HL Deb 07 August 1980 vol 412 cc1599-610

1 Schedule 1, page 95, line 19, leave out from ("dwelling-house") to end of line 23 and insert ("it is designed or specially adapted to make it suitable for occupation by persons of pensionable age, and which it is the practice of the landlord to let for occupation by persons of pensionable age")

The Commons disagreed to the above amendment but proposed the following amendment in lieu thereof:

Schedule 1

2 Page 95, line 23, at end insert—

("5. The landlord has, within six weeks of the service on it of a notice claiming to exercise the right to buy the dwelling-house, applied to the Secretary of State for a determination under this paragraph, and the Secretary of State has determined that the right to buy is not to be capable of being exercised with respect to the dwelling-house; and he shall so determine if satisfied

  1. (a) that the dwelling-house is designed or specially adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age; and
  2. (b) that it is the practice of the landlord to let it only for occupation by such persons.")


My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 and agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2 proposed in lieu thereof.

This brings us back to the question of the right to buy and its application to elderly persons' dwellings. This issue has been thoroughly debated in your Lordships' House at every stage of the Bill. Peers from all parts of the House have been concerned to preserve an adequate stock of housing for elderly people. The Commons Amendment No. 2 on the list of amendments shows that the Government share that concern, and that they have now been prepared to go almost all the way to meet the views expressed in your Lordships' House.

The amendment which my right honourable friend tabled in manuscript yesterday, in lieu of the amendment which was made in this House, has the same effect as that amendment with one important change, and one fairly minor change of wording. The major change which is introduced by the amendment which was passed last night in another place is that, in respect of the new category of old persons' dwellings covered by the amendment, the exclusion from the right to buy will follow the service of a notice claiming to exercise the right, and a determination to that effect by the Secretary of State.

I emphasise the words "the new category of old persons' dwellings", because I want to make it quite clear that the effect of disagreeing with Amendment No. I and accepting Amendment No. 2 in lieu would be to reinstate the form of exclusion in paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Bill, as it was before we passed our amendment, as well as to add a new paragraph to the Schedule. In other words, put simply, sheltered housing would be excluded automatically, and other old people's housing would be excluded only following a determination by my right honourable friend.

There is no mystery about the reason for introducing the requirement for a determination before a dwelling is to be treated as exempt. It is intended to remove the scope for reluctant local authorities to exploit the exclusion, by seeking to deny the right to buy, to a large number of elderly persons on specious grounds, when dwellings do not actually fall within the terms of the definition given.

It is also to prevent a reluctant authority from dragging its feet that a time limit is contained within the new paragraph. A local authority will have to make up its mind and apply to the Secretary of State within six weeks of service of the right to buy notice if it wants an exemption under this provision. That is, I suggest, a reasonable time. It gives the local authority sufficient time to establish the facts and apply; and it defines a period which, even though it may be unwelcome to the tenant who wishes to buy, is perhaps not unreasonable.

However, just as conditions are placed on the way in which the local authority must operate, so there is a clear obligation placed upon the Secretary of State. It will not be possible for the Secretary of State to withhold giving a determination if he is satisfied that the application relates to a dwelling which falls within the terms of the paragraph. The amendment provides that in those circumstances he shall so determine; the provision is mandatory upon him. The Government place this obligation upon themselves in order to demonstrate their clear intention as to the manner in which the exclusion shall operate.

Your Lordships will wish to know what sort of dwelling is likely to be covered by this provision. The paragraph will apply to any dwelling-house which is designed or specially adapted for occupation by persons of pensionable age and which it is the practice of the landlord to let only for occupation by such persons. That definition is taken from the amendment made in this House, with the addition of the word "only" in the second leg of the test which has to be applied.

That addition is the minor change of wording to which I have already referred. It is based on an amendment to our amendment, proposed in another place by Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop and others. A considerable amount of discussion late late night was devoted to this change in wording. It was suggested that the addition of this word meant that it would be significantly more difficult to exclude dwellings intended for old people from the right to buy, and that it would provide my right honourable friend with a ready pretext for declining to make a determination in a significant number of cases. My right honourable friend expressed the view that such an interpretation did not place enough emphasis on the word "practice". He also made it quite clear that it would not be his intention to operate these arrangements in such a way, and I am sure that in the light of the assurances which he gave your Lordships will not wish to pursue this point this afternoon.

