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The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his support of certain parts of the order. It is a shame that his noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton did not come to the Dispatch Box as I had hoped because I was intending to wish him a happy birthday.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, as I understand it, my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton is celebrating his birthday with his family, which is why I am here in his place.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's query concerning the situation up to 1st April, I am told that contracts transfer from the health boards to the trusts from 1st April 1996. I am not sure whether that completely answers the noble Lord's question. I shall read Hansard and if I can give him further information I shall write to the noble Lord.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Sheriffdoms (Alteration of Boundaries) Order 1996

7.55 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the draft order which we are considering today proposes very minor changes to the boundaries of two Scottish sheriffdoms. The changes result from local government reorganisation in

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Scotland which takes effect on 1st April 1996. If approved, the order will have the effect of revoking the Sheriffdoms Reorganisation Order 1974.

The 1974 order, set up six sheriffdoms in Scotland containing 50 Sheriff Court districts. This was subsequently reduced to 49 districts with the closure of Nairn Sheriff Court in 1977. Its business was transferred to neighbouring courts. As a matter of policy, Sheriff Court district boundaries have generally followed local authority boundaries. But the introduction of the new unitary authorities in April has made it necessary to re-define the boundaries of sheriffdoms.

As a result, officials of the Scottish Courts Administration prepared proposals for possible changes. The three main criteria which they took into account were, first, that any change to sheriffdom or Sheriff Court district boundaries would not increase inconvenience to court users; indeed, the objective was to reduce inconvenience wherever possible. Secondly, any boundary changes should keep any increase in waiting periods to a minimum and not put courts in a position where they would be unable to meet the performance targets set for them by Sheriffs Principal. Thirdly, the boundaries of Sheriffdoms and Sheriff Court districts should cross as few of the new local authority boundaries as possible.

Following this review by officials and in keeping with the policies of the Government, a consultation exercise was undertaken and those with an interest in the operation of the Sheriff Courts were asked to submit views. The consultation exercise was carried out in order to help inform decisions. The Government were anxious to hear from court users before coming to any opinion on the matters to be included in the order which we are discussing today.

Responses to the consultation process were mixed. Some supported the idea of a change to bring sheriffdom and Sheriff Court boundaries fully into line with the new local authority boundaries. But serious concerns were expressed about the possibilities of increased delays in the courts. Concerns were also expressed about the pressure on courts outside Glasgow in the central belt of Scotland, which would be taking on business transferred from that area.

The Government have carefully considered all the views which were submitted. Their conclusion is that the time is not right to propose anything other than minor adjustment to sheriffdom boundaries. There are some serious issues about court provision and accommodation in some parts of the country which will require to be addressed in the future and in due course the Government may wish to bring further proposals before the House for approval. For the present, however, the belief is that the interests of court users are best addressed by making as few changes as necessary in the short term.

I turn now to the specific proposals in the order. First, it is proposed that the jurisdiction of the Sheriffdom of Glasgow and Strathkelvin and the Sheriffdom of South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway should be altered so as to transfer the area around Chryston from Glasgow to Airdrie Sheriff Court. Under local government

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reorganisation, the area of Chryston becomes part of North Lanarkshire and falls within the Sheriffdom of South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway. There were no objections to this proposal from those who were consulted.

Apart from this change affecting those two sheriffdoms, it is proposed that the boundaries of the other four sheriffdoms should remain as they are. The consultation paper also invited views on possible changes to the names of the sheriffdoms in line with the changes in local authority names. There was no consensus for change, however, and the order proposes retention of the present names.

To sum up, the order which is before your Lordships today proposes only very minor changes to the boundaries of the Sheriffdom of Glasgow and Strathkelvin and the Sheriffdom of South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, respectively. The proposals will not cause inconvenience to court users and the Government are satisfied that the court authorities will cope with the changes in an effective manner. I commend the order for approval.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].--(The Earl of Courtown.)

8 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome the fact that there has been consultation on the proposal. It is obviously a good thing that there is consent for the proposed changes. However, perhaps I may raise a point which I hope is close enough to the terms of the order for me not to be bowling a googly at the Minister, as it were. I understand that at the moment there are nearly 200 temporary sheriffs in Scotland. I am concerned about the problems posed by people who do not have a permanent post or long-term links with the locality, given that the order has made minor changes only and given that the Minister talked about continuity and the avoidance of disruption to court procedures. I wonder whether something could be done, given that that large number of temporary sheriffs does not represent continuity. That seems to me to be a somewhat less than happy position.

Judging from the noble Earl's face, that point was not covered in his briefing papers, so I must apologise for raising it, but the point has been put to me in connection with the workings of the sheriff courts in Scotland. If I may repeat myself a little, given that the Minister was concerned about continuity and that the changes should not cause disruption, I wonder whether this other factor about the workings of the sheriff courts in Scotland will provide less than continuity. I merely raise that point while welcoming the fact that there has been consultation about the order.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his contribution and for his support for the order. I am told that temporary sheriffs are used to provide cover for permanent sheriffs mainly when the permanent sheriffs are not available to act themselves. They are used purely on a temporary basis. I too am

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pleased that there was consultation and that the Government took note of what was said. I thank the noble Lord for his contribution and commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.25 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.2 to 8.25 p.m.]

Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill [H.L.]

House again in Committee on Clause 33.

