HC Deb 14 June 1988 vol 135 cc447-63
Mr. Waldegrave

I beg to move amendment No. 328, in page 87, line 30, leave out 'people having' and insert 'persons who live in or have'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 329, amendment No. 91, in page 87, line 31, at end insert 'and a majority of the members of a trust shall be resident in the designated area'. and Government amendment No. 330.

Mr. Waldegrave

I think that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will agree that these amendments carry out a commitment that we gave in Committee following prolonged discussion about the importance and desirability of securing the services on HAT boards of people who really know the areas in question. The amendments mean that the Secretary of State would have to have regard to the desirability of securing the services of people who live in the HAT areas as well as those who have special knowledge of them. We also agreed to consult local authorities about the appointments. I think that these are welcome improvements to the Bill in line with what we discussed in Committee.

Amendment No. 91 is too restrictive because the temporary bodies will have a difficult task to carry out in a short time. The Secretary of State will need to find the best people with the relevant expertise, and he might not necessarily be able to do that with a majority of residents in every case. Qualities such as management skills and housing expertise and experience will also be relevant.

We intend to ask the HATs to create, in consultation with local people, non-statutory tenants' advisory fora that will provide a focus for generating tenants' views beyond representation on the HAT boards and other consultative arrangements. The fora would have a remit to advise the boards on any issue of concern to the tenants. We hope that some tenants will take over the running of their properties through the establishment of tenant co-operatives.

Amendment No. 330 seeks to ensure that anyone with an interest that might be prejudicial should not be appointed to a HAT board. At the same time, we wish to ensure that being a tenant should not be regarded as having a prejudicial interest. That point was legitimately raised by a number of Opposition Members in Committee.

I hope that Opposition Members will agree that amendments Nos. 328 to 330 are sensible and meet the points that they raised in Committee. Although we must reject amendment No. 91, I hope that they accept that we have gone some way towards meeting their concerns.

Mr. Cryer

I want to say a few brief words about the proposals. The Government's rejection of amendment No. 91 is singularly unfortunate. As the Minister accepted, the Government's wording is more discretionary than amendment No. 91. As amended by amendment No. 328, the schedule would read; In appointing members of a trust, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of securing the services of persons who live in or have special knowledge of the locality in which the designated area is situated. Our amendment requires that a majority of the members of a trust shall be resident in the designated area. We have advanced the arguments on previous occasions, but this is the place to reduce, modify or qualify the Secretary of State's powers.

The schedule states that the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability". That is not an imposition on the Secretary of State; he only has to consider alternatives. Having considered people living in the area, if they do not satisfy his criteria he can reject them. That rejection could be for a variety of reasons —for example, he may oppose them politically or he may have had an argument with them. He may think them to be brash or quiet and, therefore, the wrong people to serve on the boards. We know that the Secretary of State is likely to have arguments with people every time that he goes into an area. That has happened on more than one or two occasions. I believe that, more than anything else, if the Secretary of State suspects that anyone is politically opposed to him—and he would not have to be a Labour supporter, but simply a critic of Government policy—he will use his highly discretionary powers not to appoint that person.

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One of the grounds that we can put forward to support this argument is the way in which the Government have treated other quangos. In all those bodies that we use to administer the various institutions in our national life, the Government have been assiduous in sacking people whom they regard as having been critical in any way and appointing people who conform to their own point of view.

Mr. Patnick

The hon. Gentleman is still the European Member of Parliament for Sheffield. I recollect that, when the Government nominated Councillor Roy Thwaites, the then leader of South Yorkshire county council, to the chairmanship of the South Yorkshire residuary body, he at first accepted the position, but subsequently declined. How does that square with your thinking?

Mr. Cryer

I know that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; he is referring to me.

Mr. Patnick

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman can have two stripes for that one.

Mr. Cryer

I shall simply use an old phrase and say, "Grovel, grovel, grovel."

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government appointed Mr. Roy Thwaites who was subsequently persuaded to resign. Of course, there are occasions which tend to prove the rule. The Government occasionally pick out members of the Labour party to make a particular body appear more acceptable, and I believe that that was the case on that occasion. However, we are talking about the majority of people who will not be prominent and who will simply be carrying out day-to-day administration. In those circumstances, the predominant qualification should be that they live in the area, as stipulated in our amendment.

Mr. Patnick

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his courtesy. How does he explain the fact that Lord Mulley, a former Member of Parliament for Sheffield and Minister in the Labour Government, has been appointed deputy chairman of the Sheffield urban development corporation?

