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The noble Lord says that the purposes of this part of the Bill are enabling and do not place a requirement on a local housing authority. If a discretionary motive is a weakness in the Bill, it is reflected and multiplied in the amendment. I hope that my noble friend will resist it.
The concern widely shared among many noble Lords, and outside the House, is that the Bill is an elaborate scheme to mask the inadequacy of funding for house renovation, repair and so on. If there is not enough money then there must be a strategy for using such funding as is available.
During Committee we heard much of the discretion in local authorities. I find it difficult to accept that there would be a discretion both in the context of inadequate funding and as regards the centralising provisions of the Bill. However, if there is to be discretion at local level, then it is appropriate--I believe that it is required--that local authorities are enabled to review, improve and renew private sector housing in the way set out in the amendment.
The amendment sets the discretionary nature of the scheme in a way which supports what the Government say the Bill provides--although I do not read the Bill as providing that. It is not enough to say that grants will be available when there is inadequate funding for those grants with no possibility of setting strategies for priorities or for using that money in the best way. The best role for local government is to encourage investment in maintenance and improvement and to play an active part in the best use of the funds available.
I set very high in that strategy the use of funds, in the private rented sector as well as privately owned property, where conditions may be particularly poor. Given the problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, alluded, I believe that it is the responsibility of local authorities to do everything possible to ensure that people have a decent roof over their heads. This purpose clause would set that framework.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, in supporting my noble friend's amendment, I take a slightly different tack from previous speakers. It is becoming recognised that through the Bill we are in the process of changing the regime for housing renovation grants from a
Perhaps I may postulate a couple of scenarios. The local authority may have few houses in such a situation. It may be a local authority with a lot of relatively new build. It may have had a high proportion of council houses and, therefore, may not have a large number of dwellings in the category likely to attract grant because of the decline in that sector of the housing market. In that situation, there is a risk that because the issue affects only a minority of people in the area, the local authority will say, "This is not a high political priority; we shall not spend a great deal of money in that area and we shall restrict giving grants as much as possible".
I would hope that a purpose clause might be used only in extremis. There might be a small pocket of decline in the private housing sector which needs grants but the local authority takes little notice of it. That sector could go to the court and say, "This local authority is not abiding by the Act". That is an example of one use that might be made of the new clause.
The other point is in relation to the ongoing dynamic situation. As circumstances change in a local authority area, there will be a need to adjust and readjust the priorities that a local authority may set. For example, it may decide to allocate more funds to a particular council activity. It may decide to change the criteria on which the funds were allocated. Surely, given the nature of the democracy that we have in this country, it is only right that local councillors making the decisions should be responsive to their local communities. They should have in front of them reports on how such a scheme might operate, what the effect would be on the operation of schemes that previously had certain criteria attached to them and whether they were effective in terms of the final section of the amendment to,
It is important that local authorities are, if not required then encouraged, to examine their schemes for discretionary disbursement of public funds for private sector renewal and maintenance. They should be responsive to the local situation as it changes. I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to the purpose clause and accept the amendment.
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, at Second Reading and at Committee stage I crossed swords with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, because I welcomed the discretionary nature of the Bill's provisions. I approve
I believe that it is an unusual approach for the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to take to put down and now to pursue at Report stage this purpose clause. On many occasions I have crossed swords with him about the restrictions that the Government have placed on the actions or activities of local authorities. He suggested to me that he disapproved of governments putting restrictions on local authorities and their activities. That indicates that the noble Lord does not believe that he can trust local authorities to exercise their judgment correctly. Therefore, they need an overarching purpose clause. I do not believe that this one will necessarily have the effect which he suggests and I agree with my noble friend Lord Elton that, although it creates a good feeling, it will not alter the amount of resources available for it.
In supporting the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, then argued very much against it. He indicated that one should leave the local authority to use its discretion to react to the different priorities as time goes by. That is exactly what the Bill does; it leaves local authorities to judge for themselves how the money should be spent, rather than the mandatory scheme which it replaces. Therefore, I urge my noble friend on the Front Bench to reject it.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, I believe that he misunderstood what I was suggesting. I was trying to suggest that the local authority would be required to consider changes to the scheme, not that it should not have the discretion. The local authority should have the discretion but should use it effectively.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, I support the amendment on the grounds that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, mentioned in the early part of his remarks. As he said, successive national house condition surveys have shown that no fewer than 1.5 million houses are unfit for human habitation in the country and 3.5 million are in need of serious repair. At the same time, the grants being made available for dealing with the situation, which obviously affect mainly people on low income, have been rapidly diminishing. It is my opinion that the drafting of this part of the Bill does not sufficiently emphasise the importance of the problem. I believe that this purpose clause or something similar would help to do so.
The fact that we have limited resources does not in any way diminish--indeed, it increases--the size of the problem. We ought to make that clear. There ought to be an incentive for this Government or successive governments to make additional resources available and for local authorities to make the best use of those resources. I should have thought that some reference to it in the Bill is necessary.
However, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers said in Committee, my noble friend Lord Elton said today and I repeat, we do not believe that a general purpose clause of any nature is necessary or appropriate in the Bill. As drafted, Part I of the Bill deals not with overarching principles but with detailed provisions on the workings of grant regimes. It provides local authorities with the powers they need to meet the objectives of their private sector renewal strategies. How these are used is for a local authority to decide.
I do not believe that there is a need in the Bill to encapsulate fundamental guiding principles which are necessary to guide the courts in the exercise of their functions. Purpose clauses are extremely rare in English and Welsh legislation, with only the Family Law Reform Bill, the Arbitration Bill and the Legal Aid Act 1988 coming to mind.
A general purpose clause for Part I would run the risk of interfering with the legal clarity of the individual provisions in the rest of Part I. We already have a general statement at the beginning of each of Chapters I to IV of Part I explaining what the particular grant or purpose is for. There is no need to go any further with general principles which are not closely and directly related to the individual provisions and which run the risk of making interpretation of the legislation more difficult, with the possibility of upsetting conventional interpretation.
Part I of the Bill sets out the powers, duties and obligations of a local authority in terms of assistance and action where a person is unable to improve or adapt his property. Care has been taken to ensure that these cases are set out clearly and in detail to ensure that the provisions are applied on a consistent basis nationally and are not open to misinterpretation. I do not believe the amendment would improve the ability of authorities to achieve the purposes of the legislation. On the contrary, it would risk limiting their activities to those falling within the purposes set out in the amendment.
The objectives the noble Lord, Lord Williams, seeks to include in this purpose clause include the normal practices that we would all expect a local authority to undertake as part of its wider housing strategy and as part of the housing investment programme process. But some of the purposes set out in the clause, such as setting priorities for action and encouraging and facilitating sound maintenance, are not found in the express provisions of Part I. However, the latter are purposes that the department recognises and seeks to encourage through guidance, with such publications as the Housing Strategies Guide and the annual Housing Investment Programme Guidance.
We are strongly of the opinion that there is no room for a purpose clause at the beginning of this part of the Bill. It adds nothing, it carries dangers with it and, as my noble friend Lord Ullswater said, we trust local
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