HL Deb 03 December 1981 vol 425 cc1135-9

3.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the right to buy under Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Housing Act 1980, which came into force as long ago as 3rd October 1980.

"I have today sent a notice to Norwich City Council that I intend to use my powers under Section 23 of the Act to intervene to assist secure tenants of the council to exercise their right to buy their homes. I have taken this very serious step with the greatest reluctance and only after prolonged correspondence and discussions with the council over many months.

"Complaints about delays and difficulties from individual Norwich tenants began to reach my department in February of this year. Accordingly, in April the council was formally asked for information on their past and expected future progress in dealing with right to buy cases.

"Since May, as well as extensive correspondence, there have been three separate meetings with the council—one at official level, one with my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction and one with myself. During this period complaints have continued to come in from tenants about delays and difficulties in exercising their right to buy. It appears that tenants currently have to wait a very long time, of the order of a year, before they receive a Section 10 offer notice and delays can occur thereafter before completion is achieved. On 28th July a formal warning was sent to the city council that I was contemplating using my powers of intervention under Section 23 of the Act. Following the meeting with me on 5th November the city council forecast that outstanding valuations (which are required before Section 10 notices can be issued) should be completed by June 1982 but with the possible exception of some cases which they identified as difficult. 101 cases were referred to at the November meeting as difficult.

"At the end of October the city council had admitted the right to buy in only 884 cases, a smaller number of cases than in many authorities, but still had 652 offer notices to send out. Notwithstanding adjustments which have been made to the monthly rate of issuing Section 10 "offer" notices and the revision of some of their procedures, the city council's performance to date in issuing Section 10 notices is among the worst of all authorities whose progress has been taken up by my department. Moreover, their projected future performance on which they have declined to give any assurance of further improvement appears to me worse than that of any other authority who have been given formal warning that I am contemplating using my powers under Section 23.

"Having considered matters very carefully it appears to me, whether I have regard to Nowrich alone or Norwich in comparison with other authorities, that secure tenants of Norwich City Council have or may have difficulty in exercising their right to buy effectively and expeditiously and I have accordingly sent them a notice of intervention."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that is being made in another place. It does fill me with a sort of amazement. First of all, I wonder, and may I ask the noble Lord, why pick on Norwich, when the figures which were last produced in another place in answer to a Parliamentary Question showed that many authorities had not sold any houses whatsoever; there were 57 Tory authorities, and 21 authorities had not provided any returns at all, and yet in the Secretary of State's Statement he says that the city council's performance to date is among the worst of all authorities. I think that that was probably carefully phrased because it certainly is not the worst of all authorities.

It seems to me extremely strange—and I do not know whether the Minister can shed further light on this—that Norwich should be picked out, unless it is because they have perhaps been more robust in their verbal protests about what has been going on and about the sale of houses. After many months of negotiation, which is pointed out in the Statement, and many meetings between Ministers and the council, it would seem that the gap between what the Minister has asked for, which is mid-February, and the date that the council has firmly offered, which is June, is really only four months. Would it not seem strange to bring this enormous sledgehammer to bear for such a short gap of time?

Incidentally, I understand that the offer notes are now higher, seven times higher, than they were earlier, and that in fact 90 offer notes under Section 10 were made in November, last month. I should like to ask the Minister why on earth there is all this fuss when the council has a national reputation as an outstanding housing authority. I understand that the council intend—if the Statement this afternoon turned out in the way in which they rather guessed it would turn out—taking out an injunction. The Minister will no doubt say, "So be it". But I thought that he should know that the whole matter is not yet finished.

During these times and at this particular time of local authority cuts with the enormous pressure on local authorities to cut down staff in view of the policy which the Government are pursuing, it seems to me that the staff have responded very substantially in speeding up the process. This affects authorities all over the country as is indicated in the figures and many others with which I shall not take up the time of the House but which one could quote.

