§ 3.7 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Housing and Building Control Bill might be said to mark my coming of age in your Lordships' House. It is the twenty-first Bill that I have had the privilege of presenting to your Lordships. As its title suggests, the Bill falls into two parts. Both parts honour specific commitments that 11 have been given. They promote the Government's wider policy objectives. I shall deal with each in turn.
The first part of the Bill concerns the rights of secure tenants. It is principally an extension of the right to buy provisions of the Housing Act 1980, which have proved such a resounding success. In moving the Third Reading of the 1980 Bill in another place, my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction suggested that the Bill would provide the springboard for the biggest single extension of home ownership the country has ever seen. That claim has been completely vindicated.
Since the Government came to office, some half a million tenants of local authorities, new towns and housing associations have bought their homes, more than half of them under the right to buy. That is a level of sales quite beyond anything previously seen. The benefits both for the families concerned and for the community at large are enormous.
This part of the Bill builds on the success of our present policies. It extends the right to buy to some important groups of tenants who have hitherto been excluded. It opens up the possibility of shared ownership for those who have been unable to afford to buy outright. It also makes a number of changes to the 1980 Act which will help to strengthen the position of tenants seeking to exercise their rights.
First, the Bill extends the right to buy to tenants of leasehold property. It was our intention to bring forward amendments to the 1980 Bill to extend the right to buy to tenants of dwellings held by the landlord on a long lease as well as to tenants of freehold property. In the event, it proved impossible to bring forward the necessary amendments in the time available. We are now fulfilling our promise to the tenants concerned. There are about 50,000 tenants in this position throughout England and Wales. They will no longer be prevented from exercising their right to buy simply because their landlord's interest is a leasehold interest. Tenants of leasehold property will be given the right to purchase a long lease of their homes, subject to the landlord's own outstanding interest being not less than 21 years in the case of a house, and 50 years in the case of a flat. Tenants living in houses will be able to go on and buy the freehold of their homes, provided they qualify under the normal leasehold enfranchisement rules.
Landlord authorities are, in fact, already free to sell to tenants of leasehold property on a voluntary basis where their own lease permits them to do so; but for political reasons some refuse to do so. This has had absurd results for some of the tenants concerned. We know of cases in South London where the tenants have themselves acquired the freehold of their homes and have offered the freehold to the local authority as a gift in the hope of establishing their right to buy under the present Act. The council has refused to co-operate and clearly this cannot be right. We know of another tenant denied the right to buy, because his home was held on a lease originally granted in the 17th century, even though the lease had 600 years left to run and was therefore, to all intents and purposes, a freehold. There is no reason at all why tenants should be denied the opportunity of owning their homes in these circumstances.
12 The main purpose of Clause 2—and I know that your Lordships will want and expect me to go into it in some detail even in this opening speech—is to extend the right to buy to certain secure tenants of charitable housing associations and housing trusts. This provision has been misunderstood and, may I say, misrepresented in several quarters. I sincerely believe that anyone who is prepared to examine the issues with an open mind will see that there is a compelling case for this modest extension of the right to buy. I am sure that your Lordships will listen most carefully to the explanation of Clause 2 that I feel it is proper that I should now give. The Government were elected with a manifesto commitment to give the right to buy, so far as possible, to the tenants of housing associations. In the 1980 Housing Act we conferred the right to buy on around 100,000 tenants of non-charitable associations. Since the 1980 Act, we have had many representations from tenants of charitable housing associations who regard their exclusion from the right to buy provisions of that Act as unjust.
We have given most careful consideration to how we might respond to the entirely understandable aspirations of these tenants, while giving full weight to the fact that charitable associations had, prior to 1974, invested their own money in housing. As a result, we have reached the view that a limited extension of the right to buy should be made to tenants of charitable housing associations, living in dwellings provided—and I stress this—wholly or overwhelmingly with public funds, in the form of housing association grant. These tenants have exactly the same legal status as secure tenants as those tenants of non-charitable associations. Their homes have been provided with public money in exactly the same way as those of non-charitable association tenants living in accommodation funded with housing association grant—and those tenants, as I have already said, have the right to buy. It is manifestly inequitable that we should continue to deny these people the right to purchase their homes. This is my first main point: that these tenants of charitable housing associations deserve equality of treatment with tenants of non-charitable housing associations.
My second point is that the dwellings which will attract the right to buy under Clause 2, are publicly created assets, financed with public money. They are not—and this, too, I stress—assets which have been created with charitable funds. The significance of this feature of Clause 2 cannot be emphasised too strongly. The dwellings with which we are concerned have been provided with grants and loans from the public purse. It would be quite inconsistent of Parliament, which for 15 years under the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 has given lessees the right to buy freeholds of houses built on land provided wholly with charitable funds, now to deny charitable tenants the right to buy homes that have been created wholly—or virtually wholly—with public funds.
My third point is that in framing Clause 2 we have attached fundamental importance to the safeguarding of charitable funds. That is a cornerstone of our policy. It is for this reason that we decided to exclude from Clause 2 all dwellings provided with a charity's own money, and those given to a charity, and also to exclude dwellings built on land bought with charitable 13 funds or donated to a charity. I spell this out carefully because it has been much misunderstood. We have also excluded all dwellings provided under subsidy systems which preceded the introduction of housing association grant in 1974, because many of these dwellings may have significant amounts of charitable money invested in them. These exclusions will apply even where dwellings have been improved or repaired with housing association grant. There may have been a marginal input of charitable money into a small minority of the dwellings which would attract the right to buy under Clause 2, but we have given categoric undertakings that any such investment will be fully protected at its modern value.
This leads to my next point, which is that the exclusion of dwellings provided with charitable funds and under pre-1974 subsidy systems and of special accommodation for the elderly and disabled, as in the 1980 Act, will mean that almost three-quarters of the 300,000 or so dwellings owned by charitable registered housing associations will be excluded from the right to buy in Clause 2. Only about 80,000 of the tenants of charitable associations will be eligible for the right to buy under this Bill; and, as we know, there is an enormous difference between the numbers eligible for the right to buy, and the numbers actually able to exercise their right. The experience of the right to buy elsewhere suggests that only a small percentage of those 80,000 will in fact be able to buy anyway—probably much less than 10 per cent.
Some may ask: will not even this limited extension of the right to buy seriously damage the work of charitable housing associations, who aim to house the most disadvantaged in our society? The answer, based on hard factual evidence, is quite definitely, no. The experience of the two and a half years since the 1980 Act became law is conclusive proof of this. By December 1982 non-charitable associations had sold 2,550 dwellings under the right to buy. Against that, the increase in the stock of rented dwellings owned by registered housing associations since the Government came to office in April 1979 totalled 120,000. In this Parliament the Government have added almost 50 additional housing association rented dwellings for each one sold under the right to buy. Surely, that shows that it is entirely possible to combine giving the right to buy to existing tenants with a very substantial net increase in the availability of rented accommodation for the homeless and others in housing need.
It has been claimed that this clause is in conflict with charitable law. It is not. The Attorney-General, who is the guardian of charities, is fully satisfied on this point, and this has been made clear on his behalf in the letter of 9th March that the Solicitor-General wrote to the Chairman of the NFHA, a copy of which I have placed in the Library. I should like to stress yet again that we are concerned here solely with publicly funded dwellings and I do not see how it can be argued that the tenants of those dwellings should be denied the right to buy simply because of the charitable status of the landlord.
When Labour Ministers brought in the Leasehold Reform Bill in 1967, they specifically stated that there could be no question of denying the right to buy the freehold to lessees simply because their landlord was a charity, and indeed they estimated at the—
§ Lord Goodman
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, but it might be convenient to ask him now about the legality of the letter and whether the view of the Solicitor-General is shared by the Charity Commissioners.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to complete my speech. I shall be glad to return to that point at a later stage.
I repeat, the Bill would confer the right to buy against 300,000 charitable houses, all provided not with public funds, as in this Bill, but with charitable funds. Indeed, the right to buy has gone on being applied against charitable dwellings under the Leasehold Reform Act for 15 years now under five successive Governments.
When we brought in the tenants' charter in the Housing Act 1980, conferring rights like full security of tenure on public sector tenants, again there was no question of denying those rights to the tenants of charitable housing associations simply because their landlord had charitable status. Equally, now that we have given the right to buy to tenants in housing association grant funded dwellings belonging to non-charitable associations, I see no case of either principle or equity for continuing to deny the same right to the tenants of housing association grant funded dwellings belonging to charitable associations.
Clause 2 has also been criticised on the grounds that it is retrospective. But the principle of allowing the right to buy to be exercised in respect of dwellings that have been publicly funded in the past has already been accepted by Parliament, when tenants of non-charitable associations, local authorities and new towns were given the right to buy, regardless of when their dwellings were built. The key point about "retrospection" is that no retrospective rights are being granted in respect of dwellings provided by the charity itself, as opposed to those provided by the taxpayer. If Parliament has been content for 15 years now to allow the right to buy to be applied retrospectively under the Leasehold Reform Act to charitably-owned dwellings funded by the charities themselves, it would be glaringly inconsistent to deny the right to buy now in respect of charitably-owned dwellings funded exclusively, or almost exclusively, by the taxpayer.
The Government's view is that this limited extension of the right to buy will not have the adverse effects on charitable housing associations that some people have claimed. The number of sales is certain to be vastly exceeded by the number of new and rehabilitated dwellings which charitable associations will be able to provide with the benefit of Government grants. Moreover, since the tenants of any dwellings which may be sold are secure, those tenants would in any event be likely to remain in their present house or flat for many years and it would, therefore, not become available for reletting for a very long time.
It has been suggested that Clause 2 will deter those voluntary workers on whom all housing associations depend so heavily. Perhaps we may look at the hard evidence, which certainly does not support that view. The giving of the right to buy to tenants of a non-charitable association has certainly not had the effect 15 of diminishing the enthusiasm or the amount of activity of non-charitable housing associations. Quite the contrary.
Since the 1980 Act, there has been no decline in the applications from non-charitable associations for Government grant—in fact, quite the reverse—and these associations are making as dynamic a contribution to meeting housing needs today as they have ever done. Indeed, as my honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Construction pointed out in another place, the non-charitable associations, whose tenants have had the right to buy for two and a half years now, are today so vigorous and enthusiastic that the entire funding of the Housing Corporation could be used up in meeting the requests for public funding from non-charitable associations. So the Government regard Clause 2 as a logical and entirely defensible extension of the right to buy provisions of the 1980 Act to a limited number of tenants living in publicly-funded housing.
Before I pass on to the remaining provisions of the Bill, I should just like to comment that I intend at a later stage of the Bill to say something about the Government's strategy for housing those in the greatest housing need, lest anyone should accuse us of being more concerned to help those who already have homes than those who have not. For the moment, I shall only say that we see housing associations as having a key role in helping the most vulnerable.
For this reason, we have given, and have been giving, a substantial boost to housing association investment. We announced in November an increase of £150 million, to £680 million, in the Housing Corporation's cash limit for 1982–83. This has enabled the corporation to increase expenditure on fair rent, hostel and low-cost home ownership schemes in the current year. We have also announced that the corporation's gross provision for 1983–84 will be £690 million. This is about a third higher in cash terms than the outturn for 1981–82, and maintains the increased level of investment this year, following the addition to the cash limit mentioned above.
The third major extension of the right to buy in this Bill provides that all tenants who have the right to buy but whose mortgage entitlement does not enable them to buy outright, can opt instead for purchase on shared ownership terms. That comes in Clause 14.
Shared ownership, as an alternative to outright purchase, is not new. For some eight years now, local authorities, new towns and housing associations have operated shared ownership schemes successfully on a voluntary basis. Over 6,000 dwellings have been sold in this way. But what is new, and, indeed, quite revolutionary, is that we are now giving every council tenant who can get even a modest mortgage the right to start up the home ownership ladder. Provided that a council tenant can afford to buy an initial share of 50 per cent. or more, in future he will not be denied the chance of owning his home. I know that this will be welcomed by many council tenants who in the past have been frustrated in their attempts to buy their homes because they could not afford to buy them outright.
16 The remaining provisions of Part I of the Bill fall roughly into two groups. First, there are provisions designed to strengthen the position of right-to-buy claimants by removing uncertainties and anomalies in the existing legislation and by dealing with obstacles which some landlords have used to try to frustrate tenants. Secondly, we are extending the rights of secure tenants embodied in the tenants' charter provisions in the 1980 Act. I shall not detain your Lordships by going through these provisions in detail, as we shall have ample opportunity to do so in Committee, but today I shall give only a brief outline of the changes that we are making to the tenants' charter.
We propose to extend the tenants' charter in two ways: these are a right to repair and rights relating to district and communal heating charges. First, let me deal with the right to repair. Repairs which remain undone, or which take a long time to be carried out, are persistent causes for complaints. Those of us who have experience of this, particularly in the local authority world, can bear witness to the regular streams of complaints made by tenants pressing to get work done. We now propose to give secure tenants the right to carry out, or to arrange to have carried out on their behalf, repairs for which their landlords are responsible, and to recover from their landlords the costs, or part of the costs, that would have been incurred had their landlords carried out the repairs.
The scheme will benefit secure tenants of local authorities, housing associations and new town development corporations. Our thinking has been much influenced by a very enterprising tenants' repair scheme operated by the London Borough of Havering. My right honourable friend will be empowered to introduce, by regulations, a right to repair scheme. Consultation with the local authority associations and other organisations representing public sector landlords has already begun, and it is our intention to issue a consultation paper on the details of the scheme in the near future before drafting regulations.
I now turn to the second of the new rights which will benefit those secure tenants who receive heat from district or communal heating systems operated by local authorities and new town development corporations. It is clear that a significant number of tenants on such systems are concerned about their heating charges. They lack information on how the charges have been calculated, and are not in a position to judge whether the basis of the apportionment of the cost of heating between individual tenants is reasonable. Consultation with the local authority associations and others on these proposals took place last summer.
What we now propose will give my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment an enabling power to introduce certain requirements by regulation. The regulations would oblige local authorities and new town development corporations who supply heat to secure tenants to adopt such methods for determining charges payable by such tenants as will ensure that the proportion of the heating costs borne by each tenant is no greater than is reasonable. Housing associations which supply heat to their tenants are not included, as the tenants are already protected under the fair rent system and Schedule 19 of the 1980 Housing Act.
17 The regulations may also provide that tenants would be entitled to require their supplying authorities to furnish information about the costs incurred in supplying the heat and the charges payable to the supplying authorities. They would also be entitled to inspect the accounts and other supporting documentation, and to take copies of extracts from the documents. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that these two new rights will be of substantial benefit to tenants, in giving them a greater control over their homes and the services supplied to them.
I turn briefly now to Parts II and III of the Bill, which deal with building control. The provisions in the Bill are based closely on the proposals contained in Command Paper 8179, The Future of Building Control in England and Wales, issued in February 1981 following extensive consultation. We are not suggesting that the present system of building control fails to produce safe buildings; indeed, its record is good. But there have been persistent criticisms that the system is unnecessarily cumbersome and bureaucratic, and that the form of the building regulations themselves is inflexible, inhibits innovation and imposes unnecessary costs.
The provisions in the Bill therefore have two main objectives, which I will explain. The first is to enable the industry to achieve greater self-regulation through a system of independent private certification of compliance with the building regulations. This will be a new option available to builders and developers, as an alternative to the existing system of local authority control.
The Bill sets out a legal framework enabling approved inspectors to supervise building work and to give to the local authority and to the developer a certificate to the effect that, having carried out his statutory duties, he is satisfied within the limits of proper professional skill and care that the work is in conformity with the regulations. An inspector will have to show he is independent, and he will have to produce evidence of satisfactory insurance cover. Certifiers will be approved by the Secretary of State or by bodies designated by him, and it will be possible to restrict approval to particular types of building, depending on professional qualifications and experience.
The second objective of this part of the Bill is to make possible a comprehensive recasting of the building regulations. The Secretary of State, or a body designated by him with parliamentary approval, will be able to approve documents from any source which offer suitable practical guidance on how to comply with the regulations. These documents will replace the technical supporting material in the present statutory instrument, which is often complicated and difficult to understand, with a set of authoritative, technically written documents outside the statutory instrument. Updating will be much easier than now, and a closer relationship with British Standard codes of practice and similar documents will be possible. The regulations themselves will be expressed in simple, "functional" terms.
Our proposals for recasting the regulations have met with very wide approval. My honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced in 18 reply to a Parliamentary Question in another place the publication for comment of an initial draft of possible new regulations, with two specimens of the approved documents. We believe these documents will receive the same general welcome.
The Government have decided that once the regulations have been rewritten they should be applied to inner London, where a different system of building control currently operates. My honourable friend announced this today in answer to a Parliamentary Question in another place. This extension will achieve consistency of building regulations throughout England and Wales, with consequent benefits to the construction industry. A further benefit of this proposal will be that certification will become possible in inner London. Our building control provisions have already been the subject of extensive consultation, and we shall consult further on all the regulations to be made. We believe that in offering developers and building owners the option of private certification we are offering them flexibility, efficiency and convenience.
My Lords, I have explained in some detail what the Housing and Building Control Bill provides. I have no hesitation in commending it to the House, and I ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Bellwin.)
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, may I first congratulate the Minister on introducing his twenty-first Bill to this House. Now that he has passed the milestone and reached what in the old days used to be his majority, perhaps we shall find him rather more willing to give way on this Bill than on the other 20 that he has brought before us. Having said that, this Bill, which the noble Lord has presented so cogently, I find profoundly disappointing, because it does not address itself to the fundamental housing problems.
Following so soon after the 1980 Housing Act, on which the noble Lord quite rightly drew greatly in his presentation, this second attempt at housing legislation should surely have provided some answers to the current housing and construction problems. With 366,000 unemployed construction workers, surplus building materials and a growing housing shortage in real terms, this Bill serves only to compound the irrelevance of many of the 1980 measures. Estimates taken from local authority returns indicate that there are now more than 1,500,000 people on housing waiting lists—a figure steadily growing in areas like London. Homelessness is also on the increase. Seventy thousand homeless families and individuals were rehoused in 1981; and several London authorities now have over 100 homeless families in often poor, but extremely costly, bed and breakfast accommodation waiting for a local authority house.
The recently published English House Conditions Survey shows that for many with a house to live in conditions are still intolerable. Indeed, 1,116,000 houses are considered completely unfit, and 1,312,000 are in need of major repairs. Further, estimates from bodies such as the House of Commons Environment 19 Committee and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities suggest that we are creating a housing shortage which in real terms approaches 500,000. Adding these unhappy figures together, there are nearly 3 million families and individuals unsatisfactorily housed or without a home of their own.
This Bill does nothing to tackle these basic problems. In fact, the Government's housing investment programme allocation to local authorities has been halved in real terms between 1979–80 and 1983–84. Subsidies for the building and repair of council housing have fallen from approximately £1,500 million in 1979–80 to an estimated £370 million for 1983–84. Housing starts have also fallen steadily until very recently, when there has been just a slight increase. All this serves to illustrate the inappropriateness of this Bill.
The 1980 Housing Act was brought in to provide council tenants with the right to buy. Despite the fact that there are well over 100,000 council house sales each year, the Government are coming back with a Bill designed to squeeze every last drop out of the right to buy. Instead of using valuable parliamentary time for marginal legislation like this, I ask the Government when they will come off their dogma and start tackling the real problems.
I should like now to turn to some (not all; there is no time with the long list of speakers) of the specific provisions in the Bill. Few proposals in recent legislation have aroused such a flood of protest as Clause 2, which is described in the Explanatory Memorandum as a clause which:amends the 1980 Act so as to confer the right to buy on certain secure tenants of charitable housing associations".The Minister is very conscious of the disquiet and interest in this House over this matter, as he spent a considerable time, quite rightly, explaining it. If I could take up the three points that he made, he started by saying that the provision has been misunderstood and misrepresented. I do not know how he can say that. All of us, in this House and outside, can read, and you only have to read the clause in the Bill, you only have to read the reports of it, you only have to hear what the housing associations say, to realise that there is no question of the provision being misunderstood or misrepresented.
Then the noble Lord went on to say that the tenants of charitable associations deserve equality of treatment with tenants of non-charitable associations. I find that extraordinary, particularly coming from a Conservative Government. Surely the money put into charitable associations makes a tremendous difference. It is not solely Government subsidy or money provided by the Government alone; these are associations into which people have put not only voluntary effort but voluntary funds, so that the associations have developed in the way they have.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I was at pains to say that those dwellings which had the provision of voluntary charitable funds were excluded from the Bill.
§ Baroness Birk
Those which are not the recipients of Government support or have not received public 20 funds, yes, my Lords, and that was the point to which I was coming, because the Minister made a great point of excluding all dwellings built with charitable funds. This Government complain about the Labour Party's plans on nationalisation, yet they pat themselves on the back because they do not intend to take over—if you like, communise—all the charitable buildings that exist. To put it baldly, the Government are proposing that tenants of properties built by charities and run by voluntary management committees should be able to buy the property at a discount. Indeed, that is what the Bill says. That discount may be very substantial, as tenants can count their years as local authority tenants when the discount is calculated. It will mean that houses built by charities to help those in greatest housing need will be sold at an effective loss. Even worse, they will no longer be available to help those who still desperately need rented accommodation. How, I ask, can these associations afford to replace the stock when they are having to sell it at a loss and when prices are going up all the time?
Ministers have said that few will be sold as the tenants are usually poor. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said he thought the number would be less than 10 per cent. But the housing associations must have made it clear to Ministers that, with the substantial discounts likely to be available, the numbers liable to be sold will be significant, and that is the view of people working in the field now. Moreover, housing associations are being approached by people seeking to buy houses presently occupied by relatives as what is known as a family investment. In other words, the children of elderly couples want to help financially to buy the property which they, the young people, will eventually own. One can hardly blame them for trying to do that when the means to do so are there.
