HL Deb 22 July 1976 vol 373 cc1004-28

5.49 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that this report be now considered.

Moved, That the Report be now considered—(Baroness Stedman)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord CAMPBELL of CROY moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 5, line 4, at end insert: ("( ) Directions under this section shall specify a quota of wheelchair housing and mobility housing respectively to be included in any transfer scheme.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think it would be for the convenience of the House if this Amendment were considered with Amendments Nos. 3, 6 and7 as they are all related. I beg to move Amendment No. 1 in the name of my noble friends Lady Young, Lord Sandys and myself. I would say at the outset that this Amendment, accompanied by the other three, is a probing Amendment. I have no intention of pressing the Amendment. Therefore the noble Baroness need not take up the time of the House by pointing out any imperfections there may be in the drafting of it.

There was put down in another place an Amendment in a similar sense to the Bill, but there was no opportunity for it to be considered. As the noble Baroness knows, this is a subject which the All-Party Group in Parliament on the disabled has had near to its heart and it was trying to get the matter discussed in the Commons. I am raising the matter today in order to give the Government an opportunity to state their views. I recognise that the Government may feel some difficulty in making a change of this kind in this Bill. It relates entirely to new towns and therefore this is the Bill in which it can be discussed.

Section 3 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act of 1970 encourages local authorities to provide housing designed to be suitable for the severely disabled. But it does not apply to the new town corporations. In new towns it is the corporations which provide the housing, not the local authorities within whose areas the new towns are situated. These Amendments draw attention to the need for legislation to cover the new town corporations. We do not believe that it is enough to leave this matter to directives from the Department of the Environment, and this has been proved by the figures.

This Bill applies to England and Wales and the figures which I am about to give apply to England and Wales. On 14th April this year, in another place, one of the Ministers of the Department of the Environment gave figures in a Parliamentary reply. These indicated that about 200,000 houses have been completed or are now being built in the new towns in England and Wales. Of that number, only 53 have been built as wheel-chair housing. That is a very small proportion compared with the figures which have been given for local authorities. The local authorities have built many more—not nearly enough but, none the less, many more in proportion to the total number over the same period. That proves the point that it is not enough for this simply to be left to the new town corporations or for them to be jogged by the Department of the Environment.

I recognise that the new town corporations have always associated those who are coming in to the towns and who are offered houses, with the firms which are moving in, the firms they have encouraged or attracted to come to the new towns and provide employment. That means that even more special consideration has to be given to the disabled, not only the disabled worker—and firms are under an obligation to take a certain percentage of disabled among their workforce—but also where there are disabled persons in the family, not necessarily the breadwinner.

On expenditure, I can allay any disquiet that there might be on today of all days, when we have heard this recent Statement about expenditure, because almost everything proposed concerning the severely disabled and how one can help them leads to overall savings in public expenditure, not to additional public expenditure. There is a very simple reason for this: it is substantially cheaper for the taxpayer and ratepayer to enable the severely disabled to live in homes rather than them being "dumped" in hospitals or institutions, where it is very expensive for the community to keep them. I was one of those who started the Parliamentary campaign for the severely disabled 10 years ago in another place. I was lucky in winning two ballots. I and others were delighted later when Mr. Alf Morris came first in the ballot for Bills in November 1969 and decided to take up the subject of the disabled. He started by producing a Bill which applied only to England and Wales. We were able to put that right at Report stage and it eventually applied to Scotland, too.

In the meantime, the principal message had gone through that doing the thing being proposed for the severely disabled was saving public expenditure overall and not adding to it. That message did get through to the Government machine and was broadly accepted. As a result, since then we have had attendance and invalidity allowances and other benefits which are very small amounts per week compared with the cost of keeping a severely disabled person in hospital. Indeed, if he is in hospital he is occupying a bed which is probably badly needed by a Health Service patient. The former, unimaginative remedy, of simply consigning severely disabled persons to hospitals or institutions has been changed. The situation has been transformed in the past eight years. There are many severely disabled persons now living in the community who in the past would be in institutions.

It is good for them; it is therapy in itself. They want to be as independent as they can be with the help that they have to be given, and it is good for their morale. It helps to improve their medical situation generally. So we come to housing, and if one is going to get as many severely disabled people living in the community as can in fact with imagination circulate and live in the community, we must have housing which is suitable for wheelchairs, known as wheelchair housing. There has also to be the other category of housing, mobility housing, which suit other forms of disability.