Mr. Cryer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bearing out exactly what I said: that the Government persuade people who have been prominent in the Labour party in the past to chair or act as deputy chair to a body for which they wish to gain acceptance and credibility in an area. One of the reasons why the Government appointed Fred Mulley was that they knew perfectly well that the Labour-controlled Sheffield council was unhappy about the proposal in the first place. This is part of the reconciliation. The Government have the power to ride roughshod over democratically elected local councils, and they attempt to put a better face on it by appointing someone who, although he does not live in the area, nevertheless knows it. Roy Thwaites lives in the area. Both the people concerned have local knowledge and understanding which is precisely why the Government appointed them, in addition to the political connotations that I have mentioned. When people go down to the other end of the Palace of Westminster, some funny things happen to them.

Mr. Barron

My hon. Friend referred to the question of public and political appointees in terms of offering a job to a member of the Opposition. Perhaps I can give him a classic example from south Yorkshire. My local area health authority has sacked a Socialist chairman who has done a sterling job during the many years since reorganisation in 1974. The job has been offered to the leader of the Labour council in the knowledge that, given that one Labour member had been dismissed, another could not accept the nomination. A member of the Conservative party was then appointed. He happens to be one of my constituents. He was put into a job that he knew that the Labour party had to turn down because of the dismissal.

Mr. Cryer

That is a good illustration of what I was describing. It demonstrates why we want a qualification different from the absolute discretion of the Secretary of State. Area health boards provide good examples. A member of the Labour party was chairman of the Airedale health authority. He was so moderate as to be almost untrue. He tried his best to reconcile all the difficulties and to meet the pressure from the Government while maintaining services. He tried to compromise as best he could in the decent way in which he was accustomed to act, yet he was sacked by the Government, who then appointed a Tory.

Mr. Patnick


Mr. Cryer

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) wishes me to give way to him again, and I am pleased to do so.

Mr. Patnick

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I notice that the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) is sitting complacently on the Opposition Front Bench. His former leader, Sir Jack Smart, was given the chairmanship of Wakefield health authority. We can carry on trading such things across the Chamber, if that is what the hon. Gentleman wishes—

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)


Mr. Patnick

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am intervening in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who is sitting in the opposite corner. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene in his hon. Friend's speech, I am sure that he can.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South changes his ground. He began by saying "no person" but now everything is different.

Mr. Cryer

If the hon. Member for Hallam examines Hansard, he will find that I have made a carefully balanced case, as is always my desire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) is not sitting complacently on the Front Bench. He is sitting, as he usually does, with a sharp eye, taking an interest in this matter, hour after hour to his great credit. He has long experience and expertise in local government affairs and we are grateful that he is here today to give us the benefit of his knowledge and application in this matter.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)


Mr. Patnick


Mr. Cryer

No; I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for the opportunity to explain the situation that was outlined by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick). Sir Jack Smart is chairman of the Wakefield area health authority, but that authority is in tremendous difficulty because it is having to bow to pressures from Ministers. Because Sir Jack will not accept those pressures, we are to have an inquiry into the operation of the health authority. We are asking for a n independent inquiry. That is the measure of it. I advise my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that that is exactly the result that will come about unless we get the right balance in appointments to the trusts. I hope that my hon. Friend will dwell further on that issue because it is important and we must highlight it. We must convince the hon. Member for Hallam about how wrong he is on such issues.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House has spent sufficient time discussing the Health Service and appointments of chairmen. We should now get back to housing action trusts.

Mr. Cryer

Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have been helpful in assuring us that the House retains a balance in these discussions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton has illustrated the point that I was making: that the Secretary of State should not have the absolute powers that he is given in the legislation because, when a Secretary of State in a Conservative Government is given such absolute powers in areas where there can be specific qualifications, to which I shall turn in a moment, he must have regard to vague generalities. He will usually appoint a majority of Conservatives to a board, possibly with a Labour figurehead to give a fake appearance of balance. That causes difficulties, and the circumstances that my hon. Friend has described have illustrated those difficulties which, when all is said and done, have not helped the Health Service. If the Secretary of State for the Environment appoints in like spirit, it will not help the administration of the housing action trusts.

