§ 3.29 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY of STATE, DEPARTMENT of the ENVIRONMENT (Lord Bellwin)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, that the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bellwin.)
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, before we embark upon the Committee stage of the Bill I should like to point out that this is an extremely long and complex Bill, and I feel that the Government should have made available Notes on Clauses. During the time that I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment I took through this House about a dozen Bills, and to the best of my knowledge on all occasions I provided Notes on Clauses, as the colleague of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will vouch for. She was 1729 very appreciative, and certainly I would have appreciated it.
I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to Recommendation 57 of the Renton Committee's report on procedure for the preparation of legislation, which says:The practice should be developed of making available for Committee stage debates in both Houses Notes on Clauses and similar additional explanatory material".I think this is a matter of great importance in a Bill of this type. It really does mean that it is going to take longer, without any filibustering, because it is an extremely difficult Bill to understand. It is a great pity that the Government are causing themselves, as well as the rest of us, a great deal of inconvenience and extra trouble.
§ Several noble Lords: Hear, hear!
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, this decision follows the one made by my right honourable friend when he decided not to make these papers available in another place. Instead, my right honourable friend the Minister offered to explain any points which might be causing difficulty to the Standing Committee which considered the Bill in another place. Noble Lords will know that many such points were raised in that Committee, and my right honourable friend went to great lengths to provide the explanations that were sought in terms which were readily understandable. I am sure that this was far more useful to them than to have copies of the lengthy and technical Notes on Clauses. Of course, I will gladly do no less.
I should draw attention to the fact that I have made available in the Library an indexed guide to the Standing Committee proceedings in another place so that your Lordships may have ready access to the explanations given by my right honourable friend. In so far as those explanations already given do not answer points which concern your Lordships, I will undertake to do my best to provide similar expositions. In the light of that assurance, which I hope your Lordships will accept in the spirit in which it is given, and the index which has been provided, I really could not accept that the absence of the Notes on Clauses is any impediment to your Lordships' understanding of the 1730 Bill. I feel it would not take us much further, but I could quote some precedents on the other side of the House if there was really any purpose in so doing.
§ Lord STRABOLGI
My Lords, perhaps with the leave of the House, since I am taking part in Part II of the Bill, which is just as complicated as Part I, which is coming before your Lordships today, I may endorse what my noble friend has said. I cannot understand why the Government are so furtive about this Bill, why they cannot be more open about it. I absolve at once the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. We know very well that this is not his personal decision but a decision made by his right honourable friends in another place. But this is a very complicated Bill. It is of great interest to a great many private tenants outside this House who wish to understand it. They wish to know how the Government are proposing to change the various contracts of tenure, which they are intending to do in the Bill. They want to understand the Bill.
Will the Government at least give an undertaking that if they are not going to explain and make available these Notes on Clauses they will, after the Bill becomes an Act, publish a plain man's guide to it so that at least its provisions will be understood? Also, may I say in the presence of the Scottish Minister, that when a similar Bill, the Tenants' Rights (Scotland) Bill, came before your Lordships the other day, in reply to a similar question by my noble and learned friend Lord McCluskey, the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, said—here I quote:I shall think about his suggestion that Notes on Clauses should be published, or provided.… I think the answer to his request is yes, probably".—[Official Report, 24/6/80; col. 1530.]Could therefore England and Wales follow the excellent example of Scotland?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I do not know whether "Yes, probably" means, "Yes, of course". I would not have thought it necessarily meant the same thing, but that is not for me to say. Just to have the record straight, may I say that those of your Lordships who have not seen that which has been prepared and put into the Library and who are interested in the Bill, ought to take the opportunity so to do because, for 1731 myself, I have found that far more helpful an explanation than ploughing through the great technicalities in the Notes on Clauses. I hear what the noble Lord says, and of course I undertake to convey his observations to my colleagues in another place. That goes without saying. I repeat, before sitting down, with your Lordships' permission—perhaps I did not make it sufficiently clear a moment ago—that it goes without saying, I hope, that if any noble Lord wishes to have any information at all that I can give I shall be glad to try to give it.