I have seen Circular 92 of 2nd October 1975, about these two forms of housing for the severely disabled, which was sent out by the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office. But that circular was sent only to the local authorities and the housing corporations. The housing corporations presumably would pass it on to the housing associations. But the new town development corporations were not recipients of that circular—at least, they were certainly not shown on the circular as having received it. So we hope that the Government will be able to give us their latest views on this matter. It is one which is of interest to the All-Party Parliamentary Committee, with Members of both your Lordships' House and in another place. There seems to be a gap in the legislation which needs to be filled. I hope that when the Minister is able to tell us something about how it is going to be filled for England and Wales, to whom this Bill applies, Scotland will not be forgotten.

5.59 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will recall that on Second Reading I gave notice to the noble Baroness that I would attempt to move an Amendment to the Bill. At that stage I did not see where it could be made. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has successfully found a spot where he can tuck it in, and he has asked for answers to certain questions. I had the pleasure of talking to the Minister after Second Reading. As a result of that, I was going to probe what had happened after the meeting with the chairmen of the new town corporations. I was frustrated since your Lordships' agenda each day already had the four starred Questions taken up, so I am using this opportunity to ask the Minister whether she can tell us what was the outcome of that meeting. Did they agree to what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and, in my own small way, I hope I, are now asking should be part of the New Towns Act?

6 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, may I first of all pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for the work that he has done over the years and is still doing for the disabled. This rebounds to his credit. May I also thank him for his intimation that he is really seeking to clarify the Government's intentions at this point. I should like to assure him that what I have so say, so far as the Department is concerned, will apply to Scotland as well.

My noble friend Lady Phillips raised this subject, as she said, at an earlier stage of the Bill, and in reply I outlined the steps which the Government had taken following the issue of the Consultation Paper New Towns in England and Wales towards the end of 1974. During the Committee stage last week, I was able to inform your Lordships of the support of the new town chairmen for my right honourable friend's intention that the new towns should play a full part in housing the disabled. Noble Lords will therefore appreciate that there is really nothing between the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, my noble friend Lady Phillips and myself on the basic desire to see that suitable housing is available in our new towns for those who are physically handicapped.

In her remarks on Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Phillips suggested that in the new towns the Government had fallen badly behind in their provision for the disabled; and at first glance the figures which she quoted would give this impression. The noble Baroness also suggested that this was the result of relying on a Departmental directive rather than on legislation. My Lords, in so far as the first of these contentions is true, it is true of successive Governments; but I would not wish your Lordships to underestimate the quite considerable provision which has been made by development corporations, through the adaptation of existing dwellings, where they have been housing disabled people. This has not been shown in the figures which were quoted by my noble friend, but it is the present Government who have given recognition to the need to develop what I might term the social role of our new towns, and have provided the framework, through their Consultation Paper and revised tenancy allocation guidelines, for this to be done.

My noble friend has been critical of the effectiveness of the advice which has been given to the new towns, but I think it is perhaps too early to make this kind of judgment. It is at the design stage of a new housing scheme that the necessary steps must be taken to include mobility or wheelchair housing and in the nature of things there cannot be an immediate increase in provision, whether the impetus for that increase comes from a Departmental directive or from legislation. Many new housing schemes now being designed in the new towns do include suitable provision, and these will be converted into actual housing provision as the schemes come to fulfilment, but it takes some time to get from the pipeline to the completion of the building. As I informed your Lordships during the Second Reading debate, we shall be monitoring what is happening in each of the new towns to ensure that adequate provision is being made.

My Lords, I have said that there is nothing between noble Lords opposite, the noble Baroness and myself on the broad objective; but I am quite unable to accept that these Amendments are a suitable means of achieving, or even moving towards, that objective. The intention behind them seems to be that directions given by the Secretary of State are to specify a number of wheelchair and mobility houses to be included in the transfer scheme, and that to the extent that the reality falls short of that number, the Secretary of State shall make grants to the receiving district council of sums not less than, if I may quote: "the current allowances for such housing".

My Lords, there are a number of objections to these Amendments. Amendment No. 1, which requires that the Secretary of State's directions relating to what is to be included in a transfer scheme shall specify the quotas, is to form part of Clause 3(5) which, as noble Lords will appreciate, is at the moment permissive as to what may be included in such directions. Furthermore, the Amendment would appear to require the Secretary of State to specify a quota of housing of a particular type to be included in the transfer scheme notwithstanding that the dwellings required to meet the quota may not in fact exist. In any event, an Amendment of this kind, which deals with the transfer of dwellings to the district council, cannot by itself achieve any increase in the number of wheelchair and mobility houses provided by new town corporations.

