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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said. On the face of it, what he asks for is not unreasonable. However, I shall go through Clause 4 and its operation, because I think that, having listened to what I have to say, the noble Lord will probably think that we are acting entirely reasonably.
Clause 4 requires the proper officer, as distinct from the authority itself, to inspect a property or area in response to a complaint from a justice of the peace or a parish or community council that the property is unfit or the area should be cleared. We had some discussion about the history of that, and I shall come to my view on that in a while. If, following an inspection carried out as a result of an official complaint, the proper officer is of the opinion that a category 1 or category 2 hazard exists in any residential property in the district or that an area should be declared a clearance area, subsection (6) requires him to make a report in writing to the authority without delay, and subsection (7) requires the authority to consider the report as soon as possible.
Amendment No. 15 would add the requirement that, where the report of an inspection that follows an official complaint recommends that the area should be declared a clearance area, the authority must make the report available, on written or even oral request, to any interested parties. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made a plea for local people to know. That is fine, and I have no doubt that local authorities, acting in the way anticipated in the clause, will have to advertise the action that may be taken and the reasons for it. My question is this: to whom precisely are the reports to be given? In the context of the noble Lord's amendment, who is an interested party, and how would the authority determine that? There are no clues in the amendment. Should an authority be responding to an oral request? How is the person who requested the report to establish that the request has been properly made?
Obviously, we appreciate the case for openness, although it is arguable that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 ought to be the conduit for the release of information by central or, as in this case, local government, but why specifically these reports? We need to consider carefully what is likely to happen in practice. First, official complaints are likely to be few. There is no evidence that authorities receive many of them now. A question that almost came up in the debate was why the concept of an official complaint had been retained. The answer is interesting. Apparently, during consideration of the draft Housing Bill, there was no such provision. The Government were persuaded in the other place that we should retain the procedure.
My noble friend Lord Rooker put his finger on it: the provision has been there for many years. It was in the 1969 Act, I think, and my guess is that it probably goes back to some of the early legislation about fitness
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of premises and properties in the early 20th century and maybe even slightly before that. On a personal note, I have a feeling that it is probably because of the unique role that magistrates at one point had in considering the fitness of premises that it retains a place in the legislation. I can remember, as a housing activist and housing adviser in the early 1980s, using magistrates' courts as a means of taking enforcement action against reluctant landlords. Perhaps part of that procedure involved the concept of an official complaint, so that the information that the magistrate received led to an action. There was, perhaps, an obligation on the local authority further down the line to take action in some way. I think that that is where the legislation is coming from.
We were persuaded to retain the provision. It is a historical hangover, but it may have some use. In the circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, described, it is likely that the local authority would want to ensure that local residents were well informed. However, we must consider carefully the terms on which reports should be requested, who should have the right to request them, the circumstances in which they can be requested, and how the requests would be properly made and recorded. I am concerned by the notion that detailed information should be supplied simply on the back of an oral request, when that is somewhat informal.
The occasions on which a proper officer will recommend that an area be declared a clearance area are, in the circumstances that I have outlined, likely to be extremely rare. A clearance recommendation presupposes that a large number of properties have been inspected following an official complaint. It is far more likely that the authority itself will initiate the action, leading to a clearance declaration, as part of the review under Clause 3. Clearance declarations follow the procedures set down in Section 289 of the 1985 Act, as amended by this Bill. If they proceed, the owners and occupiers of the property affected must be consulted. There is an obligation in the legislation, which was enacted by the noble Lord's party when it was in government. On balance, we consider the requirement to make such reports available unnecessary and difficult to operate in the circumstances suggested by the noble Lord, although we appreciate the spirit of openness that lies behind the amendments.
Amendments Nos. 53 and 54 are similar in their intent. One relates to the making of demolition orders, the other to the making of clearance orders. Again, the question arises of whom the reports should be made to. Who is an interested party? How do we define that? How is the local authority to determine it? There is also the vagueness of the oral request and the way in which such a request is logged and made clear in the local authority.
I recognise the case for openness. I understand the spirit in which the amendment was moved. We believe that the concept of openness is carefully enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 with which local authorities must comply. I am not persuaded that anything further is needed given the general legislation to which I referred and the requirements in the
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1985 Act for notice of demolition orders to be given. We thinkand I am sure that the noble Lord will agree, particularly as his party put it in placethat that legislation is clear and easy to operate through the local authority. Having heard that explanation I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Hanningfield: I thank the Minister for that detailed reply. Part of his answer related to the Freedom of Information Act, so it will be difficult to deny people access to the information if they want it. Some of the decisions will be controversial; for example, planning decisions where people are concerned about what is happening to properties next to existing properties. These days, people want openness and the most information possible to be made available on planning decisions.
I can see that some of the decisions will be controversial. I understand the Minister's point on magistrates. We have moved on a great deal and most of the action will be taken by local government under this part of the Bill. The Minister accepted that there should be openness. We are suggesting that the information should be available to those who request it. It would probably be a job to prevent that anyway under the Freedom of Information Act. As the Minister went along with what we were saying I do not understand why the Government cannot accept the amendment. It would probably be a job to refuse it.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I was trying to set out for the noble Lord the practical circumstances in which this situation might occur. I am not convinced that the noble Lord's suggestion adds anything to what would be expected of the local authority in any event.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord invites me to accept the amendment on those terms; I am not minded to do so. If he tables a similar amendment at a later stage we will ensure that we can describe to him, in even more detail if he wishes, exactly how the local authority would be expected to operate in those circumstances. I invite him to reconsider the woolliness of his proposition, because the questions I posed back to him about who an interested party might be and whether we should accept mere oral requests for detailed information would probably trouble some local authoritiesperhaps not his own because it is not a housing authority, but certainly the district authorities that operate within Essex County Council.
If the noble Lord is prepared to think about the operability of his suggestionand I am certainly prepared, in offering explanations at a later stage, to consider the obligations on the local housing authority over and above those in the 1985 Act that I describedperhaps we will reach an amicable score draw on the amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: Before the noble Lord responds, perhaps I may say that, if he tables another
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amendment, we would find it helpful if he could explain how his proposals fit in with the technical and detailed freedom of information provisions under which local authorities have to provide for requests for information. It would be helpful to these Benches to understand how the two might lie together. The Minister referred to that, but there might be considerable practical difficulties in operating separate systems.
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