Although we are opposed to housing action trusts, we are putting forward proposals to improve the legislation. There is always a grey area for an Opposition: do they simply oppose legislation tooth and nail and vote against every Government amendment—the large number of amendments to the Bill show how badly drafted it is—or do they say that they are opposed to the legislation but will try to improve it? In a spirit of constructive opposition, the Labour party is doing the latter. We are putting forward a constructive amendment to curb the powers of the Secretary of State. We are saying not that he should choose people in a political ballot—we know that he would not do that anyway—but that the majority of members of a trust shall be resident in the designated area. The Minister said that there may not be enough talented and able people to participate in a trust. I should have thought that there would be a body of people dealing with the trust's affairs—to which the Minister has not yet made us all privy—with the knowledge, gained from experience, to ensure that the trust operated to the benefit of those living in the area. By and large, it is a truism that the people who live in an area have their own interests at heart and want the area developed for those interests. People who come to the area do not have quite the same vested interests and desires.

I wonder whether the Department of the Environment would have had so many disasters on its hands in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was busy peddling tower blocks through grant aid, if the architects who designed them and the civil servants who promoted them had had to live on the top floor with a family for a minimum of five years after completion. I should have thought it salutary for an architect to have to explain all his plans and drawings to the community and then say that he will live there to share the experience. If that had been a criterion, there would not have been so many tower blocks foisted on local authorities by grant aid. Local authorities are even more hard pressed than those in the past.

Tower blocks have not been a success. This is due in part to the fact that there was no shared experience between the architects who promoted them and the civil servants in the Department of the Environment who were busy promoting them. We are now facing the whirlwind of that ill-judged planning debacle. The Department of the Environment must now fork out money—not enough—to get the tower blocks out of the way so that the kind of houses that people want can be built.

By and large, people were not consulted about the development of the tower blocks. They were not given the right of democratic participation, except through local elections, which avenue, although unsatisfactory, was better than the Government's proposals. This fact points once again to the desirability of a majority of members of a trust being resident in the designated area. I do not know what the SLD will say about the amendments; I suppose the policy of the moment will depend on which Member is in the House. Certainly the Labour Opposition put this forward as a basic, common sense policy.

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There has been a reference to lush villages in the stockbroker belt in Surrey which have a high Conservative voting turnout. If we proposed that a quango should take over the running of such a village, would the Government suggest that a group of people from, say, Lambeth should run parts of Esher? Of course not. They would say that there are a lot of chaps and chapesses there who can run their own affairs. The proposal that the Secretary of State should appoint people resident in the designated area as a majority of the trust has much to commend it. It does not take away the right of appointment; it modifies it to ensure that the Secretary of State takes note of the interests of the people who are vitally concerned in the housing action trust. That would be better than the political manipulation which we have seen by the Government in so many parts of life which they have atrophied by the application of misleading and misguided policies.

The first part of amendment No. 330 would provide: Before appointing a person to be a member of a trust the Secretary of State shall satisfy himself that that person will have no financial or other interest likely to affect prejudicially the exercise of his functions as a member; and the Secretary of State may require a person whom he proposes to appoint to give him such information as he considers necessary for that purpose. The second part does not affect people who are likely to become tenants. In the same way as I gave a parallel to amendment No. 91 by saying that residents in the designated area are more likely to have the interests of their own area at heart than even well-meaning people from outside, I think that amendment No. 330 is useful. The Government should use that philosophy more widely when drafting, for example, legislation on company law.

As a side issue, let me refer to the appointment of Peter Luff as an adviser in the Department of Trade and Industry. He was employed by Good Relations, which is part of the Luff group which is being investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry. Under the criteria in amendment No. 330, the Secretary of State could not have appointed him.

Having criticised the Government, I accept that after constructive pressure from my hon. Friends in Committee the Government have proposed an amendment which will make a useful addition to the Bill. Even though it is muddied patchwork, and even though we are opposed to it in principle, it demonstrates, as we have been demonstrating all through the night, that the Labour Opposition are trying to be constructive when the Government are trampling on the rights of Parliament by trying to push this legislation through the House. The hours of debate show how the Labour party is standing up for the rights of ordinary tenants against housing action trusts by putting forward modest, minor amendments to improve the legislation.

We are bitterly disappointed by the Government's unwillingness to accept amendment No. 91. It was tabled in a spirit of helpfulness, yet the Minister spent only two minutes in dismissing it—I thought somewhat contemptuously. I regret that some of the arrogance of the toff who is the Secretary of State is rubbing off on the Minister of State. It is alarming that that should happen; perhaps it is a fungus that is spreading throughout the Department. If that is the case, it ought to get in a few fungicides.