The anger and bitterness which these proposals have generated—including a particularly strong leader in The Times of 23rd March—have to be heard and read to be believed. Recently my colleagues and I met housing association representatives from South Wales. Both the paid officers and voluntary committee members who came particularly to see us are desperate to continue to tackle the dreadful lack of housing in that area. But, now, all that they have striven to create may be lost, and their chances of tackling their present pressing problems will be diminished because the houses they have built, often for groups with special needs, will very likely be sold.
I have received this morning a letter from Chiddingstone Parish Council referring to another aspect of the problem. They point out that in 1973–74 they were conscious of the great need for some housing accommodation for the young people of the parish, who were being compelled to move away when they married because of the high cost of housing; the district council were able to find housing only for families. They came together with the district council, and a housing association was developed. With the help of the Church, they have developed and built up the housing association, which operates under charitable rules. The letter says:In 1981–82, tenants moved in, all of whom are local young people and we hope that they will be able to move on, as their families increase, to the larger Council houses in the parish, so releasing the two-bedroom houses for further local young people in 21 need. If, however, this programe is interrupted by the tenants having the right to buy their rented houses, the whole concept and force of the local initiative will be destroyed and our community's efforts to keep itself alive—to keep the school, the shop, the Church and all the lively village organisations in being—will be sadly undermined".I do not even know the political complexion of the area, but I imagine it is Tory, so there is no party point about it.
Housing associations are not against owner-occupation. Indeed, many do what the Salford Community Housing Association have done—namely, set up a non-charitable association to help make owner-occupation available to their tenants. Others have taken up the Government's shared ownership proposals to extend part-ownership for owner-occupation. Thus, the Brent People's Housing Association have set up the Shared Ownership Housing Association to promote owner-occupation. But what they are not doing is withdrawing from their continuing charitable work of providing rented accommodation.
They will find the provision of rented accommodation, and their new-owner occupation initiatives, undermined if the Bill continues in its present form. That will be the case not only because houses are lost to associations but because staff will be diverted into the time-consuming work of selling property. Census and housing condition surveys have shown the pressing need for reasonable rented accommodation. That need is so great that many housing associations have closed their waiting lists. Even with present resources, it will be many years before those waiting lists are cleared. What the future holds is tragic and very foggy.
The last time there was such deeply held and widespread opposition to a legislative housing proposal by this Government was when Government housing for the elderly was included in the 1980 right to buy provisions. As on that occasion, the opposition to this proposal is not based on party political differences. Social opposition unites people across the political spectrum, and outside it, including the Lords Spiritual. All housing associations, as well as their national federation, oppose the clause. In this, they are joined by the local authority associations, the National Housing and Town Planning Council, trade unions and many organisations far too numerous for me to list now. This unity has been created by the Government's determination to overturn the very basis of the charity laws despite the opposition in principle of the Charity Commissioners. I will not go into the legal side of the matter, as some eminent lawyers will be speaking in the debate and they will no doubt go into that point.
Widespread indignation is further fuelled by central Government using their powers to expropriate property—I repeat, that is what the Bill is doing—and to make it apply retrospectively. With respect, the Minister's answer to that was not convincing. I do not blame him because he can not be convincing; it is wrong and it is retrospective. We say that the Government can promote owner occupation by all means, but they must remember that there will always be many who will never be able to own their homes. Their needs are in danger of being totally lost sight of, and for that reason the Bill should be allowed to leave 22 the House only when Clause 2 has been deleted. That I hope noble Lords will endeavour to do.
I turn to the right of council tenants to carry out repairs on the council property they occupy, and I find much irony in the situation. The provisions in Clause 23, while appearing to add to the list of rights granted under the 1980 Tenants' Charter, can better be described as the right not to repair. We are concerned that, where the scheme operates, the landlord's repair obligations are suspended. We are concerned lest the provisions could allow a council to transfer its repair obligations on to tenants, thus treating these rights purely as a money-saving exercise. We are also concerned in that, if there are any advantages in the scheme, they may be available only to better-off tenants who can afford to have work done and then claim the money back from the council. Our concern is unfortunately strengthened when we learn that organisations representing both public sector landlords and tenants—the AMA on the one side and the London tenants' organisations on the other, for example—are strongly opposed to this part of the Bill.
We want to see changes so that tenants have the right to carry out their own repairs in cases where these have not been done in reasonable time. I agree with the Minister when he points out that there is often undue delay and that the tenants should not have to suffer. That is fair enough. However, in our view the landlords' general repairing obligations should not be suspended and any new rights applied only to relatively minor repairs.
This Bill goes in the opposite direction by potentially reducing tenants' rights. It introduces the danger that tenants may be induced to sign away their rights in the expectation of a saving on rent or even of getting a council property in the first place. The Bill also contains a series of detailed clauses on the right to buy. We do not think that these are necessary. All local authorities are now selling council houses. If they choose not to do so, the Government already have powers to intervene directly. However, we now have the very unusual precedent in Clause 12 that gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to give assistance to tenants hoping to buy their homes.
We are particularly concerned about the constitutional implications of the use of the Treasury Solicitor and the legal aid fund to help tenants to take county or High Court cases against local authorities at the instigation of the Secretary of State. This appears to us to be an interference from the top to an extraordinary degree and adds once again to the erosion that we have seen time after time in Bill after Bill of many of the 21 Bills that the noble Lord has brought forward. It is happening all the time.
The one area of the right-to-buy provisions which needs clarification is not covered in this Bill. Noble Lords will recall the passionate debates in 1980 on the exclusion of elderly persons' accommodation from the right to buy. It was given a thorough airing in this House and I moved an amendment to protect accommodation for the elderly, which was agreed to. This amendment had the support of a number of noble Lords opposite led by the late and greatly missed Lord Amory. Unfortunately, the amendment was modified in another place to give the Secretary of State 23 the final say in decisions to exclude elderly persons' accommodation from sale. It is extremely disturbing to learn that 90 per cent. of all applications—applications from authorities of all political persuasions—to exclude such accommodation from the right to buy are being rejected by the Secretary of State. Having seen details of some of the rejected cases, the clear implication is that the Secretary of State is not operating the spirit or intention of the legislation. We hope to find a way at Committee stage of trying to right this.
We should also wish to pursue in Committee the housing position of couples in public sector accommodation who find themselves in dispute over their housing circumstances once their relationship has broken down. The problem applies to cohabitees and married couples, but more pertinently to cohabitees. The first organisation that couples in a council house turn to when the relationship breaks down is very often the local authority. More and more people are cohabiting, which makes normal matrimonial legislation inapplicable. One of the most common requests is that the local authority should decide who is to have the flat or house. Most authorities attempt to make decisions on a voluntary basis and manage to get the agreement of all parties concerned. However, very often this is not possible and the local authority is powerless to bring about a solution of the problem. There is widespread concern about this, especially from the Women's Aid Federation, and the Government really must provide a satisfactory basis for the individuals and local authorities involved to resolve this emotional and distressing situation which may, in the end, need resort to the courts.
I now briefly turn to building control. Any Government should think carefully before seeking to change a system with as good a basic safety record as the building control system in England and Wales. The system has worked well in specific cases and, because it provides a comprehensive record of building work, it can be used to provide information about the use of materials or building methods which subsequently become suspect. The system proved its value when records were used to establish, for example, which buildings had been put up using high aluminia cement. The Government proposals will now mean that records of many developments will no longer be held by any public body required to retain and provide access to them.
This is one of the major shortcomings of a system which, again, I am afraid, is based on political dogma. Like any system, the building regulations system has become ever more complicated and we should very much welcome attempts to simplify it. But this very demanding job of simplification should be dealt with first and established in practice before attempting to impose the premature and misguided provisions which are before us today.
We on these Benches find it very difficult to come to terms with this section of the Bill. The problem is that, like so much recent legislation, it begs almost all the questions and leaves the essentials of the new system to regulations. The key decisions will, therefore, be brought to this House in the form of draft regulations which we can in no way amend. The value of parlia- 24 mentary scrutiny will be lost and Ministers, for the present, can refuse to answer questions about the workability of the system by referring to forthcoming debates on regulations. As the issues involved are also issues of public safety, this situation is even more unsatisfactory.
If this Bill is enacted and regulations made, it could well result in the decimation of local authority building control departments. The relatively straightforward, bread-and-butter housing jobs could well go to the National Housebuilders' Council, an organisation whose role as a new independent inspecting agency has already been questioned. Local authorities will be left with an uncertain work load and it is quite likely that many smaller district authorities will no longer be able to provide a proper, skilled service. The new system could produce very dangerous anomalies if local authorities are forced to take over jobs when independent inspectors withdraw. What happens when a local authority finds that the original plans or subsequent work approved by an independent inspector are wrong—perhaps dangerously so?
At present, it appears that local authorities will have no powers to require a change in the plans or to require unsafe work done under the independent inspector to be rectified. Would this mean that building work would have to continue, supervised by the local authority, on the basis of plans and work which are defective? I am sure that the Minister will argue that independent inspectors will be carefully approved and will not allow such things. However, there can be no guarantee that independent inspectors will always be right. How can they be? They are only human. Matters of public safety cannot be dealt with on this basis. There must be clear procedures to avoid these problems. As a consequence of what is proposed, local authorities could be left literally to pick up the pieces on the basis of inadequate documentation and inadequate power.
Before this Bill completes its passage through the House, we must have clear and detailed explanations of just how the system is intended to work. Basic principles must be agreed and safeguards must be established. A high professional standard must be set for those who are to be approved as independent inspectors. One national body with a strong professional majority should be the sole agency to confer the status of independent certifier, and it should have the power to withdraw that status. Approval as an independent inspector should be for renewable five-year periods.
Secondly, the status of independent inspector should be given only to individuals. It should not be given to companies who could then use unqualified and inexperienced staff. Similarly, statutory bodies and nationalised industries with powers to approve their own plans and work must use only properly qualified and approved inspectors on their staff. Thirdly, local authorities must have powers to require changes to plans or works, even if certified by an independent inspector, if the authority has to take over responsibility in the middle of a development and finds plans or works which do not conform with building regulations. Finally, the working of the system must be subject to regular review and reports 25 made to Parliament on these matters of basic public safety.
These are four main points which I picked out of a whole list of points which has been drawn up by the National Housing and Town Planning Council and supported and even extended by the Institute of Building Control Officers, the District Planning Officers Society, the AMA, NALGO and many other organisations. There are a great many speakers and I fear I have already kept your Lordships for too long, but this is a long and complicated Bill.
In conclusion, I hope that I have been able to show that this piece of legislation is unnecessary. The parts that need to be dealt with could have been amended in a much briefer way and the other parts are something that we find repellent. But if there is one issue which the Government must rethink before the Committee stage or be defeated in this House, it is the enforced sale of charitable housing association property, which I personally find shabby, wretched and immoral.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
My Lords, I must first of all apologise to your Lordships and to the noble Lord the Minister for arriving a little late for this debate. The train from Liverpool was, as usual, very late, and I sometimes feel that British Rail do not want people to escape from that place!
May I declare my interest in the subject. I am a member of the Committee of Management of Merseyside Improved Houses (Special Projects) Housing Association, of Merseyside Improved Houses Urban Services Limited and of Merseyside Improved Houses Charitable Trust. This housing association is one of the largest in the country with approximately 11,000 units of accommodation, and it is the largest housing association in the country dealing with stress areas. Its chief executive, Mr. Barry Natton, is the present chairman of the National Federation of Housing Associations.
It has already been recognised in the two preceding speeches that clearly the main field of battle, as it were, in this Bill will be in Part I, Clause 2, dealing with the right to buy for certain tenants of charitable housing associations and housing trusts. I must say that I welcome the exclusion from Clause 2, as the noble Minister mentioned, of donations, and the protection from the right to buy of homes built on land or property given to the housing associations as charitable gifts. That is indeed a welcome change, but it still does not dispose of the very real concern felt by a large number of people in the housing association movement with regard to Clause 2. My honourable and right honourable friends in another place put down an Instruction during the discussion of the Bill there to exclude Clause 2 from the Bill. We shall be seeking—and probably it will be no surprise to your Lordships—to do the same in this House. We shall hope, if not to exclude the totality of the clause, at least to get rid of the more unpleasant retrospective features of it as it passes through your Lordships' House.
I and my party are in favour of the general principle of the right to buy and that is why we are in favour of Clause 1, extending the right to buy to leasehold properties. I will say parenthetically that the major 26 problem there is that the legal tenure of leasehold still exists. I have bored your Lordships on a number of occasions on this subject, and have even sought to introduce a Bill to abolish leaseholds. I believe the only remedy for the problems created by leasehold tenure is its abolition; but that is a different matter. In the meantime, one therefore welcomes the extension of the right to buy to leasehold property.
My objections to Clause 2 are based not on the principle of the right to buy but on very different grounds. First, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness—no doubt it will be mentioned many times again—is the fact that the legislation, willy-nilly, is retrospective. When HAGs were introduced in 1974, there was no suggestion of selling to tenants; so the Bill introduces a novel condition on grants received in good faith by housing associations, and for the future it creates uncertainty and insecurity among housing associations as to whether future grants will have retrospective conditions attached to them. That is my first objection.
My second objection is that it creates inequality between different tenants very often in the same property. For instance, there may be a house adapted for a disabled person in a wheelchair in the same block as other flats for people who are not disabled. The disabled will be excluded from the right to buy whereas those who are not disabled will have the right to buy. The Royal Association of Disability and Rehabilitation is very concerned about the effects this system may have on integrated housing. It will create an atmosphere of discrimination and "difference" which disabled people are already rather conscious of and concerned about.
My third objection is that it diminishes the housing available at low cost. Housing associations own only about 2 per cent. of all the rented stock in this country, and in my view a further diminution by sale of the tenanted property would be extremely harmful. In many parts of the country, such as Wirral, where I live, there is a situation of counter-polarisation growing up. I concede that there was a need to give people the right to buy so that more and more people would become owner-occupiers, but polarisation is going the other way now. In Wirral the proportion of available tenanted accommodation is decreasing at a very rapid rate indeed among very many families living in conditions of unemployment and suchlike, where they can never under any foreseeable circumstances afford to buy, even under the very generous provisions of this Bill and of previous legislation.
So we have to watch this counter-polarisation. There is always going to be a need for social disability and personal reasons for a fairly large stock of cheap rented accommodation available not only in the centre of our big cities but also in rural areas. Discounts will vary, I gather, between 33 per cent. and 50 per cent., depending on the length of time the tenant has been in occupation. One of the problems is that the money the housing associations will receive—the capital receipts that will come to them from sales—will just not be enough to replace the housing stock that has been lost to a purchaser who, by definition, will be in a more wealthy position than the kind of person for whom these charitable housing associations originally provided the property: namely, 27 for the less well-off to have accommodation for lengthy periods and perhaps the whole of their lives. This is a serious point, and I think that however much huffing and puffing the Government may do they cannot get round that particular point, that the cheap accommodation that the housing associations have been able to make available in various parts of the country will be considerably diminished.
Fourthly, and attached to that point, is the fact that the legislation, if it passes as at present drafted, may change the nature of an area. Housing associations are specially able to provide, as I have said, cheap rented accommodation to attract or keep people with modest incomes in a particular area. One thinks of the provision of small housing association projects in the centres of villages so that people in a rural community on low incomes can afford to remain in the centre of a village and not be totally squeezed out by the weekenders.
Also, one thinks very much of the kind of housing association which is not very far from your Lordships' House; that is, the Peabody Trust. Dwellings are provided there at a low rent in the centre of London for people with low-paid jobs which require them to be in or near the centre of the city. There are about 2,000 of these low-rent flats which will now be eligible for the right to buy and presumably they will be very attractive to people who can well afford to buy their own, and will squeeze out one by one the lower-paid workers who need to have their occupation in the centre of somewhere such as London.
Fifthly—and I think that this is the last point—this Government perpetually pay lip-service to the encouragement of the voluntary sector. Many hundreds, and probably thousands, of people have put a lifetime of voluntary effort into providing decent housing for the disadvantaged and are likely, in my opinion, and from what I have heard so far, to be totally disillusioned by this proposed legislation, and to feel that their work has been wasted. I know very many dedicated, enthusiastic and even Right-wing members of the Conservative Party who are extremely enthusiastic members of housing associations. They have worked all their lives and have done a considerable amount to keep cheap rented housing available.
I can tell your Lordships—and name names for the noble Lord the Minister, if he wishes—of very many of these people who support the Government in everything they do but who are absolutely outraged by the belief that this work, which they have done on a voluntary basis, will be totally wasted and of no value. They are seeing the work that they have done destroyed in favour of the better-off who can afford to buy. On this point I would underline that housing associations work very closely with other voluntary organisations in helping to settle and resettle people who are coming back into the community on leaving prisons, psychiatric hospitals and so on. It is important that there should be a considerable stock of rented accommodation so that this very important work can go on and be extended.
I thought I was on my last point but I am afraid there is one more. It is the sixth and is definitely the final point. The Bill is, in my opinion—and, I think, in 28 the opinion of those better qualified than I; the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, will, I am sure, deal with this aspect much more fully and accurately than I can—against the fundamental principle of the charity law that assets should be sold only in the interests of the charity and at the best possible price. Clearly exercising the right to sell is not in the interests of the charity, and the discount of 33 to 50 per cent. is not obtaining the best possible price. I know that the noble Lord the Minister has put a letter from the Solicitor-General in the Library, but I think he will appreciate that the solicitors, or those advising the Charity Commissioners, take a totally different view.
Finally, I agree with those who say that in general the Bill is largely irrelevant to the major housing problems of this country; and, indeed, in the part of the world where I live they are still very major indeed. It helps not at all to encourage the building of new homes, or to encourage the replacement and rehabilitation of deteriorating housing stock. Nor does it help to provide choice among rented housing accommodation. But with the exception of the notorious Clause 2, it does some useful tidying-up work, as the noble Lord the Minister suggested, and I think we can say from these Benches that we give it our broad but lukewarm support.
§ 4.14 p.m.
The Earl of Selkirk
My Lords, there are many speakers and I will try to be as brief as I can. I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Bellwin on his 21st Bill. He has earned the respect of this House for the knowledge of a variety of subjects which he can, with such great ability, command. However, I notice in the Financial Memorandum that there will be increased staff at the Department of the Environment. Inevitably, that follows every Bill we pass. Somebody has to administer the Bill and I doubt whether the department really know how many more men or women they will have to employ.
This is a very complicated Bill, and I am talking particularly about Parts II and III. They sketch a very broad picture, with no details. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that there is a complete absence of any clear picture of what will happen. I notice—I think that I am right in this—that on 52 occasions the word "prescribed" has been used. What does it mean? Of course, we do not know. How will it be used?—because there is no explanation of what the word "prescribed" exactly means. For instance, at one point it is stated that it will be prescribed when local authorities have to reply to correspondents. Can we be told some of these secrets at the Department of the Environment, and what sort of period they have in mind?
I should like to say a word about approved inspectors. I think that the National House Building Council has done a very fine job of work. It was brought into operation in 1936 by the father of Sir Derek Walker-Smith in the other place, and in 1966—I think under the persuasion of Mr. Richard Crossman—the building societies agreed not to advance money on any new houses, unless they had a certificate from the National House Building Council. 29 I believe that this has been a very valuable provision. There is also an insurance scheme mentioned in this Bill, although, with the usual obscurity, the Bill gives no idea of how it is supposed to operate.
It is all very well to put in an organisation of great experience, which has already examined 2 million houses, according to what it says, but the Bill goes a lot further than that. The Secretary of State will appoint further people. In addition, he will appoint a body which will appoint further people still, and those people can then delegate their job to somebody else. It raises a startling picture as to what exactly the department have in mind. One thinks of the whole business of back-scratching, which seems almost inevitable, because these people must be in the trade in some way or other; otherwise they will not do their job. I do not know whether my noble friend can say anything in regard to this, but it will be helpful if he can.
I do not understand the difference between Clause 33 and Clause 38, which deal with non-profit making statutory bodies. They seem to me to cover much the same ground. These are exempt from the formalities of reporting, but they have to maintain the substantive requirements. I gather that they are independent and it is up to them, in honesty, to do so. Is nobody going to inspect what they are doing? It seems to me to be carrying it just a little far. These are matters on which local authorities are not clear, and I hope that the Government will try to make the position clear, either today or on another occasion.
I do not know whether it is the intention to rewrite the building regulations. My noble friend used the word "recast". Maybe that is right. But what are the building regulations? Will they come to us in any form, or in which way are they to be dealt with? I should like to know how they are formed, because there are some rather curious features. It is said that building regulations may provide for the Secretary of State to maintain a list of approved inspectors. I thought that the Secretary of State wrote the building regulations. Is he also under the control of the building regulations? If this can be explained a little I shall be very happy.
Clause 10 deals with covenants and conditions of sale. This is a fairly tricky subject, when there are various easements and other things which are quite properly granted to tenants. If a sale takes place, how far will these pass automatically to the owner-occupier or the freeholder? I think that local authorities would like a little clarity on this point. There are a number of things that you can do, such as easements of one sort, rights of passage and so on, which are quite proper for a tenant but are perhaps less proper for someone quite separate. I see that the Secretary of State is to decide this himself. Should this not be a matter which goes to the courts? On some occasions, it is quite tricky and it should be properly understood.
