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Baroness Hamwee: In thanking the Minister I would observe that if the corporation makes a grant and makes conditions, one of those conditions, whether the Government provided for it or not, would, I hope, be that if the registered social landlord does not comply with the conditions it will have to pay back the grant. That is what I thought was covered by Clause 18(3). If there is more than that, perhaps I may turn around the burden of writing letters and ask the Minister to write to me if I am missing the point.

Clause 27, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 105 not moved.]

Clause 28 [Grants under ss.50 to 55 of the Housing Act 1988]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendments Nos. 106 to 108:

Page 17, line 21, leave out ("Part") and insert ("subsection").
Page 17, line 23, leave out ("Part") and insert ("subsection").
Page 17, line 26, leave out subsection (3) and insert--
("(3) Section 52 of that Act (recovery, &c. of grants) is amended as follows--
(a) in subsection (2)(c), for "to pay to it" substitute "to apply or appropriate for such purposes as the Corporation may specify, or to pay to the Corporation,";
(b) in the closing words of subsection (2), for the words from "requiring" to "interest on that amount" substitute "may require the application, appropriation or payment of an amount with interest";
(c) in subsection (7), for the words from "requiring" to "to the Corporation" substitute "requiring the application, appropriation or payment of an amount with interest";
(d) in subsection (8)(a), for the words from "the amount" to "is paid" substitute "the principal amount is applied, appropriated or paid";
(e) in subsection (8)(b), for "that amount is so paid" substitute "the principal amount is so applied, appropriated or paid".").

The noble Lord said: I spoke to Amendments Nos. 106 and 107 with Amendment No. 2 and my noble friend Lord Mackay spoke to Amendment No. 108 with Amendment No. 96. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 109 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 110:

Page 17, line 38, leave out ("this Part") and insert ("section 1 of this Act (the register of social landlords)").

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The noble Lord said: I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 2. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 28, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 29 [Commutation of payments of special residual subsidy]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 111:

Page 18, line 6, leave out ("or greater").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 112. In Clause 29(3) provision is made that,

    "if after a commuted payment has been made to a housing association ... smaller or greater than it should have been, the Secretary of State may make a further payment"
in order to make up the shortfall if the payment was smaller or require repayment by the association if the payment was greater.

I am seeking to confine subsection (3) to making up payments that were smaller than they should have been. It is tough to require repayment of an amount which has been overpaid when the Secretary of State has had further thought about what he should have done in the first instance and come to the view that he has been a little over-generous. That provision would allow the Housing Corporation to keep on reviewing its decisions. Even though one appreciates that there are uncertainties in the future and matters can appear over the horizon which can change one's business plans, to add the problem of the Secretary of State requiring repayment increases the difficulty of the housing organisation operating in a businesslike fashion. I do not believe that I would want to do business with someone who says, "I reserve the right to consider in a general way whether I shall ask you to pay some money back". That does not lead to efficiency quite apart from justice. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: I believe that the noble Baroness exaggerates the problem. I also believe that she has been playing too much Monopoly: "There is a Housing Corporation error in your favour, collect £100". That is not the Government's idea of how this Bill should be put together. It is in the interests of good financial management that provision should be made to enable any overpayment to be recovered. These calculations are complex. On occasions there will be mistakes made in both directions by the Housing Corporation and whatever their direction they should be corrected.

Baroness Hamwee: My concern is with the words,

    "greater than it should have been".
That allows a discretion which goes beyond the explanation that the Minister has given. Perhaps this matter can have a little further attention; we should not disallow efficiency. In opening I said that I felt that efficiency should be encouraged. However, it should be made quite clear what the limit should be on the Secretary of State's determination. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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[Amendment No. 112 not moved.]

Clause 29 agreed to.

Clause 30 [General power to obtain information]:

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 113:

Page 18, line 31, leave out (", or has been,").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I also speak to Amendments Nos. 114 and 116. Amendment No. 116 is slightly dissociated from this, and I shall be speaking to it in greater detail as I go along. Amendments Nos. 113 and 114 give rise to certain problems. A notice under the general powers of the corporation may be served on somebody who has been, in the words of subsection (2)(b),

    "an officer, member, employee or agent of a registered social landlord".
It is odd that the corporation may serve a notice even though many people may resign from being,

    "an officer, member, employee or agent of a registered social landlord".
Nevertheless on some future occasion the corporation has the right to serve notice on him or her. Amendment No. 114 is very broad. The corporation can serve a notice to obtain information on,

    "any person whom the Corporation has reason to believe is or may be in possession of relevant information".
That is enormously broad. I very much hope that the Government will reconsider that wording.

