HL Deb 16 September 2004 vol 664 cc1325-9

(1) The Secretary of State may withdraw his approval of a redress scheme.

(2) But before withdrawing his approval, the Secretary of State shall serve on the person administering the scheme a notice stating—

  1. (a) that he proposes to withdraw his approval;
  2. (b) the grounds for the proposed withdrawal of approval; and
  3. (c) that representations about the proposed withdrawal may be made within such period of not less than 14 days as is specified in the notice.

(3) The Secretary of State shall give notice of his decision on a proposal to withdraw approval, with his reasons, to the person administering the scheme.

(4) Withdrawal of approval has effect from such date as may be specified in that notice.

(5) The person administering the scheme shall give a copy of a notice under subsection (3) to every member of the scheme."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clauses 152 to 154 agreed to.

Clause 155 [Index of defined expressions: Part 5]:

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 210F:

Page 104, line 26, at end insert—

"The Market Section 131(A1)"

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

12.15 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

I apologise for earlier. I arrived at the House just a moment or two before we started. It is also my birthday today.

In moving these amendments, let me begin by saying that we on these Benches in no way condone those who systematically and cynically abuse the right to buy scheme. It is indeed right and proper that measures be introduced to deal with it.

Noble Lords


Lord Hanningfield

I am dealing with Clause 157, am I not?

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

If I may, I called Amendment 210F, which is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: "Page 104, line 26, insert the words as printed on the Marshalled List". I thought the noble Lord wished to reply.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 155, as amended agreed to.

Clause 156 agreed to.

Clause 157 [Extension of qualifying period for right to buy]:

On Question, Whether Clause 157 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Hanningfield

I think I am right now. Again, I apologise. We are now obviously on the right to buy scheme.

Let me begin by saying that we on these Benches in no way condone those who systematically and cynically abuse the right to buy scheme. It is indeed right and proper that measures be introduced to deal with it. We additionally welcome those new provisions that deal with the scam whereby people immediately want to buy their homes when a demolition order is put in place.

Although the Government have been rather late converts to the principle of right to buy, it is worth remembering that is has enabled individuals and families, for the first time in many cases, to take the opportunity to own their own homes. That is an important principle and one that we should safeguard at all costs. We are, in effect, probing the Government as to why they feel extending the qualifying period is a necessary step forward. The Government are wrong to think that by increasing the qualifying period, and reducing the available discount, they will suddenly safeguard the number of available social houses.

The Minister will be aware that fewer social houses are being built by a combination of local authorities and registered social landlords than at any time for more than a decade. Kate Barker states in her report: In 2001, around 175,000 dwellings were built in the UK—the lowest level since the Second World War. That is the real reason for the lack of affordable housing. Indeed, this understanding is backed up by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which suggests that the impact of the right to buy on the availability of social housing has been patchy and insignificant. So the argument that the real problem with the availability of social housing is the right to buy seems not to be supported by lenders, based on survey evidence.

We are rather less enthusiastic about the provisions for reducing discount in the south-east. It is now becoming very difficult indeed to acquire a house in London, even with the discount that the Government currently apply. People used to apply for a discount under the right to buy in order to put down a deposit on their mortgage. Because the price of London houses is now so high, it is very difficult for anyone to use the right to buy provisions accordingly. Furthermore, the scheme has now been running for some time. What evidence, therefore, has the Minister's department collected that such a scheme is indeed tackling abuse?

My Lords, although we welcome the Government's attempt to crack down on abuses in the right to buy scheme, we are less than convinced that cracking down on the scheme itself, as the Government intend to do in Clause 157, is the most appropriate way forward. The failings are not in the scheme itself, but in the Government's woeful attempts at building enough social housing and—I stress before the Minister corrects me—starving local authorities of sufficient finance to do so. Indeed the Government's record on social housing is not one that any administration should be proud of.

Lord Bassam of Brighton


Baroness Maddock

I should like to speak.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I had originally put the Question that the Clause stand part, and I understand that, after this, I do not repeat the Question and the debate goes on. Finally, when the Committee has come to a decision, we put the Question that the clause, either as amended or not, stand part of the Bill. I understand that is the procedure. There are separate instructions for amendments and clause stand part debates in the rules of procedure.

Baroness Maddock

I thank the Deputy Chairman of Committees for that explanation. I was slightly confused because there is an amendment with the debate on clause stand part, which is why I thought somebody might be saying something about it.

