HC Deb 08 November 1989 vol 159 cc1047-64

.—(1) In Schedule 5 to the Housing Act 1985 (exceptions to the right to buy), for paragraph 11 (certain dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age) there shall be substituted the following paragraph— 11.—(1) The right to buy does not arise if the Secretary of State has determined, on the application of the landlord, that it is not to be capable of being exercised with respect to the dwelling-house.

  1. (2) The Secretary of State shall so determine if, and only if, he is satisfied that the dwelling-house—
    1. (a) is particularly suitable, having regard to its location, size, design, heating system and other features, for occupation by persons of pensionable age, and
    2. (b) was let to the tenant or a predecessor in title of his for occupation by a person of pensionable age (whether the tenant or predecessor or another person).
  2. (3) The Secretary of State shall for the purposes of this paragraph disregard the presence of any feature provided by the tenant or a predecessor in title of his.
  3. 1048
  4. (4) An application for a determination under this paragraph shall be made within the period for service of the landlord's notice under section 124 (notice admitting or denying right to buy).
  5. (5) This paragraph does not apply unless the dwelling-house concerned was first let before 1st January 1990."

(2) Subsection (1) above does not apply in any case where the tenant's notice claiming to exercise the right to buy was served before the day on which this section comes into force.

(3) For the purpose of subsection (2) above, no account shall be taken of any steps taken under section 177 of the Housing Act 1985 (amendment or withdrawal and re-service of notice to correct mistakes.'.

Government consequential amendment (b) to the Bill in, page 146, line 3, after '146' insert

( Exception to the right to buy in case of certain dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age)'

Mr. Howard

The main issue in the group of amendments beginning with Lords amendment No. 271 is the right to buy as it concerns dwellings particularly suitable for elderly people. Our amendment (a), proposed as an alternative to Lords amendment No. 271, reflects the intention of the Lords amendments that were carried against the Government. They would give my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the task of making determinations to exclude from the right to buy individual dwellings that are not sheltered and that are particularly suitable for people of pensionable age. Such determinations could be made only in respect of existing housing. Housing for elderly people that was first let on or after 1 January 1990 would be within the right to buy unless it was part of a sheltered scheme with special facilities. The amendment also brings within the right to buy dwellings that are suitable for elderly people but have been let for occupation by a disabled person. I stress that the amendments do not affect the position of sheltered housing, which remains outside the right to buy without the need for any landlords to refer individual cases to the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 271 and the Government amendment in place of it are before the House because there is evidence that the existing legislation has not been working properly. In England, 519 determinations were made by the Secretary of State from the inception of the right to buy in 1980 until 1987, enabling landlords to retain particular properties. Since January 1987, in less than three years, English local authorities, now relieved of the duty to bring these matters to the attention of the Secretary of State, have denied the right to buy to the tenants of over 6,000 homes on the ground that the homes were particularly suitable for elderly people.

On any view, the abrupt increase in the number of tenants denied the right to buy for this reason must cause concern. I am ready to be persuaded that it was justifiable to deny the right in all cases, but I should he surprised if that were the position. The Department hears from over 300 tenants each year who have been denied the right to buy on the ground that their homes are elderly persons' housing. In many instances, their homes are not at all special. They might be bungalows or ground-floor flats that are, indeed, suitable for elderly people, but they are not out of the ordinary. It is clear from my post bag that many elderly tenants feel strongly that they are unfairly treated because of the way in which the law currently operates.

A timely example appeared in my post only this morning. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) wrote to me of a sad case in which a couple who have spent a great deal of money on improving their flat have been told by Brent council that it has decided, a year after the couple applied for the right to buy, that their home is a flat for elderly people. The hon. Gentleman asked me for my advice, the actions of Brent council having greatly distressed the tenants. I would not necessarily have expected the hon. Gentleman to be the strongest supporter of the right to buy, but he clearly recognises the unhappy position in which tenants can be placed under the law as it stands. If the operation of the law makes people feel that they are being treated unfairly, we need to think carefully about whether we have it right.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

It is outrageous that a local authority should suddenly step in and designate a home as being suitable for elderly people and, therefore, not eligible for the right to buy, but if there were to be extensive selling off of property which is suitable for the elderly, where would successive generations of elderly people find such accommodation?

Mr. Howard

There are various provisions. Grants are made by the Housing Corporation and housing associations that would deal with the problem. I recognise that my hon. Friend has expressed a legitimate concern. The difficult task in this area, as in so many others, is to strike the right balance. We think that we have acheived that by accepting the essence of the amendment that was passed, against our judgment, in another place.

We originally introduced an amendment to bring within the right to buy all elderly persons' housing that did not form part of a sheltered scheme. That amendment, which was carried in Committee in another place, was overturned on Report by what is now Lords amendment No. 271, which represents a compromise. Existing housing especially suitable for elderly people would remain excluded from the right to buy, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would once more, as he did until 1987, have the task of deciding whether a particular property fell within the statutory criteria. New housing for elderly people would be within the right to buy unless it were sheltered housing.