At present we are in a period when rents will go up, which will in itself put more pressure on staff in local authorities; mortgage rates are higher than ever before; and one-eighth of the unemployed are in the building industries. It seems to me very wrong, whether or not councils agree with the right to sell, to expect them to be able expeditiously to carry out legislation in a period which is absolutely against them financially and as far as personnel is concerned. When there are tremendous problems at hand with waiting lists longer than ever before, 1.2 million, and with house-building almost at a standstill, it seems to me that the time of the House and the time of the Government is wasted on something like that which we have heard this afternoon.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the use of the words by the Secretary of State, "This very serious step", is entirely justified? —because it is setting a precedent under a particular provision of the Act, for direct interference in local government, a precedent which can be followed in the future by other Governments. Is this step justified? When the Secretary of State refers in his Statement to this authority being "among the worst", can the Minister say among how many he is talking about? Also, would he not agree that, from the figures that he has given in his Statement, the Section 10 notices will all have been sent out under the present provisions by June next year—that is, within seven months from today? Therefore, is this drastic measure really justified by the circumstances?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I shall not make any observations on the political point which the noble Baroness made about housing generally. We are here today dealing with this particular Statement. The noble Baroness has said that there is only four months in it and she quoted some figures to illustrate that the issuing of notices had gone up to 60 a month. The fact is that since September when Norwich agreed to increase their rate of issue of Section 10 notices from 30 a month to 60 a month, they have made no more than marginal adjustments to their projected timetable. To put that figure of 60 per month into context, let me point out that one Labour controlled authority, a metropolitan district, issued over 1,100 Section 10 notices in October alone—more than Norwich's total case load. It is not a question of "Why pick on Norwich?".

In reply to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, about "among the worst", let me repeat that part of the Statement which is very relevant to the point that he made where it says: Their"— that is Norwich's— projected future performance on which they have declined to give any assurance of further improvement appears to me worse than that of any other authority who have been given formal warning that I am contemplating using my powers under Section 23". It is a serious step. It is not something upon which the Government have embarked quickly, lightly or without careful consideration and the maximum amount of reasonable discussion and consultation with the authority. I think that I must leave it at that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us will feel that the only criticism which could be directed against his right honourable friend on this matter is an excess of patience with an obviously recalcitrant and obstructive authority? Can he give an assurance that in the other cases to which the noble Baroness opposite invited his attention his right honourable friend will take similar resolute action if it is necessary to ensure that council tenants secure the rights which Parliament intends them to have?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. I certainly do assure him and the House that there are many other cases that the Government are watching and discussing carefully and have been and will continue to do so. If any of your Lordships has any specific other cases which you would wish to draw to our attention or any authorities that you would wish to raise with us, we would be only too glad to hear of them.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that from this Bench we shall always uphold the law, whether we agree with the law or not? But in this case is he absolutely sure that the delay was unavoidable, that the local authority had not the ability or the staff to act more quickly?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, all I can say is that so many other authorities have not found it impossible to act within the time limits. I think that that is really the relevant answer.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could answer one of the other points that I raised. He will have the figures, or I imagine he does. What has happened to the 91 authorities—57 of them Tory and 34 Labour—where there have been no sales and there were no returns, and the 23 authorities which have not provided any returns at all, including authorities like Hillingdon, Brighton, Luton, Sevenoaks, Cheltenham, Blackpool and Thanet, all but two of which are Tory authorities? What action has been taken against any of those authorities? As the noble Lord did not query the figures I assume that he accepts them.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I should have thought that the noble Baroness, perhaps more than most of your Lordships, would have known that many such authorities have been selling council houses for a long time now. They did not wait for right to buy procedures to compel them so to do and they are continuing to do so. They, of course, do not come within this because I understand that in one case, which the noble Baroness has mentioned, they have sold 89 per cent. against all requests that they have received. So today my concern is not to go into the detail of other authorities. I repeat: if the noble Baroness has any particular one she wishes me to take up I shall be glad to do so and to come back to her when she does so.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, could the Minister ask his right honourable friend to update the figures so that the other place and we have the opportunity to see them? When we are having to work from figures which, as I pointed out, were given up to the end of June, although the Parliamentary Question was last month, it is extremely difficult for us to get the facts right.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I shall certainly be glad to do anything I can to ensure that the noble Baroness has any statistics and information that we have. They will be fully available to her.