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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I, too, hope that the Minister will be able to support the amendment moved so persuasively by his noble friend Lady Flather. This is a grey area of law. Local authorities want their position clarified so that they can do what they judge is best in their interests, without fearing that they may meet some legal challenge under the auditor's procedure.

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I hope that the Government do not drag their feet any further. The amendment is not ideological; it is not contentious; it is entirely discretionary. It allows local authorities to recoup some of their costs. I hope that the Government can do as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said: accept the amendment and, if necessary, adjust it at Third Reading if in any sense it is technically deficient. That would be a great delight--to use the Minister's words--to local authorities.

Earl Russell: My Lords, at this time of night I say only that this amendment enjoys support in every quarter of the House.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am therefore very sorry not to be providing a midnight delight for all our delectations. I listened carefully to the arguments of my noble friend and all other noble Lords in support of the amendment. But this clause is not the right way forward on this issue.

The present statutory position is that the law is clear that local housing authorities can provide alarm systems for their tenants. Equally, the law is clear that social services authorities can provide such facilities to certain defined vulnerable groups. At root, the concern of the local authority associations, as explained by my noble friend, is that the law is not clear about local authorities providing community alarms in any other situation.

To resolve this lack of clarity, we need first to address a number of fundamental questions, and this we are doing. In essence, we need to decide which local authorities should be able to provide community alarms. Should, for example, all local authorities--counties, districts, unitaries, and perhaps police authorities--be able to provide alarms or should it be restricted to certain authorities? Should authorities be able to provide this service to anyone resident in their area, or should provision be restricted to certain vulnerable groups or specific categories such as local authority tenants as at present? Should authorities be able to provide and charge for alarms to people outside their area or to business people? How would any general power to provide community alarms interact with authorities' other responsibilities in the fields of housing, social services and crime prevention? Should there be any restriction on precisely the kind of system which local authorities can provide? How would we define this adequately? What is the role of the private sector, and would it be right for local authorities to compete in the market for electronic communication systems?

It is these and other questions that we are addressing. We have not yet reached our conclusions nor, would it seem, has the noble Baroness. Once we have completed our work, it is our intention to consult the local authority associations and other interested parties on our conclusions, including any proposals for legislation.

My noble friend's amendment does not address the full range of issues. It is silent about authorities which are not housing authorities. On the other hand, it would open up the possibility of a particular class of local authority (housing authorities) being able to trade throughout the country in a market for emergency communication systems. That is a very broad term.

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Although we have not yet completed our analysis, we do not see a case for such wide ranging powers. My noble friend Lord Swinfen invited us to join the permissive society or, at least, this aspect of it. We do not feel ready to do so.

We are committed, as both I and my right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Regeneration have made clear, to resolving the present legal uncertainties. It is our aim that these should be resolved in a commonsense and practical way, ensuring that local authorities have the powers they need to provide those community alarm services, which would be best provided by local government.

I do not argue with my noble friend's description of the present situation being like the curate's egg. We are committed to arriving at the bishop's chicken, which I believe will be tasty throughout and altogether a better developed bird. This amendment does not achieve that. I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw it. I understand her disappointment at our not being in a position to move ahead now on this matter, but there is a great deal of work that remains to be done. A great deal of consultation is required before we can go ahead. There is not the time in the time scale of this Bill to enable us to do that. I am sure and confident that in due course there will be other legislative opportunities to incorporate our conclusions in legislation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, with the leave of the House and before the Minister sits down, perhaps he can answer this question. He said that further consultation is needed and that a legislative opportunity will present itself to the House. I am not quite sure why he has that confidence. He may be telling us something about the Queen's Speech in the autumn. If the Government were persuaded of the substance of the amendment, particularly following consultation with the local authorities who, I am sure, will say the same as has been argued here today, is there any way that they can amend the situation by regulation or will it require primary legislation? To stress the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, when will the opportunity present itself? Can the Minister help on that? Is there some possibility that it does not require the vehicle of primary legislation to address this matter?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am sad at not being able to enliven this late hour with a description of what will be in the Queen's Speech. I have no knowledge of it. The noble Baroness is usually ahead of me in these matters and perhaps she is on this occasion.

Legislation which can have housing aspects is not that infrequent in this House. Even in my few years here I have seen plenty of it. It is our clear understanding that primary legislation will be required to do the sort of things which it is required should be done. That illustrates the fact that we are some way short yet of reaching our conclusions on what should be done.

