§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Second Reading debate resumed.
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, I, too, should like to offer my thanks to the noble Lord the Minister for the very clear way in which he gave details of the Bill. I should like also to apologise to the House that I am a very inadequate substitute for the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, who should have been leading from these Benches on the Bill, but he is unwell. I am sure that the whole House will hope, as much as I do, that he will be here in his place for the later stages of the Bill.
We believe that we must retain the right to buy legislation and we should like to see some changes in it, but not those which are proposed in this Bill. We think that the present blanket arrangements ought to be more flexible but that local authorities, and particularly those in housing stress areas, if they can produce evidence that sales would adversely affect the housing position in their areas, should be able to seek a suspension of the right to buy for a limited period.
There will always be a substantial number of people who require rented accommodation. We would like to see an increased supply of rented houses from sources perhaps attracting institutional finance. We believe that the principle of Clause 1 relating to tenants of leasehold properties is right, but we also believe that there may be practical problems associated with those provisions. We welcome the right of county council tenants in the non-operational houses to be able to buy their houses. We also cautiously welcome the shared-ownership lease principle which brings the possibility of owning their own home within the grasp of some lower income families. However, we see difficulties in administration in housing departments, especially in the field of service charges. So we welcome the aim to limit the extent of service charges to what is reasonable and to provide a basic right to full information about these service charges. What we should like to know is: who will decide what is a reasonable charge and who will settle what is a reasonable standard of work?
469 The 1980 Housing Act provided a charter for tenants but not for tenants in the private sector; nor have private tenants the right to buy. Have the Government given consideration to extend this right to buy possibly to residents of flats in our large cities? Many of the private tenants in flats in our huge conurbations would welcome the opportunity to buy. Many of them are frustrated and furious over the lack of maintenance and services which should be provided by the landlords. Why should not private tenants have the same rights as council tenants? And why, in this Bill, cannot the Leasehold Reform Act be applied to this type of flat? Surely that is something which ought to appeal to a Government which professes to believe in a property-owning democracy.
We also feel concern about the procedures covering building control, the inspection and certification. We feel that the Government have to make out a very much stronger case for allowing builders to have their own inspectors and for the local authorities to have no right to challenge the inspector's decision. We cannot see the approved inspector having the same independence as the present building control officers. Builders will be able to hire and fire inspectors at will without giving any reasons, and this could allow the less conscientious builders to shop around for the less conscientious inspectors. Why are the Government happy to keep the enforcement of building regulations within local government in Scotland and yet not to have them for the rest of us? If this system of privatisation of the building surveyor's work is to go ahead, steps must surely be taken to ensure that any private surveyor can demonstrate that he carries a liability insurance and that that insurance will still be available if and when a defect occurs, even if it is some years later.
We also believe that Clause 25 concerning the right to repair could prove to be controversial. The man in the street, just looking at it, may say: "O.K., if the local authorities are tardy in dealing with complaints and repairs, then why not?" But we should take account of the anxieties of local authorities by anticipating the problems. They will be concerned about the work involved in inspection before and after. They will need staff and time to check that the bills that are presented are adequate. The timescale will have to be a reasonable one, and perhaps for routine repairs we can say something like two to three weeks. But there are the larger problems of authorities, who, because of Government cuts, do not have the money for improvements or repairs. There is the additional anxiety that if the tenant carries out his own improvements and does not employ a sub-contractor he may endanger the actual structure by partly removing load-bearing walls and other things.
By all means give the tenants the right to call in an outside contractor from an approved list when the repairs have not been carried out by the council within the agreed specified time and let the bill be passed on in full to the council. But that differs somewhat from the Government's present proposal, which to us smacks of an attempt to get the repairs done on the cheap by the tenant. The authorities must be able to defend their standards and to provide the budget.
This also affects the second-generation new towns, where housing stock is being prepared for hand-over to 470 the local councils. That is the case in my own new town of Peterborough, where it is hoped that the city council will become the agency for the development corporation later this year. When this Act is law, the city will be responsible to the development corporation for the carrying out of this Act. The development corporation staff will be transferred to the city council, but, until it is wound up, the development corporation will enforce the standards of maintenance, the timescale for the repairs, and so on, and they will provide the money.
Many other speakers will be talking about the effect of this Bill on charitable housing—on housing for the disabled and for the elderly. I share their deep concern and I believe that the charitable housing associations should be allowed to remain true to their objectives and to fulfil their duties to those in severe housing need in the years to come.
If the Government are allowed to go ahead with the suggested cash hand-outs to tenants of housing associations, it will only create bitterness and ill-feeling if a small section of the population can get a substantial direct cash payment to help pay the down payment on a new house on the open market, while other would-be owners have to work and scrimp and save, often for years, to raise the deposit; while private tenants have no right to buy and while council tenants can buy only the house they rent and cannot choose on the open market.
At the same time, housing association tenants in pre-1904 accommodation will receive nothing, while those in post-1904 accommodation can take the cash. If a sizeable proportion of these tenants exercised their right to buy on the open market, then, as the noble Baroness said, there could be an enormous impact on house prices and that could be followed by another inflationary period. This Bill is intended to help those who are now more fortunate, at the expense of those who are now in need and those who will be in need in the future.
As a national vice-chairman of PHAB, I am a known supporter of disabled persons' rights and, in principle, I believe that disabled tenants should have the same rights as other tenants. However, if they buy houses specially adapted for disabled persons and their families, such houses will be lost for other disabled persons in need. Local authorities often spend £10,000 or £15,000, as the noble Baroness said, to adapt properties, and they will then have to decide whether it is in the interests of the disabled as a whole to adapt individual houses. Many local authorities may be forced to decide that money should be spent on sheltered housing only where the right to buy does not apply, and thus ensure that such accommodation is available for disabled persons in perpetuity. I believe that this part of the Bill needs much more consideration.
During the Year of the Disabled, my own city council pioneered a system of grants allowing cash to be given for adaptations to houses under private construction by people with members of their family suffering from a disability—not council houses, but privately built for persons with some disability. But now the Department of the Environment has ruled that the Peterborough City Council is acting beyond its 471 powers and plans to withhold the Government funds for those grants. I should have thought that what the city council in Peterborough was doing was a sensible use of money, spending it as an improvement grant, as it were, in advance, when houses are being built.
We believe most strongly that councils should reinvest in housing the maximum possible proportion of the capital receipts from the sale of council houses; that they should maximise capital expenditure on council housing—for new building where it is needed, for rehabilitation, for improvements and for repairs. But nothing in this Bill will improve the lot of the existing tenants, or improve their houses or the amenities on their estates; nor will it help to reduce housing waiting lists. I hope that, like those of us on these Benches, other Members of your Lordships' House will accept the challenge thrown down by the noble Baroness.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Lord Broxbourne
My Lords, I rise with natural diffidence to address the House for the first time and, in craving the indulgence of your Lordships, may I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for her kind and courteous preparatory reference. I think your Lordships will acquit me of any undue or unseemly haste in making this maiden speech. I thought perhaps I should atone for my precipitance in the other House, of which, with the passage of the years and the conventions of that place, had I continued in membership I should today be the venerable Father. Instead, I am here, choosing, no doubt, the better part. Indeed, there may be those of your Lordships who think that the best—possibly the sole—justification for my presence here is to leave that position in that other House open to the right honourable gentleman who fills it now with such distinction.
In that House, I regret to say that I made my maiden speech in the debate on the Address in the first Session of my first Parliament. Very shortly thereafter, for reasons now lost in the mists of time, I thought I should speak in the debate on the Industrial Injuries Bill. When the debate had started and progressed a little, Mr. Speaker Clifton-Brown—the kindest of men—called me up to his Chair and said "I am going next to call three Members from the Government Benches and then you. They will all be maiden speeches, so it will fall to you to convey to them the congratulations of the House". I obeyed his instructions as best I could.
This somewhat bizarre position had an added piquancy, because one of the three Members had, in fact, just deprived my father of his seat in Parliament at the election. What those three gentlemen felt at that somewhat unpropitious start is mercifully unknown to me. It may well be that they would have felt inclined to echo Vergil:Non-tali auxilis nec defensoribus istis".But it at least shows the resilience of our parliamentary institutions that, in spite of that less than propitious start, they continued to give good service to the House.
Now I start again, after all these years, with all the natural anxieties and apprehensions of one in such a position. But I take comfort from this. After years of 472 seeking to satisfy my constituents, I am encouraged by Augustine Birrell's description of the House of Lords:The House of Lords represent no one but themselves and they enjoy the unqualified confidence of all their constituents.I am grateful for this opportunity to make a brief and modest contribution on the Second Reading of this Bill, which has been moved in such clear and cogent terms by my noble friend the Minister. As your Lordships know, this Bill belongs to the species dichotomic of legislation. It is concerned with two broadly unrelated and separate subjects. Your Lordships will be relieved to know that I propose to confine my observations to one part only, the second, dealing with the improvement, extension and simplification of the system of building inspection.
As the House knows, inspection and approval of buildings is currently and traditionally in the domain of local authorities administering the building regulations under the jurisdiction of the Public Health Acts. The purpose of this Bill, as has been indicated, is to extend this jurisdiction and provide an alternative, not for ideological or for doctrinaire reasons, but for solid reasons of practical advantage to consumers and builders alike. This element of privatisation—that is the mot juste—is not a commercial matter of profit-making and, indeed, it does not replace the local authority machinery for those still wanting to use it. What it does do is to make it possible to opt for inspection and certification by an approved inspector drawn from outside the local authority ambit. The effect is, as it were, to put the mechanism of the building regulations into suspense and to provide a prima facie case of compliance, putting the onus of proof on any authority seeking to allege non-compliance with the building regulations, despite the approval of the approved inspector.
This will have very considerable advantages in a practical sense: speed, simplification, uniformity and a concentration of inspection and attention on those features and facets which experience has shown to be the main areas of weakness and potential danger. The inevitable lack of uniformity in local authority procedures is a prime cause of weakness, delay, confusion and expense—inevitably so as there are 380 local authorities, and building regulations become increasingly complex. Thus, a builder on a national scale using, say, 30 house types—a not improbable figure—has to submit each house type each time it is used to each individual authority; and the comments, queries and amendments made on those plans may, and in practice do, differ greatly between one authority and another.
This Bill provides the opportunity to improve all this when the detailed mechanism is spelt out in the subsequent regulations following enactment of the Bill. It will then be open to those with the requisite qualifications and experience to apply for the status of approved inspector. No stampede, I believe—no doubt my noble friend will confirm this—is expected and it is probable that only the National House Building Council will apply. My noble friend referred briefly to the National House Building Council. I do not know how familiar your Lordships are with its work. It is a non-profit distributing insurance company and standards body, recognised under statute. The chairman is appointed by the Secretary of 473 State for the Environment, although it receives no public funds. Other council members are nominated by bodies closely associated with housebuilding, including consumer interests.
Here I should declare an interest—not an interest in the technical sense, since I have no financial involvement in the matter. I was, however, for some years the unpaid chairman of the council, appointed by successive Secretaries of State of different political persuasions, illustrating thereby the agreeably ecumenical nature of the council. I have been interested in the work of the council since its origins half a century ago. It was in fact the brainchild of my father, conceived as a means of curing jerrybuilding and improving the standards of housebuilding. Today the council's scheme, based on compliance with a minimum standards specification, inspection to ensure that compliance, and certification of compliance, covers over 99 per cent. of private housebuilding in the United Kingdom. It is very difficult to obtain a building society mortgage for a house not covered by the scheme. The operation of the council, as one, or perhaps the sole, approved inspector, can bring great benefits to house purchasers and housebuilders alike. I can respectfully assure the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, that happily her apprehensions will prove to be unfounded, as she, I am sure, will be the first to rejoice to see.
This Bill, which makes possible the benefits of simplification, uniformity and speed, coupled with effective prescription and enforcement, marks a further stage in ensuring high standards in the vitally important matter of the housing of the people. As such, it deserves to and should (and will, I am sure) receive a warm welcome on all sides.
I hope the House will forgive me if I end on a personal note. To the cause of housing and its improvement my father devoted a large part of his working life in many capacities: as city engineer of Edinburgh, as Director of Housing in Whitehall, as a Member of Parliament and in the counsels of the building industry. I like to think that he would have rejoiced that my maiden speech in this House, however deficient in expression and presentation, was directed to a measure which is designed to promote the amelioration of the housing of the people and which marks a further and notable stage in that praiseworthy endeavour. I thank noble Lords sincerely for their indulgence.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Lord Stewart of Fulham
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, on his maiden speech in this House. We have been listening to each other and disagreeing with each other for about half a century—in what here is commonly called "another place" and in another place yet, the Oxford Union. No doubt we shall continue to do so—I cannot say for another half century but for some time, I trust, to come. Those of us who heard the moving and well-informed speech which the noble Lord made on the building control clauses of the Bill will feel that he is going to be a real asset to us. We shall look forward to his further contributions to our debates.
474 The noble Lord will forgive me if I do not follow him, since I want to speak on the other part of the Bill, in particular on housing for the elderly and the disabled. If the House will forgive my saying so, I have a special interest and reason for doing so. The local authority in the part of London which used to be my constituency have built a great many blocks of houses. They have built one block of sheltered accommodation which they have been kind enough to name after me. Whether as a pure honour or possibly with the suggestion that the time is coming when that will be the most suitable kind of accommodation for me I cannot say for certain. At any rate, it is a very gratifying addition to the amenities of the neighbourhood. Its lease, I am glad to say, cannot be touched by the Bill, even in its present form, because it is sheltered accommodation, originally built as such. The last thing that the tenants want to do is to buy the accommodation. What they want, and what they have, is good accommodation that is well cared for and kept in order and repair, and good service. It is a great comfort to think that that will remain both for them and for similarly elderly and disabled people for as long as the buildings themselves shall stand.
