Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 98, line 34, at end insert--
("(1A) A person subject to immigration control within the meaning of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 is not qualified to be allocated housing accommodation by any authority in England and Wales unless he is of a class prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): My Lords, in putting Amendment No. 8 I have to inform the House that were it to be carried I could not put Amendments Nos. 9 or 10 before your Lordships.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 98, line 35, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving the amendment, I speak to Amendments Nos. 11, 13, 15 and 20 to 23. All those amendments make a single point. Some are merely consequential, others deal with the identical points.

It may not have been fully appreciated among your Lordships that this is a nationalisation Bill. We no longer expect such Bills from the party on our left, but it seems instead that we have them coming from the party opposite. We do not welcome them any more from one quarter than the other.

Amendment No. 8 deals with Clause 153(2), which states that,

In other words, the Secretary of State is to take all the decisions about who goes on the local authority register, on what criteria they are put there, who may not be put on the local authority register, and what criteria of need may not be taken into account in Clause 157(8), on

8 Jul 1996 : Column 43

which we have already touched. The Secretary of State is to make all the decisions and the local authority is merely to rubber stamp them.

That creates a paper chase. Secretaries of State, as used to be said of kings, must see with other men's eyes and hear with other men's ears. Therefore it has to be provided in Clause 154(4), that a local authority's housing register,

    "shall contain such information ... as the Secretary of State may prescribe by regulations".
Where a new need is identified, a massive flow of information has to go to the Secretary of State. Someone in Whitehall will have to read through it and it will take a long time. Then, perhaps too late to meet the need involved, a decision will flow back through a regulation, we shall assemble in the dinner break to debate it, and a new category of need will be taken into account. It is a cumbersome process. It was the kind of process of administration which used to occur in the reign of King Philip II of Spain. It took an extremely long time.

It is not only on these Benches that the issue has caused some dismay. When looking through papers I came across these words, which I shall not attribute. The speaker, a member of the Conservative Party, said:

    "I have spent 15 years in local government, and all of those 15 years as a district councillor I served on the housing committee. During that time I found that gradually the management powers of the council were eroded by central government. This was a big problem for us ... Here is another proposal which will mean that councils' hands will be tied and they will be restricted from exercising their best judgment".
That is not an opinion confined to one side of the House. If there is any point in having local councils--and we on these Benches believe with great passion that there is--they should be entitled to take account of local circumstances to assess local needs for themselves on the basis of first-hand knowledge. The provisions of Clauses 153 and 157 will prevent that.

One always used to hear a great deal from the Conservatives about Edmund Burke, who saw society as made up of a series of little platoons. In the cohesion of those little platoons he saw a great deal of the cohesion that makes society hang together. When we listen to Conservatives now we hear of nothing but individuals and the state. The little platoons are being disbanded; they are going the way of the Highland regiments. Among those little platoons, the local authorities have had an important place for many centuries. In taking this discretion away from them, the Secretary of State is creating a great deal of work. The measure will produce slow reactions. Despite provisions for yet more regulations which are designed to prevent it, it will produce a great deal of unnecessary uniformity. It will do a great deal of harm. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I support my noble friend. My concerns about the provisions to which he has drawn attention are not as regards the paper chase. They are simpler and more fundamental. Despite the Government's lip service to the need for flexibility, for response to local circumstances, and so on--I have already said that it appears in their consultation paper

8 Jul 1996 : Column 44

on allocation--they cannot bear to allow local housing authorities to take decisions for themselves. In the interests of good government I could understand an argument that the clauses should provide for classes of persons who will be qualifying persons, allowing a local housing authority to add other classes. These clauses allow the Secretary of State to prescribe classes of persons who are not qualifying persons.

It seems so harsh and centralised that it almost defies belief. Clause 157(4) states:

    "The Secretary of State may ... specify factors which a local housing authority shall not take into account".
I agree that a local housing authority should not take into account whether an applicant has red hair. However, I do not believe that any local housing authority whose members submit themselves on a four-yearly or annual basis to election will behave in such a silly fashion. Local housing authorities have an ability to assess qualifications, needs and so on for themselves, in the light of their own circumstances. That has already been alluded to, not only by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in moving an earlier amendment, but also rightly by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, in moving the amendment, the noble Earl, with characteristic modesty, disapplied almost all the regulation-making powers in Part IV of the Bill. He went on to say that it was a "nationalisation" Bill. I fail to see the connection between the two, but the noble Earl in his wisdom obviously finds one, even if it is not shared by other people. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that the provision was harsh and centralised.

