Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has now considered the National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing and Local Government) Order 2010.
Relevant document: 12th Report, Session 2009-10, from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
My Lords, I beg to move that the Grand Committee does report to the House that it has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing and Local Government) Order 2010. For ease, I shall henceforth refer to this order as the housing LCO. This is the first LCO that I have spoken to in this House. It is a particular pleasure to deal with devolution issues that relate to Wales after many years of being more familiar with devolution issues that relate to Scotland.
This draft housing LCO was approved by the National Assembly on 24 February. The previous Government laid the draft LCO before Parliament in March. For whatever reason, no time was found to debate the LCO in either House before the general election. I am pleased that the coalition Government committed to take forward the housing LCO in our programme for government, which is what we are doing. The draft LCO was approved by the other place on 7 July, having been debated in Committee on 5 July, and it comes before this Grand Committee today for debate only two months after the coalition Government took office.
Noble Lords may be aware of the discussions that have taken place between the coalition Government and the Welsh Assembly Government in relation to the scope of this LCO. I shall address that issue immediately. The coalition Government have been concerned that this LCO devolves legislative competence that the Assembly would not necessarily need. The Assembly Government are committed to seeking legislative competence to suspend the right to buy in areas of housing pressure. However, competence in the LCO covers disposals of social housing generally, including abolition of the right to buy. Indeed, as I understand the situation, when an LCO on this issue was first proposed in 2008, the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place recommended that it should not proceed while it included the ability to abolish the right to buy. We are grateful indeed for the reassurances given by the Welsh Assembly Government that they are fully committed to the right to buy scheme and have no intention whatsoever to abolish it.
The coalition Government are similarly grateful for a further reassurance from the Assembly Government not to seek powers to usurp the views of local people and dictate the location of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Given these assurances, and our commitment to progress this order through Parliament before the Summer Recess, I am pleased to support this LCO today.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but as this is a vital point perhaps we might clear it up straightaway. He says that an assurance has been given, and I am sure that that is true, but paragraph 7.23 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that,
“legislative competence would enable the Assembly, if it so wished, to replace the current Right to Buy scheme with improved and updated schemes to assist home ownership”.
That suggests that the Assembly might abolish the scheme but replace it with something else. Does the present competence order still allow the Assembly to do such a thing?
My understanding is that it does, although equally I understand that it is the intention—if only that of the present Welsh Assembly Government, which would not bind their successors—to use this to suspend the right to buy in areas of housing pressure. I understand, on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, that they could do what the Explanatory Memorandum suggests.
The agreement to take forward this LCO, following three years of some frustration and procedural hurdles, demonstrates the success of a relationship of mutual respect and collaboration between Westminster and Cardiff. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that, in the new politics of this new era, mature attitudes of co-operation and compromise are signs of strength, not of weakness.
I turn to the detailed content of the draft order. The order will devolve legislative competence in relation to many aspects of housing policy, enabling the Welsh Assembly Government to propose legislation to implement their new housing strategy Improving Lives and Communities: Homes in Wales. The strategy is to be implemented through an action plan and it is my understanding that in some areas this will require primary legislation. I hope that this LCO will facilitate the implementation of the strategy. Indeed, I understand that earlier today the First Minister announced the Welsh Assembly Government’s legislative programme for 2010-11. He announced plans to introduce a housing Measure, making use of the legislative competence devolved to the National Assembly via this LCO, subject to its being passed and subsequently approved by the Privy Council. As I think the First Minister indicated, it would allow for local authorities to apply to Welsh Assembly Government Ministers for the temporary suspension of the right to buy in areas of housing pressure, as well as increasing those Ministers’ intervention powers in relation to social housing.
The draft order is structured around two key themes: social housing and meeting the housing needs of vulnerable people. The LCO would also devolve competence in relation to the amount of council tax charged on second homes. Specifically, it will insert seven new matters, Matters 11.2 to 11.8, into Field 11, the housing field, of Part 1 of Schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. It will also insert one matter, Matter 12.18, into Field 12, the local government field.
Taken together, Matters 11.2 and 11.3 would allow the Assembly to legislate to strengthen powers of early intervention in failing housing associations and modify the approach taken to allocations. Matter 11.4 would allow the Assembly to legislate to standardise local authority and housing association tenancy agreements, thereby removing an impediment to stock transfer. Matter 11.5 covers the disposal of land held or used for social housing. The One Wales agreement includes the commitment to,
“draw down legislative power … in order to suspend the Right to Buy in areas of housing pressure”.
