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Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): At this stage.

Mr. Cash: I am delighted to hear those words. They are very important because they suggest that, in due course, we may perhaps have a blast of 25 pounders or better from Labour Members on other matters.

This is a question of principle, which is why I raised the issue on Second Reading—the occasion on which the principles of a Bill are debated. If it then becomes

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apparent that its entrails make a Bill unworkable, the Government effectively undermine their own legislation. The arrangements that they propose in clause 3 will prevent their Bill, which we support, from working effectively. That is not only counter-productive, but extremely foolish.

We do not know how many people will take up the proposals, but given all the people who live in blocks of flats throughout the country, I would guess that we must be talking about millions of our fellow citizens. It is so obvious. We concede the principle of the Bill and we want it to work, but we find that the Government are bent on the destruction of their own proposals. Although there will always be awkward people, arrangements in law mean that a majority vote ensures a proper decision.

The Minister referred to the nature of commonhold associations and how they will operate. I think that I heard him say—at any rate, it was implied in what he said—that we must have regard to the balance of opinion in decisions taken by a commonhold association. That is a majority vote. According to the application of the arrangements put forward by the Government there is an assumption that not everything will have to be decided unanimously but by majority vote. The running of the properties and their repairs and maintenance will be decided by majority vote. However, when it comes to whether the Bill will work, the Government say, "Oh no, we will not allow people to decide by majority vote but will insist on unanimity." That is, I am afraid, a form of totalitarianism. By imposing a completely unnecessary rule, the Government are insisting that nobody will have the freedom to exercise the rights that they have introduced, with our support and that of the Liberal Democrats, to increase the opportunities for holding property in a better way.

Mr. Mark Field: What does my hon. Friend consider to be the right level of approval? We have talked about majority approval. Presumably he does not accept that a vote of 51 per cent. of people should drive through a decision for the remaining 49 per cent. In the spirit of improving the legislation, does my hon. Friend have some thoughts on the matter?

Mr. Cash: Yes, indeed. I refer my hon. Friend to amendment No. 86, which is identical to one that we moved in Committee. It would ensure that where certain conditions set out in the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993 were satisfied in respect of certain provisions, regulations made under clause 3(2) could, under certain circumstances, dispense with the consent of the person in question. It is not an arbitrary arrangement; it would all be dealt with by regulations, which would have to be debated. The bottom line is that we believe that the many millions of people who will be affected by the Bill deserve better and more informed argument and arrangements than are provided.

Clause 3(1) refers to


We suggest that where no more than 20 per cent. of the qualifying tenants within the meaning of the 1993 Act refuse to consent, their consent could be dispensed with.

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In answer, then, to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), we have in mind a refusal figure of 20 per cent. The Liberal Democrats, in amendment No. 4, propose not fewer than 75 per cent. of registered proprietors registering their consent, so we are all talking in similar terms. There is a margin between us, but no difference of principle. I do not mean to encourage too much support from the Liberal Democrats, but my family were Liberals once upon a time and founded, among other things, the Abbey National building society and the Rochdale co-operative society. I come from a background of seeking to be reasonable and co-operative, but I want the maximum number of people to be able to exercise their rights because I believe in democracy.

5.15 pm

What I do not believe is that everyone should be automatically able to enforce his or her rights against other people. The unanimity rule is draconian. We need flexibility, and I appeal to the Minister to think about that. I am truly surprised that the Government do not understand that some people will be awkward and that others will try to engineer situations that will prevent the Bill from working. I cannot believe that the Government do not know that that will happen.

I shall be fascinated to hear what the Minister has to say. He has heard the arguments in the other place and in Committee, and I know that he periodically rewrites his speech to accommodate them. The Government have taken a tough line throughout the Bill's progress, but it is not sensible to be tough in suppressing the rights of millions of people to have their way and to own a better form of property.

I know that when the Minister was at Cambridge, he wrote the whole or part of his thesis on the Primrose League. I am much associated with that myself, and I know that it had much to do with the working man, democracy and the manner in which we guarantee that the maximum number of people obtain the maximum benefit. In the past 150 years or so, an enormous amount has happened. Democracy has been established, and it is a property-owning democracy. I do not want to be too effusive about a Government Bill, but their commonhold proposals are an enormous step in the right direction. Yet they are kicking the house down on the point before us, and I find that strange.

I shall be glad to hear what the Minister has to say. The Government have repeated, here and in the other place, that they are determined to stand by what they have already said. Consequently, commonhold will be limited in practice to new developments and only in the smallest block of flats will there be any prospect of obtaining all the consents necessary to effect conversion to commonhold.

Why are the Government insisting so steadfastly on unanimity? They have advanced two arguments, although there may be more to come. One thing I know about the Minister is that when he is in stubborn mood, he relies on not just two arguments, but has others lined up which he will produce both this afternoon and on Wednesday.

I have no doubt that there are more arguments to come, but so far the Government have made two. In Committee, they said that if one allowed conversion to commonhold with the agreement of fewer than 100 per cent. of the

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tenants, commonhold blocks would have a mixture of commonhold units and long leases. Tenants who wanted to convert would receive commonhold units, whereas tenants who did not want to convert would be left with long leases. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West made that very point with reference to the Minister's speech on Second Reading.

The Government say that such a result would complicate the administration of the block as two sets of accounts would need to be kept—as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. Furthermore, a mixture of commonhold units and long leases would destroy the perfect beauty—the utopia—of a block owned by lots of happy commonholders working in harmony in a commonhold association. There would be an ongoing relationship between the landlord—who would have become the commonhold association—and some tenants who would maintain their previous arrangements.

Does the Government's argument stand up? It is true that any departure from unanimity would make commonhold less neat and tidy—there would still be tenants with long leases. I am happy to concede that. A block consisting only of commonhold unit-holders would undoubtedly be more elegant. However, it is not merely a matter of elegance but of the interests of all the people in the country. The provisions would affect a huge number of people.

We are not in this place merely to devise an aesthetically pleasing legal construction. Over and over again, my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster, for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) have been making practical points but we want practicality and philosophy to run together. That is one of my main concerns. We are interested in ensuring that there is a property-owning democracy. We want more people to have more rights in their property.

Furthermore, we are dealing with new Labour and the middle way—as well as the patriotism for which the Minister is primarily responsible. Surely the Minister and the new Labour cohorts want more people to have enhanced property rights. They did not get to power by arguing against such rights—far from it. They would not have cadged all those votes from us without, in effect, making a spurious claim that is undermined by the Bill's proposals. If people heard the arguments in this debate, they would say, "Oh, is that the real attitude? Every person in our block of flats will have to go down that route if we are to have that enhanced property value". Many people, including good honest Labour voters—especially new Labour voters—would realise that they were not getting what new Labour offered them. Of course, now it is a matter for the press. There is no more that we can do once we have discharged our functions at the Dispatch Box.

I hope that people will understand that, in practice, they are not getting what new Labour offered them. These provisions are a good example. I suspect that that is why the hon. Member for Brent, North made such a strong case on Second Reading, when I think that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) made some similar points.

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The whole point of the change in our approach to property over the past 50 years has been the practical advantage that people gain by owning property rather than living in state-subsidised or council housing. We are not here to devise an aesthetically pleasing legal construction. Indeed, we are surprised to find that new Labour Ministers have any interest in aesthetics. For many of us, the idea of an aesthetically pleasing legal construction is an oxymoron, like a welcome Labour stealth tax—but let us not rough it up too much this afternoon.

We are trying with commonhold to produce something practical and popular. The Government's only practical argument against having both commonhold units and long leases in the same block concerns the difficulties with accounts.

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