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6 Jun 1996 : Column 1367

Dogs (Fouling of Land) Bill

Read a third time, and passed.

Housing Bill

3.51 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, before the House resolves itself into a Committee, I must declare an interest and I apologise to the House for not declaring it before Second Reading. I ruled myself out of discussion on Part III on leasehold reform on the grounds that I was a leaseholder who could be affected by the provisions of the Bill.

On studying the Bill further, I found that there could be an interest which I should have declared to your Lordships. It is that my wife is a member of the council of Stonham Housing Association. She is unpaid and performs that service on a voluntary basis. Indeed, at the risk of betraying marital secrets, she does not want to be paid, somewhat to my displeasure, but I leave that aside. I took advice from the Table as to whether that was an interest I should properly declare and the advice I received was that in view of the resolution which your Lordships passed last November about Peers being cautious about interests which may affect them, I should declare an interest. I do so very willingly. My wife has offered to resign from the membership of the council of management of Stonham Housing Association but I do not believe that your Lordships would consider that to be an appropriate measure. I certainly would not.

I mention the matter because this is the first point of--if I may so express it--case law under the resolution which your Lordships passed last November. I am sure that noble Lords will have been listening extremely carefully to what I said and will have noted the advice I received from the Table. I wonder whether, in some respects, we are not going too far. Therefore, I declare that interest.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [The register of social landlords]:

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 11, after ("office") insert ("and regional offices").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 3. The whole matter of registration and how it is to be publicised was considered at length in another place. If the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will permit it, it may save the time of the Committee if I ask the Minister to intervene at an early stage because I am advised that Mr. Curry, the Minister responsible for the Bill in another place, wrote to my honourable friend Mr. Raynsford with,

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among other things, a note from the Housing Corporation about how it proposes to handle the statutory register of social landlords and how it proposes to make available the relevant information. Members of the Committee may have been to the Library to read a copy of that letter but just in case that is not so, it may be useful if the Minister were to give a summary of its contents before we move on with the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: Yes, I hope that I can give the noble Lord, Lord Williams, the summary he requests. It is proposed that the new statutory register of social landlords will comprise the registered number, name, address and relevant board minute of registration in hard copy. In the light of the requirement in Schedule 2 regarding the independent ombudsman scheme, the register may also include the name and number of the approved scheme that each social landlord registers.

In addition, there will be maintained a new public information file which will contain for each registered social landlord a copy of the rules and governing instrument with all amendments and consents to amendments since registration, formal registration documents, the completed application form for registration, the latest annual return, which will provide details of board membership, the number of members of the board, the principal solicitor's name, and such items as that, one set of audited accounts for the registered social landlord's last three financial years, complete with transfers of engagements where relevant, and, for larger associations, key policy documents on tenant selection and allocations of policy.

On a regional basis, it is proposed to develop a system whereby an abstract of key information from the PIF for each landlord is made available at each corporation regional office, probably through the computer network. The sort of information available will be key information on the annual return and a summary of the income and expenditure accounts and balance sheet. That would be accessible on a screen from a network channel or provided as a print-out. Members of the public requiring hard copies could obtain them by giving three days' notice of a request at the regional office. Those will then be provided by the head office. I believe that that is as much information as I can give as to what will be on the register.

Lord Williams of Elvel: I am grateful to the Minister for putting that on the record. I am sure that Members of the Committee, having heard what he said, will wish to look at the full proposals from the Housing Corporation, available, I understand, in the Library. As far as I can see, they meet the anxieties we had when proposing Amendment No. 1 and, indeed, Amendment No. 3.

There is only one point I wish to raise. Will the Housing Corporation consider the need for devolution of its responsibilities, particularly in relation to the information from the board, which is a central board? Such a devolution would not only increase the ability of the corporation to give information as and when required at a suitable place and in a reasonable time, but could also involve some form of democratic

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representation on regional boards which would provide a greater level of accountability than is the case at present in the Housing Corporation centrally.

The matter was debated at length in another place. The Minister has outlined what the Housing Corporation has in mind and has endorsed that on behalf of the Government. I am grateful to the noble Lord for that fact. I see that the noble Baroness wishes to comment. I give way.

Baroness Hamwee: I am much obliged. I am also grateful to the Minister for putting the information on the record. As this is the first amendment that the Committee is considering, perhaps I may explain why I, too, felt that that was important. The Housing Corporation is a quango, and we will no doubt have many debates during the Committee stage on questions of accountability. I shall certainly support requests for as much as possible to be placed on the record as regards the way in which the Bill will operate. I believe that that will be our best opportunity and the best record for us to refer to in the future when asking the Government how matters are progressing. It is important that the Government should set the context for what the Housing Corporation is doing, as we will not have the opportunity to question the corporation directly.

4 p.m.

Lord Lucas: I appreciate the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about accountability. Doubtless we will have to deal with that issue again at a later stage. Such points as whether there should be local representation on local boards for the Housing Corporation fall outside the scope of the amendment now before us, but we may have an opportunity to return to the matter later.

I turn now to the main question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Williams; namely, whether the information function should be delegated. We feel it is important that the register and the associated files, which are important documents, should be kept well, up to date and properly. We also feel that they should exist in a single place so that one can be sure that such functions are indeed carried out properly. To the extent that information then needs to be disseminated from that correct, confirmed register to other offices, we will certainly look at ways in which that might be improved. However, we believe that there needs to be one proper register upon which people can rely and which is maintained as a responsibility by one organisation rather than that responsibility being disseminated and, therefore, possibly not so easy to enforce.

Lord Williams of Elvel: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I did not necessarily mean to suggest that different registers should be kept in different places for different regions. I accept that there has to be a central register. Nevertheless, with modern technology, it is not impossible for that central register to be disaggregated among whatever region and in whatever manner might be appropriate.

As I am sure the Minster realises, we are discussing an important matter. Anyone who is a tenant, or going to be a tenant, of a social landlord will wish to know--

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and, indeed, should wish to know--first: whether that landlord is on the register; secondly, what the condition of that social landlord is; and, thirdly, who the people are who will actually run the property of which he or she is, or may become, a tenant. In our view it is vitally important that that information should be available as soon as possible at any reasonable time.

I believe that the Minister and I are at one on the matter and that it is a question of technology. However, I very much hope that it will not be a matter of the Housing Corporation centrally simply saying, "That is the register and it is available on the Internet", or whatever it may be. I hope that there will be proper facilities for those who are, or who will become, tenants of social landlords to enable them to have access to such information at a suitable place and at a reasonable time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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