The Secretary of State's response was unsatisfactory, and failed to rebut adequately the proposals in amendment No. 91. I shall urge my hon. Friends to vote for that amendment, but, again in a spirit of helpfulness, I say that it would be a mistake to vote against amendment No. 330, which would give some modest assistance in what is otherwise a terrible imposition upon tenants and local authorities alike. That attitude reflects the work we have been trying to do through the night to improve the muddy mess that the Government have presented.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I am delighted to make a contribution to this debate, and believe that hon. Members should address their minds to a vexing problem of green belt protection confronting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I introduce the topic for a particular reason. We wish to regenerate a number of urban areas. There is much dormant and under-utilised land—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House is debating means and methods of making appointments to housing action trusts. The hon. Gentleman is a long way from that subject.

Mr. Dickens

The establishment of trusts will enable the regeneration of urban areas and re-utilisation of dormant land, which in most cases is in public ownership. I do not know how many hundreds of thousands of acres of under-utilised land there are—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House is debating not the functions of the trusts but appointments to them.

Mr. Dickens

We must make the right appointments, selecting people who will appreciate the value of our objective, and who will co-operate with the Government. It will be unsatisfactory if people are appointed who are not prepared to do that which the Government wish—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]. It matters not of whatever political persuasion that Government might be, given that such is the will of the nation, as would be this measure if it is passed by the House. If the right appointments are not made, additional pressures will be placed on the green belt.

Hon. Members should remind themselves of the trust's framework. It will use public and private resources in renovating an estate and providing tenants with a better housing environment. That is an obligation placed on those appointed. The Secretary of State will be asked to ensure that there is tenant representation and that local authorities will be consulted about the appointment of local residents or others having special local knowledge. The trust will also have a duty to co-operate with the local authority in respect of its responsibilities towards the homeless. Once the trust has completed its task, it will transfer its housing stock to other landlords, who must be approved by the Housing Corporation. Any tenant who wishes to return to a local authority when the work of a housing action trust is complete will be able to do so, provided the local authority is willing.

Council housing will be transferred from the local authority and managed by a trust established by the Secretary of State. This is the Government's effort to regenerate the nation's worst council estates, and it is important to appoint like-minded and sensible people of whatever political persuasion. The Government are trying to help the people. They are trying to save the green belt, and this is an important way of doing it.

Mr. Lofthouse

Our amendment seeks an assurance that the majority of members of a housing action trust will be local residents. I should have thought that any Government and any fair-minded person would be only too willing to ensure that local people were active and well-represented on those boards. For the life of me, I cannot understand the Government's objection to the idea. When all is said and clone, the Secretary of State would still have powers to select the chairman, vice-chairman and up to five other board members.

This move is another step towards fulfilling the Government's desire to wipe out democratically elected local authorities or at least major parts of their duties. It is a retrograde step. The people who live in those areas should have an avenue of complaint to board members. With local authorities, people have an avenue—mostly to their elected members—at least to let off steam. That avenue will not exist if the boards are run by people selected by the Secretary of State. I should have thought that the Secretary of State would at least ensure a majority of local people on the boards.

The boards will affect many people's lives, but there will be few avenues for representations by those people. We have all had experience of water boards and area health authorities. Even Members of Parliament have difficulty making representations to those people. The press is not allowed to report board meetings. There is no information and no avenue of representation for the public. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Minister will consider accepting our modest amendment.

I have had some bad experiences with my local health authority. I have been unable to obtain information that the public requires, and we have been unable to make proper representations to try to stop savage cuts in our health services. Were the health authority composed of elected members it would be much more responsive to the public. Recently in my constituency I have had experience of a charitable trust—I do not yet know who appoints its members—that gives very little information—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If I allowed the debate to continue along those lines, it would create infinite possibilities, and I cannot do it. We must return to the appointment of members of housing action trusts.

Mr. Lofthouse

I was comparing my experience of those boards with what will undoubtedly happen with the housing action trusts, but I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a worthwhile exercise to examine boards that have been set up in a similar way to those suggested boards. We can make our case only by comparison with such similar boards.

1.15 pm

In my constituency there is the alms houses charity trust. Great concern has been expressed about the allocation of the alms houses, and there is no avenue for people to get information about, for example, how the tenancies are let. Similarly, under the Bill, these boards will be administered and people will carry out substantial duties, which will affect many lives, and unless a majority of people residing in the area—or at least people whom those in the area know—are represented, there will be problems. We are all aware, particularly if we reside in our constituencies, that people know their Member of Parliament and can approach him. That is a safety valve, which will not exist in this scheme unless there is local representation. We are going down a dangerous path. We are taking away democratically elected members and we are taking away duties from elected local authorities and giving them to these boards.

