§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Hilton Young)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill is the first of the new Measures that are proposed by His Majesty's Government in order to give effect to the necessary adjustments in our policy on the national need for housing. I am sure there will be a very general sense of the magnitude and importance from the social point of view, of the issues that are involved in it. We shall be dealing with one of the most intimate needs of the community as applied to no fewer than 6,000,000 or 7,000,000 houses, and, interpreted into human lives, we shall be dealing with conditions that very closely affect between 25,000,000 and 30,000,000 of our fellow countrymen. We must, then, be conscious of a very special responsibility. There is a problem before us to consider, and, in order to bring the attention of the House to the nature of that problem, I would ask it to turn back with me for a moment to the origin of our present law of the control of houses and the restriction of rent.
That origin is to be found in the period of the Great War, when we had a stubborn cessation of the supply of houses without any cessation in the steadily increasing demand. That led to its natural and inevitable consequence of a marked and, as time went on, an alarming rise in rents, a rise so alarming that it soon became obvious that it was necessary to do something, under the abnormal conditions, to prevent an abnormal evil. What was done is familiar to us all. A restriction was imposed upon the rights of landlords to deal with their houses, giving security to tenants and fixing rents, subject to certain increases. The House will remember that it was from time to time found necessary to increase those limits, and in rapid succession the limit of the value of the houses to which the control was applied was first doubled and then trebled.
48 So we went on until the War was over, and we came to the post-War epoch; but even then it was found that the supply of houses was not, for special or abnormal economic reasons, equal to the demand. For that reason it was necessary to continue the control. I would like at this point to mention one figure. At that time, at the end of the War, the control extended to no less than 98 per cent. of the houses of the country. I mention that in order that the House may appreciate that the control extended, as it indeed still extends, far beyond the sphere of merely workmen's dwellings to much higher regions as regard's the size of house and rent. After the War, the supply still continued to lag behind demand, and it was found necessary still to continue the control. We got into what, I think, we shall realise to be a kind of vicious circle in which the supply was actually restricted by the existence of the control, and at the same time the existence of the control was necessary because of the lag of the supply. In that vicious circle we still find ourselves to some extent at the present time.
As a result of those measures, we built up a very elaborate structure of legislation. There are now no less than 11 statutes in which we must look for our law of rent restriction arid control. I mention that in order to account to the House for the necessity of introducing yet another Measure; it is because our system is an artificial one and does not arise out of any natural play of economic forces. Since the system is thus artificial, it is a necessary consequence that we should constantly be on the alert to adapt it to changing circumstances. When natural forces have their free play, they can be left to their free play, but when you are restraining and confining them by laws, you have constantly to exercise vigilence to see that the laws are adapted to the changing circumstances which they have to meet. I shall probably be on common ground with the whole House if I say that this artificial system of rent restriction and control is looked upon by all of us as a temporary system and as one that is only justified by temporary and abnormal conditions. It is recognised by all of us that we are working towards the goal of being able to get rid of the system altogether. That is the common goal, I should imagine, 49 of all classes of opinion among those who view the matter from the point of view of the various interests concerned—the common goal of complete decontrol as soon as it is safe.
The principal reason for that is the simple one, to which I have already referred, that it must be recognised that control and limitation of rent must in the long run restrict, more or less, that free supply of houses which we realise to be the great national need. We recognise, too, that the essential condition that the time at which control can be safely removed is when the supply of any class of houses is roughly equal to the demand. We are making for decontrol, and it will be possible and safe when supply and demand are more or less in relation to each other. These are the principles which must underlie all legislation on the subject. It is not safe, as we know, to decontrol before supply and demand are in relation. I might compare it to a boiler, where the pressure inside is the demand and the pressure outside is the supply. As soon as the pressures inside and outside are equal, you can safely take the plug out, but until they are equal you cannot take the plug out or there will be an explosion which will blow up rents and many other things with them.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
What is the present state of the law as regards control? We are living under a state of the law which was established by the Act of 1923. That Act provided for the gradual decontrol of controlled houses in this way:—It said that after 1923 you should no longer control the actual house so that it would always remain controlled, but that you should give the benefit of control to the tenant so that as long as the tenant who was in possession in 1923 remained in possession, his tenancy would be protected. As soon as the tenancy ended and the house came into the possession of the landlord, the control ceased and the house became free. That was the gradual decontrol provided for at that time.