But what is happening about other aspects of the treatment of the elderly and the disabled in this Bill? The Bill has altered a little since we first saw it. In the reign of King George III there was a witty and spiteful courtier who kept a diary in which, among other things, he recorded his judgment on one of the ladies of the court. He said that in his opinion the first bloom of her ugliness was beginning to wear off. We are not able, I am afraid, to say even that of this Bill. With the passage of time it has grown less attractive. In particular, we find that buildings which are indisputably suited for the use of elderly people but which were not originally so built and were subsequently adapted are now to be subjected to the right to buy. Similarly, accommodation that is not what is called sheltered accommodation but which was undoubtedly intended and regularly used for elderly people is now to come, almost universally and without exception, into the field of the right to buy. Whether that is a good thing or not ought surely to depend on what is the situation with regard to numbers of persons wanting accommodation of that kind and the amount of accommodation available.
As my noble friend on the Front Bench, Lady Birk, pointed out, we are still very short of accommodation of that kind. There seems no immediate prospect of that shortage being reduced, and this appears to be the view of every impartial, disinterested body that has studied the matter. I have never felt one need be dogmatic about whether or not tenants ought to have a right to buy. What we ought to ask is: what is the need for rented accommodation? If there is a great need for rented accommodation, that is an argument against extending the right to buy. We have here a case where there is a real shortage of accommodation for disabled and elderly people. It is not, therefore, on general grounds desirable to extend the right to buy.
For what happens, after all, when the right to buy is exercised by an elderly person? One cannot say it happens in every case, but in general who is going to be the beneficiary? Not the elderly person, who for the reasons I have mentioned does not particularly want 475 the right to buy, but the elderly person's heir, who quite possibly is the same person as he who put up the money to enable the purchase to be made in the first place. When the elderly person is obliging enough to die, the heir is in a very strong financial position. It is he who is the beneficiary of this transaction, not the tenant. That is the kind of liberty, advantage, that this Bill and legislation like it is conferring on people.
The other effect is that side by side with this financial advantage to somebody who did not need it at all, and in no sense deserved it, the supply of accommodation available for elderly persons is reduced. We are told that there is some mitigation in all this in the right of the local authority to buy the property back under certain circumstances and after a certain time, but to do it at a great financial disadvantage. Having in the first place had to sell it at a considerable discount, it has the right to buy it back in a situation most unfavourable to the purchasing local authority, and in a situation where local authorities are at their wits' end to find money for any necessary purposes, let alone unnecessary purchases of the kind actually created by this legislation.
What has happened is that the Government have succeeded in producing legislation which has the remarkable characteristic of being both unjust and popular. It is popular with certain persons who benefit from it, the heir of the elderly person and one or two others. They are identifiable persons; they have names; you can say they are Mr. So-and-so. Mrs. Somebody-else. It is those on whom advantages are conferred. Who are the losers? They are the elderly people whose chance of getting decent and suitable accommodation has been once more further postponed. They are real people. We cannot say precisely who they are.
When a house owned or tenant-occupied by an elderly person is sold the elderly person's heir gains. An elderly person who might have succeeded that tenant loses by having her chance of decent accommodation postponed. But we cannot give her a name; she will be one of a great many; she is nevertheless a real person. But you cannot work up the same indignation for her. You can say proudly, "Look, here are all these people on whom we are conferring the right to buy; they are actual, real people whose names we know". All the time you are creating a group of people, equally real, but not identifiable, to whom you have done a very serious injustice. It seems to me that legislation of this kind might well get a prize for ingenuity, but it does not deserve a prize for either justice or compassion.
§ 4.35 p.m.
The Earl of Selkirk
My Lords, I think we are very fortunate in having the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, in this House just in time to be able to take part in this debate. Probably nobody in either House of Parliament, if I may say so, knows more than he does about building construction and the rules relating to it. He has a hereditary interest in this subject. He did not mention that it was he himself, I think, who persuaded Mr. Crossman to make inspection by the National House Building Council compulsory for building societies. He deserves great congratulations and is 476 owed a great debt by many people who have houses well constructed and built. I hope he is right in saying that this delegated inspection will be handed to the National House Building Council, but I am bound to say that it is not exactly what the Bill says.
I have a certain sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said: that there seems to be a wide range of people who might be brought into this task. If there are, I would suggest we shall need something like a national inspection council, which is in the electricity industry, who would supervise the inspectors. I do not know whether this is desirable, but it is one of the possibilities. Who will make inspection of the inspectors?
This is a complicated Bill and I notice at the outset that it will mean an increase of staff of the Ministry of the Environment, of local government, and, I suspect, of housing associations because its operation will be very complicated. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for fulfilling his promise not to bring in that rather distasteful Clause 2. But he tells us he has something else in store for us. I do not think, from gossip I have heard, that it has any great defects, but I think we shall have to look at it very carefully.
There was one word that the noble Lord the Minister used which rather worried me. He spoke of people who could not afford "outright" purchase. I do not know exactly what that word means. One must ask the question: if you cannot buy a house can you maintain it? We are I think greatly indebted to what is the most satisfactory part of housing, and that is owner-occupation. That is the ambition of the vast majority of people in this country, which has grown up from the grass roots through the building societies over a period of 200 years. No Government have really done much about it; it is an indigenous thing which has grown up in the people of this country.
People want owner-occupation for two reasons: they want it because they want security, and they want pride of ownership. You will not get that unless two other requirements are fulfilled. The first is the ability to maintain the property, and it is a doubtful thing whether this liability—and it is quite a big liability—is going to be enjoyed by and give security to people who cannot afford it. If you cannot afford it, I am afraid I must say quite bluntly that you would do much better to have a rented property. This is the problem. I am not altogether happy about whether people can be bribed too far to indulge in the liability of a house if they have not got the means. This is an old argument. I have been supporting owner-occupation for a couple of decades with all the strength I have, and I am so glad now to see that this is a common desire among all parties, which it was not at one time. It is a great step forward. However, I am a little worried as to whether or not this is going a little too far.
There is of course the other of the two points—the first being the inability to pay for the maintenance—and that is the title. It is a very dangerous proposal mooted today that the conveyance of properties should be undertaken by people who hold less than the standard qualifications. It is no good saying that if one does use such people and then takes out insurance, that that is a complete answer. If one has to move out of one's house, insurance is a very 477 poor alternative, no matter what it is. I suggest that this is an issue which will come before the House and will need to be examined.
I should like to give an example of the encouragements that are given—and I have this from one who knows. One can have a house valued at £30,000 and a discount of 60 per cent. One is then left with £12,000. With shared ownership one only has to pay £6,000. That is a pretty good bribe to get on with, and it goes very far. What worries me is that it leaves the position open to what I call scrimshanking. The situation will require very careful examination. I have no doubt that it will be controlled to some extent by regulations, but we must look at this aspect very closely indeed.
One other point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, was the issue of tenants doing their own repairs. It is a good thing for tenants to do their own repairs if they are responsible people. But they should inform the local authority, or whoever is the owner, of what they are proposing to do. I say that for one reason, if for no other: a row between tenant and landlord is a very bad thing and the tenant should tell the landlord, whether it be the local authority or others, what he intends to do. It may be that he will do the work badly, and there is always the possibility that he may even damage the house.
There are many speakers in the debate tonight and I shall not say more. It is a complicated Bill and it is easy to make a Second Reading speech on it. However, it will be jolly hard work in Committee and we shall find it to be an exacting task. The Bill presses forward with owner-occupation, which is absolutely right, but I do hope that the Government will not overdo it.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Baroness Denington
My Lords, I should like to start by also congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, on his maiden speech. As the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, said, it is indeed a very happy fact that he has joined us at this particular moment. I shall have to listen to him very carefully because I must admit that I do not like Part II of the Bill one little bit. However, I will keep an open mind and I will listen to him, and if I am persuaded, then well and good; but at the moment I am very critical.
I should also like to thank my noble friend Lady Birk and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for their excellent speeches, and for expressing so exceedingly well many of the things that I want to say. However, I shall try to be brief because there is a long list of speakers and I do not want to be repetitive. Nevertheless, on Clause 7 (which refers to the sale of old people's dwellings) I am afraid that I must take time to have my say; but I shall try not to be too long.
I am very troubled about some aspects of the Bill and I look at it in the context of what is going on nationally. Since 1979, when Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister, this nation has been moved very consciously and deliberately to the Right. We are now two nations, and one sees this said now in the press. It is not a situation that I find good. It is very troubling. We are a nation of the "haves", and although I am not grumbling at this, because I say this as I see it, the Government are doing their utmost to improve the 478 position of the "haves" and increase the number of the "haves". It is the declared intention of the Government to deal with the tax situation and to help the "haves" who have mortgage relief and a number of other benefits; but I shall not go into detail. Their position is being improved.
Then we have the "have nots" and it is, unhappily, a very considerable proportion of our nation. Their position is deteriorating and that is the problem. They have cuts in their benefits. Pensions for the majority of old people are not enough. The disadvantaged live in the worst housing. It is cold and damp housing; and they simply do not have enough money to heat the housing properly so they become ill. Those are the people who I call the "have nots" and who must have—and need—local authority and housing association housing—which I call public housing. As has been said, the homeless list is growing and it is heartbreaking and disgraceful. These are the people whose lot is deteriorating. That must be borne in mind when we consider the Bill clause by clause.
The most important issues arise on the housing section. These are important social issues. As a result of the measures now before us, many more people will have the right to buy. The 60 per cent. discount, raised from 50 per cent., will, I am certain, increase the number of people who will be able to buy. Therefore, we shall have a large new body of people who will be able to buy. I consider that those who have already bought and those who, happily for them, will buy will be moved into the upper bracket—the "haves". They will have a valuable asset that, year by year, will increase in value. Good luck to them. It is a good thing for them and, incidentally, for the Government because it certainly is a vote catcher. It is good for people and is helpful. I am not against it, and never have been; but as I see it, a major dis-benefit will be added to the "have nots" if Clause 7, relating to the sale of old people's dwellings, is implemented. I shall endeavour to show a little more extensively than have my colleagues how big will be the effect of the sale of those particular dwellings.
They were built in order to meet a very pressing need. They were built during the 'sixties and 'seventies, and are still being built where the money is available. They were built not only to meet the needs of the elderly, although that was a prime purpose, but for people who need to have ground floor accommodation and for whom bungalows are so very suitable. They were built in the countryside and they were built in London. Many were built at the seaside along the South Coast in agreement with the local authorities. They were built in the country so that people who have no ties in London could move out and be nicely housed. They are an enormously valuable asset, not only for those who move into them.
People move to these dwellings from two-bedroomed, three-bedroomed or even four-bedroomed local authority dwellings. The children have left home, and the people remaining in that accommodation are elderly. A couple might be living there, one of them dies and the other may be left living alone in a big house. The rates are expensive; and they cannot afford to heat the house. There they are, stuck there. It was not until we built this special accommodation for those elderly people that they could move. 479 They are always marked on the plan as OPDs—old persons' dwellings. The moment that these people moved out of their houses we had vacancies for others on the waiting list. That really moved the whole housing situation. The provision of old persons' dwellings has continued to help the situation. It was not a one-off move.
There is another factor in this. A family may move into a house when a couple are in their twenties and stay for 20 to 30 years. That has always been the Government's point. They say over and over again to the local authorities, "What are you grumbling about when a person buys a house? The people will stay in that house anyway and there will not be a vacancy". It has been a point in favour of selling, that the local authority would not be able to use the letting again quickly.
But the situation is different when people are moved to an old person's dwelling. I am advised that the expectancy for the length of the tenancy is between five and seven years, and not 20 to 30. There is a fairly rapid turnover; so the authority can all the time help those who need the houses which are being vacated when others go to the old persons' dwellings. They play an absolutely vital part in the housing of our people who cannot afford to buy and who need rented housing. We should not sell these bungalows. It is up to the Government to come forward with ideas if they can think of any other way to help them. Otherwise, in the interests of this nation as a whole we have to say, no. We just have to: there is no other answer.
In his helpful opening speech the Minister told us that the present clause is unsatisfactory. When it came in front of us we knew that it was unsatisfactory but we hoped that the Government would try to make it work since really it was of their devising at that point. But, as my noble friend Lady Birk said, they never intended to make it work. I shall not weary the House with the matter now, but we can quote instances which have been given by the Government of things that have been turned down and which are quite disgraceful on the part of the Government. I cannot use any other word. We shall come to the matters in due course.
I should like again to make the point that has been made, I think, by my noble friend Lord Stewart of Fulham. If the Government let elderly people buy the bungalows, it is not for their owner-occupation at that end of their life. That is nonsense. It is for their heirs. Why on earth should we hurt the "have nots" and damage the housing situation in order to give the heirs a great bonus? I see no sense in that whatsoever. It is just a piece of nonsensical dogma on the part of the Government.
We are really back on the issue that we were dealing with nearly 12 months ago. I hope that the House will weigh the matter exceedingly carefully and come to the conclusion that it came to last time: that these dwellings simply must not be sold. I have my eye on the time. I shall say no more about the housing section of the Bill, which has been wonderfully dealt with by my noble friends. But make no mistake, we shall come to the detail at the Committee stage. So no more of that.
480 I have said my little bit about the building control section of the Bill. I do not think we should change from the present position; I think it works exceptionally well. The building surveyors employed by local government are experienced and wonderfully well qualified. In my view, the proposal can only weaken control and make for difficulties. I pray that that will not happen if the measure goes through, but I fear that it will. I just do not like it. Truly, the only purpose that I have been able to think of for the Government being determined to bring in the measure is that it will allow the Prime Minister, when she addresses the Tory Party Conference in October, to add another line to the things that have been privatised. I do not find that a sufficient reason to support the measure.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, on his elegant and able maiden speech. I do so with all the more pleasure because a great many years ago my family owned land in the village from which his title derives.
The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, with his customary consideration and attention to detail, has laid before us today what can best be described, albeit unoriginally, as a curate's egg of a Bill. Certainly it contains a few palatable and even tasty morsels, but much of it (especially the first few spoonfuls) is, frankly, tainted. I have Clause I particularly in mind.