This subject gives rise to strong feelings. I recognise the sincerity of the views expressed in another place, which have been repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), and we are prepared to accept the compromise. The Government amendment, which would replace Lords amendment No. 271, is designed to improve the drafting of the provision submitted by another place without changing its substance. The consequential Government amendment provides for the new provisions to come into force on a day appointed by statutory instrument. As the Bill stands, it would come into operation on Royal Assent and that would not allow enough time to make arrangements for landlords to apply for determinations.

Lords amendment No. 272 concerns housing that is especially suitable for elderly people but has been let for occupation by a disabled person. The Housing Act 1988 repealed provisions under which housing other than sheltered housing specially designed or adapted for disabled people was excluded from the right to buy. A disabled person, however, may still be refused the right to buy on the ground that his or her home is especially suitable for occupation by elderly people. There was general agreement in another place that that was wrong. The Government amendment that is designed to replace Lords amendment No. 271 covers the matter. If the House accepts the Government amendment, there will be no need for Lords amendment No. 272. The remaining amendments concern the right to buy in Scotland. If hon. Members so wish, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will speak to them later.

7.15 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

As the Minister rightly said, Lords amendment No. 271 overturns provisions which were sent back to us from another place. It is important to remember that when the vote took place in another place, 94 of their Lordships were in favour and 36 against. Some Conservative Peers and Cross-Benchers voted with the Opposition for reasons that have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson).

The Government have tried to dig themselves out of a hole by giving the Secretary of State the power to exempt a local authority from having to sell. The problem about that is that we do not really know——

Mr. Howard

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the role of the Secretary of State is something that has been introduced by the Government. It reflects the essence of the Opposition amendment that was passed in another place.

Mr. Soley

I am talking about the amendment that the Government have introduced in this place. I am anxious to know whether the Government intend to adhere to the spirit of the original Lords amendment. Perhaps they are. That is one of the reasons why I want to explore the issue. There is considerable uncertainty here and in another place about why the Government feel that it is necessary to change the original Lords amendment, which was considered by their Lordships to be clear and satisfactory. The Government have chosen to change it, and there is doubt about the Government's willingness to interpret the spirit of their Lordships amendment. That is, in part, what the debate is about. Whatever I say, I assure the Minister that those in another place will want to return to this issue when they are able to do so.

Mr. Howard

So that unnecessary misunderstanding does not linger, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the position is exactly as I stated it. The changes to the Lords amendment have been made solely and exclusively for the purpose of curing the technical defects in the original amendment. They have been introduced for no other reason, and they do not change the sense of the original amendment. I thought that I made that pretty clear in my opening observations.

Mr. Soley

I welcome the Minister's intervention because I think that he has clarified the position. I am sure that the clarification will be welcomed elsewhere.

The Government have put themselves into difficulties because the right-to-buy policy has always been one legged. There is nothing wrong with the right to buy, be it for ordinary housing, housing for the disabled, housing for the elderly or housing for charitable associations, if it is matched by a duty to replace, and there is a financial structure that enables housing associations, be they charitable or not, to do so. The Government are in trouble —they faced criticism in another place, which has been repeated by the hon. Member for Taunton—because they cannot effectively replace properties that are bought under the right to buy.

In the debates over the past few years, including our debates yesterday, my hon. Friends and I have been drawing attention to the growing housing crisis. At the sharp end, there has been a diminution of the supply of affordable houses or flats for rent. The entire country is affected and the reason is not hard to find. Leaving aside the collapse of the private sector, which is not germane to the debate, well over 500,000 council houses have been sold. There would have been no problem if those houses had been replaced.

The Labour party made it clear that the right-to-buy policy could continue if it were matched in housing stress areas with a duty to replace. That duty could be achieved in a number of ways. It could be fulfilled by allowing the local authority or housing association to build another property. I shall deal with financing later. It could be achieved by the authority or association buying another property from the private market. It could be achieved also in a way that I would consider most appropriate, by the authority or association having the right to buy back when the house is put up for resale for the first time. I note that there is a nod of support from at least one Conservative Member, and probably two.

By simply allowing the right to buy without any duty to replace, in rural and urban areas alike, the Government have cut off the supply of affordable rented houses. It has dropped by at least 500,000 in the council house sector alone, and with housing association and private sector losses the total would be well above 1 million. The Government would not have found themselves in so much difficulty in Committee or in another place—they were forced to accept amendments there, and these changes are a result of that fait accompli—if they had originally introduced what the Labour party has always said was essential—the duty to replace. Their failure to do so has caused all these problems.