The Assembly Government want temporarily to suspend the scheme in specific local circumstances to address local difficulties. As I have said, Assembly Government Ministers have made it clear that they have no intention of abolishing the right to buy in Wales.
Matter 11.6 covers housing-related support to those who need help to occupy their homes. Matter 11.7 is about provisions by local authorities of caravan sites for Gypsies and Travellers. The Assembly Government intend to propose legislation compelling local authorities to provide sites for the accommodation of Gypsies and Travellers when a need is clearly identified. The coalition Government are grateful to the Assembly Government for their assurance that they will not seek routinely to dictate to local authorities the location of these Gypsy and Traveller sites.
Matter 11.8 covers homelessness. The Assembly Government may legislate to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness and to place a stronger emphasis on homelessness prevention. Finally, the National Assembly would be able to legislate to increase the amount of council tax charged on dwellings that are not a main residence as a result of Matter 12.18.
The LCO was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Constitution Committee of this House, the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place and a committee of the National Assembly. I am grateful for the thorough scrutiny carried out by those committees. The Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, on which the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, and I had the privilege to serve—I do not think that I was present when this order came before it—concluded that this LCO raises no issues of constitutional principle.
The Welsh Affairs Committee recommended that matters in the LCO relating to social housing would be clearer by being merged into a single matter. However, if that were done, the new matter would require exceptions and carve-outs, which the committee had previously recommended should be avoided. Therefore, those matters have not been changed and some of the definitions have been clarified. The committee also suggested that the name of the LCO should more accurately reflect the matters that it contains. After a great deal of consideration, it was concluded that the title of the LCO should continue to follow standard drafting convention and include the names of the fields in Schedule 5 to which the LCO relates—on this occasion, housing and local government. Finally, the Explanatory Memorandum was further clarified in relation to the definition of the terms “homelessness”, “Gypsies and Travellers” and “caravan”, as used in the LCO—specifically, references to Gypsies and Travellers were capitalised.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that this LCO devolves competence across many important aspects of housing policy, thereby enabling broad-ranging legislation to be brought before the National Assembly for Wales. This coalition Government share the Assembly Government’s frustration that the devolution of housing powers has taken some considerable time to come about—perhaps it is a frustration shared by other Members of the Committee here today—but nevertheless here we are. We are pleased that, as a result of some honest and open discussions between Ministers in Whitehall and Ministers in Cardiff Bay, there is a broad consensus for taking forward this legislative competence order. I hope that the spirit of co-operation will continue. In that spirit, I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his statement today, which I very much welcome. I congratulate him on his appointment as Minister responsible for Welsh affairs. As he said, this is the first time that he has spoken on such Welsh matters, but I am also aware of the Minister’s great service in Scotland, both as an MP and as an MSP, where he served as Deputy First Minister in the Lib-Lab coalition from 1999 to 2005. I am sure that in time the Minister will realise that Welsh politics are very different from Scottish politics. No doubt, the number of distinguished Welsh Peers on both sides of the coalition Government will be able to advise him on the nature of politics in Wales. I wish him well.
The housing LCO has taken considerable time to get to its final stages. The original housing LCO was considered by the Welsh Affairs Committee in 2008, having been submitted by the Welsh Assembly Government in 2007. At that time, reservations were expressed by the Welsh Affairs Committee regarding the draft and the contradiction between the Explanatory Notes and the LCO, specifically on to the right to buy. The Welsh Assembly Government undertook a consultation and elaborated considerably on the approach to social housing. There were several reports, the most important of which was, we believe, the Essex report. Many of its recommendations were incorporated in the new housing LCO.
That revised LCO was considered by a scrutiny committee of the Welsh Assembly and by the Welsh Affairs Committee in another place during the previous Parliament. Conservative members of the Welsh Affairs Committee voted against the housing LCO, objecting to the reference to the Welsh Assembly Government having reserved power to ensure that the local authorities in Wales provided sites for Gypsies and Travellers. They also believed that the LCO should not make any reference to the lifting of the right to buy.