Back in 1966 and 1967 the Conservative Opposition rightly condemned in the strongest possible terms the confiscatory aspects of the Leasehold Reform Bill, then on its way through Parliament. As a matter of interest, the Liberal Party was equally vehement in its condemnation, as were several moderate members of the Labour Party—in private, if not in public. Nothing has changed over the past 17 years. Principles that were valid then remain every bit as valid today; yet here we have a Conservative Government actually extending the sweep of that legislation and building upon it. This is not the first occasion: a few minor extensions were made in 1980. But the present extensions are more drastic in effect.
It is ironic that one week from today we shall be returning to our deliberations on the Agricultural Holdings Bill. During the Committee stage of that Bill some of us sought to rectify the indirectly confiscatory consequences of the three-generation-succession provisions of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976—provisions which had rightly been vigorously condemned by the Conservative Opposition at that time. But the Government successfully opposed our recent attempt, taking the view that the Labour Government's statutory interference with freely-entered-into contractual agreements—wrongheaded though it was, and a mere seven years' old though it was—must now remain sacrosanct for all time, since to restore the pre-1976 status quo would allegedly be retrospective. If our proposals before Christmas were really retrospective, what is proposed in Clause 1 of this Bill must be doubly or trebly retrospective. The Government really cannot have it both ways. What is morally right for the Agricultural 481 Holdings Bill must equally be morally right for the Housing and Building Control Bill.
Quite apart from the element of confiscation (or ultimate confiscation, to be more precise) without compensation, Clause 1 as it stands will indirectly harm charities such as the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, will thereby reduce the amount of land they make available to housing associations and will thereby worsen the overall housing shortage. It will also put a virtual stop to hitherto mutually beneficial partnerships between private developers and local authorities whereby flats and houses have been provided on advantageous terms by the developer as a quid pro quo for receiving permission to erect shops and offices.
Clause 2, which extends the right to buy to a high proportion of houses adapted for elderly or disabled people, is objectionable on different grounds; and many of these have already been covered. It will of course dry up over a period the availability of such houses. The pre-emption provision of Clause 7 will not help much here, as there can be very few local authorities which will be able to afford to buy back at full market value houses which they have sold at a large discount.
Clause 3 is also objectionable. A majority of the public indeed accepts, and always has accepted and supported, the right to buy principle, as even the Labour Party has now come round to conceding. But, against that, an equally large majority, I would guess, objects to discounts as high as 60 per cent. at the taxpayers' and ratepayers' expense.
Now the Government claim that Clauses 2 and 3 will be of enormous benefit to elderly people. But like the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, I suspect that, on the contrary, it will not be so much the elderly who will benefit, as their heirs and successors. Many of these heirs and successors will be relatively well-off and even affluent—not, of course, all of them, but some of them—and it is they who will profit from the involuntary generosity of taxpayers and ratepayers.
The shared ownership leases proposed in Clauses 12 to 17 inclusive seem very reasonable in theory, but one has grave doubts about how they will work out in practice. For one thing, they will impose a financial burden upon local authorities. The rents coming in will be only half, three-eighths, one quarter, or one eighth as large as the rents which previously came in, yet the costs of administration of each housing unit will be no smaller; and the responsibility for repairs and maintenance may be difficult to monitor and to apportion.
There may also be rather more serious long-term problems as regards maintenance; and here I echo the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. People whose income is insufficient to enable them to meet mortgage repayments on the full value of the house or flat that they wish to buy are, by definition, unlikely to be able to afford to maintain their property properly over the long term. As most of us know to our cost, property maintenance is an extremely expensive business. I am talking not about painting or decorating—most people can manage that well enough—but about major structural repairs, involving roofs, chimneys, dry rot, and so on, where do-it-yourself skills are normally of 482 little use. As a supporter of the freedom of the individual, I am suspicious of phrases such as, "the nation's housing stock", and I believe that ultimately people who own their own houses unencumbered have the right to allow them to fall into disrepair, if they so chose. But it is a rather different matter where public funds are concerned.
Last, but by no means least, on the debit side we have the extraordinary proposal, which the Government hope to insert at Committee stage, to make grants of up to £25,000 each to 100,000 housing association tenants. If I may say so, I consider that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, dealt extremely ably with the objections to this proposal. It seems to me an act of extreme folly.
But, as I said at the outset, the Bill is good in parts. Many people, in both this House and another place, opposed the whole concept of selling off local authority and housing association houses and flats. But, now that Parliament and the public have decisively approved the general principle, surely we must all agree that it is quite wrong for unfortunate would-be purchasers in certain parts of the country to be obstructed, and even bullied, by some politically motivated local authorities. That is why one heartily welcomes paragraph 4 of Schedule 10, for example, which obliges local authorities to act within eight weeks, instead of endlessly prevaricating.
Clauses 9 to 11 and Clause 18, among others, will also protect purchasers who are simply trying to exercise the rights which Parliament granted them in 1980. The service charge provisions and numerous other small proposals of that kind are also to be commended. I wholeheartily welcome all that is good in the Bill, but earnestly hope that the substantial part which is not good will be deftly sliced away in Committee.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, to say that I am deeply concerned about certain aspects of the Bill is to put it very mildly, but I think that if I were to express my true feelings, they would be unprintable—and I must bear in mind that what I have to say will be recorded in Hansard. This afternoon my noble friends have enumerated many points and arguments that were put forward when we previously discussed the Bill. Those points are as relevant today as they were when we discussed them prior to the general election; in fact, they may since have become even more relevant, as unemployment has gradually but surely increased.
I was quite surprised to hear what the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said about the selling of council properties. He gave some statistics, though he did not say which local authorities were holding back and not selling. I see that the Minister now nods and indicates that he may have the details. One presupposes that once again those local authorities with inner city problems will be castigated.
My personal opinion and my experience differ very greatly from the points which the noble Lord enumerated. I am still very active in the area of Birmingham which I represented on Birmingham City Council and in the other place. It is a central area, a 483 corner of Birmingham enclosed by the two main railway lines which intercept the city, and what was the gas works, as well as inner city factory development.
I am privileged over the Christmas period to be invited to many old-age pensioners' parties in the area—Darby and Joan clubs. What happens when I go there? More often than not—and it was the same this year—people say (they always call me by my Christian name), "Oh! Doris, can you help my sister? She is desperate to get a bungalow. She is desperate to get somewhere to live. She has not been so well since her husband died, and she is now 72". That is still the kind of remark that people make.
Many times when I was the chairman of the housing committee in Birmingham not only councillors pleaded to me for bungalows for old people; Members of Parliament from all political parties wrote pleading letters, asking to see me, saying such things as, "Please give this old lady some accommodation"., To whom will they plead in the future? Those very people who will be putting up their hands or moving into voting lobbies will not be able to appeal to anybody on the grounds that Mrs. Brown is desperate for accommodation, because if the legislation goes through many of the properties will be lost for ever.
The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, referred to fittings in houses and spoke quite casually about the level of a certain shelf, for instance. Those of us who have been involved in housing affairs for a very long time know of the problems in that regard in properties that are built for old people. Again, I speak from experience. When we were approving housing designs we ensured that kitchen fitments did not go right up to the ceiling because otherwise elderly people would have stood on old chairs or step ladders and fallen. We made sure that cupboards were fitted at a level at which they could be easily opened and closed without people having to stand on high stools. We pointed out that when people reached 70 or 75 they did not want to grovel on their hands and knees to get things out of a bottom cupboard; they wanted cupboards at a level to which they could easily bend.
All kinds of consideration went into providing these dwellings. For the deaf, special lighting was fitted so that when someone rang the front door bell a light flashed continuously to make sure that they knew. A great deal of thought was devoted to the design of these properties. To state casually that these fittings amounted simply to a handrail for the toilet or the bath, or a shelf somewhere else, is quite wrong. It shows that those who framed the legislation to get rid of these properties do not understand the provision that has been made within them.
I am aware, again in the city from which I come, that there has been difficulty in letting one- or two-bedroomed flats, mainly in 15-storey and 20 storey blocks. Due to the tremendous pressure for elderly people's accommodation, there is now a policy in two or three parts of the city of making flats available in multi-storey blocks. The flats are equipped with entry phones which means that they are not open to the public. One floor has been converted to provide communal facilities for those who wish to use them and a warden is attached to two of the blocks of flats. 484 Will these properties also be included in the "for sale" proposals? If so, it will mean a recurrence of the vandalism that was a problem in the open flats before the introduction of entry phones and the security system.
Another question that arises is: what happens to those bungalows—I speak again with experience—that have been built around some of the old people's residential homes? It was felt that occasions arise when certain people would need temporary accommodation in an old people's home, perhaps for a week or two when they have flu. It was therefore decided to group some old people's bungalows around residential homes. Will these also be included in the "for sale" proposals? These elderly people have the opportunity to use the facilities of the residential accommodation although living in their own homes.
There is also a scheme, which I know very well, under which bungalows have been provided for 30 years to tenants, many of whom are now quite elderly. There is no provision for wardens on site but the social services department provides what are called patrolling wardens, who live in adjacent properties. They are paid by the social services department and operate on a six-hour shift. There are four such wardens on duty throughout the day. It is, I suppose, what might be called a part-time warden scheme. Are those bungalows to come under the "for sale" provisions?
These are issues that have not been thought through because the Government do not understand the various schemes that operate up and down the country. We are being asked to revert to a very bad practice. I feel sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, agrees with me on the importance of elderly people having the opportunity to stay in their own homes within a sheltered scheme or in a bungalow, a flat, or whatever the accommodation is. That is good social practice and avoids having to place them in an elderly person's dwelling. What will happen—I am sure that the Minister will find this to be so—is that in trying to balance housing, as the Government attempt to cut public expenditure, the burden will fall on the social services. In the long run it is the social services which will have to provide more accommodation in their homes. Local authorities will not build bungalows or make other provision if they are to lose the property after a certain time. I shall not discuss the placing and the siting of these dwellings. My noble friend Lady Birk has demonstrated clearly the great amount of thought devoted to the matter.
I was interested to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, had to say. It is important for the House to pay serious attention to his point of view. It was a view that he expressed clearly in the last debate. It is a human expression. As he says—the Government should remember this—there are all kinds of families whose housing needs will never be met in the private sector. It is important for all of us to recognise that. There is no need to explain to your Lordships that, for a variety of reasons, home ownership is not realistic for certain categories of people. It has nothing to do with their being spendthrift, lazy or idle.
None of us needs to have explained to us that there are reasons why home ownership, with all its 485 responsibilities, is not realistic for some people. Those who cannot afford to buy in the initial stages will be the elderly whom it is hoped can be rehoused in some more suitable accommodation later. Let us not forget that public housing is still the main provider for people on low incomes. It has to be remembered that about 50 per cent. of those living in what we call public housing receive housing benefits. This shows clearly the category of people we have to consider as well as those who are going to buy.
I intend to be brief, but I wish to touch upon one point concerning housing association tenants. We shall have one line of people queueing up for their £25,000 maximum housing grant. We shall have another big queue for the £1,000 if they opt out of joining a trade union. We shall have another kiosk with a sign hanging above it, "Housing benefit—no money today for you". That is, I think, what the noble Baroness was saying. We are reaching the stage when money seems to be flowing ad lib to certain people while being taken away from those who are much more urgently in need of it. Yet one can imagine the reaction if the leader of the GLC had stated that he intended to give up to £25,000 to anyone who would move out of their house. Those on the Government Benches would have been jumping up and down claiming that this was simply throwing money around. Would it not have been quite feasible, however, if, when there was criticism of the cheap fares policy, he had said, "Queue up for your £5,000 and £10,000 and get the car of your choice"? It is the same argument. It is strange to find the Government telling us to cut back on public expenditure but throwing money around in this manner like a man with no arms.
I have read extensively what has been stated by Government Ministers. It was interesting to read the remarks of Mr. Patrick Jenkin when he spoke at the Housing Consultative Council. He said:I see no future for the public sector in providing general needs housing in the future".So he writes off all those who cannot afford anything. People will have to stand on their own two feet—and if they do not have two feet it is a bit unfortunate. He goes on to say:The only housing that the public sector should be providing in the future is housing for the disabled and the elderly".There appears to be a contradiction between what he says and what the Bill purports to say. It will give me the greatest of pleasure, along with my noble friends, to challenge the Government in Committee on certain aspects of the Bill, which I find completely despicable.
§ 5.21 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Broxbourne on a very interesting and excellent speech of the calibre we were all accustomed to hearing in the other House. I am sure that my noble friend will feel younger by coming to this House and I hope that it will give him a new lease of life. We can do with his words of wisdom in future debates.
I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister who has very kindly shown his concern regarding housing associations. He did something which I thought was excellent and which more Ministers 486 should do—namely, he actually came down to see one of the housing associations, and that may have helped to bring about the much better provisions now in the Bill. I am very grateful to him and so are the people in the housing associations. However, in future the housing associations will have to be much more careful in the choosing of their tenants, because obviously, if they can afford to pay for and buy their accommodation from the housing associations, then they are not in real need. So we shall have to be much more careful as regards choosing the persons who are in real need.
I am rather worried about the funds required to make grants to individual tenants to help them to purchase their properties. Will those funds be drawn from the scarce resources which are available to the housing associations? I gather that Government funding is to be cut by 8 per cent. as a result of the public expenditure reductions and that the housing associations are anxious to continue producing new houses; to carry out the refurbishing of old properties and the construction of sheltered housing, hostels and so on. I am sure that all your Lordships will agree that they are all very urgently needed.
Of course money from voluntary sources is becoming more difficult to obtain and that may mean that far less accommodation will be available from the housing associations. I agree with my noble friend Lord Selkirk as regards Clauses 23 and 24 and the right to repair. Undertaking repairs is a very difficult job. It is difficult to get an estimate. In fact, there needs to be more than one estimate. I should like to know who will decide between the estimates. Will there be a list of people who can go round and ensure that the qualifications are correct? For example, will the local councils keep a list of the cost of replacing or mending a doormat or a window? Will we have some idea of the amount of money that they intend to pay? The local authorities must have some statistics as regards the cost of repairing houses—whether it be the roof, the windows, the doors and so on—which could be given to the tenants who want to have the repair money and who may be able to get better estimates and keep within reasonable bounds.