Why do the amendments relate specifically to the elderly? It is because, having introduced the right to buy, the Government suddenly found that the elderly and the disabled also wanted to buy. The same applies to the charitable housing associations. If the elderly and the disabled were given the right to buy, houses that had been specially converted for them would be lost to the rented sector and would not be available for future generations of elderly and disabled people. It has become clear that there would be a growing shortage of such accommodation. To prevent that, the Government would have to say that the elderly and the disabled should not have the right to buy —and consequently the right to buy would not, in effect, be a true right to buy. Indeed, we all know that it is not a fundamental human right; it has been limited to certain groups, and specifically to council tenants in certain types of accommodation.

Had the Government said initially that the right to buy should be matched by a duty to replace, and had they provided a housing finance system to support that, the position would be very different. The Government could then have said that the elderly and the disabled should have the right to buy. but that the local authority or housing association must replace. That could be done in any of the three ways that I have already suggested. However, if the Government were serious about doing that, the finances would have to be there to support it. That is why I urge on the Government the need to reform housing finance.

If a tenant is given a discount that comes from local authority funds, there is no way that that authority can replace—not even by buying back, or at least not without losing a great deal of money. The way around that problem would be directly to subsidise the person wanting to buy, but the Government have chosen not to do that. They do not really want to help people to own their homes; they want people to buy their council houses at the expense of other people in that area who are both paying for those houses and in the queue waiting for those houses.

That means that elderly people who want to move into specially converted accommodation are now less able to do so than previously. As the hon. Member for Taunton and the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) know, because there are fewer places available, those people cannot move into that sort of accommodation. That means a growing problem with elderly people having to stay in inappropriate housing while they wait for the right accommodation to become free, but it is not becoming free because it has been bought and is not being replaced.

Mr. David Nicholson

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recalls our debates in Committee. He has described with some accuracy the position in rural seaside areas. A number of elderly people have moved to those areas and there has always been a fairly small number of council homes, many of which have now been sold. However, that does not apply to the metropolitan areas where there are large empires of council homes which, on the whole, the elderly are trying to leave for very good reasons. Relatively few of those homes have been sold.

Mr. Soley

That is an amazing statement. In my neck of the woods it is becoming increasingly difficult to find appropriate housing for the elderly. I am referring to the old Greater London council area. All the seaside homes that had been specially designated for the elderly were sold en bloc to a housing association and have since been resold. That means that those who were intending to retire from London to the seaside, thus freeing a home in London, cannot do so because several thousand homes have been lost. The problem is serious in my area, even if it is not as serious as in some rural areas. There is nowhere for those people to go and that is why they are insisting on the right to buy.

I have had letters, similar to those sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), described by the Minister, asking, "Why can't I buy my home?" A disabled couple in my constituency are asking why they cannot buy their home. If there were a proper finance system, they could buy their home because the local authority could say that when they sold the property it would want to repurchase it. The finance system would have to allow that to happen. Alternatively, the local authority would have to buy another property and convert it—there is not a great deal of room for building in my constituency. That is what would happen in a rational system. However, because the Government have hooked themselves on to the right to buy alone, and did not think about the replacement of the rented homes that would be lost—whether for the elderly, the disabled or anyone else —they have caused a drastic drying up of supply.

One problem that is emerging in the current right-to-buy system are the cases—fortunately relatively few, but enough to be worrying—where children of an elderly couple encourage them to buy in the expectation of inheriting that home. I am not suggesting that that is done with any wicked intent; it is often done with the open co-operation of the parents who want to leave the home to their son or daughter. Nevertheless, the danger is that some parents are being increasingly pressurised. That would not need to happen if there were a reformed housing finance system that allowed us to assist those who wanted to buy, while enabling others to rent if they so wanted.

The reason that I suggested, outside the Chamber, that we would not vote on this group of amendments was that it appeared that the Government were staying within the broad parameters laid down in another place. The Minister has assured us that the changes that he has suggested are purely technical. We, and no doubt those in another place, will seriously consider that. However, I stress strongly that the way in which the right to buy has been operating is having a disastrous effect on the rented sector.

There are two major disadvantages for the elderly and the disabled. First, it prevents other elderly and disabled people from moving into specialised accommodation because less and less is available, and, secondly, it puts many of them in an unfair position because they think that they should have the right to buy, like everyone else, but they do not have it, either because it has not been conceded, because the local authority does not approve of that, or because the Secretary of State can say, "No, I do not think that you should buy it." Perhaps the Minister will find himself having to write back to my hon. Friend the Minister for Brent, East to say that the council was right and it should not allow them to buy. The Minister has taken on that duty. He will find himself saying the same as some councils—"I am sorry, we know you have the right to buy, but we can't allow it."

I want the Government to make a root-and-branch reform. We should have the right to buy, but people should be able to move between the rented and the purchase sectors. Many older people do not want to be owner-occupiers, but want to go back to the security of rented accommodation, so that they know who will repair the roof and that they will not be ripped off by the builder. If we worked on that we could turn the right to buy into something positive. It would give people a genuine option between renting and buying and would ensure that housing was replaced, and not lost from the rented sector.

