Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 14 July 1992


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Atkins, Mr. Robert (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

Dowd, Mr. Jim (Lewisham, West)

Enright, Mr. Derek ((Hemsworth)

Etherington, Mr. Bill (Sunderland, North)

Haselhurst, Mr. Alan (Saffron Walden)

Hawksley, Mr. Warren (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Jowell, Ms. Tessa (Dulwich)

McFall, Mr. John (Dumbarton)

McNamara, Mr. Kevin (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Marshall, Mr. Jim (Leicester, South)

Steen, Mr. Anthony (South Hams)

Stott, Mr. Roger (Wigari)

Tapsell, Sir Peter (East Lindsey)

Thompson, Mr. Patrick (Norwich, North)

Trotter, Mr. Neville (Tynemouth)

Walker, Mr. A. Cecil (Belfast, North)

Wheeler, Sir John ((Westminster, North)

Wiggin, Mr. Jerry (Weston-Super-Mare)

Wood, Mr. Timothy (Stevenage)

Mr. R. J. Rogers, (Committee Clerk

2 3 Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 14 July 1992

[MRS. ANN WINTERTON in the Chair]

Draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992

10.30 am

Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Jeremy Hanley): The order amends Northern Ireland's housing association legislation by providing a more flexible statutory framework for the financing of registered housing associations and by removing the Department of the Environment's powers to control rents on new lettings. Taken together, the provisions will assist registered housing associations to raise private loans and thereby expand their output of housing for a given level of public resources. The order replaces the existing complex right-to-buy legislation with a simple requirement for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to operate a house-sales scheme approved by the Department of the Environment. Executive tenants will continue to be able to buy then-dwellings on terms at least as favourable as those provided in the right-to-buy legislation in England and Wales. The order replaces the existing private sector grants legislation with new grants legislation along the lines of that contained in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The new grants will be mandatory for applicants whose dwellings fail to meet a new fitness standard and who qualify under a test of resources that will be introduced. In addition, replacement grants will be available to assist the owners of unfit rural houses to replace their dwellings with modest new houses in circumstances where a renovation grant would be inappropriate. Additionally, the order makes a number of other sensible, though minor, changes to housing law in the Province.

10.32 am

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): First, I want to apologise to the Committee for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). He is attending a funeral in his constituency. As I do not have my hon. Friend's breadth of knowledge of housing in Northern Ireland, my speech may be a little longer than his would have been. The Minister's speech was commendably shorter than the very long speech of his noble Friend Lord Arran in the other place, which filled five columns of Hansard. The 108 articles and nine schedules were debated. If ever there were an argument to give devolution to Northern Ireland, which we are hoping for, that was a good example. Something of local application, with important differences from British law, should be discussed in detail in a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. 4 In the other place, the Minister said that the order does not transfer functions from the Housing Executive to housing associations or to other bodies. It would be helpful to receive the same assurance from the Minister today. Article 88 states: "The Executive may submit to the Department a scheme making provision for the Executive to delegate to other persons such of the Executive's management functions as may be specified in the scheme." Who are "other persons"? I cannot find a definition, but I may have overlooked it. Does that phrase mean members of housing associations and, if so, what powers are likely to be devolved, to whom will the holders of those powers be answerable and to whom will they be accountable? The fear exists that the general power contained in the order may be a prelude to the privatisation of the Housing Executive or, even worse, the fragmentation of its powers. The executive has had an important role in improving both the quality and the equity of housing provision in Northern Ireland and Opposition Members do not want to see it weakened. Discrimination in housing was one of the main causes of distress at the start of the current troubles, but the executive has made enormous strides in the provision of housing on a non-sectarian basis. The Policy Studies Institute, however, reported inequalities in repair policy. We wish to know the Government's response to the PSI report. Should there not be a statutory duty to monitor and correct anomalies? Is existing legislation sufficient? The Minister should consider these matters. The expansion of housing associations—many are church based—is important. They often perform a secondary function in meeting specialist needs. One cannot help worrying, however, about the possibility that as the associations grow and spread, they may come under paramilitary influence. Is the Minister aware of that, and what steps is his Department taking to ensure that it does not happen? Article 94 deals with the winding-up of the house-purchase scheme for first-time buyers. That may be a sensible provision, but we need some explanation of why the decision has been made. The right-to-buy scheme is to be replaced with a house-sales scheme. Again, why? More importantly, will the Minister say whether the executive will be able to spend all its receipts on housing for both construction and repair? Especially in rural areas, there are many substandard properties—particularly in the private sector. The Minister has stated that there will be occasions on which renovation is unsuitable and provision will be made for rebuild. I welcome that, and it is something that would be welcome in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a problem however, with the allocation of moneys that the Housing Executive receives from sales, and it would be most helpful if the Minister were to clarify the issue. The order has severe financial implications. It provides a minority of mandatory grants for private sector repair and renovations. Will sufficient resources be given to the executive to enable it to meet its responsibilities? Will the executive be protected from future raids of its finances to pay for security costs, which should be included in the law-and-order budget and not taken from the Housing Executive budget or the social purposes budget? That would be defeating its own aims. My noble Friend Lord Blease reported in another place on a statement made by the chairman of the Housing Executive, John McEvoy, that over the next three years 5 there will be a shortfall of about £55 million. The Minister in the other place did not respond to that point. Will the Under-Secretary do so now? The new grant scheme has potential complications. For private repairs and renovations there will be mandatory but means-tested grants. The executive predicts that that will cost more because the average level of grant will rise as a result of means testing. Many of those affected will be elderly and on low incomes. That brings us back to the question that I raised earlier about the sufficiency of moneys to meet expected demand. The Housing Executive considers that a significant number of the elderly will not accept the financial and emotional costs of renovations and repairs. That is a continuing problem in our constituencies. I am aware of the problems that can arise because of the development of housing action trusts. Often elderly people who have carried out repairs to their houses to their own taste do not want the upheaval of builders undertaking renovations, central heating work and double glazing. Under the order, they would be means tested and their possibly small and insubstantial savings would be affected by the contribution that they would be expected to make. I hope the Minister will promise to keep the problem under review. The elderly should be able to live in decent conditions. Allowing properties to fall into further disrepair stores up future problems. We must consider what can be done about not allowing properties to fall into a less-than-desirable state of repair simply beause occupants do not wish to be disturbed. Housing is important in a Northern Ireland context because of the people's right to be decently housed and well cared for, because of its importance and significance in overcoming past discriminations and because it is a local motor or engineer of the financial regeneration of the Province. As the housing industry is locally based, it is important that it uses locally produced materials. In that way the Government can ensure that there is economic expansion. The cuts in the Housing Executive's budget over the past few years are therefore regrettable.

