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Housing and Planning Bill

Volume 771: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2016

Commons Reason

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 47E, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 47F.

47F: Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.

My Lords, we return for the last time to the higher-value vacant housing provisions contained in the Housing and Planning Bill. Earlier today, the other place considered the amendment in lieu proposed by this House yesterday and it has again offered a financial privilege reason for rejecting it. This is the third time that the other House has made the same point, each time following emphatic votes.

I fully understand why the other place has rejected the amendment: it is because the arguments are so compelling. High-value vacant housing is a clear manifesto commitment. It will increase housing supply through the delivery of affordable homes and extend home ownership by funding the discounts for the ground-breaking voluntary right-to-buy agreements. I reiterate what I said yesterday: the manifesto clearly states that the homes sold will be replaced by new homes. It does not say that there will be like-for-like replacement because that is not always what communities need. We want to ensure that new homes serve the needs of communities. That is why we want to retain flexibility in the legislation so that the Government, working with local places, can facilitate the development of the type of homes that communities need today.

From the outset, this Bill has enabled the Secretary of State to enter agreements with local authorities so that they can retain receipts from high-value asset sales to build new homes. Through the passage of the Bill, and with the immense scrutiny of your Lordships’ House, we have made it clear that where agreements are made, they will deliver at least one new affordable home for each property that is expected to be sold, and in London at least two new affordable homes for each property expected to be sold.

As I confirmed yesterday, the term “affordable” includes a range of different types of housing, from new homes for sub-market rent to home ownership products such as shared ownership and starter homes. I also explained that we will compensate local authorities for transaction costs and the debt supported by the higher-value housing expected to be sold. After that, we have been clear that the receipts will be used to fund both right-to-buy discounts for housing association tenants and the delivery of new affordable housing. We are not intending to use them for any other purpose.

As I explained yesterday, the amendment in lieu, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, would impact on our ability to work with local authorities to deliver the best, most cost-effective deals for replacement housing.

As we reach the conclusion of the Bill I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy, Lord Beecham, Lord Shipley, Lord Cameron and Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, as well as many other noble Lords, who have contributed their expertise to our debates and have done so with dedication and stamina. Together we have made real improvements to the Bill. Although we do not agree on all aspects of policy, noble Lords have debated the issue with intelligence and good humour—and we have needed it.

I pay tribute to the support that I have received over these many hours from my noble friends Lord Younger of Leckie and Lady Evans of Bowes Park. I have greatly appreciated the support of my noble friends behind me and of my officials. I am sure that we are all looking forward to getting some well-deserved rest.

For the last time, I beg to move.

My Lords, before addressing the substantive issue before the House I wish to draw attention to material which appeared in today’s edition of the Sun, reporting on our deliberations yesterday. The article began by stating:

“Ministers last night vowed to make MPs sit through the night to pass new Right to Buy laws after Labour peers blocked them”.

It went on to claim:

“The Lords again voted down key funding arrangements to extend the 1980s policy to all housing association tenants”.

There are only three things wrong with that statement. First, there was no call for MPs to sit through the night—or indeed at all—on this issue until, as I understand it, this afternoon. Secondly, the vote in favour of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, included Lib Dem and several Cross-Bench Peers as well as Labour Peers. Thirdly, the amendment did not amount to the alleged voting down of key funding arrangements. In fairness to the Sun, it has clearly been fed this distorted version of events by the Government.

What is much worse, however, is the astonishing personal attack on the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, by the Minister, Brandon Lewis, which the paper also reports. Mr Lewis says of this distinguished and highly respected public servant:

“Not only is Lord Kerslake unelected, he is the owner of his own home who is trying to stop others from owning theirs”.

Quite apart from the offensive language unworthy of a Minister of the Crown, this disgraceful attack entirely overlooks the role of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, in supporting the voluntary agreement between the housing association movement, of which he is a leading member, and the Government in extending the right to buy to their tenants. He is owed a prompt and full apology.

