HC Deb 10 July 1923 vol 166 cc1308-15

(5) For the purposes of this Act the expression "repairs" means any repairs required for the purpose of keeping premises in good and tenantable repair, and any premises in such a state shall be deemed to be in a reasonable state of repair, and the landlord shall be deemed to be responsible for any repairs for which the tenant is under no express liability.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (5), to leave out the words repairs' means any repairs required for the purpose of keeping premises in good and tenantable repair, and any premises in such a state shall be deemed to be in a reasonable state of repair, and to insert instead thereof the words 'reasonable state of repair' means good and tenantable repair, including whatever is required to make the premises fit for human habitation, and 'repairs' means anything required for the purpose of keeping premises in such a state. In Committee this matter received considerable discussion, and I think it is correct to say that, when we were dealing with the question of repairs, the Minister told us clearly and explicitly that it was intended that internal decorations would be covered by the word "repairs." I questioned that statement so far as Scotland is concerned, and said that, already we had had decisions arising out of the cases taken under the Rent Act whereby the certificate of the sanitary inspector was of such a nature as to declare that the house was not reasonably fit for human habitation. I instanced one case that had happened at Clydebank, not the Kerr and Bride case, dealing entirely with the question whether a landlord was entitled to get an increase of rent because of the fact stated by the tenant that the house was not habitable. It arose in this way. Repairs had been done to the plaster on the walls and the paper had been stripped from the walls. The landlord refused to put fresh paper on the wall, and the sanitary inspector gave a certificate that the house was not reasonably fit for habitation. The case was fought in the Sheriff Court, and the Sheriff Substitute gave a decision in favour of the tenant. The case was appealed to the Sheriff Principal who came to a different finding, and declared that the question of papering the wall was not a part of repairs at all. One other decision of a similar nature has been given, and consequently as far as Scotland is concerned the law as it stands for the moment is that the word repairs does not apply to internal decorations.

What we are asking is that the law shall be made clear on the point, and that the wording of the Amendment shall make it clear that in the case of repairs, internal decorations of the kind I have referred to are part of what the landlord is entitled to do. That is the intention of the Minister. That is the intention of the Act as I understand. But if it is left as it stands and a case arose, as it will undoubtedly arise in Scotland, the result would be exactly similar to the decision which has been given already. May I read the plea of the defender: The defender entered upon occupation of the house on 28th April, 1920. After entry he complained that the plaster was broken in parts and the landlord accepted the position and had the plaster repaired. In order to have these repairs to the plaster work executed, a very noticeable portion of the entire wallpaper had to be removed. The pursuer contends that the replacement of the removed and damaged wallpaper is a necessary repair for which the landlord is liable. Necessary repairs are defined by the Statute to be those necessary to put the house in a reasonable state of repair. The defender's position is that the house in its present condition is in a reasonable state of repair. Expert evidence was not spared by the defender in order to show that the house in its present state is in a reasonable state of repair. Of these witnesses, one, Dr. Taylor, admitted that he spoke only from the point of hygiene, which was not in question. Another witness, Chisholm, gave his personal views on the question of repairs, but these opinions did not appeal to me as being based on any principle allowing me to judge of their soundness. Other witnesses followed thereafter and the Sheriff Substitute decreed that the defender was entitled to a decree as against the landlord, and the Sheriff Principal, on reviewing the case, came to an entirely different finding. If the Minister desires to make it clear beyond doubt what is the intention of the Act he has to accept my Amendment or substitute words in the Bill to make it clear what the intention was as he stated upstairs.


I beg to second the Amendment.


