HL Deb 26 March 1980 vol 407 cc794-800

2.50 p.m.

The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that the South Yorkshire Bill be now read a third time. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that there are two reports on this Bill. The first is a report from the Select Committee that considered the unopposed clauses of the Bill, and also took special notice of the Instruction moved by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, on Clause 64, on the control of leisure fairs. The Committee's conclusion on that matter was to disallow the clause. The second special report is from the Select Committee that considered Petitions against the Bill, and they have made a special report on Clause 52. My Lords, the chairman of that Committee was the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, and I know he is going to say a word about this matter, so I need do no more than beg to move that the Bill be read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Aberdare.)


My Lords, there were two petitions against this Bill. One was from the British Acupuncture Association and Register Limited, which the Select Committee of your Lordships' House disallowed, a decision which, happily, has been found to be in accord with that recently reached by another place in connection with a similar clause in the West Midlands Bill, thanks to the opportunity given to them by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent. The other petition, from the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, is a matter on which I must briefly detain the House.

The Select Committee had some difficulty in reaching their decision on the petition, and they made it the subject of a special report which is before your Lordships. In the event, your Committee allowed the amendment asked for in this petition, namely, to disallow Clause 52. I shall attempt to summarise the position. For the past 90 years the City of Sheffield, under two Acts which were consolidated in the Sheffield Corporation Act 1918, operated a scheme whereby the owner of a new dwelling could not take up occupation until the issue of a certificate of fitness for human habitation. This requirement was unique to Sheffield and has not been emulated in any subsequent local legislation, but the promoters of the Bill presently before the House sought to extend the scheme to the whole of the new county for which they are responsible.

Your Committee heard a considerable amount of evidence as to how well the scheme had operated in Sheffield and also learned of many instances, some of them exceedingly dire, of misfortunes which had beset the occupiers of houses in other areas of Yorkshire which did not operate the scheme. From these experiences came the wish of the promoters to extend it to South Yorkshire as a whole.

During the course of their deliberations, your Committee were much attracted to the notion that, in the context of "fitness for human habitation", the requirement of a certificate to that effect had much to commend it. There were obvious advantages in the certainty that all was well with the structure, the services, the workmanship and so forth, and that this would have been assured before occupation rather than after, when far greater disruption might occur. The promoters put forward six main reasons in support of their case: first, that serious hazards to health could arise to the owner if defects were remedied only after occupation: secondly, that great inconvenience could arise if defects had to be put right after occupation; thirdly, that the owner could become liable for the costs of remedying defects rather than those costs falling on the developer or builder; fourthly, that it is easier and cheaper to get defects corrected while the builders' men are still on the site; fifthly, that the builder is more likely to remedy defects if he has not yet completed the sale; sixthly, that there is a saving of both time and expense, and inconvenience is avoided, if the work is properly done before the carpets are down, the wallpaper up and the family moves in.

We heard a great deal of evidence supporting these contentions, and at this stage your Committee were inclined to let the clause stand. But good arguments were deployed by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers against this view. If I may summarise once again: first, for one county only to operate such a scheme must, when no special local considerations apply, in itself be undesirable; secondly, there has been a mass of legislation, mostly Public Health Acts and a continuous updating of building regulations during the past 90 years; thirdly, if properly enforced, the national legislation is entirely adequate to protect the owner; fourthly, there are eight opportunities for inspections by the local authority during which all defects should be spotted; fifthly, the National House Building Council stand behind 99 per cent. of the purchasers, providing inspections additional to those made by the local authority and ensuring that money does not pass until all is well; also mortgages, generally speaking, are not available without a certificate from the National House Building Council; lastly, severe disruption to the owner's plans to move in—the breadwinner's job, the children's school, alternative accommodation— could be caused if he is prevented from occupying before 100 per cent. completion and the necessary certificate.

The House may be able from this very brief exposition of the arguments to understand that the Committee had considerable difficulty in reaching their decision. We were worried that the majority of statutory inspections take place in the earlier stages of construction. While it is clear that the most serious consequences can arise from faults which occur below damp course level, the Committee felt that possibly too little emphasis may be placed on scrutinising the proper compliance with the plans and regulations affecting the later stages of construction. These are matters which no doubt receive the constant attention of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, but the Select Committee heard sufficient evidence to cause us some concern. We finally concluded that the clause should be disallowed, but that we should make a special report to the House to bring to your Lordships' attention that there is some merit in a system of final inspection for human habitation, and that this should be considered by the Department of the Environment.