7.30 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the need for replacement. I have a constituent who was forced to leave the marital home last week because of her husband's violence. She has three children and they are now sleeping on the floor, divided between two houses, one of which is a flat which belongs to an elderly person and does not have adequate room I received a letter from the local authority to say that it will be difficult to rehouse them. The mother will have difficulty bringing up her children alone. There is an injunction to stop her husband molesting her. However, the council will have difficulty housing her because of the number of houses that have been sold off in the area in which she wants to live, near friends who will support her. The housing shortage is causing serious difficulties.

Mr. Soley

My hon. Friend is right. If the right to buy had been matched by the ability to replace housing, and the housing finance system had been reformed, that situation would never have arisen.

It is not common knowledge—I accept that that is Labour's fault—that the Labour party has always provided council houses for sale. We did that in the 1930s to my certain knowledge. Our argument is that we have a duty to replace houses or the best ones are sold at a discount, and people are left to scrabble around for the remaining houses, which tend to be second and third rate homes. That is what has gone wrong with the scheme and what is going wrong for elderly people now. That is why the Government are in this hole.

I urge the Government to think about the possibilities that I have suggested to give elderly people the right to buy. Not everyone will have automatic access to it, but the right covers all sectors—the private sector, the public sector and housing associations. We could get housing finance right and build in safeguards so that the person who sells the house does not lose out and the subsidy goes to the person who is buying. We would be able to achieve tenure neutrality, and people would be able to move from the rented to the purchase sector and back again.

It is nonsense to force people to buy as early as possible, and to make them stay when they do not want to. For example, it is not a sensible policy for the elderly. It is ideal for people to rent when they need to, perhaps when they are young, to buy in their middle years, and, when they are elderly, and worried about repairs and maintenance, to be able to return to the rented sector. That is what we want. What we have is a chronic drying up of affordable housing for rent. For the elderly and the disabled the problem is double-edged—they are not entitled to the right to buy as other people are, and they cannot get the houses that they need. That is unnecessary and it is down to the Government to change it.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

I welcome the fact that the Government have seen fit to introduce their own amendment in response to the concern expressed in the other place and contained in Lords amendment No. 271.

I believe that, because of the way in which the Government introduced their original amendment—belatedly, at night during Committee stage in the other place—they had little option but to listen to the reasoned arguments put forth.

I am happy that the existing housing stock will be given some protection by the Government amendment, which allows the Secretary of State to determine whether an existing property falls within the right to buy. I would be happier if I could be assured that housing will be available to replace the present stock as age takes its toll. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) expressed that in his well-thought-out speech.

If we lived in a world where we could supply housing on demand, individuals' right to buy or not to buy would be paramount, but we do not live in a world like that. There is a desperate shortage of housing, not least in my area. I used to think it was quite an affluent area. I thought that council housing would be there for ever. The right to buy has interfered with that, and housing is not being replaced. The shortage of suitable homes for pensioners is worse —the supply of suitable flats and bungalows is diminishing rapidly. Lords amendment No. 271 would ensure that the existing stock would remain available for the growing number of people who need it.

We should not forget that the number of elderly people will increase dramatically. We have been told that time and time again in the context of care in the community. Many of those people will not be able to enter the housing market by buying a house which is suitable for their needs, or to adapt their existing home to meet those needs.

I am aware that it could be seen as discriminatory to deny an individual or some categories of individuals the right to buy, but to deny many people the right to live in accommodation that is adequate for their needs, and to condemn them to live, in some cases, in squalor is perhaps a greater discrimination.

Despite what the Minister has said, I support Lords amendment No. 272, which gives the right to buy to disabled persons, because I believe that a different set of criteria apply here. However, I shall add a note of caution. I hope that the right to buy will not lead to disabled people who are less well off having a poor quality of life through lack of access to accommodation which meets their needs. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) but will concentrate on the Scottish amendments. All these amendments relate to the right to buy.

Amendment No. 278 refers to the time spent in the family home by a child who succeeds to the parents' tenancy, and that time automatically counts towards the child's discount. For other members of the family, it is left to the discretion of the landlord—the local authority—whether to include time spent in the family home. The amendment seeks to remove that discretion and puts family members on the same basis as children or their spouses.

The second part of the amendment deals with members of the family who enter into a joint tenancy with an elderly relative. On their death, the family member becomes the tenant. Not all landlords consider that the discount entitlement should take into account the period of residence prior to the joint tenancy. This is particularly hard in the case of a family member who has put on a formal basis, by means of a joint tenancy, the arrangements made by the family to maintain a home.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I accept some of the things the Minister is saying. It is unfair that, if someone has lived for 10 years in a house with his mother, and is a joint tenant, that 10 years is not taken into account. However, what if they moved in six months before their mother died and took out a joint tenancy? It cannot be right for them to get an entitlement that goes back a long way.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

If a person has been living in a house for many years, it is perfectly fair. We are widening the right to buy, and we consider that it will be warmly welcomed by those concerned.

