HC Deb 01 November 1909 vol 12 cc1509-14

Sub-section (5).—In this Section, the expression "landlord" means any person who lets the house under any contract referred to in this Section, and includes his successors in title, and the expression "house" includes part of a house.

Lords Amendment: After "lets," insert "to a tenant for his own habitation."

Mr. BURNS moved, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

We regard this Amendment as unnecessary. We think that the letting to a big colliery company who again let out the cottages does not come within this Section. The Amendment would enable a landlord to let a house to a man of straw, not for his own habitation, but for another's use, with the result that there would be no substantial person to proceed against.


My information is that on 11th October Lord Beauchamp, on behalf of the Government in another place, agreed to this Amendment. A pledge ought to be kept. Does the right hon. Gentleman throw over his own colleague?


I think the hon. Baronet is putting too severe a construction upon the statement referred to. He has not proved, by quoting, that the Noble Lord accepted the Amendment, and until he does I am justified in asking the House to disagree. If I find that my colleague and I have misunderstood each other, or that I am not keeping a pledge, I will do my best to satisfy both Houses on the point.


Lord Beau-champ's words were:— As he had previously remarked, in the opinion of the Local Government Board the Amendments really necessary, but the position was already sufficiently covered. … but if the Noble Duke was anxious to have these words in, the Local Government Board would not object.


It was a very qualified acceptance. The Amendment is a dangerous one, as it would enable a house to be let to a man of straw who would stand between the local authority and the real and responsible owner. Under these circumstances there might be the most deplorable sanitary conditions it is possible to imagine, and no one to proceed against.


What is a man of straw? I take it that a man of straw is a man of whose obligations it may be shown he has not the pecuniary means to meet. That is the only man who can be thought of in connection with this. Does the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, or anybody else, suppose that all cottage property in this country is owned by persons of considerable means? If so, he is profoundly mistaken. A considerable proportion of it is owned by extremely poor people; often that is heavily mortgaged, and it may be when the local authority attempt to deal with these people they will find that they are dealing with what the hon. Gentleman opposite, and I think the Government themselves, describe as "men of straw." There is no security in the Bill as it stands, nor can there be security, that the person against whom you are going to proceed is a person of substantial means. I think the Government must feel that something—whether they accept this Amendment in its entirety or not—must be done to meet the particular case which I understand the other House had in view when they introduced this Amendment. The only reason for not accepting it is the idea that the landlord may deliberately interpose, and I would say fraudulently interpose, between himself and the local authority some man of straw, some person practically who has no financial means of his own, so that there can be no proceedings against him. By all means introduce words to prevent that. I call it very near fraud. If it is done for the purpose of evading legal obligations it seems to me to be moral fraud. Whatever the legal point of view may be substantially it seems to me to be fraud. But if you leave this Bill as it stands now it is not the immediate landlord, it may be a millionaire, who is responsible, or somebody beyond him. Ultimately you get back to the freeholder—the ground landlord. There may be eight interests between the ground landlord and the man who occupies the house. There very often are. Everybody who has a knowledge of the actual working of these matters in our towns knows that the number of interests which get interpolated be- tween the owner of the soil on which the house stands and the person who occupies the house are very numerous. As the Bill stands now, in the series of persons to be attacked you may get back the ground landlord who has nothing whatever to do with it, and who in the terminology of the Government may not be the landlord at all. In the Finance Bill we were over and over again told by the learned Attorney-General that in anything, I think, over 50 years—I forget the exact number—the tenant is the owner; and unless you insert the words "immediate landlord" I really do not see how you can possibly work your system. I speak with some diffidence, because I had not the advantage of hearing the earlier Debates on the subject either in Committee or on Report, but it seems to me that if you do not do something to meet the perfectly legitimate point of the case you really will leave your Bill in a perfect state of hopeless confusion. Guard against your man of straw, certainly, by whatever penalties you like for fraudulent interposition, but take care that you guard against the possibility of the persons who have no direct responsibility for the House at all being made directly responsible, as they are, for the duties thrown upon the owner under this Bill. I respectfully make this appeal to the right hon. Gentleman in no controversial spirit, but in order to meet a real necessity.


The Leader of the Opposition has made an appeal to me to see whether some way cannot be found out of the difficulty that has been raised by previous speakers, notably by his colleague the hon. Baronet who sits for the City of London. May I, before I come to the Leader of the Opposition, deal with the apparent cause of misunderstanding? I believe that the words originally used in another place were "to a tenant for habitation." There is a considerable difference between those words and "a tenant for his own habitation." I do not think there is any need for the words to be challenged now. It is for us to find out what were the exact words agreed to in another place, and, if the agreement was made, of course it has got to be considered. The next point is that raised by the Leader of the Opposition. He says that there is danger to be guarded against. We were under the impression that by disagreeing with the Lords Amendment to this particular point, that we were taking the best step known to us at the moment to prevent abuse that the Leader of the Opposition contemplates might be pos- sible. I would like to remind the Leader of the Opposition that these words only apply to contracts after the passing of this Act. That makes a material difference. The whole matter then resolves itself into what the agreement between my Noble Friend who represents my Department made with those who moved the Amendment. If the House will be assured by me I will take steps between now and the further stage of this Bill to see what actually was done, and to see if we can provide for the contingencies contemplated by the Leader of the Opposition. If we can, we will be only too pleased so to do, but at this stage we must respectfully ask the House to disagree with the Lords Amendment.


I have no knowledge of what took place in another place, but it appears to me that this Amendment very forcibly safeguards against an abuse which has rapidly grown up. In my own Constituency it is a common thing for a small company of persons to farm a number of houses; to guarantee to the owner of the property so much a year for a good number of years, and then to make the best of their investment and their contract by doubling, trebling, and, in a case to my own knowledge, quadrupling the rent which they charged to the tenant. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether in this Clause, as now drafted, the original owner of the house property would be held responsible, or whether the company or the individual who farms out the property would be the landlord under the Act? It is rather an important point. If these words, or some similar words, were inserted that would place the onus on the owner of the property to let his house direct to the persons who were going to use it for their own use, that would make it somewhat difficult for the person who did not intend to inhabit the house, but simply to use it as a means of living without work to carry on practices as they are carried on to-day.


May I say that if this last Amendment is rejected the Bill would then enable local authorities to proceed against either or both of the persons concerned?


My recollection of taking part in the preparation of the Act of 1890 is rather old, but I think there was a definition of owner in that Bill which really is much more effective than the definition in the present one. An owner was there defined to be the person in receipt of the rack-rent. This is a defi- nition which, if the person is the one receiving the rack-rent in a beneficial sense, and not in a fiduciary capacity, clearly excludes these possible sham middlemen put up for the purpose of evading responsibility. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider the point as to why he has departed from that sensible definition of owner, and indicated a definition for the first time which I shall be very much surprised to hear has not been found insufficient.


I think this Amendment really raises an important point of principle, and I sincerely trust my right hon. Friend will resist, and continue to resist the Amendment proposed. It seems to me that as the Clause is now drawn that the local authority can go against the owner of insanitary property, whether he is the immediate owner or occupier, or the man who is himself drawing the rent. It is very desirable to reach the man who may be drawing a rent from insanitary property while it continues to be insanitary. I quite agree that a man may not be morally responsible, because he may not be aware for the moment that the property is insanitary, but I think it would be very desirable—I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition—that the local authorities should have power to get at the superior landlord if it can be shown that the property of the superior landlord is in an insanitary condition. As the Clause now stands there is no possible means of escaping the difficulty of the man of straw.