§ Lords Reason for insisting on their amendment to which the Commons have disagreed and disagreeing to the amendment made by the Commons in lieu thereof, considered.
The Lords insist on their amendment to insert a new clause before clause 1—Exception to the right to buy with respect to dwelling houses for persons of pensionable age—and disagree to the amendment proposed by the Commons in lieu thereof for the following Reason:
Because the said Commons amendment fails to provide adequate safeguards for the stock of local authority rented accommodation specially suitable for people of pensionable age.
§ 4.2 pm
§ The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction (Mr. John Patten)
I beg to move, That this House doth not insist on its disagreement with the Lords amendment.
The issue here is the exclusion from the right to buy of non-sheltered housing for the elderly, which is a serious matter. The House will recall from our debate last Monday that the Lords amendment would do two things. First, it would simplify the test of suitability which houses and flats must meet it they are to be exempted from the right to buy. Secondly, it would take decisions away from the Secretary of State, where they now lie, and put them in the hands of local authorities.
The Government made a reasonable and constructive response to the first of those proposals. We accepted the case for simplifying the test but, on the second issue, we felt unable to agree for the reasons that I explained. The Government amendment, which was carried in the House on Monday, would have ensured that decisions remained with the Secretary of State. That is the point at issue between us.
§ Mr. Patten
By insisting on its amendment, the other place is insisting that decisions on exemption from the right to buy should be taken away from the Secretary of State and put in the hands of local authorities.
The Government, recognising the strength of feeling in another place, have reconsidered this matter, but I have to say that we remain absolutely convinced that decisions should rest with the Secretary of State. We are, however, at a very late stage in the Session and there are many important provisions in the Bill, some of which are eagerly awaited by many thousands of tenants who want to buy their own homes. Deadlock now would result in serious delays in the implementation of those provisions.
Against that background, we have reluctantly decided, in the interests of ensuring that the Bill is enacted quickly, not to insist that the Commons amendment be reinstated.
§ Mr. Patten
I shall make the Government's stance absolutely clear. We are determined that as many tenants as possible should have the right to buy. It is tenants who have lost from the amendment. We are determined that tenants should be able to exercise their rights, and that 965 includes elderly tenants. We have accepted from the start that there should be some limited exclusions but—I choose my words carefully—the Government are not prepared to see elderly tenants denied the right to buy simply on grounds of age. That would be wrong, but I fear that, whatever its good intentions, it will be the effect of the Lords amendment.
The Lords amendment puts decisions in the hands of local authorities. Some will do their best to administer the test fairly. I recognise that, and they will be councils under all forms of political control, but there will be others who will not administer it fairly. They will use their discretion unscrupulously to exclude elderly tenants generally from the right to buy. That is the opinion not just of myself but of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who acknowledged it in last Monday's debate when he said: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. "—[Official Report, 3 November 1986; Vol. 103, c. 704.]So concluded the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Patten
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to put on the record that which he wants to put on the record if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. The Government cannot accept the circumstances that I have described. [Interruption.] I feel that we have the intelligentsia with us on the Opposition Front Bench today. We are talking rather than trying to shout people down. Opposition Members should listen because 350,000 elderly tenants could find themselves excluded from the right to buy. That is monstrous and we cannot accept it.
I give the House a firm undertaking that we shall return to this issue as soon as the opportunity arises. We shall seek the earliest opportunity to put decisions back in the hands of the Secretary of State where they belong. In the meantime, my message to elderly tenants is that if they are thinking seriously about buying their homes, they should apply now. Until the new provisions come into force, the Secretary of State's jurisdiction continues and elderly tenants can be sure of a fair hearing from us.
§ Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)
I have the impression from what my hon. Friend said that the Government might introduce legislation to put right what the other place has changed. How can he be certain, as any amending legislation would have to go to the other place, that that legislation would go through unless our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was prepared to put some of us in another place? If not, she will still be short of a majority when such legislation goes to the other place in the next Session. I accept that some councils may cause difficulty, which the Government should not tolerate, but will the Government allow a fair period to see how councils behave before taking the action that my hon. Friend is proposing?
§ Mr. Patten
We shall of course monitor extremely carefully what happens in the coming months once the Bill passes into law. As for my hon. Friend's first point about transmigration to another place, I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Patten
I do not wish to detain the House. I shall not give way again.
The Government cannot regard this outcome as satisfactory, but our debates have served one useful purpose for Conservative Members. They have clarified the position of the official Opposition and of the alliance parties who in the debates were represented by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).