I turn now to the substantive issue before us. The House has twice asked the House of Commons—yesterday by a small majority—to reconsider its position in respect of one aspect of the Bill in relation to the sale of high-value homes and their replacement. It has declined to do so, and we now have reluctantly to accept the position. But I wish to return to the question of financial privilege, the claim to which has been reiterated by the Commons and has already been the subject of debate in your Lordships’ House. Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, made much of the issue and criticised the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, in terms which I think, on reflection—although by no means to be compared with those of Mr Lewis—he might just regret. He and I have had brief exchanges on the issue of financial privilege—a matter which my ancestors appear unaccountably to have omitted as the 11th commandment when they recorded what was engraved on the tablets of stone handed down at Mount Sinai.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, averred correctly that the designation of an amendment as one involving financial privilege is not made by the Speaker, the Government or the House of Commons. But that is not the end of the matter. In a paper on financial privilege in February 2012, the Clerk of the House and the Clerk of Legislation set out the position with complete clarity. When the Commons considers Lords amendments in which financial privilege is involved, the Commons can waive its privileges. If the Government use their majority, which of course they are entitled to do, the reason given to this House will be the financial privilege reason. The paper goes on to affirm that “the Commons can accept” such an amendment and “waive its privileges”, and continues:

“The Commons waives its privilege far more often than not. For example, 115 LAs”—

Lords amendments—“to the Localism Bill”, emanating, I remind noble Lords, from the same department that has fathered the present Bill,

“were designated as involving financial privilege. The House waived its privilege on all of them”.

Moreover, it adds:

“In the last three years”—

therefore including more than a year of the last Labour Government—

“sixteen Bills have come back from the Lords with amendments which involved privilege”.

On eight of them, privilege was waived on all the Lords amendments; on seven, privilege was waived on most, but not all; and on only one was privilege not waived because it required a money resolution.

It is therefore clear that this House is not acting improperly in passing amendments that might invoke privilege and that the Commons can, if it chooses, waive such a claim. There is no justification for intemperate claims about the actions of this House in the exercise of its duties to scrutinise and if possible improve legislation, let alone for the kind of attack on an individual Member which was launched today.

I will conclude on a more congenial matter, which is to express once again the thanks of the Opposition and I suspect all Members of the House to the noble Baroness the Minister and her colleagues—but especially to the noble Baroness, who has seen through this dreadful Bill with as much charm, patience, skill and effort as could be demanded of anybody. We are extremely grateful to her and to those who have supported her. We end up, in the view of many of us, with a very bad Bill that is by no means the fault of the noble Baroness, and she takes with us our good wishes for a relaxing weekend—before eventually we start going through the mass of secondary legislation that will flow from her efforts.

My Lords, I first declare my interest as chair of Peabody and president of the Local Government Association. The absence of another amendment signals that today will be considerably less dramatic than yesterday. I hope that the House, though, will bear with me while I say a few final words on this Bill.

In the end, any contest between this House and the other place will be an unequal one. That is as it should be: it is elected and we are not. However, that should not dissuade us from making our case clearly and forcefully on issues that really matter. In this case the matters involved matter a great deal. The underlying concerns about this Bill have been about its fairness, its commitment to localism and its deliverability. Most of all it has been about whether it will deliver the additional houses of all types and tenures that this country so desperately needs.

These issues came to the fore in yesterday’s debate. It is now clear that some manifesto commitments come ahead of others. In the competing demands of funding the extension of right to buy and funding the one-for-one replacement—both manifesto commitments —replacement will come a very clear second. Local authorities will have to draw on their own very scarce resources if one for one has any chance of being delivered. It has also become abundantly clear that the sums simply do not add up. How otherwise could you explain the resistance to what was after all a very modest amendment—certainly not a wrecking one—other than that it was born out of this financial discrepancy? It became very clear in yesterday’s debate, by seeking to align the means with the ends, that the financial means are simply not there. However, that will be a debate for another time, and it will go on outside and inside Parliament.

I, too, thank the Minister for her unfailing courtesy and integrity during the passage of this Bill. It is not her fault that she was lumbered with a Bill containing some deeply controversial policies and which in all truth was not really ready. I hope she will understand that it is the issues in the Bill that have created such passion, not the handling of it by her or her team.

I also thank all those organisations outside Parliament, such as Shelter, the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation, which have provided such great support to me and others during the Bill’s passage. As a result, we have been able to make some important improvements to it. We have also been able to change the terms of the debate about what its real impact will be.

