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Power To Provide Financial Assistance Forprivately Let Housing Accommodation

Volume 116: debated on Tuesday 12 May 1987

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6.17 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 17, leave out clause 2.

With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 2, 5, 16 and 19.

There was a short delay before I moved the amendment because I was transfixed with new clause 1, which I believe has been withdrawn. That threw me into temporary confusion. I assure the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that I had no intention of confusing anybody, particularly as I have written a special limerick for the anniversary of Edward Lear's birthday in 1812, which was not a good year for Napoleon. I was ready to read my limerick but, lo and behold, the clause has been withdrawn. If possible I will try to fit in reading it on Third Reading as I would not like to deprive the House of hearing it. It is in good heart and I am sure will be critically enjoyed by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) who has just resumed his seat on the Labour Front Bench. I trust that he is better and that the debate will not worsen his health in any way but will bring about his revival.

In the circumstances, the Government have decided not to proceed with the housing provisions of the Bill in the present Session of Parliament. The first three amendments delete those provisions, and the other two are consequential. However, we intend to reintroduce in the new Parliament the provisions in clause 2 to give local housing authorities an explicit new power to give financial assistance in connection with the provision of privately let housing. We also intend to reintroduce the provisions in clauses 3 and 4 that require the Secretary of State's consent for the exercise of this or any other power by local housing authorities or county councils to provide financial assistance or a gratuitous benefit in this connection, except in the circumstances set out in clause 3. The need for consent will be made retrospective to 6 February this year as it was in the present Bill. The new Bill will, like this Bill, also provide that any transaction entered into after 5 February in contravention of the requirement for the Secretary of State's consent will be void.

Meanwhile, we intend to continue to issue general consents and special consents for individual projects submitted to us where appropriate. These consents will be issued as if the new Bill were in force. We shall ensure that general and special consents already issued continue in force. My Department will be writing to all the authorities affected drawing their attention to this announcement to prevent any further misunderstanding.

I certainly do not wish to deprive the Minister of the opportunity of letting the House and the country hear his doggerel. I have had a preview of it and although it might not make its way into "Palgrave's Golden Treasury", I hope that the good people of Brent and elsewhere are entertained by it in the dog hours of this Parliament.

We do not oppose the amendments that the Minister has moved. Whether the clauses are resurrected depends upon the outcome of a contest on 11 June. It is not our view that in government we would resurrect the clauses. In any event, it would be conducive to poor administration if the clauses were introduced in their present form because we showed in Committee that the scheme of controls is, in principle, so draconian that a whole string of general and specific consents would be required to make it remotely operable. While the officials, who will not have much to do in the next three and half weeks, are preparing the briefs for incoming Ministers, they may wish to consider how, as an exercise in good government, the powers could be improved.

The statement by the Minister that this Administration in its closing weeks will continue to operate as if the Bill had been passed, is touching on the arrogance with which we shall charge the Conservative party during the election and it does not make for good administration. We also pointed out in Committee that, although the Government had said that the powers under clauses 2, 3 and 4 had been introduced ostensibly to provide new powers for local authorities, their effect was actually to secure new controls on local authorities and to undermine the imaginative scheme for new housing that Sheffield and other authorities had pioneered.

I believe that we are dealing with amendments that delete clause 7:
"Land held by public bodies."
That deletion is welcome.

I should like to be part and parcel of the obsequiousness on certain sections of the Bill and to make the point that at least on this occasion I arrived, although a little late, in time to take part. On the previous occasion when the three of us—the Minister, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and myself—were supposed to be performing in another place—not down the corridor, but somewhere else altogether—thanks to British Airways I arrived 20 seconds too late, having been up from 4·45 am. Therefore, I am glad to be here. I am interested in the doggerel that we may hear. I recall a recent cartoon in the New Statesman where a sign on a house door said, "Beware of the Doggerel". I hope that that does not apply to us.

On the matter of the housing provisions, I ask the Minister to address himself to one point. If those sections of the Bill are to disappear, how will he stand up to a legal challenge in the weeks ahead for those local authorities that may wish to drive through those provisions? By the very nature of the powers that the Minister is trying to take under that section, he assumes that there are local authorities whose attitude to those financial measures about housing are not those of the Government and which may wish to take advantage of that gap. If there is to be no statute dealing with that at this time, I fail to see how the Government can maintain the 6 February retrospective date in the face of legal challenges that might come. I hope that the Minister will address himself to that.

On the early clauses about creative accounting, the Minister knows that my party has certain difficulties with the text. Nevertheless, it is accepted that something has to be done about those authorities that have gone to extremes. Therefore, it seems a pretty fair bargain that we opt out of the housing clauses but leave the early clauses in. Therefore, we raise no objection to what has been proposed today.

The early clauses—clause 1 and schedule 1—validate a decision made by the Government last July about which we said we would legislate. I believe that midnight on 22 July 1986 was the date. We took action in February for another line of action we wished to take and we said that we would put that into law. We did not state when we would do that; we just said that we would. The date of 22 July is now validated in the Bill and we wish to put it on record that, because of the pressure of time and the constraints of other activities of which we are all aware—the political marathon on which we are now entering—we cannot put the other date into law in this Bill. However, we are putting it on record that we stand by what we said. I am advised by our lawyers that that is perfectly legitimate.

Amendment agreed to.