HL Deb 27 July 1988 vol 500 cc258-67

3.2 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Housing (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogatives and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Bill read a third time.

Clause 36 [Damages for unlawful eviction]:

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden) moved Amendment No. 1: Page 22, line 1, leave out ("3rd December 1987") and insert ("6th July 1988").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a technical amendment. As your Lordships will recall, during our Report stage the Government tabled an amendment to clarify the circumstances under which it would be possible for a tenant to claim damages for illegal eviction. In particular, it made it possible for damages to be claimed when a landlord should have known or had reasonable cause to believe that his conduct would be likely to have the tenant leave his home. As drafted, the revised Clause 36 would take effect from 3rd December 1987. However, because we have changed the nature of the offence it would not be appropriate to make it retrospective to December 1987.

In the circumstances, we now propose that the revised provision should take effect from 6th July 1988, the date on which the amendment was accepted by your Lordships. With this brief explanation, I beg to move.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, I can see the reason for this change. What I cannot see—and no doubt the noble Lord will explain—is why, considering it was a government amendment moved on 6th July, the Government had not thought of this point at the time they drafted the amendment. I can see that it is unfortunate to back-date illegality; therefore I have no intention of proposing it. However, surely this point must have occurred to the person who was drafting and approving the amendment. No doubt the Minister will respond.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, I must say that it is always possible for those who are drafting legislation to realise after amendments have been put down that they may not cover the whole subject. I am concerned that this Bill should leave the House in good order so that it can be passed and enacted.

On these occasions it is always clever to be wise after the event. With that explanation I am very glad to be able to bring forward this amendment only a week after the previous amendment was passed. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, who is himself a good lawyer, will understand that what we are looking for is the best possible interpretation of the law.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I do not wish to stand out as a lawyer but as an arithmetician. A week after 6th July would have been rather earlier than 27th July.

On Question, amendment agreed to

Clause 58 [Application to exercise rights conferred hi this Part and offer to sell]:

Lord Sanderson of Bowden moved Amendment No. 2: Page 36, line 47, leave out ("as determined by the district valuer").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4 and 5. During the Committee and Report stages we debated amendments proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, Lord Morton of Shuna and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, on whether there should be an avenue of appeal against the valuation determined by the district valuer on a property to be transferred under the tenants' choice provisions in Part III of the Bill.

I was unable to accept the noble Lords' amendments and I continue to take the view that there should be no appeal after a valuation has been made. I undertook, however, at Report stage to consider bringing forward amendments to bring the valuation procedures under tenants' choice more closely into line with those in the right to buy legislation. I have further considered the issues involved and government Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 will now offer the landlord a choice between the district valuer and another qualified valuer nominated by the landlord and acceptable to the applicant. The amendments also clarify that it is for the landlord to decide whether it should be the district valuer or another qualified valuer who should determine the market value.

This brings the tenants' choice provisions in respect of valuations generally into line with the right to buy provisions in the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987. I am also, however, taking this opportunity to bring forward Amendment No. 5 to Schedule 8 to the Bill. This will amend slightly the wording of the right to buy provisions of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 to make it clear, as in the first amendments which we are considering now to the current Bill, that it is the landlord who decides whether the district valuer or another qualified valuer agreed by the tenant should carry out the valuation for each right to buy application.

While I accept that these amendments do not go as far as the noble Lords opposite had earlier requested, I hope nonetheless that our bringing them forward today will be seen as a genuine attempt to reflect the concern that the noble Lords expressed in the House.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, while we have not got exactly what we asked for, it would be churlish not to accept that water dripping on a stone has at last had some effect. We are very grateful for that. We welcome these amendments so far as they go. They give the landlord some assurance that the valuation eventually achieved will be fair.