Those people who are interested in housing reform owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend for putting forward this Amendment. It is one of the most difficult and burning questions in our poor districts to define what is the kind of repairs that are necessary, and enforcement is even greater. Anybody who has been follow- ing the administration of the last Act by leading sanitary authorities, knows how extraordinarily difficult a task they have had. The owner of slum property is usually a very cute, clever, sharp-witted person, very ingenious in covering up defects in the condition of the houses from which he draws rents, and for years there has been a constant conflict between the local authorities and the owners of this kind of property. These particular owners have extraordinary skill in covering up faulty workmanship, insanitary, verminous rooms, which badly want painting; and they are very clever in avoiding their responsibilities. Very often, there are too many families to each house, and too many persons to each room, and unless a decent standard is insisted upon, you cannot get these houses in anything like a decent state of repair.

There is a constant struggle with vermin, where you have an insufficient water supply, and where the opportunities for cleansing the houses are insufficient, and the buildings originally were badly built, with unsatisfactory foundations, and no proper damp courses. I could take the right hon. Gentleman down to the East End of London, and no doubt he has seen the same thing in Birmingham, where there are houses with no proper damp course, with the ground floor below the level of the ground, the rooms constantly damp. Owing sometimes to the poverty of the owners of the property and at other times to their unwillingness to do their duty, these houses are from one year to another never really fit for human habitation, and it is only by insisting that Regulations in regard to repairs are made as clear as ingenuity can make them, that things are going to be anything like satisfactory. I hope that if the right hon. Gentleman cannot accept this Amendment now, he will see whether in another place he cannot substitute something better.


I have been somewhat taken by surprise at the speeches made upon this Amendment, because they have been speeches of criticism of the present interpretation of the words in the existing Act. If it be true that the words in the existing Act do not give the protection to the tenant that he ought to have, this Amendment is not going to improve matters, because anyone who will read the relevant parts of the Bill, that is to say, Clause 15, Subsection (1), will find that it refers to works required to be executed to put a dwelling-house into a reasonable state of repair, and Sub-section (5) of the same Clause states what a reasonable state of repair is to be, namely, "good and tenantable repair"—words which appear in the Amendment of the hon. Member. In fact, the Amendment is nothing but a drafting Amendment. The hon. Member has taken the words in the Bill and turned them round. Still, it remains the fact that under the Amendment a reasonable state of repair would have to be interpreted as "good and tenantable repair." The Amendment really has no bearing on the case which the hon. Member put, but if he will allow me to have a look at the case I shall be glad. It seems to me that in that case the interpretation put upon the words is not the interpretation which I would have expected and not the interpretation which I had been advised would generally be attached to these words. I shall be quite prepared, however, to consider whether it is possible to define what is meant by "good and tenantable repair" better than it is understood at present. I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not giving any sort of guarantee. I am not sure that the proper place to put any alternative, if alternative were desired, would be in a temporary Rent Restrictions Act, and whether it should not be in a permanent Housing Act. Still, I recognise the force of the point of the hon. Member, and I am quite ready to give it further consideration on this Bill.


I have a recollection that a deputation from Dundee drew the particular attention of the Scottish Board of Health to the point raised in the Amendment. I can assure the Minister of Health that in Scotland at any rate the interpretation given does exclude, as far as operation is concerned, that reasonable provision which the Mover of the Amendment has in view. It is very gratifying to find that the Minister is prepared to consider this matter. It means a very great deal for the tenant. In Scotland, such important matters as the cleanness of a place, the redecoration, the giving of the requisite wallpaper, and the necessary application of workmanship, are all set aside, whereas before this housing control was in operation you could get a landlord to make a deal with his tenant, the tenant to buy the paper and the labour to be provided by the landlord. We have had instances to show how rigorously every allowance in the Bill is taken advantage of by the landlord for putting on the full increases, and we are faced with the difficulty that the tenants have to pay largely increased rents even when they are endeavouring to share the responsibility for those increased rents by sub-letting. It has been agreed to permit of a further exaction and I hope, on so important a matter as this, the Ministry will take action on the lines of the concession indicated by the Minister, and that if we are to permit the landlords to charge the fullest possible allowance, we will see that something substantial is done to make up for the increased charge.