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, as one of the members of this Select Committee, may I say how much I appreciate the very fair account which the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, has given of the proceedings, and the general summary of the Select Committee. May I also say—this is my first experience of a Select Committee—how much I appreciated the firm but very fair chairmanship of the noble Lord himself. I am certain all noble Lords will join with me in regretting the very sad death of Lord Hamnett, who was a member of this committee. I knew Cyril Hamnett long before I came into this House and I have always been impressed by his quiet, fair manner and the sincerity with which he held his views. In presenting my views to the House, I should like to feel that I am reflecting his views as well as my own. He was a first-class committee man, and I am certain the House will badly miss the value of his services.

As stated in this special report, the Sheffield Corporation has had these provisions for many years. I am certain Lord Hamnett believed that, in general, these principles were right; no dwelling should be occupied until it has been cleared as fit for habitation. It is a long time ago, but I recall that when I was married I got my first new house. The last thing I worried about was the condition of the house. I was more concerned with all the paraphernalia of getting married, and I trusted that somebody else was looking after the house. Obviously, one has grave doubts the more one goes into it as to whether somebody else was looking after that. The evidence that we received showed that, by and large, in Sheffield the proposals in Clause 52 had worked extremely well over a long period of years. It may well be that that was due to a great extent to the commonsense way in which those who were operating it on behalf of the city corporation carried out their particular work.

The noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, has stressed the six points advanced to us. Therefore, I shall not go over them again, except to say that they had a very deep impression on myself and, I believe, Lord Hamnett. They were six valid reasons for agreeing to the insertion of Clause 52 in the new Bill. However, as the noble Lord has said, there were two other points which were put with equal strength and which we took into consideration. First, there was the possible hardship to a purchaser if there were any undue delay in being able to take over occupancy on the date expected. I have already referred to the fact that when I got married I bought a new house. Subsequently, due to moving around the country, I moved into second-hand houses, and even then I knew the difficulty of trying to get agreement to move in on a date which I wanted, because if I could not move in on the specified date there were problems in getting the right bridging loan to enable me to do so. That is a problem which can arise as regards this matter if, because of any hold-up in giving a certificate, there were any delay in transferring the occupancy.

The other point is that if one is to extend this now beyond Sheffield, first to South Yorkshire as a whole, there would undoubtedly be pressures for it to be inserted in other local Bills. I took the view, and I am certain that Lord Hamnett took the view, that that would require the most serious consideration because it involves the question of when the final inspection should be carried through, and the question of the date oil which the transfer to the purchaser could be made. Therefore, we agreed with the special report that it is a matter which ought to be seriously considered by the Department for the Environment.

Therefore, in supporting that the report be approved, I hope that the noble Lord, when replying, will give some assurance that this proposal will be given the most serious consideration, and that the report of the special committee will not just be used as an excuse for shelving this matter, which so often is the case. It is right and proper that no one should have occupancy of a newly-built house until it is fit for habitation. The problem is how that is to be worked out. If the Minister can give that assurance I am certain that a number of us will be very happy.


My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who has given me personally rather a shock. I did not know—my eyes must have been closed on that particular morning—about the death of Lord Hamnett. I did not read about it and I am very upset to know that he is dead. He was a man whom I liked, and I respected his advice. I. am shattered to sit here and to hear, out of the blue, that he has died.

As your Lordships are aware my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment found Clause 52 both unnecessary and undesirable. In arriving at that point of view account was taken, in particular, of the National House Building Council scheme which ensures the satisfactory construction of new houses in the private sector before occupation. I am giving a slightly longer explanation than I might have done, because I think that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, particularly wanted me to do so.

The NHBC scheme aims to safeguard purchasers of new houses by offering what is, in effect, an insurance policy against defects in construction and workmanship. Most building societies take advantage of the NHBC scheme to secure their investments, and in general, will not grant a mortgage on a new house unless the builder is registered with the NHBC and has signed its agreement together with the purchaser when the house is sold. A builder will, therefore, find it practically impossible to sell his houses unless they are covered by these NHBC certificates.

Furthermore, my right honourable friend found the clause undesirable because it could have had the effect of preventing would-be purchasers from going into occupation of their homes on the planned day. As the Committee said in their special report, that could cause hardship and expense to the buyer. It could also adversely affect other buyers in cases where change of sales were involved. I hope that with those few words I have answered the noble Lord.

Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.