Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:02 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood 9:02 pm, 5th July 1983

It is a remarkable debate that contains eight maiden speeches—seven from the Back Benches and one from the Front Bench. All were delivered with conviction, sincerity and care, although not without controversy.

The first maiden speech was from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) who wishes to sell off houses adapted for invalids. There is a good deal of disagreement over that proposition. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) on their maiden speeches. Both my hon. Friends underlined the insane economics of housing finance as it operates at present, particularly in their spending before the end of the financial year. They must either waste money or underspend. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton referred to the "crazy" housing finance system. I welcome both my hon. Friends and look forward to hearing their further contributions on housing and industry.

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) spoke confidently from the heart and mind, although he did not speak from notes. He spoke with great knowledge of housing matters from his experience with the National House Building Council. I welcome him to our debate although he may be punished for his attendance by being asked to serve in Standing Committee.

I welcome the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill). There appear to be a great many ghosts here who fought seats around my constituency — the hon. Gentleman was on the edge at Croydon at one time. It was significant that a Conservative Member from Bournemouth spoke not only about housing, using his experience as a chartered surveyor, but about the problems of the poverty-stricken long-term unemployed of Bournemouth. I have a similar problem in my constituency, but it was interesting to hear that problem underlined by a Conservative Member from the lusher pastures of southern England. The hon. Gentleman urged an increase in the disregard for social security purposes. It was not what I expected to hear from Bournemouth, but I welcome his sympathy for the plight of many thousands of people who now find themselves in that situation.

I applaud the speech of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), who was sincere and spoke with pride and care about his predecessor, Mr. Sam Silkin. I share his tribute, though I do not share his political views. In other words, I hope that we may share courtesies, if not interest in policies, in the years to come.

We then had a maiden speech from the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) who also spoke in a noteless but animated and vigorous way. He spoke with obvious care and concern about housing, though obviously we will not always agree with him.

The first maiden speech, so to speak, though the last on my list, was that from the Government Front Bench, from the former silent companion of Denis Thatcher, the Minister for Housing and Construction, now coming to office and being rather more volatile. I owe the hon. Gentleman a word of thanks; I have never told him this but I feel that I should mention it today. I was once addressing an open air May Day rally at Eastbourne and I was extremely grateful for the intervention of the hon. Gentleman, who came along to heckle me. He was so universally unpopular with the Socialists of Eastbourne that he made my day for me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

I must however warn him that being an ex-Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister is no guarantee against having the sack, as the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) will bear out. No doubt that thought will keep him on his toes; he may yet return to being the silent companion of Denis Thatcher.

I shall deal first with the latter part of the Bill which deals with building control and regulations. It contains the Government's proposals for privatising, and in some cases abolishing, building control. I warn that there are great dangers in permitting, for example, self-certification, even among public authorities. I oppose the privatisation of building control. It is a retrograde step carrying great dangers with it.

On the other hand—I have had experience of this as a Minister concerned with consumer safety—I welcome the proposals for simplifying and rewriting the way in which we frame our building regulations. We shall consider that aspect carefully and constructively, and personally I welcome redrawing the way in which we frame our regulations in statute law.

The purpose of building control is twofold. The first is to ensure that all new buildings and substantial extensions and alterations are built to comply with the law and observe a high standard. The second is to make sure that buildings are safe, secure and lasting, and to provide an inspection service which has undoubted integrity and independence from the developer.

When we talk about independence from the developer, we mean not just notional but real independence. That is particularly important for confidence in the building control system because anybody who has had anything to do with building regulations knows that they are full of discretions. Once one starts to undermine confidence in the integrity and independence of the way in which a discretion is exercised under regulations, one undermines confidence in the public system of administration.

Nobody has questioned the integrity, independence or ability of local authorities in administering the regulations. When failures have occurred there has always been compensation available to meet claims for negligance, though thankfully such failures have been quite rare. The present system also enables the local authority to build up a fund of knowledge and experience.

What the Government propose in the Bill is really the same as privatising the police force. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) welcomed the Bill and the privatisation of law enforcement. I bet that if the Government were privatising some of his clients—the Police Federation—it would be a different proposition. Nevertheless, the Bill involves the privatisation of a law enforcement process, and we must be particularly careful about that. It involves the abdication of public responsibility on the understanding that someone can make a profit from the abdication.

I am opposed to this course for a number of reasons. First, it does not carry the consensus of the professions. It is opposed, for example, by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The Government might say that it is supported by developers—that is surely a good reason for opposing it. It does not carry the consensus of local authorities, the professions or those who have been involved in the integrity of the building control system. The safety and security of buildings are matters far too important to be left to competition or market forces. No one has suggested that responsibility for aircraft safety, drug safety or consumer safety should be privatised. No one has suggested that law enforcement functions of the police or the functions of the fire brigade should be privatised, and neither should the law enforcement procedures for buildings be privatised.