While I am on my feet, perhaps I may ask a question which is rather irrelvant to this amendment. Will the noble Lord assure the House that the amendments he proposed at the last stage to Schedule 3 will occur or be made to occur in Schedule 6 to the Housing Bill so that when Schedule 3 ceases to exist, as it is intended it should do under Clause 59 of the Housing Bill, the provisions moved by the noble Lord will he included in the legislation?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna. Yes, I am happy to give him the assurance on the latter point. I have written a very long letter to him which I do not propose to read. The letter bears out the point he makes that Schedule 3 and Schedule 6 are dealt with in the corresponding Bills.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, since my name was associated with the amendments to which these amendments refer, perhaps I may also express to the Minister my appreciation of the consideration he has given to the case which was put in this House and to the concessions which are incorporated in the amendments.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden moved Amendments Nos. 3 and 4:

Page 37, line 4, at end insert— ("() For the purposes of subsection (5) above, the market value of a house shall be determined by either—

  1. (a) a qualified valuer nominated by the landlord and accepted by the applicant: or
  2. (b) the district valuer,
as the landlord thinks fit."). Page 37, line 6, leave out ("the district valuer shall have regard") and insert ("regard shall be had").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 en bloc.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 8 [Housing (Scotland) Act 1987—Minor Amendments]:

Lord Sanderson of Bowden moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 72, line 32, after ("tenant")") insert ("—

  1. (a) in subsection (2)—
    1. (i) after the word "by", where first occurring, there shall be inserted the word "either"; and
    2. (ii) before the word "as" there shall be inserted the words "as the landlord thinks fit";
  2. (b) ")

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden moved Amendments Nos. 6 and 7: Page 72, line 34, leave out first ("(a)") and insert ("(i)"). Page 72, line 35, leave out ("(b)") and insert ("(ii)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 en bloc. These amendments are purely of a drafting nature. They simply achieve consistency of presentation with other parts of the schedule.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I beg to move, That the Bill do now pass.

During consideration of the Bill by this House there has been very useful and detailed debate on a variety of issues as a result of which I consider, and hope noble Lords will agree, that the Bill we have before us now is both improved and clarified. Before discussing detailed provisions it is worth emphasising the Government's overall purpose in promoting the Bill. We are determined to improve the supply of housing in Scotland, and to improve its quality as well as improving the ways in which people may exercise greater choice and control over their housing. These are our objectives and I firmly believe the provisions of the Bill will go a long way towards achieving them.

I have listened carefully to contributions both from noble Lords opposite and from my noble friends during our consideration of this Bill. Where I have considered it appropriate, or where I have considered improvement to the provisions of the Bill could be effected, I am pleased to have been able to take these contributions into account in amendments I have proposed. As a consequence of Committee debate in this House, and also as a result of discussions I and my colleagues have had with other interested bodies, I have been able to propose a number of amendments which I know have been welcomed on both sides of the House, and furth of it as well.

As noble Lords know, one of the main purposes of this Bill is to improve the statutory protection afforded to tenants. We have been able to bring forward a number of amendments to the Bill further to improve that protection. Looking first at the question of the rights of tenants of a statutory assured tenancy, the Bill has been amended to provide that, subject to certain qualifying conditions, the spouse of a tenant will have a statutory right of succession to the tenancy on the death of the tenant.

During Committee debate of the Bill there was obviously great concern that the prohibition of the charging of premiums or key money in connection with residential tenancies should continue, as it has in Scotland since 1920. I was impressed by the strength of feeling and the arguments put forward for the continuation of this prohibition; and I was pleased to be able to bring forward an amendment to the Bill to ensure that such a prohibition on the charging of premiums for regulated tenancies continues. The background in England is of course substantially different and it is not possible for the Government to extend the amendment beyond Scotland, as the House decided earlier this week.

We have also introduced into the Bill a provision entitling tenants under assured tenancies to a written tenancy document setting out the conditions applying to the tenancy which will ensure that both tenant and landlord are fully aware of their respective rights and responsibilities. The Bill introduces a number of measures to protect tenants from harassment, and I have been able to introduce further amendments concerning tenants claiming damages for illegal evictions which take the onus of proof away from the tenant and increase the amount of damages to which such a tenant may be entitled.

One of the other main aims of this Bill is through a range of measures to tackle more effectively the problem of homelessness. That problem has figured in the debates we have had during the passage of the Bill through the House. We are pleased to have been able to introduce a new provision which should help local authorities make the best use of their housing resources by giving them the power, subject to consent by the Secretary of State, to make payments to tenants to help them obtain other accommodation. This benefits the tenant, who is given that modest but crucial help towards a home of his own; the landlord, who obtains a vacant house; and particularly the homeless, for whom the supply of available housing is increased.