Amendment No. 116 leads us into this matter. It is designed to address what I consider to be a clause in the Bill which cuts straight across the banking secrecy provisions under both legislation and normal procedure. As far as I am aware--and I hope I am aware--bankers are not entitled to give any information about a client's account other than by a request under a court order. Looking at the Bill as drafted, the wording seems to cut right across that matter. It is something which the Government may well wish to look at again because I do not believe that it is consistent with proper banking practice or with the banking law as it stands at present. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Boardman: I support the three amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. Perhaps I may just comment on the third one as regards banking, while declaring a former interest in that occupation. As the Bill is currently drafted, there is a very deep intrusion into the confidentiality between the bank and the customer. It is a complete disregard of the Jack Committee report which referred to the degree of confidentiality that should be kept between the bank and the customer, which should not be intruded on unless there were very special circumstances. As I understand it, there has been no consultation with the bankers about this particular clause. I ask my noble friend to consider carefully either adopting the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, or propose a similar amendment which will meet the point that he makes.

Lord Hylton: The fact is that the Housing Corporation has very considerable powers already. Have any

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representations been made by that corporation pointing out that its powers are not sufficient? This clause is very widely drawn and probably far too widely drawn.

Lord Lucas: The powers that we are looking at in this clause are rather more restrictive than those enjoyed by the Charity Commissioners as regards charities. They have a very widely drawn power to require any person to furnish them with any information in his possession which relates to any charity and which is relevant to the discharge of their functions or the functions of the official custodian. That is not subject to the limitations under this clause of the Bill. We are looking here to give the Housing Corporation a set of powers which are, relative to the nearest obvious comparison, restricted. Nonetheless, I am happy to go through them in order and discuss the particular reasons for them. The corporation must ensure that it does not abuse its power, but it has a statutory duty to protect public funds and tenants, and it must be able to obtain the information that it requires.

In practice, the majority of registered social landlords will readily respond to requests for information. However, if the corporation meets resistance it needs to be able to take effective action. The provision in Clause 30 will enable the corporation to specify in a notice the information and documents to be made available to it. Should a registered social landlord without reasonable excuse fail to comply enforcement action can be taken under Clause 31.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, has proposed an amendment to the powers of the corporation to obtain information from the banker of a registered social landlord. The corporation is the guardian of the substantial public funds invested in registered social landlords. Its regulatory interest is not limited merely to public funds; it has a duty to protect tenants, and also needs to be assured that the registered social landlord can meet all its commitments, including the private loans that it holds. This aspect of the corporation's regulatory function also provides a degree of comfort to private lenders--something upon which they have frequently commented favourably.

There may be occasions when the corporation needs to obtain information from bankers. I believe it is right that it should on request be granted relevant information about an individual registered social landlord. I recognise that that power should not extend to other customers of the bank. I am assured that the present wording of Clause 30(5)(b) limits any request to the social landlord's banker to information about the registered social landlord itself. I hope that that provides some comfort to my noble friend Lord Boardman. For the additional comfort of my noble friend and that of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I will undertake to look again at the extent to which we are giving the corporation powers to request information from bankers. We have been in touch with the British Bankers' Association on the detail of this part of the Bill. That association has not raised this particular problem in relation to the clause, except that it would like to be able to charge fees for providing the information.

11 Jun 1996 : Column 1603

It has been suggested that this power will override the confidential relationship between banker and customer. I recognise that that special relationship exists and is protected by statute, but if the corporation is to perform its statutory function it must be able to obtain all relevant information on the financial position of a registered social landlord. Therefore, it is right that it should be able to require a banker to provide, in confidence, information about a registered social landlord who is a customer. Clause 33 provides that restrictions can be placed on further disclosure of information. This power is not unique to the corporation. The Charity Commissioners enjoy much more widely drawn powers, and the Companies Acts provide similar kinds of powers which enable the Secretary of State to require documents to be made available.

In moving Amendment No. 113 the noble Lord, Lord Williams, seeks to prevent former employees from being required to provide information about a registered social landlord. We believe that often former employees may well have relevant information that they have gained during their employment. This may fill important gaps in the corporation's knowledge. We consider it essential that it can legitimately take steps to obtain such information. We also consider it right that the corporation should be able to obtain information from others where it has reason to believe that they may hold something that is relevant. In this context, we will look at the way in which that power would apply to their bankers. If the corporation is to have effective powers it must be able to obtain information from those who it has good reason to believe are holding relevant information. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to withdraw his amendment. I hope that he will not move either of the others.

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