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Baroness Hamwee: When I read the wording of Clause 1 of the Bill as it stands, which starts "grants are available", it seemed to me that the proposal of a purpose clause was required. "Grants are available" is a bland and uncontentious statement. Grants will only be available and should only be available within the context of a proper strategy for dealing with and preserving our housing stock.
Amendment No. 1 is an attempt to set, if not a strategy, at any rate a series of tactics and is very much within the Government's framework as set out in the housing White Paper. That points to support of the private sector. Like the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, I shall try to resist the temptation to make a Second Reading speech. The amendment promotes the private sector for ownership and for renting. We know that it makes sense to conserve an asset in which one has invested; the nation's housing stock must be one of the biggest of those assets.
My other reason for supporting the amendment is that it sets out clearly and helpfully the role of local authorities. They are best placed to assess local housing needs and opportunities. It puts the purpose of the Bill into the context of local authority strategies and capital programmes. The amendment is not taking us down a road which is in any way in contradiction to the Bill as proposed by the Government; but it is an appropriate introduction to the Bill.
Earl Ferrers: The noble Lord, Lord Williams, made an admirably brief speech, on which I congratulate him. I am paying a compliment to the noble Lord and do not know why he should look so worried. I withdraw the compliment, perhaps that will make him less worried.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that this was a purpose clause, which is not unknown in legislation. That is perfectly true. But such clauses are uncommon because they run the risk of interfering with the legal clarity of the main provisions of the Bill. As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, the clause enables local authorities to do various things. They can assess; they can estimate; they can set priorities; they can bring about improvement.
The noble Lord is right that that is what the clause enables local authorities to do. But it only enables them; it does not instruct them. All those things which the noble Lord wishes to enable local authorities to do, can already be done. The inclusion of this clause, therefore, would not help. We would be putting into the Bill a clause enabling local authorities to do what they are already enabled to do.
As it is drafted the purposes of Part I of the Bill are quite clear. We are seeking to provide local authorities with the tools that they need to meet the objectives of their private sector renewal strategies. But it must be for local authorities themselves to decide how to use those tools. Local authorities already have a duty under Section 605 of the Housing Act 1985 to make periodic inspections of the private sector stock within its area. On the basis of advice from my department this is often supplemented by a local house condition survey to help the local authority to identify the local problems. That information is used to enable it to set priorities for action and to devise what it reckons is the best thing to do with the aim of improving the condition of private housing in its area. It is clear from the housing investment programme strategies submitted annually by local authorities to the department that authorities are at present using the legislation for the kind of purposes the noble Lord has in mind in his amendment.
My fear is that if the Committee were to accept the amendment, which I hope it will not, it would be putting into the Bill a new clause which would enable local authorities to do what they are already enabled to do. However, the mere fact of including the new clause might muddy the waters of what they are technically and legally allowed to do. The purpose of the Bill is to put clearly what the law is. The new clause merely gives an impression of what people might be able to do.
Lord Williams of Elvel: I did not wish to be disrespectful to the noble Earl when he complimented me on a short speech. I do not think that I have been on many Committees with the noble Earl. This is probably the first one. But my view about Committee procedure is that I should speak from the Opposition Front Bench to the amendment without making a long speech if I can avoid it. Members of the Committee opposite will recognise that that has been my practice in the past and will continue to be my practice in the future. It is not a matter of making compliments or not making compliments. It is a matter of getting on with the business of the Committee as best we may.
Lord Williams of Elvel: I am not in the least wounded. I just wish the noble Earl would understand what Committee proceedings are about. Committee proceedings are about speaking to specific amendments and not making Second Reading speeches or long speeches. Committee proceedings are about making the point concisely and clearly, which I hope I did.
The noble Earl says that the new clause would not add anything to the Bill. I disagree. What is on the face of the Bill sets the tone for the whole of the Bill--in this case the whole of the part which we are discussing. I am aware that local authorities may be enabled at the moment to do this, that and thus. What I am urging on the Government and on the Committee is that there should be a clause at the start of Part I which makes it perfectly clear to anyone who is reading Part I what it is about. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, it is not about changing the provisions of the Bill and it is not about changing previous legislation. It is about stating what is the purpose of Part I.