10.41 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams): I was advised that the Committee would sit for only 10 minutes but already it has sat for 11, so I shall be brief. I believe that I have been made a member of the Committee because of my interest in vacant public land. I shall ask the Minister about article 13 which relates to disposal of land. Article 13 relates to land disposal, and I have always been concerned about the amount of public vacant land that lies idle that could be utilised for the benefit of the community. Will the Minister say something about this? Land hoarding by public bodies or quangos has been under attack by me, but without much success, since 1978. This is a grand opportunity to ensure that vacant land is not hoarded by housing associations in Northern Ireland. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State replies to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), perhaps he will add my question to those on the hon. Gentleman's list. Can he assure me that land owned by housing associations will not be hoarded, that any surplus land will be sold and that his Department will monitor the sale of the land and encourage housing associations that hold surplus land not to continue to acquire or hoard it? They should be encouraged to sell to allow it to be used for the benefit of others. 6 My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) is encouraging me—

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare):—to sit down.

Mr. Steen: Yes, to sit down and to short-circuit further comment. My hon. Friend the Minister is known for his bright grasp of details and will have taken on board what I have said.

10.43 am

Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North): I object to the delay in introducing the order. It should be remembered that the Housing Act was introduced on the mainland in 1988, so any advantages that the order may have for the people of Northern Ireland have been denied them for four years. I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) regarding the Housing Executive. The order states that the executive will remain the main provider for housing in Northern Ireland, although it is under funded by £55 million. Unemployment in the construction industry in the Province is a great problem. I cannot but feel that if the Government had funded the executive properly, they would not now be paying such vast sums in dole provisions to the unemployed in the industry. Perhaps the Minister will take that on board. Article 8(7) relates to rents and tenants. Tenants in adjoining properties will pay different rents because of reletting. That is unfair. The present system of rents, as implemented by the Housing Executive, is much fairer. Everyone knows what rent he pays, and each person in each house pays the same rent. The means testing of grants would have a negative effect. It is common in Northern Ireland for small builders, on receiving a grant, to buy up derelict and unfit properties and to make them into acceptable residences for people who pay the minimum rent. That is having a good effect, and it helps to ease the housing problem in Northern Ireland. Means testing grants to the extent that is proposed would have a negative effect. The order is good, and I think that it will help Northern Ireland. My one objection is about the inordinate delay in its introduction.