Amendment No. 2 is at least realistic in that it simply requires a factual statement of what is transferred, presumably in order to place on record the extent of the shortfall from the quota. But, apart from the somewhat novel approach of Amendment No. 1, the whole concept of quotas is not, in the Government's view, appropriate to the provision of housing for disabled people. The Department's Occasional Paper Wheelchair Housing emphasised that: While the number of people who need wheelchair housing is small, it is also by definition a very variable population, making it impossible for there to be formula solutions which will be universally appropriate. Upon what basis is the Secretary of State to determine the hypothetical and perhaps retrospective quota which the Amendment would require? It is not a matter of the numbers of disabled local residents, for these are the responsibility of the local authority; the new town's area of intake may, for example, be the whole of London. But neither, for obvious reasons, can the Secretary of State base the quota on the number of disabled Londoners. The fact is that this is not a matter which is susceptible to retrospective adjustment. The historic provision made by a particular new town will have been related to the tasks and objectives of that new town; and to argue that the provision or the objectives should have been different is likely to be unproductive. The local housing authorities, the local authorities within a new town area, do build, and have continued to build, houses and to cater for the needs of the disabled.

Although I am opposing these Amendments as now worded, I hope I have made it clear to noble Lords opposite and to my noble friend Lady Phillips that the Government are not in any way opposed to the view that new towns have an important role to play in relation to the disabled. On the contrary, we are committed to the view that opportunities and facilities of life in our new towns should be increasingly available to those who, because of their social and physical handicaps, often stand to derive the most benefit from them. We shall continue to progress towards that objective through tenancy allocation policies and by suitable provision in new building programmes.

At the Minister's meeting with the chairmen of new towns, as I reported on Committee stage, we had the full support of the new town chairmen to increase the amount of mobility and wheelchair accommodation within the new towns. I hope that noble Lords opposite will accept these explanations and also my assurances that we want this provision within our new town areas and within all our housing authority areas, and that our new towns are not going to be behind in providing it.


My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy carries out his expressed intention to seek to withdraw the Amendment, I should like to say that so far as this noble Lord is concerned, he is not satisfied with the reply given by the noble Baroness. She began by saying that there was very little between us. That may be so as regards the broad objective, but I believe there are real points at issue which were raised by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. I must say that his quotation of the Minister's reply on 14th April, saying that only 53 wheelchair houses in 200,000 were completed, was a very convincing statement so far as these Amendments are concerned. I was interested to hear the noble Baroness say that she thought Amendment No. 2 was realistic, because we shall be coming to that Amendment shortly. I think perhaps the noble Baroness intended to refer to Amendment No. 3. She has not nodded, but perhaps she will do so in due course.

One of the basic reasons why we believe that the Government's policy is wrong at the moment is the fact that it is wasteful. Adaption of existing dwellings is far more costly than the inclusion at the design stage of satisfactory wheelchair housing. I am sure it goes without saying that we believe that this is an omission from the Bill.


My Lords, this has been a brief debate, but it has given the Government an opportunity to speak on this subject which was denied in another place. I should like to start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for her support. I know that she has been much concerned about this subject. Also, I accept what I think was her intended compliment about the ingenuity needed in order to get these Amendments into the right Part of the Bill.

I recognise the difficulties which the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, indicated about the Amendments. I started by saying that myself, when I moved Amendment No. 1. I hope that the Government will seriously consider this point, and will consider whether there is some other way by which the new town corporations can be brought into the situation, as the local authorities are, because we cannot be content with the present situation. The noble Baroness told us that the position will improve in the not too distant future, but I do not think we can be satisfied, and I doubt whether other members of the all-Party group in all parts of the House will be satisfied. But we are glad that the noble Baroness has this evening given us a statement of the Government's position, and I now beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.12 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 2: Page 5, line 5, after ("scheme") insert (",in addition to the matters referred to in section (Right of tenants to purchase dwelling-houses) of this Act,").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this Amendment I should like to speak at the same time to Amendments Nos. 4, 8 and 9. I put down this series of Amendments, which I hope the noble Baroness will appreciate are now differently drafted, in the hope that this time she will look more favourably upon them. I have, of course, studied with very great care what she said in Committee, and I was particularly glad to note that she said at column 255: … the Government are in no way opposed to owner occupation".—[Official Report, 13/7/76.] It is very encouraging, indeed, to see how far the Government have moved in this direction, especially in the course of the passage of this New Towns (Amendment) Bill. We on this side of the House do not put owner occupation on a kind of pedestal, as she suggested, but we believe that in a country in which 31 per cent. of the houses are now council houses those tenants should have the right to buy their houses if they so wish. Not only would this provide freedom of choice for a large number of people, but the fact is that no one would be obliged to buy and many would not choose to do so; and, of course, it is right and proper that there should always be rented accommodation available for whole varieties of people with very different means. But it seems to me that the sale of council houses makes economic sense today, particularly at a time of economic stringency such as we now have.