I have already quoted the comments of the hon. Member for Perry Barr. His party is prepared to support an amendment that he acknowledges will result in abuse of tenants' rights. He went on, of course, to suggest that tenants will have redress in the courts. I believe that was the substance of the succeeding sentence. But how many elderly tenants would even contemplate that?
We had an equally revealing contribution from the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who on Monday, speaking with the full authority of the alliance, made a formal statement of alliance policy. He said:we should like increased local discretion over exemptions and discounts."—[Official Report, 3 November 1986; Vol. 103, c. 711.]According to the hon. Gentleman, that is official alliance policy, and it is an extremely revealing statement. The alliance is in favour not just of local discretion over exemptions from the right to buy—the issue raised by this amendment—but also over rates of discount. The whole notion of tenants' rights is now given a new meaning —rights are what one's local council decides one should have. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was quite right to describe the hon. Gentleman's statement as a "revelation". Tenants will now know what to expect from the alliance.
§ Mr. Patten
That is not a matter for me.
It is quite clear that none of the Opposition parties cares about the wish of many elderly tenants to become home owners. Even worse, they seem to care precious little about fairness and consistency in the application of rules. The Government care. We are not prepared to stand by and watch tenants cheated of their rights by bureaucratic arrogance simply on grounds of their age. I repeat the undertaking that I have given. As soon as there is a suitable opportunity, we shall return to this issue. We shall seek to put decisions back in the hands of the Secretary of State, where they belong.
§ Mr. Rooker
I honestly thought that the Minister would have had a little more grace in accepting the second defeat on this issue suffered by the Government in another place. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman exaggerated the situation out of all proportion.
This is not a general exclusion for elderly people, and he knows it. Elderly people have no fear in general that they will lose the right to buy. A figure of 350,000 has been mentioned, yet in the last two years the only argument has been about 900 applications, out of which 300 exclusions have been granted. That is all that has brought this about. It is therefore a travesty to say that this is a general exclusion. It is not.
The Minister also pleads lack of time. I understand that. On more than one occasion I virtually said that if he got stuck for time, the Opposition would facilitate the Bill 967 provided that the Government got rid of the clause that removes security of tenure for 5 million council tenants. That offer was never taken up.
In addition—it may not be his responsibility—between Third Reading in this House on 24 April and Second Reading in the House of Lords on 30 July, nothing whatever was done about the Bill. Therefore, there is no excuse for having left the Commitee and other stages of the Bill until November.
The Minister is right that many people are waiting for the new benefits—leaving aside the argument about security of tenure—that are available in the Bill. Many of them were promoted by the Opposition and redrafted by the Government. Many people and many local authorities will be waiting for the start of a new urban regeneration grant. Therefore, we do not seek to delay the Bill. The Government have chosen to give in to the Lords, even though they did not have to. They could have challenged the other place again, and, although they have chosen not to do so, they have made their decision in a way that is somewhat less than graceful.
As I said on Monday, I am under no illusions, and neither should any other hon. Member be. If local authorities act unreasonably, they should be condemned. The point is that the criteria under which they must act are set out more clearly in the amendment than previously to determine whether a property is particularly suitable for an elderly person. We are talking not about elderly people, but about properties that are particularly suitable for them. The means of deciding whether such properties are particularly suitable is to look at the list of factors in legislation that must be taken into account. If any local authority strays outside those factors, it will be acting unreasonably, and I and any other hon. Member concerned about fairness and justice will condemn it.
It is true that, at the end of the day, our constituents can have recourse to the courts. But, as I said on Monday, so far as I am aware the only reason for the House of Lords insisting on this a second time is that its previous attempts to achieve fairness were seen by the Secretary of State to operate unfairly.
The other place has made it clear that it does not trust the system that has operated hitherto—under which there was no opportunity to go to court on a test of unreasonableness. We gave examples where houses and bungalows designed and modified specifically for elderly people, and which met all the factors, were allowed to be sold even though Parliament decided otherwise. That is the problem, and that must be the reason why the House of Lords has insisted on going the whole way.
The Government have raised a deliberate red herring. There is no general threat to elderly people, even to those living in ground floor accommodation in a tower block. Unless such dwellings meet all the factors in law, elderly people will not be deprived of the right to buy.
The argument in the last two years has revolved around 900 applications and 300 exclusions. It is a travesty to talk about 350,000 dwellings, and it does the Minister no justice whatever.
§ Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
I agree with the Minister that alliance policy would indeed be disastrous for elderly people, particularly on Merseyside, 968 which happens to include Knowsley, North. However, I assure him that my local councils—Lancaster city council and Wyre borough council, which I have the honour of sharing with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Sir W. Clegg)—will administer these tests fairly, as they have always done, and my elderly constituents will not suffer.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
I ought to point out that the amendment that was carried in the other place did not have narrow political support. Had that been so, it would not have been carried. In our discussion last Monday I pointed out that the original amendment had the support of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities — admittedly Labour-controlled—of the Association of District Councils, which is Conservative-controlled, and of all the professional bodies that are concerned with housing. The reason for that degree of all-party support is contained in the reason that the other place has given to the House of Commons for sticking to its guns.
The Lords reason says that, as the Bill left this House on Monday evening, it failedto provide adequate safeguards for the stock of local authority rented accommodation specially suitable for people of pensionable age.It is impossible for this House to dispute that assertion. When the number of elderly people is growing, it is absolutely essential to ensure that an adequate supply of good quality specifically purpose-designed accommodation is provided for them.
I accept the Minister's point that one has to be evenhanded. We have to ensure that there is an adequate supply of rented accommodation. But we must also be as sure as we can that the elderly are not unreasonably deprived of their right to buy. I accept that on occasions it is difficult to achieve the correct balance, but the form of the legislation as it left the other place provides a reasonable compromise. The elderly will not be treated differently.
I accept that the Minister made a fair point when he said that we should not adopt a different attitude towards the elderly. Therefore, elderly council tenants who wish to buy should be treated in the same way as other council tenants who wish to buy. Tenants who wish to buy their homes but who believe that they are being treated unfairly or unreasonably by the local authority have the right to take advice and go to court. I do not think that elderly tenants who wish to buy their homes should be treated differently.
The Minister said that local authorities will abuse their position. Some local authorities may do so. In the light of experience, some local authorities will adopt a political view. However, it is hard for some hon. Members to accept that because certain local authorities dislike the right to buy they will act unpleasantly, unreasonably and unjustly for political motives.
We have been told that Ministers who are passionately in favour of the right to buy will act absolutely independently, impartially and justly, without any other motive than the reality and the justice of the case. But Ministers are politicians, too. They are motivated by political concerns. Because of what has happened in the past—the large number of sales and the way in which detailed issues have been dragged into the argument—we are entitled to be suspicious of the suggestion that Ministers are completely impartial and just.
969 My last point touches on what was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). The Minister seemed to be determined to make the worst of a bad situation. He ought to have been more gracious. The gap between us is not nearly so large as he tried to make out in his extremely political and antagonistic speech. He seems to have been told, "If you're going to go down, you'd better go down with all guns firing." The issue is not so important as to lead him to change his normal attitude towards these issues.
§ Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the gap between the two sides of the House on this issue. We have heard the point of view of the Social Democratic party. Will the hon. Gentleman be asking his Liberal colleague to put the point of view of his party?
§ Mr. Cartwright
The position of the two parties on housing for the elderly is exactly the same as the position of all those who serve on the organisations to which I referred, including members of the hon. Gentleman's own party who are represented on the Association of District Councils, and all the independent experts who are concerned with housing. The hon. Gentleman should not try to drag political red herrings across this point.
To return to the Minister's determination to extract the last bit of party politics that he can out of this issue, I am sorry that after six years of argument we have not achieved stability. We could have achieved stability on the basis of what was clone by the other place, but we have been told that we shall face more uncertainty. At an unspecified future date, the Government intend to legislate again. Instead, therefore, of providing stability for the elderly, the Government have introduced a further threat. It is strange that, on an issue as sensitive as this, a Government of this complexion should be saying that the man in Whitehall knows best.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
It is rare that I should be congratulating the same Minister twice within the space of 48 hours. I hope that the Treasury Whip will note that. Having congratulated the Minister on Monday night for accepting an amendment that redefined homelessness, for reasons which the House accepted and which I do not intend to go into now, the Government's judgment in this respect also is absolutely sound. I expect that all right hon. and hon. Members have received letters from constituents who are anxious to benefit from one or other of the Bill's provisions. It would be wrong, therefore, to jeopardise even slightly the possibility of that legislation passing into law.