There are many different building regulations and I suggest that the environmental officers, who used to be called the health officers, should be called in if there is any dispute. They are really knowledgeable. They will know the state of the property and they can visualise what needs to be done. I hope that they will be brought into this matter. Perhaps the noble Minister will compile a list of statistics so that we may know the number of people who, in a year, ask for the right to buy. Then we shall have a good understanding in perhaps two years' time of the necessity for this type of handing out of money, which I am rather doubtful about as regards many people. As my noble friend Lord Selkirk said a little while ago—and I am putting this in my own words—a son may help his mother to buy a house. When she dies, he may sell it for considerably more money than was originally allocated. I want to find out whether the money will be genuinely used for the people concerned.
My noble friend the Minister may be interested to know something about rural areas. Since I left Devonport and went to my real home in Wiltshire I 487 have been concerned about the people living there. The sources of housing are bad and more council houses have been sold in rural areas than in the towns. Little or no new building of council houses or housing association accommodation has been commenced. For example, when small cottages in the village where I live become vacant they are nearly always bought by people not from the village. There was a cottage occupied by two old bachelors, one of whom used to be the chap who came and pumped our bath water and the water for our house before we had main drainage. He had a wooden leg and his name was, rather appropriately, Mr. Bath! He and his brother lived in that cottage quite happily and it was rented from the Ministry of Defence. They both unfortunately died. The property was put on the market and sold for £43,000. Nobody in the village had a chance of buying it. The same happened with the Post Office. The Post Office was run by two old ladies and when they died it was bought by weekenders from London for a rather cheaper price—about £20,000—because it was not in good repair, but those people (and I have checked this) spent £10,000 on doing it up and thus the property was put out of the range of any local people.
There are very few charitable association schemes in rural areas. But recently there has been one such scheme set up which I should like to mention. It concerns the Kennet District Council which now has 26 flatlets for old people and two for disabled people. There are a warden and staff, but the old people are completely independent; it is as if they were living in their own homes. That is the type of organisation that we want to help. There are a great number of such buildings for richer people—the people who can pay £40,000 and £50,000 for their house. Those buildings are very nice and very often they are in the grounds of an old mansion. But this is one of the first schemes that I have found to help the lower income groups.
It is absolutely essential—and here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher—to keep people in their own milieu as much as possible, among their elderly friends, so that they need not go into homes. When I was a Member of Parliament one of the worst things was visiting people in old people's homes and seeing them all sitting around the room and looking at the television or just gossiping. The more we can give them privacy, the better.
We have arranged a system in our village whereby everyone who cannot get out has a telephone. They ring up the village shop on Thursday and they have their goods delivered on Friday. Everyone gives them a chance of living in their own home, and the eldest is 94.
Clause 19 tidies up the Section 19 rural safeguards provided in the 1980 Act, but it does not tighten up the definition of "local", and that is very important. Clause 6 allows the discharge of properties from some restrictive covenants, but it does not appear to affect the covenants in Clause 52 agreements which apply equally to tenant and owner. I hope to bring that matter to the attention of my noble friend in Committee.
In view of the fact that the housing corporation expressed great interest in the Edinburgh Report, 488 which was published in 1981, I hope that the Government will consider some of the suggestions in the report, and that in Committee we shall be concerned about the rural population as well as those in our great cities.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Viscount Ingleby
My Lords, I should like to share the concern which the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, has just expressed at the effect of this Bill on old people's housing in rural areas. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, on the ease and charm with which he delivered his maiden speech.
I want to confine my remarks to the effects of the Bill on handicapped people, although I am also concerned as to where the money is to come from, which is to be made available to tenants of charitable housing associations. I should like to thank the Minister for his courtesy in sending me a copy of the letter which he wrote to my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox giving the Government's views on the handicapped.
I am sure we would all agree that in principle it is right that handicapped people should have the same right to buy as able-bodied people. However, in fact, the Government have excluded purpose-built housing for the handicapped from the right to buy provisions. I believe that they have rightly done so, and they have done it in order that this housing may be available for future generations of disabled people. If it is right to exclude purpose-built housing, what about what one might call "purpose-rebuilt" housing? As an example, I am thinking of a block of flats which was built just after the war, which is being refurbished at present; one or two of the flats may have all their walls taken out and be completely redesigned so as to make them suitable for those with wheelchairs. Another example could be a council house estate where, again, the houses are being refurbished. There may be one or two three-bedroomed houses which are made into two-bedroomed houses so as to give bigger kitchens, bigger bathrooms, bigger living rooms, and so on. Such housing is really being purpose-rebuilt, and I just wonder whether the right to buy should apply in these cases.
Turning to the adaptations to existing council houses, in his letter the Minister tells the noble Baroness that the average cost of these improvements and adaptations in 1981–82 was £770, which of course is a low figure. I do not think that anyone would suggest that expenditure of that kind should exclude the right to buy. However, this average figure masks very considerable sums spent on a much smaller number of individual houses. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, quoted one at Aylesbury in the sum of £15,000, although I must admit that the figure I have for that house is slightly less—£13,675. There was another at Haddenham where £15,300 was spent on adaptations, another at Swinton, where the figure was £6,390, and another at Whiston where the estimate was £14,000 plus fees. These adaptations all included the provision of an additional ground-floor bedroom, and bathroom or shower facilities.
Such houses are always likely to be in short supply because they involve councils in spending large amounts of money for the benefit of a single family. If 489 I am right in thinking that they will always be in short supply, are they not, in fact, a valuable national asset which should be kept for the benefit of future generations of disabled people?
We all very much hope that we shall have no more wars—I certainly fervently hope so—but if we do have wars, may not these houses be needed for disabled people in the future? I hope that the Government will think again on this matter and, if they are unable to do so, I shall bring forward an amendment at the Committee stage.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Lane-Fox
My Lords, I have to blame a really punishing cold for having to say to my noble friend the Minister and to your Lordships that I regret that I shall be unable to stay throughout this debate. However, I am particularly anxious to refer to what I consider to be the very gratifying interpretation of Part I, Clause 2, in subsection (2)(a), which means that public sector dwelling-houses adapted for use by disabled persons will now be brought within the scope of the right to buy. As did my noble friend Lord Ingleby, I shall confine myself to this area. However, before I do so, I should like to offer my humble congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, on his typically informative maiden speech.
Consider how this very idea, which has not yet been rearranged, can work at present. For instance, if a member of a household either suffers a stroke or is badly injured in an accident, he or she is admitted to hospital and there is taught how best to regain the maximum independence within his or her reduced capacity. Once full advantage has been gained from treatment and tuition the patient is ready for home, and I do not believe anyone would deny that to be going home gives everyone a tremendous boost.
With clever counselling from the occupational therapist, adaptations should have been made in the home to capitalise on those recovered abilities. Maybe it is just a set of those grab rails, which have been rather talked down today; they may be found to be an essential element. Other requirements may, for instance, be a short ramp for a wheelchair, special taps with longer handles, a draining board that slopes one way, or an intercom to operate the front door. Let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, that there are these very wide varieties of small adaptations. Particularly if the disability is in the arms and hands, adaptations of that sort are essentially individual. It is by no means certain that what is prescribed for one individual need necessarily be the best for another. Yet numbers of small but extremely important changes can help enormously.
For 50 years I could never boil a kettle. That may not sound tremendously important but it was to me. That was because I could not lift a kettle. Now I can boil a kettle by means of an adapted tripod kettle stand which allows me to tip instead of to lift. So you will realise just what vital importance I attach to such small rearrangements.
There is another factor. It is quite natural for the majority of these normal human beings returned home with substantial disability, yet with no less than normal intellect, to worry about the extra burden that 490 they are putting on their families, whether through cost or care. It is quite right that we should worry, and I count myself among them. However, it is even more right that the wisest families do all they can to reduce the obstacles and make light of the situation. In that way they give invaluable help towards the psychological readjustment of their disabled kinsman.
Under the present ruling, in a street where all the other tenants of public sector dwelling houses have the right to buy, and where it is found that to purchase is sound housekeeping and good policy, the household which has a disabled person is denied that right to buy. What, I ask you, does that unfortunate person feel about it? He does not have to be unusually sensitive to feel that this is adding insult to injury, and to realise that because his family are harbouring him he will be costing them substantial financial sacrifice. This ruling is clearly discriminatory and all who are against discrimination against disabled people must be seized by this wrong. Examples of discrimination have been sought, and I suggest that here is a clear and good example.
Therefore, may I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on taking up and acting upon points made on this subject during the debate last spring? Not only has he removed a flagrant injustice but there is good reason to hope that the capital receipt from the sale of one adapted dwelling may be used to pay for numbers of those small, but important, adaptations in the homes of other families with a disabled member. Ask any disabled person whether they would like to go into accommodation that has been adapted for another person rather than have their own home adapted, probably with only small adaptations. I am truly surprised that this really rather shoddy suggestion should have been put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. What is being suggested by my noble friend the Minister is, in my view, really effective help for disabled people and their families. As such, we really should not underrate it.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, far too often governments seem to produce legislation which may superficially appear reasonable but which has potentially disastrous side effects. Somehow, and I do not know how or why, they continue blinkered and regardless of all warnings; and proposed changes to avoid the unfortunate side effects are ignored. I am afraid that this Bill and the 1980 Act are almost classic cases in point, and this is well illustrated by the two defeats the Government suffered here in the 1980 Act.
Today I propose to deal only with Clause 2 of the Bill. Once one accepts the principle of selling off local government housing stock the issues I raise today are entirely pragmatic and should have no party connotations. In passing on, however, I must say that there are several other issues which come under the same category, in particular the provisions for building control. One of their side effects is to give almost a charter for dishonesty, and this at the expense of the consumer. I hope that those concerned saw Friday night's ITV programme and will have taken this to heart.
Turning now to Clause 2, it extends the right to buy where a dwelling-house is adapted to use by physically 491 disabled persons, or is particularly suitable for occupation by people of pensionable age. The first is of course in principle admirable, the argument being: why should disabled people have a further disadvantage? However, in the interests of such persons as a group the proposed legislation is, in my view, a potential disaster.
To save time I shall state the reasons for this view under numerical headings. First, local councils' stock of suitably adapted dwellings is limited, and there is almost none available on the open market. There are in fact long waiting lists for such council houses. When these houses appear on the open market some of the adaptations, made at considerable cost, are quite attractive to the ordinary buyer. It follows, secondly, that few of these properties will be bought by those who need them, particularly as handicapped people are, for obvious reasons, unlikely to be able to afford as much as other buyers on the open market.
Thirdly, councils will find it difficult to buy other suitable properties which may need a ramp access and should be near shops for those confined to a wheelchair, and it is not easy to find suitable locations. Fourthly, with the present cutbacks on local government spending it would be unrealistic to suppose that councils will give priority to replacing housing stock for the disabled, because the cost of adaptation is considerable. Fifthly, there is a real need for this sort of rented accommodation, which is seldom available in the public sector.
The Government may argue that the sale of the property and re-provision by local authorities will increase the number of adapted houses. At best it is only likely to do so in the short term, and this presupposes that the local authority does in fact replace the specially adapted house. In any case, a 90 per cent. grant is available for a disabled buyer on the open market to adapt a house if he can buy one. The priority must be for rented accommodation for those who are not in a position to buy.
The second matter concerns old-age pensioners. The provisions of the Bill are even less justified and more open to abuse than for disabled people. People buy houses as soon as they can in early life, partly because it may give them a good investment but primarily because it ensures that they will be able to afford a roof over their heads all their lives whether or not they have to move somewhere else. This primary consideration does not apply to the old-age pensioner. Why buy when the next step may well be an old people's home or, unfortunately, a geriatric ward?
The average tenancy of these types of houses, I understand, is only five years. So who benefits? The heirs, of course—and at the expense of other old people. My goodness, what an investment for the heirs! Up to 60 per cent. non-repayable grant, and a mortgage on top of that. The heirs cannot go wrong if they can raise just a little capital. But once again, what are the side effects? First, a loss of this sort of specialised accommodation, not easily replaceable because of location, suitability, and much else, including the right sort of ambience for old people, which is also extremely important. Such properties are scarce in the open market, and correspondingly high priced.
492 Secondly, will councils go on providing this sort of wasting asset with the cost of so doing? Who, one asks, is going to provide the cost of grants for purchase which might amount to thousands of millions of pounds? Do not let us be na00EF;ve, the Treasury in the end will not honour this commitment. It will eventually have to come out of the housing grant. Please, please, I ask the Minister, not to go on talking about the provisions of "buy-back". For all practical purposes it is almost a useless provision; the Minister must know this, just as well as I do, without arguing the point.
I am left with the thought that this Government sometimes pursue policies which I should have thought could only have been espoused by the most extreme of their political opponents. For goodness sake! let us think first about the national interest and the interests of its members before that of doctrine and dogma. I hope therefore on a non-party basis that the House will join with amendments to oppose some of the Bill's disastrous provisions.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, anxieties about the Bill have now come from all sides of the House. I shall try to avoid too much repetition, but there are one or two points I should like to make. First, there is a provision in Clause 1 which gives the right to buy to tenants where the landlord does not own the freehold. Little has been said about this except by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. There are many occasions where housing associations have built on land leased from charities. This happens most often in cathedral and university cities, where much of the land belongs to the Church, to the university or to colleges, all of which are charities. These bodies need to preserve ownership of the land for their long-term use and so would not sell to developers or lease in circumstances where leasehold enfranchisement would jeopardise their future plans. It has often been possible in the past for housing associations to obtain long leases from them on favourable terms because of the protection they could offer. This has encouraged a supply of badly-needed rented accommodation in many city centres.
