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Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 16:

Page 49, line 11, after ("1985") insert ("(power to limit number of occupants of house)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment adds to Clause 74 the description of Section 354 of the Housing Act 1985. This conforms to the usual practice when amending existing legislation. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 79 [Minor amendments]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 17:

Page 53, line 2, at end insert--
("( ) In Part IV of Schedule 13 to the Housing Act 1985 (control order followed by compulsory purchase order), in paragraph 22 (application of provisions where compulsory purchase order is made within 28 days of a control order), for "28 days" substitute "eight weeks".").

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 17 is tabled in response to an amendment moved at Report stage by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. I said that I accepted it in spirit, and would bring forward a similar amendment at Third Reading.

The amendment relates to the procedures that local authorities must follow after they have made a control order on an HMO, effectively taking over the running of the property from its owner. A control order can be made only where other action to deal with a property in poor condition has been taken, but the property is still below standard and the health and safety of the tenants appear to be at risk. After making the control order, the local authority is then required to prepare a management scheme for the property which must be served on the owner within eight weeks. This can be postponed if, within four weeks of making a control order, the local authority makes a compulsory purchase order.

There is general agreement that this very short four week period leaves the local authority with little time to decide what appropriate action to take to deal with the property. The amendment would extend the time limit from four to eight weeks. The authority then has a clear eight week period during which it must either make a compulsory purchase notice or serve the management scheme on the landlord. I hope that the change will meet the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the amendment. It meets the anxieties that I expressed on Report, and I am happy to accept it.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 83 [Determination of reasonableness of service charges]:

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 18:

Page 57, leave out lines 5 to 33.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, it may be for your Lordships' convenience if, with this amendment, we discuss Amendments Nos. 19 to 23, 25, 99 and 100.

The amendments relate to a matter which was debated by your Lordships in Committee and on Report. I have very much in mind the admonition of my noble friend Lord Williams. It arises because the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked for time to consider what had been said. There is not at the moment any evidence that it produced a conversion of Damascus road proportions, but I doubt whether I shall augment my popularity with an unduly long introduction to the group.

For the avoidance of doubt and at the risk of being tiresome, I repeat the declaration of interest which I made at earlier stages. My amendment reflects the deep concern of the Council on Tribunals which first sounded the alarm on the proposals.

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In our earlier debates, we sometimes ranged over issues which were wider than the amendments. We considered whether the adjudication process should be funded exclusively by those who had the misfortune to require it, or whether it is a service which should be provided by the community. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was kind enough to send me a copy of the letter which he wrote to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, following the Report stage, confirming that consideration was being given to introducing a policy of full costs recovery in the county court by way of fees charged to litigants. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, also made the point--it came as something of a shock to me and, I suspect, to other noble Lords--that some 80 per cent. of the costs of the county court service are now funded from litigants' fees. If your Lordships' procedure permitted it--which it does not--I should have liked to cross-examine the noble Lord as to the basis for that statistic and whether the 80 per cent. is heavily subsidised from the debt-collecting part of county court business or whether it represents the issue-led litigation in the county courts. I at least was remiss in not having grasped earlier what was happening to the system of justice. Perhaps we should seize an early opportunity to debate it.

However, that is not the subject of the amendments. What is more relevant and perhaps more worrying is the proposal to introduce that policy to tribunals. It has always been seen as a great advantage of the tribunal system that it did not entail a heavy financial outlay, so litigants were not deterred from pursuing their rights. Back in 1932--and not 1929, as I inadvertently said at Report stage--the Donoughmore Committee reported and I venture to quote what it said:

    "In cases where justice can only be done if it is done at a minimum cost, such tribunals"--
by which the committee means all relevant tribunals--

    "which are likely to be cheaper to the parties, may on this ground be preferred to the ordinary courts of law".

In 1957, that point was made again by the Franks Committee. If that characteristic of our tribunal system is to be discarded, I believe, as do my noble friend Lord Dubs, the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and many other noble Lords who participated at an earlier stage--that so fundamental a change should have been preceded by at least a Green Paper, with wide consultation and debate in Parliament. No doubt part of the difficulty is that we have no one authority responsible for funding and administering tribunals. Perhaps I may respectfully suggest that that is another possible subject for future debate.

If the principle is to be breached by a provision inserted into Clause 83 of a Bill on a different subject applying to one part of the jurisdiction of one tribunal, then I suspect we may be likely to find that in the next Bill there will be a similar provision tucked away in Clause 157, relating to part of the jurisdiction of another tribunal. Then there may be perhaps one a week, until our tribunal system has died the death of a thousand cuts.