Lords amendment No. 279 relates to the amendment tabled by Lord McIntosh of Haringey in the other place. The amendment was defective as it omitted to delete reference to section 69 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 in the repeals schedule. That amendment also left in place the provisions of subsection (2). That subsection would be relevant only if the provisions of 1979 had been repealed in their entirety. Lords amendment No. 279 seeks to rectify those defects and to clarify which houses will continue to be excluded. It would not overturn the general principle.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) will be interested in Lords amendment No. 280, which relates to the extraordinary circumstances in which some council houses have leases as long as 999 years. The amendment seeks to give a tenant whose landlord is not the heritable proprietor the right to acquire his landlord's leasehold interest in the house that he occupies. Such leases are prevalent in Motherwell, Monklands, Stirling, West Lothian and Nithsdale, and were often granted for periods of at least 900 years. In such cases tenants cannot exercise the right to buy, but the amendment would allow them to acquire a substantial long-term interest in their homes.

Lords amendment No. 282 would require landlords to inform persons who have applied to purchase their homes of prospective changes in the provisions for calculation of the selling price of a house. A tenant should know if his position has been improved, and if he has not completed missives he can withdraw and reapply. That duty will relate only to applications made up to the point of the enforcement of the change. The landlord is not required to produce any calculations. I therefore do not consider that the new duty will prove onerous.

Mr. Maxton

The amendments may not be of major, earth-shattering importance in relation to Scottish housing, but they require some comment.

Yet again—disgracefully—Scottish housing, which in the past has always supposedly been part of the separate Scottish legislation system, is being disregarded and shoved into what is largely an English-Welsh Bill, which makes it difficult for Scottish Members to take account of it and for the public in Scotland to know what is happening.

The Minister is a difficult man to describe as an obsessional fanatic; nevertheless, the amendments are a product of the Government's complete obsession with the right to buy, which is their only housing policy in Scotland. They entirely disregard all other aspects of public and, for that matter, private housing. Now, in three or four different ways, they are extending that right still further, locating the odd loophole which remains and trying desperately to close it. Oddly enough, I gather that some elderly people's housing is to be excluded from the right-to-buy provisions—or, at any rate, local authorities will be allowed to exclude it. The measure to deal with long leases is certainly of some interest, but that is accidental.

What the Government always forget is that 85 or 90 per cent. of Scottish council and housing association tenants are simply not interested in buying their houses. What concerns them is that those houses are riddled with damp because they cannot afford to heat them properly, because the houses were badly designed in the first place and because they cannot be properly maintained because the local authority has not been given the money with which to maintain them. Tenants are concerned about the environment in which their houses are placed, and about ever-soaring rents caused by the Government's policy of forcing local authorities to push up rents time and again.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has pointed out, the houses that are sold are those in the better areas—those that tenants consider to be worth buying. My constituency contains part of one of the largest housing schemes in Europe, the one in Castlemilk. I believe that five houses have been sold, out of a total of more than 1,000. In other parts of Glasgow, such as Mosspark, large areas of housing have been sold.

In another amendment, which we may not reach, the Government have attempted to close yet another loophole. Glasgow district council may be stretching the law a bit—although it is acting in a way that is morally right—by saying that, having spent thousands of pounds on improving a house, it does not want tenants to turn around and say that they want to buy it. That strikes me as entirely justifiable, however; it is absurd that other ratepayers should spend a fortune on the upgrading of a house, only to find that the tenant has bought it. The court ruled that the council was wrong to take such action, but added that it could rule only in that one case; if another authority did the same, the same process would have to be gone through.

7.45 pm

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has said, it is time that the Government came up with housing policies and housing finance systems which concern all Scottish residents—those who own their houses, those who wish to own them and those who wish to remain as tenants. That is what a real housing policy is about, and that is the policy being developed by the Labour party. The sooner that Scotland's tenants have a Labour Government to implement that policy, the better.

Mr. Cryer

Let me enlarge on what I said in a brief intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley).

The Government are seeking to introduce a reserve power controlling the selling-off of public housing—that is, certain dwelling houses for those of pensionable age. That reflects the fact that the selling-off policy has begun to reap the disadvantages and difficulties that Labour has always said would arise in the absence of a policy for replacement. The case that I am about to cite does not concern a person of pensionable age; I shall deal with that aspect later. A few days ago, the experience of a constituent with whom I was dealing happened to coincide with my own prejudices.

I have warned in the past that the selling-off policy implemented by various items of legislation would lead inevitably to the exhaustion of available rented housing stock. The Minister should recognise that a large proportion of the population—it is difficult to determine the exact percentage—simply cannot afford to buy, as they have not the means for even a modest deposit. Rented housing of a decent standard is therefore a necessity if they are to embark on a life of any stability.

Shortly after the interview with my constituent began, she was in tears. She had been forced to leave the marital home with her three children, having been subjected to violence there. Her husband had pursued her to a flat with which the local authority had provided her: it was some distance from the marital home, so that she could avoid him. Having chased her there, however, he had attacked her, and she had been forced to flee the flat with her children and to hide in a local church—sanctuary, perhaps.