The effect of the new proposal has already caused the withdrawal of one site in Cambridge which was under discussion with a housing association, and other decisions have been made to exclude the future leasing of sites to housing associations. No doubt other cities are similarly affected.
I will read one paragraph from a letter from the chairman of the Cambridge Federation of Housing Associations. He said:Clause 1 threatens not only to dry up the only or main source of sites for new developments in many areas at a time when the rented housing stock of Housing Associations is to be reduced by sales to tenants already endowed with the Right to Buy; it also threatens to erode the ability and right of charitable landlords to manage their real estate in their best interests. It is useless to argue that housing stock lost through sales to tenants can be replaced with more HAG and the proceeds from those sales, if there are no sites to be had for love or money. In city centres where land values are high, this is one more blow against the preservation of their residential character".There is a very strong case to be made for excluding from the right to buy those housing association leasehold developments where the freehold is a charity, or, at the very least, for not applying the 493 legislation retrospectively—a point which Lord Monson made.
Secondly, although it has been discussed by many speakers, I must return again to the sale of houses or flats converted for use by disabled people. Unless more exclusions are made than are proposed in the Bill, or unless the cost of the more expensive conversions is refundable—this is an alternative which has not yet been discussed—and the Government insist on disposing of largely converted premises, can they guarantee that money will be forthcoming to replace them? The local authority could perhaps replace them, provided the sites were available, but if either the exclusion or the replacement of money is not available, the outlook for a large number of disabled people is very bleak.
It is generally accepted that it is better for people with disabling complaints to be helped to remain in the community—better for the disabled and cheaper for the taxpayer—than to give them institutional care, as my noble friend Lady Birk so ably said. The present provisions of the Bill will allow a leakage of adapted houses back into the general housing stock with little prospect of replacement. Some better formula must be found so that houses with considerable adaptations, such as those with dialysis units, remain available for those who need them. It is hard to suggest this kind of discrimination against already disadvantaged people, but I believe there are many who would be prepared to accept this situation in the interests of their fellow sufferers.
Part II is rather the Cinderella of the Bill. Here I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, on his maiden speech. It is indeed useful to have someone who puts this as his first interest. It is disappointing to find that none of the objections raised last year appears to have been met. The need for the privatisation of building control is still unexplained. One can but put questions to the Minister once more and hope that this time some clearer answers will be forthcoming. The present system is well tried and has not failed in its aim to maintain agreed standards of health and safety. The regulations need overhaul, and this is being done.
Building control officers are responsible to the local authority and therefore to the public. Officers may come and go, as may building and construction firms, but the local authority is always there. Its account-ability is continuing and absolute. No matter how long a time has passed, a dissatisfied member of the public can know that any breach of regulations which has escaped a local authority inspector can be the subject of compensation from the authority. This perfectly satisfactory system is now to be undermined. We must ask the Minister why. Who has expressed dissatisfaction with the existing arrangements? We have been told that there has been dissatisfaction, but we have not been told who expressed it. What examples of local authority negligence persuaded the Government that local accountability and control were to be overthrown? Why are the changes to apply only in England and Wales, and not in Scotland and Northern Ireland? What special difficulties have arisen in England and Wales?
Now let us look at what is being proposed. There will be a list of "approved inspectors". This list will be 494 of persons approved by the Secretary of State or by a body designated by the Secretary of State for the purpose. Does it mean by and from that body? To whom will it be responsible? Once appointed, who will monitor the standards and decide when that appointment shall cease and by what method? I repeat the words of the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who asked the same question: who will inspect the inspectors?
In a local authority the building control officers are part of a team and are constantly under the scrutiny of their colleagues and chief officers. Any falling away of standards would be dealt with within the organisation without a break in the level of service. A change of inspector would not disturb the continuity of inspection, and full information on completed sections would be in the hands of the authority. The proposal in the Bill is that where an approved inspector fails to complete the job the local authority has a duty to step in and take over, and must eventually take responsibility for the final certificate even though large parts of the construction were not overseen by the authority and could have been hidden from view by the time it was obliged to intervene. Furthermore, where breaches were suspected, or even known, before the approved inspector departed, the authority will have no power to intervene or to enforce. It is not clear whether the plans deposited at the time of the initial notice will be sufficiently detailed to facilitate an informed take-over by the local authority. Can the Minister comment on that?
If there is widespread use of private inspectors, how is the local authority to maintain its level of staff to cope with the rescue role? Will the Government adopt an understanding attitude to the peaks and troughs in the workload, or will there be accusations of inefficiency if productivity levels waver?
There is another point on that aspect—a point which I remember making in my maiden speech about a year ago in this House. It is this. The long-term effect of the constant attack on local authorities by this Government that is going on at the moment is discouraging people of quality from coming forward and going into local authority service. There is no doubt that we are building up trouble for ourselves for the future. So far the building control aspect of the local authority work has been excluded from this particular evil, but now it, too, will be subject to the same difficulties as every other aspect of local authority work. I wonder whether the Government have really thought out the effects of what they are doing.
What of the eventual cover for the citizen, when work has been completed by private inspectors and is subsequently found to be defective? The local authority is responsible for satisfying itself at the outset that insurance cover is adequate. We seem to have very little information about insurance proposals or about the reactions of the insurance industry to them. The Minister for Housing and Construction in another place said in Committee:If there is no satisfactory insurance there will be no approved inspectors. It is as simple as that.But what is "satisfactory insurance"? This is another aspect the Minister has been very slow to discuss.
The provisions of the Bill seem to be founded on hope. Is insurance cover likely to be found to replace 495 the open-ended commitment of the local authority, or are members of the public expected to accept yet another cut in their expectations of service and protection? These questions are not mere rhetoric: they must be answered.
Perhaps at this stage I could make clear that we are not attacking responsible members of the building and construction industry, of which there are a large number. In fact, they are the major part of the industry. But it is in that industry that the public have suffered most from fly-by-night firms—cowboy firms, as they are sometimes called—and therefore it is in that industry that we have to exercise the greatest care in maintaining public protection. I hope that this time round we will get the answers from the Minister.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Lord Milverton
My Lords, I rise to speak because I share the concern of the associations and other bodies of people who are unhappy about certain provisions of the Housing and Building Control Bill. I should like to confine my comments to two points. First, however, may I congratulate my noble friend Lord Broxbourne on his excellent maiden speech and also thank the Minister for the very regular and nice way that he always presents a Bill for which he has responsibility.
The first point concerns the introduction of the new clause in the Bill, removing the power of the Secretary of State to exempt buildings specifically designed for elderly people from the right to buy legislation. As has already been said, in 1980 this House, during its deliberations on the Housing Bill, voted to allow local authorities the right to apply to the Secretary of State for such exemptions. It seems that Her Majesty's Government are going back on this point by reintroducing the clause which will remove this power of exemption.
Secondly, it is disturbing that it is proposed to remove this power of exception in relation to houses specifically adapted for the disabled. Surely there is a strong argument for saying that if there is the right to buy rented accommodation in this sphere there will be less accommodation available for the elderly and for the disabled. There is still a desperate shortage of suitable housing for old people, and this shortage will be even more severe if housing such as old people's bungalows is sold off and in effect lost for ever to those in need. There is little chance that local authorities will be able to find sufficient funds to be able to buy them back at the full market price.
The same argument applies to housing for the disabled. In principle, it is undeniable that disabled tenants should have the same right as other tenants to buy their houses at the appropriate discount, but the local authorities are less likely to spend money adapting and providing houses for the disabled if they know that such houses will not be pernmanently at their disposal for those who need them most.
There are those in need of this special sort of accommodation who may not wish to purchase their own for different reasons. They may feel unable to be fully responsible for their property or they may be unable to find the funds, even with assistance. Moreover, many people feel that, if possible, feasible 496 or practical, it is good for people with special needs to be in housing accommodation with the more able or at least to be near to one another. The interests of such people would not be served if suitably adapted local authority housing were not available. I quote a comment from RADAR:The current proposals ignore one increasingly important way in which housing for disabled people can be provided. It can be possible to create housing for disabled people within an existing building as part of a housing rehabilitation or estate improvement scheme.My Lords, I quote again:We believe that paragraph 5(a) of Schedule 1, Part 1 of the 1980 Act should remain and be extended by the words 'or disabled persons'.For such reasons as those outlined above, I do ask Her Majesty's Government to give most careful thought to any legislation which would reverse the decisions made in this House in 1980; and for that reason I will be prepared to put my backing behind many amendments which I see will retain what many here have said they believe ought to be retained, and which will improve this Bill.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, this is very much the kind of Housing Bill with which we have become all too familiar in 1980 and in the last year. It comes from a Government which in one year greatly increased the tax relief on mortgage interest and at the same time proposed to reduce housing benefits. They have thus shown they favour the richer people at the expense of poorer people, as they did once before in 1979.
It seems also that the Government, perhaps at the instigation of the Treasury, imagined that housing benefit could be consolidated, with no more staff and with very little training. What has been the result? Great chaos, much hardship and vastly increased rent arrears. This Bill comes from a Government which I believe has real difficulties in co-ordinating its vast conglomerate departments of the environment and of health and social services.
Another example of the lack of co-ordination between these two Ministries is to be found among the voluntary (so-called Part III) homes for the elderly. These provide residential care; they relieve ordinary housing, sheltered housing and the geriatric wards of hospitals. They perform a vital function, as was clearly pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, on 18th January at cols. 1104 and 1105 of Hansard. Upwards of 20,000 people live in these voluntary homes and the Department of Health and Social Security say that they have no funds for urgent major repairs, for replacements or for improvements.
The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, when replying to my Starred Question on 19th January, suggested that the voluntary bodies raised their own money; or else that they approached the Hayward Foundation. It is a very conservative estimate that some £5 million a year is needed, if these homes are to be properly repaired and equipped and if they are to have decent staff quarters attached to them. Such a sum is beyond the means of voluntary societies and it is a fact that the Hayward Foundation has no money to pay out this year, in spite of having provided very generous help in previous years. Meanwhile, what 497 happens elsewhere? The Government spend hundreds of millions of pounds—quite rightly—on providing new sheltered housing and they spend tens of millions of pounds on new caring hostels. Both these forms of provision benefit the elderly, and some of them benefit the frail elderly. But I should like to ask: why can there not be the very minimum of inter-departmental co-operation, so that the existing old people in existing homes can have a new roof, a new lift or a new boiler when they need one? Will the noble Lord the Minister please make sure that consultation takes place between his department, the housing corporation and the DHSS on this point?
I think it worthwhile examining this Bill in the light of the really urgent housing needs of the country. On the supply side, there are many public sector houses now standing empty. In October, 1982, my friend and former colleague, Mr. Anthony Fletcher, produced this pamphlet which is called, "Homes Wasted". I should like to ask: what has happened since the publication of that pamphlet, which was warmly welcomed by the then Minister of Housing and by the whole of the national press?
In 1981, there were approximately 120,000 public sector houses standing vacant. The worst case quoted in the pamphlet was of four houses in Bristol which stood vacant for 23 years; and, what is more, they were listed buildings. We have known other cases of premature demolition, long before redevelopment takes place. Way back in the early 1970s, housing associations showed conclusively that good and effective temporary use could be made of such buildings when they had six to 12 months' life still left in them, and in many cases rather more than that. I ask today: when will the public sector learn what has been done and what they could be doing now?
I come now to the demand side. We know the best estimate is that there are some 170,000 homeless people at the moment in England and Wales. This increasing agony will be debated in detail on 8th February on the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. Suffice it to say for the moment that there are far too many families put into bed and breakfast accommodation and that the numbers of single homeless are rising, spurred on by unemployment and by the closing of big, old hostels before small, new hostels have been completed and made ready.
This Bill comes at a time when many tower blocks and system-built flats and maisonettes are becoming unlettable. They are getting into this condition partly because of design faults, vandalism and bad housing management. I myself stayed in 1982 at a post-war, well-built estate in north Edinburgh where 50 per cent. of the houses were boarded up, because they were unlettable. Why was this so? It was because for years and years the local authority had directed all their families with problems into that one estate. On Tyneside, Merseyside and elsewhere, some intelligent thought has been given to this problem and we have seen blocks that would otherwise have been demolished being brought hack into use or, in some cases, sold to young couples and people on the housing waiting list.
This Bill is irrelevant to the question of empty homes, homelessness and housing management. It is equally irrelevant to the large and rising number of 498 elderly owner-occupiers, many of them living in poverty. In theory, there are three systems whereby they can get help to keep their houses in good condition and to bring in those special modifications and adaptations which will enable them to go on living where they are now. That is the theory, but it just does not work out in practice.
Elderly people find the greatest difficulty in coping with officialdom and, as has been said before tonight, they also find difficulty in coping with builders and tradesmen who might do the necessary work. Therefore, these people suffer while their houses deteriorate. Fortunately, housing associations and voluntary bodies—in South Wales, in Tyneside, in London and in some other places—have done experiments which show clearly that if you have a tailor-made organisation these problems can be overcome. I urge the Government to make sure that this proven work is now extended to the whole country and that funds are made available for it.
One of the systems for helping people to stay where they are is improvement grants, and perhaps I may briefly mention the situation in my own district in Somerset. All applications have been frozen and there is a queue of 830 people seeking improvement grants. If these grants were approved straight away, the whole of the housing investment programme allocation for the next financial year would be absorbed on this one single item. This Bill gives no indication of how this kind of mess is to be resolved, and it also gives no indication of how the Government see the future housing improvement programme for the whole country operating; I wish that it did.
Perhaps I may turn to housing associations and their programmes. We have seen that they are capable in one year of producing 40,000 renovated or new houses. This has been cut back very sharply to 20,000 for the current year and just over 18,000 for the coming year. It could be 50,000 if there were continuity of funds and positive encouragement. If this happened, the housing association movement would be beginning to replace the rapidly dwindling number of private landlords. It would be providing a real choice of accommodation for those who are not able to buy and who are obliged to rent. I should like to ask the noble Lord the Minister tonight, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Birk and Lady Vickers, for an assurance that housing association output will not be made to suffer still further, as a result of the proposed grants to tenants of charitable associations buying on the open market. Of course, it would be better still if the Minister could say that, at least within a measurable time, housing associations will be enabled to operate at full capacity.