For those with some expert knowledge of these matters, it may help if I say that the kind of accommodation which will be covered by Amendment No. 2 will be what is known as Category 1 accommodation. It is the sort of specially designed accommodation which has been the cause of the concern expressed so eloquently in this House and elsewhere. It has been clear for some time that this concern would lead my right honourable and honourable friends in another place to go a considerable way towards meeting the amendment which was made at Report stage in this House. In the course of yesterday they decided to go even further. I do not think I can usefully add much more. I think your Lordships will have the tenor, the feeling of all that has taken place, some of it quite traumatically, in he last day or so. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on their Amendment No. 1 and agree to the Commons Amendment No. 2 proposed in lieu thereof.—(Lord Bellwin.)

3.45 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, this is a very happy day for the Lords, and, between ourselves, I am feeling very happy, too. I think we are celebrating the collective good sense of this House, because all the way through the debate on this very long and complicated Bill, from Second Reading until today, the concern about the elderly cut right across party lines. It really is a great pity that the Government were so obdurate for so long, and it was really their own fault that their conversion came so late; but at least it came, and we welcome it. In saying this, I certainly do not blame the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, who, I should like to think, as today I am feeling rather starry-eyed, was secretly on the side of the angels. If he was not, do not tell me; let me live with my illusions.

The reason so many of us in this House and outside will be so delighted about this amendment is that there is today a terrible danger for old people if anything is done, as would have happened with the Bill as it was before, to erode the housing provision made for them. Under the Bill as it was originally drafted, 199,000 sheltered houses were exempted; now, under this new exclusion, 221,000 more will also be excluded. As the Minister so rightly pointed out, the sheltered housing will be taken within the other housing. Since another place's Select Committee on the sale of council houses has estimated that between five and 10 houses would have to be sold in order to be able to build one replacement, one can see the very great importance of preserving elderly people's dwellings. Within the last week or so we saw an article in The Times—it was followed by a letter—which pointed out the great importance of trying to keep elderly people in their own homes and using day centres and other means in order to keep them out of residential care. I feel that this is going to go a long way towards stopping the reversal of what we are trying to do now.

The Minister referred to the change following the amendment—the change between the Government's amendment and the amendment which I moved on Report. Quite frankly, I would have preferred the decision to be left with the local authorities and housing associations. I do not believe that in this instance either local authorities or housing associations would use housing for the elderly in order to push a coach and horses, as the Government evidently felt they would do, through the right-to-buy provisions. I believe that both Conservative and Labour councils feel strongly about the need for housing for old people, are concerned that they have not sufficient housing and are trying to find ways of producing more, and I do not believe that they will behave in this way in this instance. But, since the Secretary of State, in his original Statement yesterday, confirmed that the Government were endorsing the will of this House, and since when I heard him speaking much later, on the occasion when the amendment was debated, he spelt out, in what I felt were extremely generous and sympathetic terms, his intention to honour the letter and spirit of the amendment, I shall certainly accept his assurances. I shall keep an eye on him, of course, to see how it works.

It is now up to local authorities to apply to the Secretary of State when they want the determination for exclusion to be exercised, and I do believe that, with the concern of all authorities, the concession will be widely welcomed. I know that the local authority organisations welcome this, as indeed do the voluntary bodies. I have received, as I suppose have many noble Lords, many letters about the proposed pre-emption clause which the Government had intended to move instead. It was a Conservative Back-Bencher who pointed out during the debate in another place last night that, if the exemption clause had been passed, he believed there would have been no further building of houses for the elderly for a considerable time.

Many amendments were moved in this House, and certain ones which we shall be discussing later were won on Report. If I may speak personally for a moment, this one seemed to me to be the most important. I am particularly pleased that the Government have included in the body of the amendment the criteria that I, my friends and other Members of the House supported on Report. I think this is an area which, as I said then, is not within party political territory. It is something that is a social as well as an economic necessity. What happened last night and what we are, I hope, confirming today, demonstrates the importance and the necessity of a second Chamber which takes its function of revising very seriously indeed.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness BIRK

What has happened is the result of the dedication to this of so many Members of this House, my noble friends behind me, the Liberals, the Cross-Benchers and indeed many Members sitting opposite, who, while they may have believed, as I am sure they do believe, in the Government's Bill and in their manifesto promises on the right to buy, felt strongly enough about this particular exclusion to support us. Therefore it is with great pleasure that I accept the amendment as moved in the Commons.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, I have been asked specifically by the National Executive Committee of the Liberal Party to say how very greatly they appreciate the vital role played by your Lordships' House in the introduction of this amendment. They particularly asked me to say how impressed they were with the high standard of debate both on this amendment and on the later one moved by my noble friend Lord Banks in relation to option mortgages. They are full of admiration for the fact that on those amendments many of your Lordships found it possible to vote according to the merits of the argument, quite irrespective of narrow party political considerations. They entirely accept that as a result of this amendment and a later one there are going to be substantial safeguards for the elderly in our society.

