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Lord Williams of Elvel: Before the noble Earl concludes his peroration, can he answer me two points? First, will he accept that he has produced this evening a denigration of his own department and previous Ministers such as I have not heard in my 10 years' experience in this House? He has accused the MoD, of which he is a Minister, of mismanagement, bungling, incapacity, incoherence and incompetence. Who is responsible for the MoD? Is it not Ministers? It is no good shifting the responsibility to civil servants, which the noble Earl seemed to be trying to do. Therefore, if that is the case, as the noble Earl said it was, should not Ministers be taking responsibility for the shambles that he has described?
Secondly, he said that £1.5 billion coming into the coffers will not finance tax cuts. Does the noble Earl not understand the public accounts system and that the whole purpose of privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s and the use of North Sea oil proceeds was to finance tax cuts?
Earl Howe: It gave me no pleasure to rehearse the shortcomings of the Ministry of Defence over the past few years in disposing of surplus housing. Indeed, Ministers must take their share of responsibility because they dictate policy. That is precisely why we are at this point today. It is because Ministers wish to see something done about the problem that these proposals are now before the Committee. As I said, I believe that they are the right ones. I do not wish in the least to conceal the problems that they are meant to solve because they are very real ones.
On the noble Lord's second point, I do not accept that the amount of money that is likely to be achieved from the sale will make any difference at all to consideration of his Budget speech by my right honourable friend the Chancellor. I am not prepared to disclose at the Dispatch Box the order of money that we expect to receive from the sale, but it is by no means the largest privatisation
Lord Swinfen: Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may refer him back to his point about maintenance. I think he said that the property would continue to be maintained by the Ministry of Defence. There is commonly a full repairing and insuring lease. Will the MoD be paying for all the maintenance or will it be in the position of a tenant who can demand from an ordinary landlord that the landlord carries out certain maintenance and makes proper provision for water, heating and all the rest of it?
Also, what will happen at the end of the suggested 25-year tenancy? Will the MoD have to hand the property back to the freeholder in top condition? That could be very expensive because the property will have to be put into that condition. If the MoD follows a normal lease it will have to redecorate all the property both internally and externally within the last six months or year of the lease--a terrific cost--and carry out any repairs to make certain that the property is up to standard.
My noble friend also said that if a site was going to be exchanged for development, it would have to be exchanged for a site as good as, or better than, the existing site. Who decides: the MoD or the freeholder, because the freeholder will argue until he is blue in the face that the site that he wants to give in exchange is an excellent one? The fact that it is right next-door to and down wind of the local sewage works will not occur to him.
Finally, has this matter been discussed in another place? I have not read any reports of it being discussed there and I would suggest that if it has not been discussed in another place, it is probably the duty of this Committee to incorporate the amendment into the Bill to ensure that it is discussed in another place when the Bill returns there. After all, Members of another place are the elected representatives of this nation.
Earl Russell: The Minister illustrated why I have said before that according to governments there are only two categories of amendment--the unnecessary and the wrecking. Having listened to a great deal of what has been said, this amendment is clearly not unnecessary, so perhaps that is why the Minister thinks that it is wrecking.
The noble Earl has listened to expressions of feeling that I should have thought any government would be wise to heed. He said, "Some of our interlocutors do not wish to listen". Between the Front Benches that sort of thing may be common currency. One always thinks that the Front Bench opposite does not wish to listen. Sometimes one is right; sometimes one is not. But I hope that the noble Earl will make clear that he did not intend to apply that remark to the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. If he did, I cannot think of anyone more inappropriate to whom it should be applied.
Earl Howe: I certainly did not intend to imply that my noble friend had failed to listen. We have had some extremely helpful discussions, as my noble friend has been kind enough to acknowledge. I hope that I do not put words into her mouth if I say that my noble friend accepted one or two of the key points put to her. The discussions to which I referred related much more to the representatives of service families. They always approach meetings with me in a spirit of good will. I very much enjoy those meetings. For reasons that I cannot discern, I do not believe that I have made headway with them.
