§ (1) Where any sum has, whether before or after the passing of this Act, been paid on account of any rent or mortgage, being a sum which by virtue of the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915, would have been irrecoverable by the landlord or mortgagee, the sum so paid shall be recoverable from the landlord or mortgagee by the tenant or mortgagor by whom it was paid, and 1235 may, without prejudice to any other method of recovery, be deducted by such tenant or mortgagor from any rent or interest payable by him to the landlord or mortgagee.
§ (2) If any person in any rent book or similar document makes an entry showing or purporting to show any tenant as being in arrears in respect of any sum which by virtue of the said Act is irrecoverable, or if, where any such entry has before the passing of this Act been made by or on behalf of any landlord, the landlord, on being requested by or on behalf of the tenant so to do, refuses or neglects to delete the entry, he shall on summary conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding ten pounds.—[Sir G. Hewart.]
§ Clause brought up, and read the first time.
§ Sir G. HEWART
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."
I move this new Clause in fulfilment of a pledge I gave yesterday to some of my hon. Friends who referred to the difficulties that have arisen under the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915, and also to carry out a further measure of relief that was asked for. May I recapitulate the difficulties that have arisen? Under the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915, it was provided that in the case of a dwelling-house to which the Act applied there should not be during the continuance of the War an increase of rent by the landlord above the standard rent, and it was further provided that such excess of rent, where an improper increase was made, should not be recoverable by the landlord. But the Act stopped there. It did not go further and provide that where the tenant, in ignorance of the law, paid that excess of rent, he should be able to recover it back from the landlord or deduct it from rent afterwards payable to the landlord. As the Committee was reminded yesterday, a case has arisen in which the Court of Appeal held, as it was bound to hold under the existing law, that the provision that a landlord shall not recover is not the same thing as a provision that a tenant may set-off. In accordance with my promise I have moved the new Clause which will fill that gap, and also deal with another and cognate matter. It has come to the knowledge of the Government from various quarters that certain landlords—I am glad to say not a great many; not landlords of the 1236 good kind—in various parts of the country have adopted this expedient: They know that under the Act an excess of rent cannot be recovered by them, nevertheless, in rent books or similar documents, they debit the unfortunate tenant with the excess under the head of "Arrears of rent," so that any person who takes up the rent book or similar document and looks at it draws the inference that the tenant is in arrear, and is a bad tenant. It therefore becomes difficult for the tenant to get another dwelling-house. In that kind of way the landlord of the undesirable kind has been endeavouring to get round the provisions of the principal Act. I trust that the two Sub-sections of the new Clause will deal effectively with the difficulties I have mentioned.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I should like as the Mover of one of the Amendments last night to thank the Solicitor-General for the way in which he has met us. I find it a little difficult to follow the precise legal phraseology of the new Clause, but it seems to meet entirely not only the case mentioned last night, but the difficulty that was going to be mentioned to-night by some of my colleagues and myself. The question of the rent book is in certain districts a rather serious matter. A clear rent book is the most important, testimony that the tenant has got that he is a good tenant. What has been happening, not in every case, but in a minority of cases, is that the landlord says, "You have either got to pay me Is. or 6d. a week above the legal rent, or if you refuse to do so, I shall enter it in the rent book as arrears." The landlord believes that he can practically frighten the tenant by this means into paying this illegal excess, because the tenant is afraid that if the amounts demanded are entered in his rent book as arrears, and he wants another house, the landlord will say, "You are a bad tenant. You are owing 25s.," and so on. I am very glad indeed that steps have been taken to deal with that matter. I think that the two points now seem to be safeguarded, and if the law is to be respected we have got to enforce the law. The great weakness on the part of the Rent Restrictions Act was that no penalties were attached to the landlord who deliberately broke the Act. If a munition worker breaks the law it is a very different matter. If he stays away for half a day he is liable to be taken before a Court and fined several pounds. It does not make matters any better when the munition worker 1237 knows that at the same time the landlord can break the law and no penalty is attached. I am very glad that this matter has been put right. I believe that it will help greatly to secure a proper enforcement and administration of what is the intention of Parliament and the Local Government Board in bringing the matter forward, and it will certainly help in the smooth working of this particular Act.
§ Mr. YEO
I desire to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the generous way in which he has met the point brought before the House last night. As one who has brought forward in this House the question of the raising of rents and the entries made by landlords in the rent books, I may say that there will be throughout the country a great deal of satisfaction at the fact that at last the Rents Act has been placed on a proper footing, and tenants can congratulate themselves on the fact that at last they are going to be protected, so that when they want to leave one place and go to another place they will not have the difficulty of the rent books being marked with false entries, in reference to the place from which they are moving.