I have received many representations on Clause 2 from management, from staff, from the National Association of Local Government Employees. I am not connected with this organisation, so I have tried to understand what it is all about. Two things strike me straight away. First, is it wise for the Government to annoy the large number of people who are engaged in doing what the Government have asked them to do? Is this a sensible way to approach it? Or should the 30 Government take into consideration the kind of work which other people—voluntarily, in many cases—have done? Secondly, is this a deliberate attempt to sabotage the 1974 Act? Originally this Bill was introduced by Mr. Rippon for the Conservatives; then came an election; and, very wisely, Mr. Crosland took it up again. To some extent, therefore, this was an agreed Bill. Is this, therefore, an attempt to sabotage the 1974 Act?
What was its purpose? Its purpose was to try to stem the steady decline in private rented property. My noble friend knows very well that this is one of the most severe social problems which now exists in the housing world. I believe in owner occupation. I was president of the Building Societies Association for nearly 20 years. I have said before and will say it again that owner occupation is the most important and significant sociological development of this century. The Trevelyans of the future may write about it; I know not. This does not, however, alter the fact that the most acute social problem now existing in the housing world is the lack of private rented property. Owner occupation is going ahead splendidly; 2,000 people a day sign documents which entitle them to own their own home. During the last 20 years the percentage of houses in owner occupation has risen from a little over 40 per cent. to a little under 60 per cent. However, the amount of private property to rent is declining. Only one-third of the private property to rent which was available 20 years ago is now available. This is a major problem. This sector is being sabotaged by the Bill and it is a very dangerous development.
But it is rather worse than that. I do not like the method which the Government have adopted. They are going back on their word. The Government made verbal promises and incorporated those promises in an Act of Parliament. I will read to the Minister the relevant passage from the 1974 Act:In this subsection housing and residential accommodation means dwellings which are to be let or available for letting".The Government are going back on that. They enlarged it by means of a splendid legal document which only a master of his craft could have written and could understand. It runs to three pages and provides for every known form of eventuality.
That is not even the worst feature of it. What I dislike in particular is the treatment of trusts. The Government have put money into these organisations either by way of grant or by way of mortgage. Now they say that they can take out that money. They also say that they can command policy. If they wanted to do that, they should have gone in for another organisation—a joint stock company. A joint stock company is the organisation which can do that sort of thing; you cannot do it with a trust. Once you have given money to a trust it is not for you to take it out or for you to command policy, even if you have put a great deal of money into it. This is an important matter because potentially it cuts into some very large trusts in this country which are doing a tremendous job of work. The National Health Service is a comprehensive service, but great trusts like St. John Ambulance and Guide Dogs for the Blind are an integral part of the National Health Service. According to the Bill, if the Government give money to them 31 they can then command policy. It is an extremely dangerous line to take.
And not only that. The Government are now changing retrospectively the objects of the trust. Can my noble friend quote any instance where that has been done before? I have caused inquiries to be made. The only case where this may have happened was when the hospitals were nationalised 25 years ago. This was a big policy decision and it was understandable. But there is no policy behind this. The figures are quite insignificant, compared with what is to be done. Of course, one can say that there has been no breach of trust because an Act of Parliament can do anything. Are the Government quite sure that the warning given to us 400 years ago by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure does not apply:O! it is excellentTo have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannousTo use it like a giant".I hope the Government will see sense. I noticed that during the Third Reading of the Bill in the other place nearly half of the speakers asked this House to amend Clause 2. I very much hope that we shall do so and that we shall throw it out lock, stock and barrel.
§ 4.26 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that I, too, wish to speak about Clause 2 of the Bill in respect of the charitable housing associations, since many of them are sponsored and supported by the churches. Charitable housing associations have very often been drawn from local churches acting together in a particularly strong and valuable form of ecumenical service. I do not want to waste your Lordships' time by needless repetition, particularly in view of the very clear and powerful speeches which we have already heard this afternoon and the literature which we have all received over the past few weeks and months. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, pointed out, we are bound to work over this particular ground very closely because it is an issue of such vital importance. There are particular points to be made which we shall need to make from our own perspective. Therefore, I hope noble Lords will bear with me for a moment while I summarise briefly what appear to be the principal points at issue and then comment on these from the point of view of church housing associations in particular.
The first is the conflict between, on the one hand, the present policy of giving as many tenants as possible the right to buy their home where public money has been used to provide it and, on the other hand, the need to provide an adequate stock of rented housing accommodation for those people not only who are unable to buy but who need to live reasonably near their work and, indeed, near their family and the communities to which they belong. This point has already been made but needs to be particularly underlined. The second is the proposal to change retrospectively the conditions under which housing association grant has been given to these associations since 1974 and the indirect attack that is being made on a charity's legal duty to manage their assets in a way that ensures the best results for future generations as 32 well as the present. We in the churches know something about the kind of difficulties that that can create. The third is the discouraging effect that Clause 2, if implemented in its present form, will have on many of those who give time, commitment and sometimes money to the voluntary charitable housing associations, which are not exactly the same as those other associations which have been set up to provide not rented accommodation but houses for sale.
In the absence of any Green or White Paper setting out the arguments, it has of course been necessary to listen to and rely mainly on Ministers' statements and debates in the other place in order to learn the arguments for Clause 2 in its present form, though I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for the very clear case he presented, with his customary passionate conviction. Because it is Government policy to use public money to encourage the spread of house ownership as widely as possible, parity therefore demands that certain tenants of our housing associations should have the same right in relation to properties built or acquired since 1974. The principle is clear enough, but, as so often in political life, the consequences of pursuing it almost to the exclusion of any others for what is admitted to be probably a very small number of people may be very serious for an equally large if not much larger number of people in the long term, who will find even less accommodation available in the places where it is often most needed.
The churches, and individual Christians, have been and are prominently involved in the housing association movement in its various forms. Pioneering work was done by people such as Octavia Hill, Charles Jenkinson of Leeds, and Basil Jellicoe of Somers Town. Again and again—and this is a point I want to underline—the reason for this involvement has been the challenge to provide rented accommodation of a good standard for those least able to help themselves and in places where people need it. This covers a very wide range, as we have already heard, from the single homeless in the city (which is probably the biggest single category) to young married couples in rural areas. If people can also be helped to buy their own homes, better still; we ought to be talking about "both … and" and not "either … or". But these particular associations which have worked hard to provide rented accommodation to meet this particular need, with very welcome Government help, let me say, do not want to see and never expected to see this help whittled away to meet a different need which is not the one for which they were working and for which they were originally set up; and which is, I dare say, in their judgment a less urgent need.
If some of these properties are now to be sold, those houses or flats will come on to the open market sooner or later and will command a market price, They will have ceased to meet the need for which they were provided. Does the Minister not see that it will be immensely discouraging for many people who have worked hard to try to meet that special need? If housing demand was equal all over the country, I suppose that it might not make so much difference. But that is not so, and therefore the pressure to buy such properties will be greatest in the South-East, the South-West, and in London; precisely where rented accommodation is in the shortest supply. So even 33 small numbers may make a significant diflerence in those places.
The Bristol Churches Housing Association, for instance, reports that because it was set up in 1973, and because it seeks to meet general housing need in the city rather than to provide sheltered or hostel accommodation, 95 per cent. of its stock is eligible for sale. It is little help to their members or to others, I fear, to be told that they may apply for further HA grants and start all over again, especially if some of the most suitable sites have gone.
Representatives of a number of housing associations have told me, as they must have told many of your Lordships, how dismayed they are at the prospect also of trying to explain to tenants why some houses will be for sale and some will not—sometimes houses in the same block, and even though the tenants of the latter may have lived there longer than the others. The complications of housing and finance are difficult enough even for the professionals, and one of the valuable characteristics of many housing associations is that they have a very high standard of personal, face-to-face management of their properties; something that is particularly needed today. We are in real danger of switching off or undermining the goodwill and commitment which at present exists in and sustains these movements, and which the Government have said repeatedly they wish to strengthen.
There is one further principle at stake. Retrospective legislation, as has already been said, cannot be defended unless it is to remedy an injustice. I know that this must be the argument here, although I am bound to say that I have yet to meet anyone who finds it a convincing argument, apart from a few people who stand to benefit financially. Some years ago the Church of England brought forward in General Synod a measure to make it compulsory for clergy to retire at 70. There were those who wished this to apply to everyone, including those in post and who held a "freehold". Members of Parliament of all parties were among those who were quick to point out that this would be retrospective legislation and a denial of natural justice. Wherein does the principle differ now, since we have been told that the Minister and the Act gave an explicit undertaking in 1974 that these grants did not have strings of this kind attached?
From all that I have read, it is clear that the various church housing associations, along with many others, would like above all to see one simple change in Clause 2 of this Bill: that the clause's retrospective character should be eliminated. If in future the receipt of housing assistance grant carries with it the right to buy for certain tenants, so be it; at least we shall all know that the rules have been changed and can try to adjust accordingly, although with a heavy heart. At least one director of a housing association has said that several good, viable schemes are likely to be aborted if this change takes place.
In a debate last year on rented accommodation the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said in his summing up, and I quote:The Church of England has repealed The Book of Common Prayer and adopted collectivism as the new theology".This rather strange statement related, I believe,to the fact that I had tried to emphasise that there will always 34 be many people in our society who, for one reason or another, cannot buy their own home; and that therefore a caring society has to wrestle with the task of helping them as well. It is, as I suggested earlier, a case of "both … and" and not "either … or". Why cannot public money (my taxes and your taxes) be used to provide an adequate stock of rented accommodation as well? Surely it is needed for both.
Those who compiled The Book of Common Prayer knew all about almshouses, so there is here no incompatibility of the kind suggested. The voluntary charitable housing associations are carrying on that tradition in ways which are appropriate to our generation. It would be a very serious loss if their numbers were now to decline and their efforts to slacken through what are, I am sure, the unintended consequences of Clause 2.
§ 4.38 p.m.
§ Lord Jacques
My Lords, I am saddened and dismayed by Clause 2 of this Bill for several reasons. First, it shows how a political idea can become a dogma and be grossly overdone. Secondly, it shows how very innocently parliamentary power can be abused. None of us has a right to go back on a contract made years ago and insist upon changes being made; changes that were never mentioned at the time when the contract was made. That is just what the Government are doing. And to enable them to do it, they are using the powers of Parliament.
I had always thought that one of the things that this House provided a longstop against was abuse of parliamentary power. If this House accepts the clause as it stands, I shall be thoroughly disillusioned as to the functions and ability of this House. This is retrospective legislation of the worst kind. There are occasions when clever people find a loophole in the law. They use it to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the rest of the community, and the Government of the day find it necessary to intervene. But in this case we have nothing like that. The retrospective legislation is being directed at people who are trying to give some hope and help to the least advantaged in the community.
I am also saddened by the effect that this will have on the charitable housing societies. Many of those associated with those societies will say, "Well, we are in this association in order to help the community, especially the least advantaged in the community, by providing low-rent property, but if the property has to be sold there is no point whatever in our carrying on. We are not in the business of selling houses". Indeed, I know of several schemes which will not be pursued if the Bill is carried into law.
That is one effect. Another will be, if the Bill is carried into law and some of the charitable housing societies do carry on, that the societies will be in a disadvantaged position in the future. If they sell their assets at substantial discounts, they will find, even if they reinvest the proceeds they receive, that because of rising costs the rent at which they have to let property in the future will be greater than it would have been, so that they will either go out of business altogether as charitable organisations or, alternatively, they will be at a disadvantage in the work they are trying to do.
35 I give an example of the kind of association that is being affected by the Bill. An old friend of mine, a Mr. Wilson, was for many years headmaster of a school for maladjusted boys. It was a county council boarding school. As a result of his experience, he found that a major factor of our social problems was housing—either lack of it or poor housing. During his time as headmaster he tried, in his own time, to unite families who were in contact with him because they had a maladjusted boy in the school. At all times he found that the most difficult problem he had was to obtain satisfactory low-rent accommodation in order to get the family united.
After many years as headmaster of that school he retired and moved a few miles away to Petersfield, a small town in Hampshire. There he joined work with the Council of Churches and in 1973 its members did some research into social problems in that small town. As a result of that research, they came to the conclusion that one of the essentials was a charitable housing association. These church members, just over 100 of them, put their money into this housing association for the benefit of the least advantaged of the community. They gave their time, their energy and their expertise to build up a charitable housing association.
Up to last December they had acquired 26 properties in the past nine years, which is about three a year. They thought they were getting on quite well. The houses are let only to those who cannot afford to buy. They are let to people who are in that unfortunate position; usually newly married couples from poor families, one-parent families and older people who for one reason or another find themselves in great housing difficulty. In every case there is a clear understanding that, if the tenant at any time in the future is able to afford to buy, he will, with the help and guidance of the association, go on to the open market and buy, with the aid of a mortgage from a building society. This is no theory. Of the 26 tenancies, five of the tenants have already bought their own houses and moved out of the rented accommodation, which has then been made available to other people whose circumstances are unsatisfactory and difficult. Therefore, the scheme works in practice and is not pure theory.
Last year, this small housing association was able to acquire a site with an old house on it. It has a scheme by which the old house is being converted into four flats and it is building a further 10 new flats in the grounds of the house. This is the association's first new accommodation and consequently its members are cock-a-hoop that they are really getting somewhere. Now they are thoroughly frustrated and dismayed by the Bill because they know that the people who would leave the houses and go on to the open market to buy will be able to buy the charitable association's stock of housing because of the huge discounts which will be offered. They are so dismayed that there is obviously some question as to how far they are prepared to carry on in the future.
It is the better-off tenants who will be able to buy. It is the few who are better off than the other tenants who will make the capital profit. But they will make it at the expense of the charitable association because sales will undermine its ability to carry on its future work.
36 As has already been mentioned, there will be great anomalies. Long-standing tenants who have been in a house since long before 1974 will not be able to buy, but someone who is in a post-1974 house will be able to buy. The tenants will not understand that logic at all. Furthermore, if the house has been built on land which was donated, the tenant will not be able to buy, but if the land was passed to the housing association for a nominal sum the tenant will be able to buy. Heavens! the tenants will not understand that. They will think someone in an administrative office has gone crazy. They will think that the Houses of Parliament have gone crazy in passing such a law.
In many cases, after the discount, the repayment of the grant and the mortgage, there will be very little left. As the Minister has told us, the Government have undertaken that charitable moneys up to their full value, and allowing for inflation, will be protected. But the Government must know that a good deal of charitable work is not necessarily represented by money. The people who give their time, their energy and their expertise are giving charity. That is never valued, and the Government can never value it and guarantee its return.
The Bill is not required to safeguard the grants. The grants are already safeguarded under the 1980 Act. Every one of these housing associations has to provide a grant redemption fund and has to subscribe to the grant redemption fund in accordance with the formula laid down by the Secretary of State himself. There is no question of it being required to safeguard the grant.
I hope the Minister in his reply will not try to persuade us that in this context there is no difference between a local authority and a charitable housing association. There are differences both in law and in practice. In law the local authority is part of the whole complex of government. In law the private charitable association is an independent body, quite independent of government. And in practice there are big differences. The local authority is responsible to the community as a whole. It is inhibited by the housing waiting list. But a charitable housing association has none of those inhibitions. It can be set up for the purpose of helping the most disadvantaged and can carry on doing that without pressure from the rest of the community.
I hope also that the Minister will not tell us that they are not all real charities. It is true that some are registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts and that if they are registered with charitable rules they are, by the Charities Act 1960, excused from registration with the Charity Commissioners. But that is only for convenience—convenience of the administration and convenience of the bodies concerned. It is merely to avoid duplication. It is saying, "All right, if you are going to be supervised by the registrar, let him do the whole job and you should not also be supervised by the Charity Commissioners". It is merely a convenience, and it is a convenience which suits both sides. But the charitable association is nevertheless subject to exactly the same inhibitions as if it had been registered with the Charity Commissioners. There is no difference whatever.
I hope that the Minister will not tell us that this was necessary because, after the 1980 Act, some of the 37 housing associations decided to register as charities so as to avoid having to sell their houses to the tenants. My information is that, of all the hundreds of societies involved, only seven did that. If those seven were prepared to accept the inhibitions placed upon charities and were prepared to have charitable rules, why should they not register as charities? They have the same right as any other organisation which is prepared to accept those conditions.
I conclude by reminding the House that the Charity Commissioners have been absolutely clear in what they have to say about this Bill. They have told the Government in writing, "We are totally opposed to this clause in principle". That is clear and above all doubt.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Lord Moyne
My Lords, I have an interest to declare in that I have been for over half a century a trustee of the Guinness Trust, but I speak of course in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the Trust. I wish to confine my few remarks to criticising Clause 2. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, in opening seemed to lean on the exemptions and to wave away the grievances as though of small consequence; but I am told that out of the Guinness Trust's total of some 7,700 homes, over 5,000 would be affected by the right to buy—a very considerable proportion—which is of course a tribute to the efficacy of the grants but also, let it not be forgotten, to the zeal of the Guinness Trust staff, who, like the staffs of other trusts, have been of incalculable value in making the grants fructify. The state has invested money, but the trusts have provided something equally important in the expertise and devotion of their staff.
The grants themselves were in due course, as we know, turned into loans by the claw-back legislation—the first round of retrospection. Although naturally charitable trusts grumbled at this change of attitude, they had to accept that what the state had given, the state had taken away—and blessed at least is the name of the Housing Corporation. But under the Act of 1974, Section 30, it had been open all along for the Minister of the day, in sanctioning grants, to impose conditions. He could well have imposed a condition to sell, but did not choose to do so. If he had done so, the trustees might well have refused the grants. The injustice of the proposed retrospective legislation, introducing unacceptable terms into contracts years after their implementation, also makes future grants subject to compulsory sales. Would it not be better for the Minister and the housing charity concerned to remain free under the Act of 1974 to agree what was appropriate to particular circumstances?
The Government appear to be turning a deaf ear to the wider arguments regarding the importance of a pool of rented accommodation, for the benefit of the less well-off, and for the mobility of labour. They seem to have set themselves blindly upon a mistaken course towards universal private ownership. This seems to be a regrettable shibboleth, similar to that of the party opposite, when they believed that nationalisation was the panacea for all ills. Surely, my Lords, the objective of all parties should be the welfare of our people. 38 Surely we should cast shibboleths aside, avoid the injustice of retrospective legislation and, for the future, let the Minister be free to make terms appropriate to particular circumstances and acceptable to particular charities.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Lord Goodman
My Lords, I begin to feel a certain sympathy with the Minister. The House must be yearning for someone to say a kind word about Clause 2. But although I think I am reasonably soft hearted, I must resist the temptation. He has, however, his own eminently sweet reasonableness of presentation which can momentarily conceal the rather specious nature of the arguments that he is presenting. I am sorry to have to use harsh words, but that was very much the effect which was left with me when I heard his speech. I do not think that he disposed of the arguments. Frankly, I do not think that he dealt with the arguments. I was not altogether surprised—and I hope that this will not be regarded as an unfair comment—to notice that he read his speech. There is nothing wrong with reading a speech, except that one suspects the authorship. If I smell a faint whiff of sulphur and believe that the bureaucrats (whom I suspect are really behind this legislation) had much more to do with it than the Minister himself, that may be an unfair suspicion but it is one that I shall continue to maintain.
I wonder whether I may be forgiven for a slightly egotistical insertion into the debate about my own credentials. I do so only because they have a relevance and will explain some of my comments. I was for some years the chairman of the Housing Corporation. I enlisted, I hasten to tell the Minister, as a volunteer. I enlisted—and again I claim no special credit for this—as an unpaid volunteer, as most of the people engaged in the housing movement are. They are unpaid volunteers. The remark has already been made in, if I may venture to say so, the very sincere and valid observations of the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, on this matter, and also by other speakers, that the Government have entirely overlooked everything except the monetary consideration. The immense effort, exertion, thought, dedication, hope and sacrifice that have gone into these voluntary movements is absolutely and totally discounted. They mean nothing. All that they have talked about is the origin of relatively small sums of money in relation to the achievements that have been effected by the voluntary housing movement.
May I refer to those achievements? When I went to the Housing Corporation—and I claim very little credit for this—there were, I think, about 5,000 new-build houses being built a year. When I left, due largely to my own incomparable skill in enlisting assistance and my ability to find three incredibly talented people, two of whom were reformed civil servants, the Housing Corporation was then building upwards of 50,000 new-build houses and reconstructed houses a year. That was a major achievement, and that a Government should seek to tamper with it in the very flagrant and, if I may say so, disrespectful way in which they are doing in Clause 2, is a matter of very considerable surprise and disappointment.
Words have been spoken about the function of this House. My opposition to Clause 2 has nothing to do 39 with politics. I was appointed to the Housing Corporation by one of the Minister's predecessors, Geoffrey Rippon, endorsed with a warm recommendation from the present Minister for the Arts, Paul Channon. I was confirmed in the office at the end of my first term of duty by Tony Crosland. I am a totally non-political animal, except in the sense that there are a number of political manifestations to which I have from time to time objected, and this, if I may say so, is one to which I take very strong objection.
During my period of service I came to recognise that in a certain section of bureaucracy there was a deep-seated hostility to voluntary organisations. If I may be permitted to do so, I should like to read an extract from The Times which I think puts the point with great clarity and great emphasis, and in a very graceful fashion. It states:This government especially should feel a doctrinal inhibition against interference in the activities of autonomous organisations. High-handedly putting them to use and then making a negative of their efforts when policy changes, risks blighting much goodwill, enthusiasm and enterprise, and drying up the springs of charity".I venture to think that that could not be better put.
I should also like to say that this attitude chimes with the drafting of the Bill, because one of the Bill's most abominable features is its drafting. I should like to draw the attention of the House to two clauses which are rather a burlesque of parliamentary drafting. I refer to page 4. Clause 4(1) states:In subsection (4) of section 8 of the 1980 Act (repayment of discount on early disposal) there shall be inserted at the beginning of paragraph (b) the words 'subject to subsection (4A) below"'.It is difficult to imagine more slipshod, indolent drafting than that. But no one can accuse bureaucrats of being lazy or indolent. In fact, those qualities would be a virtue if bureaucrats did have them.