I listened with great care to the Statement this afternoon, but it was a very lengthy one and I have not yet seen it in writing. But I think I understood that £146 million is to be cut off the housing budget, which therefore gives all the more point to trying to get individuals to contribute much more to the cost of their own housing. It makes sense, when all the evidence shows that tenants want the opportunity to own their own homes. Furthermore, it has always been my belief that in a democracy it is the job and duty of the Government to try to provide the policies that people want, in order to provide the conditions in which people can live out their lives within the law. I see that the noble Baroness agrees with me on that point. She, too, has been in local government. She, too, must have canvassed on many council housing estates, as I have, and she must be well aware of the feelings of the tenants.

One of the criticisms that has been levelled at these Amendments—and I see the force of the argument—is that they apply only to limited numbers of tenants. But the fact is that this is not a suitable Bill for bringing in a statutory right for all council house tenants, whether they are living in a new town or under a local authority, to buy their own house. Even I see that that is well beyond the bounds of the Bill, so we can concentrate only on those areas where it is possible.

I have not the slightest doubt that my Amendments are defective. I have long come to the conclusion that any Amendment, unless it is drafted by a Parliamentary draftsman, is always defective; and it goes without saying that any Amendment drafted by myself is always defective. I am very sorry and I do my best, but I am not a lawyer. I regret to say that sometimes, when I have consulted a lawyer about drafting an Amendment, I have been told that it was too ingenious to be correct and one is left with the impression that one has been too clever by half—not a failing that I have. But it is very dispiriting when those who are said to be experts seem to have fallen into the same trap.

Nevertheless, I have tried to meet some of the points of objection raised by the noble Baroness in Committee. I hope she will agree that this time the Amendments do not tie the residential requirement to a particular house. We should clearly like to extend the Amendments to all local authority houses, but of course that is outside the terms of the Bill and I recognise its limitations. I hope that I have cleared up the matter of the maximum period of 30 years preceding the period of three years, when assessing the discount allowable under subsection (2) of Amendment No. 4.

I think, however—and I hope that the noble Baroness will agree with me—that if the Government do not accept the principle of these Amendments, tenants in new towns who wish to buy their houses will not find it amusing, clever or impressive to know that their cause was lost not because of the principle, but because of a technicality in the drafting which the Government could put right if they were minded so to do. So I hope that the Amendments will not fall on that score, because that would be very disturbing on an extremely serious issue about which thousands of people in this country feel very strongly. My Lords, I beg to move.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, very briefly, I should like to support my noble friend Lady Young, and to congratulate her on her skill and persistence in trying to move this very important principle into the Bill. As my noble friend said, one feels after reading the reports of the various stages of the Bill, both in another place and here, that the Government have become more and more sympathetic to this principle. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, smiles at that, for which I am grateful.

I support my noble friend's Amendment, and the principle behind it, for three reasons. First, it undoubtedly gives flexibility of movement, which my noble friend stressed very convincingly both today and at the last stage. I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, whether she has any figures available which indicate how long council house tenants stay in the same house. We know that the average length of mortgage for those who buy houses is about seven years, and it would be very interesting to know how long council house tenants stay in the same house. The second reason why I support the Amendment is the economic one, to which the Statement today was very pertinent. The third reason is one which I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will accept. When houses are sold in a council house development area, that very much adds to the community spirit which is undoubtedly a good thing.

I should like to make two points on Amendment No. 4. In subsection (I) of the new clause, there is a condition of three years' occupation in order to qualify for a purchase. This is a very sensible period of time, which I should like to commend to the Government. I should also like to remind them that they themselves brought in a five-year period of occupation when they introduced the Leasehold Reform Act, and this is a very parallel condition of occupation. The second point which I should like to make on Amendment No. 4 is that in subsection (2) the noble Baroness quite properly spelled out the discount which has always been accepted for other council house sales; namely 20 per cent. However, what the noble Baroness does not include, for some reason, is a pre-emption clause or safeguard so far as the new towns are concerned to cover the writing down of the 20 per cent. discount over, say, a five year period if the owner decides to sell the house very soon after buying it. I hope that the noble Baroness will consider that point, perhaps at a later date.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lady Young who has once more moved this Amendment. Like my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, I believe that this Amendment is of very great importance. On the day when we have listened with growing anxiety to the financial statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the Daily Mail there has appeared an interesting statement by Mr. Raymond Potter, the Chairman of the Building Societies' Association. As the statement appears in quotation marks, I imagine that it may be correct and I hope that your Lordships will allow me to quote it. It is not so long as the financial Statement. Mr. Potter said this: It costs on average £875 to subsidise each council house and yet only £290 for the tax relief on mortgage". This is certainly part of the argument. I believe that not only is this a beneficial and economic process for the nation as a whole but that its popularity is out of all proportion to what the Government believe it to be.