Let me ask the House to consider what has been the effect of that system. In order to get a clear view of it we must look at houses, not as a whole, but as 50 separated in different classes. I am going to follow the classification adopted after long examination by the Departmental Committee which considered this matter and made its report about a year ago. That committee was appointed by the last Government but one, and it represented all parties, including representatives of local authorities and of the principal professions concerned in the great business of housing. It was unanimous, with the exception of a minority report by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. D. Graham). The Bill which I am presenting to the House follows closely, with very small alterations, the recommendations of that extremely representative committee. I should like to renew on this occasion an expression of warm appreciation of the work of the committee, of the great care given to its investigations, and of the balanced nature of its report. The best possible compliment which we can pay to its work has been paid to it by the adoption of its recommendations in the present Bill.
The classification adopted by that committee divided all houses which may be subject to control into three classes. The actual monetary definitions will be found in the Bill. I will not trouble the House with them, but I will just give the types of houses. The higher class comprises the better-to-do houses, which are practically built only to sell and are occupied by their owners. The second class comprises those which are built, some to sell and some to let, and are occupied by what are called the lower middle class and the better paid artisans. The third class are those which are built only to let, and those are the wage earners' houses and the houses of the lower paid wage earners. For the sake of convenience in these observations, I shall refer to these classes as "A," "B" and "C." Let me make this clear. The difference which distinguishes Class "A" from Class "B" is on two grounds, first of all on the ground to which I have referred, the different type of house, and, secondly, because in Class "A" the majority of houses were already decontrolled, whereas in Class "B" there is about an even number of those controlled and those not controlled.
The next point to be regarded in considering our policy is the supply of these 51 three classes of houses. The House knows that since the War we have had more than 2,000,000 new houses built, but it also knows that that supply of 2,000,000 new houses is very unevenly distributed between those three classes. I will detain the House with one figure that is vital to apprehend in order to appreciate how the supply is distributed, and it is this. The supply of "A" and "B" class houses since the War has increased by 60 per cent., while the supply of the "C" class house, the little house, has only increased by 13 per cent. That shows at once where the supply has increased; it has been accumulating in the larger type of house to which I have referred, and not so freely as regards the smaller house. That is common ground, as we all know and recognise.
Another condition is the activity of private enterprise which has been supplying larger houses, "A" class houses. It has been supplying the "B" class house, that is, the middle-size house but not to the same extent, while the supply of the "C" class house, the little house, shows a deficiency, a lag. For them, up to the present, we have had to look to municipal enterprise. On those figures I think that we can draw this conclusion, that as regards the "A" class house there is no longer any shortage, that as regards the "B" class house the shortage is being rapidly overtaken, and that as regards the "C" class house, the small house, for letting, there is still a recognisable shortage. Those are the conditions with which we have to deal at the present time. You would deduce that from the figures as a statistical conclusion and I think it is also in accordance with the experience "of practical men that there is no longer a shortage in the better type, but that in the smaller house we are still up against an inadequate supply.
The next point to look at in seeking our policy is to see what has been the effect of this condition as regards supply under the influence of the gradual decontrol which was introduced in 1923, that is, the gradual decontrol owing to the house becoming decontrolled when it comes into the possession of the landlord. The facts, I think, are also well known in experience because in the "A" and "B" classes there is an adequate supply of houses at the present time, that is a supply adequate to meet the demand 52 certainly in "A," and all but adequate in "B." In consequence, the decontrol of those houses has not led to any considerable rise in the rents of those two classes of house when they become decontrolled and that is what one would expect. Demand and supply are more or less equal, and decontrol does not lead to an appreciable rise in rent as regards those houses. When you come to the other class of house, there is a different story. The condition as regards them is that at the present time, by the process of gradual decontrol one-sixth of those houses, a very appreciable proportion of "C" class houses, are decontrolled. When the Committee reported, it was one-eighth, and by the continuation of the process of gradual decontrol, it has risen to one-sixth. This has had the inevitable result of decontrol before the supply was equal to the demand; it has had the result of a marked and grave rise, in many cases, in the rents of the decontrolled houses.