They recognise too, of course, that had there been in existence the sort of one-chamber government which they have been advocating for the last few years, the assistance that is now going to be given to the elderly and the disadvantages would simply not have been possible. In those circumstances they join with my noble friends on the Liberal Benches who have jointly sponsored this amendment from the beginning in commending it to your Lordships.


My Lords, as I moved an amendment in Committee and also wrote to The Times on this point, I am very happy indeed that the Government have had second thoughts. I think we all have to be grateful to some ingenious and vociferous friends of the noble Baroness in another place for giving the Government that extra nudge. I was sorry my noble friend the Minister felt obliged to talk about local authorities exploiting spurious grounds in relation to the amendment carried in this House.

When we come to Amendment No. 2, I feel that this complicated procedure involving the Secretary of State is perhaps something of a fig leaf to cover his retreat. It seems to me very bureaucratic that the tenant has to serve a notice and that then the local authority has to apply to the Secretary of State. Could it be just jobs for the boys in Marsham Street, I wonder? I also notice that there is no time limit for the Secretary of State to give his reply, whereas there is a time limit on the local authority. I think that is most unsatisfactory.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, as one who was also concerned with an amendment on this particular matter, I want to say how very happy I am at the outcome and that Lady Birk's amendment was infinitely superior to mine. Your Lordships may remember that when I spoke in the Second Reading debate I did support Lady Birk. I am still sad that the Secretary of State seems to be unduly suspicious of local authorities. I think it would be for the good of local government if he could get over that very heavy dose of suspicion. Of course, local authorities that do not share his political philosophy find some of his policies very difficult. I suppose that, basically, they find them so not because of deep party antagonisms, which I think is what the Secretary of State believes, but because those local authority members who disagree with the Secretary of State's policies feel that they are inimical to the interests of the citizens they represent. That is a perfectly proper and understandable point of view for them to take. I hope that the Secretary of State will, as time goes on, be able to realise that his partners in Government—for the local authorities are his partners— are not nearly so bad as he still seems to think they are.

I am delighted, as many of your Lordships here this afternoon are delighted, that the Government have revised their views on this matter. I would say that I have been quite astounded myself at the number of telephone calls I had late last night and this morning from outside, from individuals, from housing associations, from organisations and from all kinds of people saying, "What a relief, what a joy!" So I am certain that the decision finally arrived at is giving very widespread satisfaction to people concerned with housing. To me the decision represents the triumph of right and the recognition of national needs over party political considerations. I think that is something of which we all ought to be very proud indeed.

It has been absolutely necessary to safeguard this accommodation at a time when we have an ageing population and when local authorities and housing associations have been worried over the last months, and especially over the last weeks, that they would not be able to fulfil their duties to those who look to them for housing. The outcome finally, as I say, is one of rejoicing for many people and many organisations up and down this country.


My Lords, I do not want to spoil the euphoria on this amendment but I think there are some things which we might consider in the future as a result of this. I am afraid I am going to refer to three; it will take me only about two minutes to do it. The first is that I deplore, as I said before, the somewhat doctrinal legislation that the Government have put forward not only in this Bill but again in the agricultural orders and elsewhere. What I think they ought to realise is that unless they are quite certain of making a substantial improvement by the legislation it will take a very long time before any improvement arrives and therefore they should not do it. I also think they have lost a sense of pragmatism. Finally, I would ask them to consider whether, in the present state of the nation, some of their legislation—we are all agreed that there is too much legislation—is too detailed to be acceptable. Is it not simply fiddling while Rome burns?

4 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of GUILDFORD

My Lords, I speak not only on my own behalf but on behalf of my right reverend friend the Lord Bishop of London, who asked me to present his apologies to the House; his name was associated with the amendment when it was debated at the Report stage. Both he and I would like to express our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for his courtesy in speaking with the bishop about this matter, and also to the Government for having accepted the principle of the Lords' amendment and bringing it to this House today.

I am sure that this decision will be much welcomed by those who have the concern of the aged in their minds, particularly in those areas of the country where the public housing stock is below average. May I say simply that I welcome this change within the Bill because I believe that it sets over against the right to buy the other consideration, that a just society can only be built not just on absolute freedom but when the rights and responsibilities of the whole society are seen in context together as matching each other. I welcome this recognition that society has a responsibility to provide housing for those who are vulnerable in our society and who cannot themselves find the personal resources to achieve the heights of home ownership.