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Clearly, the greatest impact will be on those of small means who need to go to leasehold valuation tribunals to enforce their rights--a facility which this very Bill provides for them. In order to safeguard them, my noble friends Lord Williams and Lord Dubs, the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, have tabled more limited amendments. If we cannot rebuild the dyke, then I hope that at least we can plug the hole. I wish them all well. We may have to decide between those amendments at a later stage in the debate, if it arises.

I doubt whether the Government are likely to be more receptive to their pleas than they were to mine. I too was once a moderate. I began at the Committee stage by offering to settle for a much less ambitious solution, but all to no avail. It seems that what noble Lords find most alarming--understandably so--are the figures quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, with a cheerful frankness which indicated that the Government have lost all appreciation of the incomes on which many of our fellow citizens live. Applications of the kind for which this Bill provides could give rise to costs of up £2,000. It is sums of that order which the Government contemplate recovering from litigants.

Today, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, tabled a number of amendments. If I understand them correctly, they propose that the Secretary of State will not be compelled to set the level of fees at a figure in excess of the cost to the Government of providing the service. The tribunal will not be a profit-making undertaking. I am not sure that I derive much comfort from that since, until they denied it, even I had never accused the Government of so Machiavellian a suggestion. I am sure that they intend that the Secretary of State shall not be compelled to set the amount of fees at a level which ensures full cost recovery. It will be open to him to set the level at something lower. It is comforting that the Government propose to tell the Secretary of State that if a sliver of generosity finds its way to his heart, he could give effect to it. He does not have to be an unrelenting Scrooge. Of course, in fairness, the Bill already gives him the possibility of remitting the liability of some litigants. But, as I understand it, it is at the expense not of the Government but of other litigants. If that is the only limit they intend setting to the proposal, then many litigants--landlords as well as tenants--are in danger of being denied access to justice.

The proposal has received a bad press. Anxieties have been expressed by the Bar Council, the Leasehold Enfranchisement Association and many other bodies who are not notoriously subversive but who believe that the proposal would virtually nullify the availability of the jurisdiction which the Bill confers and which could perhaps be an indication of more denials of justice to come. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble and learned friend said. I speak particularly in support of Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 20. It is quite difficult to decide as between the three amendments, given that they all seek to achieve the same end. Before I go into detail, I wish to quote from our proceedings

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on Report, when the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, dealt with a similar debate about charges for access to LVTs. It is always instructive to see what was said, even if only a few days ago. The noble Lord said:

    "I am aware that in the course of giving that answer"--
the rejection of any change in the intended level of fees--

    "I have left every noble Lord unsatisfied. As I have sat in my place I have felt the blows land on my body. I shall undertake to show my bruises to my right honourable friend the Minister and to discuss with him what has been said today. However, I do so with no commitment".--[Official Report, 10/7/96; col. 349.]
More bruises will be inflicted on the noble Lord during the course of the next few minutes.

It is fair to say that when we were informed in Committee that fees for access to the leasehold valuation tribunal could be as high as £2,000 a day, there was a great sense of shock--so much so that some of the organisations representing leaseholders said to me afterwards that, if fees were to be at that level, they would effectively deter people from using the tribunal and it might be better to give up the whole idea and use the county courts instead. To set the fees for justice at that level will prevent many people from gaining access to it at all. Many organisations have expressed alarm, and as the different stages of the Bill have proceeded, that alarm has intensified.

Earlier I cited the views of the Bar Council. I wish to say a little more by way of quoting from a document that the council sent to me and other noble Lords. The council states:

    "It has always been acceptable for the Courts to impose reasonable charges for the issue of proceedings to deter vexatious litigants. However, it is a cornerstone of our judicial system that litigants should not have to pay for the provision of a judicial service".
It goes on to explain that settlement of service charge disputes is not different from other matters so as to warrant these very heavy charges in relation to leasehold valuation tribunals. The council says many other things, some of which I quoted during our discussions on Report.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Archer said, we are dealing with a radical departure in principle from the way in which there is access to civil courts or tribunals. It might well be the thin end of a wedge. What is worse is that it almost seems that the Government have slipped this matter into the Housing Bill. Although there is reference in the Bill to the LVT being able to charge fees, I know of nobody who anticipated that the fees would be other than at the £20, £30 or £50 level. There was a real sense of shock that for the first time access to a tribunal could be set at such a penal level.

There is a point of principle here. If the Government wish to charge fees for access to tribunals and to the civil courts, and wish those fees to cover the full provision of the court and tribunal system in that respect, it is a matter of such significant principle that it should be debated in itself. It represents a big change. We should not change the practice of hundreds of years as the by-product of a very complicated housing Bill. It is wrong that we should make such a big change almost

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inadvertently, as a result of its being slipped in. I hope the House will see fit to accept one of these three amendments when the time comes.

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