HL Deb 09 July 1992 vol 538 cc1381-5

10.55 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th June be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this order is long and complex but I am relieved to say largely non-contentious. The order has been subject to wide ranging consultation with interested bodies in Northern Ireland. In total, comments were received from 36 organisations, including the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Northern Ireland Housing Council, 10 district councils and other professional and representative groups. A number of amendments were made to the detail of the order as a result of this process but I am pleased to say that overall most respondents felt that the provisions were a sensible and logical development of Northern Ireland housing legislation.

Part II restates with amendments the legislation governing registered housing associations. The amendments are broadly similar to those contained in Part II of the Housing Act 1988. They centre on the decontrol of rents on new lettings and a more flexible framework for the payment and recovery of grants. They will give housing associations more control over their own affairs and provide greater incentives for efficient management. They will also enable housing associations to raise private loan finance and thereby achieve a higher programme output for a given level of resources.

Another important provision of the order is the replacement of the existing complex right-to-buy legislation with a simple requirement for the housing executive to operate a house sales scheme. The scheme, which will require the Department of the Environment's approval, will be similar to the executive's current highly successful voluntary sales scheme which to date has facilitated the sale of over 51,000 homes to tenants. Housing executive tenants will therefore continue to be able to purchase their homes on terms which are at least as favourable as those provided in the right-to-buy legislation in England and Wales and any future changes to the legislation can easily be incorporated in the scheme with the minimum of delay.

There is little doubt that to many people the most eagerly awaited provisions of the order are set out in Part III and relate to the replacement of existing grants legislation with a new regime along the lines of that contained in the 1989 Local Government and Housing Act, suitably tailored to suit Northern Ireland's circumstances.

Under these provisions, renovation grants will be mandatory in the case of unfit owner-occupied houses and they will also be available to landlords primarily on a discretionary basis to bring single dwellings and houses in multiple occupation into a fit condition. Except in the case of minor works grant and repairs grant, a test of resources will be applied to determine the amount of grant that can be paid. This will target grant towards applicants who do not have the resources to carry out work without assistance more effectively than under the current scheme. The particular and very real concern of fire hazard in houses in multiple occupation has also been addressed with the introduction of grant aid for fire precautions as well as a means of escape.

The order contains a number of more minor amendments, but I hope that I have been able to explain the main provisions of the legislation. Excellent progress has been made in recent years in improving housing conditions in Northern Ireland and in meeting urgent housing need. The provisions in the order should help us to maintain that progress. I therefore commend the order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th June be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

10.58 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, once again the House is grateful to the Minister for explaining so clearly the scope of a complex order, consisting as it does of 108 articles and nine schedules. It appears to me that it changes significantly the legislation affecting housing in Northern Ireland. The Minister explained that many of the provisions mirror developments in housing legislation in England and Wales, but there is no way in which we can test their relevance in the Northern Ireland context nor is there any way in which we can change any of its provisions.

Although I have no expertise in housing legislation, I should like to touch briefly on seven points. I have given the Minister notice of the contents of my questions.

First, does the order indicate a possible shift in the role of the housing executive? Is it anticipated that some of the resources currently allotted to the housing executive are likely to be transferred to the housing associations, and if so, how radical a shift will that be? Secondly, particularly in the light of Article 16, does the department intend to set up a body to be representative of the housing associations? If so, will a housing association be obliged to affiliate to such a body? Thirdly, I am concerned that under Article 26(1)(b), after an inquiry under Article 23 and without evidence of any misconduct or mismanagement on the part of the association, or without evidence that it was failing to carry out its objects, the department can direct that its land be transferred to another association if the department considers that its management would be improved thereby. As I understand the order, there is no means whereby that direction can be challenged. My fear is that the procedure can be put in train in order to reduce the number of housing associations if the department considers that the reduction is desirable or convenient. If that is so, I feel that the department is going too far in reserving such a power to itself.

Fourthly, what role are the housing associations expected to play in the provision of hostels? We are particularly concerned about hostels for the homeless. Is it envisaged that they will play a leading role in the provision of hostels for the homeless? Fifthly, looking at the position from the consumer's standpoint, will the tenants of those housing associations whose membership is not confined to their tenants have by law a majority representation on their management committees? I find it difficult to believe that their voice should not be heard, and heard effectively.

Sixthly, the principal purpose of a housing association is to provide housing for its members and not to trade at a profit. Accordingly, in what circumstances under Article 15(4) is it envisaged that an association can lawfully acquire commercial premises or a business and set up shop; and for how long can it hold such premises or carry on such business without forfeiting its tax relief advantages?

Seventhly, Article 18(4) provides that the registrar is to give notice of cancellation or suspension of a registered housing association to the department. The power of cancellation is to be found in Article 17, but nowhere in the order have I seen the power to suspend. Where is it, please? I note that Article 17 provides an appeal procedure against cancellation, but within what period of time must the appeal be lodged in the High Court?

