Rights of Scottish Special Housing Association Tenants

Part of Orders of the Day — Housing (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:30 pm on 29th March 1988.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West 10:30 pm, 29th March 1988

If or when the Prime Minister comes to my constituency, perhaps she could visit some Scottish Special Housing Association tenants who are affected by the Bill.

New clauses 9, 18 and 19 refer to SSHA tenants. I am informed by the association that, in my constituency, there are 217 such tenants in Camelon, 258 in Hall Glen, 539 in Denny and 85 in Stenhousemuir, giving a total of 1,099. When the Government published their consultation document prior to the publication of the White Paper and the Bill, I could not find an SSHA tenant in my constituency who was in favour of the proposals in the consultative paper. I could not find an SSHA tenant in my constituency who was in favour of the proposals in the White Paper. I still cannot find an SSHA tenant in my constituency who is in favour of the proposals in the Bill.

I have never maintained, and I do not think that any SSHA tenant would maintain, that the association is perfect. I and other Opposition Members have been critical of some aspects of the SSHA. The fact that it is an unelected quango means that there is less accountability to the people and particularly to tenants than there is in council schemes. For example, if council tenants have a complaint about housing policy in general or about how it applies to their housing association, they can go along to their local councillor and he can take the matter up with his colleagues, the other elected members of the council.

Some of us have argued a very strong case for tranferring all SSHA stock to local authorities. I am not for disbanding the SSHA completely. The SSHA, or Scottish Homes as it will become, should have a continuing role in building houses in areas of high growth or high need where the local authority cannot be expected to have the necessary resources to cope.

The Bill will make the SSHA's position worse instead of better. The SSHA is the second biggest landlord in Scotland, with Glasgow district council having a slightly larger housing stock. Scottish Homes will become the biggest landlord in Scotland. One quango will have been taken over by an even bigger quango. Again, there will be a lack of accountability to members, with a subsequent lack of accountability to tenants. It boils down to a lack of democracy. Basically, the patronage of the Secretary of State will decide the policy of Scottish Homes and those who will implement it.

When the consultative document was issued last year, there was almost 100 per cent. opposition to the proposals affecting SSHA tenants. I do not speak just on behalf of the SSHA tenants in my constituency. I have received letters from many housing associations all over Scotland which were trying to make a co-ordinated national effort to oppose the Bill. My correspondence and meetings led me to believe that there was almost 100 per cent. opposition by all SSHA tenants to the proposals, yet the Government have been determined to go ahead.

In Committee the Minister dealt with a matter on which he could perhaps now enlighten the House. A big meeting was held in a Glasgow hotel attended by delegates of many tenants' associations representing SSHA tenants throughout Scotland, including a delegation from the Ochiltree tenants association in my constituency. I had previously met those tenants, who were angry about the Minister's proposals. They came away from the meeting with some hope because they found that not only they but virtually everyone at the meeting opposed the Government's proposals, with the exception of the Minister. Perhaps the Under-Secretary could tell us what transpired at that meeting and whether he or his officials could give any assurances to the people who had travelled to it from all over Scotland. I believe from my correspondence and the representations made to us that there is still great dissatisfaction. That is why we have tabled the new clauses.

10.45 pm

New clause 9 gives SSHA tenants the right to have the ownership of their home transferred to the district or islands council in whose area it stands or to any approved landlord. We simply ask the Government to give tenants the right to choose. The Government claim to be great supporters of the individual's rights and freedoms, of tenants' rights and so on. Indeed, in the original consultation document, they seemed to be saying that what they are about is extending choice between and within the public and private sectors. But if the Government oppose the excellent new clause, as I suspect they will, they will be arguing against an extension of choice. All that we ask is that an SSHA tenant who wants to become a council tenant should have the right to do so.

The Minister and his buddies on the Front Bench are always praising the private landlord, who they say will come to the rescue and help to solve Scotland's housing crisis. According to the Government, large numbers of potential Tory landlords are skulking away, waiting for the Bill to reach the statute book, at which time they will come out of their hidey-holes and start to build houses and take them over to let to the homeless. That is codswallop. Anyone who has read the history of private landlords in Scotland will know that it is nothing to be proud of; as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said, it is an absolute disgrace. We certainly do not want to turn the clock back to the exploitation of tenants, rotten housing conditions, high rents and evictions.

Having said that, I concede that there may be one or two decent, law-abiding, humane, good private landlords, or potential private landlords, around. If there are, and if an SSHA tenant wants to put his or her trust in such a private landlord, so be it. If the private landlord is approved — I understand that the definition of "approved" appears elsewhere in the Bill — the SSHA tenant has the right under the new clause to opt for the ownership of the house, and for his or her rights of tenancy to be transferred from Scottish Homes to that private landlord.

I should have thought that any reasonable Government and any reasonable Minister would realise that there is a straightforward tenants' rights argument at stake. I remember a previous piece of legislation that the Government had the audacity to call the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) (Amendment) Act, so they are at least paying lip service to tenants' rights. If they genuinely believe in the rights of the individual tenant, let them support new clause 9.

In making absurd claims that there is no demand for genuine political devolution in Scotland, the Government sometimes say, "But we are a Government of devolvers, because we devolve power from the state and from big organisations to individuals." If they really believe that absurd claim, let them act on it. A typical example of that concept of devolution would be to take power away from a big bureaucracy, such as Scottish Homes will become.

If the tenant wanted the ownership to be transferred to a local authority of more manageable size and with more local democratic accountability, the tenant would have that right. Similarly, in the event—in my constituency, it would be an unlikely event—of people wanting their house to be transferred to a private landlord, then, provided that that private landlord is approved under the Bill, the tenant would have that right. Therefore, if, as the Government claim, they are a Government of genuine devolution, they should support new clause 9.

New clauses 18 and 19 were tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), who also has a considerable number of SSHA tenants in his constituency. As I said, I have more than 1,000 such tenants. I do not think that he has as many, but we will not quibble about that. The fact is that every SSHA tenant has certain fears about the Bill.

When the consultation was complete, the Government produced a White Paper, which was the precursor to the Bill, the relevant section of which is headed "Tenants' rights". Paragraph 2.6 states: The position of tenants is the other aspect of the absorption of the SSHA within Scottish Homes which has caused concern. It is an understatement to say that it has caused concern—I would say that it has caused fear and alarm.

The White Paper then states: There has been considerable misrepresentation of the Government's proposals in this respect". I should be grateful if the Minister would enlighten us about that alleged misrepresentation of the Government's proposals because the White Paper refers to unnecessary anxiety among SSHA tenants". There is certainly anxiety among SSHA tenants, but I would not have the complacency to describe that anxiety as unnecessary. I await the Minister's reassurances on that point.

The White Paper also states: Scottish Homes will continue the existing role of the SSHA as a model landlord in relation to its own stock". I do not know what the Minister means by a "model landlord" because, despite the good work that the SSHA has done since its inception over a century ago, very few SSHA tenants would say that it is a "model landlord" in every respect. There are genuine grievances against the SSHA as a landlord and fears that under the Bill tenants will become worse off rather than better off.

The kernel of my argument in favour of new clauses 18 and 19 is that in paragraph 2.8 of the White Paper, the Government state: Tenants will continue to enjoy the same rights with Scottish Homes as their landlord as they would have possessed as tenants of the SSHA". If that is true, and if the Minister is absolutely confident of its truth, he should not speak against new clause 18. All that the new clause does is enshrine in statute what the White Paper states in paragraph 2.8.

I have looked through the Bill—