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 52:

Page 20, line 7, at end insert--
("( ) make provision for the deduction of--
(i) the gross amount of any sums paid as interest (including interest on a mortgage) in respect of which relief is given under the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988 ("the Taxes Act") in respect of a loan to the person, his spouse or partner;
(ii) half of the gross amount of any premium payable under a policy of life insurance in respect of which relief is given under section 266 of the Taxes Act (life policy and certain other premiums) in the relevant year; and
(iii) the gross amount of any other premium or sum in respect of which relief is given under sections 266, 273, 619 or 639 of the Taxes Act in the relevant year;
from the gross income of the person or his spouse or partner for the purposes of determining income under this section.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 52, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 54, 55, 59 and 60.

The purpose of Amendment No. 52 is to ensure that the means test calculation, in which we are now engaged, takes into account mortgage interest payments and payments of other sums on which relief is given under the income tax Acts. The amendment requires the deduction of mortgage interest payments and other tax deductible expenses from the calculation of an applicant's income for means test purposes. We believe that this is a fair assessment of income that is realistically available to fund repairs to private housing, as it applies the means test only to that part of the applicant's income that is genuinely disposable, that is, surplus to the essential expenses of a householder.

Amendment No. 54 is a government amendment. Therefore, I will wait to hear what the Government say about it.

Amendment No. 55 is intended to ensure that the means test for the main grants is uprated by the same amount and at the same time as corresponding changes to the housing benefit regulations. The amendment will prevent any delay in uprating the means test for grant purposes to reflect changes in the housing benefit regulations and in particular increases in allowances and premiums to reflect inflation.

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Amendment No. 59 is a government amendment. I will wait to hear what the noble Lord has to say about it.

Amendment No. 60 is designed to ensure that local authorities have the power to use the means test for renovation grant for landlords where that is considered appropriate. Clause 34 provides that the determination of the amount of grant to be paid in relation to a landlord's application will be determined by the local authority having regard to such matters as the Secretary of State may direct. It is unclear how the Secretary of State intends to use his powers under that clause. Although officials have stated that the intention is to allow local authorities complete discretion, the amendment seeks to put it beyond doubt in one important respect. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Lucas: I hope that I may be able to enlighten the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, to some extent at least on the government amendments. Amendment No. 52, moved by the noble Lord, would require an applicant's mortgage interest and other tax deductible payments to be disregarded in the means test regulations made under this clause. Our view is that the amount of mortgage an individual takes out, or the amount he pays towards life insurance and other premiums for which he can reclaim tax paid, is a matter of personal choice, and as such we see no case for those amounts to feature in the renovation grant means test.

To make such provision would, in our view, encourage individuals to take out larger commitments because, to do so would result in a higher level of grant. Similarly, I do not see why the amount of life insurance individuals pay, as opposed to their other outgoings, should have a bearing on the amount they receive.

We do not ignore housing costs in the means test, and we believe that the existing system under which allowances are made for the needs of the household, some of which take account of a person's disability or old age, is fairer as it treats all applicants in the same way. That ensures that they receive grant at a similar level.

The two government amendments (Amendments Nos. 54 and 59) provide for regulations under Clauses 33 and 34 to make provision enabling local authorities to obtain information from third parties in connection with determining grant applications by owner-occupiers, tenants and landlords under Chapter 1.

The current regulations for means testing owner-occupiers and tenants replicate to a large extent, the regulations for housing benefit. However, there is no power in Part VIII of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 enabling the Secretary of State to obtain or verify information supplied in support of applications for grant.

Those amendments would help to streamline the application process by enabling authorities quickly to obtain or check the details of applicants' circumstances rather than having to ask the applicant to get such details from a third party. These powers would also enable authorities to make checks in certain cases for the purposes of detecting fraud or other abuse of the system.

26 Mar 1996 : Column 1652

The noble Lord's Amendment No. 55, which would require the Secretary of State to lay an annual uprating order increasing the allowances and premiums covered in the test, is unnecessary and would be restrictive where flexibility is required. The Secretary of State makes provision each year to uprate those figures in line with increases made in the regulations governing housing benefit upon which the means test is based.

That uprating is normally carried out in April each year to coincide with changes to those regulations and is made through regulations to amend these amounts. However, it is normal practice for these regulations to include a wide range of other changes to the grants means test to maintain consistency with the provisions for housing benefit which is subject to constant change.

The power in Clause 33 provides a suitable method for the annual uprating of those amounts while providing the flexibility to include in the regulations other necessary changes, and therefore this amendment is unnecessary.

The noble Lord's last amendment in this group (Amendment No. 60) seeks to provide for landlords to be means tested in the same way as owner-occupiers and tenants. The present test of resources for landlords is widely regarded as deficient because it takes no account at all of the true wealth of a landlord, including the income he receives from other properties let. It therefore fails to meet the principal objective of the test, which is to distinguish between wealthy and less wealthy landlords.

There is, however, no simple way of distinguishing in the legislation between those landlords deserving of grant and those operating as a business for whom the cost of repairs and improvements to their properties should be part of the normal overheads of the business.

It is important also that any test designed to look at the wealth of a landlord, which the noble Lord's amendment seeks to achieve, should offer the scope or protection needed to prevent a landlord from disguising his true assets. We believe that that cannot be prescribed so as to take account of all the various circumstances and arrangements entered into for the purpose of securing maximum grant.

We have therefore concluded that the current statutory provisions for determining grant to landlords should be removed and that local authorities should be given discretionary powers to determine the level of grant in each case as well as whether grant should be given at all. Local authorities are best placed to make such judgments based on local knowledge of landlords in their area. For those reasons, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment. When the time comes, I shall move ours.

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