My noble friend Lord Swinfen asked about the maintenance of the estate. He is quite correct. The maintenance of the married quarters will remain the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence in the shape of the Defence Housing Executive. The landlord's responsibilities to upgrade will not exist to any substantial degree. One has to qualify that to an extent by saying that negotiations with the final purchaser, whoever it may be, have not yet taken place. At the end of the tenancy it is envisaged that the Ministry's responsibility will extend to handing back properties that are no longer needed in a habitable condition. The Landlord and Tenant Act provides the Ministry of Defence with security of tenure at the end of the 25-year term. Should the Ministry want to renew the lease it will be able to do so other than in the very narrowly defined circumstances in which the landlord wants to redevelop. I shall be glad to write to my noble friend and provide further details.
Lord Swinfen: Perhaps I may intervene before my noble friend moves on. I believe I am correct in saying that under the Landlord and Tenant Act even if the tenant has the right to extend the lease he must put the property into good condition. If the property is not in good condition the landlord has grounds for not extending the lease.
Earl Howe: The agreement will provide that the property must be in a habitable condition. It is not our intention to let the properties decay into an uninhabitable condition. I do not believe there is any real difference between my noble friend and myself on this matter.
Lord Swinfen: But "habitable condition" is not as high a condition as "good condition". The landlord would require that the property be in good condition. There may be a capital cost to the Ministry of Defence--in other words, the taxpayer--at the end of the first 25 years. My noble friend may not be able to answer me now, but it is a point that should be made and therefore I make it.
Earl Howe: I do not believe that much separates my noble friend and myself. We intend to maintain the property in good condition. However, I will write to him to clarify the matter since I understand his concerns.
My noble friend referred to discussion in another place. I can tell him that the matter of the married quarters estate was debated recently during the debate on the Royal Air Force. I am aware of certain intentions by Members of another place to bring forward this matter for debate at an early stage. I cannot, of course, comment further on that because I have not been privy to those discussion. No doubt it will be up to Members of another place, if they so choose, to bring forward such a Motion.
Turning to my noble friend, the Minister, I had, in preparing what I was going to say, written that I would thank him for the small morsels of comfort I thought I might receive. I had not expected to be told that I was promoting a wrecking amendment. I thought I had lent over backwards to try to produce a formula which would allow the Government to do what I consider they should do: keep the word of the Secretary of State in his statement in the memorandum, that he would be prepared, and he felt himself free, to change the timetable, vary the conditions or abandon the idea. I have not urged abandoning the idea because I am perfectly prepared, as I hope many will be, to be convinced that the perception of anxiety, and it is a serious and wide perception felt by those who are most affected--the families--remains and needs to be allayed. I fear that remains true.
People will say the devil is in the detail, and that is part of the problem, but, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, I respect the Minister for having stated how disastrously things have gone in the past. I share the shame, as everybody does, but I think it is probably right and fair that it should be admitted. I do not think it makes any difference at all to the duty which we have to make sure that disastrous mistakes of a different kind are not made in the future.
I shall make one minor point, which I would like answered at some stage, and that concerns the issue of rents. I understand that rents are index-linked, will be reviewed every five years and will be a guaranteed figure or the index-linked figure, whichever is the higher. I cannot help feeling that every detail that I come
I will, indeed, withdraw my amendment because to test the feeling of the House at this late hour, and with the numbers present, would clearly be absurd. That does not mean that I will go away. Like the IRA, I will not. I will consider what the Minister has said, and I will be very happy to be further instructed, but I intend to return to the matter at Report stage, with the permission of the House. I truly hope that, having made their macho statements, the Government will be able to reconsider and produce a more positive reply.
There is an answer to be found. I have little doubt that if the Government are right in saying that this is a good thing, a right thing, and has been carefully thought out, then all we need is to have that demonstrated to us on the Floor of this place and debated fully. I shall return to the issue on Report and on Third Reading. In the meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.