My Lords, it would be churlish of me not to express my delight, as a Scot, that this change has been accepted by the Government. I cannot thank your Lordships very much. You will remember that exactly the same amendment for the people who need the same protection was turned down when we came to the Scottish Bill. To my mind, it was an exceedingly foolish thing to do. The same protection is needed in Scotland as was recognised and accepted for England in this House. I am grateful that as a result of what has happened in another place and indeed, starting with the acceptance of the principle of the amendment we are now discussing for England and Wales, that the Government have thought again and have made a promise that the same protection will be incorporated, not into the Scottish Bill—alas! we cannot do that—but into the new legislation.

I do not know whether the Government are going to make any statement on what they propose to do about this, but I understand that in the overspill period we are to have a special one-clause Bill to deal with it. I am gratified for my colleagues and all those who took up the cause of the elderly in the Housing Bill. They have every justification for being delighted, as indeed have those who are interested in the future of this House. For myself, my pleasure is deferred but I will support this proposal.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might just respond to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock. It would not, of course, be proper for me to comment in any way on the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Bill, which is still before another place. But what I can do is to direct the noble Lord's attention to the Official Report for another place in which my right honourable friend the Leader of the House and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment both said their piece. I would also commend to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, tomorrow's Official Report in which I anticipate he may see what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has said.


My Lords, may I, on behalf of the 330 housing associations that make up the Association of District Councils, say how grateful they are that more than they had hoped for in respect of housing for the elderly has been achieved without their president having to take any active part in the defeat of his right honourable friend on the Front Bench?


My Lords, as one of those who participated in drawing the attention of the House to the danger to old people in the context of this Bill, I only want to ask the Minister about one point which disturbs me in the amendment which he has proposed. I join in the general congratulations—well-merited congratulations—to my noble friend Lady Birk and her assistants in representing not just this side of the House but the whole of the House in pushing through this amendment against the will of the Government. I would still have preferred the text of her amendment: in particular paragraph(b), to which the noble Lord referred, seems to me to contain some dangers.

I shall be grateful to him if in his reply he will repeat the assurance given by his right honourable friend in another place concerning the inclusion of the word "only", so that the clause which now reads: … it is the practice of the landlord to let it only for occupation by such persons.", will not restrict the operation of the power of the Secretary of State in disallowing what I still consider to be the compulsion to sell rather than the right to buy. As we could not hear very well exactly what assurance he gave, I shall be grateful if he will repeat it to make sure that the inclusion of the word "only" is not going to restrict the exemptions contained in the clause.


My Lords, is there nobody present who will say a kind word on behalf of the Minister? After all, he has been the most eloquent speaker addressing your Lordships' House on this subject. He has made a most eloquent speech today, advising your Lordships' House to accept a decision which your Lordships made the other day; but the other day he made a quite different speech, just as eloquent, but to the contrary of the speech he has made this afternoon. A Minister who can achieve such a feat is a Minister worthwhile.

It is all very well to extol the virtues of my noble friend Lady Birk in respect of her endeavour in this connection. She deserves the highest credit and our gratitude; and of course we shall not forget that this was a victory for your Lordships' House. Indeed, if I may venture to take the matter a little further, there have been two momentous events in the course of this week: one was our delight in congratulating the Queen Mother on her 80th birthday, and the other was a victory for your Lordships' House against the Government. This really is a momentous item in the history of this country.

Anyhow, I speak on behalf of the Minister: he made a very good job of it. I preferred his speech today to that which he made last week, but that does not matter. You must never look a gift horse in the mouth!


My Lords, before the Minister replies, I wonder whether I might be allowed to intervene for one moment simply to say this: I am sure that my brother Michael would be very glad to be associated with all the tributes that have been paid to the virtue of this House this afternoon.

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, I am not sure that I ought to say very much more; nor do I intend to. I tried, when making my remarks, to do so as clearly and as slowly as I could because I felt that the matter was of sufficient importance that it should be put very, very carefully, and that each word should be so registered as to be understood. Therefore, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, will excuse me if I refer him to Hansard for the detail of what I said. I am not sure how to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, who I felt meant to be kind, although what he said could have been taken in all kinds of ways. But I accept it in the way that I feel he meant it to be taken.

Other than that, I do not feel that there is anything to add. We are dealing here with the will of Parliament, as it has come to its decision, and we accept that, as I said earlier. What has gone before in debate was always said sincerely, whether on the contrary belief or in favour, and those who spoke against the amendment meant it for the best of the people, as they saw it. It is the will of the majority and so be it. It is not really necessary for me to say any more than that, so I hope the amendment will be accepted.

On Question, Motion agreed to.