§ Lord ROSS of MARNOCK
My Lords, am I right in thinking that this measure was guillotined in another place? If it was guillotined, how could these full explanations be available when they were not given?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I have already said that I undertake to give any explanations way beyond what noble Lords may themselves have to delve out in dealing with the whole of this Bill. I have said so and I will do so. Beyond that I do not think I can go at this moment.
§ Lord ELWYN-JONES
My Lords, helpful as the noble Lord always is to the House, to have information before the actual occasion when the Committee has to consider the point is far more important than later guidance by the Minister, however generous that might be. Is the noble Lord not aware that this really is contrary to what has become increasingly the practice of this House?
§ Several noble Lords: Hear, hear!
§ Lord ELWYN-JONES
My Lords, for some years now, in matters of this kind, the notes have been made available to those who have to function in these debates without much, if any, secretarial or research assistance, which usually is not available. It is not right that your Lordships should have to go through hundreds of pages of proceedings in another place when the Notes on Clauses could be made available here. I do not understand this reluctance unless it reflects a total lack of faith in the Bill on the other side of the House.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord does 1732 not expect me to concur with his last observation; nor do I. I really did not want to get into the realm of trotting out a whole series of precedents, because frankly I do not think I should take up your Lordships' time in doing it. But I will quote just three which are readily available: the Water Charges Equalisation Bill 1977, when no Notes on Clauses were given by the Labour Party at that time; the Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Bill 1978; the Local Authorities (Restoration of Works Powers) Bill 1977. I just did not want my private office wasting its time—
§ Lord BELLWIN
Perhaps the noble Lord will bear with me. I did not want it wasting its time in getting out a whole list of precedents. But, of course, it would gladly do so if it was felt that I needed to make a greater case. I really do not think I do.
§ Lord ELWYN-JONES
My Lords, with great respect, those precedents surely are trivial in comparison with an important Bill of this kind, affecting almost every household in the country?
§ Lord DENHAM
My Lords, I think noble Lords opposite have on this expressed the point of view which they obviously feel very sincerely. Of course, if they are blaming the Government it is all members of the Government who are equally to blame, but I think we could consider what noble Lords opposite have said and perhaps we might now get on with the Bill itself. I do not want to belittle any further argument they have, but I think we take the point.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Right to acquire freehold or long lease]:
§ 3.40 p.m.
Lord HYLTON moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 2, line 4, leave out from ("house") to end of line 6.
§ The noble Lord said: I look on it as a privilege to speak to this first amendment 1733 to what is undoubtedly not only a very complex but also a very controversial Bill. The Bill has aroused considerable anxiety and interest outside the Chamber, judged by the weight of stuff, which I am barely able to lift—it occupies a file about two inches thick—which has been sent to me. In view of this outside interest, I hope that—
§ Baroness BIRK
We cannot hear what the noble Lord is saying. I do not know whether the microphone has moved, or what has happened, but we cannot hear a word of what is, I am sure, a very valuable contribution.
§ Lord HYLTON
I apologise for inaudibility. I was going to say that I hope my noble friend Lord Bellwin will be prepared to listen very carefully to the arguments that will be brought forward on these amendments, and that he will persuade his ministerial colleagues in another place to do the same. It may be already known to your Lordships that the housing association programme for England and Wales, which would in normal times have amounted to no fewer than 43,000 new or rehabilitated units, has been cut for 1980–81 to 22,000. That represents a cut of nearly 50 per cent. —a cut that will have a very serious effect on many families and individuals living in the most unsatisfactory housing conditions.
It is in the light of this fact that I have put down Amendment No. 1 as a probing amendment. I am seeking to discover whether, and, if so, by how much, Housing Corporation loans to housing associations are likely to be reduced in the current year as a result of a duty placed by the Bill on the Housing Corporation to lend to tenants who are buying their freeholds from housing associations. I should be grateful if my noble friend could give further forecasts of what the impact will be on years that will follow the current financial year.