Having received some help and advice, my constituent had obtained an injunction in court to stop her husband molesting her. Although that had protected her from one danger, she had found herself homeless, and faced with a charge from the local authority for the month in which she had not inhabited the flat. She came to me in desperation, seeking security and assistance. She wanted to return to the area that her husband's violence had forced her to leave.

I took up the case with the local authority: it is the sort of case with which Members of Parliament frequently deal. The response came back from the local authority that she is on the waiting list. She has paid part of the joint debt that she and her husband had accumulated. She takes responsibility for the children and he does not. I should have thought that that would be taken into consideration.

The waiting list in Bradford is long, because over several years a considerable proportion of the housing stock has been sold. When I wrote to the local authority about my constituent's needs I was told that such a large proportion of the housing stock had been sold that it would be difficult to accommodate her—even though her application had considerable support—because there were not enough houses for all the people in need.

Government housing policy has not taken into account the fact that housing stocks are often reduced, as in Bradford, by the discovery of defects. The so-called Boot houses, built in the 1920s by Sir Henry Boot, were held together by metal ties which have corroded. A local authority must either build a new shell around them or demolish them. Limitations on housing capital expenditure are such that few local authorities can tackle such problems on any scale. Most have to accept the alternative of demolition, as in Bradford, where half an estate in my constituency has been demolished. Virtually no houses have been replaced.

Structural defects have also come to light in prefabricated dwellings. Under the right-to-buy scheme, purchasers have the right to sell back to the local authority if defects subsequently appeared. That protection was not unfair, but it shows that the right to buy has given rise to complications which were not foreseen when the Government embarked on the policy.

The clause recognises that local authorities sometimes invest extensively to provide for senior citizens homes with special facilities, such as ramps, baths with grab handles and so on. Such facilities cost extra money. Local authorities undertake such expenditure carefully. By and large, they are not lavish. They hit their expenditure targets far more accurately than central Government. They do not equip homes lavishly but simply provide facilities to make life easier for people who find it difficult to move about.

If such houses are sold, it is difficult to replace them because the necessary adaptations are costly. It is unjust to sell houses with special adaptations and facilities for people in their latter years. Local authorities are faced with extra expenditure when other elderly people justifiably want the same standards as were provided in the specially adapted flats that have been sold.

The policy of selling housing has reached a point where even the Government see the need to qualify it. The Bill recognises that. It is an outrage that the Government have not required the compulsory sale of private rented property. If a council tenant has the right to buy, so should a private tenant. If the right to buy is so inalienable and has such virtue, why is it given only to local authority tenants? I think that I know why and I shall expatiate on it after I have given way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Tony Banks

I know the reason, too. My hon. Friend will agree that it is because public property is considered second-rate and, if necessary, is virtually given away, while private property is sacrosanct. We have seen how the right to buy has been perverted by the Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more perverse when a specially adapted house is sold to someone who has no need of the facilities and clears them out? They are completely lost to people who could put them to good use.

The Minister was not in the Chamber earlier when we discussed the GLC seaside and country homes. As those homes have been sold, they are no longer available to old people in London to go and enjoy the seaside and country air.

Mr. Cryer

At one time the Government recognised the strength of my hon. Friend's argument. They did so in the 1980 Bill, when they decided to exclude all dwellings designated for elderly people. It was only subsequently that they decided to cast the net more widely, with the result that expensive fittings—which we do not begrudge —were lost to local authorities and future generations. My hon. Friend is right when he says that public housing is regarded as something to be looted.

Mr. Banks

Public assets.

Mr. Cryer

Indeed, public assets.

The Labour party has always had a tolerant view of a local authority's right to sell some of its housing stock and has recognised that there is a demand to buy. However, we maintain that it should be at the discretion of the local authority. The Government say that local authorities cannot make the decision because, for doctrinaire reasons, some will not sell off any of their stock. The local authority should judge whether there is a surplus of housing. I was a councillor on Keighley municipal borough council, which had a surplus of housing. The Labour group agreed with the Conservatives that some housing should be sold. Nobody was harmed because plenty of property for rent was available to people on the waiting list, who had the chance to obtain decent quality housing at a relatively low rent, quickly. The position has now completely changed. Part of that change is attributable to the Government's policy to sell public housing and not to allow local authorities to judge what is in the best interests of the community.

A group of Right-wing extremists is temporarily in control of Bradford council. It will not be there after the next elections in May. It is a matter of pride to them that the council is not building new council houses to replace those sold. A policy of replacement is necessary if we are to retain public-sector housing for rent. Bradford council has no replacement policy because of doctrinaire commitment. Are the Government serious about generating a housing policy that will provide for people who cannot afford the deposit on a house?

Such people may not have £2,000, £3,000 or £4,000 to hand because they live from week to week, struggling to pay their bills. They do not have surplus capital, not because they are spendthrifts but because they have a poorly paid job, for example in catering, and use all their income to pay their bills. If they have young children, they have to make provision for them, which is very costly.