I have been searching for figures regarding the sale of houses in new towns, but I have not yet been able to find statistics which isolate the sale of houses in new towns from those owned by other local authorities. Nevertheless, I have looked at Cmnd. 5519—Public Expenditure 1977–78—and locked into Table C I discover that as long ago as 1970 the total number of sales stood at 7,659, rising only two years later, in 1972, to no fewer than 63,950. I must admit that that is an all-sales figure and includes those from other local authorities, apart from the new towns. But let us take it that the figure includes a proportion of the new town sales. It may be difficult to segregate these statistics but I have done my best, and I believe that the Amendment moved by my noble friend. Lady Young is of outstanding importance.


My Lords, very briefly may I also support my noble friend Lady Young. First, we are now talking about dwelling houses, but I prefer to call them homes because that is what they are to the people who now live in the new towns. I am particularly keen that a cross-section of society should live in the new towns. That is what makes a town an entity. I was delighted to hear what the noble Baroness had to say about making provision for the disabled. Homes are where we bring up children, and if father is putting what I have always called "money down the drain" in rent and getting nothing back at the end of the day, he resents it. I have run across this problem very often.

Also, in courts of law people from all walks of life have come before me and with very great pride have said that they live in council property and are buying their houses on mortgage. It is quite extraordinary to hear the pride in their voices. I feel also that if a man is enabled to buy his house he is more likely to stay in that house and bring up his children. This creates stability for the family and the children, and stability is what we need at this time for the future generation. Therefore I commend my noble friend's Amendment.

6.25 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, if I may reply to some of the points which have been made by noble Lords opposite before I deal with the main Amendments, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, asked whether we had figures showing how long tenants of council houses have held their tenancies. I understand that it is difficult to obtain details of this kind for the country as a whole and that no figures are kept by the Department. I regret that I am unable to help the noble Earl, but I think that I may be able to be of a little more help to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys. It may be possible to find out the number of sales of houses in the new towns, at least while they were selling houses before the recent clamp down. If that information is readily available I will write to the noble Lord.

I take the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, on the importance of mixed social grouping within our new town areas. I can speak with absolute certainty only of the new town with which I was associated before I gained minor promotion to our Front Bench. In the new town of Peterborough the aim was to have 50 per cent. owner occupied and 50 per cent. rented accommodation, but because of the demand for rented accommodation we had to build more accommodation of that kind and less accommodation for sale. Therefore although our object was to have a completely mixed community we have not yet been able to achieve it. However, we are only half way through our development, so as time goes on we may be able to do so.

In Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said that she was stimulated by my attack on the previous Amendments regarding this subject. I must acknowledge that the noble Baroness has attempted to remedy many of the drafting faults which I had to criticise at that time. Although she will not be surprised to learn that I am still advised that the Amendments which are now before us still contain some drafting defects, I do not propose to dwell upon them but to concentrate instead upon what we on the Government Benches see as the fundamental issues involved in this group of Amendments. I shall try to be as concise as possible, in view of the time that has already been devoted to this matter at every previous stage of the Bill, both in another place and in your Lordships' House.

First, we are not in favour of a statutory right for tenants to purchase their homes because we believe that that would destroy the essential flexibility needed to utilise the rented housing stock to the best advantage. Circumstances vary from place to place and from time to time, and a statutory right written into an Act of Parliament imposes a rigidity which cannot take account of what the rented housing position may be at any particular place or at any particular time. We believe that it is wrong to be doctrinaire about this and to give any statutory right to purchase a rented house, but tenants should not be discouraged from purchasing where the local circumstances permit. However, we believe that there should be an opportunity to discourage or prevent such purchases where there are long waiting lists for rented housing.

Secondly, the Amendment would impose what we feel would be an unnecessary and undesirable rigidity with regard to the discounts that would be allowable on the purchase price. It surely cannot be right to seek to lay down in a Statute providing for transfers, some of which may not take place until the 1990s, the precise amount of discount which can be given on the purchase price. Can noble Lords opposite be really confident that the 20 per cent. plus discount which they specify in their proposed new clause will still be the appropriate discount to be offered in the year 1990 or thereafter? Surely it is better to leave the Government of the day, whatever its political complexion, to determine what shall be the discount. This can be done in the context of a consent procedure and without the need for fresh amending legislation to be introduced.

Thirdly, my Lords, as I said at Committee stage, we believe that it would be wrong to give such a right to purchase—as the Amendments do—to tenants in just those towns where transfer is imminent. Whatever the merits of the Opposition's arguments, surely this is unfair to the tenant in one of the third generation new towns where transfer—and hence his right to purchase—is unlikely to come about for a number of years? It may well be in some of those towns that the waiting period for rented housing is at its lowest, yet these tenants would not be given the statutory right to purchase. But tenants in towns where transfer is imminent would, under these Amendments, have just such a right, notwithstanding that they may be towns with very long waiting periods for rented housing.

