Draft Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Mr. Taylor: As I do not have the advantage of being able to see those documents, is the Minister telling the Committee that the recurrent theme of the minutes is that the Social Development Committee deferred item after item?

Mr. Browne: What I have in my hand are public documents. Had the media that reported the allegations sought to check the public record, they would have been able to find out what the Committee had actually done. The Committee's deliberations about these matters were intended to extend over a longer period. I am happy to share with hon. Members the documents that I have, but hon. Members can get them from the public record of the proceedings of that Committee.

I have the minutes of seven of the meetings, in which almost every clause of the Bill was considered at one stage or another. Substantially, the Committee agreed to defer its consideration of a clause until a later date. In respect of other clauses, the Committee recorded that it was content with the drafting. In respect of two issues, the Committee recommended amendments and I have dealt with both of them. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing what happened in the other two meetings, because the minutes have not yet been published. There may be justification for a concluded Committee position in relation to other parts of the Bill discussed in the other meetings. That is not my understanding, but there may well be, although I have not seen the agreed minutes of the meetings.

I am not criticising the way in which the Assembly Committee did its work. Perhaps it was intending to go through a significant number of clauses in detail in its later meetings when it was fully informed, and it is entitled to order its work in that fashion. The only point that I am making is that my Department was being accused in the media of having ignored recommendations from the Committee, and having not brought the attention of this Committee, in the explanatory memorandum, to positions that, it was implied, were agreed by the Assembly Committee and were expressions of discontent about parts of the Bill. The Assembly Committee minutes do not reflect that.

Mr. Taylor: The Minister will recall that I try to bring consistencies to the many Northern Ireland orders that we deal with, one of which is to be careful about, and respectful of, local elected opinion in Northern Ireland. What conclusion does he draw from the fact that so many of the provisions were deferred by the responsible parties in Northern Ireland? As he has the benefit of the document, and as many of us—like the Minister and myself—were still in the Chamber at 10 pm last night, and therefore have not had much opportunity to reflect on the papers, does he think that the Committee might benefit from reading them? If so, would he join me in seeking the Adjournment of the Committee, so that these documents—

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The Chairman: Order. It is not up to the Minister to agree to the Adjournment of the Committee. It is up to me, and I have no wish to do so.

Mr. Browne: I must conclude my remarks, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that I did not take advantage of his summing up of the debate last night to deliberate on these matters—I was paying great attention to his contribution.

In discharging my responsibilities in relation to the order, and in accordance with the commitment that I and others gave to the people of Northern Ireland that we would see through the legislative programme of the Assembly, I have endeavoured to take into account all points of view. I had meetings with any parties that wished to meet me to go through their points of concern or issues in detail. I accept—I have already alluded to this, principally in relation to the antisocial behaviour provisions of the order—that there is not universal support. Some politicians have concerns about them. I have sought to allay their fears by pointing out that the provisions are absolutely necessary for the management of social housing in the best interests of the vast majority of tenants in Northern Ireland, and are long overdue, that the Department will take all the steps that it can to ensure that the legislative power that we are putting in place is not abused by social landlords, and that we shall use the guidance power that the Department has to ensure that the concerns expressed do not materialise.

My concern is that the Department for which I now have responsibility was being accused of pulling the wool over the eyes of members of the Committee by not bringing to their attention concerns expressed by the Social Development Committee. I have searched the minutes myself, and found no evidence to support that allegation. The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) has asked me to work out what the SDC was intending to do with the deferred clauses. Presumably, it had intended to return to them either when it had had an opportunity to take into consideration the submissions that it had sought from interested parties, and to clear them quickly. However, it did not reach a consensus on significant parts of the Bill. It is to be regretted that it did not, but there is ample evidence, from the consultation process and other communications in Northern Ireland, that there is significant support for this legislation, and that the enactment of it will greatly improve housing legislation in Northern Ireland by modernising it, by borrowing from some of the best examples of changes in housing legislation in Great Britain. The order will, in a distinctly Northern Irish way, provide a body of legislation that will enable the Housing Executive and housing associations to move forward.

There is still a lot of work to be done. All that the order will do is allow Northern Ireland to catch up. The Assembly Committee will have plenty of opportunity to consider housing legislation and, from my discussions with members of the Committee, I know that they are anxious to develop a body of housing law in Northern Ireland that is distinctly Northern Irish and serves the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. I applaud them for that. By what we do today, and by what the other place will

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do with the order shortly, we shall give them the basis for moving forward. That basis is the long overdue modernisation of legislation.

This is an important order, which covers a wide range of measures. As I have said repeatedly, many people in Northern Ireland have waited a long time to see it on the statute book.

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Mr. Taylor: For reasons that we all understand, Committees in the House of Commons have had to deal with an enormous weight of Northern Ireland legislation. For the same reasons, I try to be supportive of the Government, knowing as I do that suspension of the Stormont institutions has put the strain of its unfinished business on to Orders in Council. However, I have to repeat what I said in the intervention that the Minister kindly took—that what we have here is, in effect, a Bill. It comes to us called an order, although when it originated in Stormont it was called a Bill, and it has 149 articles and five schedules. Had it begun its life here, I suspect that it would have been debated on Second Reading for six hours, it would have spent three or four weeks in Committee, it would have returned to the Floor of the House for Report and Third Reading, then gone to the House of Lords, where it might have been amended, and the Lords amendments would have returned to the House of Commons to be debated. That is the proper normal course of scrutiny.

Instead of that process, the Committee is being asked to consider the order in an hour and a half, and is not being given any opportunity to amend it. Whatever advice we might have received, and whatever information or evidence might have been brought to our attention showing that a clause or schedule could be improved, we have had no opportunity to do that. We have to take this substantial legislation on a yes or no vote, and I find that worrying.

On a number of occasions, as we have dealt with this blizzard of Northern Ireland legislation—in Committee Rooms all along the Corridor, where some of us have been living together like hostages—I have been able to take a shy at it and say that on balance it must be right, and therefore the answer is yes. On this occasion I am more cautious about saying yes to such an enormous body of legislation. I do not have the resources to have housing lawyers go through the order line by line and write me a brief about it.

The Minister, and the Government, have a majority on the Committee today, and when you put the Question, Mr. Olner, they will vote Aye and the measure will carry. We all know that. There have been occasions during this heavyweight load of 21 Northern Ireland measures when I too have voted Aye, to show the official Opposition's support. Although we wish Northern Ireland housing, and this measure, every success, I think that I will not vote today. I do not have the confidence, and I am not in a position, to say that all these proposals are right and could not be improved.

Broadly speaking, however, I accept that, as the Minister said, housing law in Northern Ireland needs

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to be brought up to date. Inasmuch as it is made more convergent with the law in England and Wales, I approve. We do not seem to have created any new ombudsmen or commissioners—and I broadly approve of that, too. I shall be interested to hear more about local opinion, and there are two distinguished elected Members from the Province of Northern Ireland on the Committee today, so I shall be interested to hear what they say.

I was slightly disturbed to hear that in the local deliberations, many of the clauses seem to have been subject to a resolution to defer. We may hear some clarification of that today. Being the first Member to speak after the Minister may be putting me at a disadvantage, so I shall now wait to hear what others have to say.

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Prepared 11 February 2003