As the general election approached, it seemed that the LCO would have to go into the wash-up, but unfortunately for the Welsh Assembly no agreement could be reached because of the Conservative Party’s objections, which were set out in a letter dated 1 April from the then shadow Minister for Wales, David Jones, to the then Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Wayne David. It outlined the two objections to the proposed order. It stated:
“We … are concerned that … it would give the Welsh Assembly competence to abolish the right to buy. You will recall that during the select committee evidence session I questioned both you and Jocelyn Davies closely on this issue. Both you and she confirmed that it was no part of the Assembly government’s policy to abolish the right to buy. In those circumstances therefore the competence … is otiose. Secondly, the order would empower the Assembly to pass Measures that would give Welsh Ministers the right to impose a location of Gypsy and traveller sites upon local communities. The Conservative Party believes very strongly that the local authorities are best placed to decide the location of traveller’s sites, being closer both democratically and actually to the affected communities”.
The Conservatives went on to make it clear that they would not agree to the housing LCO as it stood, so it was not included in the wash-up, much to the disappointment of those in the Welsh Assembly who had been waiting for a conclusion to this matter.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I said, the housing LCO could not be included in the wash-up, much to the disappointment of those in the Assembly who were waiting for a conclusion to this matter. A report in the Western Mail on 24 June stated:
“Conservative Wales Office Minister David Jones said he was not prepared to allow Ms Davies’ Sustainable Housing Legislative Competence Order (LCO) through unless it was amended to make clear that the right to buy council houses would not be abolished in Wales … Politicians at Cardiff Bay have been trying for three years to get legislative powers relating to housing transferred to them. An earlier version of the LCO was knocked back while Labour was in power, and the new coalition at Westminster has rejected the latest draft … Meanwhile Welsh Liberal Democrat housing spokesman Peter Black claimed that the veto of the LCO breached the Westminster coalition agreement. The relevant clause in the agreement states: ‘We will take forward the Sustainable Homes Legislative Competence Order’”.
On 29 June, the Wales Office issued a press statement:
“In the spirit of mutual respect between Westminster and Cardiff Bay, the Welsh Office will take forward the Assembly’s Sustainable Housing LCO unamended, Welsh Office minister David Jones announced today (28 June) … Mr Jones said: ‘Last week Deputy Minister for Housing Jocelyn Davies and I reached an amicable agreement on an amended Order to be taken forward. But having made further enquiries, the Welsh Office established that it would in practice be virtually impossible for the amended Order to complete its passage through Parliament to enable it to be put to the Privy Council for approval in July. We therefore decided, in pursuance of the spirit of mutual respect and in reliance to the assurances given by the Welsh Assembly Government to proceed to put the original draft LCO in its unamended form before both Houses of Parliament for confirmation as quickly as possible, so that the Order may be made by the Privy Council next month’”.
Why was there this change of heart? After all this time, in the matter of a few days—between 24 June and 28 June—why did the Wales Office Minister decide that the original LCO was now able to proceed?
Whatever the reason, we are pleased that there has been this complete U-turn from what the Conservatives were saying before and after the general election. This is welcome news. At long last the Welsh Assembly will get the LCO that it wanted, which will bring about a much improved method of social housing in Wales, meeting the needs of the Welsh people in a more positive and constructive manner.
My Lords, I, too, welcome my noble and learned friend to his new position in the coalition Government and I wish him well, particularly in relation to Wales.
As we have heard, this LCO has been a long time coming, but not under this Government. In fact, we have made up for whatever delay there was under the previous Government. However, it is now here and I do not intend to delay its passage, although I am not entirely uncritical of it. We are, after all, transferring extensive legislative powers in the housing field in this order and those of us who have previous governmental experience in this area are anxious to assist the National Assembly and its Government to exercise those powers in the best interests of the people of Wales. I had ministerial responsibility for housing in Wales in the early 1980s when the right of council tenants to buy their rented properties was first introduced to Wales, much against the wishes of local housing authorities. Of course, the right to buy quickly became a popular policy with sitting secure tenants and has remained so over the years.
According to the Explanatory Memorandum—page 8, paragraph 7.20—there have been some 140,000 sales in Wales, which is almost half the original social housing stock. The right to buy was not abolished during the 13 years of Labour rule, so one may conclude that it was accepted by the major parties. The Assembly has, however, reduced the maximum discount available from £24,000 to £16,000 and has extended the rural areas where there are restrictions on resale of right-to-buy properties. So perhaps the right to buy is not sweet music to everyone’s ears.
