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Removal of Special Regimes for Tenancies of Housing Associations etc

Part of Clause 35 – in the House of Commons at 1:14 am on 9th November 1988.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 1:14 am, 9th November 1988

This is an extraordinary Bill, and this extraordinary saga is likely to have an extrordinary conclusion. The Bill came before the House on 19 November last year. It was one of the first Bills that the Government introduced after the election. It was overtaken by many Bills on the way. It was overtaken because the Government had left bits out when they published it and they had to scrap the first edition and reprint it and because it did not do what the Prime Minister thought it would do.

Two days before the election, the Prime Minister wrote to a tenant in south London explaining that the key part of the Bill, which allegedly gives tenants choice, would depend on a majority of tenants voting in favour of any proposal. A few months ago at Prime Minister's Question Time, I asked how the Prime Minister reconciled that with the fiddled voting system that appeared in the Bill. The Prime Minister said that, as far as she recollected, there was no fiddled voting system and that a majority of tenants was needed to support a proposed change of landlord. She got it wrong. Presumably it was pointed out to her that the Secretary of State and other Ministers had changed the system and produced a Bill with the most extraordinary voting system that we have ever known. The Education Reform Bill requires a majority of the parents voting to vote in favour before a school can opt out. This week the Government proposed an employment code, suggesting that a simple majority would not be a representative view from the work force and requiring a 70 per cent. majority. Yet in this Bill they first proposed a voting system whereby, in a block of 100, the decision to opt out could be taken by just one tenant voting in favour and 49 against. In a letter to me in August the Prime Minister referred to that system as "approval by informed acquiescence". A year after the Bill first saw light, although it was somewhat murky, the country now understands what that means. It means that those who say nothing are presumed to agree with the Prime Minister and to have no view of their own. The Prime Minister expects council tenants to behave like her Cabinet—if she says it will be done, it will be done. That is then called "tenants' choice". Eighty per cent. or more of my constituents are council tenants. What they understand to be the result of the Bill is not tenants' choice but tenants' fear—fear of having people they never chose taking over their homes without their consent and contrary to their wishes. That is not tenants' choice. It is Government diktat—from a Government who lecture others about dictatorship when, at home, they take choice away from the people whom they purport to represent.

There have been two further extraordinary events. There was a proposal that six areas of Britain should have their housing nationalised, taken over by Government quangos and then privatised, without any voting at all. The tenants were not to be allowed any say at all. It was not until the Under-Secretary of State—and the Secretary of State, who flies in and out of the Chamber according to how often his nicotine addiction gets the better of him and forces him to take additional health-reducing sustenance behind the Speaker's chair—went to meet the tenants that they realised that the tenants actually believed that they should have a say in whether their housing was to be taken over. At the last moment, the team who were at the Department when the Bill started having been reshuffled—the Minister of State was sent to the Foreign Office and the Under-Secretary of State back to Broxbourne—a member of the House of Lords who had never been elected by anyone and would probably not know a constituent if he saw one was released to meet the world on a Sunday programme and suddenly announced that tenants in housing action trust areas would have a vote after all. Twelve months on, the Government generously agree that tenants can have a say. My hon. Friends and I are here today in substantial numbers—[Interruption.] The Division records will show that more than two-thirds of our parliamentary party—the very good biblical number of 13—have been present because we believe that it is inappropriate for a Government who have taken a year to get this far suddenly to seek to postpone debate.

We want to debate housing action trusts and tenants' choice. We want to debate the amendments. Fifty three of the 62 groups of amendments selected by Mr. Speaker have not yet been debated. If the Government intend to end this Session with a guillotine on the Bill, which I understand will take three hours of debate, and then force through 53 groups of amendments in the remaining days of this Parliament, they might be advised to think again about how they could make their life just a little easier.

I shall give the Government a simple piece of advice—[HON. MEMBERS: Resign."] That is certainly an option that the Government are entitled to take. If they insist on staying in power and if they say that they actually understand that tenants are people with rights who should have a say, and that millions of people do not accept a fiddled voting system as one with any democratic authority, we should at least have the opportunity to improve what is a travesty of democratic legislation. Any attempt to steamroller it through the House will meet with as much resistance as it is possible to give. I sincerely hope that the Government have a deathbed repentence—repent now and die later.