HC Deb 04 November 1986 vol 103 cc874-6

Lords Amendment: No. 2, in line 2, at end insert— , or from the date of first being registered by the Housing Corporation (whichever is the later),

Mr. Ancram

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

I hope that in discussing the amendment the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) will make the same sort of speech as he made last night when he referred to the standing of the Conservative party in the polls in Scotland. The effect of that was to raise the standing of my party by six percentage points. I hope that he will feel able to do the same for us today.

The amendment was tabled in another place by the Earl of Perth. He said that he supported the right to buy, except in a number of limited areas. The amendment exempts from the right to buy houses belonging to charitable associations which may form after 14 November 1985, and accordingly it has a limited scope. It is not a fundamental change and it will not affect the rights of any existing tenants. Indeed, it will not affect the rights of many future tenants, because there is already a range of exemptions for small associations and for houses for special needs. These exemptions will apply to many of the houses provided by such new charitable housing associations as may form in future.

The amendment raises the prospect of increased administrative controls over the registration and funding of new associations. We shall need to ensure that new associations are not used as devices to avoid the right to buy and do not provide houses that could be more appropriately provided by associations which are within the right to buy provisions. I hope that it will be possible to devise these terms in such a way as will leave the existing wide range of activities of the present charitable associations largely untouched. The controls will lie primarily with the Housing Corporation, which already has the necessary powers.

I have to say that matters would have been simpler without the amendment, but, as it has been introduced and will have a relatively minor effect, we do not seek to remove it. As the Earl of Perth said, the amendment is a new idea which did not arise in the long debates that took place in this House or in another place. It is new material. On the basis that I have described, I recommend that the amendment be agreed to.

Mr. Maxton

This is the final farce of the Bill. Although we are delighted that at this late stage the Government are prepared to accept this final amendment on charitable status housing associations, it was a long, weary fight to get them to do so. In the first instance, the only charitable housing associations which were to be exempted were those which had registered offices in England or Wales under the Charities Act. In Committee, the Government agreed that any charitable association recognised as such by the Inland Revenue before 1980 would be exempt from the Bill. The other place passed an amendment similar to, although not exactly the same as, this one—there are differences between similar to and exactly the same as, I point out to the Minister—which extended it essentially to all housing associations, both present and future, recognised as charities. The Government overturned that in this place and insisted that there should be a change. They were prepared to extend the date from 3 October 1980 to 14 November 1985.

8.30 pm

We have finally come to a solution that the Government are prepared to accept. It is that all those housing associations registered as charities before 14 November 1985 will remain exempt from the clauses of the Bill. Any future associations which are able to obtain charitable recognition from the Housing Corporation will again be exempt. Essentially, that leaves us with three housing associations in the whole of Scotland that will not be covered, although they are recognised by the Inland Revenue as charities.

The first is Gowrie in Dundee, which is a small housing association with fewer than 100 houses and so exempt under another part of the Bill. The second is Edinvar, where again many of the houses will be exempt because they are for special needs. The third is the Link housing association, which works largely in Edinburgh. Despite all the changes that the Minister has made, he has achieved what he set out to achieve—to allow tenants of the Link housing association the right to buy the houses at a discount.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and I made the point that the Bill is the "Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Benefit Bill". It is designed to try to save the Conservative Member of Parliament for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who has a small majority, but has in his constituency the Link housing association houses at Barnton. The Link housing association gave its tenants the right to buy but was not prepared to give them discounts. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West wanted them to have discounts, so that, as a Conservative Government had introduced the Bill and given tenants that right, his seat would be saved.

Mr. Ancram


Mr. Maxton

I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I do not see what other explanation there can be.

Mr. Ancram

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to mislead the House, but he is giving the impression that in only one housing association will the right to buy be exercised. He will be aware, as he is well experienced in housing association matters, that there are 50 housing associations in which the right to buy will now be statutorily available.

Mr. Maxton

Again, had the Minister been listening, he would have known that I made it clear that this concerns three housing associations recognised as charities. All the rest which are recognised as charities will not be exempted and large numbers of others will have the right to buy.

Mr. Ancram

Link operates in other constituencies.

Mr. Maxton

I recognise that point, but the basic point remains. This was all about the housing association in Barnton in the first place.

I find it astonishing that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West is not here to take part in the debate. It would have been appropriate for the Secretary of State, just for once, to have allowed his PPS to come to the House to make his "thank you" speech to the House and the Ministers for allowing this to take place. It has been an abuse of the House and of the other place that so much time has been spent on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report, on Third Reading and on the procedures through the other place, back here once and back again, just to ensure that the tenants in the Link housing association, among all the other housing associations, should have the right to buy.

This process comes close to gerrymandering a constituency—using the power of the House to save one Member of Parliament. The mess into which the Minister has got himself about the charitable status of housing associations is such that it would be better, even at this late stage, to withdraw that part of the Bill and start again next year. He should treat the matter in that way because he has got himself into a ludicrous position. I know that he will not withdraw the amendment, but I wish that he had the courage to do so.

Mr. Bruce

I shall not attempt to follow the speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), which was interesting but not necessarily relevant to the issue before the House. I am glad that the Government have accepted this amendment, but the House should not be too ecstatic about it. Some of us have no fundamental objection to the idea that people should be entitled to buy the houses that they rent, including housing association houses, but have real concern, which the Minister has acknowledged, that small housing associations and those providing housing for special purposes will find their capital base eroded by being forced to sell houses at a substantial discount.

I do not wish the House to be under any illusion that we are satisfied that the Bill has provided enough safeguards for some of those associations, although some have been accepted during the passage of the Bill. As the Minister acknowledged, the date is such that the number of housing associations that will be taken in is not great. The implication is that he has reserved the right to monitor and change if necessary.

The point has been registered, and the other place has managed to achieve something that the Government— perhaps reluctantly—have accepted. As we have that small modification, we welcome it, with the clear understanding that we will be looking at the way that the right to buy, as it affects housing associations, takes effect. We shall be looking to see whether safeguards need to be applied later.

For example, the Minister will know that the biggest housing association of all, the Scottish special housing association, does not operate the right to buy in a fair way. In the north-east of Scotland, the only people able to get SSHA houses have been oil workers, although the demand for oil workers is not high. In some cases, there is evidence that non-British citizens have been able to acquire those houses under the right to buy. Some assurances on that would be welcome. A small amendment has been accepted, and I am glad that the Minister has agreed that this change can stand.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments agreed to.