For the life of me, I cannot believe that any fair-minded person would not want these boards to be manned by local representatives. I hope that the Secretary of State will not select the representatives on these boards purely because of their political persuasions. The track record of bodies made up of those appointed by Government shows that they are politically biased, and anyone who suggests otherwise is not being honest. We all know that that is the case. What guarantee is there, even if this amendment is accepted, that the boards will not be staffed solely by politically motivated people? We heard reference earlier to the Wakefield area health authority. I have nothing to say about that, because it is not in my area, but I have something to say about the Pontefract area health authority, which is 100 per cent. staffed by political appointees. As a result, the policies of this Government have been carried out slavishly in that health authority.

The dangers are there, and I hope that, if the Government want to show that they are fair and honest and believe in their policies, they will at least accept an amendment that is just and fair and would be for the benefit of the local people.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I do not intend to make a long speech, but one or two points must be made, not least because amendment No. 91 is infinitely the best of the four amendments before us. Over the past three or four years, Ministers have delivered diatribes against local authorities for not going far enough in divesting responsibility to their tenants. Comments have been made about "aldermen tortoises", and the Minister has boasted that power would be transferred to the tenants. Therefore, logic and consistency would require the Government to view amendment No. 91 as favourably as we do.

One or two aspects of the other amendments cause me grave concern partly because over recent years the Government have shown that they believe that the first qualification for anyone to be appointed to any position is for that person to be "one of us". However, the people from among the Government's ranks and their political supporters have frequently shown their unsuitability.

The record of public appointments over the past five or six years is full of examples of people appointed to positions, perhaps because the Government assumed that they had special knowledge, but whose performance has been somewhat less than successful. I base my anxiety on my constituency experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) is aware that there is an industrial estate in part of my constituency that is close to his constituency. I saw an opportunity for a substantial number of jobs to be created there. We sought the support of the Department of Trade and Industry, but the Secretary of State refused it. After pressure from me he referred the matter to his advisory committee for the Yorkshire and Humberside region. Those gifted people with special knowledge who enjoyed the Government's support recommended that the support should not be given because that would not be in the interests of the region or the community. At that time we had the highest unemployment level in England.

I made inquiries about the advisory committee consisting of people appointed by the Secretary of State. When I looked at a list of the members I discovered that a substantial proportion of them did not live in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. They may have had special knowledge, which will be retained despite Government amendment No. 328. I am more concerned that people who live in the area and who understand the reality of the area should be appointed. I would much prefer the Minister to accept amendment No. 91 which would ensure that the majority of the members of the trust live in the area than that he should appoint people whom he believes possess special knowledge. The kind of knowledge which the Secretary of State might consider to be special may not necessarily confer an ability on those people to give advice on the management of housing.

I was also somewhat surprised at my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) being rather more kindly disposed towards amendment No. 330. The amendment contains a reference to no financial or other interest. That is no financial or other interest that the Government or the Secretary of State might imagine would disqualify the individual from service on the trusts. The Government take a rather more relaxed view of profit and of the principle of motivation of service than many hon. Members.

Although the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) took a fairly generous view of the Government's position, he had the audacity to say that he was concerned and wanted appointments to reflect the concern about the green belt. We have seen the Secretary of State for the Environment overturn inspectors' recommendations about the protection of the green belt. We have seen a larger assault on the green belt under this Administration than under any Government since green belts were protected. We are therefore entitled to maintain—

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is aware that he cannot substantiate that claim. There is now twice as much confirmed green belt as there was when the Labour party left office.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I can now see the wisdom of my reproach directed to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens). It appears that there may be an attempt to have a debate on the green belt. We cannot have that and I hope that we shall return to the amendments before the House.

Mr. Hardy

I am delighted by your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I certainly did not wish to see the debate extended. We can pursue the Minister's point on some other occasion. It is not appropriate to do so now, except to say that several of us, not necessarily on these Benches, are deeply worried about the quality of the advice which the Secretary of State seems most disposed to take. The wisdom of that advice hardly suggests that the Secretary of State is the best judge of a special knowledge or a financial disqualification. Indeed, he is probably the worst judge.