The benefits and advantages of owner occupation to the owner and to society are obvious and I shall not rehearse them. The key fact to remember is that the secure council tenant who becomes a buyer takes an immediate interest in the maintenance and improvement of his or her property and no longer waits for the council landlord to cut the privet hedge, subsidise the rent and perform all the functions of a responsible landlord. There is a tendency on our part now to forget just how heavy a burden housing subsidy and repair and maintenance costs can become on housing authorities and taxpayers. Those who are intent on increasing social housing should consider these factors and realise what they are letting themselves in for in terms of cost when the stock is enlarged.
A local authority’s housing stock may be reduced as a result of right-to-buy purchases, but the locality’s total available housing stock is undiminished. That point, too, is often overlooked or ignored. When the house is sold to its tenant, some people take the view that that house seems to have disappeared, but that is not the case.
As my noble and learned friend said, assurances have been given by the Assembly Government Minister, Jocelyn Davies, that the intention of the Assembly is not to abolish the right to buy but to limit sales in areas of housing pressure. There is nothing new in that. Limitations were imposed on council house sales in sensitive areas such as the national parks from the earliest days and such restrictions continue. They are not confined to Wales; they also apply in the Lake District, for example.
What is important in this right-to-buy context, in this order more generally and in the legislation that may flow from it, is that the best interests of the individual and his or her rights should be preserved and not overridden to enhance the control and power of authorities over citizens’ lives, as has happened in the past. There is a great deal of talk these days about more powers for the National Assembly; indeed, we are about to have a referendum on the issue next year. I for one would like to hear more talk in our representative institutions about the devolution of powers to a more local and community level. This is why there has been such concern about an Assembly power to direct local authorities to provide specific locations for Gypsy and Traveller sites, irrespective of the views of local communities. The individual’s rights and well-being must also be carefully considered in the context of the provision in this order to allow increased council tax on second homes. Such decisions, taken too abruptly and in a sweeping fashion at the wrong time, could cause a severe decline in property values across whole swathes of Wales and could cause chronic rural depopulation, such as we experienced in mid-Wales in the previous century, to rear its ugly head again; it could at least worsen the depopulation problem.
Finally, we must recognise that we are facing an era of severe austerity as a result of the legacy of unparalleled debt that this Government have inherited from their prodigal predecessor. Many things that looked achievable at one stage no longer appear so. Adapting to our new and straitened circumstances will take time—longer for some than others—but adapt we must. One of the keys to such adjustment is to realise that the state and its ancillary authorities cannot do everything; they are restricted by limited resources and must, like the rest of us, live within their means. Where people and communities can do things for themselves, they must be encouraged to do so. There seems to me no credible alternative approach in the present circumstances.
My Lords, I, too, offer my best wishes to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. He has a remarkable record. He has served in not one but two coalition Governments, which is pretty good going. He and I go back a long way. In the 1980s, as young Back-Benchers—not so young in my case, but he was young—we spent some time trying to make Ministers’ lives more uncomfortable on various energy Bills. I welcome him. It is not our job to make his life more uncomfortable than necessary during his service to this House and to Welsh affairs.
Like other noble Lords, I believe that the role of this House in scrutinising LCOs is to consider the drafting and the process and to ensure, above all, clarity of competence, but not necessarily to pick at the policies, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, has done. That is not our fundamental function, because those are the functions of elected Members; it is they who make the decisions and come to the conclusions that they do about whether we should adopt this or that policy. I have never adopted the view that we should take a strong political view, whether one feels strongly for or against an order politically. It is the duty of this House to respond on the process and clarity of competence. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, reminded us, he and I served on the Constitution Committee, which began the task of scrutinising these LCOs when they first came into being.
There was an issue of clarity of competence on the right to buy. I was interested in the Minister’s reply to my brief intervention that the competence still stands. Paragraph 7.23 states that the order will give the Assembly the competence,
“to replace the current Right to Buy scheme with improved and updated schemes to assist home ownership”.
That is incorporated in this order; it has not been removed. I happen to support the policy, but I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord and I in our early Back-Bench days would have been as generous about this proposal as we plan to be today. We are saying to the Government that we can give the Assembly the power because it has told us that it is not going to use it. If I was a Minister proposing such a proposition, I would imagine a fair degree of criticism of such a position. However, that is the position that we have arrived at, with the Minister saying that the Government have had assurances that the power is not going to be used—although he admitted that that cannot bind future Governments in the Welsh Assembly. Nevertheless, we are going to let the power go through because it is not going to be used. I confess that that is normally an appealing case to Back-Benchers, wherever they stand on an issue. I look forward to a further defence of that position when the Minister comes to reply.