I come now to the real grievance, the hardship, the imperfection in the present law which most calls for some remedy. It is well known, I think, to all those who are in touch with these questions—and there must be very few Members who are not in practical touch with them through their constituents—that hardship is felt in urban areas by the high rents which are charged for the decontrolled houses. I had a most careful inquiry made in order to try to offer to the House some statistical estimate of what the actual rise in the rent of the decontrolled house is. I cannot profess, of course, that it is a. comprehensive statistical inquiry. It is only an inquiry by samples, but as an inquiry by samples, I think it gives a fairly accurate result. The House knows that the controlled rent in comparison with the pre-war rent is a rise of about 50 per cent.—40 per cent. for rent and 10 per cent. for rates. The controlled rent is allowed to rise by 50 per cent, in comparison with the pre-war figure. I find that on an average, decontrolled house rents have gone up by about 85 per cent. It is an average of 85 per cent.; some houses have not gone up at all when decontrolled and other houses have certainly gone up much more, but we shall not be far adrift in considering about 85 per cent. as the average rise in the rent of decontrolled houses. That is 53 quite enough I say to make us gravely anxious what would be the future rents of wage earners' houses if this gradual process of decontrol were to be allowed to continue. The committee to which I have referred came to the conclusion that it was necessary not to allow the decontrol to continue, and that is one of the principal conclusions to which this Bill gives effect.
Let me remind the House that the ill-effects of these jumps in decontrolled rents are not merely the ill-effects on the tenants concerned. There are bad social results which come from the spring of the rents of decontrolled houses. The first is this: It immobilises labour. The tenant of a controlled house, with his restricted rent, when he knows that it is only his own tenancy which is controlled, is afraid of moving, because if he goes anywhere else he will have to go to a decontrolled house with a higher rent. Therefore, he is immobilised. From that there results another very bad effect, and one to which I would draw the earnest attention of the House. This immobilisation has the direct effect of disappointing our expectations of a remedy for part of the slum evil by the filtering up of the people from the slums into a better type of house, because if houses are decontrolled on a change of tenancy all the occupants of controlled houses have to remain, and the whole situation is paralysed, as it were, and there is nowhere for the slum-dweller to go and live in a better house. And so you get a disappointment of the expectation of a filtering up from the slums.
If that be the position—and I think it is the position in its gravest aspect—what must be the remedy? I believe the remedy follows clearly by straight and absolutely necessary logical consequence from the state of affairs I have described. We have to recognise that the "A" houses, the better type, are being decontrolled too slowly, and our object being decontrol at the earliest possible moment when supply equals demand, we can go faster with that without danger. As to the "B" class, I think we must recognise that the pace of decontrol started by the Act of 1923 with gradual decontrol is just about right. We cannot afford to go any faster, and we need not go any slower. But as regards the "C" class houses, I think we have got to read the writing on 54 the wall of the spring in the decontrolled rents, and to recognise that the process of decontrol in the Act of 1923 is going too quickly, and that we have to slow down. It is like running an engine along a line. You must make constant adjustments to keep it to the right pace with regard to changing economic and social conditions. That is the action which this Bill, founded on the recommendations of the committee to which I have referred, proposes. It proposes first, immediate decontrol of the "A" houses. All "A" houses will come out of control, subject to certain provisions with which I will deal in a moment. On the other hand, it proposes to go on with the "B" class as at present by a gradual process of decontrol and as regards the "C" houses, it proposes to stop the gradual process of decontrol so that the wage earners' houses shall no longer be decontrolled at the present rate, or at all.
§ Earl WINTERTON
Does my right hon. Friend really mean for the duration of this Bill, or is it the policy of the Government. never to decontrol these smaller houses?