Mr. Barron

I thought that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) was willing to accept amendment No. 91 providing that the local people, who would be a majority on the housing trust board, did what the Government wanted them to do. Did my hon. Friend also get that impression?

Mr. Hardy

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Just as I have grave doubts about the Secretary of State's capacity to perceive a special knowledge and a disqualification, so I have grave doubts about the meaningful nature of any consultation on which the Secretary of State may embark with each local housing authority whose district is included in the designated area covered by amendment No. 329. I can imagine what sort of consultation will be carried out. Let us suppose that of three housing authorities serving a designated area, two are good Labour authorities and one a poor Conservative authority. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) may laugh. He may be surprised to hear that there are Conservative authorities in areas where housing trusts would be designated, but there must be some and it would be reasonable to suggest that they would not be good. If the Secretary of State complied with his obligation to consult those three authorities, I know to which he would be most eager to pay attention, and it would not be the good ones.

Heaven knows why the Government have to get themselves into the difficulty which their amendments will create. They will land themselves in trouble because the special knowledge will be criticised and the people whom they appoint will not necessarily enjoy public confidence. The record suggests that probably they will not. They will get into trouble when they take a lighter view of financial disqualifications. It would be simpler and easier for the Government—I think that some Ministers shared this view when these matters were being considered—to accept amendment No. 91 instead of the foolish amendments which they are tying around their neck.

I urge the Minister at least to recognise that a voice or two may be raised in the other place in favour of amendment No. 91 and that amendments Nos. 328 to 330 risk pitfalls and embarrassment, and will engender anxiety, if not condemnation.

Mr. Dickens

Does the hon. Gentleman recollect the Government's excellent record on making appointments to such bodies and the sanctions available? Many people whose performance is in question have short extensions to see whether their performance will improve and after a short term they are replaced. People of all political persuasions are appointed to these bodies and the Government look first and foremost at their performance in a job, which is important. The hon. Gentleman forgets that. It must be because of the frustrations of being in opposition for so long.

Mr. Hardy

I shall not respond at length to the hon. Gentleman except to say that he is already in deep trouble. If we were not short of time I would raise a point of order about the excessive domination of an individual in this Chamber—[Interruption.]

1.30 pm
Mr. Corbyn

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Government Chief Whip to intimidate innocent, humble, Back Benchers in such a threatening, offensive and brazen way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I merely saw two hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches having a conversation. I regret the fact that several conversations seem to be taking place simultaneously.

Mr. Hardy

Just as I was about to respond to the intervention from the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth, the Government's disciplinarian went to talk to him and made it impossible for me to fulfil the normal courtesies of the House.

The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth appears to believe that all Government appointments are successful except for those few instances when failure leads to dismissal—no one objects to the dismissal of those who demonstrate their incapacity. If the hon. Gentleman analyses those who enjoy Government support and preferment, he will discover—he should have perceived it, because, unlike most of his colleagues, he is a north country Member—that a disproportionate number of Government appointees come from the south of England.

Housing illustrates the weakness of the Conservative attitude. I recall how in the 1970s the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Tony Crosland, appointed an individual to be the chief housing adviser who had served in the Rotherham area and who was a Geordie with considerable experience of the north-east. That appointment was regarded as an astonishing step for a Secretary of State to take in the southern half of England. The same could be said about the recognition of merit. Those who work in the City of London are much more likely to receive recognition than those who are 200 miles further north. If anyone 200 miles further north receives recognition, that demonstrates that he is especially outstanding. I shall not pursue that matter any further, but I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley understands the reference I have made.

I commend amendment No. 91. I suggest that it is in tune with the various public pronouncements that have been made by the Minister in the past 12 months. Certainly the amendment is consistent with the remarks that have been made by those who held the ministerial office before him. It would remove future embarrassment for the Government and would enable tenants to understand that the Government have given them some consideration. Given that the Government are supposed to be opposed to quangos, the amendment would demonstrate that the Government were not seeking to create more jobs for the boys.

Mr. Soley

The Minister was correct in saying that the amendments are the result of concessions made to the Opposition in Committee. We were worried that the housing action trusts would confer considerable powers and potential economic benefits on the people who serve on them. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was correct to say that Government amendment No. 330 is useful. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) is worried that that amendment is not strong enough, basically it addresses our fears about estate agents or other such people serving on housing action trusts. That would be undesirable. I accept that the Government's amendments are helpful, and I welcome them.