Before I come to the rest of what I want to say, let me make an aside. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, said, there have been some 140,000 sales of council property. My constituency days are now more than 10 years ago, but I cannot remember towards the end of my period in the mid-1990s many right to buys being exercised in Merthyr and Rhymney. The first great swathe of purchases took place in the mid-1980s. I am interested to find out how much of a pressure there is. Can the Minister give us figures on how many sales took place last year under the right to buy? I fear and suspect that by far the largest portion of that 140,000 was purchased in the first decade. I wonder how much of an issue it is. Because I no longer have a constituency to serve, I accept that I may not have a feel for whether the pressures are still there and in what form and degree. Perhaps we could have some figures on recent purchases that have taken place—for the last 12 months, for example.
I do not want to quibble with the policy because I have full sympathy with the burden of the case made for this LCO, but I want to put this into an LCO context. I suppose that I belong to a small band of people—there are not many of us—who are fans of LCOs. I happen to be a fan because they arose out of the deliberations of the Richard commission, on which I had the privilege to serve. Wherever one stood on the issue of the full transfer of powers, LCOs were seen as an interim measure that would enable the Assembly to expand legislative competence. Therefore, I have been a great defender of the process and I continue to be one.
Before I sit down, I shall suggest to the Minister that, between now and the referendum, we should assess what has happened and the extent to which legislative competence has been transferred. For example, seven new matters are to be put into Schedule 5 as a result of this one order. When one looks at the informative Explanatory Memorandum and the appendix to it, which shows the other amendments that have been made to Schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act, one can tot up more than 60 matters that have been included in the schedule since the passing of the Act, as a result of these orders and of framework powers in legislation. I contend that that is a significant and meaningful transfer of legislative competence from Westminster to the Assembly.
Despite the tendency to malign these orders, they have served a legislative purpose, which I am willing to defend wholeheartedly, as a means by which the Assembly has been given competence to legislate. Perhaps in reply the Minister could bring us up to date on how many LCOs there have been. I used to keep count, but an election and a couple of other things have interrupted my arithmetic. I thought that there were a dozen or 15 before, but perhaps he could give us an update on the number of LCOs that have passed through this House. I do not believe that either this or the other place has created a logjam for transferring legislative competence to the Assembly. These orders have gone through.
To date, how many measures in the Assembly have flowed from these orders? Have we been holding up the Assembly in its legislative activity? The last time I took stock, only a third of the LCOs had led to measures. Again, that would be useful informative background to the debates that will take place in the months to come on the transfer of power under Part 4 of the 1998 Act through a referendum. I would like an assessment of where we stand. How many measures have flowed from the orders that we passed in this place and the other place as a result of the 1998 Act?
My other question relating to the informed debate that we should have on these issues in the run-up to the referendum is: what, in total, will be left to transfer under Part 4 in the main areas of policy? Let us take housing, health and education. Paragraph 4.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:
“The Welsh Ministers already have devolved to them significant executive powers and secondary legislative powers across a wide range of legislation relating to housing”.
That has already happened. It lists 10 Acts that are involved. In the area of housing, health and education, how much legislative competence has already been transferred within the total responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government? I have the impression that we have now substantially transferred a considerable degree of competence to legislate in these three key areas. This order is very much an addition to that list.
Finally, I seek clarification from the Minister on the exceptions. As he will know, when we have scrutinised other orders, exceptions have been attached to the order to show that the writ will not run in certain respects. In this case, the exceptions are of a general kind. Provisions relating to housing benefit and to council tax benefit are exempt or excluded from the power to legislate within the Assembly. In the wake, possibly, of a successful referendum, so that Part 4 comes into play, what will happen to these exceptions? Will they remain or will they be swept aside by Part 4? In other words, under Part 4, will the whole area of council tax and housing benefits be transferred legislatively to the Assembly, so that the Assembly can change the character of such benefits? Until now, we have maintained a degree of conformity and uniformity across England and Wales in social security benefits, particularly those for council tax and housing. I should like to see how this will unfold during the debates that we will have in the coming months.