Finally, during Report we were able to amend the Bill to allow Scottish Homes to introduce exceptions to the current prohibition on granting tenancies or other benefits to committee members or employees of housing associations or their close relatives. This is a flexible power which will enable Scottish Homes to achieve, in the light of its close knowledge of the affairs of housing associations, the relaxation which is needed in the present rules. I take particular pleasure in the fact that that part of the Bill could be amended in this House. That received a warm welcome.

I am sure noble Lords will agree that we have introduced some significant and important amendments during this House's consideration of the Bill. The contributions of noble Lords to the debate on these important provisions has been invaluable. It is essential that the provisions of the Bill clearly reflect our intention when they were drafted. I am sure as a result of debate in this House that the Bill's clarity has been improved. I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Balfour for having brought forward some amendments for consideration and for having pointed to various factors in the text of the Bill.

This is an important Bill which introduces a new framework for the future growth and improvement of housing in Scotland. It will open up opportunities to tenants who hitherto have had little choice in the housing available to them. It will encourage different forms of tenure, new housing provision and house improvement.

On 11 th April on Second Reading, which seems a very long time ago, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said that our first concern must be to look at the effects of the legislation on individuals as tenants or persons seeking to be housed. He asked for a positive response from the Government. I have attempted to give that positive response. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, in many instances where he has made constructive criticism. I hope that we have been able to address some of the problems that he raised during the course of the Bill.

I also wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna. At times I thought I was addressing Lord Morton of CoSLA! I thank him very much indeed for the various matters that he has brought to the attention of your Lordships. I also wish to thank the noble Lords, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for their particular interests, and my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour.

Finally, I wish to mention my noble friend Lord Selkirk and thank him for the very important contributions he has made during the course of the Bill. He has enabled Clause 43 and Schedule 6 to be redrafted. For that I should like to offer particular thanks to some people who never receive them—the draftsmen in the Scottish Office.

Everyone involved in housing fears change, which is what my noble friend Lord Selkirk said on Second Reading. That is perhaps true. An old adage states that bad news is better news than good news. There is a new refinement to the phrase: presenting news as bad even when no one can tell what its consequences will be. Perhaps at times we Scots dwell more on the dangers than the opportunities presented by change.

In the passing of this important Bill for Scotland, I can assure the House that the Government will support all positive steps to improve the Scottish housing scene. My noble friend Lord Selkirk said on Second Reading that the purpose of the Bill was right. The Government too firmly believe that it is right. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Sanderson of Bowden.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, as the Minister said, the real purpose of the Bill is stated in its Long Title: to confer on that body and on persons approved for the purpose the right to acquire from public sector landlords certain houses occupied by secure tenants". The body referred to is Scottish Homes. The specific provisions for this right are contained in Part III of the Bill. Most of the remaining provisions, some of which are very important, are primarily concerned with creating the means whereby this central purpose will be realised.

The other point which has been made repeatedly on the Bill and which the Minister made again today concerns the new right to acquire houses from public sector landlords. That has been promoted as increasing tenants' choice. However, tenants' choice is very much a one-way process. Included among the limitations is the fact that new town tenants are by no means guaranteed the likelihood of being transferred to their local authority as landlord at or before windup. Scottish Homes tenants specifically may not choose the local authority as a landlord. Transferred tenants may not revert to the local authority if their new approved landlord reneges on his undertaking at acquisition. However, in England and Wales tenants will have the right to return to public sector landlords.

Tenants in a minority in block transfers of stock initiated by the public sector landlord will have no option but to lose secure tenancy status. Tenants in transferred stock will have no right to oppose landlord changes even when the new landlord is not approved.

As I said, the list of limitations is not exhaustive. However, it underlines the Government's intention to extend tenants' choice in a most restricted way. They extend that choice only because they have to do so to achieve their real purpose, which is to break up council stock and disperse control of that stock among people who I believe will be speculators. Everything points to a much diminished if not emasculated role for housing authorities. Although they will be left with the full range of statutory responsibilities, they will not have the means to meet those responsibilities.