§ Sir H. YOUNG
If my Noble Friend will have patience, I will deal with this step by step. The first point is that the decontrol of these houses will cease. I want to point out that there may be some difficulty in understanding the terms of the Acts on this point, and I can well sympathise with the House if it finds constant difficulties in understanding the terms of the Acts. I can only say 1 have to take them as I find them, and that with the very intricate Statutes in existence it is not possible to make a clearer statement as to the changes in the law than we do in the Bill. I have, as a matter of fact, re-stated more of the law than need be re-stated in this Bill in order to make things clear when we come to the Committee stage, and I hope that the House will reckon that for righteousness and understand that we are reenacting a certain amount of existing law in which no change is proposed. There is one thing I want to make perfectly clear. My postbag has given me reason to believe that there is a very wide misconception on one point with regard to the Bill. The misconception is that the 55 Bill proposes to recontrol houses decontrolled under the Act of 1923. That is not the effect of the Bill at all.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
The hon. Member asks, "Why not?" I will anticipate my argument a little by explaining why not. I submit to the House that to have recontrolled houses we had decontrolled under the 1923 Act would have been so gravely unjust as to be an absolutely impossible legislative proceeding.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
A large number of those decontrolled houses have changed hands since decontrol, and have changed hands at their improved value. We recognise that their value was improved by decontrol. If one likes to talk about profiteers, although I do not think there is any need to do so, if there ever was a profiteer it was the person who was the owner of the house when it was controlled and sold it on decontrol. Somebody else bought it and paid the full value for it as a decontrolled house. The recontrol of that house would be a measure of frank confiscation, and the House could not for a moment contemplate that possibility. There was and still is a strong presumption against any retrospective legislation, and this would be a measure of retrospective legislation of a more arbitrary character than this House has ever contemplated in the past. There is another circumstance of very great social importance in this connection. Admirable work has been done by enterprising persons in reconditioning many of these decontrolled houses. They spent money on reconditioning them in the hope of getting a greater return from them, and if we recontrol them what are we to do about the increased return on the money spent on reconditioning? It is absolutely impossible to suggest such legislation. If hon. Members have any lingering doubts about the possibility of recontrol, let me ask them to consider what would be the effect upon the whole of the building trade, and our prospects of getting houses for the future, if we started to go backwards and forwards in this way between decontrol and recontrol, so that there could be no certainty in the minds of builders who contemplate erect 56 ing houses whether, at some time in the future, the House of Commons would not butt in with a retrospective Measure and subject the houses to recontrol? It will be seen on reflection that we could deal no more mortal injury to our prospect of getting the houses we need than to act in that way.
I want to make clear another matter which is of very grave concern to those who are in closest touch with social conditions, and that is the position with regard to subdivided houses. I have had the most influential and, if I may say so, the most urgent representations made to me on the subject. The House will recall one representation in particular made by the Churches of the Metropolis, and many others have come from those well qualified to express an opinion on the subject. The position is that the small dwelling of the lowest-paid wage earners in great cities is not always a separate house, but often a part of a bigger house, and we must take the greatest care in the framing of our enactments to make sure that we recognise that circumstance and deal with dwelling houses not only as separate houses but as dwellings which are part of another house. Let me explain the provisions of the Bill on this vital subject.
In the first place, for the sake of clearness, we brush aside altogether all question of a separate assessment. We base nothing on whether the dwelling is separately assessed for rates, because that is a mere formal circumstance which has no relation to the merits of the case at all. Next we take the case of a landlord who has directly let out his house in separate tenements to several tenants, so that the holders of the separate tenancies are the direct tenants of one man. In that case we say that the house, if the dwellings are those of the "C" class. is not to be decontrolled. The reason for that is that the landlord himself has chosen to split up his single house into "C" class dwellings. He has made his choice and done it knowingly, and that being so it is fair that they should follow the ordinary law as to decontrol. Then we come to the more difficult case, where the landlord has not himself split up the house into separate dwellings but where his tenant has done so. There the landlord did not create the separate dwellings intentionally, the tenant has done it for 57 him. The landlord may have thought the house quite unsuitable for splitting up into separate dwellings. In the case where the separate dwellings have been created by a tenant and not by the landlord himself we say the house is to be decontrolled, that is, to follow the ordinary law of decontrol. The ordinary law of decontrol is this, that the actual' existing tenancies are protected, the sitting tenants in those houses will continue to have their tenancies protected even though they have been created by a subtenant, but on their falling back into possession they will be decontrolled, as they would be at the present time.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
When the subtenancy comes to an end it is merged in the tenancy, and when the tenant's tenancy comes to an end the house will cease to be controlled.
§ Mr. GROVES
In the case of split tenancies with a separate rental, but not with the written consent of the landlord, though the landlord knows of the tenancy because of the separate rental, will that be two separate tenancies in the one house?
§ Sir H. YOUNG
That is a difficult question of law, and I would like to take advice upon it. It seems to depend on the amount of knowledge on the part of the landlord. The principle is clear: If the landlord has created the tenancy, then it is not decontrolled. I think I can summarise the position in a few phrases which I hope will lead the House through what is undoubtedly a mass of difficult cases. The Bill does not take away protection from any existing occupier of a "B" or a "C" class part of a house, and in the case of a "C" part of a house that is directly let by the landlord the Bill will protect 58 the future tenants as long as it is in force. This brings me to the point raised by my Noble Friend as to how long the Bill is to stay in force. The committee upon whose report this Bill is founded recommended no time limit for the Bill. This is the only substantial point on which I have departed from their recommendation, because the Bill is expressly designed to last for five years only, until 1938. Members of the Committee will recognise the force of the reason for this. Since the committee reported, conditions in the housing business have become much more fluid. New possibilities have arisen and new expectations, and the situation is far less static than it was a year ago. Under those conditions I believe the House will require that we should recognise the principle that this can only be temporary legislation by the insertion of an actual time limit. I believe that is also more in accordance with the common ground to which I have already referred —that the whole of rent control is only a temporary structure, which we all want to see ended as soon as we can.