I am also seeking to discover what will be the machinery for sales of housing association property to tenants. For instance, will the Housing Corporation be expected to collect mortgage repayments? Will housing associations retain any balance of the purchase price that will be left over once existing loans have been paid off? Further, what will happen 1734 if the purchase price of the property after discounts is less than the amount of loans outstanding at the moment? I beg to move.
§ Lord BELLWIN
I hope your Lordships will agree that I always listen very carefully to what is said. I am really not very clear as to the significance of the intimation that perhaps I might not do so on this occasion, but I gladly assure my noble friend he need have no fears as to that. Indeed, I have listened very carefully to his explanation of the intention behind his amendment. I was a little puzzled when I first saw it, because its effect is to leave housing associations with a duty to provide mortgages for their tenants exercising the right to buy, and it seemed to me unlikely that this was what my noble friend really wanted to achieve.
It is the Government's intention that, as far as possible, housing association tenants exercising the right to buy should, like their counterparts in local authorities, get their mortgages from building societies or from other private sources. But we recognise that this will not always be possible, and we have therefore provided housing association tenants with a right to a mortgage from the Housing Corporation. We did not feel it would be right to leave housing associations themselves with a duty to provide mortgages. In contrast to the position for local authorities, that would be an activity quite unlike anything associations are doing now and one for which they are clearly ill-suited.
Even so, we consider it to be essential that there should be a right to a mortgage if the right to buy is to be fully effective, and the appropriate source for housing association tenants is the Housing Corporation. The Corporation receives a very large allocation for its work in funding housing association development projects. That sum is arrived at as part of the general process of establishing the Government's spending plans through PESC. Many factors bear upon the decision: the Government's policy for their expenditure as a whole in the light of the needs of the economy; the state of the country's housing and the need for Government finance to improve it; and, within that finance, the sum to be devoted to housing associations. In future, a further specific factor will have to be considered, and that 1735 will be the sums needed by the Corporation to provide mortgages.
As my noble friend probably knows, the public expenditure White Paper does not include specific figures for the Corporation's allocation, or for other housing programmes, after this year. Decisions on these figures will be taken, as always, year by year in the light of needs and circumstances at the time. So I cannot assure my noble friend that the sums required by the Corporation for mortgages and the sums required to fund development projects will be kept in watertight compartments. Obviously, no forecasts or figures can he contemplated until one knows the likely amount to be required. To anticipate any sum would be indeed to give a hostage to fortune. However, I can and do assure my noble friend that the fact that the Corporation will have to provide mortgages will he borne in mind in setting the Corporation's overall allocation. Perhaps with that assurance, my noble friend may feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord HYLTON
I am disappointed that my noble friend is unable to provide any forecasts or estimates. Can he say how building societies are to lend to housing association tenants purchasing their properties at a time when they are unable to supply even the needs of the general house purchase market?
§ Lord BELLWIN
It is not for me at this time to try to give intimations as to what percentage of tenants will want to finance their purchases in any specific way. As I have said, some will go to building societies; some will go to the other sources available to them; some will bring forth their own resources—and it may perhaps surprise my noble friend to know that there are many who do precisely that in other spheres, too. So, clearly, there is no way in which one could contemplate estimating a figure at this stage; but I have indicated that the Government recognise that, as part of this whole exercise, there will be a responsibility upon the Housing Corporation, and we shall bear that well in mind once we know what the general parameters of that are likely to be.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.48 p.m.
Lord EVANS of CLAUGHTON moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 2, line 13, after ("tenant") insert ("of that dwelling house").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 2 which stands in my name on the Marshalled List, and with it I should like to consider Amendment No. 3, since the two amendments go together to deal with a problem with which, I think, right at the very beginning, the Bill fails to reckon. That is, as the Bill stands at present a tenant in a council house or similar property may buy a council property if he has been a secure tenant of any dwelling—not the dwelling he is living in at the time he seeks to buy, but any dwelling—during the previous three years, and under any landlord.
