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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not believe that that council was making decisions on that basis. When I joined a local authority some members of it, including members of the party opposite, rather liked the privilege they had of deciding who should or should not receive a house. There was a list with a points system.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps the noble Baroness will contain herself. That was a very unsatisfactory position. When I joined the authority I combined with a member of the party opposite who took the same view--
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thought I was looking fairly clearly at what I mean by the "party opposite". If the noble Earl wishes to begin splitting the parties opposite, I shall deal with that in a moment. A senior member of the Labour Party and myself combined together to get rid of what he and I thought was a pretty iniquitous practice and brought forward a points system. That meant that the service was delivered on a much fairer basis. The noble Earl has tempted me. I must tell him that the proposal was fiercely resisted by
Lord Monkswell: The Minister has been casting aspersions at Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. Just to set the record straight, the Minister may like to know that when I was a city councillor in Manchester I was aware of a situation where a Conservative councillor so terrorised local housing officers into allocating housing for his chosen constituents that something had to be done about it and it was. I hope the Minister will recognise that as regards local government and housing allocation, it is not dealt with in the way the Minister paints it.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I was not trying to paint it in the way suggested by the noble Lord. I was simply saying that I have had experience of a local authority with a rather antiquated way of dealing with the matter. The noble Earl tempted me to reminisce on the subject of political complexions, but as everybody stood as an independent I am not sure where that leaves us.
We are all agreed that the allocation of council housing should be decided on a transparent basis and, in my view, that is best operated by some form of points system. However, that is to get away from the point about one of the things that we might want to do using the power which Amendment No. 264ZF seeks to delete. Regulations under subsection (5), which the noble Earl would remove, could disqualify members from involvement in such decisions. Such regulations are likely to cover matters of detail and I think that secondary legislation, with the negative procedure, is the right way to do that.
As the noble Earl said, Amendment No. 264ZG is consequential on the previous amendments and would disapply the main principles for determining priority in allocation under subsection (2). An authority would thus be able to allocate housing entirely as it chose without any reference to the principles for meeting housing need which are at the heart of our provisions. The one thing about which I am pretty certain following all our hours of discussion today is that most noble Lords believe that such principles should be specified. Much of our debate has concentrated on whether more principles should be laid down in statute than those which are already on the face of the Bill. I do not think that there is much disagreement on that, unless the noble Earl thinks that local authorities should be able to allocate housing without any regard to any of the principles in Clause 148(2). I am sure that that is not the noble Earl's intention, but that could be the result if his amendment were accepted.
The provisions of the three subsections are important. We are taking the proper steps to ensure that they are used carefully. The procedures are there. The most important power given to the Secretary of State can be exercised only by affirmative resolution. The others operate under the negative procedure. My understanding is that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, which considers matters of secondary legislation, has not
Earl Russell: I am quite used to people who begin a book at the last page; what I am not quite so used to is people who begin absolutely in the middle, which is what the Minister has done tonight. He has given a detailed and, I think, perfectly reasonable justification of why, if the Secretary of State is to decide all the priority categories, the powers of subsection (3) are needed.
However, that was not the question that I asked and that is why I was not particularly dismayed--or, indeed, particularly surprised--by the fact that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee did not refer to the clause. I am not making a purely drafting or constitutional point; I am asking a question about policy. I am asking the Minister why the Secretary of State is the best person to determine categories of housing need. I have not had an answer to that and, before I decide what to do with the amendment, I hope that I shall have an answer.
The Minister said that housing allocation has to be fair and orderly. That is agreed. A general requirement that it should be done according to housing need, together with the power of judicial review, will do a great deal of what is wanted. Curiously, yesterday I was complaining of the Government relying on judicial review where legislative restraint was more appropriate; here they are relying on legislative restraint where judicial review (which is all about the requirement of basic procedural fairness) is more appropriate. That is all that we need here. We do not need the Secretary of State taking all these decisions himself and I do not see how he is competent to do so.
If there is discrimination against certain broad categories, that will be caught by the Race Relations Act or the Sex Discrimination Act. Beyond that, it would be caught by the requirement for procedural fairness. We do not need to quote party examples. I think that we are agreed that all power tends to corrupt and, without commenting on any individual case because I am not surprised if it happens in any context, perhaps I may say that it happens at Westminster too.
Can the Minister tell me why the Secretary of State is competent to have those powers? And can he tell me another thing that he did not tell me? In subsection (4) why does the Secretary of State want to specify factors which shall not be taken into account, and what sort of factors does he mean? I did not hear an answer to that and I should like to hear one.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thought that I had explained what subsection (4) might be used for. I indicated that it would be used where authorities had decided to discriminate against certain applicants, such as by giving excessive priority to children of their own tenants or by refusing to give proper consideration to applications from single people. I gave those two examples to illustrate that, if such practices occurred in local authorities, the Secretary of State might decide that he should take some action.
I am asked why the Secretary of State is the proper person to do that. Somebody has to take those actions on behalf of the United Kingdom Government who, after all, put a lot of taxpayers' money into public housing. Therefore, it seems right that Parliament and the Government--and the Secretary of State on the Government's behalf--should take a close interest in how that housing is allocated. I said that the Secretary of State is doing that by means of the priorities that are set out in Clause 148(2).
There is a good argument for saying that central government has a role to play in both the detail and the principles. That is the role that this clause seeks to enact. The powers that we are now discussing would be given to the Secretary of State, who is always accountable to Parliament, to use in the future where circumstances have changed and where he decides--in consultation with his colleagues, I have no doubt, and with the agreement of Parliament--that some change should be introduced. That is the reason and I thought that I had addressed it--although perhaps at the end of my contribution, not at the beginning.
Lord Monkswell: Does the Minister recognise that the examples that he quoted would be significantly different in different local authority areas? As I read the clause, I can see no mechanism to enable the Secretary of State to set different priorities in different local authority areas. There would have to be a national scheme. One would have to be careful in drafting such a national scheme to ensure that a scheme that was set up to deal with a particular housing problem in a particular area did not prevent something desirable from happening in another area.
Earl Russell: The Minister used a dangerous argument about public money. Public money goes to all sorts of bodies. It does not follow that the Secretary of State is the best person to decide how that money should be used. Public money goes indirectly to the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example--I am glad that it does--but that does not mean that the Secretary of State is entitled to give directives on how best to play the part of Iago. I would not presume to suggest that he was the person best qualified to do that.
The Minister should think again about this because I do not think that he has entirely understood the question. I shall have to return to it later, by which time I hope that the noble Lord will have thought a bit more about what I am trying to ask him. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.