There are good reasons for having the Bill as it is. The purpose of the regulation-making powers is twofold. First, as already discussed in our consideration of the government amendments moved by my noble friend Lord Mackay earlier, we propose to use the power to remove the entitlement to social housing from certain classes of people from abroad. We may also use it to confer an entitlement on certain descriptions of people who, we believe, should be entitled to be considered for permanent accommodation by a local authority. We have in mind, for example, giving anyone over 18 who is owed a duty under the homelessness legislation a right to appear on the housing register.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, thought that the Secretary of State was taking all the decisions on who goes on the register. I remind him that in our January 1996 consultation we made it clear that we would only limit access to the register in respect of certain classes of people from abroad. However, we are minded to give entitlement to appear on the register to certain people who have clear needs--in other words, those who are owed a duty under the homelessness legislation. One might say, "Why do all that by regulation?" The answer is in order to make it flexible. We do not wish to put all possible permutations that might arise into the Bill and set them in concrete. By having orders, we can amend and adjust the provisions from time to time as circumstances change.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 45

Amendment No. 15 deletes subsection (4) from Clause 154. That is the regulation-making power for the Secretary of State to prescribe the content of an authority's housing register. If a person is entitled to see his entry on the housing register, there should be a need to ensure that it contains information which is of use to him.

Clause 157 is exposed to no less than four amendments. Amendment No. 20 deletes subsection (3), thereby removing the regulation-making power under which the Secretary of State may specify further descriptions of people to whom preference is to be given. Since the power is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure--I sense the noble Earl is somewhat fonder of it than he is of the negative procedure--his amendment seems off-beam because the matter will be able to be discussed by Parliament.

Subsection (4) would be lost from the clause under Amendment No. 21. That is the regulation-making power for the Secretary of State to specify the factors which a local housing authority shall not take into account in allocating accommodation. An example would be where an authority sought to give priority to people solely on the basis that they had been born in the area. That seems unfair.

Amendment No. 22 demolishes yet another subsection of Clause 157--subsection (5). That is the regulation-making power for the Secretary of State to prescribe the principles in accordance with which a scheme for the allocations procedure is to be followed. We are minded to use the power to make regulations restricting the involvement of elected members from decisions on individual applications. Amendment No. 23 disposes of subsection (6).

That is all good, swiping draconian stuff. If we take the amendments together, they would leave Part VI open to a kaleidoscope of interpretation and application by local authorities. They could well do things quite differently. If authorities were to be left entirely to their own devices in the field of allocations, I fear that an intolerable situation would develop with inconsistencies and unfairness creeping in all over the place.

I know that secondary legislation is anathema to the noble Earl. However, in an area such as this we must have regulations. I ask him to delve deep into his conscience and realise that if we were to put everything on the face of the Bill, there would be no way of altering it, short of other primary legislation. Knowing the noble Earl's dislike, like mine, of too much primary legislation, I am sure that he will agree that it is better to have it in secondary legislation.

5.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Earl has made the case for my amendment a great deal better than I did. In the course of answering, he entirely mistook its purpose. I am not just arguing about primary versus secondary legislation. My argument is that I do not see why the Secretary of State should have the powers at all. It seems to me an outrage that he should have them. It is a bureaucratic nightmare, a centralisation and the

8 Jul 1996 : Column 46

imposition of a remote and uninformed judgment on a local and informed judgment. It is a gross constitutional impropriety.

The Minister said that it would create a kaleidoscope. But the Government have admitted in discussion of Clause 9 of the Asylum and Immigration Bill as well as in this Bill that different regulations may be needed for different areas. The Government admit the need for a kaleidoscope because they admit the variety of local housing circumstances. If there has to be a kaleidoscope, why should it not be judged by those best qualified to do so--those who live in the area and who meet the people there every day. They should do it rather than have it all taken into the hands of Whitehall.

I did not expect the Minister to understand what I meant when I described it as a "nationalisation" Bill. I mean that the Government are turning local authorities into departments of Whitehall. That is not what local authorities are for. Because they are elected at different times and places and because they may be of a different political complexion from the governing party, no matter which party that may be, local authorities are a necessary part of the political variety which makes this a free country. To take that away I regard as a grave error of judgment.

The noble Earl recommended the measures to me on the ground that they were designed to disentitle people from abroad. I know that he has been away and I too am glad to see him back in his place. However, if he had not been away he would not have supposed that that would act as a recommendation to me. Why is it the Government's business to decide? I understand why, once they have set out on that course, they need flexibility. Once they have taken powers that are too detailed for them to have at all, they need regulation-making powers in order to change their minds and further regulation-making powers in order to change their changes of mind. "Greater fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em" and so on ad infinitum.

Once again, I recommend to the Minister that he study the report of his noble friend Lord Renton on the drafting of legislation. He drew attention to the fact that this over-detailed, over-prescriptive, way of legislating based on a desire to foresee all possible cases--which of course no legislator ever can--necessarily leads to a multiplication of powers. Although it is moved by the pursuit of certainty, it ultimately ends in exactly the opposite.

Above all, I believe what lies behind the Secretary of State's judgment is the utter impatience felt by all executives, and even more badly by those who have been there too long, with any check to their power to do what they like. This Government have shown great impatience with anything that has impeded their will. They have shown impatience with the judges, the European Union, the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the Church, this House, and with local authorities. We are seeing here a part of a very wide constitutional battery. It has occasionally been parodied by governments who have been in office even longer than this Government have.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 47

King Xerxes was once bringing an invading army across a strait and built a bridge of boats to march it across. When a storm came up and blew away his bridge of boats, King Xerxes ordered his soldiers to whip the sea. That is what happens when people have been in power for too long. I wish to ask the opinion of the House.

5.21 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 8) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 56; Not-Contents, 147.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page