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has chosen to withdraw such a terrible slur on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary!

The hon. Member for Perry Barr referred to the important evidence of the Institute of Housing. I hope that I enjoy cordial relations with the institute, which is an interesting group. It provides us with important information, and I very often meet its members at conferences. Those who attend the conferences often barrack me, but always in a cheerful way. They have never done so in a nasty or malicious way, perhaps with the exception of one lady who I have always believed to be a member of the institute. She sits below me at meetings and shouts things such as, "Pompous Tory twit". I do not like that sort of thing. I did not come into politics to be described as a pompous Tory twit. The comment that this lady shouted that hurt, and deeply, was "Fat, pompous Tory twit". My tailor in Oxford, Mr. Stamp, labours long and hard to conceal that sort of thing, and he, too, was deeply hurt by the lady's accusation. The thing that really worries me about her is that when she comes to meetings and barracks me she is always knitting. That makes me feel extremely uneasy. There is the sound of the tumbrils coming to get me, and the tricoteuse.

I shall deal with the detail of the Institute of Housing rather than the eccentricities of its members. It stated in evidence that it published in January 1986 that a substantial number of applications were being turned down by Ministers. It said that only 16 per cent. of applications from authorities were successful. For once, the institute was wrong. At the very time that it reported, we were accepting claims from local authorities at a level of about 34 per cent. The House may like to have confirmation from me that the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) was correct — the current success rate for local authorities is standing at a little under 36 per cent.

I take what the hon. Member for Woolwich has said very seriously. Of course, we will operate the rules fairly, as we always seek to do. Certainly I always seek to do that. I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr will realise that, under the Government's amendment, the Secretary of State would have no choice but to grant an exemption if satisfied that the listed features were present and that the letting test was fulfilled. I hope that that is a safeguard against the sort of things which the hon. Member for Perry Barr has unfairly suggested have happened in the past.

Mr. Rooker

On the Minister's point about portable discounts, if my memory serves me correctly, the Opposition tabled a new amendment during Committee related to portable discounts, but, in the wisdom of the Chair, it was not deemed selectable within the terms of the Bill. Therefore, we are not late in coming forward with our proposal. It might not go down very well with people outside, but we think that it is important to the interests of the people concerned. That is why it should be on the agenda. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that he will look into the matter.

I accept the point that, for practical purposes, the tenants described by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) and others are, in effect, private sector tenants. Their rights are somewhat different, but there is an injustice which must be corrected. I also accept what the Minister said, in a round about way, about some local authorities being unreasonable. I do not deny that. Some local authorities, given wide discretion, would be wholly unreasonable. There is no doubt in my mind about that. But if they are unreasonable they can be hauled before the courts. That is important. I do not wish to encourage people to put money into the hands of the legal profession, but there is an avenue for redress. It would be a problem if every ground floor accommodation in the land was alleged to be wholly, exclusively and particularly suitable for the elderly. That would be a gross travesty of the truth. No one could make that case. To do so would be unreasonable. We must consider the other side of the question, but the Minister seems to want it all his own way, as the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) observed.

I do not wish to personalise this, but if I do not do so I am accused of not naming the Minister. I do not want to do that because I do not know who makes the decision. There is more than one Minister in the Department. The charge was levied against the way in which the Government operated the 1980 and the 1984 rules. There is plenty of evidence about that. In the past, elderly persons' dwellings that met all the criteria listed were still allowed by Ministers to be sold, so there must be something wrong. What is more, Ministers would not give reasons for those decisions. That has already happened. The evidence exists and it cannot be denied. We are asking for a cast iron, copper-bottomed guarantee that it will not happen again, that reasons will be given and that Ministers will be accountable. The only way in which we will ever achieve that is if we stick with the Lords amendment. I have grave doubts as to how the other place operates, although I do not seek to rubbish it. It is the other House of Parliament, albeit unelected, and we must listen to what it says.

We must support the amendment because of the way in which the system has operated in the past and the way in which the Minister has slipped in the other changes, especially in relation to transport. The Minister has not been as detailed about those points as we should have liked. Essentially, the charges are a transport policy matter and should not be a housing matter, but with the cuts in transport many rural areas can never fulfil the transport criteria as they have lost bus services and other transport.

4.45 pm

These matters must be looked at in the round, and we should give the Lords another opportunity to examine them. We should agree to the Lords amendment and allow the matter to be re-examined. Over the years, the Lords have spent more time considering this matter than we have. I do not wish to imply that they are wiser than we are, but they have pushed the Government a long way and that is to their credit. I also give credit to the Government, who have responded in a much more detailed way than previously. However, as the Government could not accept more of the spirit of the Lords amendment, the Opposition will vote in favour of the Lords amendment.

Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 185, Noes 117.