The choice that the Government say that they have given to people is not available to those who do not have much money. The more money one has in one's pocket, the wider the choice. If one had £50,000, one could buy any make of car—from a mini or a deux chevaux up to a Rolls-Royce. If one has only £5 in one's pocket, there is no choice. One cannot buy a car.

It is just the same with housing. If one has £50,000 in one's pocket, it might buy a terraced house in a town in the north, such as Bradford, although prices there have rocketed because of the Government's policies. One could perhaps buy former council houses for £15,00 to £20,000; the price would vary according to the location. However, if one has only £5 in one's pocket, it is impossible to find the deposit to buy a house.

There is no choice. All one can do is get a rented house from the public sector. I emphasise the public sector because the Government have acknowledged that the quality of private sector housing for rent has diminished. The quality of private sector housing is highly variable. The Government dismantled the fair rent legislation and they are preparing the way for market rents.

8 pm

In recognition of the changed circumstances, the Government are seeking powers for the Secretary of State to say to landlords, "You can't sell this property because it does not meet the criteria that have been laid down in the new clause." This is highly specialised property, with the special and expensive adaptations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred. These circumstances apply to housing in general. Therefore, the provisions should not be confined to housing that is suitable for persons of pensionable age.

No persons of pensionable age have approached me regarding the possibility of purchasing their flat or bungalow. The reason is that persons of pensionable age would have great difficulty in buying their property. If they are 70, they are unlikely to be given a 20 or 25-year mortgage; it is unlikely that they will be there to pay the mortgage over 20 or 25 years. Most of them do not have much capital. Those who have some capital want to keep it. They do not want their nest egg to be used up on repairing a property that they have had to buy. That can be expensive. The provision of facilities to persons of pensionable age to buy their dwellings is the result of a doctrinaire policy. The Government are divorced from reality. They do not know what people's housing needs are. It is not a question of what people want. People want different things. Most people, however, need a house that is in reasonable condition.

That must seem a very modest aim to many Conservative Members. It is not, however, a modest aim to the constituent to whom I have referred. She has three children, sleeping on the floor. They are at school temporarily. She wants to move to another area, so she does not want them to settle down in any particular school. The housing shortage leads to uncertainty and difficulties for the children. They are unable to mingle with their peers at school just because the local authority may make an offer to house the family in two, six or 10 months time, depending on the number of houses that are available.

The modest requirement of decent housing at a fair rent would be very much welcomed by millions of people who cannot afford to buy their homes. I hope that, belatedly, the Government have recognised that their housing policy is leading millions of people into severe difficulties. I hope, too, that even now it is not too late for them to change their policy, which has caused so much despair.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for missing his speech. I saw his name on the annunciator in my office and came rushing into the Chamber, but he must have made an uncharacteristically brief contribution. He will be aware, however, of my long-standing interest in housing in Scotland, following our fairly lengthy debates in Committee and in the Chamber on the Housing (Scotland) Bill—now the Housing (Scotland) Act—last Session.

The Opposition have constantly pressed the Government to address the real housing needs and priorities of the people of Scotland. However, there has been no Government response. They have introduced the right to buy and they call that a housing policy. There is a housing crisis in Scotland. About a quarter of the population live in overcrowded accommodation. About 30,000 people become homeless in Scotland each year and have to apply to the local authorities under the homeless persons legislation. There are nearly 200,000 people on local authority housing waiting lists in Scotland. That is a housing crisis, and councillors and Members of Parliament in Scotland come face to face with it in their constituencies, week in, week out. Unfortunately, however, Scotland has a Government who are not elected by the people of Scotland. I suppose, therefore, that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and his colleagues do not realise how important it is to deal with the crisis.

The homeless, those on low incomes and those in overcrowded accommodation might like to buy their houses but the right to buy will not overcome their serious, immediate problem: the right to rented housing, the right to have a decent roof over their heads, the right to security. In many cases, the Government are taking those rights away from them.

The right to buy, which we are extending by means of the amendments to which the Minister referred, will encourage more people who might not particularly want to own their own homes to purchase them. I am thinking in particular of former Scottish Special Housing Association tenants, 80,000 of whom are now Scottish Homes tenants. They are worried that Scottish Homes will hand them over to the private sector. In many parts of Scotland there are bad memories of private landlords. However, they feel that because of the incentives that the Government are offering they would be crazy not to buy their houses. In the coming months and years, though, they may find it very difficult to cope with the costs of home ownership, insurance and repairs. They are almost being trapped into home ownership. In many cases that may prove to be a burden in the long term because of the dynamics of the Government's housing policies.

The right-to-buy policy makes sense for those who can afford to buy their houses, but that is not a housing policy; it is a home ownership policy. The Government refuse to address themselves to the problems of people living in overcrowded and bad accommodation and, above all, to the homeless, who are stuck on local authority waiting lists and have no prospect of obtaining accommodation. The right to buy at a discount, which the Government are pursuing so doggedly, is not a policy but a diversion.