Finally, I am not immune to the constitutional concerns nor the anxieties about the future position of the Cross-Benchers. I had an increasing number of fireside chats as we approached the vote yesterday, and with each one the temperature was turned up a notch. However, I have to balance these important issues against what I know about the world outside—as president of the LGA, the deep concerns of local government about the impact of the Bill; as chair of Peabody, the challenge of building more social rented homes; but most of all, what I know about the personal lives of ordinary people. I give just one example of a family with five children living in a two-bedroom flat less than half an hour from this House. The five children share a single bedroom. Will their chances of securing a decent family home be enhanced or diminished by the passage of this Bill? I fear we know the answer to that question. In my view, it is the interests of this family and the many others like them that should come first in our deliberations in this House.

My Lords, I know that the House will want to proceed. However, I am very glad that, with the House of Commons having for the third time cited financial privilege, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has not again pressed an amendment. To what purpose was the amendment pressed yesterday, with the minimal support it had from non-aligned Peers? Also, the noble Lord may be president of the LGA but I am leader of a local authority and he is not alone in wrestling with the difficult issues to which he alluded. He set a political testament of a sort before the House. This House, collectively, had to wrestle with this, as it does with every piece of legislation.

I rose to answer the diatribe from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who I respect very greatly. He mentioned my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who is not in his place. If there is one thing about my noble friend, it is that he certainly does need anybody to stand up and defend him. Were he here, he would have spoken for himself.

However, on the question of financial privilege, I make the following submission. I said in my remarks that this House is perfectly at liberty—and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, is perfectly within his rights—to propose an amendment in lieu. The question is not one of rights but of what is right in the circumstances. A wise House and any wise Member of it would measure the proportion and wisdom of the action taken. Sometimes, to exercise one’s rights is not the right thing to do. This great House, with the leadership that it looks to very often from the Cross-Benchers, whom we all esteem so much, expects that that point of balance is always recognised and understood. Sometimes we press things, sometimes very strongly. I remember cases when we did, on 90-day detention and things like that which affected really deep, fundamental liberties. Was this a case in point? I submit that it was not. I do not believe that the financial privilege asserted by the Commons now three times should have been challenged. I hope that all of us will reflect on that on future Bills.

My Lords, I have no intention of rerunning the debate we had yesterday. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, indicated, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, brings a strong reputation with him to this House and I deplore attempts yesterday to undermine that reputation and to force him into submission. I thank the Minister, her colleagues on the Front Bench and the officials for the way in which they helped us with this Bill. I also thank the Labour Front Benches and the Cross Benches for their efforts in trying, with us, to reach a compromise on this Bill. Together, we have made major amendments to the Bill, which have made it better. It is not perfect by any means but it is certainly better than when it arrived here. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, that we should not move any further amendments but I look forward to the discussions that we will have on regulations.

Even as the farewell symphony is playing, I will just trespass on your Lordships’ patience briefly. My concern is the possibility, even if remote, that the further exchange with the House of Commons that followed the vote last night might lead to an overreaction, rather in the way that led to the Strathclyde report. Regardless of the remaining imperfections in the Bill, the exchange yesterday and today may has been one too many. For the record, it is important that the understanding in your Lordships’ House of the practical application of Commons privilege is clearly demonstrated. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for quoting in extenso from the paper that I wrote in 2012.

It is very important to realise that financial privilege operates on something of a hair trigger; you do not need very much to engage it. As an example, when, a few years ago, as Clerk of Legislation in the House of Commons, it fell to me to take a view on the designation or otherwise of amendments coming from your Lordships’ House, I had to examine an amendment to the Bill which became the community land tax Act. Your Lordships had amended it in the sense that a period of consultation would be required before the Act could be commenced. I took the view that designation was appropriate because there was a risk that the consultation would delay the receipt of payments under the Act. Your Lordships—those noble Lords in the House at the time—were outraged and the decision to designate was roundly condemned on most sides of the House. I have a very clear memory of that. Indeed, I think I still have the Hansard. But it makes the point that at the heart of this is the phrase, which is in all three reasons in front of us:

“Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons”.

It is therefore wholly irrelevant whether your Lordships’ amendment would cost more or less or the same, however powerful the policy advocacy may be. I cannot finish without adding my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the Minister and her colleagues for their patience, forbearance and help throughout the proceedings.

My Lords, I finish with two comments. First, while I disagree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on financial privilege, there is one thing on which all Members of your Lordships’ House agree—that we need to build more homes in this country for people to live in. We may have disagreed on the proportions and the numbers, but we all agree that we need to build those homes, and get them built fast. I thank each and every noble Lord who has played their part in shaping this Bill in your Lordships’ House. I wish noble Lords a happy Prorogation.

Motion A agreed.