I ask noble Lords opposite to think again and not to try to pre-empt the decision by the district council as to whether it would or would not be right to sell. Of course I appreciate that this Bill is the only vehicle the Opposition have for putting forward their policy on sales, and the scope of this Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said, does not permit them to give rights to tenants other than in the context of this transfer scheme. Obviously this is a real dilemma for them. But surely they have faith in the local authorities. Do noble Lords opposite really consider that the newly elected authorities in new town areas who might be expected to be sympathetic to the views of the Party opposite, are incapable of deciding whether or not it would be right for them to sell their houses?

The Government firmly believe that the local authority should have the right to manage the housing stock according to its perception of the housing needs in its district. The Opposition have said, both here and in another place, that they support the principles of the Bill. I ask them to show that support by not seeking to frustrate the district councils' powers to manage the housing stock to the best advantage of their district. This is particularly important, in the context of our efforts, in those towns nearing completion, to normalise our new towns and to create one community and remove the distinction between the new town tenant and the local authority tenant.

Yet there is another fundamental aspect of the Amendments to which I must refer. We are all aware that bureaucracies at national and at local level are prone to plead from time to time that some things should not be done because they are inconvenient administratively. I do not think I should allow this debate to be concluded without setting out some of the consequences of the exercise of an uninhibited right of certain tenants to begin the process of acquisition of the rented houses they occupy when a transfer scheme has been prepared. Here I would emphasise that the proposals in the Amendment only bite when the transfer scheme exists. We really must not underestimate, and certainly do not ignore, the immense amount of work which will need to be undertaken in the preparation of a transfer scheme. All the property that has to be transferred by the scheme must be specified in the scheme in order to ensure that good title is given to the property as from the date specified in the scheme. Not only must the property be specified in detail but it must be done by reference to a map. The calculation of the outstanding loan debt will be a complex task requiring great care. The consequences of the inclusion of the property—and we must remember that the property is not just rented houses but also assets, such as shops and meeting halls, which are related to the houses being transferred—in terms of any financial burden which might fall on the receiving authority must be assessed, not least to enable the calculation to be made of any grant which might be paid under Clause 10 of the Bill. Noble Lords opposite will not, I am sure, forget the concern expressed by their spokesmen in another place about the burden which might fall on the district councils after transfer of housing. The details which must be included in a transfer scheme by virtue of Clause 3(6) of the Bill must be settled during the period specified by the Secretary of State for the preparation of the scheme.

How then would the exercise of the statutory right to purchase fit into this picture of precise and accurate definition and the consequential problems of finance and even of staffing? At the very point in time when the detailed schedules and maps have been drawn up, then, if the Amendments are approved, we would have created a situation in which, while the Secretary of State is considering the scheme, individual families will be considering day by day, week by week, whether to take one of the most important decisions in their lives: whether to buy their house or to continue to rent it. On the day they decide and negotiations for purchase begin, steps would have to be taken to arrange for the removal of that property from the transfer scheme. What administrative chaos there would be if, as the Party opposite seem to believe, the number of such families was large.

The Amendment is concerned with a statutory right to be included in a transfer scheme and not one which exists before a transfer scheme exists. And what of the effect on the other aspects of the transfer scheme; the calculation of the outstanding loan debt; the assessment of the financial consequences? How could the district council make sensible provision for the re-deployment of resources both of manpower and finance to enable them to play their part in ensuring that an orderly transfer of houses takes place on the due date? And what would happen to the statutory right of tenants to purchase between the date the Secretary of State approves the scheme and the date it comes into effect? The House has already approved the provisions of Clause 6(4), which states that the power to vary an approved transfer scheme does not include a power to vary it so as to affect any title to land or any rights, liabilities or obligations relating to land. Local authorities have already indicated that they would hope that the period between approval of the scheme and its coming into effect should be long enough to enable them to complete all the formalities in an orderly way.

What would be the position if a tenant decides at a point during the negotiations that he wishes to withdraw from the purchase? Do we really want the processes of administration to provide for hurried adjustments to schedules and maps associated with the scheme so that reasonable deadlines can be met? I certainly do not suggest that we should deny any person the right to change his mind during the negotiations to purchase. For a number of reasons negotiations might be protracted and might not be completed in time. If the property were then to be included in the transfer scheme, then on the date specified in the scheme the tenant would cease to be a tenant of a dwelling house managed by a new town corporation and it would appear that, as a result, the statutory right to buy would no longer exist. If, on the other hand, the property were to have been excluded from the transfer scheme and the sale is not completed at all for any one of a number of reasons, the development corporation could be left with the ownership of a number of dwellings dotted here and there which would have to be held until a further transfer scheme passed that ownership to the local authority on outstanding loan debt terms.

