Like other Members of the House who have spoken already on Second Stage of this Bill, I was raising some caveats regarding the extended powers and extended business being given to building societies in the Bill. I was making the point that with the extra powers goes corresponding responsibility. The size of house mortgages, their length of term and the property value of the house itself are directly linked with the cost of building land. The direct involvement of societies, according to the Minister, in the development of land for residential and other commercial purposes is a logical extension of the traditional business of these societies, namely the provision of loan finances for such development while the new power to own and develop land will, he hopes, be the basis for a new departure on the part of building societies in the housing sector. I certainly hope it will be a new departure and I shall talk about that subject presently.
Meantime, with extra competition and very well-funded building societies now being able to trade and compete for building land, I am afraid that prices may be even more exaggerated. Members of this House are aware that at times the cost of the building land alone is comparable with what the house should cost fully built. The site represents a tremendous portion of the house purchase price. We must be very careful about trying to control building land. It has always been a matter of amazement to me, even in a free market such as ours, that overnight, building land can represent such a tremendous profit by being zoned, or through local authority services making it building land. It is the purchaser of the land and the house purchaser later who pay the price for that. The entrance of building societies into his competitive field may it is hoped ensure that building land is kept more reasonably priced than some of the escalating prices we have seen recently. Such escalation would put the land out of the range and residential choice of a great many people. All of us socially would hope for, and believe that we should have mixed housing and not ghettoes of high value and of low value houses but that is something we can explore further.
I very much welcome Part VIII of the Bill which contains the promise of regulations by the Minister, if necessary, with regard to dealing with complaints of customers or abuses in the services being provided to consumers by building societies. I take the Minister's point that an Ombudsman-type arrangement could apply in relation to consumer complaints about services provided by the societies. The Minister suggests that perhaps the societies should set up a voluntary arrangement for dealing with these complaints, although he has rightly held the power to bring in statutory regulation in this context. All of us like positively to encourage people to set up self-regulatory machinery but if these voluntary arrangements are not seen to work or if one or two of the building societies are reneging on their obligations, the Minister can act promptly to bring in regulations to ensure consumer protection. Perhaps if the building societies publicised arrangements for dealing with complaints in their widespread advertising householders whould be aware of their rights in this respect. Too often the consumer who most needs protection is not fully informed.
I welcome the whole thrust of the Bill with regard to mortgages. There is an attempt to ensure fairness and justice for everyone. During his speech the Minister said it is vital that societies should be seen to be run in the interest of their members. All of us would applaud that. He also said it is important that the law should protect the rights of the ordinary members of building societies as mutual bodies and should give them a democratic say in the running of affairs. There is a tremendous striving for representation and democracy and consumer rights running through this Bill.
Up to now we have not had that sense of democracy with regard to directorships and decision-making in building societies due to the lack of representation of half the population, namely women. I am referring to women as shareholders and house purchasers. It is astonishing that in 1989 we can look at the boards of the various building societies and see either no women or the one token woman. Since family homes are, on the whole, jointly owned, one of the joint owners is a woman. Many single women are economically independent and can purchase houses in their own right. It is of vital importance that women should be involved in the decision-making areas of these companies. I particularly ask that affirmative action should be taken by the building societies to ensure fair representation.
I would refer the building societies and anybody else interested in highly qualified, skilled women to the Women in Management Directory 1988-89, compiled by Network. It is introduced by very successful and highly qualified women and contains over 600 names. This is merely the first edition. The glib reply that we do not have suitably qualified and experienced women is no longer acceptable. We cannot believe that any organisation is run in a democratic or representative fashion as long as the exclusion of women continues.
I want to highlight another point which will require further legislation because of the loophole in the Family Home Protection Act, 1976. On being tested in court it was found that a judgment mortgage had priority where a loan was defaulted upon in respect of a family home. Women found, very often without knowledge of this legal precedent, that the family home had to be sold. Up to 1976 the breadwinner was traditionally the sole owner of the house and the woman found herself in a totally unprotected and vulnerable situation without any legal entitlement to the house once the sale was forced. We have been asking that the Bill dealing with the property of married couples should be introduced as quickly as possible to deal with this matter.
The building societies have been more than just business organisations. They have been mutual societies, almost extended credit unions, which have given opportunities to people who, through their personal saving, would not have been able to raise the price of a house. The building societies have enabled a high level of home ownership and of security. We must however, protect fundamental rights so that the family home does not come under threat from the building societies or the banks, if they engage in lending for house purchase. Judgement mortgages should not take priority over the central unit of society as they do at the moment, where property is more important than people.
As chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Women's Rights I have received letters from many women all over the country who, as single people with a career and economic independence, have been turned down in regard to mortgages from house building or lending agencies or have been treated less fairly to the extent that when a sister and brother in comparable circumstances applied for a loan he got a mortgage and she was turned down. That is obvious discrimination and if we are bringing in legislation to ensure justice and protection for consumers, we must demand fairness. I know there have been improvements in some of the building societies, which I acknowledge. However, there is room for improvement and perhaps an Ombudsman-type tribunal could be set up to deal with the matter. If further legislation is needed it should be introduced and debated here to ensure that there is justice for everyone.