Baroness Flather: My Lords, I must express my disappointment at my noble friend's response. Given the lateness of the hour, analogies with food do not exactly

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appeal. I am sure that when they read Hansard tomorrow, some noble Lords will wonder whether what has been said is common sense.

The questions that my noble friend posed are probably totally unanswerable because, unless some direction is given, there will be no end result. Given that this matter has been on the Whitehall merry-go-round for some two years--to use my noble friend's own words--I hope that there is not to be a further two years on an even longer and larger merry-go-round. The questions that my noble friend posed lead me to fear just such a merry-go-round.

In the meantime, I hope that at the very least my noble friend will give local authorities an assurance of some kind that no action will be taken on what has already been done because there is a possible danger of some such action in the near future.

Questions such as, "What about the private sector?" and, "What about other authorities?" arise. On the one hand, my noble friend said in his letter that this must not be restricted to the vulnerable and the elderly while on the other hand he himself says, "What about the private sector?". I am surprised that he did not mention that in his letter as well as extending the provisions to everyone in a local authority area.

I am very disappointed by what has been said and I am not filled with expectation. If all provisions had had to be subjected to that kind of nit-picking we would not have had to amend the number of Bills that we have, even in my time in this House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 109:

Before Clause 200, insert the following new clause--

Mortgage repossessions

(".--(1) For the purposes of section 36 of the Administration of Justice Act 1970 and section 8 of the Administration of Justice Act 1973 (under which a court has power to delay giving a mortgagee possession of the mortgaged property so as to allow the mortgagor a reasonable period to pay any sums due under the mortgage) there shall be a presumption that the full remaining period of the mortgage term is the reasonable period.
(2) The court may exercise any of its powers under this section notwithstanding that the court may have exercised its powers under this section on a previous occasion.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is the House's misfortune, as it is mine, that it has fallen to me to move two of the longest and most technical amendments to the Bill at 12.10 a.m. I am sorry that it is so and I shall do my best to be as fast as I can, but the material is difficult.

The amendment concerns mortgage repossessions--a problem that will not go away; first, because the private sector mortgage debt is now 62 per cent. of GNP or £362 billion. When this Government came into office, it was 26 per cent. of GNP. That is one reason why the feel-good factor has not come back. The second reason is the deregulated labour market. There is a potential conflict between a labour market in which people are expected to change jobs frequently and one in which they are expected to pay mortgages regularly. In fact,

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research from the DoE shows that 70 per cent. of repossessions are caused by job loss. In 1995, 49,410 properties were repossessed compared with only 19,300 10 years ago.

There is a conflict of legitimate interests in mortgage repossessions. The lender's interest is legitimate, as is that of the borrower, but hasty action tends to leave the lender saddled with an asset which, sold rapidly, does not generate what is wanted. A lot of action is taken in that regard which is not in anyone's interests.

Amendment No. 109 deals with the "reasonable period" set out in the 1970 Act during which mortgage arrears are to be paid off. It seeks to incorporate in statute the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society v. Norgan, which laid down that the reasonable period for clearing mortgage arrears should start from calculating the remaining term of the mortgage. Since that judgment exists, the Minister may wish to assure me that this amendment is unnecessary. I wish that were so. A great many judgments are coming out, especially in the lower courts, in ways which are wildly inconsistent with the Court of Appeal. A district judge in Lancashire recently said that he expected all arrears would normally be cleared within two years, and that four should be the maximum. That has come out since the Court of Appeal judgment.

The other reason why the Court of Appeal judgment has not achieved what is required is that a great many litigants appear unrepresented. People who are suffering mortgage repossession are not normally in a good position to pay for lawyers, and in the light of forthcoming cuts in legal aid the proportion of mortgage repossession cases where the applicant is unrepresented is likely to go up. So then they become homeless and there is a considerable cost to public funds. I think there would be a great asset, in terms of consistency and security, in expressing this principle clearly in statute law. It would be easier for the lenders to become familiar with it and it would be easier for the lower court judges to become familiar with it.

Obviously the lenders might wish to object that they were being asked to accept an unsecured loan, but in so far as there is negative equity that is true already. There are a lot of cases, and I fear that I must quote one or two to show how things are being done which are not in the interests of either party and where everyone would be better off if this were adopted. Take, for example, the case of a woman who was made redundant, claimed income support and was told by her lender that if she made no payment for eight weeks possession proceedings would be instituted. That would have left the lender with an expensive asset and a "fire sale" which would not realise its true value. If people are to be expected to change jobs, some arrangement must exist for tiding over intervals like that. This amendment seeks to provide that. I believe it to be in the interests of all parties and I believe it to be practical. I beg to move.

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