I suspect that I could go on and on demonstrating that, even if the principle of a statutory right for tenants to buy houses provided for rent in the public sector were established by legislation, there would be a serious case for providing for the suspension of that right when a transfer scheme under the provisions of the legislation we are discussing was about to take place. I know how keenly the Party opposite feel about the right of tenants to buy their houses, and I do not criticise them for so obviously trying to make political capital out of the present opportunity to apply their philosophy to some tenants in some places from time to time. But I beg your Lordships to acknowledge that, in the context of a relatively complex procedure to secure the transfer to the district councils, on outstanding loan debt terms, of rented homes in new towns nearing completion, these Amendments cannot be accepted.

My Lords, I must emphasise once again that the Government do not deny that it is the very natural aim of many people to own their own homes. It is also our duty to see that those who do not wish to do so or cannot afford to do so are not deprived of a decent home to rent at a price they can afford. The Government are firmly convinced that the right way to go about increasing owner-occupation is not by an arbitrary statutory right to purchase for certain tenants in certain places at certain times, as these Amendments propose, but pragmatically, town by town, according to the balance of supply and demand.

I told your Lordships at Committee stage about my right honourable friend's discussions with the chairmen of new towns on 12th July and his proposals for the resumption of sales in new towns. These proposals—which were subsequently embodied in my right honourable friend's letter to the chairmen, to which I also referred in our earlier debate—have been welcomed by the chairmen of new towns, and we remain convinced that this is the right approach. I ask your Lordships to reject these Amendments and to let this Bill proceed as quickly as possible on to the Statute Book, so that the first transfers of our oldest new towns can go ahead.

6.41 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, by leave of the House, may I say that I am most grateful for the support of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, and the noble Lord, Lord Sandys. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for the trouble she obviously has taken over my Amendments, and over this very important issue that has divided our Parties. I am glad, too, that she has not argued her case on drafting defects, which I accept, and to which my attention has been further drawn, for the fact is that if the Government wish to do what we wish to do, they would, indeed, draft their own Amendment, and it would be correct. I am always comforted at the number of times Governments have to correct their drafts, because it indicates that perhaps they did not get it right first time, either, but I shall not make a point of that.

My Lords, I think it is only fair to the House to reply to the points made by the noble Baroness. We are not in favour of a statutory right because we think it will increase flexibility, although the only way, so far as I can see, of breaking the current housing log jam is to enable tenants to buy their houses. As I have indicated before, council tenancies are not a flexible arrangement. Once you are in a council house as a tenant, you simply cannot move to another one anywhere, unless you have the good luck to advertise and arrange a transfer. So it will not make any difference to the flexibility of council housing whether or not they are sold; if anything, it will be slightly less flexible, because those who have bought a house will be able to sell it and move somewhere else, and someone else will be able to move in. So it does not make any difference to the waiting list, which is a bogey we have had out many times. People who are tenants remain tenants, and the waiting list will not get shorter if houses are sold. The house is not lost; it simply means one less person on the waiting list when the house is sold. Nor will I accept the argument that we should not lay down in Statute amounts of discount. Of course, if I were in the position of drafting it correctly, I should think that much of this ought to be done by regulation, which could be effected in 1978, in 1980 and in 1985. However, I am not in a position to lay down regulation in this Amendment. That, of course, is the correct way, which the Government could do if they wanted.

My Lords, on the question of dates of transfer and the right to buy, the fact is that the local authority could sell the houses—and a good many local authorities which are Conservative-controlled will sell the houses, whether or not this Amendment finally finds its way into the Bill. I do not believe, therefore, that there will necessarily be two groups of tenants, those who can buy and those who cannot. Of course it makes it more complicated, but I have never believed that in political life administrative convenience should come before a matter of political right for individuals.

I believe that when the Government are capable of making the most complicated arrangements, as we have already heard, for the child benefit scheme, they could certainly work out how to deal with these council houses in new towns. I do not believe it would cause administrative chaos. I vividly recall that when my own authority first sold council houses, we were assured that it would produce utter chaos when there were a few houses that were sold on a large estate, and the rest were tenancies. It did not produce chaos at all. The new houses that were sold now look very nice indeed; people are pleased that they bought them, and more are queueing up to buy. The administrative chaos which was so confidently predicted did not come to pass, and with the administrators that we have I am certain that it will not come to pass in this case. I believe these are matters which could be dealt with.