10.45 am

Mr. Hanley: I am grateful for the manner in which Committee members have made their comments, and for the substance of those comments. I shall, as it were, begin at the end with the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker). The hon. Gentleman is well known for his interest in housing, which has benefited his constituents and people throughout the Province. I am grateful to him for his interest and for the serious way in which he takes his responsibilities. His welcome of the order is an extremely important endorsement. I share with him his frustration that the legislation will not be available earlier to the people of Northern Ireland. I appreciate his comments. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for the way that he stood in efficiently and effectively for the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). I shall answer some of his questions, and I shall do so as briefly as I can for the benefit of my hon. Friends. 7 Since the 1988 legislation, housing associations in Great Britain have been the main providers of new social housing. In Northern Ireland, the Housing Executive will continue to be the main provider and large-scale manager of public sector housing. Housing associations will take a complementary role in providing housing in the Province because they can be more flexible than a larger organisation. The balance that we have achieved in Northern Ireland is desirable for the people of that Province. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North discussed inequalities in repairs and mentioned indirectly the second report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Some differences were found between Protestant and Catholic estates, but they were largely historical. If any inequalities remain, they are being dealt with. The Housing Executive is carefully monitoring the situation, and we hope that the problem will right itself in time. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said that a major provision in the order is the replacement of the complex right-to-buy legisaltion. A requirement will be introduced that will enable the Housing Executive to operate a house-sales scheme. Although the right-to-buy legislation has been on the statute book since 1983, no one has exercised his right to buy because it has been easier for Housing Executive tenants to purchase their houses under the voluntary sales scheme which I mentioned earlier. Nearly 51,000 Housing Executive dwellings have been sold under that scheme. The new scheme will be similar to the present voluntary sales scheme. I assure the hon. Gentleman that Housing Executive tenants will continue to be able to buy their dwellings on terms that are at least as favourable as those in the right-to-buy legislation. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North mentioned the anxiety that registered housing associations might fall prey to paramilitary activity. People inside and outside the Province have fears about that matter. Housing associations are independent and do not trade for profit. They are audited by independent auditors and are controlled by a voluntary committee of management, which must not receive any benefit from the association. The annual accounts are monitored and any surpluses should be seen to be ploughed back into the objectives of the association. I hope that independent auditing procedure will ensure proper scrutiny.

Mr. McNamara: The Minister may be coming to the matter, but the question is one of allocation of homes, not of finances.

Mr. Hanley: Yes. I follow the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps I should refer the matter to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and ask him to write to the hon. 8 Gentleman. I understand the hon. Gentleman's fear, but the restrictions on the allocation of finance have their own controls. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North referred to disabled people who may be unable to endure the disruption that is caused by major renovation work. Faculties such as ramps, hand rails and showers can be provided under the minor works grant even if a house is unfit in toto. The Housing Executive will seek the guidance of occupational therapists on the need of individual applicants if an elderly or disabled person would be disturbed by the work. The overall budget of the Housing Executive is £486 million. That is approximately 2·5 per cent. lower than that which the executive had hoped for, but it is not too great a fall in a very difficult year when there have been additional pressures on the main block budget. This year's public expenditure decisions are likely to be even more difficult for reasons that are obvious to all. I cannot hold out any hope that housing resources will be increased in real terms. Nevertheless, the executive was allocated substantial resources that should enable it to continue to meet urgent housing need and to improve housing conditions in the Province. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) represents an area that always looms large in my imagination at this time of year because it is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I would like my hon. Friend to find some derelict land there for me to occupy. My hon. Friend is a doughty urban fighter who has seen the value of south Devon and serves it extremely well. There is little surplus land in Northern Ireland. Housing associations have little, if any, and do not generally have the resources to buy land unless it is needed immediately. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams that the matter is considered regularly. I am grateful for his interest in the Province. If he finds that the problem exists to a great extent, I should be grateful for his help and advice, which he gives so often in relation to other areas of the United Kingdom. I am grateful also to the hon. Member for Belfast, North and the efforts that he has made today to be present.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Winterton, Mrs. Ann (Chairman)

Enright, Mr.

Etherington, Mr.

McNamara, Mr.

Steen, Mr.

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Thompson, Mr. Patrick

Walker, Mr. A. Cecil

Wheeler, Sir John

Wiggin, Mr.

Wood, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2).

Hanley, Mr. Jeremy (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)