As to the details of this Bill, a lot has already been said and I simply urge your Lordships to amend the extension of the right to buy to certain elderly and physically handicapped tenants. I say this not because of any lack of sympathy for these people but solely because. as many speakers have already pointed out, every existing rented unit is so desperately needed. The figures confirm it. As has rightly been said, pre-emption is no safeguard if houses are to be sold at a discount and repurchased at open market value. As to Clause 25, I ask the Government to consider very 499 carefully the comments made by the Institute of Housing about landlords' repairs.
Viewing the realities of the situation, we are entitled to ask that the Government shall have a change of heart about their housing policy. There is such a need to reconcile these major departments, which do not seem to see eye to eye. There is such a need for real leadership to be given to the local authorities and to other public bodies so that every single house that is capable of use is put into use. History shows that circulars are of very little effect. In the last 10 or 15 years we have had several of them. Leadership means very much more than paper, as Mr. Harold Macmillan showed in his day. We need a new vision to disentangle housing subsidies from individual and family income support. We need caring attitudes so that some of the proceeds, at least, of the North Sea and of the sale of other public and national assets can be channelled into long lasting houses, for the benefit of the people as a whole.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, first may I congratulate my fellow Back-Bencher, Lord Broxbourne, on his skilful and witty speech. May I also thank my noble friend the Minister for his very clear exposition of the Bill.
I have two questions to ask and two comments to make. First, may I ask my noble friend the Minister what is to happen to those tenants, in particular elderly tenants, who buy their accommodation—their council houses, for instance—and then find that the cement has deteriorated? I cannot explain it because I do not understand building construction. However, I understand that Orlitt and Howard houses are now showing signs of deterioration because of the cement that was used in their construction. If it is not possible for my noble friend the Minister to let me know the answer to that question at the end of the debate, perhaps he will be good enough to let me know it in writing.
I understand that if people have bought their houses they are not entitled to ask their local authority for help. Therefore, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether any help will be forthcoming for people who have bought their houses and who now find that they are deteriorating? In my area there is an enormous number of these houses. To put each house right will cost up to £10,000. No elderly person who has bought his accommodation will be able to afford that amount of money.
Secondly, may I ask my noble friend the Minister about the do-it-yourself shared ownership scheme which was introduced in 1983? I understand that various housing associations think that this is a splendid scheme. One housing association has told me that over 50 families have been helped, but that 140 applications have had to be rejected because of lack of finance. They believe that the scheme is splendid and that if it could come into being it would greatly help the elderly in particular.
I feel like a person who has been cast up on a lonely shore, because I know that what I am about to say will be disagreed with entirely by everybody who sits on the 500 Benches opposite and by many of those who sit on my side of the House. Throughout the debate, with one exception, nobody has mentioned the feelings of the elderly and what they think. Nobody has said what it is that the elderly want. Surely we are here to cater for what people need and want themselves. During our last debate I said that the elderly had the right to buy, should they so wish. I was in a minority, but because of that all the letters from elderly people who want to buy came to me. One delightful old lady asked me in her letter: who do the House of Lords think they are? Why should the elderly not have the right to buy? The point to remember is that the elderly do not have to buy. They are not forced to buy. They are not pressurised into buying. They buy only if they can and wish to buy.
My second point relates to maintenance. I agree absolutely with the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, that the cost of maintenance is very high. If a chimney or roof is damaged it is very expensive to repair. But we should not underrate the elderly. Last week I visited an 83 year-old lady who lives in a cottage. Her relatives had suggested to her that she should buy her cottage, but she said that she had been to the builders and had found out how much it would cost if the roof or the ceilings had to be repaired. She said that she would never be able to afford it and therefore would not buy her cottage. People are not forced to buy. Many of the people we are referring to have a very real knowledge of costs.
Thirdly, the noble Baroness stated that people like to remain in their own home. This is partly because they want to remain in the place that they know, surrounded by the things and the people they know—perhaps with the tree outside the window which has always flapped against it. We hope that people can and will stay as long as possible in their own homes, perhaps for ever. If people have the right to buy their council houses, it will result in a mixed population. Elderly people like to live among the middle-aged and the young. As many of us who have had to work with the elderly and the young know, there is a great bond between the elderly and children. Therefore, so far as is possible and practicable—I underline that point—I do not believe that we ought to put the elderly together. As far as possible we ought to leave them where they are. If the elderly want to buy, a younger population will gradually build up around them, which is all to the good.
It is perfectly true that if the elderly are spread among the population there will be no warden to care for them or someone upon whom they can call. However, I believe that we should develop neighbourliness. Neighbours should care for the elderly in their midst. I speak with feeling. I went away on one occasion, forgetting to cancel the milk. So there were three milk bottles on my doorstep, and the police were informed by the neighbours that I was probably lying dead in the house. The police came and looked through the windows, rang my office and found out that I was away. This shows that there are great feelings of neighbourliness. I believe that they should be developed.
Therefore, for the sake of the feelings of the elderly I support the fact that they have the right to buy, however administratively difficult this may be. I 501 believe that in the long term, from the point of view of the happiness of our people, this is a way to help the elderly. It does not preclude them from going into old people's homes; it does not preclude them from going into sheltered accommodation; it does not force them to buy their properties, but it gives them an opportunity to do so should they so wish.
My other point is to support very much Clause 7, which empowers a landlord to impose a 21-year pre-emption clause. I think that this is a great step forward, and that it will be of great help to many of the elderly and to the housing situation.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Lord Auckland
My Lords, I join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Broxbourne on a quite unusually brilliant maiden speech, even by the standards of your Lordships' House. This House needs expertise on the building industry, and we certainly had it in my noble friend's maiden speech. His future contributions will be very much in demand.
This is certainly a very far-reaching Bill, and is one which I think is generally to be welcomed. But it has a number of matters which need to be very closely examined in Committee. Clause 2 is undoubtedly an example. Of course, I think by common consent of all parties, we are desirous of having a property-owning democracy. The larger the number of people who own their own houses, the smaller the burden on the local authority. That is fine in an ideal world, but we are not quite living in an ideal world at the present time. As my noble friend Lady Faithful] said in her usual very well informed speech on these matters, no elderly person—indeed, nobody—has any obligation to buy their own house.
The question of availability must be taken into account, and also the price of the house which the tenant is going to buy and the amount of subsidy that is going to be given for the purpose of buying the house, bearing in mind that there are a number of people who inevitably have to live in rented accommodation because of the high cost of housing today. Of course, the high cost of housing is not confined to this country. One has only to go to Scandinavia, as I have done on several occasions, to see what the price of property is there. If one takes an area like Leatherhead where I live, there are there a number of research organisations and other such places, which means that there is what one might call a floating population, often young people, who are transferred to other parts of the country and who therefore, will inevitably have to have rented accommodation. Very often they are not in a position to have anything other than rented accommodation. So while I support the spirit of Clause 2, I think there are certain matters which will need to be looked into at Committee stage, particularly on this aspect.
Reference has been made to accommodation which is under the aegis of charitable trusts. I must say that I am not happy that it is left to this House to produce an amendment, since this matter was not discussed in the other place, as I understand it, having been decisively rejected when the Bill came to your Lordships' House last time. We await with interest to see what amendment my noble friend the Minister 502 produces. There are two organisations in the Leatherhead area in which I have a particularly good friend who is concerned with such a charitable trust. I have been in contact with them about this particular matter. I think it is very important that tenants who are living in accommodation where charitable trusts are involved should have as much security as possible. I hope that my noble friend the Minister, whatever amendment he seeks to bring forward in the forthcoming stages of the Bill, will bear this in mind. I think we must await further comment on this until we see what comes.
The only other reference I want to make—and I shall seek to say something more in Committee—is to Clause 48, regarding insurance. The word "adequate" can be used in all kinds of senses, but it is a notoriously vague word. There is a real danger in this clause, I declare an interest here, although not directly concerned with this Bill, in that I am a consultant for a firm of Lloyd's brokers, although, as I say, I am not directly concerned with insurance of this kind. There is always the danger that the party involved may seek to claim substantially more than those who assess the claim put forward. Therefore, this needs looking into very carefully.
Quite clearly this is a Bill which will need the very closest scrutiny in Committee. I think the main criticism of the Bill is that it is too widely drawn. To put two such widely diverse subjects in the Bill inevitably makes the Bill subject to criticism. It would have been better in a way to have two separate Bills. This is, like so much legislation, an overloaded Bill, even though in principle I believe it is welcome. I think the whole House will have a major responsibility when it comes to Committee stage.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ The Earl of Shannon
My Lords, I apreciate that at this late hour, and with further business to follow, any contribution which I may make to this Second Reading debate must be made extremely brief, and this I shall proceed to do. The noble Lord the Minister will no doubt be relieved to hear that I have no intention of entering the lists of the various protagonists of the relative merits and disadvantages of the proposals in respect of rights to buy and their consequences. But like our excellent maiden speaker this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, although without his great wealth of experience and personal knowledge, I shall confine my observations to Parts II and III of the Bill, and in particular Clauses 46 and 47.
The noble Minister, in introducing the Bill, clearly explained the new optional system of approved inspectors. Of particular interest to me is the introduction of approved documents which will be able to give clear practical guidance without being constrained and rendered totally unintelligible by the tortuously convoluted jargon believed necessary in documents intended for full legal interpretation. Such a move cannot be anything but beneficial and helpful to the industry.
However, that brings me to the one point on which I seek assurance from the Minister this evening as I 503 know that the proposal is already causing some apprehension in sections of the industry. Although the Minister referred to the wide consultation which has already taken place, and remembering the consultation procedures normally employed before the formulation of statutory regulations, we must bear in mind that these new approved documents will not have statutory standing; and while I am sure that there is no intention to ignore the advice and guidance available from the industry, it could be that with the passage of time or through inadvertence this might not be done in regard to these documents. It is with that background that I seek the assurance that such consultation shall be mandatory and that some provision be made in the Bill to this effect.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I begin at once by saying to my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, welcome; echoing the word which has been used more than once from all parts of the House. I learned of his eminence in the field of planning long before I entered the other place. I am absolutely certain that what he said today gives us a good guide to the value of the contributions that he will be making on many occasions in the future. I look forward to hearing him many times.
It was on 23rd November 1982 that I wound up the debate on Second Reading of this Bill in another place, so if I say that I sense I have been here before I think your Lordships will understand what I mean. Little has changed; little, that is, other than changes which have suited the Government. The Bill was conceived in haste and born out of prejudice and a breathtaking ignorance of how local government functions. Throughout the past long 16 months, consultation has been reduced to a farce. Whenever professional bodies have demurred at proposals, they have been overruled. Whenever the will of Parliament has been expressed contrary to the views of Government, the time of Ministers and civil servants has been spent on finding ways of thwarting the will of Parliament. Examples of this have been given by my noble friend Lady Birk who made a powerful and effective opening speech. In my view it was a demolition job. I can well understand her anger because she played a leading part, with others on all Benches in your Lordships' House, in defeating the Government more than once when the Bill was before the House last year. She is fully entitled to treat any statement by Ministers in these debates with suspicion. After all, if they can so easily rat on their pledges once, why not again?
The true authoritarian face of this Government, shown in a series of assaults on the democratic and libertarian base of our constitution, was never more starkly shown than in the contempt it has scarcely hidden in ramming this Bill once more through Parliament. We will do nothing to aid its passage. To the extent that we have hindered it from becoming law before now we are both proud and satisfied.
One thing is crystal clear. This Government do not like to lose. If they lose, as they did in the Housing Act 1980, they come back in 1983. If they lose with clauses in this Bill the first time round, they return to the issue a second time round. The Government are due to be 504 taught a lesson. There are issues of principle, as well as of sound practical sense in housing management, which cry out for rejection. My noble friend, Lady Fisher of Rednal, with her great experience and her current grass roots contacts, told us exactly what she thought of certain parts of the Bill. In using the word "despicable" I think she told us that there were other words she had in mind but which modesty forbade her to use. I think I know the words she has in mind and I echo them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, gave us devastating illustrations of the effect of certain parts of the Bill on communities that she knows very well indeed. In Committee we shall look for support from those who still care for those in desperate housing need and who put giving the needy a decent home before and above squandering a public asset in this dreadful way. It was the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, from the Benches of the SDP, who asked where was all this largess to come from as far as the private tenant is concerned. When the landlord is a public body it is apparently considered that it has money to burn and assets to give away. With a private landlord somehow or other the Government believe they have a mission to protect them.
My noble friend Lady Birk and others have amply demonstrated the blemishes in Part I. First is the attack on the ability of councils and housing associations to adequately house the elderly in future. My noble friend Lady Denington from her long experience in housing gave a powerful condemnation of the Government's intentions in that respect. Secondly, there is the callous manner in which councils and associations will be deprived of anything like an adequate number of homes to accommodate the disabled. Here we had the comments from the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, who movingly urged the Government to think again. I think that is the right expression—to "think again". He said that if the Government will not think again on the right lines, he will be coming forward with an amendment in Committee to force them to do so. I can certainly say to him, on behalf of these Benches, that we will be behind him and we hope to have a victory over the Government at that time.
The third blemish is the immoral and disgraceful intention of the Government to bribe tenants of housing associations to buy on the open market with housing association monies, creating social discord and forcing up house prices to those millions without these tax-free gifts. The Minister tells us that he was leaving Clause 2 alone but this intention, in my view, will castrate what Clause 2 stood for previously.
I carefully noted that the first person to use the word "bribe" in this debate was the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. He posed the question: how was it possible for someone with the prospect of owning a house worth £30,000, who need only put forward £6,000 on a shared ownership scheme, not to do it? How is it that certain categories of tenants are singled out by the Government in order to receive perhaps as much as £25,000 of public money to do that? The fourth blemish is to encourage councils to renege on their obligations to repair houses with the so-called right to repair which, in our view, will turn out to be a cowboys' charter.
