I beg to move amendment No. 281, in
schedule 9, page 181, line 21, at end insert—
'(j) the National Assembly for Wales.'.
This amendment would add the National Assembly for Wales to the list of bodies in clause 71. The other amendment would do the same thing in schedule 9. The list of public bodies includes central Government, local government, Scottish Ministries and the Executive agencies. Scottish Homes is included in schedule 9, as are the Northern Ireland Departments and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The only level of Government to be omitted is the National Assembly for Wales. The reasons for that are unclear.
It is true that the Executive of the National Assembly for Wales are not currently a public sector landlord. The National Assembly as a legislature is not a public sector landlord either, so the provisions do not seem directly relevant. However, housing policy is a wholly devolved matter and while it is not currently policy in Wales for the Welsh Assembly to be involved in the direct provision of housing, the policy may change. There may be a change of hue in the Government of the National Assembly for Wales at some point in the not-too-distant future. The National Assembly for Wales could, therefore, under the terms of the devolution settlement, choose to become a public sector landlord by setting up an equivalent organisation to Scottish Homes, as it was, or the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to provide affordable housing in designated areas. Indeed, such are the financial difficulties that many local authorities in Wales face in maintaining their housing stock that Gareth Hughes, the former chief executive of Tai Cymru, Housing for Wales, the former executive agency with responsibility for housing, has suggested transferring the housing stock to Assembly ownership via a national housing corporation. If the National Assembly for Wales is not included in the clause, then stock transfer, or right-to-buy schemes in the case of Assembly-owned housing, would be at a tax disadvantage. The Development Board for Rural Wales was a public sector landlord prior to its incorporation in the Welsh Development Agency, so there are precedents.
I respectfully ask the Government, in the spirit of devolution, to include in the clause their esteemed colleagues in the National Assembly. I should point out that Scottish Homes, which is mentioned in clause 129, no longer exists. It was wound up in 2001 and has been superseded by a new body, Communities Scotland. That reference will therefore need to be changed on Report. I am developing a bit of a reputation for this kind of thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that that organisation is now defunct and that we need to amend the reference for Report. That will certainly be done.
Clause 71 provides an exemption from stamp duty land tax for a range of transactions where the purchaser is a registered social landlord. Amendments Nos. 280 and 281 would add the National Assembly for Wales to the list of prescribed qualifying bodies that may be the vendor in a transaction and the list of relevant public sector bodies that may arrange right-to-buy transactions under paragraph 1.
Paragraph 1 reflects the current stamp duty provisions by granting relief from stamp duty land tax for the transfer of property to a registered social landlord. It sets out a list of qualifying bodies that may be the vendor in such transactions, including various social housing providers such as other registered social landlords and local councils. The amendment would add the National Assembly of Wales to that list of qualifying bodies. However, we have consulted the Assembly's housing directorate, which has informed us that the amendment is not necessary, and I am not minded to go behind its judgment. In the spirit of devolution, it would not be appropriate for me to do so. I am unlikely, I fear, to succumb to the hon. Gentleman's temptations, particularly—I hesitate to draw this to his attention, but feel bound to do so—as one must reflect on the Welsh electorate's verdict at the last Assembly elections.
Amendment No. 281 relates to the same principle. I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but I cannot accept his argument. We are asked to add the National Assembly of Wales to the list of various social housing providers, such as registered social landlords and local councils. However, the National Assembly does not own any properties that could be disposed of under the right to buy, nor has it drawn to our attention any intention on its part to become a social landlord. An amendment of this nature would therefore be unnecessary. While thanking the hon. Gentleman for this interesting, though mercifully short, debate, I urge the Committee to reject the amendments.
I am very disappointed that the spirit of generosity from the Chief Secretary that prevailed this morning has not extended beyond lunch. The key point is that the principle underlying the devolution settlement is very much an enabling one. I fully accept that the Welsh Assembly Government—the Executive arm of the National Assembly for Wales—are neither a public sector landlord currently nor have the explicit objective in their housing strategy to become one. However, it is possible under the devolution settlement that a Government of a different political complexion could decide to have an alternative policy including the direct provision of public housing in certain designated areas through a national housing corporation. It would seem wrong for a Finance Bill in this place to bind the hands of the National Assembly for Wales over its housing policy. Under the Government of Wales Act 1998, it has been recognised that that should be a decision for the elected Members.
I stress that that is for elected Members, not officials of the department of the National Assembly for Wales that deals with housing. It is a matter for the elected Members of that legislature to decide at some future date, and it would seem entirely wrong simply to omit the National Assembly for Wales from the schedule, and, therefore, to decide through this Finance Bill what the housing policy of some future Administration of the National Assembly should be. I am quite used to being in a minority of one, and I will press the amendment to a vote unless the Chief Secretary is about to tell me that he will think again and perhaps consult his colleague the Minister for Local Government and Housing in the Welsh Assembly Government, rather than a lowly housing official.
There is a tradition in this Committee and this House that one does not deprecate dedicated public servants. To describe the official who was good enough to speak to my civil servants as a lowly housing official is a bit cheeky, if I may say so. The hon. Gentleman may wish to reflect on that and perhaps withdraw his comment.
I seek to set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. If it came to pass that the National Assembly went into the business of being a social landlord or leasing properties, it would always be open to the Ministers concerned and/or the Secretary of State to press their case, in which case we could use regulations to add to the list in paragraph 1 of schedule 9. There is no need for the amendment and, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman might not want to press it to a vote. He has all that he needs. If that situation came to pass, it would be open to the Government through the exercise of the regulatory power, to add the National Assembly to the list in paragraph 1 of schedule 9. For that reason, the amendment is simply unnecessary, but it is a matter for him to decide.
I am suitably admonished by the Chief Secretary. Certainly, nothing that I said was intended to deprecate the important function of the civil service in Wales. I was seeking to deprecate the Chief Secretary's proposal to omit the National Assembly for Wales. Why strive to retain the omission when the import in terms of revenue to the Treasury would be fairly minimal, given that we are talking about a hypothetical situation at this stage? The principle is very important. Under the enabling spirit enshrined in the Government of Wales Act 1998, the National Assembly for Wales should decide what its approach to housing policy should be. As I am a member of the Welsh National party, I am afraid that I shall have to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 15.
On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam, I understood that there was an error in the schedule because the Chief Secretary admitted that a defunct organisation was included. Is it sensible to allow a schedule to stand part of the Bill when it contains an error? Would it not be better for the Chief Secretary to admit his mistake, withdraw the schedule and return with it properly drafted? I am not comfortable about approving something that the Government admit contains an error.