§ 10.0 P.M
§ Mr. BOYTON
I yield to no one in this House in my desire to see tenants of the class to which this Bill refers properly and fairly treated. I have some knowledge of the subject and a pretty extensive knowledge of house property. I should have liked to see one of these books to which the hon. Member referred last night. There are, of course, bad landlords and even bad tenants. Last night one hon. Member was good enough to say that all the landlords were not bad. I was very glad of that measure of appreciation. When the Rent and Mortgage Restriction Act was introduced I was an ardent supporter, as I am still, of the principle, but when I hear wholesale condemnations of landlords such as I have listened to tonight I should like to see some demonstration. I should like to see some of the rent books to which the hon. Member for Poplar refers. He always seems very keen on the matter, and rightly so, because he represents a working-class constituency. There was a very touching letter which he read last night from either the widow or the wife of a soldier, but that poor woman might know that if the rates went up in the neighbourhood the rent might be increased 6d. a week. These matters are often capable of explanation. This Act was the greatest possible boon to people 1238 who rent houses of this character, but people of that class have profited exceedingly since that Act was passed. Since the War broke out these sub-lettings are simply a course of very large income. You have tied down the landlord and the mortgagee, but you do not interfere with any sub-letting. What have they done in certain parts of London with some of these houses? They can charge the munition worker what they like. They put a wash-stand or a chest of drawers into a room and call it a? furnished room, and charge as much for it as they like. I hope that hon. Members will not be swayed so much by sentiment, and will allow that there are two sides to this question. It does not matter very much about the rental, but I am anxious to remove, as I am sure I can from my knowledge, the impression that tenants are treated badly, on the whole, by landlords throughout the length and breadth of the land. But when we come to this next suggestion we find that the landlords are to be subject to convictions and fines of £10. Only a few minutes ago I wanted some justice done in another matter and the Solicitor-General stood at that box and spoke about the sacred law of contracts. Is there anything in any law about taking a landlord to the Police Court and having him convicted and fined £10? Perhaps some of the lawyers in the House will be kind enough to answer me on this point. I do not know. I never heard of it. If you are going to allow a wave of sentiment not backed up by facts to sway you and by legislation of this kind have a landlord taken to the Police Court—
§ Mr. BOYTON
I shall be glad to see it, though I concede that I do not make much of a feature of the rent book, but I do make a great feature of the conviction and the fine of £10.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
Why should a landlord who breaks the law not be subject to a penalty the same as anybody else?
§ Mr. BOYTON
Did I not say just now that there was such a tiling as law for landlord and tenant, and the Solicitor-General and others say it is sacred, and if I want a variation of it, to do justice, I am not to get it because the Solicitor-General says that it would disturb the law 1239 of contract, and, subject to the correction of eminent lawyers in this House, I say that there is no law of landlord and tenant which for the non-payment of an excessive rent would allow him to be dragged before the police magistrate, summarily convicted, and fined £10. I hope that the House of Commons has not lost all sense of decency, and that it will hold the scales in fairness, and will not allow such injustice as is suggested to be done by the Solicitor-General or anybody else.
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
As one who took a very active part in the promotion of the Act of 1915, and who had some of the most striking cases of rent being raised on the poor people, and who at the instigation of the ex-Prime Minister supplied him with a large number of cases before the Bill was drafted, may I say that there was no question of the raising of the rent by 6d. per week, and that I have in my possession at the present time—not here, but I can produce them—cases in which in less than six months the rent was raised 2s. per week and then another 2s. per week, and there was a threatened rise of another 2s. per week when we stopped it by the Act of 1915. Now what is the proposition that raises the ire of my hon. Friend? The fact that a penalty Clause is put in. When this Act was passed in 1915 the Government of the day and the President of the Local Government Board in charge of the measure did not deny that a penalty Clause should be put in, but they asked us not to force the question before the House as they thought that when a measure of this kind was put upon the Statute book that then even bad landlords—they always differentiated between good and bad landlords—would toe the line and not raise their rents any more. Have they done so? My hon. Friend suggests that they have.