I ask the House to consider the effect of this legislation which I have described on the social life of the country, because it is with that that we are most concerned. If hon. Members will turn to the White Paper they will see the numerical factors of the problem. The figures there are the latest, having been brought up to date since the report of the committee, and as a matter of fact the committee's argument is strengthened in each point by the figures. It will be seen that of the 1,300,000 houses in the "A" class 800,000 are already free. We are dealing there with a majority of decontrolled houses, and we do not look for any very substantial effects from further decontrol. In the "B" class there is about an equality of controlled and decontrolled houses. Of the 2,500,000 houses, 1,100,000 are free already, and 1,300,000 are still going to be kept under gradual decontrol. Then we come to the vital point. The House will see that there are 5,700,000 "C" class houses, the small houses for wage earners. Of these, 1,500,000 are already free, and there are no less than 4,100,000 which we propose to stabilise for five years—to keep controlled for five years. The vast majority of the small houses to let for the wage earners will now be kept as a stable pool for the five years.
§ Mr. D. G. SOMERVILLE
Supposing one of these controlled houses were purchased, would it then be decontrolled, or must it be retained in the pool?
§ Sir H. YOUNG
In "C" Class the new feature is that the house is controlled and not the tenancy, and. therefore the control continues. As I have said, the pool is stable as regards "C" Class houses for the next five years—the 4,100,000 controlled houses in that class. Gradual decontrol ceases in that class. Let us look at the more human problem for the moment from the point of view of the landlords and tenants of the three classes. The tenant of the "A" Class has no rise in his rent to fear. I do not, of course, prophesy that that will be so in every case; I can only judge of the general social effect; and I should say that the result of the balance of forces I have been describing will be that tenants in the "A" Class-have no rise in their rents to fear. The supply of houses is adequate to the demand, and there is this important factor in the situation, that by the mere fact that all such houses are decontrolled there will be a fresh temptation to capital to embark on the provision of houses of that class, and the more houses that are built the less likelihood there is of a rise in the rents. As regards "B" Class houses, I think neither landlords nor tenants have anything to fear or complain of under this Bill, because everything stays exactly as it was before. There is no change, and any grievances there may be will not be due to the present legislation. As regards "C" Class houses, the small houses to let for the wage-earning class, the tenants there require real protection. The facts of the case as regards the rise in rents of these decontrolled houses have shown that those tenants still need protection in view of the condition of the housing market.
As regards the landlord of the small house, we have to recognise that there are cases of hardship. We freely recognise them. Nobody who knows the conditions of the areas with which we are dealing, and who has studied those conditions, will 60 deny that there are numerous cases of people who have invested small sums in little house property of this class and who naturally feel that rent control and restrictions are hardships. As regards that, there are two things to be said. I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Committee recommends no reduction in the permitted increase in the rent for houses of this class and that recommendation is adopted by the Government in this Bill. The permitted increase of rent is not to be reduced. If I were proposing this Bill alone, without contemplating any further legislation, I should, I confess, feel that it would be difficult to account for the position of those who are expected to continue to have the value of their property confined by arbitrary limitations. But that is not so, because we are inviting the House to. consider this Bill as part of a body of legislation, which is to be fulfilled by the Housing Bill which I shall have the honour to propose in a few days' time. It would not be proper for me to expand upon the nature of that Bill to-day; all that it is necessary to say is that it is proposed by the Government as the most efficient means, under present conditions, for securing an increase in the supply of small houses.
That is the remedy which is proposed in the Measures which I shall develop to the House in the course of a few days, and it is by means of those Measures that we calculate to increase that supply of small houses for letting. In that way, we hope to end the control of the small house. We can only secure decontrol of the small house by taking such measures as will secure an adequate supply of the houses on the market. The main object of this legislation is to bring control into relation with the changed economic and social conditions of the country.