I should like to say a few words about right to buy. I could say a lot more but, because we want to get through business today, I will be fairly brief. We on these Benches broadly welcome the changes the Government have brought to the scheme. There are particular areas we welcome. There have been considerable difficulties in areas where demolition is planned and people have been able to get discounts and buy up houses. Obviously, it is a sensible move in that connection. Extending the length of time that people have to be residents to get their discounts, and the time for pay back and so on, is important.

We on these Benches have always thought that if we are going to give the right to buy to tenants, it should be a local decision of the local council. I would welcome it if the Government, in moving towards giving local councils more discretion over many areas, would think about this. The people who know best about the housing situation in their area, and the people who draw up their housing strategies, are the local councils. That is what we have always said about right to buy, and what we would like to see.

Having said that, my experience of right to buy in two very different areas throws up different problems. For many years I was a councillor in Southampton, and we had a lot of council properties. Over the years, the properties that we lost were family homes. That meant that we had great difficulty housing people with children; they ended up going into blocks of flats. The whole problem with the scheme is that one cannot replace the houses that one has sold.

Then there were other problems. In the area of the university, people would buy their homes at a discount and then sell to other people who wanted to rent them to students. There was a lot of building going on around Southampton, and once people had bought their houses they did not want to live on the council estates any more. They often bought houses of much lower quality than the council home that they had bought. Then we would see a whole street decline as it was let out to students. I am not damning students, but we all know that their interest is not in the garden and what the house looks like at the front.

One of the aims of right to buy, however, was to make areas much more diverse in terms of community. Where I live now in Berwick-upon-Tweed, that certainly happened. One reason for that was that no houses were built outside the estate for people to move off it to. The point of the scheme was to help people to own their own homes if they wanted to, but the expense was that those people wanting to rent homes did not have the same variety as before.

In recent times, we have seen efforts by the Government to bring social housing up to their so-called decent homes standard. There has been a boom in right to buy, and some of the cash for decent homes has been eaten up in that area. There has been considerable concern about that. Over the years, a huge amount has been involved in right to buy. I saw a headline somewhere that said that right-to-buy sales could plug the decent homes gap 10 times over. We still have problems, but I welcome the efforts of the Government to try to make sure that we are genuinely helping people to own their own homes, not helping other people to make lots of money and others to come in and change whole areas. That was not the point of the scheme when it started, and it is important that we address that.

As the debate continues, I hope that we may be able to deal with some of the other issues that surround right to buy.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Clause 157 amends Section 119 of the Housing Act 1985 to extend from two years to five years the period which tenants must spend qualifying for the right-to-buy scheme. The two-year period is too short. Tenants can count any period of tenancy with a wide range of public bodies, no matter how long ago, towards qualifying for right to buy. That means that many tenants who have previously spent time as public sector tenants qualify for right to buy as soon as they move into their council homes. Extending the period to five years will encourage tenants to make a longer-term commitment to the community before they can buy. That picks up one of the issues raised by the noble Baroness. It is worth remembering that, when right to buy was introduced in 1980, the qualification period was set at three years and subsequently reduced.

We want to stress two other matters. First, Clause 157 also amends Section 129 of the Housing Act 1985 to ensure that tenants will be eligible for the same level of discount after qualifying for five years as they are after five years under the current rules. They will be entitled to 35 per cent on a house, or 50 per cent on a flat, subject of course to the overriding limit on discount for the area in which they live. Secondly, Clause 157 will apply only to tenants who take up wholly new tenancies that begin on or after the day on which it comes into effect. That means that existing secure and public sector tenants will not be affected, provided that they remain as public sector tenants continuously up until the time at which they exercise their right to buy. We did not consider it fair to move the goalposts for existing tenants.

Clause 157 attracted the support of the Home Ownership Task Force, which was asked to identify the scope for better targeting and design of government schemes to help those in housing need to meet their home ownership aspirations. It is intended to foster future tenants' sense of commitment to the area in which they live. It is an important measure that makes some sensible and practical adjustments, and it should deal with some of the abuses that even the noble Lord. Lord Hanningfield, fully acknowledged exist with the current scheme. It also brings some balance back to right to buy, which we fully support; I heard what he said about opposing right to buy in the early years, but all parties now see its benefits. We have to ensure that it works well and does not provide scope for rip-offs. No one can support that form of exploitation at the expense of the public purse. I hope that the noble Lord will no longer object to the clause.

Clause 157 agreed to.

Lord Borrie moved Amendment No. 211:

After Clause 157, insert the following new clause—