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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As the Minister anticipated, I found his answer disappointing. He raised two issues. The first was the route by which one should address the problem and the second was the scale of the problem. With regard to the route, the Minister insists that the right response of the Government is order-making power and therefore they go the route of regulation. I should have thought that that was unwise, given what we have experienced recently. But more substantively, the issue of suitability in all its dimensions is the fulcrum of the whole of what it is reasonable for local authorities to offer to homeless families.

I am sure that the Minister would not dissent from that view. Time and again local authorities have to assure themselves that there is suitable accommodation available for a homeless family. If it is not, they are expected to discharge their responsibilities to homeless families in their own temporary accommodation. Yet the Government are unwilling to define this pivotal word--"suitable"--on the face of the Bill. We are allowed to define categories of people in Clause 148 who can be given reasonable preference; we are allowed to define people who have secure tenancies and who do not have to go through the introductory tenancy route. But when it comes to the word "suitable"--a pivotal word in Section 7--we are not allowed to define it other than by regulation. Why? Because circumstances may change. For instance, the Government may consider that accommodation does not have to be affordable. Is that a circumstance that may change?

The Minister shakes his head. Can he tell me in what way the word "affordable" is likely possibly to change such that he wants the flexibility of order rather than primary legislation? Is he saying that at some point the Government may decide that this is an immaterial factor? Surely not. The Minister has not given one reason why it should not be on the face of the Bill. I accept that regulations have a place for a provision that has numbers in it--money or whatever--which need to be uprated or where the matter is highly technical and may need to be subsequently amended. But the core of this Bill is that homeless families must be offered suitable accommodation. When we have pressed the Minister as to what "suitable" means--whether it is in terms of decent repair, physical access or affordability--he says that the Government will act by regulation in case circumstances change, in case they do not want families to have affordable accommodation, do not think physical access is relevant or do not think decent repair is relevant. That cannot be the case. I am very disappointed by the Minister's response. I do not doubt that we shall seek to come back to this matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Clause 183 agreed to.

Clause 184 agreed to.

Clause 185 [Co-operation between relevant housing authorities and bodies]:

[Amendment No. 268BB not moved.]

Clause 185 agreed to.

Clause 186 [False statements, withholding information and failure to disclose change of circumstances]:

On Question, Whether Clause 186 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hamwee: Perhaps I may take this opportunity to pursue briefly a point I raised earlier regarding the reference in subsection (2) of the clause to an authority explaining to applicants in ordinary language. I very much support the use of ordinary language but I am concerned that, in providing specifically for ordinary language in connection with this duty, a licence is being given to local housing authorities to use opaque language in connection with other matters. Will the Minister give some explanation as to why the Government feel it necessary specifically in this clause to include these words? I accept that the clause deals with the commission of an offence, but to my mind that is not sufficient.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Baroness is probably right that the reason for the words being in the clause is that it refers to a matter relating to an offence. I should quite like everything to be in ordinary language. When I suggest to parts of my department that we should write things in simpler language I come up against the answer, dare I say it to the noble Baroness, that we have to write it in such a way that the lawyers do not start playing ducks and drakes with it. Perhaps if the lawyers were more understanding and were less keen to go through things with a fine-tooth comb, we would all be able to write a lot of matters, including legislation, in simpler language. However, if the noble Baroness does not mind, I shall write to her about the detailed point she raised.

Clause 186 agreed to.

Clause 187 [Regulations and orders]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 268C:


Page 109, line 27, at end insert ("and shall be subject to approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament").

The noble Earl said: This is not my usual point. The amendment provides for making the regulation-making power affirmative. My original intention was simply to put down a probing amendment to delete the words in the clause. I was told I had to put down an alternative, which is why the affirmative procedure is there. I was intrigued by the words of Clause 187(1):


    "In this Part 'prescribed' means prescribed by regulations of the Secretary of State".
That is not a form of words with which I am familiar. I am familiar with regulations made by Parliament. The Secretary of State lays regulations. Parliament makes them. The Secretary of State may make orders or on some occasions issue directions and give guidance, as we have already heard. But regulations of the

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Secretary of State are a new kind of animal: they are a hybrid. I hope that, like mules, they may prove sterile. I beg to move.

Lord Swinfen: The trouble with mules is that they also kick.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I believe that I am thanking my noble friend Lord Swinfen for his intervention. I came armed for a discussion with the noble Earl on the usual basis on which we discuss these matters. He has taken me aback by changing its nature. I shall resist the temptation to draw historical parallels. The trouble with a certain kind of question is that every time one finds an answer the question is changed. I thought that I had answered the noble Earl this evening but he has changed the question.

I am intrigued by his question. If he says that this is not the normal way in which these things are written, I accept that that is the case. I shall look at the wording of Clause 187(1) and consider the matter he has raised and why--if it is--it is expressed in a different manner to that normally used for regulations and how they should be dealt with by both Houses. If the noble Earl is content with me writing to him on this interesting question, perhaps we may leave the matter at that.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister. I hope that the postal strike does not last. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 187 agreed to.

Clause 188 agreed to.

Schedule 14 [Homelessness: consequential amendments]:

[Amendment No. 268CA not moved.]

Schedule 14 agreed to.

Clause 189 [Minor definitions: Part VII]:

Amendment No. 268D not moved.

Clause 189 agreed to.

Clause 190 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 269 and 270 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 270A:


Before Clause 191, insert the following new clause--

Disposal by local authority of residential leasehold

("A local authority, when disposing of a residential leasehold, shall have a duty, as far as is practicable, to inform the potential purchaser of any proposed maintenance, repair or refurbishment plans affecting the property.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment requires a local authority to provide a potential purchaser of a council house or flat with reasonably full information about any possible charges which might arise in terms of maintenance, repairs and so forth. We are talking about adequate warning before the purchaser may have to pay what would otherwise be unexpected and sometimes quite large bills. That is not an idle fear. Wandsworth Council, of which I have some knowledge and

25 Jun 1996 : Column 883

experience, claims the record for having sold more council houses and flats than any other local authority in the country. They are leasehold. Many of the purchasers found themselves very rapidly faced with quite unexpected and large bills for repairs, decoration and maintenance.

Perhaps I may give an example. A man to whom I spoke some time ago had bought a flat in of block of 16. Shortly after purchase--within about six months--he was faced with a bill for the installation of a new lift in the block. From memory I believe that his share of the bill was between £1,000 and £1,500. The fact that the lift would need to be repaired or replaced must have been known to the local authority before it sold the flat, yet the purchaser was given no indication that such a large bill was in the offing or that such large works would be necessary. The man was devastated at being faced with having to pay a large sum of money without any warning. He had not saved any money for that as he did not think that it was necessary.

There was some indication in the small print that if repairs and redecoration were necessary at some point all the owners of flats in the block would have to pay their share, but that is not the same as giving adequate warning. It would be reasonable and would represent good faith with the purchasers of council houses and flats if they were given such information. The amendment is couched in reasonable terms. It states that, where practicable, the local authority should give purchasers such information. I beg to move.


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