Amendment No. 91 is important for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friends. Our objection to so much of this Bill is that the Government have used and abused the concept of democracy as they think fit in its various parts. One clause allows dead people to vote so that their vote is counted in favour of a private landlord taking over a council housing area. The Government are allowing empty properties to be counted as yes votes, but, by rejecting amendment No. 91, they are saying that they will not allow a majority of local residents to be on the HAT board. They are taking away the powers of the local authority. The HATs will take away not only the housing powers of local authorities but their planning powers and a wide range of other powers—removing them from the elected representatives of the people, so that the ordinary person in the street can no longer turn to the council to complain about planning issues or housing matters; he or she will have to go to the housing action trust.

Housing action trusts will be appointed; they will not be representative. If they do not have a majority of local people on their boards, we can only assume that at best they will constitute benign, benevolent dictatorships that decide what is best for the people, having listened to them first. If that works well, we shall be lucky. If it works badly, we could end up with the sort of misjudgments and mistakes that were widely made in the 1950s and 1960s, with some of the inappropriate high-rise buildings that went up then. We offer this warning to the Government.

We accept that we have had useful concessions from the Government. I suggest to my hon. Friends that we should not vote on amendment No. 91, not because it is not useful but because we have debated this matter in considerable detail. Other important matters are coming up for discussion and I want to focus the House's attention on them.

Mr. Michael Welsh

As planning will be taken over by the HATs, will they take over building control, too?

Mr. Soley

As I understand it, they will have full powers over planning, which will include certain aspects of building control—although, if my memory serves me aright, some of these areas do not necessarily come under local authority control now. However, I think that some aspects would fall under HAT control and others would not. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about that.

It is possible for HATs to build parks or turn other areas into parks. They have significant powers, but we should move on to some of the following groups of amendments. I shall not press amendment No. 91 to a vote. I am grateful to the Government for the amendments that they have tabled in response to our requests, but this debate has served to show that the proposals are an abuse of the democratic process and that the Government have not thought through the consequence of legislating for the people of an area and removing their democratic right to a voice in it.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 329, in page 87, line 31, at end add 'and before appointing any such person as a member he shall consult every local housing authority any part of whose district is included in the designated area'.

No. 330, in page 87, line 31, at end add— '(1A) Before appointing a person to be a member of a trust the Secretary of State shall satisfy himself that that person will have no financial or other interest likely to affect prejudicially the exercise of his functions as a member; and the Secretary of State may require a person whom he proposes to appoint to give him such information as he considers necessary for that purpose.—[Mr. Waldegrave.]

Mr. Allan Roberts

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 89, line 2, at end insert 'subject to paragraph 13A below and'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in page 89, line 4, at end insert '13A. In section 100J(1)(f) of the Local Government Act 1972, as amended by the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, after "authority", there shall be inserted the following— and any reference to a principal council in sections 100A, 100B(1) in its provisions for the agenda of a meeting, 100B(3) and 100E in its application of sections 100A, 100B(1) and 100(3) includes a reference to a housing action trust established under Part III of the Housing Act 1988"'.'.

Mr. Roberts

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) is not in his place. He may have been caught napping as the debate has proceeded through the night and into the morning, but he put his name to our amendments because they extend the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 to housing action trusts. The hon. Gentleman sponsored a private Member's Bill that became law with the support of the Government, and it dealt with access to information as it affects local authorities. So it would be logical, given the all-party campaign on freedom of information in local government, to extend the provisions of the access to information legislation to HATs. What is good for the local authority goose should be good for the housing action trust gander. The hon. Member for Hornchurch believes that, and so do I. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was one of the major sponsors of the campaign for freedom of information and the trio consisted of myself, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. We have all-party support for freedom of information and access to information.

It is important that people, the press and the media generally should have access to organisations such as the housing action trusts which govern the everyday lives of people. It was quite wrong for committees of local authorities to be able to go into secret session when discussing matters that were not official or state secrets, or did not involve the letting of contracts or commercial interests. All those things have been allowed for in the freedom of information legislation. Contractual or personal matters or the problems of an employee of a local authority, in this case the HAT, can be debated in camera.

As well as the desire to provide freedom of information, there is also a desire to safeguard the privacy of people and commercial requirements when going out to tender. Measures are necessary to protect the interests of the local authority and the housing action trust. It is right that local authority committees should be open to the public and the press, that the minutes should be available and that notice of when committee meetings are to take place should be published. That enables the media and constituents and residents to know about the meetings. If it is right to apply such rules to local authority committees, surely they should be applied to the housing action trusts.