A responsible Government in Scotland should be addressing the need for housing for our people and ensuring that houses are built, improved and made available to those who need them. We are still awaiting such a policy, and I fear that we may have to wait until a Labour Government take office here or in the Scottish Parliament in due course.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

This is part two of the equation that I mentioned yesterday when we were debating rents. It involves the destruction of a good housing policy by the policies of the Government and their ideological pursuit of home ownership.

I told the Minister yesterday that my local authority promotes home ownership and helps in every way that it can. It protested against the right to buy—the Minister is well aware of its reasons for doing so—but once it became law it sold its council houses.

Some of the problems that I foresaw when we were debating the Bill in Committee have now occurred. People have bought their homes but, unfortunately, have discovered that they cannot afford them. Once again, they are asking the local authority to rehouse them because of foreclosure on their mortgages. In Committee, I said, "For heaven's sake include provisions in the Bill to ensure that that does not happen. Local authorities should be able to repurchase the houses that they sell." The Government did not take any notice; local authorities have been powerless to repurchase houses and they have had to be sold on the open market.

About 16 or 17 per cent. of my local authority's housing stock has been sold, but in other areas the figure is as high as 34 per cent. Not surprisingly, the 34 per cent. of the houses that have been sold are the most desirable. If the Minister wants the figures, I have them here.

The Government are now proposing the sale of aged persons' dwellings. They believe that aged persons should have the same right to buy as anyone else. From their point of view, that is admirable, but once again the policy will cause problems. Every bungalow or aged person's flat that is sold on the open market means that someone will not achieve their dream of having a local authority aged person's bungalow or flat. In the rural areas of my constituency, Airey-type dwellings have had to be pulled down and the local authority has replaced them not with houses but with stone-built bungalows overlooking the Cawthorn Baison, which has one of the most marvellous views of Yorkshire. The value of those bungalows on the open market must be tremendous, and under the Government's policy they will have to be sold off. However, there are insufficient houses in the area and the children of families resident in the area are having to move away as a result. The more houses that are sold off, the worse the problem becomes. Not a single aged person's bungalow should be sold because it deprives someone of the opportunity of such housing, unless enough money is provided for a replacement. The Government made that mistake with council houses, but they should not repeat it with bungalows.

8.15 pm

Figures for house building in my local authority show that in 1979–80 449 private houses, 297 council houses and 27 housing association dwellings were built, making 773 in total. In 1987–88, 347 private houses, no council houses —because of Government policy—and 56 housing association dwellings were built, making a total of 403. There has been a 50 per cent. drop in house building, but, at the same time, a 54 per cent. rise in the number of homeless people.

The Government have not a housing policy but an ideological hatred of council housing. They hate the idea of councils being housing authorities. They wish to get rid of council housing and leave only sheltered accommodation, part III accommodation and accommodation that they can sell off.

The Government have ruined the history of council housing, the history of housing in general and have hurt hundreds of thousands of people, who will not forget.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendment made in lieu of the Lords amendment: (a), after clause 146, insert the following new clause—Exception to the right to buy in case of certain dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age..— —(I) In Schedule 5 to the Housing Act 1985 (exceptions to the right to buy), for paragraph 11 (certain dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age) there shall be substituted the following paragraph— 11.—(1) The right to buy does not arise if the Secretary of State has determined, on the application of the landlord, that it is not to be capable of being exercised with respect to the dwelling-house. (2) The Secretary of State shall so determine if, and only if, he is satisfied that the dwelling-house—

  1. (a) is particularly suitable, having regard to its location, size, design, heating system and other features, for occupation by persons of pensionable age, and
  2. (b)was let to the tenant or a predecessor in title of his for occupation by a person of pensionable age (whether the tenant or predecessor or another person).
(3) The Secretary of State shall for the purposes of this paragraph disregard the presence of any feature provided by the tenant or a predecessor in title of his. (4) An application for a determination under this paragraph shall be made within the period for service of the landlord's notice under section 124 (notice admitting or denying right to buy). (5) This paragraph does not apply unless the dwelling-house concerned was first let before 1st January 1990. (2) Subsection (1) above does not apply in any case where the tenant's notice claiming to exercise the right to buy was served before the day on which this section comes into force. (3) For the purposes of subsection (2) above, no account shall be taken of any steps taken under section 177 of the Housing Act 1985 (amendment or withdrawal and re-service of notice to correct mistakes).'.—[Mr. Howard.]

Consequential amendment made: (b), in page 146, line 3, after '146' insert

(Exception to the right to buy in case of certain dwelling-houses for persons of pensionable age)—[Mr. Howard.]

Lords amendment No. 272 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 278 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 279 disagreed to.

Amendment made in lieu of the Lords amendment: (a), after Clause 154 insert the following new Clause—