I have every sympathy with the object of the Mover of the Amendment, but I suggest the Amendment will not have the desired effect, and that the words proposed will be restrictive. The obligation cast upon the landlord will be less than the obligation he is under according to the words of the Bill. The Bill provides that a reasonable state of repair means keeping the premises "in good and tenantable repair." These are words well understood by the law, which appear in the ordinary covenant of every lease, and upon which there have been numerous decisions. There is a leading case which is acted upon, in which the whole matter was gone into and a definition given in the most careful and meticulous manner of "good and tenantable repair." It means something more than keeping the premises in a state fit for human habitation. I do not think that is a very high standard. One might enter into comparisons between what is fit for human beings and what is fit for pigs, but, as I say, that is not a very high standard, and is not very definite. The words which are now proposed lack the clarity attaching to the definition of "good and tenantable repair." I therefore trust that my hon. Friend will not seek to add these words, and will see that the words "good and tenantable repair" provide a good standard. It means such a state of repair as any ordinary reasonable tenant would require, if he were going to take the premises himself, having regard to the nature of the locality in which the premises are situated. The words apply in a relative degree to Park Lane and other districts, and the better the locality the higher the degree of repair required. Therefore the words are sufficiently mobile, and gives a much higher standard than the Amendment seeks to enforce. I hope the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman will satisfy the Mover upon the matter.


I am surprised at the argument used by the hon. Member for South West Hull (Mr. Entwistle). We have carried our point in this Amendment a step further than the Bill. The Bill simply states: 'Repairs' means any repairs required for the purpose of keeping premises in good and tenantable repair. That would mean a house with no decorations at all—simply whitewashed. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Yes, it would. I have a document here to prove conclusively what I have said. The report of a sanitary inspector on a house recently was this: In the kitchen the wallpaper on lower half of walls has been removed for the repair of the plaster work and has not been renewed at all. That house was deemed to be a house in a state of good and tenantable repair without re-papering the walls at all, and we carry the point further by saying that "good and tenantable repair" includes whatever is required to make the premises fit for human habitation. However, in view of what the Minister of Health has said, we are prepared, with the permission of the House, to withdraw the Amendment in the hope that he will meet somehow or other the case we have put forward.


The right hon. Gentleman was careful to tell us that we must not take it as a pledge that anything would be done. I would like him to make inquiries, and I think he will find that almost every medical officer of health and other person who has to inspect this kind of premises will tell him that putting a house into the condition laid down in this Clause does not mean papering a wall, but does mean just putting it so that water or wind do not come in. In the Poplar district we have the greatest difficulty in getting the magistrates to close houses which, in the judgment of ordinary people, ought to be closed, because we are not able to prove that water comes in. If there are windows in, and the roof is on, that is about all that the magistrates consider necessary. Therefore, if it is not to be done in this Bill, I think the Minister ought to bring in a short Bill in order to deal with this question, because it is one of the burning questions that the local authority is up against when trying to deal with slum property.


I wish to point out a curious confusion in the drawing of the Clause and the Sub-section. The first Sub-section says: A certificate of a sanitary authority as to the condition of a dwelling-house shall specify what works, if any, require to be executed, in order to put a dwelling-house into a reasonable state of repair. I suppose that the Judge would interpret what, that means, but when you come to the later Sub-section you find the words Good and tenantable repair shall be deemed to be a state of reasonable repair. One would have thought that a natural thing to do would be to put into the first Sub-section that the certificate should deal with good and tenantable repair. Why is it necessary to have one Subsection saying the certificate shall state what is necessary to put into a reasonable state of repair, and then another Subsection to say a reasonable state of repair shall mean a good and tenantable state of repair? I simply wanted to draw attention to that as another illustration of the hopeless confusion that is imported into this Bill from beginning to end, designedly or from bad draughtsmanship, which will leave its mark in the future in all the Courts as the worst drawn Act of Parliament that ever was passed.


In view of the offer that has been made by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.