I admire my hon. Friend the Minister greatly, but I think that, although I heard what he said about the activities of a number of local authorities, he should look carefully at the way in which the legislation is used by local authorities. He should not prejudge what will happen. He may find that very few authorities are as mendacious as he may fear, in his heart of hearts, they may be, when confronted with this legislation. If very few authorities go against the spirit of the new Act, the House will not want further legislation on this issue. It will be left to my hon. Friend and the Government, as always, to introduce further legislation, should this turn out to be bad law, leading to abuse. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend to keep an open mind.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who takes a deep interest in housing matters, should have adopted a different line from a number of other Conservative Members. I assume that it is very different from the line that is taken by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) who will no doubt be trying to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, the truth is that the Government have surrendered without any grace. In all the circumstances, the other place acted wisely and I have no regrets about the decision that it reached. It will be ironic if the more Right-wing Tories here urge their party to enter the next election with a platform of abolishing the House of Lords. It would be a new twist in British politics, one that we shall watch with considerable interest.
It was interesting to note that the Minister referred almost with contempt to local government and local democracy. He seems to have no confidence in local authorities, even perhaps Conservative-controlled local authorities, in this particular matter. It has already been said that if anybody thinks that a local authority has acted wrongly he can go to court. The ultimate judge, therefore, will not be the local authority. That should be clearly understood.
Many of the elderly constituents understandably want to live in bungalow-type accommodation, especially if it is adapted for use by the elderly. Due, in the main, to the Government's policy, no contracts for local authority housing of any kind in the borough of Walsall have been entered into since 1979. That means of course an ever lengthening housing queue. If local authorities such as mine had been able to build the type of accommodation which we are discussing, I might have adopted a different attitude to this Lords amendment to which the Government have agreed.
What is important is not whether this type of accommodation should be sold to the sitting tenant, but that local authorities should be able to carry out their housing responsibilites as they did before 1979. Why should they not be able to build much more of this bungalow-type accommodation which is so urgently necessary and many other forms of accommodation, in view of lengthening waiting lists, the position on bed and breakfast accommodation and the scandal of homelessness? The Government have no authority to start lecturing local authorities. Local authorities are asking for the financial means and HIP allocations to carry out their housing responsibilities properly.
I welcome the amendment. It will help in a small way to protect some such accommodation from being sold and, because of Government policy which prevents local authorities from building, I have no regrets about that.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
This debate takes place because of what occurred in another place at 23 minutes past 4 o'clock yesterday. There are nearly 1,200 Members of the other place. Yesterday by 148 votes to 124 the other place—[Interruption.] I am recounting the plain truth. It is characteristic of Opposition Members to quarrel with the truth, but I shall recount it. We are having this debate because of the decision in another place.
My hon. Friend the Minister advised the House that we should accept the view of another place and the issue 971 which the House must decide is whether or not to accept that advice. You will have studied carefully, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have done, the list of those who voted against the Government's advice in another place yesterday afternoon. There was a quarter of bishops—the Bishops of Carlisle, Ely, Rochester and Southwark—and the new recruit to the Social Democratic party, the Duke of Devonshire. They were joined by the former Prime Minister, beloved of Opposition Members, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.
The view taken by another place was that it is wiser and safer for elderly people who wish to buy the homes in which they live to put their trust in local authorities, including Labour-controlled local authorities, than in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister. That is the essential difference between the view taken by another place and the view taken by this House on Monday.
§ Mr. Gow
No, I shall not give way. I do not wish to make too long a speech or to be led astray by the hon. Gentleman.
Do we believe that the test whether a house or flat is particularly suitable as accommodation for an elderly person will be applied more fairly, impartially and reasonably by the Secretary of State or by certain Labour-controlled district and borough councils?
§ Mr. Gow
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) says, "What about judges?" He is right that it will be open to an aggrieved tenant to go to court if he seeks to exercise the right to buy but is turned down by his district council on the grounds that the house or flat is especially suitable as accommodation for elderly people. But going to court is a costly and protracted business. It is simply not good enough to say to a tenant and prospective purchaser in that situation, "If you have a capricious, unreasonable, unfair local authority, all you need do is to go to the county court."
As I said in the debate on Monday, when all Secretaries of State and Ministers for Housing have been asked to determine whether a house or a flat falls within the criterion laid down by Parliament, they have taken that decision immensely seriously and have applied their minds conscientiously and fairly to that decision.
§ Mr. Gow
I said earlier that I would not give way.