505 This House, Parliament and the country has grown to recognise the determination of this Government to strip the public sector of any role in the economic and social life of our people. In many cases we would be talking of denationalisation and returning to private hands an industry's assets forfeited by them through mismanagement and exploitation. No such excuse can be advanced in the case of privatising building control. Charges are levelled in other cases of privatisation—that the public will has been thwarted; inefficiency; undemocratic; non-accountability—but none of these reasons can even remotely be levelled at the operation of a public service which has served ratepayers, builders, architects and communities faithfully and well.
My noble friend Lady Nicol made a powerful attack on this part of the Bill. She asked many questions. Those questions will be asked again and again in Committee. Over the past 15 months there has been a miserable history of those questions not being answered. In my view, public building control has been dedicated to the maintenance of standards of safety, health, welfare and energy conservation in relation to both the occupants of buildings and the general public. Building control has ensured that the regulations have been enforced with complete impartiality and under democratic control. Of crucial importance is the fact that the whole fabric of the service has been wholly independent of any person wishing to construct or alter buildings. That will not be the case any more.
I echo the words of my noble friend Lady Nicol. Let me make it plain that I am not in the business of smear or innuendo. Individual derelictions of duty and lapses from standards can happen in public servants as well as in the private service. Our charge is that not a shred of evidence to justify such fundamental changes has been produced, and that the danger flowing from incestuous relationships between the professional bodies, or individuals, and builders and developers is real and can act to the detriment of the health and safety of the public, whatever it may do for the private purse. Dogma, as much as driving the public sector out of business, is the real purpose of this part of the Bill.
This part of the Bill is virtually friendless. I do not mean the ancillary legislation or the building regulations. These are the cornerstones of good building control. It is not only right but welcomed by all involved that after almost 20 years the regulations will be brought up to date to meet the needs of the 1980s and 1990s. But making building regulations sensible and relevant does not require such massive upheaval, disturbance, cost and delay.
When I say that this part of the Bill is virtually friendless, I refer to the principle of private certification, which radically alters the present, satisfactory basis of protecting the public. When I spoke in another place on Second Reading on 23rd November 1982, I listed the organisations which had then told me they were hostile to the principle of private certification: the Consumers' Association, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Federation of Master Builders, the Institute of Building Control Officers, the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors, 506 the Institute of Professional Civil Servants—we shall hear about that institute again—and the Association of District Secretaries. We know that this Government are fully capable of deceiving themselves. Mandate interpretation has been developed to a tine art by the Prime Minister and her Ministers, and none more so than her environment Ministers.
Dissatisfaction with the system in operation—often due to reduced staff levels forced on councils by Government cries for economies—is seized upon as an excuse to weaken an element of public service. Constantly over the past 15 months Ministers have ignored advice and pleadings from professional bodies concerned at what they see as reckless and dangerous proposals hiding behind a colossal battery of powers, hidden from public gaze in prescribed form. There are more than 50 references in Part II of the Bill to prescribed powers—prescribed references, grounds, conditions, notice, fees, information, forms and periods. The prescribed powers leave it all to the Secretary of State in order for these matters to dodge the close scrutiny of Parliament.
I referred to the unease of people outside. The consultations have brought the Government no solace, comfort or relief. Let me quote what the Royal Institute of British Architects only this month told me when I was preparing for the debate:We remain of the belief that the option of obtaining a view from the private sector will not be viable until there is certainty in the law regarding a cut-off point under the Limitation Acts. We have previously stated that we would not recommend our members to undertake certification work until the law was satisfactorily reformed, and that remains the position".That was the institute's position 18 months ago and is still the position now. In a conversation with representatives of the British Insurance Association earlier today it was confirmed to me that that is precisely their position as of today.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors states:We regret to see that the Approved Documents do not fulfil their expectations. The reform of the regulations was based on the concept of freeing them from the restraints inherent in Statutory Instruments so that they could be expressed in plain language, include the use of diagrams and colour and—essentially—would give practical guidance. Our view is that, in many cases the drafts fail on all counts.… There are many errors, omissions and overlaps but, as we have been informed that detailed comments on these are reaching you by another channel, we have not dwelt on them".Another letter that the Royal Institution has sent to the ubiquitous Mr. Watson in Room 101 at the Department of the Environment states:We would particularly like to draw attention to the Bill's proposals for the private certification of building control. The consultation paper on this from the DoE was sent to over 200 representative bodies but only a small proportion of them welcomed the idea. The Institution, together with most other professional bodies, remains opposed to private certification in principle".That situation has not altered.
I think that we have a foretaste of what will eventually emerge. It will be a Bill that the Government believe will serve a purpose but it will be friendless among the people who will have the very difficult job of putting the legislation into practice. A major plank in this Bill and across the whole spectrum of this Government's policies is a dogmatic assertion that the wonder ingredient, choice, is both needed, desirable and, in the case of building control, essential.
507 The Government have persisted in trying to have it both ways. They have argued that the new redrafted building regulations will reduce the number of different interpretations, yet the intention is to provide a more flexible approach within a technical field. The tragedy is that we are invited to jettison a system wherein more than 400 individul local authorities, with some variation to take account of local aspects, operate a common approach. A system of approved inspectors and private certification can lead only to an even wider range of interpretation, with the distinct possiblity of hundreds of independent architects and surveying practices all giving their own interpretations, in addition to those from local authority building inspectors.
In Committee we shall return to the crucial question of the independence of the approved inspector. Not for the first time shall we be trying to insist on that independence being written into primary legislation. We think that it is quite disgraceful that Ministers continue to reject all attempts at separating, clearly and legislatively, the association and conflict which could be present between builder and certifier. Again I am grateful to the noble Earl. Lord Selkirk, for having raised the need to have a council or another body which will have the prime responsibility of ensuring that those who are to be designated approved inspectors go through certain procedures and have certain qualifications and are then able to see that that work is supervised, monitored and carried out.
In our view, the local authorities can satisfy all the recommendations and needs in this field. The Government proposals will introduce a system which is totally contrary to the current enforcement rule, replacing it with a grace and favour relationship. We on these Benches share the views of the majority who are utterly opposed to that.
In essence, we are being invited to abandon a system designed to prevent tragedy and disaster through rigorous inspection, independently and democratically accountable, for one of self-certification, backed up by insurance cover and a fall-back of relying on council building inspectors getting the developer and the public out of trouble when all else fails. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, who gave us his observations from his deep experience and knowledge. He told us of the unease felt in certain quarters—I assume particularly in the insurance world—at the difficulties being encountered in reaching a proper formula. Knowing this Government, whether or not a proper formula is reached, we shall be faced with a mess and eventually someone will have to get them out of it.
I would also draw attention to the comments made by my good friend Lady Nicol about Ministers stating in other places, "Until we get agreement, there will be no progress made with the Bill". Therefore we are faced with the prospect of waiting for agreement which may never come, and all the turmoil and all the difficulties which have been envisaged by various organisations will have been experienced to no avail.
Hitherto the public has had the benefit of guaranteed protection, rather than compensation, for the consequences of building faults coming to light at a later date. Despite consultations with the insurance 508 industry, agreement on a basis for an insurance cover in accordance with this Bill is not yet to hand. The Minister has repeatedly said that agreement will be reached, and if it is not, the Bill will not proceed. We may yet see the assumption that industry will underwrite ministerial folly send the Bill crashing to the ground, and we on this side would say "Amen" to that.
In Committee we shall accept the opportunity to put forward the views of the ignored, the views of the homeless, the views of the disadvantaged. We shall bring to Committee evidence from those people that the Bill is wrong, its effect and consequences grave, not just for those directly affected, but in terms of the prospects for housing our people and for morale in local government, as well as for the peace of mind of all who occupy buildings.
The Bill is unwanted, and it will damage the present constructive relationships between Government, the construction industry, and the consumer. If we can improve it in any way, we will, though nothing said by the Minister today gives us any confidence that he will listen now when he has been deaf so often before. But we on these Benches intend to test his capacity to listen. We are in good voice, and we intend to be heard.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, when winding up a debate that has lasted for several hours the problem is always how to cover everything that everyone has said. If one does not cover everything, there is always the concern that one has done less than justice to speakers who have really thought carefully about what they have said. I can only ask noble Lords to bear with me as they always do and I shall do the best that I can. If I do not deal with all the points tonight, I shall certainly go through the speeches and try to respond in writing to those matters that require reply.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, will not be surprised if I do not respond too much to him in writing. I would prefer to say to him now what I want to say. He said (and I quote him) that we have "a breathtaking ignorance of how local government functions". May I say to the noble Lord that I need no lessons from him or anyone else in your Lordships' House on how local government functions. I shall put my record of service in local government alongside the noble Lord's any time he wishes.
The noble Lord said (and I again quote him): "We shall do nothing to aid the passage of the Bill". This is the 24th Bill that I have introduced into your Lordships' House, and I have spoken to, I think, almost 5,000 amendments to various Bills. I would say that with one or two noble exceptions, I have no great remembrance of action taken by noble Lords opposite to aid the passage of any of those Bills.
The noble Lord said that the Government are due to be taught a lesson. That is not the kind of arrogance with which I have ever wished to speak in your Lordships' House, and knowing, as I do, a little about the noble Lord opposite, I know that that is not his way, either. I should like to hope that it was a slip of the tongue. Perhaps he will tell me privately afterwards whether that was so.
509 I should like to mention five of his observations, which I noted as he made them. He referred to the right to repair as "a cowboy's charter". All I would say is that when tenants are on the receiving end of that right, they may not see it quite like that. For 20 years I have been involved in the public housing sector at a fairly high level, and I know that one of the greatest concerns regarding the tenants has been how on earth the repairs are to be done as quickly as they would wish. In housing that is as great an issue as any other, including rents, and so anything that can be done to help the repairs situation must be an enormous plus. I am sure that during all the years that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was in another place he said a lot about housing. I used to read of his utterances, and I wonder how often, when he had the chance, he tried to influence a Bill that would provide a right to repair. That did not happen.
I want to refer to some of the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, who I agree made an excellent contribution to the debate. The fact that I could disagree with just about everything that she said is nothing new: it is, I may say, par for the course in your Lordships' House. Of the 24 Bills that I have mentioned, I think the noble Baroness and myself have been involved in interchange on about 15 of them, and so I know her style and the way in which she approaches Bills that I have to introduce.
At this point I want to mention the right to buy aspect of the whole issue, since it seems that we are going over the 1980 Act all over again. Noble Lords opposite fought us every single inch of the way on the right to buy. They have declared their intention to continue to fight us every inch of the way now. All I can do is refer them to the 640,000 tenants and the million (and who knows how many more) now living in their own homes who in 1979 endorsed our commitment, and who re-endorsed it in a massive way in June of last year. They very much like the right to buy. No one makes anybody buy, and no one has to buy. But the right is there.
Today we have heard horror stories about what will happen if the right to buy is extended. The same kind of stories were trotted out during the debates in 1980, and doubtless they will be trotted out again in Committee. If the noble Baroness wishes to intervene, I shall be glad to give way.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I should like to intervene if it is a convenient moment for the Minister, though he seems to be in full flight. What we are discussing this evening—and he should concentrate his mind on it—is the right to buy houses that have been designed for the elderly and the disabled. It is no good the noble Lord going back on all the old stuff and trying to "tart it up" in a general way. That will not do, either. Will the noble Lord answer the points on what I have just mentioned?
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I did not tell the noble Baroness what she should say in her speech, and she must not tell me what I should say. I did not seek to prescribe the parameters within which she should make her references to housing, and I would say to her: please do not tell me what I should say. I would point out that it was the noble Baroness who very much 510 broadened the discussion—and I shall quote her word for word. She broadened the debate very much, and so she should not mind too much if I respond to some of the points that she made.
We talk about a house specially designed for the elederly, but I do not know of a house specially designed for the elderly. In 20 years I have not seen a house specially designed for the elderly. If we are talking of one-bedroomed and two-bedroomed accommodation, that is one thing; but houses are not designed specially for the elderly. There may well be houses—if the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, says that there are such houses, I shall now give way for her to define exactly a house built specially for the elderly.
§ Baroness Denington
My Lords, it would be in the interests of the House if I were to wait until we deal with the amendments to the Bill.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I make no comment as to that, except to mention, as I have said, that I am not without some experience of housing, including housing for the elderly.
We are talking about an issue which concerns many people. It is right that they should have this opportunity. Why should they not have the opportunity? Why should they be discriminated against? Why should they be disadvantaged simply because they are elderly? We are told that within a certain number of years they will pass on. We are told that they may live for only five or seven years. We are told that their heirs will then have the advantage. But we are talking of people who will have lived 20, 30 or more years in the same house. Why is it so wrong that those people who have lived there, who have virtually paid for the house over the years, should then be able to commit the wicked sin of being able to pass over the property to their heirs?
What greater consolation could there be to elderly people living out the rest of their years in a house that they now own than the prospect of being able to pass that on to their children who, in most cases—or, at least, in many cases—will actually be living in the same house anyway? I am not persuaded very much by that side of the argument. I look forward, as the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, remarked, to discussing the nuts and bolts in Committe. I assure the noble Baroness that I will cross swords with her again, as I have done in the past, with varying results on both sides.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, referring to charity housing, said that many will apply. Good! I hope that they will apply. The noble Baroness said that this would give them an advantage over council tenants. I invite your Lordships to think for a moment of those people who are living in charitable housing association accommodation. There has been reference to them I think by the noble Baroness, Lady Denington—but, if not, by someone else—as the affluent people. Who are these affluent people living in charitable housing association accommodation? What is this section of the community to which we are so concerned to give an advantage? Again, it will be people who will be taken out because we all agree that Clause 2 should not go on from last time. When they move out, accommodation becomes available to the charitable housing 511 association to relet to someone else—a point which I am constantly told is a major factor. Here you have it, on the one hand. At the same time, you have the tenant, who has paid for many years, at last in home ownership. That is excellent.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I asked the noble Lord in relation to that matter—the question was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and also I think by someone else—how this is going to be paid for. Will more funds be given to the housing associations? Can we be told when we shall see the amendments? Will we have prior notice of them? This is of interest to everyone who has spoken.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, if the noble Baroness will contain herself, I shall come to that point when I refer to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I shall be specific.