§ Let us take John Smith, who will have started, perhaps, as a tenant of a flat in a fairly undesirable part of the town, who lived there for two years and who then moved to a semi-detached house in a suburban part of the same town. The two years he spent as a tenant in the flat or in the less desirable area counts towards his right to be a secure tenant after three years and therefore his right to buy the more desirable semi-detached house in the suburbs in which he now lives. Similarly, if he moves from one local authority area to another, or, changing landlords, moves from one landlord to another, the period spent under one landlord will tot up, as it were, towards the three years to make him a secure tenant to enable him to buy.
§ We seek in this amendment to ensure that the security from which secure tenancies flow will arise only if the tenant has been the tenant of one dwelling house for the three years. I suspect—as, perhaps, may a number of noble Lords—that one of the disadvantages of the right-to-buy provisions is that the social mix in housing estates is going to be diminished. The tenants who are owners are going to be, widely, tenants in the better type council houses and the tenants who do not choose to become owners will largely be tenants of the houses in areas with social or other kinds of stigma. Your Lordships may have seen correspondence in 1737 many journals of no particular political persuasion indicating that there is very widespread concern about council estates becoming, even more than they are now, ghettos with very poor people in one area and the better off in other areas. From our point of view we should like to see housing estates with a fairly mixed social content and a fairly mixed ownership content, some houses with owner occupiers and some houses with tenants, and so on.
§ I suspect that unless your Lordships are willing to incorporate this amendment into the Bill, we shall inevitably see that John Smith will be waiting until the moment arrives when he can obtain a transfer from the socially-undesirable house or flat in which he now lives and can move to a socially-desirable district before he buys his house.
§ By suggesting, as in this amendment, that the period which is to count towards security of tenure must be a period in one house, we shall do something to try to avoid the danger of extension of the ghetto principle and to ensure that if houses are sold and owner-occupied, they are sold and owner-occupied across a much wider spectrum of local authority estates. It seems to me that this is social engineering of a useful kind and I think that it would mitigate a little the danger of creating another class structure within council estates which the present proposals create under the right to buy. For those reasons, I feel that these amendments are very important from the social engineering point of view and from the point of view of getting rid of class consciousness, class differences and the whole variety of enmities and jealousies that arise at present and which will be exacerbated if the legislation is passed in its present form. I beg to move.
§ Baroness BIRK
I should like to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton. He covered the ground extremely well and fully. I should like to add that this Part of the Bill not only gives people an automatic right to buy (in fact, the local authority must sell) but, in addition, large discounts are being allowed. As the Bill stands, there are options of £100 which last for two years, which means that a house can be bought at the price ruling when the option was originally taken up. In consequence, a local authority will be 1738 compelled to sell, at what could be a very knock-down price, a house into which, as the noble Lord has said, the tenant has only quite recently moved. It seems to me that this amendment offers a sensible safeguard and, as the noble Lord said, to some extent mitigates the effect of this Part of the Bill. I should have thought that this would be something to which the Government could agree.
§ Lord BELLWIN
May I begin by referring to one or two observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and say at once that I refute his point about what he called ghettos? I am sure that we are going to have many opportunities to debate this particular aspect and, for that matter, the point of options which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, touched on is something to which I am sure we shall return later. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, referred to his concern about this leading to a changed class structure within council estates. May I remind him that at the present time there is only one class structure within council estates and that if these proposals lead to anything which will widen the social content within council estates that can only be a good thing? I should have thought that that would have been as much welcomed by the noble Lord as by anybody else. The fact is that the mixed social content to which he referred is something which everyone professes to wish to see. This Government are trying to do something now to make it come about, yet it is being opposed in the way that it is. I am sure that we shall be discussing this point many times before even this day is out. The noble Lord's amendment proposes a restriction on the right to buy which would narrow its scope significantly. The Bill as it stands provides that a secure tenant becomes qualified to exercise the right to buy when he has been a secure tenant for not less than three years, whether or not the three years have been spent in the same dwelling or as a tenant of the same landlord. The noble Lord proposes to change this by providing for the right to arise only when the tenant has been for at least three years the secure tenant of the particular dwelling that he wishes to buy.