There are two special grievances with which I wish to deal, because they are dealt with in the Bill. The first grievance, about which everybody knows and which is causing the most discontent in this business of house restriction and control, affects the landlords, it has a very close relation to that grievance of the small landlord to which I have referred. It is that it is hard for a landlord to get possession of his own house. That grievance has been heard all over the country. Let me say what the Bill proposes to do about it. At the present 61 time a landlord can get possession in respect of acts of the tenant—wrongful acts for the most part—not paying his rent, committing a nuisance, neglecting the premises. All those are dealt with in the Bill, and the landlord will still be able to get possession as before. There will be an additional reason for which he will he able to get possession, and that is the abuse of overcrowding, which is well known to those who are in touch with social conditions. It is proposed to permit the landlord, who is in close touch with the conditions, to assist in preventing the evil of overcrowding by giving him an interest in doing so. Overcrowding will in the future be one of the reasons which will entitle the landlord to get possession of his house. I believe that that will be a most effective way of fighting the evil, and, at the same time, of doing justice to the landlord. The question may be asked: "What is the good of that, because it will turn tenants out of one overcrowded tenement into another." I know the argument, but that is not the way in which this provision will act. The benefit will be a preventive benefit, since tenants will know that they can only overcrowd at the risk of losing their controlled tenancy, and letting the landlord in. That will be sufficient to prevent overcrowding over a wide area.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
Oh, no, not the Medical Officer of Health of the district. The judge in these cases will be the judge of the county court. In order to get possession, a landlord has always to go to the county court, which has an equitable jurisdiction.
§ Mr. GROVES
Will the Bill give the landlord power to turn out a family of three for overcrowding in order to put in a family of six at an increased rent?
§ Sir H. YOUNG
The house if it is a class "C" house will remain controlled. But overcrowding, as I say, is the new ground under which a landlord can get possession of a house. There is a very much more important provision than that to assist a landlord in this position. In the past, the landlord has only been able to get possession in respect of certain needs of his own. Those needs—for himself and for his son—in respect of which a landlord can get possession will still stand, and added to them is a new one, which will enable him to get possession for his parents as well as for his child. That is an important Provision.
Another important provision of the Bill for the relief of the landlord is that in future, and in addition to and apart from all those special reasons for repossession, he will be able in all cases to get repossession of the house if he can show that there is alternative accommodation available for the tenant in some other appropriate house. The House will see that that is a very wise provision and one that is just and fair. The landlord is not entitled to his house if the tenant cannot get another house at an equal rent, but, if the landlord can show that there is another house available on similar terms for the tenant, there is no reason why he should not have the possession of his own house. The simplification will be enormous and there will be relief for the landlord. He has only to prove the existence of alternative accommodation in order to get repossession of a controlled house. Further, the Bill will make it easier to establish what is alternative accommodation. In the past we know that it has been practically impossible to give a reasonable definition of what is alternative accommodation. The Bill will say that it is to be considered alternative accommodation if the local authority undertakes to find a house for the tenant. An equivalent house to a controlled house is considered to be a council house, or a house which is practically equivalent to a council house. Thus we shall bring within the region of practical possibility the landlord being able to prove that alternative accommodation is available for his tenant.
§ Mr. D. G. SOMERVILLE
In either of those two eventualities, that the landlord can get possession of his house if he can prove overcrowding, and that he can get possession if there is alternative accom 63 modation, if the house is still in the "C" class, I understand that it will still be controlled.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
A "C" class house now controlled remains controlled, but the landlord gets possession. The pool is stabilised for the five years during which the Bill runs. The other grievance with which the House is familiar is the abuse of overcharging and of profiteering in sub-letting to tenants. Conspicuous cases of that will be familiar to all of us. There is a provision of the law at the present, which the originators no doubt thought would be adequate to prevent the abuse, that a tenant may go to the county court and get his rent apportioned and fixed in order that he may pay a fair share of it. On paper that is enough, but we all know that in practice it is not enough. Sub-tenants do not take proceedings in the county court, even if they know of the existence of the law on the matter, and, if they do know of it, they are frightened to take proceedings for fear of what may happen. The search of the committee was for some very practical way of protecting tenants, and its recommendation is incorporated in the Bill.