The noble Earl invited me to expand on my reasons. The Government have given up any systematic attempt to address the problem of private housing disrepair. They have shrugged off responsibility for ensuring that private housing is kept in good condition, possibly preparing the way for future cuts in expenditure. The Bill as drafted will bring no new money, no new resources, no new homes and indeed no new ideas. What we are trying to say is simply that, given the Bill has received its Second Reading, we should put in at the beginning of Part I a clause which says, "This is what local housing authorities are meant to do". It is not a wrecking provision. I hope very much that in the light of what I have said the noble Earl will be able to say that he has no difficulty with the amendment.
Viscount Ullswater: Before my noble friend responds, perhaps I may encourage him not to accept the amendment. I said at Second Reading that I welcomed the fact that the Bill gives local authorities increased flexibility. This proposed purpose clause at the beginning of Part I would take away that flexibility and put some different but mandatory conditions on local authorities.
Viscount Ullswater: The noble Lord wants me to spell out whether they are mandatory. My interpretation of this purpose clause is that it tries to tie the hands of local authorities, whether by mandatory conditions or not, whereas the Bill seeks to provide the flexibility which I welcomed when the measure came before the House for its Second Reading.
Lord Williams of Elvel: Will the noble Viscount explain in what sense and in what particular the new clause would be mandatory on local authorities? If he cannot explain that, I cannot accept his speech.
Viscount Ullswater: It is for the Committee rather than the noble Lord to decide whether to accept my speech. I was trying to indicate to my noble friend that I did not want him to accept the amendment because I see it as tying the hands of local authorities
Lord Williams of Elvel: I am sorry to pursue the noble Viscount but I wish him to be more precise. In what manner does the new clause require local authorities to pursue certain actions which the Bill does not invite them to pursue?
Baroness Hamwee: Before the Minister responds perhaps I may make a comment. Far from being restricted, local authorities need to have authority to undertake any action as their powers are limited by statute. This amendment would explain to local authorities the context for their operation of the Bill. The suggestion that local authorities should have more discretion than the amendment might allow seems odd in the context of a Bill which I read as the Government telling local authorities in detailed terms what they may and may not do and preserving the discretion to themselves, given the number of regulation-making powers included in it.
I take the point made by the Minister about the potential difficulty of a purpose clause affecting the interpretation of later provisions of the Bill. That point troubled me very much when a purpose clause was proposed to the Family Law Bill which your Lordships recently considered. I was persuaded by the argument of a number of eminent lawyers, not least the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, that one should not be too concerned about that. I recognise that that was a different Bill and that the purpose was appropriate to that Bill. However, your Lordships have recently accepted a purpose clause as setting the scene for a Bill. In that sense I see this as no different.
Lord Elton: The purpose of that Bill was very different from the purpose of this one. The merit of the other purpose clause was that it declared the intentions of the Act, as it will be, in a way which made it possible for the courts to decide matters which were in doubt, according to the general intention of the Bill. If that cannot be adequately achieved in the Long Title of the Bill, then it is a legitimate purpose. But, as I see it, the amendment before us, as drafted, is useful for interpretation in only one area. The first three paragraphs suggest ways in which a local authority may carry out the functions which it is enabled to carry out by legislation, as does the final paragraph. The only paragraph which appears to have any force is (d) which states, if it is taken in context, that,
In the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, introducing this amendment which was of suitable length, I thought I caught an overtone that his real anxiety was that the funds released to support this legislation might be used merely to maintain housing in an unsatisfactory condition. I may have misunderstood him, but even this element of the amendment is superfluous because it is not possible to see how money might be granted under the terms set out in the Bill and be spent on buildings without them being improved: they could not remain in their existing condition. Therefore, this amendment would merely lengthen the Bill without adding any merit at all.
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