The qualification for the right to buy was considered very carefully when we were preparing the Bill, and we concluded 1739 that the arrangement that the noble Lord proposes would be wrong. In our view, there was no compelling reason why the secure tenant should have to have spent the previous three years in the same dwelling. Indeed, there were all sorts of entirely valid reasons why he might not have wished, or been able, to do so. He might, for example, be a skilled craftsman who had moved from one part of the country to another to keep himself in employment and to take his skills where they were most needed by industry. He might be an older person whose children had left home and who had agreed to move to another dwelling to release accommodation which could be more fully occupied by a family from the waiting list. We could see no overriding considerations to set against the harsh anomalies that could arise from the rule that the noble Lord is proposing, and no advantage in discouraging tenants from agreeing to move home when that was in the interests either of the mobility of labour or the most effective use of the housing stock.
Entitlement to buy therefore rests on a purchaser's history as a secure tenant, whether or not all of that history was spent as the tenant of the same dwelling or landlord as when he exercises the right to buy. It is clear, so far as I am concerned, that this was the right decision, and I hope that the noble Lord will feel able on reflection to withdraw his amendment.
§ Baroness BIRK
I was both amused and saddened on hearing the Minister talk about the mixed social content. He cannot be as naive as he appears—and in fact I know he is not. He says that this narrows the scope considerably and he refers to mobility. I should like to put two points. First, it is quite inconsistent for the Government to allow people the right to buy irrespective of any residential qualification drawn in this way when they are allowing local authorities to impose residential qualifications for council home allocations. Secondly, he mentioned the question of mobility. As it stands, I think the Bill will have the effect of discouraging mobility as the local authorities are likely to be very reluctant to accept tenants under the mobility scheme if, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans, said, those tenants are then able immediately to claim 1740 the right to buy with a discount a house that they may have been in for a very short time, purely on the strength of previous residence elsewhere. This amendment seems to me something that is so right and equitable that the Government would be being, really, unnecessarily obdurate, even for them, if they refused to accept it.
§ Lord EVANS of CLAUGHTON
I regret that the explanation the noble Lord, Lord Beliwin, has given does not and cannot satisfy the reservation that I enshrined in the amendments I put down, because the fact of the matter is, I am sure—I would like to think I am sure—that the problem we have in Merseyside applies to Leeds, where the noble Lord comes from. We have at present very much a ghetto situation in parts of our council estates, where very few houses have been sold under the present legislation. I can see that the kind of gulf that exists between, as it were, the rougher council estates—the ones with more social problems, where the social workers are in and out every day—and the "plushier" council estates would become, under a right to sell, an even greater gulf.
I can imagine now something like 90 per cent. of the houses on one or two of the estates in the area I live in would be snapped up immediately under the generous provisions of this Bill, and I can think of other estates in our locality where, unless there is some incentive given to the people living there to stay there and to improve the quality of the neighbourhood, 90 to 100 per cent. of the houses would never be sold, or never be considered for being sold, or it would never be in anyone's mind to buy them.
It is, I gather, a precept of Conservative Party policy, as indeed it is of my party's policy, that home ownership gives concern and interest to the quality of the house and the environment in which one lives. I would have thought that by refusing to support this amendment that kind of encouragement will be missing in the areas where it is most needed. There is already a great shortage of the better or the more acceptable type of council house, in most Northern urban areas certainly, and I suspect that the pressure on those houses will become absolutely enormous if this Bill, as drawn, is allowed to go through.
1741 I take the point that th noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, makes about older people and key workers. I would have thought, with great respect to the noble Lord, that the problems arising from people of this nature could very easily be dealt with if this amendment were passed, because it is a very obvious and a very easy exception to make for people of that kind. Certainly I have myself put down amendments later in the Bill to deal with key workers. Therefore, so far as I am
§ concerned, I cannot accept the arguments the Government have put forward, and I hope I shall have the support of the Committee on this amendment.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 88; Not-Contents, 122.1743
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ [Amendment No. 3 not moved.]
§ Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON
This may be a suitable moment to adjourn the Committee in order that we may hear the Statement. I beg to move that the House be now resumed.
§ House resumed.