I could go on and reproduce the point a hundred times. I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, was in the House earlier. His committee made very condign comments about legislation by cross-reference. It is not sheer laziness that has produced this kind of drafting. It is, if I may say so, a contempt for mankind; in particular, a contempt for those members of mankind who have to read the Bill and try to understand it. I would venture to suggest that it would take years for any ordinary human being to work out what the Bill means, even in its general terms, let alone in its particular terms. As I say, my deep suspicion is that it is not due to laziness; that it is not due even to untidiness of thought. It is due to the fact that the people who drafted the Bill are wholly satisfied that they are right, that other people are wrong, and that they need not enter into tedious and painful explanations. There is such a quantity of this kind of drafting in the Bill that it ought to be thrown out on that ground alone.
The noble Lord, Lord Jacques, reminded the House of its obligations. I am not, I am afraid, sufficiently versed in the constitutional aspects of the matter to reinforce those words, except to say that in the country at large there is a general view that if the House of Lords is to vindicate itself it is precisely for the reason that it can put right absurdities of this character; it is precisely because without any political intervention we 40 are able to say that this clause should be thrown out—and thrown out neck and crop.
I am apologetic for using slightly strong language, but there are certain situations that can be met only by using slightly strong language. In many ways the Bill chimes with my deep suspicion that it originates not only from concern about whether or not Government money should be restored to the Government, or placed under Government control, but also largely from a suspicion that amateurs and volunteers are exercising governmental functions.
I should like to read to your Lordships something that is in comparable terms very much related to the Bill. It is what a foreigner has written about the Arts Council—a very similar organisation. There are several similar organisations. The contribution of voluntary organisations to the governmental mechanism of this country has been a great achievement. There is the Arts Council and the University Grants Commission, and there are a few others. There are the Sports Council and the British Council—to a greater extent, perhaps, a governmental organisation, but nevertheless conducted by independent people. These organisations are so valuable that the Government should think four or five times before tampering with them.
I have here a report of a symposium about how the arts are subsidised in various countries. I shall read to your Lordships what a Scandinavian writer says about the method that we use. He says:Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, a new Arts Council was created by royal charter. It was to be a permanent government agency, but in a peculiarly British sense. The new agency was to be the principal vehicle for distribution of official support for the arts; at the same time, elaborate measures were taken to ensure its formal independence. The council is composed of private citizens who are appointed by the government but who have complete authority for setting policy and for distributing the funds it receives".I shall not read on, because to do so would be tedious. But it is perfectly clear that voluntary organisations of this kind are really jewels in our constitutional crown, and they should not be tampered with, and they should not be upset.
Almost everything that I wanted to say has been said by previous speakers. I came here today not only because I was the chairman of the Housing Corporation for some time, but also because for three years I spent my time presiding over its committee on charity law. I should like to tell the Minister that it would require a lawyer of unique genius to be able to say whether or not the Bill corresponds with the law. I am very far from satisfied that the elaborate requirements that a charity needs to fulfil in order to sell its land are met by the provisions of the Bill. Normally there is the requirement that the property should be offered at large to the highest bidder. One requirement in relation to a property of significant value was that it should be advertised for sale. Certainly there was always a requirement that the charity should get the best price. The suggestion that the rather dim, dank and dismal wording of the particular clause of the Bill is sufficient to abrogate these provisions is, I think, over-confident.
However, it would be wrong for me to express a legal opinion in the face of a view apparently expressed by the Law Officers, but I can only say that it is not the 41 view of the Charity Commissioners, and it is certainly not my view, that there is any certainty in the Bill.
I shall conclude simply by saying that if for once this House has a useful function to exercise—and in the past it has many times exercised a useful function—your Lordships will have no hesitation at all in seeing the end of this appalling Clause 2.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, it is a major challenge to follow the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, but I shall do my best. My complaints against the Bill are threefold. First, it extends the right to buy to tenants of charitable housing associations—and the House has rightly been very preoccupied with Clause 2. Secondly, it extends the concept of shared ownership, which after no more than eight years is still an untried concept. Thirdly, it offers self-regulation in place of regulation by the local authorities.
To me it seems extraordinary that a Government should ask Parliament to vote for a Bill which will compel the charitable housing associations to deem that henceforth their main objects are to be wider than, if not quite different from, their objects as laid out in their constitutions. A mere few lines of a clause will make valid conduct that would otherwise be a breach of trust. The Government have been asked to produce a precedent. I doubt very much whether they can produce such a precedent. I agree that a property-owning democracy is a laudable objective, but the single-minded pursuit of this objective should not override every other objective of housing policy. There are many people on low incomes, without jobs, without homes and without shelter, who simply cannot afford to buy or to maintain their homes. The Church of England, in a recent report entitled Housing and Homelessness, concluded that there is a desperate need for providing low rent accommodation for single people and one-parent families. There is certainly a need for such housing in the part of the world I come from—in the valleys of South Wales and also in the rural areas of Wales, where pressure for holiday homes and second homes is great.
The charitable housing associations exist to meet the very conditions which the Church of England has indicated. For the foreseeable future, there will be an essential role for the rented housing sector. I accept that a house sold by a housing association to a sitting tenant is not lost in the sense that it has been destroyed. But the obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the sale of a single house to a sitting tenant means that one house is no longer available to the growing waiting list for rented accommodation. It seems to me that those on the waiting list pay the highest price for a house sold to a sitting tenant—a price paid in terms of worry, frustration, unhappiness and often sickness.
If Clause 2 of the Bill remains, many members of management committees and trustees, all of whom give voluntary service which should not be devalued, will find themselves in a difficult conflict. I will not say that it is necessarily a hopeless conflict. It is nevertheless a difficult conflict. They will feel that, in all conscience, they owe a duty not to deviate from the original main objects of the trust. Yet, at the same time, they will be under a statutory duty placed upon 42 them by Parliament to widen those objects without any regard to the general circumstances prevailing in their district and without any regard for the fact that they may be prejudicing their own future. I am not sure how they will resolve that conflict. The concern that they have voiced, on coming face to face with the Bill, is fully justified.
It has already been mentioned many times that the trustees of a charitable housing association will now be compelled, regardless of rules which, as I understand the law, have applied at least since the reign of Elizabeth I, to dispose of trust assets below market value. The Government, as I follow the Minister, attempt to justify this departure because we are dealing with an association that has received Government funds. That is surely a misconception. When the charity accepts the grant, subject to redemption, the fund becomes part of the assets of the charity. Therefore, the rules that have hitherto applied to the funds of a charity should prevail.
What are those rules? It is as well to remind ourselves that a trustee of a charity has no unfettered right to sell the assets of a charity. If a house is entrusted for the benefit of a third party, the trustee does not discharge his functions by proceeding to sell the house and converting it into cash. The job of the trustee is to preserve the assets for the benefit of beneficiaries, present and future. In particular, the trustees have no right to hold out any hope of preference, even to a sitting tenant to whom they may feel some sort of moral obligation. Indeed, the reverse applies. If a charity must sell assets that have been entrusted to it, it must do so on the best possible terms and must show that the sale is advantageous to it. If this Bill becomes the law of the land, the charity must, at the call of a secure tenant, sell its houses at a discount.
The Minister may produce precedent. I doubt very much whether there has been an occasion when the trustees of a charity have in the past received such an order or instruction. I go along with those noble Lords who have made the point that, in general, it is wrong for a Government, in a well ordered and civilised society, to impose terms or conditions that are retrospective. Again, the Government seek to justify retrospective legislation because the housing association has receive a grant. But retrospective legislation is exceptional. Of course, a donor may, when he offers a gift, offer it subject to conditions, provided that those conditions are known to the donee and accepted by the donee at the time of acceptance. If the offer is free of conditions when it is accepted, it would be wrong for a donor subsequently to seek to impose terms upon the recipient. No strings having been attached to the grants made under the Housing Act 1974 to charities at the time when such grants were made or disbursed, it is unjust for the Government in 1983 to impose a condition that a charity, if called upon by a secure tenant, shall sell its assets and do so at a discount. The principle should be, "once an unconditional gift, always an unconditional gift".
If we support this clause, where are we to draw the line? On the precedent to be established by this piece of legislation, will another Government some time in the future seek to impose retrospective conditions on other charities that have received or may receive 43 grants? That is why we address ourselves to the situation beyond that affecting housing associations. We say that Clause 2 is an ominous development for all charitable foundations which have been, or may be, in receipt of grants from central or local government.
Before moving on to my next point—I shall not be long—I would be grateful if the Minister will assure the House, in due course if not today, that the Bill will not make charitable housing associations ineligible to receive loans from the European Coal and Steel Commission programme for the building and improving of housing accommodation for workers connected with the coal, iron and steel industries.
I turn now to shared ownership. I listened carefully to the Minister when he introduced the concept of shared ownership. This is a relatively new concept of about eight years' standing. The tenant will part buy and part rent his house. He will never be able to point to any particular part of the house and say, "This part I own, but this part I rent". Shared ownership is still an untested concept, and I think that it will raise many issues which will be considered worthy of pursuit in the courts over the next few years. The concept has been described in another place as "a revoluntary advance" It is certainly revolutionary, but only years will reveal whether or not it is an advance.
One could pose a number of questions if one had the time, but I will proceed to mention one point relating to the predecessor Act, the Housing Act 1980. There is evidence that the law has not as yet caught up with the rights and the powers created by the 1980 Act. Is this, therefore, the time to extend a new bundle of housing rights and powers which are almost certainly not fully understood? It is unwise to push the concept of shared ownership widely among people who cannot contemplate and afford slow moving litigation from county court to the Court of Appeal and possibly to your Lordships' House.
Thirdly, I consider that the substitution of private certification of compliance with building regulations for local authority certification to be a retrograde step. Given the relentless growth of regulations, we fully accept the case for the recasting or the review or revision of regulations. But at a time when local authorities have built up a bank of knowledge and experience—knowing what has gone wrong in the past and foreseeing what might go wrong in the future—we deeply regret their replacement by the so-called approved inspector who will not have the experience, who will not have the independence of mind and probably the astuteness of the local authorities. He will be on the pay roll of the developer and not of the local council.
To the extent that the proposed substitution will mean less independence from the developer and less expertise, the greater is the risk of the regulations being overlooked or of being less effectively applied, or of standards being lowered; and greater, of course, is the risk of shoddy work. When we are dealing with the quality and design of buildings which will be in position for 30, 50 or more years, Parliament should not be taking steps which might reduce standards and quality of material, design and workmanship. For a building which is intended to be a permanent structure 44 we consider that the continued need for the statutory consent of the local authority—which is mindful of its duty of care to the community—is vital in the public interest. To conclude, it seems to me that the Government are in great difficulty with a number of innovations in the Bill and I trust that your Lordships' House will reject them.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Lord Coleraine
My Lords, I also shall be talking about Clause 2 of the Bill. I wish that I could say to my noble friend, "Be of good cheer; relief is at hand". Although I come in to bat at No. 10 I also have a few reservations about Clause 2 and my noble friend will have to wait for succour from another quarter. I have no connection of any type with any housing association, charitable or otherwise. I merely see in the haphazard spreading of the right to buy to 80,000 more tenants yet another instance of state interference in the affairs of what is the private housing sector.
I listened with great interest to my noble friend's explanation of the Bill, but I am afraid that I am very far from convinced by the argument based on consistency with the provisions of the 1980 Act. Looking back, the nexus, by way of receipt of grant, strikes me as a remarkably obscure one. I know myself that if this clause were not in the Bill I, for one, would be well able to sleep at night with the thought that the taxpayer was not providing a tax-free capital bonanza to some tenant of a charitable housing organisation. I am well aware that there are tenants—and in fact not all of them would be assisted by the passage of the Bill—who have, since 1980, suffered resentment as if it were a disease because their homes had benefited from public funding, and yet they seem to have been overlooked in the big 1980 share-out of private sector housing. I can live with that thought too, perhaps because I do not have constituents looking over my shoulder.
Looking ahead, I can see that there are many other tenants, not to mention flat leaseholders, who will clamour for similar treatment, many of them having had bad landlords or otherwise much better claims to acquire their freeholds or long leases than the tenants of the charitable organisations.
I view with considerable concern any legislation tending to diminish in the private sector the status of the rented house market or the supply of houses and flats to rent. Although I accept that for the Government to have presided over an increase of 120,000 in the renting stock of the housing associations is marvellous, I do not accept that the fact that only a few thousand tenants of charitable organisations are likely to take advantage of Clause 2 can be said to be any real justification for the clause, given that such few thousand seem likely to include many hard cases which one would not wish to see included.
What is the case, in my view, is that the recent flourishing of housing associations and the growth of their rented house stock largely results from the response of a market place, which has been artificially manipulated by statutory rent controls, to an overwhelming need for homes to rent in many urban and rural areas. It is something of an artificial situation because it is only by the injection of massive subsidies 45 that the housing stock to rent at "fair rents" in the private sector can be maintained, let alone increased. Naturally enough, such subsidies come to be directed primarily to benevolent and charitable organisations.
It is here that some charitable organisations seem to have been subjected to the temptation to let their stock of housing not exclusively to the poor, but also to those whose homelessness arises not from poverty but—and I say it again—as a result of the Rent Acts. In doing so they have, I believe, on occasions stepped outside the preamble to the ancient statute of Elizabeth I, by providing homes for the nearly homeless, which I understand not to be a charitable object.
I turn here to what are tendentiously called the "amnesty provisions" of Clause 2—that is to say, subsection (2). I find this subsection somewhat unsatisfactory, independently of subsection (1). I am very conscious that the law of charities is an esoteric minefield into which I stray at my own risk. But I see no lawyers down to speak after me, although whether I should be strengthened in my resolve to go forward by that or held back, I do not know. Anyway, I am plunging ahead.
If it is the case that the charitable organisations have mostly to act within the heading "relief of poverty"—one of the four heads into which the preamble to the statute is usually for convenience divided—then I really fail to see how they can hope lawfully to provide housing otherwise than on a purely and very strictly temporary basis for families in actual continuing poverty or necessitous circumstance. If this is the case, then the law of charities should, in my opinion, be amended substantively in this Bill and should not merely be subjected to amnesties in respect of undefined and doubted offences. The provision of housing ought to be made, by statute, a charitable object of benefit to the community, so that the housing charities should not always have to be looking over their shoulder in trying to decide whether their prospective or existing tenants are homeless, or potentially homeless, as a result of poverty, or whether they are so for some other at present non-charitable cause.
When one considers the provisions of the 1980 Act which regulate the terminating of secure tenancies—in particular Section 34 dealing with "grounds and orders for possession" and Schedule 4—one sees how very difficult it is now for a charity to obtain possession of a dwellinghouse on the ground that a tenant has become someone whose continued occupation would conflict with the objects of the charity; that is to say, in the case I am describing, someone who now has some money.
The charity must not only satisfy the court that the tenant can afford to live elsewhere, but that suitable accommodation will be available for the tenant when the order takes effect. This seems to me to make it nearly impossible for these charities to put themselves on the right side of the law once they have apparently transgressed. It is also clear in relation to the amnesty clause that the Government consider that, under the present law, a charity whose tenant's financial circumstances have changed for the better is no longer a proper object of the benevolence of the charity, and the view of the Government, as expressed by the 46 Minister in Committee in another place, is that the charity must ultimately get rid of that tenant or else, I presume, run the risk of falling foul of the Inland Revenue and losing its charitable status, with all that that entails. I have my own doubts as to whether that is the law, if only because possession orders against tenants whose financial circumstances have changed are bound to be difficult to obtain, if not impossible, following the introduction of secure tenancies.
But if that is the law, then in my opinion if the amnesty clause is to go ahead it should be amended so that the amnesty fully protects not only those charities which were granted tenancies before 5th November 1982, but also charities which were granted tenancies after 5th November 1982; otherwise, the charities will find themselves in grave difficulties if the clause goes ahead as drafted.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Winchester
My Lords, I speak with a special consciousness of the housing associations with church affiliations in my own diocese. For example, the Stoneham Housing Association in Southampton has, among many other tenants, seven ex-offenders very carefully scattered among people who have not been inside in order that, by mixing with a natural, integrated community, they can be better reinstated; or the Hyde and South Bank Housing Association, which has been in Southampton for many years on the initiative of the Southampton churches.
Its Southampton committee has several members drawn from congregations who work largely in the city centre. It has a significant programme of renovation in the very bad Derby Road area of the city, in its housing action area, and also elsewhere. It is working on special projects for the homeless in co-operation with what is called St. James Shelter for single unemployed men and the Rainbow project, which is basically an interracial project. Both are closely connected with the clergy of the city centre. It works to provide rented accommodation for a very mixed bag of single homeless, one-parent families, ex-offenders, people with a history of mental illness and, for one reason or another, the very poor. But its whole object is to avoid placing these people in any kind of developing ghetto of inadequates—an address that will put off any would-be employer or headmaster; it aims to scatter them over a mixed, integrated community in different parts of the city. I believe that that makes for social health.
If this Bill goes through with the whole of Part I, Clause 2, and tenants are able to buy—some of those tenants, especially in the Polygon area, which is an upmarket area, will almost certainly buy; tenants in the Derby Road area are very unlikely to buy—we shall immediately be re-creating the very barriers that we have been trying to pull down. It will be counterproductive in every sense of the objective of that particular housing association.
There are eight properties on one corner site. Two have been made over for handicapped people. They immediately felt that it would be wrong for all eight to go to the handicapped. That is not the kind of enclave that we are seeking to build. But if this Bill goes 47 through in its present form, is it possible that those two handicapped people will alone be unable to purchase?
In these associations we are planning to create a "move-on" accommodation. We are aware of the blessed mobility of our society that does not condemn people to stay on the lower rungs of the ladder. This project and, indeed, all housing associations are not intended for one generation of individuals, but for successive generations that are on the bottom two or three rungs. Often we are dealing with people who ought not yet to own property. They are capable of living independently, which is to be encouraged, but they still need the very unobtrusive support of the volunteer workers who gather around a housing association and give a great deal of their time to help the slightly inadequate to become less so. But they are not yet ready to be totally self-reliant. Yet those are the very people whose volatility is most likely to make them plunge into purchase if the opportunity is there.
I have heard very little today in this House about the large and growing number of people who have attempted to purchase their rented accommodation and who have been unable to keep up the mortgages. In council housing very often the council itself is able to make the advance and, on failure to pay the mortgage, the house naturally reverts to the council. A housing association is not in a position to make that kind of advance grant. Therefore, if somebody ventures into purchase and fails to keep up the mortgage, the house will revert to a finance house, bank or whoever has advanced the money. It will neither serve the purpose of the council nor that of the housing association.
Ex-offenders are not exempt under this clause, yet while they are there they need the support of the volunteer workers. By passing Clause 2, do not let us remove the basic motivation of such a very large number of people of goodwill who brought the housing associations into being in order to have a much larger motive and objective than merely the provision of houses. It seems to me that this Bill treats housing associations merely as another agency for the provision of more properties. In fact, they are a third force—neither private developers nor statutory authority, but complementary to both. Basically, they are not interested in merely being another house-building agency, for they have different objectives, at which I have already hinted; they aim to provide a catchment and a springboard for those who cannot afford to buy and to create an integrated community in which those people can grow to greater maturity and responsibility.
Remember, the right to buy also means the right to fail to buy, and we must bear that in mind. Similarly, the right to buy also means the right to re-sell. This is the point that most affects the housing authorities in the rural areas. I am very interested in several developments in the New Forest and also in other rural areas throughout Hampshire, where one of the major problems of the church is the development of the village in these days. As we have already heard, in those areas we need houses for the young marrieds, so that whole villages are not taken over by executive commuters and week-enders at highly inflated prices, excluding the possibility of the young marrieds obtain- 48 ing property in the village. In one place after another in Hampshire the result is that the child population drops, the local village school has to be closed, and a great deal goes with it. People are playing at villages, but village life has died around them because only those at a certain level of income are able to go on living there.
It is because people such as parish councillors and others in all these areas have become so concerned at the disappearance of a real life of the village that they have been more than generous in a great many ways in helping housing associations to come in and play their part. Land is obtained not by direct gift but by a special approach, very often taking a great deal of time. A special approach resulting, after understanding the situation, in very generous terms for the provision of land. Charitable impulse of a local builder is often present.
The local council is quick to give planning permission. There is that sort of enthusiasm because there is a common concern. My fear is that all of that will dissipate if those who are engaged in that kind of operation feel that in a short time their primary objective will be frustrated. They are planning just two, three or perhaps six homes in each village. Not a very large estate, but enough to enable each village to have a more mixed aged group in its population.
However, as I said, the right to buy entails the right to buy and re-sell. Suppose there is that young married couple who have moved into one of those houses under the association and have rented their property. They now are able to buy it. Will they be able to resist the pressure of the enormously inflated price that some better placed person will offer them, and move back to join the crowds in Southampton?
Again, the whole project is in danger of being frustrated if this clause goes through, and all that motivation will have disappeared. Groups that I know in the New Forest are simply not prepared to go ahead with present schemes until they see whether or not this Bill goes through. I should like briefly to put in a word also on behalf of the National Agricultural Housing Association that was launched by Peter Buckler, for many years chaplain at Stoneleigh and well known to many of your Lordships. He has said that that association is totally opposed to the implications of this Bill.
I should like to end by retiterating the point that many have made and to put it even more strongly, having worked for a great many years in a different sort of voluntary association, a charitable body, one of the great missionary societies. I have always understood that a grant from public money cannot alter the charitable status in toto of the trust to which it is given, but rather the charitable nature of the association changes the nature of the grant into that of a contribution to the funds of the trust.