Aldenham, L. Faithful, B. Munster, E.
Amherst of Hackney, L. Falmouth,V. Newall, L.
Atholl, D. Gainford, L. Northchurch, B.
Auckland, L. Goschen, V. Northesk, E.
Belstead, L. Greenway, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Berkeley, B. Grenfell, L. O'Hagan, L.
Boothby, L. Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Rankeillour, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Hatherton, L. Redesdale, L. [Teller.]
Caithness, E. Hawke, L. Rochdale, V.
Campbell of Croy, L. Hereford, V. Romney, E.
Carr of Hadiey, L. Hunt of Fawley, L. Ruthven of Freeland, Ly.
Carrington, L. Hylton-Foster, B. St. Aldwyn, E.
Cathcart, E. Inglewood, L. Salisbury, M.
Colwyn, L. Kimberley, E. Sandford, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Kinnoull, E. Sandys, L.
Craigmyle, L. Lauderdale, E. Selkirk, E.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Sempill, Ly.
Daventry, V. Long, V. Shuttleworth, L.
de Clifford, L. Lyell, L. Somers, L.
de Freyne, L. Macleod of Borve, B. Strathclyde, L.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Mancroft, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Digby, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V. Strathspey, L.
Dormer, L. Merrivale, L. Tenby, V.
Drumalbyn, L. Monck, V. Thorneycroft, L.
Elles, B. Morris, L. Vivian, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Mottistone, L. Wakefield of Kendal, L.
Elton, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L. Westbury, L.
Emmet of Amberley, B. Moyne, L. Young, B.
Ardwick, L. Gaitskell, B. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Aylestone, L. Gordon-Walker, L. Platt, L.
Beswick, L. Goronwy-Roberts, L. Rathcreedan, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Henderson, L. Ritchie-Calder, L.
Bradwell, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L. Shepherd, L. (L. Privy Seal.)
Brimelow, L. Hughes, L. Shinwell, L.
Brockway, L. Jacobson, L. Stedman, B.
Castle, L. Jacques, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Champion, L. Leatherland, L. Stone, L.
Collison, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Strabolgi, L. [Teller.]
Crook, L. Longford, E. Vaizey, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Lovell-Davis, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. (L. Chancellor.) Murray of Gravesend, L. Walston, L.
Feather, L. Oram, L. Wells-Pestell, L. [Teller.]

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

My Lords, I was slightly surprised to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, criticise me, because we were only allowing a right to certain tenants at certain times and in certain places. I accept that. That is all we can do under the Bill. But she said that she would sell when the balance of supply and demand is right. What is that but selling to certain tenants at certain times and in certain places? In many ways we are in complete agreement, and that is why I feel that I must press this Amendment.

6.46 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 84; Non-Contents, 42.

Clause 3 [Preparation and contents of transfer schemes]:

6.54 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 4: After Clause 3 insert the following new clause:

"Right of tenants to purchase dwelling-houses

.—(1) A transfer scheme shall include the statutory right for a tenant of a dwelling-house which is managed by a new town corporation, as defined in this Act, to purchase that dwelling-house provided he has been a tenant in a dwelling-house managed by that new town corporation for the three years immediately preceding the purchase.

(2) The purchase price of a dwelling-house mentioned in subsection (1) of this section shall be twenty per cent. below the current market value with vacant possession, a further one per cent. being allowed for each year of tenancy in that dwelling-house up to a maximum of thirty years preceding the period of three years mentioned in subsection (1) of this section, provided always that the purchase price would not be below cost."

Clause 9 [Financial arrangements]:

Baroness STEDMAN moved Amendment No. 5: Page 12, line 12, at end insert ("or (7)").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rather hang my head in shame after comments about drafting. The Government have a drafting Amendment to put forward which is purely consequential upon the Amendment made in Committee to Clause 6, to incorporate a new subsection (6A), now subsection (7), into Clause 6. The new subsection makes the same provision in respect of installations which are transferred by a transfer scheme but are on land not transferred as subsection (6) makes in respect of land transferred by the scheme; that is, if they are of a kind which could have been provided under Part V of the Housing Act 1957, they are to be treated as having been so provided, unless the Secretary of State otherwise directs. I beg to move.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, we are very happy to accept this Amendment, and I should like to assure the noble Baroness that nobody is more understanding than myself of this alteration.

Clause 17 [Interpretation]:

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 16, line 10, at end insert: (" "dwelling-house" means any building or part of a building occupied, or available for occupation, as a separate dwelling").

In the Title:

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 9: Line 4, after ("obligations") insert ("to confer upon tenants of dwellings the interest in which is to be transferred, a right to purchase them").

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended, pursuant to the resolution:

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Baroness Stedman.)

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass, and in doing so may I offer my appreciation and thanks to the noble Lords and the noble Baroness opposite for the courteous way in which they have dealt with us during the passage of this Bill.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, may I reciprocate that, and say that it has been not only a pleasure but instructive to be with the noble Baroness, who is so knowledgeable about new towns. I think we all appreciate that very much.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.