The amendment that has been insisted on by another place will injure the prospects of fair treatment for elderly people who wish to buy their homes. My hon. Friend the Minister gave his advice to the House with great reluctance and I shall follow his advice with even greater reluctance. The other place is not nearly as closely in touch with the real world and with how matters operate in our constituencies. The other place, out of touch as I believe it to have been on this issue, with four right reverend prelates voting against —[HON. MEMBERS: "Divide the House."] I wish that hon. Gentlemen would listen instead of shouting.
Another place has failed to understand the world as it is. The four right reverend prelates and the noble Duke 972 have not had direct experience, as some of us in this place and on this side of the House have had, of the wishes of elderly people, who should not be penalised simply because they are elderly. Nor have they understood the reality of the deep hostility of some Labour-controlled councils to the concept of the right to buy.
I welcome the assurance by my hon. Friend the Minister that at the first suitable legislative opportunity we shall seek to correct the error made by another place. With even greater reluctance than my hon. Friend, I shall acquiesce in the decision of another place.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
We have listened to two of the most ungracious speeches from the present and former Ministers for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction that can have been heard in either House since the legislation was introduced. It comes ill from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), in the same speech, to complain first that there is a House of Lords making decisions when his party, above all, wants to continue it in its present form, and then that the House of Lords decides that it has more trust in the courts than in the Secretary of State. If the hon. Gentleman is willing to sustain the argument that the courts cannot be trusted, that is certainly a novel development in the Tory party.
§ Mr. Hughes
I will not give way. The hon. Lady has not given way to me on previous occasions.
This matter has come before Parliament as legislation on three occasions. In 1980, when the Government wished to apply similar right-to-buy rules to old people's dwellings as applied elsewhere, their Lordships passed an amendment which then came back to the Commons, and to which the Government proposed a variation that was then passed by this House. That new wording was returned to another place and their Lordships accepted it. Since then, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), and, in another place, the noble Lord Wigoder, have argued that dwellings for old people should be examined with special care because of the relative shortage of such accommodation.
In 1984, in the Housing and Building Control Act, the Government again attempted to introduce the right to buy for that category of old people. The other place disagreed and passed an amendment which came back to the Commons and was overruled. On that occasion, my noble Friends Lord Evans and Baroness Stedman were part of the group in another place who insisted that they were right, and the Government were defeated by one vote. The Government then proposed a variation that was more accommodating to the views of another place, and it was eventually accepted.
The views and arguments of another place have not become any less strong since then. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) said, their Lordships made it clear that they rejected the Government's view because the Commons amendment 973 failed to provide adequate safeguards for the stock of local authority rented accommodation specially suitable for people of pensionable age. Yesterday was the second occasion on which the issue was debated in another place. This time their Lordships insisted not by a majority of one but, with members of the Labour party, both alliance parties, the Conservative party and the Bishops' Bench — including my local bishop, the Lord Bishop of Southwark—by a majority of 24 that such accommodation needed to be protected.
The reason for such protection is simple. If there was anxiety in 1980 and 1984 about the stock for old people being depleted, there is more anxiety now as there is less stock, more old people and the constraints under which local authorities work are considerably greater.
§ Mr. Dobson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in coming to the conclusion that they would rather leave discretion with local authorities than with the Secretary of State their Lordships may have borne in mind the fact that the current Secretary of State for Environment, in his previous incarnation as Secretary of State for Transport, was more than once ruled by the courts of this land to have acted irrationally, unreasonably and unlawfully?
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Gentleman, a fellow London Member, is right. He, I and other hon. Members remember well that many of those matters related to the London Regional Transport Act 1984. There was great controversy over that because the Government originally insisted that there would be no concessionary passes for pensioners, but eventually they were forced to give in.
The arguments put in another place were overwhelming. I sincerely hope that the Government do as the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) suggested and are slightly more graceful and attentive to the arguments, the facts and the realities. I hope that they realise that if they are going to criticise the other place on anything, to criticise their Lordships on something that applies specifically to old people is perhaps inappropriate as, given their average age, their Lordships probably know more about the problems of old age than we do.
Their Lordships were very clear and the Government have, at the end of the day, accepted their decision. It would have been better if the Government had done their research and accepted the overwhelming arguments to protect the interests of old people in the first place. It cannot enhance the Government's prospects of recruiting millions of elderly people to their side when they are so ungracious in eventually accepting that old people's dwellings need special protection.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
I quite understand that my hon. Friend the Minister has come to this decision with a pistol at his head. Like my hon. Friends, I fully understand his genuine concern for the feelings of those who would be deprived of the benefits of the Bill if, because of a ping-pong match over this clause, it failed to become law.