§ 5.43 p.m.
My Lords, first, I should like to apologise to the Minister for what I am going to say, because he was kind enough to come down and see my housing association, and we are grateful to him for spending the time in doing so. I want to put a few points forward. The project I wish to speak about is the 49 North Peckham project, which has outstanding features. I understand that it will be upset by this Bill.
This association has built 53 houses and flats with most complex social purposes. The buildings cost £1,400,000. The association is backed also by the Ministry of the Environment, the Housing Corporation of Southwark, ILEA Youth Service, and many other charitable bodies, including a charity from Holland which has invested in this trust. The monies were given because they appreciated our ideals and what we wished to do in regard to this trust. The object of the Hummingbirds, as it is called, is to provide a multi-racial society on the estate, and so provide accommodation for employees from social workers to hospital porters.
The need was for good, rented accommodation for manual workers, for young professionals with modest salaries, for widows with children, and unmarried mothers. In this area Peckham's needs were great, as a lot of the wards in the hospitals had to be closed because they could not get enough workers. So we began with a majority of people being employed under the National Health Service. A third of them were unmarried mothers. They had children, but they were able to go out to work. It was also for widows, widows with children, old age pensioners, and one or two family flats.
Now 50 per cent. of these persons were nominated by the local authority. The idea was that the whole of the estate should follow the ethnic composition of the area. It has worked out very well. The majority of tenants turned out to be women, because unfortunately there were many single parent families. We have no rent debts at all because, as I mentioned once before in this House, all the rent is paid through the banks through banker's order. What is so essential to keeping these families together is the nursery centre; and 40 children up to the age of three have all-day care there throughout the year. There is also a holiday scheme in co-operation with ILEA.
I think you will agree that this is not a housing association which just provides bricks and mortar, but also it helps to give a village life, in a way, in a town and co-operates with all the people in the neighbourhood. The tenants' asociation is elected every two years, and elected tenants also go to the Hummingbird Committee itself, so they have a two-way flow of ideas. Interestingly, the parents' committee, at their own suggestion, doubled the fees for the holiday playgroup. There are many schemes for building and helping more families with difficulties, including the mentally handicapped.
The London Borough of Southwark has been very helpful. We had one hiccup, and that was when they said that there were to be no pets. We felt that pets were part of family life, and they kindly gave way in the end, and so they are able to have pets. The project is really designed to help inner areas of the cities. All the tenants work in jobs locally for the benefit of the local community. Once the property is therefore for sale, it is going to be extremely difficult to keep this notion of the community together. Suppose, say, that a widowed mother has a son who has done fairly well, and he says to the mother, "I will give you money to buy your flat." She will obviously buy her flat. 50 Therefore, he can either go and live in it himself later, or he can sell it to somebody else. This is breaking up the whole idea of this estate. People with special needs, I gather, like the British Legion, may qualify and will not be allowed to sell their flats, but I should like that confirmed.
I should like to know who can decide who are the special people in need, except those who are running the housing associations. There are 12 charitable trusts which have helped with this association and also have given grants. I should like to suggest that this type of association is worth carrying on. Their donations should be used for giving this type of family life to people, the 53 families that we have with these amenities, and the special objects we want to carry on with. The families at the moment are very happy. Their rents are fairly reasonable, and it would be a great pity if this was disturbed.
There is also a toy library for the 100 children in the neighbourhood, and they also have play sessions. There is a latch-key service for the 30 children who live there, and this all ties up with the fact that these people are people living there because they wish to be in a caring community. I should like, therefore, to suggest to the Minister that perhaps there might be a register for types of housing associations like these which will not be permitted to sell in the future. We must have some safeguard for associations which have proved that they can help this type of person who is so much in need.
Clause 7, deals with national parks and other areas of outstanding beauty. How are we to discriminate between places of outstanding beauty, when we all have different ideas on the subject, as we have seen in our debates on recent Bills? Perhaps my noble friend, in his reply, will comment on that. I thank him for the help and interest he has taken in the past and I hope that tonight we shall receive from him a happy answer.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, I wish to deal with two aspects of the Bill. The first is the statutory provision in Clause 2, and I am afraid that very little of what I shall say will be new on the subject, though I may express it in a somewhat different way. At first sight the clause may not appear unreasonable, but there are two matters of principle involved and, even more importantly, side effects which give cause for concern. Whatever the Minister argued in another place to the contrary, the measure is, in some respects at least, retrospective because charitable bodies and housing associations have for about eight years accepted public grants at their face value and have planned accordingly. Had they known what is proposed in the Bill, they would often have made quite different decisions.
There is also the question of legality in regard to charitable status, and some people who are well respected in the legal field do not agree with what the Minister said on that matter. It seems to be a matter of opinion; and, after all, whatever his advisers may say, what the courts finally decide is what will matter. In any case, there is an undesirable inroad into the provisions covering charitable status. This Government have emphasised the importance of voluntary 51 community work and the help provided by independent organisations. The Bill as drafted is a gross interference with autonomous bodies. It will blight the goodwill, enthusiasm and fund-raising of much voluntary work.
Most charities and housing associations are in business to fulfil some particular community need not otherwise available. Usually it is designed to be on a temporary basis. For example, some housing associations work with other voluntary bodies to help those leaving hospitals and prisons, and to aid newly separated or divorced mothers and others desperately needing a roof over their heads or a period of rehabilitation in sheltered surroundings. Other housing organisations try to provide equally desperately needed rented accommodation at reasonable cost.
It is idle to suppose that after the sale of a property to the tenant it can quickly or easily be replaced. Replacement may not even be possible. The charity would have to repay the grant and use all or most of the balance to fund the discount to the buying tenant. The whole ambience and administrative control of a housing project could thus be destroyed. Moreover, it may be highly undesirable to have the confusion of those coming in, in need of help and guidance, alongside those whose need has passed but who have elected to take advantage of the Bill to buy the property.
It is worth looking at some of the anomalies which will arise in the situation where the Government's argument of the clause is allegedly based on fairness to council tenants. In the first place, because the right to buy depends on having accepted a public grant, some tenants in possibly identical accommodation will have a right to buy while others will not. For new tenants it will be a lottery as to whether or not they move into accommodation which carries a right to buy. Even weirder anomalies will arise in thousands of converted properties, because discount for the buying tenant must not bring prices below the original cost. If the house was vacant when first bought by the charity, it will have been far more expensive than a house bought with a sitting tenant. The tenant of the former may therefore get no discount, while in the other case a full discount may be payable; yet for practical purposes the houses could be identical. Tenants would be quite unable to understand or accept such glaring anomalies.
Another side effect of the legislation will be a reluctance of tenants to leave their rented accommodation, when they otherwise would do so, on the grounds that they may in the future be able to buy if they sit tight. If the property is a commercially attractive asset with its generous buying grant, wholly undesirable sources may find it a good thing to make loans to the would-be purchaser. That is a very important point indeed. It may be all right for relatives to find the money and hope to get the house at a later date, but it is a different matter if some smart operator knocks at the door and makes suitable proposals where the property looks a good commercial proposition.
In all this there is the major consideration of the shortage of cheap rented accommodation which is 52 vitally necessasry for many, including young newly-marrieds, and for helping the mobility of labour. Conservative and Labour Governments have, no doubt with good intentions, eroded this vital asset. That point has been made several times today. There is now a fear that future Governments may try to apply similar provisions to the generous grants made to landlords for the improvement of their rented properties.
I should also emphasise the disastrous effect this legislation will have on small charities—those which are often closest in touch with local needs. They are dependent almost entirely on a band of voluntary workers. In many cases these will be greatly disheartened, and some of those charities will simply go out of business. I sincerely hope the Government will reconsider their position on pragmatic grounds and, at the least, accept an amendment to make Clause 2 not retrospective, but effective only for the future. That would allow charities, when taking a grant, to see clearly what is involved, and to make their plans accordingly. The enormous legislative effort and ensuing administrative cost in implementing these provisions seem a negation of the Government's efforts to reduce administrative staff in government as a whole.
The other matter I want to raise concerns Clause 40, which deals with documents giving practical guidance on the provisions of the building regulations on a "deemed to satisfy" basis. Apparently the Minister intends to designate such bodies as the British Standards Institution and the Agrément Board for helping prepare these documents. So far so good. But, most surprisingly, the power to approve such documents can also be delegated. That is not acceptable from a practical point of view or on principle, as such approval bodies would not be answerable to Parliament.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, I must apologise in opening both to my noble friend Lord Bellwin and to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for having missed their opening speeches owing to another commitment elsewhere in the House at the same time. I trust that I shall not offend them by what I have to say, having missed their obviously splendid words. I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Bellwin for the exchange of correspondence that we had and to which I shall later refer. As he will be aware, I am concerned only about Clause 2, as indeed are most other noble Lords, and its effects on charitable housing associations and trusts in the Isle of Wight—which narrows it even more. However, although practically everybody else who has spoken has been against Clause 2 as a whole and would like to have it struck out, I am persuaded that there will be cases where the right to buy would be justified for charitable tenancies.
Your Lordships may be aware that in another place on 18th January, when addressing Standing Committee F, my honourable friend Mr. John Stanley pointed out at some length at columns 305 and 307 where this would be a reasonable thing to do. He mentioned in particular the fact that there are some associations which have charitable status which have let homes to persons who are not necessitous. Of course, it is quite 53 right that that sort of situation should be able to be put right. Most noble Lords who have spoken already have been in touch with very worthy bodies which would never do any such thing; but there may be other bodies with which they are unfamiliar, and it would seem right that under certain circumstances people should be enabled to buy their houses, particularly if it is really a bit bogus that they had them let to them on a charitable basis in the first place. Therefore, I, personally, would not suggest to my noble friend that he sweeps away the whole of Clause 2 but I hope to show him that perhaps it ought to be amended, and I will give some indication of how that might be done.
The particular problems in the Isle of Wight—which are very similar to those presented to us by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester—are the need to preserve a reasonable number of houses for locals of all ages and for any older people who wish to return to the island after a working life elsewhere. There was already evidence 50 years ago that local people were being displaced by a superfluity of newcomers to the island of various sorts—for example, retired Northerners or weekenders—such as the right reverend Prelate mentioned. In this connection, I would say to the right reverend Prelate that, in the Isle of Wight, Northerners begin the other side of the Solent.
I emphasise that some fresh blood is always welcome in every village but not if it means that young people are forced out of their community because they cannot find somewhere to live among the people they know or near their job, or if it means that old people are unable to return to the community of their earlier life. This, surely, is an important proviso in the background against which we consider this particular clause.
However, all this became obvious in the 1930s and it led to the formation in that decade of the particular housing association about which I wrote to my noble friend the Minister. Since then, that housing association has been granted charitable status, and more recently established charitable housing associations in the island have the same purpose. I suspect—and the right reverend Prelate made it clear to us in relation to his part of the country—that rural areas in all parts have very much the same problems; and very reasonable ones they are.
In his letter to me of 17th March, my noble friend the Minister clarified much of Clause 2, but there are two points about which I am still concerned. First, he said that two-thirds of charitable dwellings will fall outside the right to buy. I suspect that this proportion might be an average for the country as a whole but that the proportion of those which fall outside for the Isle of Wight, and possibly for other rural areas, could well be less than two-thirds. Therefore, that needs to be considered in the general argument. Secondly, my noble friend made the point that the charitable associations let only to necessitous persons. That is not disputed. I gave an example to your Lordships of there being some charitable associations which are somewhat bogus, but I am not talking about them. The reasonable ones—about which we all know—would not dispute that the purpose of their housing is to be let to the necessitous. My noble friend 54 went on to say that, as they are necessitous, they therefore are unlikely to be in a position to exercise the right to buy. What we in the Isle of Wight fear is that this may well be so but such a necessitous person who, let us say, may be an invalid at 60, may have children of, say, 40 who may not have been doing well but then maybe they are lucky and win the pools or perhaps become very industrious and make lots of money. They may then suggest to their parents: "Dad, I know you and Mum are getting on a bit. Wouldn't it be a good plan if you exercised your right to buy and we'll put up the cash for you?"
That may be all right; but the fact is that, the parents having exercised this right using money put up by their children, we may find that the children, after the house passes into their possession, may be terribly tempted, as, I think, the right reverend Prelate mentioned by very high prices being offered for houses in a nice part of the country, and may sell the house. Whatever happens, directly that house passes out of the hands of the necessitous person—hopefully, not until they are dead though nasty things can happen—whatever was the purpose for which the house was provided in the first place by the charity, it is nullified. That surely is what we must try to avoid.
Therefore, since I communicated with my noble friend and have talked to my friends in the Isle of Wight, I have been seeking to see if we could not have some sort of amendment to Clause 2 which would give the charitable housing trust the right to appeal against an application for a right to buy if they can show that the purposes of their charitable trust may be, or are being, nullified by the exercise of that right. I hope that something on those lines might be acceptable.
It could well be argued that this would drive a coach and horses through the provisions of the right to buy. It would not do so, I submit, if the charitable trust or society is genuine and if it sticks to the idea of necessitous tenants, and can get rid of the tenants when they cease to be necessitous. Of course, that is another problem, but if this had the effect of imposing a greater discipline on the charities, I should not think that a bad thing. At the same time, it would avoid the gradual erosion of the purposes for which these housing associations were set up in the first place. I throw the idea to my noble friend and I hope that, when we come to the Committee stage, he will give very favourable consideration to anything along those lines that I may put down.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Viscount Ingleby
My Lords, I, too, hope that the Government will reconsider Clause 2. I do not like it for three reasons. It is retrospective, but enough has been said about that already. It seems to be discriminatory, too, in that you are taking the total number of tenants of charitable housing associations and giving the right to buy to a fairly small proportion of them. You are not giving the right to buy to tenants of private landlords who may be in similar houses and who also may have received substantial Government grants. You are not giving the right to buy to tenants of pre-1974 houses or to disabled tenants. There may well be good reasons for doing that; but let us say, for example, that you have three houses side by side on the same estate: one pre-1974, one post-1974 and one 55 occupied by a disabled person. Does the Minister think he could convince the other two tenants of the reasons why only one of the three should be entitled to buy his house at a substantial discount?
My other reason for doubting Clause 2 is that there are many charitable housing estates where able-bodied tenants undertake, as part of their tenancy, to look after or provide some service for disabled people. If the former are allowed to sell their houses in the course of time, then this care may cease to exist. There is also the point that although I am sure we all welcome housing for the disabled being integrated with ordinary housing, I wonder whether, if Clause 2 goes through as it is now, there might not be a tendency for housing associations to build what might be called disabled ghettos and concentrate all their housing for disabled people in one particular place.
The Minister mentioned in his speech that there had been an increase of 120,000 dwellings in the rented stock since this Government came in, or some 40,000 a year. Perhaps when replying he could say whether that is a net figure, allowing for houses which have been condemned or have gone out of use for some reason. How does that compare with the previous three years? I shall be most interested if he can give me that information.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I speak out of turn by arrangement. We have already heard so much about the evils of Clause 2 that I shall not attempt to rehearse them again since it has been done much more eloquently by other people. However, I should like to consider one aspect of it—the one which the noble Viscount has just been discussing—and that is the particular danger to the provision made for disabled people. Your Lordships may not be aware that many housing associations have formed integrated communities of disabled persons and able-bodied persons who are in some cases relatives of the disabled persons. It is very important that these units should remain in the way in which they are so that the disabled persons can have support. It follows that if only those houses which are adapted for wheelchair use cannot be sold, sooner or later the others will go, and little by little that community will be destroyed. I find it very difficult to believe that the Government intend this to happen. I think it is probably another example of the effects of the Bill not being properly thought through.
There is also the special case of the mentally disabled, who also live in supportive communities run by housing associations. Their houses are normal houses, not adapted in any way; yet in their communities they are dependent on having the support of relatives or at least of caring people who have expressed a desire to live in these communities and to help people. There again I think these communities must be protected.
Perhaps I should have declared an interest at the beginning because I am chairman of an almshouse housing association. I suppose at the moment that we are protected—or are we? We are protected under this present legislation, but in two years' time who knows 56 what is to happen? If we are to accept the principle of retrospective legislation then the almshouse cover may go as well. We are in a very, very dangerous position and the only other remark I will make about Clause 2 is that we should do away with the retrospective part. Then when we set out to do something in the future we shall at least know what we have taken on.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? On that point of the almshouses I will say to her categorically that no Conservative Government would do that. If she is equally satisfied as to what a Labour Government or a Government of any other complexion would do, then she should be able to relax.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his reassurance, but I should feel a lot happier if Clause 2 did not exist. Can we turn now to Clause 11, where I have one brief question to put to the Minister? This refers to the Secretary of State's power to obtain information. I may be misreading this, but when the Minister replies will he please tell me whether the Secretary of State will have the right to interfere between an employee and his employer and to get information? It says in subsection (1), in the last paragraph of Section 24C,shall, without instructions from the landlord, take all reasonable steps to ensure that the notice is complied with.It seems to me that the Minister can ask for information from an employee of the landlord and get it. So please can we have that cleared up and then we shall know what to do later on?
Now may I turn to the part of the Bill which has almost been the Cinderella, because everyone has concentrated on the evils of Clause 2 and, although there have been some notable contributions, there has been very little said on the whole about building control. It has been agreed by, among others, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, that the present system works very well. The building regulations do need revision: I think that is generally agreed and we welcome the fact that they are to be revised. But the present system which is operated by experienced professionals in district councils and in outer London boroughs has worked well, has given high standards of safety and high standards of thermal efficiency. No one would deny that. In addition, there is a high standard of public protection in that even at a very late stage many years later anyone who is aggrieved by what has happened under building regulations can come to the local authority to seek redress. I do not know the exact number of years but I know it is very many. The local authority is always there: everyone knows where it is, and the complainant is safe. If he fails to get satisfaction from the local authority at the moment he can go to the ombudsman. Is he to lose this right when we have private inspectors? This has not been mentioned in the Bill: perhaps it has not been noticed. Again, will the Minister please answer that question?
In addition, although the building regulations now in use have needed revision, we have at least had the advantage of national interpretation because there have been regular meetings between all the authorities who implement them to make sure that the interpretation is uniform throughout the country. That is a very important aspect which will be lost 57 under the new arrangements. The opening to independent inspectors where qualifications are not carefully defined is a very dangerous aspect. Legislation does not prevent an inspector from working solely for one client or regularly for a small group, and it must be said that its independence would be in grave doubt if he were to work simply for one client or for a small group. It will be necessary to amend that part of the legislation.
If an inspector, or his successor, fails to complete the job for any reason, the local authorities have to pick up the pieces, as an earlier speaker said. They will have to step in and take responsibility, without having had an opportunity of earlier examination. In the progress of a large development, inspection has to be done stage by stage because as the work progresses the earlier stages are hidden from view and it is quite impossible for anyone coming in at a later stage to know whether or not the earlier work has been properly completed. So we must demand that, if this legislation goes through, the departing inspector must provide a final certificate at that point.
Furthermore, stop certificates must be issued to stop work until the local authority has the opportunity of coming in to see what has happened. Even if the departing inspector has been competent and correct—and let us hope that this will happen in most cases—a great deal could go wrong in the work between his departure and the local authority taking over, so the issue of stop notices at that point is very important. To change a well-tried system where persons with complaints can go to the ombudsman or to the local authority, which is always there, for a system where an aggrieved person can only pursue an inspector or a developer who may no longer exist, is to take public safety out of the hands of highly trained, experienced officers and to give it to an as yet undefined group.
There is a further effect which is one to which we tend not to give enough attention in this House; that is, the cumulative effect of this and other legislation on the direct labour organisations of local authorities. This is a point which I have raised before and will no doubt raise again. The authorities will have to keep a fail-safe work force of highly specialised people to pick up where private inspectors have gone out. Are they to be penalised financially because they have to do this? It will be very difficult, if they cannot work out their future planning, to decide what their workforce should be in any given year. Are the Government going to apply the same measures of financial control on the building control staff as they do on others, or are they making exceptions in these cases? It seems to me that there are a great many questions that have to be answered before we can pass this Bill.
As a first option, we really should leave building control where it is, because it has been done well and there are no complaints. It is very difficult to avoid the impression that this is just a dogmatic titbit that is being thrown out to please certain sections of the electorate at a time when an election is close by. If we were to take a realistic approach we would leave it where it is. If we must bring in independent inspectors, then there must be a very high level of safeguards.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Baroness Lane-Fox
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will also allow me to mention some aspects of Clause 2 as I see them, viewed from the angle of disabled residents. The opinions that I hold differ from those put by the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, and by a number of concerned organisations. The basic difference is that I am a very firm believer that, wherever possible, it is best for people to own their own dwellings. Obviously, the number of residences available to rent should not be reduced overall because we do not want to complicate further the homeless situation. Here I believe that we can take heart from what has happened to the non-charitable housing associations through the 1980 Act. We have heard that at the end of 1982 the number of non-charitable housing association tenants who would purchase their homes was 2,550, yet during the life of this Parliament the increase in the rented stock of the housing associations has been 120,000 in houses and flats. That means that for one sale there has been almost a five-fold increase in dwellings to rent.
But to pursue the point which I am inclined to think has not been appreciated by the worried charitable housing associations, there could be a healthy spin-off for all who are accommodated in their associations. Like many noble Lords, I received a number of letters from worried associations and their advisers. I am hoping that the admirably clear and robust speech of my noble friend Lord Bellwin this afternoon will have at least explained some points on which they appear to be almost unremittingly concerned. This attitude of mind easily obscures the success side of the story, the advantages gained by prosperous housing associations and the much higher grants that will be available under the new scheme.