Again, we enlist the most interested party to help, and that is the landlord, and we give him a reason for helping. It is done in this way: An obligation is imposed upon the tenant of giving notice to his landlord of any sub-letting, and of the terms and conditions of that subletting, and of what he is charging by way of rent. If the rent which is charged for sub-letting is excessive, the landlord has the right to go to the county court, turn the tenant out, and get repossession of the tenancy. A "C" class house, as was explained before, remains controlled, and the future tenants are protected. At the proceedings under which the landlord can turn the tenant out, the court will be able to fix a fair rent for the sub-tenant. The landlord has been chosen as the person who has the means of obtaining the requisite knowledge by a notice from the tenant. Secondly, he has an interest in preventing overcharging of the sub-tenant. Probably the best effect of it will be preventive. The tenant of a controlled tenancy, knowing, if he is overcharging, what power the landlord has, will take very much better care not to overcharge than has been the case in the past.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
That collusion will only continue after this Bill is passed if landlords have no regard for their own future. There is one further feature which should strengthen the position in this regard in future, and that is that if the tenant, knowing what the apportioned rent of a sub-tenancy is when it has been fixed by the court, wilfully overcharges the sub-tenant, he will be liable to a very heavy penalty. That is a new offence, and the special attention of the House ought to be drawn to any new offence that is added, but I believe that the sense of the House will be prepared to recognise that, if the tenant wilfully overcharges the sub-tenant, he is committing a great fraud which is responsible for part of this social abuse, and that a penalty is a not inappropriate method of dealing with an offence of that sort.
I believe that these provisions are the most practical that can be designed for dealing with the evil of which we are all conscious, but at the same time it must be recognised that we must take very great care not to go too far upon the other side, and make it too difficult to create sub-tenancies, because sub-letting is essential in the interests of the community for the maintenance of appropriate dwellings for the wage-earners, and, if we did anything to make it impossible to sub-let and to create sub-tenancies, we should be doing grave harm to the interests of the very persons whom we most desire to protect.
There is one further provision of the Bill to which I would refer, and that is in regard to mortgages. Mortgages, as the House knows, are controlled as regards rates of interest at the same time as the houses upon which the mortgages are created. We are now at one blow decontrolling all the "A" houses, and it is thought that it would inflict a hardship on the holders of mortgages on those "A" houses if the whole of the mortgages were at once decontrolled at the same time 65 without giving time for rearrangement; and, in order that the necessary time may be given for rearrangement, and that notice may be given to all the parties in order to enable them to make their arrangements, six months will be allowed in the case of mortgages on "A" houses before they also are decontrolled as regards their rates of interest.
§ Mr. HOWARD
Does the period of six month apply to all "A" houses; and would it not be advisable also to give the tenants six months' notice of decontrol, so that they may have time to find other accommodation?
§ Sir H. YOUNG
I am not sure that I have made the provision clear to the hon. Member. The six months' extension as regards control of the rate of mortgage interest will apply only to mortgages upon "A" houses, which are now decontrolled, and the reason for that extension is to ensure that the parties may not be taken by surprise, but may have time to make their arrangements in regard to renewals or extensions of mortgages. I think I have explained all the provisions of the Bill with which I need detain the House at this period. Further explanation of matters which, as we have already realised, may become very intricate on closer analysis, will be our task in committee. The objects of the Bill may be summarised as three—
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
May I call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to one point? He must recognise how different the position is with regard to Scotland on many of the questions that he has been explaining, owing to the differences between Scots law and English law. May I ask whether he is making any arrangement for a statement on behalf of the Scottish Office in reference to the Scottish position? There are one or two points that he has not covered—I do not blame him for it—in regard to the Scottish position.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
I recognise that fact very clearly, and, indeed, I did not think that the House would be likely to assume that I should have the temerity to trench upon the Scottish sphere in any respect. The Secretary of State for Scotland will deal with the special Scottish aspects of the Bill at a later stage of the Debate. AS I was saying, the objects of the Bill may be summarised as follows. In the first place, with regard to small houses 66 occupied by wage-earners, the proposal is to slow down the rate of decontrol and stabilise a pool for five years while we are dealing with the supply by other Measures which I shall introduce into the House later. In the second place, as regards the better type of houses—the "A" houses—it is proposed to end the present interference with the contractual rights of landlord and tenant at once, because we can safely do so in view of the supply of such houses. Thirdly, as regards the "B" houses, the Bill proposes to bring to an end that interference by arbitrary legislation at the earliest possible moment, and once more to restore, by a gradual process of decontrol, the reign of free contract, which is the only kind of reign under which we are likely to get a free supply. These are our main objects. A further object is to deal with the two special hardships to which I have referred, namely, the inability of the small landlord to get his house back even when the tenant can quite well get one somewhere else, and the grave abuse of profiteering at the expense of subtenants.
