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Tenants' Rights, Etc (Scotland) Amendment Bill Hl

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 30 October 1980

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7 p.m.

Bill read 3a : an amendment (privilege) made.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. We have examined this small Bill, which essentially contains but one provision of substance, with considerable thoroughness in the course of some five hours of discussion at Committee and Report stages. It has emerged from this close scrutiny unchanged apart from a narrower specification of what is meant by the term "elderly" in connection with amenity housing. However, I think that the debates which we have had have been beneficial perhaps in demonstrating the fundamental difference of view between the Government and the Opposition which needs to be understood as the background to Clause 1 of the Bill.

Noble Lords opposite would have wished to see excluded from the right to buy all houses which are used to house elderly people regardless of whether those houses were different from general needs housing. They believe that old people should not be allowed to buy their homes because the house might not always be used by an old person in future. I have acknowledged the sincerity of their views in the course of our discussions, and I do so again. Nevertheless, I believe that their approach is the wrong one because it pays insufficient regard to the wishes of old people themselves. The Government believe very strongly that individual tenants should have the right to choose whether they wish to own their homes or continue renting, and we believe that elderly people deserve that right as much as anybody else. After all, more than 30 per cent. of public sector tenants in Scotland are over pensionable age and it would be a mockery of the right to buy to withhold it from so large a group, many of whom entered the public sector when there was no genuine choice of housing tenure and never have had and never will have a realistic chance of enjoying the benefits of home ownership except through the right to buy. We must remember that any extension of this Bill would have had the effect of stopping elderly people who wish to buy their homes from doing so. The Government are not attacking elderly people; they are giving them equal rights with other public sector tenants.

That is not to say that there are not circumstances in which concern for the individual tenant's rights must be subordinated to some extent to recognition of the community's interest in the availability of houses for the elderly which are different from the general run of houses and which are in short supply. The Government have always taken account of this and there are existing provisions for that purpose in the Tenants' Rights Act, which are extended by this Bill. However, we do not accept that the community has a sufficiently strong need to retain houses which are not genuinely different from ordinary houses to justify overriding the rights of tenants. That is the basis upon which the Bill is drafted and upon which I have defended its drafting. The Bill doubles the number of specially adapted houses for the elderly which can be excluded from the right to buy, without taking away the choice of selling the houses with a right of pre-emption which the Act already provides, and the Government believe that this is both right for Scotland and consistent with what has been done in England and Wales, where the number of possible exclusions was also doubled by a similar change to the Housing Act. In the particular circumstances which I have outlined I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—( The Earl of Mansfield.)

7.5 p.m.

My Lords, I have no intention of addressing any further remarks on this Bill. I think that I have let the House know exactly how I feel about it and how it has been handled over this past week or 10 days. However, I cannot but respond to the noble Earl the Minister. He said that 30 per cent. of local authority houses in Scotland are occupied by elderly people, by pensioners. That is true, and most of them are in receipt of rate rebates, rent rebates and supplementary benefits; and if he thinks for a minute that they are all racing to buy their houses, then he is quite out of touch with the public in Scotland.

This Government did not introduce this Bill out of the goodness of their hearts and their desire to help the local authorities in fulfilling their obligations to old people. It was forced upon them by what happened in another place and, indeed, by what happened in this place in respect of the English Bill. Promises were made publicly in another place by the Leader of the House and by the Secretary of State for the Environment, but the Secretary of State for Scotland was silent, although at the time when the questions were put and were answered there was a Scottish Minister sitting silent on the Bench. Now the Bill will go to another place where the main actors in that performance will be present. It is their good faith, their words, that will be on trial. Moreover, the people who took part in the negotiations that led to the promises being given will also be there. So in that gladiatorial arena shall the battle continue.

The fact that in Scotland there are so many old people in local authority houses means that an even greater responsibility falls upon local authorities there to provide the right kind of house for old people than is the case in England and Wales, and it means that the more we erode that stock—and it will be the best houses that will go—the less will the local authorities be able to meet their obligations. I admit that one must balance the rights of the individual against the responsibilities of the community through its local council. But when it comes to that, I know quite well where the balance should fall: it should retain the right number of the right kind of houses for letting to old people in Scotland. When we look at the figures—and they have been quoted—we find that over 400,000 such houses for old people have been exempt from sale in England; the number in Scotland is under 12,000. I repeat, it is under 12,000. Where the need is greater the proportion is not nearly so high in respect of numbers of houses.

When the Minister of State talks about categories of housing he fails to appreciate the whole development history of Scottish housing and what led to that particular position. It is important for him to realise that it is essential to have not only amenity housing in local authority stock, but what he called—and he has proved himself in more than one Bill to be the master of the infelicitous phrase—the little houses. Those little houses are important and they should be available for older people. They may well be occupying very much larger houses elsewhere in housing schemes at present, but they are waiting to get into this type of house that has been built for them and to be let to them. If they are sold off, of course they are lost, lost to the category and lost to the local authority. I have said all this before. Let the battle be carried on elsewhere. However, I regret that once again the Government have failed to be tactful in respect of their relationship between Scotland and England. They need not be surprised if they raise the hackles of people who say, "Just look at it; just look at the different treatment for Scotland as compared with England! "I am seriously concerned about this matter. It is the second time that I have raised the point today.

Why is it that in Scotland, where they have no mandate, they are less generous in respect of leaving old people's houses to the local authorities to let than they are in England, where they have a mandate and certainly a comfortable electoral majority, and where they are more generous to the local authorities? It is a sad reflection upon the reading of the needs of Scotland and the balance of importance of the individual as against the greater number of individuals who are represented by the activities of the local authority.

7.12 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I should respond shortly to the noble Lord, Lord Ross. I am sorry that there is no one sitting on the Liberal Benches, because the Liberals have played a part in the examination of this little Bill, as indeed has the noble Lord, Lord Ross. I am grateful to all of them to the extent that it certainly brought home to us the cleavage of opinion that exists as between noble Lords on this side of the House and noble Lords on the other. We were certainly forced, if that is the word, or at any rate constrained and made to look at the provisions of the Bill in order to ensure that the drafting was right and that the intentions of the Bill were what we intended them to be. I shall not go over the old ground again, as, in fact, the noble Lord did not.

I am bound to say that the noble Lord tries to have the best of both worlds. In the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill he castigates me and, indeed, divides the House because on a matter of United Kingdom policy he says that we ought to have a different Bill for Scotland, although the policies are exactly the same and the language to be employed can quite easily and neatly fit into the same Bill. Of this Bill, which is a Scottish Bill, drafted by Scotsmen for Scotsmen and designed to fit in with the law of heritable property as it applies to Scotland, he again says, "No, we cannot have this; we should harmonise the English and Scottish law and adopt the phraseology of the English and Scottish law and adopt the phraseology of the English Act"; although, as I have tried to point out to him on so many occasions, it is thoroughly infelicitous—and that is being kind to it—and would not fit in with Scottish conditions.

Therefore, I am reinforced in the opinion that I have held throughout, that this is a Scottish Bill, designed by Scots for Scots. I think that we have done the right thing by drafting it in the way we have and bringing it forward in the way we have, totally distinct from the English Act. I have paid tribute to noble Lords, and it is genuine—that is my expression of gratitude. I am equally grateful that the Bill now leaves your Lordships to go on its journey down the corridor to another place.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until 7.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[ The Sitting was suspended from 7.14 to 7.45 p.m.]