Baroness Hollis is among the peers criticising right-to-buy plans

Hollis: plans should be 'taken apart'
Hollis: plans should be 'taken apart'

Peers have criticised the government's plans to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, saying it could undermine charity legislation dating back to the 16th century.

In a debate about the Queen's speech in the House of Lords, peers discussed the government's plans to widen the right to buy to housing association tenants, which would enable an estimated 1.3 million such tenants to buy their homes at discounts of up to £104,000.

The National Housing Federation, the umbrella body for housing associations, warned before the general election that the proposal would require a "fundamental rewriting of the agreement between government and civil society".

In the Lords, the Labour peer Baroness Hollis of Heigham, chair of Broadland Housing Association, questioned the government's right to "seize the assets of independent charities, given that it will have to unpick myriad overlapping laws that go back centuries".

She said housing associations, most of which are charities, were regulated under law dating back to the time of Elizabeth I. She said she hoped the legislation would never reach the Lords. "If it does, I hope that this house will take it apart," she said.

The Labour peer Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, who in September will become chair of the National Housing Federation, said that forcing housing associations to sell their properties could set an "extremely dangerous precedent for government interference in independent business.

"Perhaps most significantly, it would effectively mean that associations are no longer in control of their own assets. Preserving charity assets is a principle that has been in place since Elizabeth I, and the government really needs to exercise caution in undermining it."

The crossbench peer Lord Kerslake, a former chief executive of the housing regulator the Homes and Communities Agency, also criticised the policy: "It is wrong in principle because these are not the government's assets to sell. Housing associations are private, mostly charitable, bodies."

The crossbench peer Lord Best said there were "serious legal and practical objections to this policy". He said that in the 1980s the Lords rejected the extension of the right to buy to charitable housing associations "on the grounds that government should not be ordering independent charitable bodies to dispose of their assets to the benefit of tenants of today but at the cost of diminishing the charity's capacity to help others in need in the future".

The Home Office minister Lord Bates said that the right-to-buy plans were about giving people a stake in society through owning their homes.

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