Division No. 304] [4.46 pm
Adley, Robert Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Alexander, Richard Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Ancram, Michael Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Ashby, David Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Jackson, Robert
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Jones, Robert (Herts W)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Biffen, Rt Hon John Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Boscawen, Hon Robert Key, Robert
Bottomley Mrs Virginia King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Knox, David
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Latham, Michael
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Lee, John (Pendle)
Bruinvels, Peter Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Buck, Sir Antony Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Butterfill, John Lester, Jim
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Carttiss, Michael Lightbown, David
Chapman, Sydney Lilley, Peter
Chope, Christopher Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Clark, Sir W (Croydon S) Lord, Michael
Colvin, Michael Lyell, Nicholas
Coombs, Simon McCrindle, Robert
Cope, John MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Critchley, Julian MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Dorrell, Stephen Maclean, David John
du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward McLoughlin, Patrick
Emery, Sir Peter McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Eyre, Sir Reginald McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Fallon, Michael Madel, David
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Malins, Humfrey
Forman, Nigel Malone, Gerald
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Maples, John
Forth, Eric Marlow, Antony
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Mates, Michael
Freeman, Roger Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Fry, Peter Mellor, David
Gale, Roger Meyer, Sir Anthony
Galley, Roy Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Goodhart, Sir Philip Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Goodlad, Alastair Morris, M. (N'hampton S)
Gow, Ian Mudd, David
Gower, Sir Raymond Murphy, Christopher
Greenway, Harry Neubert, Michael
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Nicholls, Patrick
Ground, Patrick Normanton, Tom
Gummer, Rt Hon John S Norris, Steven
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Onslow, Cranley
Hampson, Dr Keith Ottaway, Richard
Hanley, Jeremy Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Hannam, John Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Harris, David Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)
Harvey, Robert Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Haselhurst, Alan Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Hawksley, Warren Porter, Barry
Heathcoat-Amory, David Portillo, Michael
Heddle, John Powell, William (Corby)
Hickmet, Richard Powley, John
Hicks, Robert Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Price, Sir David
Hill, James Proctor, K. Harvey
Hind, Kenneth Raffan, Keith
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Renton, Tim
Holt, Richard Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Temple-Morris, Peter
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Roe, Mrs Marion Thurnham, Peter
Rowe, Andrew Townend, John (Bridlington)
Ryder, Richard Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Tracey, Richard
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Twinn, Dr Ian
Shelton, William (Streatham) van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Shersby, Michael Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Silvester, Fred Waller, Gary
Sims, Roger Walters, Dennis
Skeet, Sir Trevor Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Watts, John
Soames, Hon Nicholas Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Speed, Keith Wheeler, John
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Wiggin, Jerry
Squire, Robin Wolfson, Mark
Stanbrook, Ivor Wood, Timothy
Steen, Anthony Young, Sir George (Acton)
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Tellers for the Ayes:
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Mr. Tony Durant and
Taylor, John (Solihull) Mr. Francis Maude.
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Abse, Leo Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Anderson, Donald Heffer, Eric S.
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hughes, Dr Mark (Durham)
Barnett, Guy Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Beith, A. J. Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Janner, Hon Greville
Bidwell, Sydney John, Brynmor
Blair, Anthony Johnston, Sir Russell
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Boyes, Roland Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Bray, Dr Jeremy Lamond, James
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Leighton, Ronald
Buchan, Norman Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Caborn, Richard Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. McCartney, Hugh
Campbell-Savours, Dale McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Cartwright, John McTaggart, Robert
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McWilliam, John
Clay, Robert Madden, Max
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Martin, Michael
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S) Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Maxton, John
Corbett, Robin Maynard, Miss Joan
Corbyn, Jeremy Meacher, Michael
Crowther, Stan Mikardo, Ian
Cunliffe, Lawrence Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Cunningham, Dr John Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Dalyell, Tam Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'I) Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Deakins, Eric Park, George
Dormand, Jack Patchett, Terry
Dubs, Alfred Pavitt, Laurie
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Pendry, Tom
Eadie, Alex Prescott, John
Eastham, Ken Radice, Giles
Fatchett, Derek Randall, Stuart
Faulds, Andrew Raynsford, Nick
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Redmond, Martin
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Richardson, Ms Jo
Flannery, Martin Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Foster, Derek Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Foulkes, George Rooker, J. W.
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Rowlands, Ted
George, Bruce Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Godman, Dr Norman Shields, Mrs Elizabeth
Golding, Mrs Llin Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Skinner, Dennis
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central) Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E) Williams, Rt Hon A.
Snape, Peter Winnick, David
Soley, Clive Wrigglesworth, Ian
Spearing, Nigel
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Tellers for the Noes:
Thompson, J. (Wansbeck) Mr. Ray Powell and
Wainwright, R. Mr. Mark Fisher.
Welsh, Michael

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment I disagreed to.

Amendment made to the Bill in lieu thereof:

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