I will give him particulars of a case which has arisen in my own Constituency—not an old case, a case of a tenant who was paying 5s. 6d. a week. It was raised to 6s., and then higher. That was in July, 1915. She had been paying the higher rent from 1915 to the present time. The landlord took advantage of the rise of rent while it was illegal for him to take the extra amount after November, 1915. This poor women gets a little bit behind with her rent. I have here what was given her and what she thought was a distraint order. It is in fact a bailiff's note. It was 1240 an intimation that her goods would be seized under distraint because she was 15s. 6d. in arrears. Yet this landlord for eighteen months had been receiving an excess rent to which he was not entitled under the law! We are not allowing the case to rest here. When the woman came to me I asked if the landlord had appealed to the Court and if he had got the right to levy distress under the Act of 1915. Of course he had never gone to the Court, and this notice was not worth the paper it was written upon. But it shows the dodges to which landlords will resort. Both the landlord and the bailiff must have known that they could not levy on the woman's goods without the consent of the Court. Yet they served their notice on a poor, ignorant woman and tried to frighten her under threats into paying. I could give numbers of recent cases where the landlords are evading the Act of 1915, and we can bring ample evidence to prove that the penalty Clause is absolutely necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. Anderson) asked why, if a munitions worker was subject to a penalty for breaking the law, the landlord should not equally be subject to a penalty for doing so. Hon. Members ask for equal justice. This is equal justice, and we are pleased that the Solicitor-General has had the courage to meet the requirements of the Committee and to bring in this new Clause, with both part of which we agree. We thank him for introducing it.
§ Mr. EVELYN CECIL
I, too, wish to add my thanks to those tendered to the Solicitor-General. The hon. and learned Gentleman has adopted a course which I hardly anticipated a fortnight ago when I asked a question on these lines—indeed, he rather gave me to understand it was not likely the present course would be taken. I am very glad he has thought right to introduce this Clause, because I think it fully expresses what were the real intentions of Parliament when it passed the Act of 1915. I am doubtful, myself, whether a very large number of cases have occurred to which this Clause will apply, but even if the number is only small it is only right that the remedy should be made applicable to them. I therefore desire to say how warmly I support this proposal.
§ Mr. HUDSON
I, too, am very much obliged to the learned Solicitor-General for moving this new Clause, and I think that the hon. Member for Marylebone (Mr. Boyton) will now be inclined to sup- 1241 port it, in view of the fact that I have shown him one of these rent books with the arrears entered up in it. There is a case in which 6d. has been improperly added to the rent and entered as arrears which have accumulated to the extent of 30s. This Clause is, therefore, only an act of justice. The case I have here is actually that of a munition worker who is living some distance outside Newcastle. I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the action he has taken.
§ Sir G. HEWART
My hon. Friend the Member for Marylebone (Mr. Boyton) has spoken with some warmth of the fact that in this new Clause there is provided in certain circumstances a penalty. I am bound to say that he does less than justice to the Clause when he seems to suggest that it is a proposal to expose all landlords to a penalty. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. To begin with, it applies only to a limited class of landlords who, contrary to the provisions of the law, have increased their rents. It does not apply to all of them. It applies to those who have entered arrears against tenants in some book or document. It does not even apply to all landlords who have done that. So far as the Act is concerned, it applies only to those landlords who make such an entry after the passing of the Act, or who, having made it before the passing of the Act, refuse to delete it. I cannot respond to the appeal of the hon. Member which he said he made in the name of respect for the law, because the persons who bring themselves under this penalty are persons who have broken the law and broken it in a particularly mean and shabby fashion, and I cannot help thinking that it is only right that such a Clause should be made to apply to them.
§ Mr. C. DUNCAN
I should like to add my word of thanks to the Solicitor-General because by proposing this Clause, he has removed from my shoulders the duty of moving a Clause which had somewhat the same object. As far as evidence is concerned, the party with which I am connected can produce thousands of cases if it is necessary, and the hon. Member for Marylebone may take it from me that we are in a position to prove our case right up to the hilt. We know these things have occurred, and it is a satisfaction to us that the learned Solicitor-General has adopted this course.
§ Mr. BILLING
I should like to take exception, if I may, to the words used by the hon. Member for Marylebone. I do suggest that a landlord who asks for the protection of the laws of this country has no right to claim not to be subjected to them in the way which the hon. Member suggested, and if any landlords have acted in the manner which has been described, then all I can say is that a £10 fine considering the financial status of landlords of this peculiar class of property, and the status of the tenant, is a very small penalty indeed. It is a most extraordinary thing to find that the more rotten a property is the richer is the landlord. I could take Members to places in London and outside where the property is a die-grace to civilisation, and you generally find that the owners of that property are among the wealthiest of the people of this country. When one remembers not merely that a particular landlord or a sub-landlord puts up these rents, but that there is a Member who stands up here in this House, and takes exception to the fact that when a landlord distinctly breaks the law which seeks to give protection, and that the landlord shall not be subject at all—I beg to call attention to the fact that there are not forty Members present.
§ Clause read a second time, and ordered to be added to the Bill.