There is a need for clear responsibilities to be given to Scottish Homes to accord due priority to the various problems of housing in Scotland rather than becoming hogged down in transfers of stock which add nothing to the total of housing stock. The extent to which tenants exercise their new right to choose will become clear in time. But whatever happens, the new legislation will primarily affect those who are already housed. It is much more debatable what, if anything, the legislation will do to help those who are seeking to be housed. Housing authorities will have diminished stocks and less capacity to make provision for new applicants.

Most disappointing of all is the failure to ensure that Scottish Homes will have an absolute duty to co-operate with local authorities in identifying housing needs and the condition of stock on a national and co-ordinated basis as well as on an area-to-area basis. The Government have chosen a radical way in housing. The old system was not perfect but believe that there were merits in it. The effect of the new measures should be closely monitored to ensure that overall improvement is achieved and maximum protection is afforded to those for whom the new measures are unsatisfactory or beyond their reach.

During the passage of the Bill through this House the Minister was most helpful. Part of the reason for that is that he was very much involved in his area of housing and housing asssociation matters. Due to that and to pressure from various parts of the House he was able to do a great deal about housing association payments and benefits, which was well received. Perhaps the Minister will use his influence so that the same provisions can be included in the English Bill.

There have been a number of improvements to the Bill. Key money was dealt with, as were many other points. I believe that that was largely due to the work done behind the scenes by the Minister and by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. The Minister referred to my noble friend Lord Morton of Shuna as Lord Morton of CoSLA. He also paid tribute to the draftsmen and civil servants. It is only fair if we on this side of the House pay tribute to the Federation of Scottish Housing Associations, to CoSLA, to the organisations for the homeless in Scotland, to the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and to the Law Society of Scotland for the help which they have given us.

There are great worries about the limitations of the Bill. However, within those limits I believe that we have done as good a job as it was possible to do. I thank the Minister and his colleagues for the help that we received from them.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the Minister for his response to a point which I raised on our last debate. It concerned resident landlords and the fear that they might turn the whole affair into a business and exert summary eviction on people as a business. The long letter which the Minister sent to me has allayed some of my fears, especially since he stated that a resident landlord must be resident and have some of his family actually sharing facilities with his lodgers. That makes a big difference. However, I must say that students—one of the examples he used—are not subject to that provision. They are subject to eviction because in most cases the bargain is struck with a university. Nevertheless, that is a distinct advance. I also thank the Minister for telling me that the Scottish Development Department will study the whole question and has issued a questionnaire.

I believe that the Bill could prove to be a very good one. It may achieve the objectives stated by the noble Lord. It will do so provided that the Tory Party does not become too doctrinaire about the matter. I shall only compliment the Minister in this way. If he remains the Minister for the length of this Parliament and continues the helpful attitude he has shown to the House, he has a fair chance of achieving something.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, yesterday afternoon we had a long debate on the constitutional position of your Lordships' House and its general functions. It is refreshing to be able to examine the last stages of a Bill in which the House exercised its legitimate and useful function as a revising Chamber. I agree that the Bill is an important one. It deals with an immense social problem which affects many people and those who are least favoured in our community—the homeless. I congratulate the Minister on piloting the Bill through the House and on listening to the representations that were made and giving them serious consideration.

The implications of the Bill have been listed and I shall not pursue them in detail. However, its basic assumption is that it will improve the supply of houses. That is an ambitious target. I hope that the progress of the Bill will be studied to see whether that important target is achieved. The protection of tenants has always been a controversial issue in Scottish housing. As regards the abolition of key money, I am sure that the Minister has embarrassed his English colleagues in so far as he made that concession, which is being resisted in the English legislation.

As regards the care of the homeless, the Minister suggested that the Bill would make some impact on the problem. There is no specific responsibility placed on the new authority to care for the homeless. That is still a local authority responsibility. At least I share the hope that the situation regarding the homeless will be helped by these provisions and the helpful relaxation of the limitations on members of housing associations.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, I received representations from a number of Scottish organisations involved in this field. I should like to put on record my appreciation of the detailed study that was made by community organisations which were affected by the Bill and were interested in protecting various groups—for example, Shelter, the National Federation of Housing Associations and the organisations protecting the single homeless.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute to the Minister for the manner in which he handled the Bill. He handled it with a great deal of skill and also with a great deal of sympathy and understanding. I sincerely hope that his efforts will achieve the ambitions which he set out as he introduced the Third Reading this afternoon.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.