I cannot be alone in knowing persons housed by housing associations who are highly satisfied, if not surprised, by the progress made since 1980. But it is hardly surprising for the associations to take an anxious view, for neither they nor private landlords could exactly relish their house children having plans arranged for them and changed. My hope is that, when they know all the facets and the full facts, the various charitable housing associations may see that there is something in this for them, and that it will release some money which they so sorely need for development. Those of us who are connected with disbursing charitable trusts know too well the appealing letters stressing the dire need for funds to develop so that proceeds from sales should, at least, help to begin to plug that gap helped of course by much increased grants.
To return to my original theme, there is no need for me to explain to your Lordships how enormous are the housing problems for disabled people, because in this House these problems are very well understood and appreciated. Certainly difficult housing is the best way to exclude any disabled person from becoming integrated into living, working and leisure activities. To occupy a house adapted for a wheelchair provides the opportunity to integrate as prescribed, after much wonderful and expensive treatment received from the NHS. Probably the reason why specially adapted housing for disabled and elderly people is excluded 59 from this scheme is partly that most disabled people are too hard-pressed financially to be able to buy, and also that the inclusion of such specialist-provided accommodation involves extra expense. To some extent, it requires to be tailor-made to the needs of, for instance, wheelchair users, iron lung people, et cetera, so a wise association is naturally keen to retain it as a reserve against any request to meet an emergency requirement, whether post-hospital through a local authority, or from some other source.
Certainly many of us regret that this understanding provision did not exist in the days when families wore themselves, and their finances, out in overcoming the problems of steps and stairs, narrow doors, and awkward "loos" and baths when saddled with a disabled relative. Housing associations which are equipped to meet such eventualities must be warmly congratulated on their far-sightedness, because medical science is improving apace and a thrifty community is well advised to beware of the consequent requirements.
I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister for his advice on three aspects of Clause 2. First, if a couple live in adapted accommodation, excluded from the right to buy on account of the disablement of one, when both of them depend greatly on help from one or two sets of neighbours for lifting, for dressing, for shopping or probably just for companionship, are we assured that if those neighbours have the right to buy then the couple can rely on some security of tenure? Secondly, where a couple or a family includes a disabled person yet they do not need adapted housing, if they cannot afford to take up a right to buy their house can they, through an amendment to this Bill, be excluded?
Thirdly—and, I regret to say, perhaps even more abstruse—where somebody has lived in adapted housing in a charitable housing scheme, yet for special reasons requires extra privacy on account, perhaps, of physical condition or appearance, if they have scraped together enough funds to buy could they be given the right to transfer to another house, with the right to purchase and adapt it as they want? This last point is made for an actual case, but under present conditions this is very distressing for many people, although it need not be so. Its pattern must occur elsewhere. It will be of great help to me and to others if my noble friend the Minister can help us on these points. Indeed, with these points dealt with and these fears allayed, the Minister may find that some of the opposition to Clause 2 will diminish—certainly when these points are added, for instance, to the suggestions made by my noble friend Lord Mottistone.
Basically I approve of the Bill. It is inequitable for certain tenants of charitable trusts to be denied the right to buy when others in accommodation which is similarly funded are granted that right. The Bill redresses such an imbalance. The more occupiers can press on to become home owners—as I did with my tiny flat—the more life becomes straightforward in an independent, rational situation.
In conclusion, may I add the plea that the charitable associations may find in this Bill qualities to help them to extend their invaluable work? My wish is especially 60 for disabled people, for whom the need to live in accessible surroundings transcends most considerations, even those which are monetary. For them, it is the difference between imprisonment and freedom. I hope that both the associations and my noble friend the Minister will never lose sight of this vitally important fact. With the provision of the points I have mentioned concerning Clause 2, I support the Bill.
§ 6.32 p.m.
My Lords, like many noble Lords and Baronesses, I view parts of the Bill with a jaundiced eye, in particular Clause 2. Celebrating his 21st Bill birthday, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has done his brilliant best to persuade this House that it is all right, really. He deserved to succeed; but, with great respect, I am not satisfied.
Retrospective legislation has always been abhorrent to decent people. I know it is nothing new, but that does not make it any better and I am sorry that this Government should sink to it. The grants, however big, which were paid to charitable housing associations had no strings attached when the associations accepted them. Had they had strings attached, the associations would, in almost all cases, probably not have accepted them. To invent strings nine years later can scarcely be described as acting in good faith. In fact—I am sorry, but it is just downright dishonest. There is no other word for it. Similar conduct by a commercial firm would earn them such a reputation that no one in their senses would have any dealings with them again. And the first people to hold up their hands in pious horror would probably be the Government. Unfortunately, one frequently has no option whether or not to have dealings with governments.
If this Bill becomes law, private landlords are going to be very chary in future of applying for or accepting grants, for fear the same thing will happen to them. This will do nothing to improve or increase the stock of housing available for rental to those who, for one reason or another, need or prefer to rent accommodation. Apart from those who cannot afford to buy, there will always be people who prefer to rent. They may have a job which involves frequent moves, or they may not want to be tied down, or they may prefer to know that if the roof leaks it is someone else's financial headache. I think this Government have done quite enough to promote home ownership without touching charitable housing and should call it a day.
I hope the Government will come to their senses and amend or delete this pernicious clause. If they do not, I fear that when the provisions of this Bill become more widely known they will find that they have lost a lot of support in the country—and deservedly so.
My Lords, I must declare an interest, or perhaps it should be a non-interest, in that I am the master of a very small almshouse charitable association which is, of course, exempt from the provisions of the Bill. However, I can perfectly well see the enormous damage that would have been done to this tiny charitable association, which happens to be the most ancient of the housing associations in this country, since it goes right back to the days before 61 history was recorded, let alone deeds of ownership. When I thought that this Bill would apply carte blanche to all charitable housing associations I believed it was time that something should be done, in particular to prevent the damage which appeared to be going to be caused to the charity law about which your Lordships have heard this evening.
I do not know whether I shall be able to encourage my noble friend on the Front Bench, but he and his right honourable friend in another place very quickly made clear the exemptions to the Bill. They are very considerable exemptions which I certainly did not appreciate. A very large number of most distinguished speakers on both sides of your Lordships' House may not have fully appreciated those exemptions. Although my noble friend spelled out those exemptions very clearly, perhaps I should repeat them, since a number of noble Lords may not have heard them—or may have come into the Chamber later.
I believe that much of the property of many of the charitable housing associations which have been mentioned by the experts in this field is exempt. It is clearly stated in my noble friend's brief that all dwellings built on land donated to charity or purchased with charitable funds are exempt. This must include many charitably owned houses, or dwellings which were donated to the charity, or which were purchased in some way with charitable funds. This includes all houses which have received very generous departmental housing grants for either their building or repair. Furthermore, it includes houses which have been exclusively built for the elderly or for the disabled, hostels and any set of houses which provides as part of the service a caretaker or warden. I wrote to my noble friend and said I thought that he had satisfied both me and many of my colleagues, whose names appeared on a letter which went round a little while ago to Members of your Lordships' House, that the charity law and charitable property were not greatly endangered by this very modest Bill.
I am the 20th speaker in this debate and I am fairly certain that I know what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who is to speak after me, will say. The fact is that, if I am correct, 21 speakers will then have spoken against Clause 2 of the Bill. This has not been a political debate. The Bill has been debated by experts in charitable housing. My noble friend Lord Selkirk, who, alas! is not in his seat at the moment, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said at the beginning of our debate that there was a conundrum. There is the right to buy houses when the expenditure on their construction has been almost entirely of public money. The noble Earl said—and I go along with him—that he is one of the great exponents of the property-owning democracy. On the other hand, there is the other side to the conundrum: the tremendous need for rented accommodation—and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has made that absolutely clear. How are these completely opposite poles to be brought together?
I would agree with my noble friend that this provision marginally helps some people in the tenancy of charitable associations who wish to buy their properties. But it will far more seriously damage the interests of those people who can never buy a property, 62 who do not want to buy a property, and who, if they did buy a property, would not know what to do with it. It is of very marginal assistance to the property-owning democracy. I should like to see extra help given, if that should be necessary—but I rather doubt that it is necessary in view of all the assistance that is given today—to tenants of charitable housing associations to get out of charitable property and to go elsewhere to buy a property with a mortgage, as has been said by the right reverend Prelate and by many other noble Lords in all parts of the House.
Not one speaker has been in favour of this Bill—which is a very modest Bill—due to Clause 2. I hope that my noble friend will be able to consider with his right honourable friend the damage that can be done and will be done by this Bill all over the country. Funnily enough, it will very largely affect people who are conservative-minded—I do not say people who are Conservatives—who are involved with housing associations, against which not one single Member of your Lordships' House has said anything today.
As the owner of a modest amount of smaller housing property, I can only add that one of the great sadnesses of being an owner of rented property is not being able to rehouse the terribly depressing cases—applications that one receives almost every week. If only one could, how much happier one would be! Very often one can recommend such applicants to a housing association, whether it be a charitable association or a commercial one, depending on the applicant's circumstances.
It is quite obvious that it is the retrospective element of Clause 2 which your Lordships do not like. We never like any form of retrospection, and the reasons for that have been given. I must admit that it had not occurred to me that public money given over to a charitable association to provide houses becomes that association's property; but, as I understand it, particularly from noble Lords opposite, that is so. I understand that if an association has been given a grant, then under the law of the land that grant becomes part of the charity, and it should not therefore be able to be given away for other people's benefit: to wit, the tenant who, by chance, is lucky enough to buy the house. That is indeed a breach of charity law, and I do not like it. Twenty other noble Lords so far have not liked it, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to consider this point very seriously before he comes back to us at Committee stage.
My noble friend thinks that the advantage of being able to buy their houses will affect only 8,000 people. That will be very good for them, but I believe they could have bought houses elsewhere, with a little extra assistance, possibly, although I doubt that. So 8,000 people may own their own houses: but think of the damage to the 8,000 people who are not able to have their houses. I believe that the need of people who require rented accommodation is very much greater than that of the people who have the resources to buy their houses.
My noble friend Lord Mottistone suggested an amendment. I do not know whether that is attractive to my noble friend the Minister, but obviously it would be attractive to all noble Lords who have 63 spoken and, I suspect, to all members of your Lordships' House. I have thought of an amendment which will probably be even less attractive to my noble friend Lord Bellwin; namely, that, possibly, bona fide charitable housing associations need not sell their houses unless the trustees of the association agree that the sale will benefit that charitable association. But I suppose that would be driving a motor bus through the Bill rather than just a coach and horses. It seems to me that some amendment must be made, not only to deal with the retrospective element but also to deal with what I understand to be a very serious breach of the charity tax laws—a breach that I did not understand when I wrote to my noble friend.
Supposing there was a proposal to force a Division later this evening, I do not believe that the Second Reading of this Bill would go through. But that is not the custom of your Lordships' House, although I am quite certain that there should be a warning to my noble friend that unless he takes this Bill away and makes an amendment which deals with retrospection or which protects charitable funds where they have been completely grant-aided, he may not get his Bill.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I should like to say how much I agree with the noble Earl who has just sat down, concerning his points on retrospection and the law on charities. If I may, I shall return to those points later. However, as so little has been said today about the case of London, I should like to give some figures from Greater London which I believe illustrate that the timing of this Bill is quite inappropriate. New local authority starts in Greater London have decreased for every single year since 1975. By 1981, they were running at one-tenth of the rate achieved in 1975 and 1976. If that was not bad enough news, local authority lettings were 60,000 in 1976 but fell to 44,000 in 1979–80. It is estimated that for the current year 1983–84, lettings will reach a figure of only 18,500. This last figure may be only just sufficient to cater for the number of households which are totally homeless, of which there were no fewer than 18,000 in 1981. So the total availability of local authority lettings is likely to be taken up solely with the demands of homeless families and households.
I should add that in 1980–81, 93,000 new names were added to local authority waiting lists in Greater London. It is quite clear that nobody puts down his name on a local authority waiting list if he has any reasonable chance of buying his own property. He knows that he will have to wait at least four or five years before he receives an offer from a local authority. This is where the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, were so relevant, in what he had to say about a pool of rented property being available.
I should like to say now how very much I admired the speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk; the noble Lord, Lord Goodman; the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Winchester; and the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers. Theirs were speeches of such weight and force that any Government, including the present Government, would have to give them serious consideration. I should like to add a further little piece of evidence 64 about the 80,000 or so charitable housing association properties that will, if the Bill passes in its present form, become liable to compulsory sale. Many of these are situated in places where it is vitally important to maintain a pool of rented accommodation.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, the noble Lord mentions compulsory sale. That is not the term to be used in connection with this Bill. The right to buy is not the same, by any means, as compulsory sale.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I am willing to accept the correction of the noble Lord the Minister; but I put it to him that these two things could be the opposite sides of the same coin.
As to the place where the pool exists, this may be one in which there are no council houses at all. It may be a place where no new houses can be built; for instance, where there are green belt regulations or restrictions or because there are no building sites or sewers available. All these things can rule out the possibility of replacing a sold house.
Many speakers have mentioned other special situations: the noble Baronesses, Lady Vickers and Lady Nicol, the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and my noble friend Lord Ingleby. I merely ask whether these special situations were taken into account in any way in the preparation of this legislation? What consultation went on beforehand?
The House will know that for many years I have been concerned with the housing needs of villages. Your Lordships may recall the debate on rural housing that I initiated on Ash Wednesday in 1982. I have also been concerned about inner cities. In Birmingham I was involved in the formation of the Family Housing Association. It catered then, as now, for homeless families, and families in urgent housing need. The chairman recently wrote to me about his great concern that this Bill is likely to diminish his pool of property available for rent in areas where it is particularly needed.
At the other extreme, I know of a small housing association in a Kent village which in 1976 provided six houses for young married couples by converting one old pub. That is the only stock owned by this association, but it is those small associations which are highly effective. In the past six years these six houses have provided homes for 12 couples. There is, therefore, a turnover. On average, one house became vacant each year and was relet. Some of those who moved out purchased accommodation elsewhere or were rehoused by other organisations. I submit that all pools of housing have a turnover, however slow, and what we are discussing today is the question of future relets and whether it will be possible to use these for charitable, social and community purposes.
In London I want to see relets of the old established housing trusts, some of which have been mentioned today, being still available for young families rooted in those particular neighbourhoods, and also for lower paid service workers who often have to work late at night or early in the morning and, therefore, cannot commute very easily by public transport.
65 I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will not think that I am in any way hostile to house purchase. On the contrary, in many cases it is an excellent thing. The Minister may like to know that as long ago as 1964 I was advising London bus drivers to buy houses when houses could still be had for £3,000 each. What I want to see is the tenants of charitable housing associations who wish and are able to buy doing so on the open market, or buying from housing associations specially set up to improve houses for sale or for combined rental and purchase.
I touched on the harm that this Bill can do to the public interest in terms of housing. I should like to agree most strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Evans and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, about the problems the Bill could create for community care, voluntary service and charity law. I hope that the Government will pay particular attention to what the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has had to say, particularly in the case of people who are in special need of social care and who can be accommodated in perfectly ordinary and not specially adapted flats or houses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, seemed to indicate that some proceeds could be recycled to provide new housing. I am sorry to disappoint her in her absence, but I think that after one has allowed for discount and for repayment of loans and grants to the Government, very little, if anything, will be left over for new work.
I return to the question of charity law. I do not think that the reply sent by the Solicitor-General on behalf of the Government to the National Federation of Housing Associations is adequate. I do not think he has met the point raised by the Charity Commissioners who declared themselves totally opposed in principle to Clause 2. I am not even sure that he has quite taken the points raised by the National Federation. It is, therefore, perhaps all the more important that your Lordships should cause the Government to think again.
While we are trying to urge the Government to think again, I mention very briefly a couple of other points. Once a house is sold it may well take anything up to 10 years to replace it. I say that from the experience of bringing forward quite a number of schemes. The 10 years may be taken up by negotiation about sites, planning, finance, and sewers. The chain can be very long. That period of 10 years may perhaps be the outside, but two or three years is nothing. As regards charitable associations, my last point is that it is likely to be the smallest associations who employ no paid staff who will suffer most.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Baroness Ewart-Biggs
My Lords, while also congratulating the Minister on his 21st housing Bill, I seek his sympathy for being the 21st speaker, which I am, so that most of the points have been admirably made and I fear that possibly he may have to hear me stressing one or two of them again.
I know that it is late and I certainly do not want to keep your Lordships, but I should like to comment generally, first, on how some of the proposals in this 66 Bill will affect the social conditions which exist in Britain today and, secondly and briefly, on one or two aspects of the Bill.
Therefore, having first willingly conceded, as other noble Lords have done, that there can be no argument as to the desirability of home ownership, would it not be right to suggest that housing policy should have a wider responsibility than merely to promote that ambition? My noble friend Lady Birk made that point and it is one which underlies much of this Bill; namely, that housing policy has a responsibility to make a proper examination of the need and demand of every section of the community and, having evaluated that need, it should try to respond to it. A housing policy surely has something to do with finding the right balance which is made up of a proportion of housing for those lucky enough to be in a position to buy and maintain their own houses and provision for those less fortunate who are forced, through financial necessity, to rent low-rent accommodation. There can be no doubt that the proposals contained in the Bill will upset the balance. That is the concern of many people involved in finding low-rent accommodation for those who need it.
What are the social conditions existing in Britain today which should, after all, have so much to do with governing and identifying that balance? It is clear from research studies—and there have been many which have been inspired by the Government—that the poverty trap is springing up among various groups within the community. One particular investigation into deprivation which came out very recently identified that there was extreme poverty mainly among the elderly, the families of the unemployed and one-parent families. Another recent report brought out by the Department of the Environment, called Single and Homeless, showed that for the vast majority of single homeless the overriding need was for ordinary, reasonably priced rented houses. It is evident from this research that home ownership for these people is a complete impossibility. It is a dream which for them could never possibly come true.
Furthermore, there is very little hope that the circumstances of these groupings will change in the foreseeable future. At any rate, the rate of unemployment shows very little sign of abatement, the divorce rate is spiralling, thereby increasing the number of one-parent families, and the proportion of elderly people within the community continues to rise. This all points to the incontestable fact that within Britain's present social climate there is urgent need for increasing the provision of low-rent accommodation. It is surely equally incontestable that some of the proposals contained in this Bill will bring about the very reverse effect, thereby adding to the burden of those already disadvantaged families which I was identifying.
I should like very briefly to comment on two specific aspects. First, it would be impossible to speak in this debate without mentioning Clause 2. As we have seen today, and as was known beforehand, it has brought a positive welter of criticisms and objections, not only from across the whole political spectrum but also from all those organisations involved with housing those needing low-rent accommodation, In fact, anxiety and concern have been expressed by all those involved in 67 this area. Surely it becomes clear that these anxieties are well founded when one looks at the consequences of some of these sales. I think that the Minister has described the right to buy but he has not really described the consequences of these sales.
First, from the point of view of tenants, the reduction in the amount of low-rent housing available will inevitably lengthen the waiting lists. It is not a very complicated equation to work out that you cannot reduce availabililty of a certain type of accommodation without at the same time creating the economic conditions necessary to reduce the number of potential candidates needing that accommodation. My contention is that the number of people needing low-rent housing accommodation, far from decreasing, is on the increase.
Secondly, how do these proposals affect charitable housing associations and trusts? A great deal has been said about that today, and rightly so. First, having had to sell at discounted prices, and having had to repay the original housing grant and mortgage without receiving, as I understand it, any compensation, their assets will be seriously eroded. Secondly, it will mean that charities will lose valuable homes which will no longer be available to meet the needs they were set up to meet. Indeed, it seems possible that some small charities, as has been said today, may lose the whole of their housing stock in this way.
But there is another consequence of this legislation which in my view is of paramount importance—it has been mentioned mainly by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman—and that is the effect that it will have on the work of the voluntary service and more specifically how it will affect the motivation of all those volunteers involved with that work. Surely there can be no doubt that the wish to help the less fortunate and needy is the inspiration which drives all those who selflessly give endless hours of their time to help with housing needs. But will that inspiration survive when charitable housing associations are forced more or less to take on the work of unofficial estate agents? Furthermore, are not the Government now becoming more and more dependent on the work of the voluntary service? Is it not true that with the present cuts in Government expenditure the work of volunteers generally is needed to complement the much diminished role of the welfare state generally? I had very much hoped to quote from what I thought was an extremely good leader in The Times talking about the dangers of the Government drying up the springs of charity, but, unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, quoted it before me. I thought that it put this particular problem and danger in a very good perspective.
The final consequence of the measures proposed in this clause is that affecting charity law, which again has been expressed very strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and there is nothing else to say, except that I know that it is often suggested that charity law needs reforming but I am quite sure that nobody would think that this would be the way to do it. It is very difficult to think of any proposal designed to bring a longer list of disadvantages in its wake. First, Britain's poorest families are disadvantaged; secondly, the work of the voluntary sector and of volunteers generally is deeply affected. This, in consequence, affects the Govern- 68 ment, who can no longer rely so much on their trust and co-operation. Finally, there is this fundamental principle of charity law which is uprooted.
I should now like very briefly to comment on the clause which is proposing shared ownership. I foresee that the concept of shared ownership must, in principle anyway, be a very popular one. It sounds perfectly logical to allow a prospective buyer to purchase a share in a house if his means do not allow him to purchase the whole. But, on the other hand, I do wonder how such a transaction works in practice. I feel that the Minister has not exactly answered this and described it. As I understand it, shared ownership has existed voluntarily in the public sector in a few places but sales under the schemes are really numbered more in hundreds than in thousands. This would seem to beg the question as to the wisdom of forcing shared ownership on the public sector as a right, when so many problems that have not yet been resolved still loom.