As I have said, this is a non-political all-party approach to freedom of information. The Government support access to information in local government and such access should apply to the housing action trusts. A housing action trust is not an elected body, but an appointed quango that will govern a housing estate and its residents, who were previously governed by people who were directly elected. Because the people running the housing action trusts are not directly elected by the people being governed, we need this freedom of information and access to information legislation even more than we need it for local authorities.

In the debate on previous amendments, the Government refused to consult residents before an area is declared to be under the control of a housing action trust. They refused not to declare it a housing action trust area if the residents were opposed to that, and they are about to refuse residents the right to have majority representation on the housing action trust. After all that, they surely will not want to deny the residents the right to know what the trusts are doing and talking about. It is the residents that the trusts will discuss and the residents or their representatives want to be able to go and observe at meetings of housing action trusts. They want to see the agenda in advance so that residents' associations can make representations to the members of the trust about what is to be discussed.

If residents are to consult, participate or involve themselves in the activities of the housing action trusts, it is essential that the access to information and freedom of information legislation enshrined in the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 be applied to the housing action trusts. We are not asking the Government for anything that is particularly political. It is not political dynamite and does not divide the political parties. I hope that the Minister will look favourably at these two amendments. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hornchurch is not here to contribute to the debate. I know that the hon. Gentleman strongly supports freedom of and access to information not only for local government but all organisations. We do not want HATs to become like water authorities—meeting in secret, suspected by everyone and keeping the people whom they are there to serve in the dark.

If the Government do not support the idea of applying the freedom of information legislation to HATs when they were so enthusiastic about its application to local authorities, one will begin to suspect their motives. The Government did not mind any machinery being used to criticise, attack and make things difficult for local authorities. They thought that the access to information legislation would do that rather than support residents', tenants' and consumers' rights. If they do not accept that the freedom of access to information legislation should apply to HATs, their motives will be open to suspicion.

1.45 pm
Mr. Waldegrave

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be persuaded to withdraw his amendment when he realises that we are not quite as far apart as he thinks.

The amendments do not wholly apply the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 to HATs but reasonably seek to pick out the parts that are applicable to them. The amendments recognise that we should consider the structure of HATs and how access to them can be made to work.

In Committee we discussed in detail how HATs will be accountable through the House to the Secretary of State. They will be controlled through the corporate planning system and will have to submit annual reports to Parliament. We are about to discuss an amendment that was promised in Committee to allow the National Audit Office access to HATs so that the financial and ultimate accountabilities of the House are clear.

We have been discussing how to build in provisions to make HATs responsive to tenants' needs. I accept the argument advanced by the lion. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) that tenants cannot take part in HATs unless they have reasonable access to information and what is going on. We have reconsidered this matter and in Manchester I made an announcement, which was generally welcomed, that the Secretary of State will use his powers of direction to require HATs to hold their meetings in public. The hon. Gentleman said that water authorities in England do not meet in public, but HATs will be different in that respect. I am sure that the HATs' boards will only profit from that. They will have to be extremely close to tenants if they are to succeed in their tasks.

The amendments would cover committees and sub-committees as well as boards and would specifically require all meetings, except those exempted under schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972, to be open and for agendas and papers to be available for inspection. As we do not have a picture of the best organisational structure for a HAT, it is premature to decide whether the detailed provisions of that Act are the best way forward.

The Secretary of State's directions to HATs for their meetings will cover the circumstances in which HATs may decide to hold their meetings in private. A local authority planning committee may want to discuss in private confidential commercial material or individual matters to do with a tenant. Obviously a local authority will want to protect the interests of the tenant, so we shall set out the circumstances in which we think it proper for a HAT to meet in private. In general, FIAT board meetings should be held in public. We shall look closely at the provisions of schedule 12A to the 1972 Act to see how they may best be applied to HATs when we have decided their structure. It would be silly to apply detailed requirements that would not fit with what happens on the ground.

I hope that the hon. Member for Bootle will accept that we have taken steps in the direction that he wants and will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Mr. Allan Roberts

It is a refreshing change to have a response from the Minister that satisfies virtually everything that the Opposition have requested. Although we have been dissatisfied with the Minister's consultation arguments, it appears that, in this case, the Government have accepted our arguments and come forward with a suitable amendment.

In the light of the Minister's comments that access to information legislation will, in effect, be applied to HATs and that they will meet in public and be open to the press and the media, and as about 98 per cent. of our other requests appear to have been met, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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