I support the order, just as I have supported, with occasional queries and questions, the orders that preceded it. Once or twice, the Constitution Committee has raised serious issues about drafting. I hope that we can be confident that Assembly consideration of this kind of legislation after a successful referendum will be as vigilant as, I believe, that of both Houses and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee has been in helping us to scrutinise LCOs, which have been an important development in Welsh legislative history.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, for jumping to the pulpit ahead of me. Perhaps I may suggest a sermon. I look to the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which we hear about a race that is run quite slowly sometimes. This race has been run slowly: it has taken a long time to get the orders. I am told that for education 18 new powers have been transferred to the Assembly but that there has been only one new power for housing. I am told that most of them do not come from legislative competence orders but that 60 per cent of them come from Bills.
Speaking of the sermon, I feel that I am surrounded by a mighty cloud of witnesses, of people from various departments—for example, the Department for Health, the Home Office, the Welsh Office and others—who have worked at this over many years, which I appreciate. I know them and I call them my good friends, on whichever side of the House they may sit. They have battled away on the Welsh scene over many years.
It is a privilege to have two of my own party colleagues on either side of me. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace has led in the Scottish Parliament and my noble friend Lord German has been the Deputy in the Assembly in Cardiff. I am lost in this place today. Since 1931, my Liberal colleagues have sat on opposition Benches. Suddenly, we are transferred to the government Benches. We are just settling in. It makes such a difference and it gives us the opportunity to stir things up as regards some of these legislative competence orders.
The hope is—I am sure that this is general to all parties—that in the spring the referendum on additional powers for the Assembly in Wales will result in a yes vote throughout Wales. I think that we have to do it. For one thing, it will save a lot of time and money on these orders coming here and we will be able to devote our time to other issues that possibly deserve more time than they get at present.
Two tests should be applied to this order, as to any other order, according to the Government of Wales Act 2006. The issues to be passed to the National Assembly must correspond to the executive functions of the Welsh Assembly Government—we are not able to introduce anything else—and must relate solely to Wales. Scotland led the way in the settlement that was reached. We have been saying, “If only we had the same powers as Scotland”. We are moving on this issue, but, as I say, the rate is slower in Wales. However, it will speed up after the spring. In Scotland, people knew which powers they had and which powers they did not have. In Wales, we have just kept on asking, “Please can you include such a power and such a responsibility?”. I am sure that this is not the correct way to say it, but we have been opting in, whereas Scotland knows which powers it does not have at present.
This housing order is important. It is a part of devolution in Wales. It gives us the authority to deal with housing matters in Wales. It has been mentioned that we could look at the sale of council houses or social houses. Like many other places, Wales has the problem that the situation differs from county to county, even from parish to parish. In some areas, the housing situation is so grave that it might be necessary—possibly not—to look again at the reasonableness of selling council houses. That could well be a necessity, particularly given the present crisis in which some people are losing their homes. If it gets to that desperate state, we in Wales will have the authority to say, “For the time being let us look at this area and this need”.
The order will add substantially to the powers in Wales. The Assembly Government must decide how they will use those powers. That is what government is about and what devolution is about. It is not that we keep on saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that”. However, we have the authority in health, education, public transport and now housing to decide our own agenda. It must be within the Assembly’s competence. This order marks a significant move in the development of the Assembly’s powers. Therefore, we on these Benches wish it well. We wish the Assembly Members who will exercise this discretion all the wisdom and all the powers that they need to meet the needs of people in different parts of Wales.
My Lords, I will detain the Grand Committee for only a very few moments. I, too, join everybody else in congratulating the Minister on his first foray into Welsh affairs in this Committee. I wish him every happiness and every success for the future. I agree very much with the precept that was articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands. We are not here to consider the basic merits of these devolved matters; we are here to say whether the procedures of devolution set out so clearly in Part 3 of the 2006 Act are properly adhered to. I say that because, like more than one Member of this Committee, I have heard it argued here over the past two or three years that there seems to be some onus of proof on whoever seeks to justify a measure of this nature to show that it has a fundamental benefit for the people of Wales. That is not what devolution is about. If we were to apply such a test, we would be going contrary to the principles set out in the 2006 Act in Parts 3 and 4.