I should dearly love to spend the whole of the time on the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. However, time is pressing, and I have to cover other points, too. I should like to complete my observations on her remarks by referring to what she said about the Government's only record being in homelessness. Let me just remind her that no Government have ever achieved the record of this Government in a whole string of measures taken in housing. I would never have believed that any Government of any complexion could have come forward with so many imaginative schemes to help people in housing than this Government have done in the almost five years that I have been privileged to be a member.
If the noble Baroness wants a list it would take me perhaps 10 minutes. I shall touch upon improvement grants alone. In this area, the Government's record is second to none. In 1969, 60,000 improvement grants were paid with the introduction of modern home improvement policy under the Housing Act of that year. In 1973, when a Conservative Government were in office, that figure had risen to 166,000. By 1979—you know who had been in office during the intervening time—grant approvals had fallen to 59,000. This Government have reversed that trend. The number of grants paid has risen from 70,000 in 1979–80 to 130,000 in 1982–83. They should approach 200,000 this year.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, the Opposition talk about them being chopped. They tell me about these cuts that have resulted in an increase in real terms in expenditure of 4 per cent. They talk about that as a cut. It is only a cut beyond what they would have liked spending to be. It is not a cut in real facts and figures. The figure for improvement grants is expected to be from about £650 million to £700 million in 1983–84. The noble Baroness talks about records. I could give her a long list of other things that make records.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, gave me one cause for concern at the beginning of her remarks when she said that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, was unwell. I hope that it is nothing serious and that it will 512 not prevent the noble Lord being here perhaps at later stages.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I can understand that. The noble Baroness made many useful points which I shall consider carefully and respond to her. The noble Baroness said that the Bill would help better-off members of the community. I do not know what is the definition of a better-off member of the community. If it is someone living in a charitable housing association dwelling, it would not come within my definition; but I am willing to hear the arguments.
I should like to join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Broxbourne who made a witty, interesting and moving speech. I look forward eagerly to hearing my noble friend many times in your Lordships' House. That will be a pleasure. I am sure, for all of us. The noble Lord, Lord Stewart, referred to the need for rented accommodation, not the right to buy. I would only say to the noble Lord—a glance at Hansard will show. I am sure, that I have been saying it word for word—what I have argued for nearly 20 years. When you sell a council dwelling to an existing occupier, the fact that he continues to occupy it as the owner whereas previously he was a tenant, in no way makes that dwelling more or less available to rent. It only becomes so when the tenant moves out or makes a sale. In the case of the dwellings that we are discussing here—we are talking of a 21 year exemption on the disabled and others, to which I shall return—it is a debate in itself for another occasion.
Whenever my noble friend Lord Selkirk speaks, I am always full of trepidation because of his great knowledge of the building society movement and everything that goes with it. I have always the hope that he is in agreement with what we are doing.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I think, on this occasion, that it is about even. My noble friend said that he liked quite a lot of what we proposed. He asked, "Can you maintain a house if you buy it especially where there is shared ownership?" I can only say that the record so far is pretty good. If you asked the 640,000 people who have bought their own homes and who previously were tenants, you may find an odd situation; but, in the main, it is not so. My noble friend made the point specifically about shared ownership. I hope that I am right in saying that about 20,000 people so far have bought on that basis. I am confident—and in fact I venture to suggest—that that form of house purchase will become a major factor in the buying of houses in the future.
We have to take carefully the other points made by my noble friend. I assure him, although he is not in his place at the moment, that I shall be in touch with him about every point that he has raised. I shall want to pursue them not least in the interests, as always, of getting things right. We are not playing a game. We are not juggling around. Despite what one or two noble Lords opposite may have said, this is not about dogma. It is about doing things better. We shall have to take careful note of what was said by my noble 513 friend, by the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, and my noble friend Lord Broxbourne. I assure them that we will.
I seem always to cross swords with the noble Baroness, Lady Denington when it comes to housing Bills. I think that I have covered the theology of what I believe and why it is so different to what she believes as regards these sales. I have great respect for the sincerity and devotion of the noble Baroness to this particular issue; and, whatever may be said in the heat of any debates that we may have, I shall not lose that respect at all. But the fact is that I made the point earlier about heirs. I feel as equally passionately as she does, and the noble Baroness knows that. I think that we are going to have to disagree in a very big way about this whole matter. We shall wait until we get to Committee and then we shall talk it through.
§ Baroness Denington
My Lords, I would point out to noble Lords in this House that my major point was the effect on the disadvantaged, on the "have nots" of this nation. In all that he has said in the 18 minutes during which he has been speaking, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has not shown any awareness whatever that there is a submerged section of the population of this country.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness felt that that was the way in which to respond to what I had just said. I have spent most of my life in the kind of surroundings to which the noble Baroness refers, and with the greatest respect to her—and she knows that I have respect for her in a very big way—I do not need any lessons from her as to what people need and the extent to which one has to care for them. I take no lessons at all on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, asked if I would name authorities which had not submitted applications. Yes, of course I will name authorities. The noble Baroness knows me well enough to know that I come with my homework done. At the last count Gateshead Metropolitan District Council had received 4,227 applications under the right to buy, and it had made 64 applications to the Secretary of State for exemption under paragraph 5; West Oxfordshire District Council had received 1,270 right to buy applications, and had made 48 paragraph 5 applications; Chesterfield, on the other hand—and we shall be hearing more of that soon—which had received 3,708 right to buy applications, and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, with 7,304 applications, had neither of them made a single application to the Secretary of State under paragraph 5. May I say with some shame that Leeds City Council, despite a total of 6,033 right to buy applications, made only four paragraph 5 applications to the Secretary of State.
How does one explain the contrast illustrated by those figures? As I have said, if authorities are really willing sellers there is an entirely satisfactory explanation. But none of the last three authorities I have named could possibly be described as a willing seller. What is the explanation? Could it be that there are no elderly persons' dwellings in their areas? I know differently about Leeds. Could it be that no elderly tenants have applied to exercise their right to buy—not one? Of could it be that perhaps there are no elderly tenants at all in Chesterfield, Leeds and Barking and Dagenham? I think I need say no more.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I shall be very brief. As regards those people living in elderly persons' bungalows, does the noble Lord have statistics concerning those who are living on supplementary benefit and who therefore cannot even consider purchase?
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, nothing will ever convince me that every one of those people to whom the noble Baroness refers is living on supplementary benefit. But the noble Baroness very nicely brings me to the next point when she asks whether I know that 50 per cent. of the people in public housing are receiving benefits. Yes; but that means that 50 per cent. are not receiving benefits, and if 50 per cent. are not receiving benefits we are beginning to talk of great numbers of people—hundreds of thousands of people—and no one can tell me that three or four out of those thousands really comprise a case at all, because they do not.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, said, that all rented single-person accommodation has gone; it is (and I quote) "lost for ever". If she will read Hansard she will find it there. I make no further comment on this matter, because it advances us not to do so.
My noble friend Lady Vickers raised the question of first talking to local authorities before carrying out repairs. I understand what she is saying, We have a long way to go yet before we get this part all sorted out, and I look forward to discussing it with her. My noble friend asked us to keep statistics of how many people apply to buy, I will discuss that with my honourable friend the Minister of State for Housing and see what might be done.
My noble friend Lord Ingleby was concerned about the buildings that are adapted for the disabled. We shall have to go into that matter in more depth than time allows us tonight. Clearly my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox takes a different view. But it is a difference that we had last time round, and we shall have to sit down together and see where we can get with the matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, raised quite a list of matters and I have long answers here that have come to me from he will know where. But it would perhaps be better if I write to the noble Lord and he can then take up the matter. I am sure that he will not mind if I do that. My noble friend Lady Lane-Fox is not present, but I appreciated her support. I make no comment on what she said, but we shall also be returning to that matter.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, talked about two defeats. That is not bad when one considers the several thousand on which we have "had a go". I do not relish even one defeat, and I think that we may do even better next time; but we shall see. The noble Viscount referred—and I wish he had not done so—to "a charter for dishonesty" at the expense of the consumer. I hope that the noble Viscount does not 515 really feel that when he reads it himself. He says that he does. In that case, I shall have to say that I do not agree with that any more than I agree with his other description of what he called a potential disaster. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, was telling me about this potential disaster when we dealt with the 1980 Bill. There is no potential disaster; there is no disaster. Some of us would say that there is great success; but we shall have to differ about it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, raised the matter of insurance. The noble Baroness always seems to indicate that I do not cover the points that she makes. The noble Baroness did not say that, but that was what was said on her behalf by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I do not think that the noble Baroness feels quite like that about it. However, the new system is based not on compensation but on avoiding defects, as is the present system. Nevertheless, building defects may occasionally occur under certification, as they do now. Our prime concern as regards insurance is with the protection of the owner and subsequent owners of buildings which are certified. Unlike a local authority, the approved inspector may not always be there to be sued. The Bill makes it possible for the Secretary of State to approve particular insurance schemes and also to make regulations setting out minimum requirements for insurance policies.
We consider that the schemes such as that which the National House Building Council have said they will provide in the event of their being approved as inspectors would give the owner of a certified house adequate protection. The NHBC's proposed scheme would give owners a 10-year warranty against defects caused by non-compliance with the building regulations, and a 15-year cover against damage resulting from negligence in carrying out their functions under the Bill. We think that the advantage of the defects warranty—which, incidentally, the local authority does not provide—more than outweighs the uncertainty of redress where damage due to negligence occurs after 15 years or more.
I shall give more chapter and verse if the noble Baroness would like it. The noble Baroness knows from past experience of being on Bills with me that I always try to do that. I shall go into the matter in great depth with her if she wishes me to do so. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, raised a point with me towards the end of his speech when he was referring to this whole area, as did my noble friend Lord Selkirk, the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, and my noble friend Lord Broxbourne. This is a technical and complex area and I think that I shall have to give chapter and verse as well as taking heed of what has been said. I seriously mean to do just that, so that by the time we come to the next stage of the Bill your Lordships will feel, if nothing else, that we are dealing with the nuts and bolts of the matter.
I heard what my noble friend Lord Milverton said. I would merely say to him that he made the same points when we were debating the right to buy. We generally agree, but we did not agree on that occasion and I suspect that we do not agree now on the same points. But I will respect his view in the same way as I hope he will respect mine.
516 The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, made some points to which I assured the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, I would respond. One related to concern about where the money will come from to give to the tenants of the charitable housing associations. The answer is as follows. The resources for this scheme will have come out of the housing corporations' approved development programmes.
§ Lord Bellwin
Hold it, my Lords! I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that in settling the figure for the housing corporations' ADPs for 1984–85, which provides for a gross programme of £687 million, we have taken fully into account the resources that will be required for this scheme. We shall also take this into account when setting the programme for future years. That is the position. It is a fact, and there it is.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I am sure you will. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also made a very fair plea for consultation about major repairs to old people's homes between the housing corporations, the DHSS and the DoE. The present position is that expenditure on sheltered housing schemes and on caring services stems from the separate statutory responsibilities of housing authorities. A major restructuring of the existing machinery at every level would actually be required if some kind of omnibus financial support were to be attempted. If it is to that that the noble Lord alludes, then I do not think it will happen. But if he is concerned to ensure greater collaboration and joint working in joint-purpose schemes where caring and housing combine, then I think I would go along with him, and I shall gladly do whatever I can to try to influence that. However, perhaps it is something that we should take up outside today's debate, and I shall be glad to pursue it with him.
I was deeply grateful—as I always am—to my noble friend Lady Faithfull for her support. I think I owe it to her to say just a few words about the Orlitt and Howard houses, which I know have troubled her for some time. We recognise the problems which such purchasers face. My right honourable friend the Minister for Housing announced the Government's proposals for dealing with them in November last year. We propose to introduce early legislation to provide a scheme of assistance to private owners of houses sold by the public sector and since found to be defective or potentially defective. This will be on lines which are broadly similar to those of the scheme for owners of Airey houses which are already in existence.
The essential feature of the proposals will be a right to assistance. This will arise where the Secretary of State determines that houses of a particular category built by a public body should fall within the scheme because he is satisfied that, as a result of their design or construction, they suffer from, or can be expected to suffer from, structural defects not discoverable by normal survey at the time they were sold and which have resulted in a substantial loss of value in real terms as compared with the value at the time of purchase. Again, I shall be glad to elaborate on that if necessary.
517 As to the DIY shared ownership scheme, I would say to my noble friend Lady Faithfull that it has been a success. Its future is now being considered. No decision has been reached, but I promise that her words in its favour will be taken into account in our thinking.
My noble friend Lord Auckland made a thoughtful speech, and I can only promise to write to him because his speech also took up the kind of technical matter mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I noted very carefully what the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, said: that the industry is concerned and that the new approved documents will not have statutory standing or, if you prefer, mandatory consultation. I want to come back to him on that because, clearly he has raised an important point and I know that he will allow me to do so.
I have much more to say. but I have gone on for quite long enough. We shall return to this matter again and again. This is the second time round for this Bill and, with one or two exceptions—in fact, I think that they are major proposals—I hope that it will not have the stormy passage that some have intimated it might have. Certainly I expect a great deal of support from my noble friends behind me. I have no doubt at all about that. Meanwhile, I beg to move.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can he say whether we shall have Notes on Clauses? He is always very helpful on such matters. Also, when will the amendment on charitable housing associations be ready?—because I do not think it would be fair if it were to be bounced on this House just before the Committee stage.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I am glad to confirm that Notes on Clauses are available now—at least, I think they are. If they are not, they will be made available without delay. As to the amendment, I shall try to ensure that it goes down in plenty of time for consideration.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.