However, I welcome what my hon. Friend said today about the possibility of bringing further legislation forward. Together with many of my hon. Friends, I believe that there will be plenty of examples of Socialist authorities looking for every chance to cheat old people out of the opportunity of buying their homes.
It is all very well for my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) to say that if only one or two 974 authorities indulged in such behaviour it should not be necessary to bring legislation forward, but I take the opposite view. If the Conservative party is the party of one nation, the old people in Haringey and Brent deserve the same opportunity to buy their homes as the old people in Conservative-controlled local authorities.
There are two arguments against the decision of the other place. The first relates to the question of unreasonableness. The example from Socialist authorities of direct labour organisations shows us the direction in which those authorities would go. The convenor of the Association of Direct Labour Organisations —Councillor Senior of Sheffield—said that they are trying to obstruct the law in every way that they can. That is what Socialist authorities are about. I would not put my faith in the reasonableness of Labour or alliance-controlled authorities.
The second major argument against their Lordships' position relates to the remedy. I do not suggest that the courts would be anything but impartial in their interpretation of the law. However, the point is not that they would be impartial, but that people would have to go to the courts in the first place. That would be a lengthy and expensive process. That fact would be used by Socialist authorities to intimidate and deter old people from taking advantage of the right to buy. Not only would those whom their Lordships intended should have that right be unable to buy their own houses, but many others would not attempt to do so through failure to understand where the line was drawn.
I am not surprised that the other place voted as it did. After all, the Peers concerned are all members of the landlord classes. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) reeled off a list of distinguished prelates, and we all know the faults of the Church Commissioners as landlords. He drew our attention to a noble Duke. Of course, the biggest racketeering landlords of all are the Socialist authorities, which have failed to provide service to their tenants and at the same time have sought every opportunity to deprive them of the one thing to which they have looked forward — an end to their serfdom by buying their council houses.
This is a black day for the old people who are tenants of local authorities. I look forward to a brighter day in the near future when my hon. Friend the Minister will bring forward fresh legislation that will enable us to fulfil old people's aspirations as we set out to do in the 1979 manifesto and the 1983 manifesto, and no doubt will in the next manifesto.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
I apologise for having missed the earlier part of the debate, but I was elsewhere in the House.
This is a very black day for the constitution. The other place is ill-advised in its action. We have heard the merits of the issue which has been debated. It is the prerogative of the other place to send issues back to this House for reconsideration. I do not believe that it is the other place's prerogative — it is not democratically elected and I cannot foresee a way in which it could be—and nor is it right or proper for it to interfere with the rights of this elected Chamber to introduce proper legislation on the basis of a majority won in a general election.
Opposition Members might well take account of this issue in case they ever form the Government again, though 975 I doubt that they will. The Opposition should take account of what their Lordships have done on this issue and think what such action might do to some of their pet programmes that they wish to foist upon the nation. This is a black day, but every black day and every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining is, I believe, that it will give yet more power to my hon. Friend's elbow to bring before the House next Session a further housing Bill. Such a Bill is vital and relevant and I look forward to it.
§ Mr. Rooker
By leave of the House, I should like to make two important points. Because of the extremely unfair and partisan way in which Conservative Members have approached the issue, they seem completely unaware that all over Britain dozens of Conservative-controlled district councils have expressed extreme unease about the way that the Government have operated the rules. Those councils have complained about the loss of housing stock that is especially suitable for the elderly. They are not talking just about general housing for the elderly, and it is not an issue that affects only Labour-controlled local authorities. It affects Conservative-controlled authorities as well, and Government Members would do well to take that on board.
My second point is that every other aspect of the right-to-buy legislation protects every citizen through recourse to the courts. That applies to everything save this one issue. Conservative Members should not say that the concept of going to the courts is rubbish because that remedy is available to most citizens, at any rate for all the rights protected by statute. What is so special about this one narrow issue that it has to be decided by ministerial prerogative? That case has been found wanting in the past.
We shall take on board the castigations delivered by the other place. I was careful in what I said on Monday about the other place because I did not want to upset the noble Lords. I and my hon. Friends share the view that because the noble Lords are not elected the other place is undemocratic. However, it is part of our constitution within which the Labour party seeks to work.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House doth not insist on its disagreement to the Lords amendment.