One problem from the point of view of the local authority would be dealing with the considerable administrative burden that such schemes must bring with them, and this will coincide with a time when local authorities are being forced to undergo cuts in their staff. From the tenant's point of view, there is a major disadvantage in bearing 100 per cent. responsibility for the repairs of a house in which he has only a 50 per cent. stake. The right of repair is one thing, but the ability to afford to do it is another. The whole question of the state of repair of owner-occupied dwellings of all kinds is, I understand, becoming a matter of very great concern nationally. It is thought that at present in the country there are 4 million owner-occupied houses in a state of serious disrepair. It is both a natural and sad coincidence that, as houses get older and more decrepit, so do their owners—both older and poorer and less and less financially equipped to meet the repair bills which are by that time accumulating.
Finally, what happens if a tenant buyer gets into arrears with his rent or mortgage, or both? Again it has already been shown that many people who are buying their council houses are finding it difficult to meet their mortgage payments. Surely it must be agreed that, in spite of the sound logic behind the concept of shared ownership, there are still many implications which need to be cleared up.
I end by supporting what my noble friend Lady Birk said—namely, that there is much in this Bill which is entirely irrelevant to the real housing needs in our cities and throughout the country. It is almost impossible to believe that at the end of the First World War about 90 per cent. of all dwellings in this country were rented and that the proportion today is less than 16 per cent. Do we really need a Bill which will diminish that proportion even further? One feels that perhaps the time has come when the Government should relax their drive towards home ownership; they should curb their appetite in this direction and get down to the fundamental job of meeting the real housing needs of people in this country and at the same time encouraging local authorities and housing associations to do the same, instead of forcing them to upset that balance in their very precious housing stock.
§ 7.10 p.m.
My Lords, first I must apologise to the Minister for joining the chorus against Clause 2 of the Bill, but I do so firmly wearing my non-political British Legion hat. This generation has seen advances in the provision of houses, but the advances have not been in the sphere of rented accommodation —accommodation, which as many noble Lords have said, is badly needed by poorer people, in particular in the inner city areas. Charitable housing associations have done much good work to provide for this need, and their work of funding rented accommodation deserves every encouragement.
As I understand it, Clause 2 of the Bill would enable those people who are able to afford it to buy homes which have been created for them under a charitable umbrella, rather than to pass on their tenancies to others who needed them and move on into the owner-occupier sector. The charitable housing associations themselves would be forced to sell assets at less than their current value, which must make trustees question their duties as trustees of charitable property. Should the new owner then decide to sell, that would again put the principles of charity at risk, since the new owner would be cashing in on a lucky situation. All this luck would be to the detriment of those wanting rented accommodation. Once this rented accommodation had been taken over by eligible new owners, it would be lost for ever and never again be available for its original purpose.
Like others among your Lordships I have received a number of letters from charitable bodies about the clause. Among them was a letter from Mr. Dennis Cadman, chairman of the Royal British Legion Housing Association. The association provides rented housing for the ex-service element in our society, and speaking as the president of the Royal British Legion in Scotland I would say we believe that because Clause 2 of the Bill would have a repercussion on our work it should be opposed.
The tenants of our numerous sheltered housing schemes throughout the country would not be affected, but there are a number of general purpose houses attached to our sheltered housing complexes which have been grant-aided and which would be affected. For example, there are general purpose houses attached to Stewart Court, in Edinburgh, where younger families are housed alongside flats rented to older people. The tenants of the general purpose houses are ex-service people, but if they were to buy their houses, and if in due course the houses were to be resold, the ex-service element would be lost and with it the main purpose for which the buildings were intended. If these houses became owner-occupied, questions about maintenance would arise, since they form part of a housing complex with shared essentials, such as roofs, which would have to be maintained. In making these observations I am referring not only to the Legion in Scotland, which in the short term would be only marginally affected, but also to ex-service establishments outwith Scotland, where our commitment is large.
Once the houses or flats were lost to the rented sector, the number of available houses for renting would be diminished. Charities which have embarked 70 on housing schemes have trusted in the permanency of the Government policy. Looking at all possibilities, and at the improbable event of a change of policy, they must have felt certain that there would be no retrospective legislation involving the repayment of original grants, to the detriment of their funds.
This legislation would not immediately apply to Scotland, where I represent the interests of ex-service people. The Secretary of State has advised the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations that he does not yet intend to seek similar powers of amendment, preferring for the time being to assess the effects of a voluntary code of conduct. Nevertheless, it would seem likely that if the clause goes through unamended it will eventually apply also to Scotland, since it would be difficult to withhold the right to purchase in Scotland once it had been given to English and Welsh tenants.
Mr. Cadman's letter ends with the statement that the authority, and more particularly the motivation, of committees of management of charitable housing associations could be seriously affected by this forced sale of assets. This view is shared by all the associations which have been in touch with me. If this part of the Bill were enacted, they would not only feel cheated; they would also feel that the whole philosophy upon which their efforts were founded had been taken away, and they would be less anxious to continue their efforts in the future. A number of your Lordships have shown your concern in this matter because you know that these buildings were created by men of vision, and that it would be wrong to inhibit the continuation of their splendid work.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ The Earl of Perth
My Lords, almost every speaker this evening has concentrated on Clause 2 of the Bill, and that I think is totally right because it is a very difficult and bad clause as it stands at present. I have been keeping the scoresheet, which shows that out of the 24 speakers, there has been one in favour, besides of course the mover of the second reading of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. There has been one who may be neutral—the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, having shown a certain neutrality, said, "Perhaps I am neutral so long as it does not apply to the Isle of Wight". For the rest, the Churches (that is to say, those on the Bishops' Bench) six Conservatives, Labour, Liberals, and the Cross-Benchers, have all spoken strongly and compellingly against the clause as it at present stands.
It would be invidious for me to pick out certain of those noble Lords who have spoken, to praise their speeches, because they have all been good speeches and all of great importance and significance. But I should like, at least to some extent, to take up the opening speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, and see whether the arguments that he used really hold water. But before I do so, let me say that I understand the general policy of the Government. That policy is to increase housing, if possible, under the terms of the manifesto—with which they went to the country long ago—namely, that there should be a right to buy wherever possible, and that there should be property owning on the largest possible scale.
71 Having said that, what do we get here? One of the first justifications that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, used was that the Government had had some letters from tenants, who said, "We don't understand why housing corporations are in one position but we, who are under charitable housing associations, are in a different position". So the noble Lord has been endeavouring to remove an anomaly. But in trying to remove it he is creating very many more anomalies, and having possibly to explain all of them would be far more difficult, and would create a bureaucracy which is really very worrying. Surely, it is very much easier to say to those who have written, "I am very sorry. This is a charitable issue. This is for charity". They would understand. They might not like it, but that is the fact.
The noble Lord then said, "Ah, but, after all, it is only a very small baby, only a few thousand houses out of 300,000 that are owned by the charitable housing associations". That may be true—"may", I say—but I fear that it is also opening the door to the spivs. Can your Lordships see what might happen? Let us consider, for example, a very desirable house which is priced way below its proper value. Someone can come along and say "You are in this house. I will give you some money to get another house. You let me buy it. We will share the profits between us". Do the Government want to encourage that sort of activity? We are told by the Minister that the Solicitor-General has stated that the Bill does not offend against the law on charities. All the speeches made today—that of the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and others—have raised grave doubts about this claim. What is certain is that charities are being obliged to sell what is indisputably theirs at below market value and that bargains made between charitable housing associations and the Government since 1974 are being unilaterally changed. I do not know what else that means except being against general accepted practice.
I should like to mention one point that has not so far been made. Naturally, following the 1974 Housing Act, charitable housing associations took advantage of the grants that were made available. If they had not done so, they would have displayed a dereliction of duty. They were able to use some of their funds for other purposes. However, having done what they were bound to do under the Act, they suddenly find themselves trapped. The Government now say "Ha, ha! You will have to pay up" The housing associations will have to give back houses to people who, in some cases, may be deserving but who, often, will not fall into that category. Is that fair? Is that just?
I come now to the issue of retrospection. The argument of the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, as I understand it, is that the principle has already been breached without protest. I can only say "More's the pity". Two wrongs do not make a right. The noble Lord argued that we are dealing with publicly created assets. I have already shown that the charities had to take advantage of what was offered under the 1974 Act. Is this really the way to behave when those concerned are distressed and up against it? I put it another way. What the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin was I think saying is that what the taxpayer gives, he can take away. If that is true, it is a dangerous precedent. Many of your Lordships have developed this point. 72 Most supporters of the Government will regret that the Conservatives are today introducing a measure that can be quoted against them in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, is to be congratulated on introducing his twenty-first Bill. I hope that his twenty-first Bill will be a success. I can guarantee that it will be a success if he agrees to change Clause 2. It would be preferable to get rid of the clause completely. If the noble Lord is unable to agree to that, I hope he will say that it will not be made retrospective. I hope that the Government will agree that charities should be able to take advantage of funds knowing the basis on which the Bill has become law but not on the basis of going back to 1974. If the noble Lord will accept an amendment on those grounds, I hope that he may have a very successful and good twenty-first birthday.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. I work for a charity which is the main supporter of a charitable housing association. The points that I wish to make about Clause 2 have been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. They relate to housing associations which supply accommodation for the physically disabled, the mentally disabled and the elderly infirm, where they are mixed with able-bodied people who are sympathetic to their position and who are prepared to look after them. The able-bodied are not employed by the housing associations themselves. If they occupy accommodation owned by the housing association, they do not have the protection of those in tied accommodation. They are employed by those who are elderly, infirm or physically disabled, who need to employ them to enjoy their independence. As the Bill stands, the people most likely to buy their accommodation from housing associations are the able-bodied. They can proceed to sell the property to someone else who may not be sympathetic to the needs of those occupying the rest of the accommodation. Some of the helpers are therefore lost, and those with disabilities find that life becomes increasingly difficult.
There are circumstances in which life can become even more difficult. I take as an example a group of houses that are used to house people with physical disabilities. One or, indeed, a number of the able-bodied, who are employed by the disabled, may sell to an elderly person who, due to age or accident. becomes disabled and also needs assistance. This reduces yet again the number of people who are available to help the original, disabled tenants. I propose to move an amendment to the Bill to protect housing associations against the sale of flats or dwellings occupied by the able-bodied who are looking after those in some form of need. I hope that the Government will look sympathetically upon such an amendment.
My purpose can perhaps best be achieved by some form of certification, so that when a development is started and plans are submitted to the relevant Minister covering the number of flats or dwellings to be used by the able-bodied and the number to be occupied by those in need of help, a request can be made that they should be exempt under the provisions of the Bill. It is essential to maintain a large degree of 73 flexibility. One disabled person may need the help of four people for a number of hours a week; another person may be more severely disabled and need the help of six, seven or even more people. I know of one person who is quadriplegic and totally incapable of movement below the neck, but who lives completely independently supported by eight of his employees. When it was suggested to him that he would be better off in hospital, his immediate reply was, "I am not going back to jail".
Most speakers have been concentrating on Clause 2 in Part I of the Bill. However, there are two other Parts of the Bill. At this point I must again declare an interest as a chartered surveyor. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, that the approved building inspector must be a named individual and not a firm. I can remember as a student surveyor being asked to do things that should have been done by a qualified surveyor. It was lucky that my employer trusted me, but I might have come across something that my knowledge and experience did not qualify me to cope with. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the inspector be a named individual. In addition, he must be completely independent and, apart from his fee, he must have no financial interest in the building that he is to inspect and certify. In this respect it is interesting to note that in the last century architects and district surveyors in London were forbidden to supervise their own jobs. I hope that we are not going to go back to that situation.
In Clause 31(3) there is the power for a developer to get rid of the inspector if he feels that he is not capable of carrying out the work. This would, in effect, give the developer the power to sack a conscientious or incompatible approved inspector, because as the Bill is now drafted it has only to appear to the developer that,the approved inspector is no longer willing or able",to act. This could well discourage inspectors from carrying out their duties with proper zeal. Quite obviously, if you are a young man trying to get on in the world you cannot afford to lose work. If you have very heavy financial commitments you might well feel that it would be wiser to overlook points and to keep the money flowing into your family, rather than to risk being financially out-of-pocket.
Turning to Part III of the Bill, under Clauses 38 and 39 the Secretary of State would be able to approve any description of organisation as a public body, which would thereby become exempt from the building regulations. At present this applies almost solely to Crown buildings, such as defence establishments, and to the operational buildings of statutory undertakers, such as gasworks and coal mines. In Command Paper 8179 the list of bodies begins with the local authorities. But paragraph 12 of the paper stated that certain bodies (which included, rather surprisingly, bus companies, British Leyland and the National Coal Board) should not be exempt but should merely be able to self-certify. The Bill does not now make any distinction—all would be exempt.
This may, on the face of it, appear acceptable for the operational buildings of such organisations, although they may contain large numbers of people. But some serious consequences follow if all work done by such bodies is exempted. The National Coal Board, for 74 instance, operates as a building contractor, and is carrying out wide-scale modernisation work not only on many houses of its own but also on council estates. The Coal Board would be in an advantageous position in tendering for such work against non-exempt firms, not only because it does not have the local authority supervising it but also because it can (under, I think, Clause 39 of the Bill) dispense with or relax any of the building regulations. That is something that needs looking at in Committee. I would suggest that the rights of public bodies should be limited to premises owned and occupied by them purely for operational use.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, we have had a long debate concentrating mainly on the housing associations. However, I should like to begin my comments by dealing with the building regulations. We on this side of the House agree that there is evidence to show that quite clearly there is a need for re-casting the building regulations. There may be an argument for saying that they need to be brought up to date. As the noble Minister has said, there is a need for them to be made more understandable. However, as regards making them more understandable, I point out that the group of people who drew up the regulations that we now find so difficult to understand will be the same group as will be drawing up the new regulations. So all I would say to the noble Lord is: make them much clearer than you did last time!
We must also give serious consideration as to why the regulations were laid in the first place. Obviously when Governments bring forward legislation and regulations they do so for a particular reason. Normally they think that they are doing so for the public good. While we agree that the regulations require reform we would ask: why destroy the support that is given to the building regulations by the general public because of the impartiality of the local authorities when they are looking after building control? As the noble Lord says, building control regulations are for public safety. In many instances many people think that the local authorities act as agents for the Government, and they think that there is a safety element when a public body is watching over a building and ensuring that it is satisfactory. Therefore, if we are concerned with safety it is a little worrying that we are going to discuss in Committee the independence of the building control officers. It most likely will be challenged in Committee that the local authorities can still continue to do it, but in doing so they will have to be able to have a steady flow of work or they will be in difficulty in maintaining their workforce and perhaps they will, in the long run, lose their competent people to private enterprise or the private developer if work is not steadily forthcoming throughout the year.
What concerns me is that the Minister has not convinced me that there has been sufficient thought as to who will be the independent inspectors. Will they be surveyors or architects or will they be safety regulation officers? There is nothing definite in the Bill that tells us who these people will be. We know that the local authorities have built up over the years an expertise—and impartial expertise—which they exert 75 on behalf of the public. Therefore, we feel that the new control and building regulations will do nothing, other than what is at present contained in legislation, to prevent building failures. It is of paramount importance that constant attention as regards control is maintained to make quite sure that disasters like those in the building construction industry during the past 25 or 30 years, are minimised. This is of paramount importance. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: from where does the criticism come about the building regulations? If it is from architects or from builders with regard to the local authorities, I do not think they can be blamed for incomprehensable legislation which is difficult to interpret. Therefore, it is wrong of the Government to criticise the local authorities and to think that they should be replaced by other persons, when the fault of the interpretation is not only that of this Government but of Governments of the past.
We must also consider the building contractors themselves. Last week I, among others in both Houses, was privileged to go to a seminar of building contractors. I say "building contractors", but is there a group called the Group of Eight? So they were not the local jobbing builders. Not one of those builders agreed with the new building control regulations. In fact, it was just the opposite. They felt that in local authorities they had people on whom they could rely and people who would tell them where they were going wrong. Therefore, if we are to talk about health and safety, we must make quite sure that the standard is not lowered by a hotch potch of private individuals and the possibility that they could be in the pocket of the contractors.
There is another point about which I want to ask the Minister: what about the liability of the independent inspector? he made no mention of it in his opening remarks. We have heard nothing about that. This law of liability will be a major change in the law of the land. What assurances has the Minister had from the insurance industry which quite obviously will have to bear the liability? No doubt local authorities will have to pick up the pieces. Will adequate insurance be forthcoming from insurance companies? That will be a basic element of liability, and liability will be most important if we are enforcing safety regulations.
I turn now to perhaps what has been the major concern of Members today. I was the chairman of the Birmingham Housing Committee for a period of time. At one time that committee had a waiting list of 30,000 people. There is still a formidable list of people waiting to be re-housed. I can remember the 1974 Act because I was a Member of another place then and we sat night after night going through that Housing Bill. However, as regards the Housing Corporation—and the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, made some of these points—my recollection is that resources from the Housing Corporation should be available to build new houses and to improve old houses, mainly in inner cities, on a much larger scale than was previously known. As the chairman of the housing committee, I can remember the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, giving what was called the "Goodman lecture", when he first became the chairman of the Housing Corporation. He 76 spoke at great length of the visits that he had made to various parts of London where he was absolutely amazed at the hopeless housing conditions in which thousands of people were living. He said that this was one of the major tasks which the Housing Corporation should undertake.
Therefore, I think that it is true to say that in the intention of the Housing Corporation of the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, there was a real need and effort to deal with the very serious shortage of rented accommodation. The idea was that the housing associations should be able to complement the work of the local authorities and perhaps in many cases bring innovations into housing. That was what was expected of them. Those innovations have quite clearly been shown by noble Lords who have spoken in the debate this afternoon—that is, the innovations and the special needs that housing associations felt were necessary.
We have heard from people on all sides of the House who are fully conversant with housing associations about the many varied needs being catered for. We listened with great interest to the observations which the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, gave of the help they were trying to give to particular groupings of people in the ethnic minorities. We also heard from the Bishops' Benches of the need for rural communities to be considered: for the handicapped to be with the more able-bodied, so that there is a mixture of communities and not segregation. It was clearly shown that these innovations were made by local people who saw a particular need, who formed a housing association and who did something about satisfying that particular local need.
This afternoon many noble Lords have spoken about the goodwill of the people who work and give of their services to housing associations. That goodwill must be fostered, because not only does it supply bricks and mortar for people who are in urgent need of rented accommodation, but it also helps to relieve the social services in the various areas. The people who are involved locally have seen a need and they have put a roof over the heads of those in need; they then pursue the particular needs of those people and act as a social agency with the aim of moving them on to better accommodation or more lasting accommodation in the long run. That was clearly explained by my noble friend Lord Jacques when he gave the example of the help that is being given and then moving the people on into the house purchase area.
I should have said that the opportunity to climb the ownership ladder, which the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, mentioned, was correctly described by my noble friend, Lord Jacques. The housing association can quite clearly help in the first place; it then rehabilitates and moves the people in the direction, which we can all support, of owner-occupation. But we cannot keep that movement up the ladder unless we keep the houses to rent in the first place. Once you start selling them off, you take away the rungs of the ladder for many people, and eventually there will be no ladder and no rungs left. Therefore, when the noble Lord replies to the debate I ask him to take into consideration the great experience of Members of this House who have spoken today, and the great need that they have shown for housing for rent. This cannot be shown 77 at the present time by dangling owner-occupation carrots to them.
I listened with the greatest interest to the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. Perhaps because he is a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, he was able to use stronger language than I could tonight. I shall perhaps have to be much more charitable in one way, but I admired the attack that came from the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. I am normally challenged by the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, with being excitable. I am trying not to be at the present moment. But what I want to say about retrospection—and I think this was explained clearly —is that when the charitable housing associations accepted the Government system of grants from 1974, I am firmly convinced—and this was emphasised by some noble Lords—that the housing associations accepted in good faith the grants and the loans that were being given to them, knowing that they would have to be repaid at a later date. They accepted them in good faith. They did not feel at any stage that their assets would be taken from them. They accepted that they might have to repay.
Therefore, if today the Government say in 1983 that that policy is not in conformity with the Conservative election manifesto, then I have to say to the noble Lord the Minister that he should not apply retrospective legislation to 1974. If the policy is not in conformity with the election manifesto of the Conservative Party, he should then say, "We will operate it from 1984 after the passing of this Bill". Instead of having 1974 put into the Bill he should insert 1984, and then from then onwards housing associations would know clearly that it was a waste of time to ask the Government for any further grants. They would then be clear upon the issue, and they would either cease building or cease building so many, or else they would accept the fact that they would have to have owner occupation.
In my concluding remarks I would sincerely ask the Minister to take note that the House would no doubt wish the Minister to consider seriously the opposition that has been raised on all sides. It is not Labour opposition. In fact there may perhaps have been fewer Labour Members who have spoken than from the rest of the House. It may well be that the Government take great pride in offering the opportunity to buy. But, as my noble friend Lady Birk said, there still remains—and she gave the figures—a large number of people whose only hope of finding accommodation is in the rented pool, through housing associations or local authorities. They have no other opportunity of finding it.
Many noble Lords spoke about rented accommodation this afternoon. Normally it is this side of the House that talks about rented accommodation. I know they were not talking about council accommodation, but everybody emphasised that there is still a great need for rented accommodation. My noble friend Lady Birk brought out the figures. I have the Birmingham authority accounts—that is the whole of the authority, not just the housing authority—and practically 45 per cent. of people renting Birmingham council houses are receiving rent rebates. Not only are they in the rented pool, but they are having to be subsidised even to live there because the rents are so astronomically high, obviously because they have to 78 be put up every year because of the Govenment's policies and telling authorities what they have to do.