I wholeheartedly support the measures. Indeed, having said that we should not consider them, I would say that they have every merit. In this respect, if ever there was a devolvable issue in relation to Welsh matters it must be in relation to housing or local government. We are dealing with a situation in which there are so many distinctive Welsh nuances that it cries out for devolution. The executive devolution took place a long time ago, soon after 1964, when the Welsh Office was set up. It is only right and proper that there should be primary legislative devolution to attach itself to that.
I take the point made by more than one Member of the Committee that nothing that we do here on these LCOs creates one word of legislation. All that we do is give a passport for legislation to take place in another place. We peg out an area and say to the Welsh Assembly that, now that it has asked for it, within that defined area it can build a legislative edifice. I am not sure how many Measures have come directly from LCOs; I suspect that it is about a dozen, with about half a dozen from other sources.
I have only one other thing to add. I thank whoever was responsible for the Explanatory Memorandum. It is one of the very best that I have read in relation to any legislation, but particularly in relation to these matters.
My Lords, I support this order and wish the Wales Assembly well when it receives, operates and exploits it. Housing is the basic provision for any family life and I have no doubt that the Wales Assembly will always bear that in mind. The sum total of happiness will be advanced somewhat by the fact that these powers are coming nearer home for the people of Wales. The order will be operated by an Assembly that really believes in it.
I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, make his speech. He will not mind my saying that it was a Methodist speech, perhaps in more than three parts just slightly so. I always listen with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. Nobody has served Wales longer than he has or with more dedication. He has great experience, which one hears in his observations on a matter such as this. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord the Minister on his appointment to his office. I saw his entry to the other place, I saw him leave it and I have seen him come back. He has made a strong beginning. I also offer most sincere congratulations to my noble friend on the Front Bench. Nobody knows Wales better than she. She knows Wales like the back of her hand and has served it with great compassion, conscientiousness and commitment. We will all wish her well on the Front Bench in her duties.
After the last general election in Wales, I took the trouble to go to the opening of the Wales Assembly by our sovereign Her Majesty the Queen. She was accompanied by the Consort, the Duke, and by the heir, the Prince of Wales—and he by the Duchess of Cornwall. Having been present in the Chamber looking down on the Royal Family, facing the Government of Wales and the Assembly, I thought that I was seeing some history. The conclusion that I draw from that moment is that the Welsh Assembly is for ever. It is an Assembly of stability and great potential. In any consideration of the order, one has the understanding of where it is going and how it will be best used to the advantage of the people of Wales.
It occurred to me that, having been present at that historic moment for the nation of Wales, I could not see how there would not be more legislative powers in time. I could see the status of the Assembly growing by the year. I could see its importance always advancing and it having more authority and power to raise more moneys, with its standing always growing. I saw the process as irreversible, but I asked myself, “Did the Assembly need to have more Members?”. I then asked myself, “Would this Parliament have fewer Members?”. I do not wish to debate that issue now—nor should I—but I suspect that our nation, Wales, is on track and that the British nation will see something approaching federalism in the decades ahead, whether that should be or not.
None of us, I suggest to the Committee, should be in ignorance of the consequences of what we are doing when we pass these orders for Wales. There is a consequence over and above the use of the order. I sometimes wonder whether Parliaments fully comprehend the consequences of the legislation that they make.
My Lords, this has been a positive and constructive debate. I start by thanking all the noble Lords and the noble Baroness for their kind words of welcome and congratulation. I consider it a privilege to be able to engage with noble Lords and, indeed, to re-establish some friendships and acquaintances from my time in the other place, particularly with the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands. Exactly 27 years ago this week—I am an anorak in this sort of thing—I served along with the noble Lord on my first Standing Committee in another place, which was considering the Petroleum Royalties (Relief) Bill. It certainly means a lot to me to be here and to engage with him again.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, suggested that I would, over time, get to realise that Welsh politics is different from Scottish politics. The learning curve has been very steep indeed but I had already appreciated that, although I am sure that there is still much more to learn. In fact, with the happy situation of belonging to a federal party along with my noble friends here, we have learnt from one another over a number of years how the body politic functions in different parts of our United Kingdom. I join the noble Lord, Lord Jones, in congratulating the noble Baroness on assuming Front-Bench duties. I rather suspect that there will be a number of occasions when we will be facing each other across the Dispatch Box, either in Grand Committee or in the Chamber, and I very much look forward to those encounters.