I could continue because housing is one of the biggest influences on how people live. I hope, however, that I have said enough late on a Thursday evening to make the point that this important legislation deserves a Bill which could have been properly examined in Committee. I make the further point that direct rule, about which we have spoken so often today, is not even second-best government.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this rather lengthy piece of legislation. The order consists of 108 articles and nine schedules and is contained in some 126 pages. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies that this is not a suitable or adequate way to discuss an order of such magnitude.

The order makes some major legislative amendments to existing law in Northern Ireland relating to private rented accommodation, housing associations, owner occupied accommodation and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. However, I should like to add that there has been some criticism and disquiet over the failure to have reasonable consultations concerning the draft order. Not only are we faced with the dilemma of debating the matter in the Chamber after 11 o'clock at night, but also, when the order was sent out for consultation, suitable attention was not paid to the opinion of other organisations. Not only was consultation seriously limited because the six-week period stipulated included Christmas and the New Year holidays, but, in addition, there appears to have been a restricted list for the distribution of the draft proposals. Some major voluntary housing organisations were excluded and did not have adequate time in which to consider the order. The Council of the Homeless in Northern Ireland was one of the bodies which had to make a special request for a copy.

It appears to me that the mandatory grants scheme is clearly targeted at unfit housing. The scheme is to be commended, yet it may well pose serious budgetary problems for the housing executive. Means testing is likely to deter applications. If tackling fitness is a goal, such a filtering mechanism may well prove counterproductive. It also seems inequitable to means test tenants, owner occupiers and charitable organisations who provide accommodation while actively encouraging private or commercial landlords to maximise grant aid for the creation of future private profit. Overall, the order has significant potential. However, if the provisions are not accompanied by resources to enable effective implementation, it will have limited impact.

One point is, I believe, relevant not only to discussions on this order but also to discussions which took place earlier this evening. The chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Mr. John McEvoy, stated on a television programme that over the next three years the shortfall in the housing executive's financing would be in the region of £55 million. That is required to meet the needs of the present legislation and includes modest housing accommodation, the build and repair programme and the homeless legislation. But that amount is outside the legislation now being enacted. The sad feature of the situation - which, in my opinion, is not contrary to Mr. McEvoy's television broadcast—is that the present high level of unemployment in the construction industry is costing almost the equivalent of the housing executive's financial cuts. By re-directing the finances to the Northern Ireland Office, the Government could reduce unemployment, provide housing, remove much human suffering, illness and distress and create hope and happiness—a re-direction in other words of unemployment benefit to the positive construction of housing to meet the needs of Northern Ireland. With those remarks, I welcome the order in its intention and hope that the finance will be available to implement its proposals.

11.9 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I have one brief question: will the noble Earl use all his influence with his colleague at the DoE to try to speed up to the maximum possible extent the current demolition work and building of new houses on the sites of the Divis flats and the Unity flats? To do so would be a major confidence-building step in the centre of Belfast.

11.10 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who were good enough to notify me of their questions. At this time of night that helps to speed up progress in your Lordships' House, especially when an Unstarred Question follows with some two hours yet to come.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised a number of points relating to housing associations. While housing associations in Great Britain have become the main providers of new social housing, I can confirm that in Northern Ireland the Housing Executive will continue as the main provider of public sector housing. It is unlikely that there will be much change in the number—currently standing at 46—of housing associations registered with the department over the next few years. All those associations are affiliated to the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations which has received financial support from the Department of the Environment since it was incorporated in 1977.

The noble Lord also asked about the composition of management committees. Housing associations are of course voluntary bodies and their membership is not confined to tenants. In most associations tenants do not have a majority representation on the management committee.

The noble Lord asked also about the role housing associations can play in providing hostels. The position is that associations can provide housing accommodation in a hostel if that is appropriate for their client groups. That has been done, for example, for people with a mental handicap, women at risk of domestic violence and the single homeless.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of the tax position of association. Those wishing to acquire and develop mixed residential and commercial property would, where appropriate, have to consider carefully with the Inland Revenue the consequences for their charitable status. Grants in relief of tax incurred on such activities would not be available from the department.

Finally, the noble Lord inquired about the suspension of associations. The department does not have the power to suspend a registered housing association and references to suspension in the order relate to the powers of the Registrar of Friendly Societies to suspend the registration of a body under the industrial and provident society legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, said that in his opinion the consultation period had been too short. First, the standard consultation period for orders is six weeks; secondly, the consultation period for the housing order was six weeks and one day; and, thirdly, to meet some anxieties expressed at the time we took on board responses received up to three weeks after the original closing date. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that work is proceeding on the Divis and Unity flats but it must be in stages.

I thank your Lordships for your indulgence and patience over the past three hours during which we have dealt with important Northern Ireland orders, and I commend this order to your Lordships' House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.