Therefore, what I would say in final conclusion is that we on this side of the House find little to support in the Bill. We should be discussing not a Bill of this description but a Housing Bill which would deal with the gravity of the situation of those people on waiting lists of local authorities and housing associations; a Housing Bill which would tackle more seriously the findings of the inner cities report of 1982; a Bill which would make positive recommendations to replace unfit dwellings contained in the housing survey of 1982. These are the housing problems of the country, and not the question of trying to sell off a few thousand houses from charitable housing associations.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, what I am going to try to do, if you will bear with me, is to comment on what each and every speaker has said and the points he or she has made. It is a somewhat marathon task—yes, indeed, 26 of them—but I shall try to do it quickly if I can. If I feel I am faltering at a later stage, then you will understand why. To begin with, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, at the end, made observations about housing generally. I hope that one thing they would concede from the start—and they both referred, and I think someone else did too, to waiting lists—is that waiting lists are a poor indicator of housing need. They are at best an indication.
If the noble Baronesses persist in shaking their heads I shall go into details of why I justify what I said. I shall not do it in depth other than to say that of course there are people who put their names down on waiting lists not because they have no housing but perhaps because they want something more appropriate to their needs as they have now become. Perhaps they want something nearer to children who have moved. Perhaps they are on lists for entirely different kinds of accommodation. There are many reasons. But, as a measure of housing need, this is not a good indicator. I think everyone in housing would concede that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, was getting closer to the mark of difference between us on one aspect of the Bill when she said that local authorities—this is in terms of the building regulations—will be left with uncertain workloads, and so on. There we see possibly the beginnings of a difference which is perhaps on political lines. So far as the Government are concerned, we can see—I certainly know this from my own experience—that the need for local authorities to provide a service of this and indeed of many other kinds is essential. But then nothing in the Bill is saying that what is proposed will be instead of what the local authorities are doing.
The concern that the noble Baroness—and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, too—expressed was that in the course of time it might so be that the private sector would become so dominant that the local authority side would be diminished. That was their concern. Well, time will tell. We shall have to wait and see as to that. I am not going to go into a lot of detail on what the noble Baroness said, because, as she would surely concede, it was very much taken up in the main 79 by what others said later, and I do not want to draw out what has to be a long speech anyhow.
I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Evans, say that the Liberals were in favour of the right to buy, and therefore of Clause 1. This always encourages me. I wish that in what he went on to say he had been more enthusiastic. Maybe that was hoping for a little too much. He and others were concerned that this would all lead to a diminution of tenanted property. All I can do is quote the record so far. I quote the record of the non-charitable associations and say that in their case against two and a half thousand dwellings sold there have been added in the time of this Government another 120,000. That is a very odd kind of diminution so far as I am concerned. I suggest it shows that the people who tend to be in this type of accommodation are indeed those who are very much in need.
The number of people able to buy is restricted—and so we come to the principle of what we are talking about and the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, when he said that the number was so small. Some have asked, "If the number is so small, why bother?" It can hardly be said from the remarks that have been made in this debate that, at least in your Lordships' House, it is very popular; so the Government cannot be accused of introducing it for that reason. What is very important and, I submit with respect, should be important to your Lordships—important as well as the other points that have been made in the debate—is the principle of being concerned for these individuals, however few they may be in number.
It is easy to say there are few of them. It is equally easy to say, as the noble Earl, Lord Perth, said, that one may be creating other anomalies. He may be right, and hopefully during the passage of the Bill we shall look into such matters. But the fact remains that if there are in this country people who can claim to be concerned with the rights of a number of people, however small that number, it is surely your Lordships' House that should be concerned. Therefore, there is a principle and another side to the argument, and I now come to some of the specific points that have been made because I regard them as important.
The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, referring to the retrospective aspect, said the Bill did not attempt to change the law. I say that the Bill does not attempt to change the law from a date earlier than Royal Assent. Some of the points I am making are designed to answer questions asked by noble Lords, but also to get them on the record because noble Lords may wish to follow them up at a later stage. There are many examples of legislation giving people rights which necessarily take precedence over the terms of an existing contract. The Leasehold Reform Act is one example which I gave, but there are many others which abound in the sphere of, say, employment legislation; for example, the right to claim unfair dismissal when applied to existing contracts of employment entered into when that right itself did not exist.
I shall not tonight go into greater detail on the question of retrospection, although I shall be returning 80 to the subject because I suspect—I say suspect" when in fact I know that this is a subject to which we shall return before long—we shall be dealing with this and similar matters at length. But if I were to deal with the question of retrospection at great length tonight, it would mean my missing out other comments I wish to make.
The noble Lord, Lord Evans, spoke of the need for the work of housing associations to continue. I hope he remembers the figures I quoted in my opening remarks: £690 million for the coming year is the extent to which the Government agree with what he said. I have always believed that so long as we had the two categories of private ownerships and council tenancies, we were in danger of the kind of polarisation the noble Lord mentioned. It is dangerous, and that is why this Government, along with the previous Government—I like to think, in our case, more vigorously—have supported and are continuing to support the housing association movement in the way that matters most, and that is with funds, resources and encouragement.
My next remarks cover many of the points made by your Lordships—namely, that we cannot get away from the fact that the non-charitable housing associtions have not had their spirit destroyed because their tenants have had the right to buy. The volunteers there are no less vigorous and dynamic today than they were before—quite the contrary. Their enthusiasm has to be seen to be appreciated, and one reason for that is because they see that the Government are willing to back them, to go with them all the way. I submit that that is a much more telling point because it is putting the assistance where it counts. It is much more telling than to be concerned with what might be the effect of a situation where some 2,500 people, with another 120,000 coming along, are affected, when we are talking of a 300,000 tenancy norm with the likelihood of the right to buy going to some 80,000, with the even greater likelihood of the number who will be in a position to buy being between 8 per cent. and 10 per cent. Frankly, I believe it will be even less than that. Be that as it may, those figures put the whole sitution into context.
Having listened to the sincere and telling speeches that have been made, I assure your Lordships that we take heed of what is said in your Lordships' House. Indeed, one could hardly listen to several hours of debate of this kind without doing so. I shall read carefully what your Lordships have said, and I hope that in turn noble Lords will read carefully what I am saying.
I am always in the greatest of difficulty with my noble friend Lord Selkirk. The noble Baroness referred to him as my friend, and that he certainly is so far as I am concerned. But, then, she, too, I would hope, is also, but perhaps not with quite the same title. Lord Selkirk was indeed very critical, and he pulled no punches. I feel that I should give him a specific answer to his question about what would happen to easements and rights of passage if sales took place. Sales which take place under the extension of the right to buy in the Bill will be subject to certain common provisions laid down in Schedule 2 to the 1980 Act. They provide that the conveyance or lease must give the purchaser,such easements and rights over other property81 as are necessary to enable the purchaser to enjoy the same rights as were available to him as a tenant. Conversely, the purchaser is to be subject to such rights in respect of other property as obtained before the purchase.
My noble friend asked if it was wise to annoy so many people who were doing—he was right about this—what the Government wanted them to do, and in that sense he was referring to those working within the charity association movement. One does not lightly embark on something of this kind. It is only that we say—I say it as sincerely as anything your Lordships have said—that we so deeply believe that there is a real principle here that we say to those working in the charity association movement, "Be not so concerned as you seem to be".
My noble friend Lord Bathurst said that there was misunderstanding. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, did not seem to think there was any misunderstanding. I reply that there clearly is and has been misunderstanding, not least about the extent of those to whom it will apply and the extent of the exemptions. I regard that as the greatest misunderstanding of all—the list of exemptions, the situations where the Bill does not apply—and that fact has to come out still further than has been the case so far.
When my noble friend Lord Selkirk talked about the decline of the private rented sector being a major problem, he was pushing at an open door. It is a matter of great concern, certainly to all noble Lords on this side of this House. I will not say anything about noble Lords opposite because if they were to say anything to me, I should have to use the word "shorthold", and then we might find ourselves going into yet another debate. I listened carefully to what my noble friend Lord Selkirk said and I regret that he feels unable to support us on this. However, I am an eternal optimist. There is another stage to come. There may be more discussion and clarification, and I live in hope.
The right reverend prelate the Bishop of Southwark spoke about the conflict between the need to provide accommodation for rent and the right to buy. Who could quarrel with that? That is what it is all about. Indeed, it is what housing is always about. However, the answers are not easy to find and I would claim that no adverse effects are being caused by what we are proposing. I suppose on that we shall have to differ. As I have said, this Bill is about a small number of people; but it is also about the rights of that small number of people; and I hope your Lordships will bear that in mind throughout these discussions.
The right reverend Prelate said that the challenge was to provide rentable accommodation for those who need it. Yes, indeed. I hope that he will agree with me that the 120,000 such units of accommodation which have been provided in the last four years is a very good example of providing accommodation for those who need it. He said that the proposals in Clause 2 would be discouraging for those who have worked hard to provide. If I were to repeat what I said a few moments ago, it would have to be my answer to that. The right reverend Prelate said that these proposals for retrospection could not be defended—and this surely is the key—unless (and he used the words) "to remedy an 82 injustice". I would say to the right reverend prelate, "Precisely". That is exactly what this is: it is exactly to remedy an injustice. If that makes it right, then the right reverend prelate answers the point for me. He says, "Use public money to provide rented accommodation". On that, I simply repeat to him the magic figure of £690 million.
The noble Lord, Lord Jacques spoke, as always, very sincerely. I am always interested to hear what he says. He speaks as a very practical person. He was concerned about cases where tenants will not be able to buy and so prevent anyone from buying. We have had this many times today. I felt like interrupting to say, "If you feel that there are those who are not getting the right to buy, then move an amendment to give more people the right to buy and I will talk to my honourable friends in another place to see what they can do"—because the fact that not everyone can do it is not a reason for saying that no one should do it. It is not a reason for saying that therefore you must be careful who does it. We are being careful. We agonize over the whole thing. I hope that no one thinks that we simply come in here and put down proposals and stand doggedly by them. It does not work like that. We are concerned about them. As to the other points that Lord Jacques made, he said that local authorities are not the same as housing associations. I would have to remind him that housing associations take many of their tenants from local authority lists. It is a good thing that they do. There is a coming together at times. There has to be.
My noble friend Lord Moyne referred to the number of Guinness properties—5,000 possibly out of 7,700—eligible. I would say that there is a whole world of difference between eligibility and take-up. Eligibility, I have talked of in general as 80,000; take-up, I have talked of as between 8,000 and 10,000 at the most. I do not know what the figure would be in the case of Guinness. My noble friend knows it better than I. I know his concern and I respect that concern. The record that they have in the housing movement is a very proud one. I am confident that nothing in the Bill that we are proposing will have an adverse effect upon that.
My noble friend said that the Government and universal private ownership go together. He is right. The Government feel that private ownership is a priority. It is something that the country needs, perhaps, as much as anything it needs. If we are not to just talk about equalisation but to do something to make it a reality, then, yes, the Government are guilty of being desperate for a greater degree of private ownership.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodman, I am sorry is not here to hear me making my speech. He kindly dropped me a note; and that is absolutely understood. One has to have the greatest of respect for whatever Lord Goodman says, not least on housing associations, because with his background in the Housing Corporation, then, if not him, who? I listened to him with interest. I had intended to quote to him why I think his observations on the Charity Commissioners and the law were perhaps not quite accurate. But, in the interest of the hour, I think I will write to him on that. If any of your Lordships would like to know, I 83 will gladly do the same. He was critical of the drafting of the Bill. Who am I to comment on that—least of all in such distinguished company? I am quite sure the noble Lord will be back again, certainly so far as Clause 2 is concerned.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also referred to the waiting list. I will not repeat what I said. We shall probably differ as to the significance of waiting lists as an assessment of housing need. He said that shared ownership was still untested. In some ways, I suppose that is right. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, talked about a few hundreds. I should tell her—and I said it in my opening remarks—that there are 6,000 which have now taken place. I forecast to her that this is one aspect of housing which really is going to take off. It fulfils many needs and fulfils the aspirations of many people. For that reason I am sure she will be as interested as I am to see what happens. It is early days. If you speak to any of the house builders, they will tell you what interest there is in shared ownership today. That must be an important development for the future. There were many other points made by the Lord Prys-Davies. I will write to him rather than try to answer them all tonight. Some need longer explanations than the time permits, although I have notes here for him.
My noble friend Lord Coleraine made some interesting observations, I thought. He was concerned about state interference in the private housing sector. I should like to take up some of the points that he made; but I think that is for written communication. Then, if he wishes, I am sure he will take it further.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, as the noble Lord is going to write to a number of noble Lords—and I think that most of us who spoke are now here and will not see those replies, which I understand in the interest of brevity—could he circulate, for instance, what he is going to write to the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies, Lord Goodman, and others? We are all concerned about charities and the law. This would help the noble Lord and enable us to study this aspect at greater leisure and clear it up.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I shall be delighted to do that. I shall make sure that any communication to Lord Goodman is copied, at least, to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I shall go through it most carefully. The noble Baroness knows that I am always as assiduous as I can be on the point of communication. I have always figured that if I tell you everything, you cannot say that you did not know. I will continue to do that.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester—and may I apologise to him for missing his first observations; I was called out of the Chamber—was concerned about the role of housing associations. As to that, I agree. But I would have to ask him how he explains the "explosion", (which is the word I used) of the non-charitable housing association movement in the way it is going at the present time, if all the people who are working in that area are being discouraged? I think that the facts do not bear out the concern which I recognise is seriously expressed. To my noble friend Lady Vickers, I would say that I went 84 to see the housing association that she supports—and a splendid and somewhat unusual one it is! I will write to her, too, because I have answers here but do not want to spend time now. If she will allow this, I can take up any matters that she wants. To the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, all I can do—and this is not the first time we have crossed swords on housing legislation; this is the fourth, I think—is to quote the experience of the non-charity associations and hope that he, too, will feel that perhaps it "ain't quite as bad" as he thinks it might be. He said that small charities will be disheartened. I would ask: why are not the small non-charitable associations disheartened? As to my noble friend Lord Mottistone, I thank him. His was the first measure of support that I had throughout the evening, although it did go slightly into neutral, I must confess. Nevertheless, he is always there when needed—but when he gets on to the Isle of Wight, I know I am on tricky ground. Even so, his points are always worth looking at, and I shall want to read carefully what he said.
My noble friend Lord Ingleby suggested that other categories of tenants should also have the right to buy. I make the same point to him, too: indeed, yes. If he will move an amendment we will consider the point, but I think that might take us into the kind of problem mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Perth. That I have sympathy with that point goes without saying, I think. I have a number of statistics here in reply, but I think I had better write to him; and I will mark the record to ensure that the noble Baroness receives a copy of that, too.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, talked about the necessity for local authorities to keep large permanent workforces. That is a topic that has been touched on before. She asked that building control should be left where it is. What we are saying about this is not that it is one or the other, but that there should be both. Why not have the additional facility? That point is really covered very well, in my opinion, but I have no doubt she will come back to that one, too.
I am indeed grateful to my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox because she absolutely supported the Bill, and I am very grateful for her splendid speech. The three points that she raised must be answered, and I have answers here, but, if she will allow me, I will write to her giving the information, and I will also see that the information is sent to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I can do no less, my Lords. My noble friend made a further point on housing associations and about their being able to extend their work, and so on. I think that is interesting and constructive, and we shall want to look at it very carefully.
I am sorry that the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun—again not for the first time—felt herself unable to support me. I would have to say to her that the point about private landlords in future having to be chary of applying for grants really takes it out of perspective. The level of grant that we are talking about here is so high—75, 85 or more per cent.—for the provision of accommodation that it is way beyond anything that private landlords get in matters of this kind. I truly do not think that will be the problem that she fears. She said the Government have done enough to promote ownership. All I will say to that is, "Never". We 85 passionately believe that this is the answer to so many things for the country, and so we will never have done enough so far as I am concerned. I was grateful—
My Lords, if the noble Lord will excuse me for interrupting him, I said enough to promote private ownership without touching the charitable association housing.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, without question I accept what the noble Lady has said. I think that my hand must have got tired when I was taking my note and I stopped at that key point.
As to my noble friend Lord Bathurst, I thought at first that I had someone else on my side. He properly raised the fact of the misunderstanding. I still believe there is misunderstanding about the exemptions, but we shall come back to it again. I am sorry that he did not feel able to say anything other than that the proposals would damage the interests of those who cannot ever buy. That is just not so. There can never have been a Government which, in the matter of housing, have brought in so many schemes to help "those who can never buy". One has only to look at the homesteading, the shared ownership, the low-cost starter home, the land measures and a whole list of things. I have some films which I will gladly make available to my noble friend if he would like to see them—or to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, if the noble Lord will give way—I have been very restrained—is he really saying that everybody who spoke against the Government on Clause 2 today was misunderstanding or misrepresenting the Bill and the clause?
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, the noble Baroness knows perfectly well that I am really not saying that at all. I listen very carefully to everything that she says: she knows that I always do, and I hope that, in turn, she will do the same when I speak. What I have said is that there has been misunderstanding generally and as to the exemptions in particular, and I still think that there are misunderstandings—although not on everyone's part; of course not. But I still think there are misunderstandings, and to make the point I would have to go yet again into details of exactly what the exemptions are. But we will come back to this, have no fear. May I say finally to my noble friend Lord Bathurst that when he said "only 8,000 people" I make to him the same point that I made earlier. Yes, it seems a lot for what it is; but the fact is that the principle is a very deep one.
I shall have to write to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, with some statistics in order to answer his queries. I do that regularly anyhow, so he will not mind that. He said that the Government will have to give serious consideration to the speeches made today. Of course we do—that goes without saying—and he knows that we will do so. When he talked about "pools of housing" he touched a chord. I should love to talk for half an hour possibly all about pooling housing and what it means, but I fear that will have to be for another occasion. When he said that houses sold take 10 years to replace—although he modified that later—I reply that it depends on the circumstances. 86 Again, I will not go into that, tempted though I am. I know the point he is making and we have to talk and debate about housing pools.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said that home ownership is a dream which will never come true for very many and therefore houses are needed for low-rented accommodation. Of course: but this Government are concerned to try to make that dream come true for as many people as possible. Indeed we are; and the record will show it and is showing it. But I do not quarrel with the fact that there is a need for homes to be rented. It is a question of how to go about getting this situation. That subject is also not one for tonight. She touched upon the consequences of sales, such as reduction in home availability, and so on. If I have said it once I have said it 20 times in your Lordships' House: when a sitting secure tenant buys his home, he is neither making it more nor less available to the pool of rented accommodation than when he sat there as a tenant and not as an owner. That is a fact, and the record certainly shows that to be so. Now we are on to the whole of the ground that we went into when we were discussing the right-to-buy legislation in the first place. I am sorry to be drawing this out, but if so many points are made, I have to answer them. In fact, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, I should have to speak for a long time because almost all the points she made were philosophical points about housing. I think she would probably agree with that. I should dearly love to discuss them with her, but not tonight: I will avoid the temptation.
My noble friend Lord Haig was concerned about rented accommodation in the private sector only. He said that once lost to the rented sector it has gone for ever. I have touched on this and I will not repeat what I have said before. It is just something on which we shall have to differ.
I listened very carefully to the noble Earl, Lord Perth. He pulled no punches, if I may put it that way, and I respect what he said. He was afraid that the small number, as he said, would open the door. But it has not opened the door to anything that he would feel was wrong in the case of the non-charitable housing associtions. No door that he fears has been opened there and I do not see why it should be any more likely with these. He said that charities would find themselves trapped. I would ask: trapped in what way? He mentioned the words "fair" and "just". I take that point absolutely. I would build the whole of the Government's case on those two words "fair" and "just". Those words are exactly what Clause 2 is all about. Your Lordships will see how you can differ, if you go at it from different angles. I should like to discuss many of his other points, but I think he will forgive me if I do not go into his speech at length tonight. If the noble Earl wishes, we can meet or have correspondence. I noted carefully the points which my noble friend Lord Swinfen made. He speaks with qualification and experience, and I shall want, together with my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, to give careful thought to what he said.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, really tempted me when she asked who brought in the building regulations. The Box was at its very best and quickest in passing me the answer. It is as follows. The 87 building regulations were made under the Public Health Act 1961, when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister. They were amended by the Health and Safety at Work Act in Harold Wilson's Government. The current regulations were made in 1976, under the Wilson-Callaghan Government, and they have since been amended three times—in 1978, 1981 and 1983. So I think that everyone must share out that lot.
The noble Baroness, in what I recognised was a very restrained speech, referred to the Group of Eight and said that they wanted to go to the local authorities. There is nothing in this Bill that will prevent them from using the local authorities. That will be their choice and time will tell. That is all I am going to say. I have lots of notes and lots of speeches. I have not used them at all—
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, would the noble Lord like to give way so that he can perhaps have a chance to get his breath back for his own peroration? May I just ask him whether he will be very kind and write to me about turnover, particularly in housing stress areas, especially in villages, and also about my point on the non-replaceability of certain houses which may be sold?
§ Lord Bellwin
Indeed I will, my Lords. I certainly will write on that, and if the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, wants a copy she shall have one. I have nothing more to say. Clearly, there is great concern about Clause 2. I think that most of the rest of the Bill, although there is some anxiety, will not in the end present too much difficulty. Clause 2 really is a matter of much concern. We respect that concern and do not lightly turn it down. How can we, if we want to get it through your Lordships' House?—and we do. I believe, as fervently as anyone who has spoken to the contrary, that in trying to do what the right reverend Prelate said, and give justice to those who need it, we have run into the kind of difficulties that have been expressed. Where we will go from here I do not know, but we will take note of all that has been said. In the meanwhile, I hope that your Lordships will feel that the debate has been a good one and that you will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before nine o'clock.