I welcome the fact that there has been broad agreement and support for the order. Perhaps I might respond to a number of the points raised. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, made a point about the timing of the laying of the order. She asked why my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary had apparently changed his position. We could always go into forensic detail about what happened when in the weeks of February and March. My understanding is that the order could have been laid before Parliament before the wash-up. It does not necessarily help us today to speculate on why that did not happen. The point is that, after a bit of a troubled history when another order fell foul of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, we have an order today that has commanded support.
On the press comments in the Western Mail and the press release issued by the Wales Office, the statement in the press release made clear why there was an apparent change in position. Indeed, my honourable friend David Jones indicated to the Committee in the other place that he had had discussions with Jocelyn Davies and that there had been an agreement to excise the provisions relating to the right to buy from the order—let us recall that that was the position of the Welsh Affairs Committee in 2008. However, it was then discovered that, to make that change, with all the procedures that would go with it, it would not be possible to get the order through before the Summer Recess, as we wish to do in order to give the Welsh National Assembly an opportunity to pass legislation, if it wishes to take advantage of the order, before the election in 2011. This is an example of the Welsh National Government and this Government being able to discuss these things in a mature way and to come forward with the right solution. I hope that we will be able to take that forward by consenting to this order when it is put to the whole House.
The noble Baroness mentioned the importance of the Essex report, which I understand has been an important part of the thinking in the development of the strategy that the Government in Wales produced earlier this year. We hope that we can facilitate its implementation by passing this legislative consent order.
My noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy emphasised the importance of the right to buy. There have been 140,000 sales. The noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, asked about the experience over time of the right to buy. It has applied to over 46 per cent of the original stock since it was introduced in 1980. The numbers have declined. In 1997-98, there were 2,716 completed sales—I am picking out dates for the key peaks and troughs. In 2003-04, there were 6,811 sales. In 2007-08, there were 819 sales. In 2008-09, there were 157 sales. The number has fluctuated over time but, over the last two years for which I have figures, it has apparently gone down. The position of the Welsh Assembly Government is that they wish to use the powers temporarily to suspend the right to buy in areas where there is housing pressure.
My noble friend made the point that, if devolution means anything, it goes further than just an Assembly. One of the assurances that we sought was that, with regard to Gypsy and Traveller sites, a specific site would not be imposed on a particular community. We are grateful for that assurance.
A number of noble Lords made the more general point that, if you are going to devolve, there is no point in second-guessing the policy that will be used. We are here to exercise our statutory function under the Government of Wales Act to assess the devolution of powers under this order. It must then be a matter for the Members who are properly democratically elected to the Welsh National Assembly to determine how they will use their powers. That is the proper way in which devolution moves forward. The noble Lord, Lord Jones, said that we should be very clear in understanding what we are doing in this. He mentioned the word “federalism”. That might get my noble friends Lord German and Lord Roberts of Llandudno and me excited, but I shall resist the temptation at the moment. There may be opportunities in the future to discuss that.
The noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, asked a number of important detailed questions. I have already indicated the figures with regard to the right to buy. I shall answer some of his other points as best I can. More than 70 areas have been devolved to the Assembly to date. I am informed that there have been 14 LCOs to date and that, in addition, framework powers have been devolved in other Bills. I do not have a figure for the number of subsequent exercises of that power by the Welsh National Assembly, but if I can get that information I shall write to the noble Lord and inform him. He also asked what was left to devolve. The answer is, of course, a great deal. Even just in the area of housing, this order does not cover housing finance or the private rented sector, on which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, last week made a distinguished maiden speech, dealing with many issues. The order does not deal with specific issues such as park homes. These are matters that will be the substance and meat of the debate that takes place leading up to the forthcoming referendum, when the people of Wales will have a choice about how they take forward the possibilities of further devolution. As I said earlier in the Chamber, that is a matter for the people of Wales; ultimately, it is for them to decide.
The noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, asked why the Government did not take out the abolition. I hope that I have answered that already in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. The most important thing to us was to get this order through and to allow the Welsh Assembly to determine how it wishes to exercise these powers. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, used the eloquent phrase “passport for legislation”. That is very much what we are doing today; we are being asked to agree a passport for legislation. He said that the correct thing was for us to consider whether it was appropriate for legislative competence to be transferred and devolved. In a nutshell, that is what we are being asked. It is certainly the belief of the coalition Government that the answer to that should be, “Yes, it is appropriate”. I commend the order to the Committee and hope that we all agree that it is appropriate.