May I say, in conclusion, one word by way of caution as to what this Bill does not attempt to do, and what we would not have attributed to us in the introduction of the Bill? We cannot by this Bill do anything to make a final peace in the age-old contention between landlord and tenant. There is that conflict of interest which always exists between buyer and seller, between the one who supplies and the other who demands supplies. That conflict of interest has existed since time began, and will, I imagine, exist until time ends. This Bill can, of course, do nothing to end it, and it must not be expected that it will. Again, nobody should expect the Bill to be able to deal with hardships and grievances which are due to the difficulties of very hard times. Those are far too fundamental for us to deal with in any legislation of the kind that I am laying before the House to-day. We are dealing with an artificial system, and putting it right by artificial means in the best way that we can pending the happy day when we can draw it all to a close. Legislation can only correct glaring imperfections; it cannot correct the fundamental imperfections incidental to bad times and the relations of society.
67 We must recognise that in this sphere we have a conflict of interest between landlord and tenant, and that it is impossible to satisfy the extreme demands of both. All that we can do is to adjust as careful a balance as we can between the two. As a result of long study in the Committee, and of very mature deliberation on the part of the Government, the Measure which I now present to the House provides, I believe, such a careful balance, which will make for liberty by the adjustment of mutual rights—the only way in which liberty can be secured. Certainly a mere process of conflict—of "pull devil, pull baker"—between landlord and tenant would do no good, and I am confident that the House will not view this difficult sphere of legislation in that spirit, but will view it with a desire to hold the balance even between the high contending parties. I know that I am submitting the Bill to a tribunal which has a great body of experience and knowledge covering all classes and all parts of the country on this subject, and I submit it for Second Reading with confidence that the House has both the knowledge and the will to hold the balance of justice even.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Mr. ARTHUR GREENWOOD
The speech of the Minister of Health leaves the House in no doubt as to its position in regard to this matter, and I think that the House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for his very full and clear explanation of the proposals of the Bill. He has also made a very frank declaration of his economic faith. He represents an impenitent individualist of the very early 19th century. That is shown by his very phraseology. I believe I am right in saying that the term "free contract" has not been used by any economist for at least three-quarters of a century. Therefore, I am not surprised at the arguments with which the right hon. Gentleman has tried to defend his Bill.
I admit the difficulties and complexities of the problem of rent restriction. It arose, in the first instance, out of abnormal conditions created by the War. The right hon. Gentleman attributes it to the sudden cessation of house-building, but let me remind him that the problem was apparent long before the cessation of 68 house-building could have had any effect. Indeed, within less than six months of the commencement of the war it was necessary for the Government to bring in a measure of rent control. The situation was created by abnormal circumstances which were exploited by landlords. Those abnormal circumstances were due largely to the removal of wage-earners to the Colours and to the enforced removal of wage-earners from one plane to another. If there has been any hardship on the class of landlords as a whole, let me remind them that they started the trouble in the early day of the war. Of course it is true that as the war went on, and there was a complete cessation of all kinds of house-building, the problem grew more intense, and the difficulties of the immediate post-war situation also intensified it, but that the situation is still abnormal is proved by the increase in rents which takes place when houses are decontrolled. That is a broad proof that we are not yet back to the normal conditions which obtained before rent control was imposed.
In my opinion, and, I think, in that of many of my friends here, the most important proposal of the Bill is that which retains control for five years over the smallest type of industrial dwellings. That, if I may say so, is the best feature of the Bill. If it were not there, I should hardly think that the Bill was worth going into the Lobby to support it. I do not say that the Bill meets our views; it does not, and we shall take full opportunity to make it more to our liking during the Committee stage; but it is at least something that for the next five years ordinary working-class dwellings will not be decontrolled. That has been a very serious trouble. If hon. Members will refer to the statistics that have been published, they will find that in Great Britain, from the end of July of last year to September of this year, that is to say, in a period of 14 months, over 250,000 houses were actually decontrolled. That means that decontrol was taking place at the rate of about 200,000 houses a year, and it is at least something to be assured that, assuming this rate of decontrol in ordinary circumstances, the Bill will in five years save 1,000,000 working-class houses from becoming completely decontrolled. I would ask, however, why five years is to be the limit?
69 The right hon. Gentleman made a rather feeble attempt as I thought to defend his view that in this matter they should not follow the report of the interdepartmental committee. The committee quite deliberately said it did not put any time limit upon the continuance of control for the reason that it could not exactly foresee when the housing shortage was likely to be met. I have heard nothing from the right hon. Gentleman that leads me to believe that he can give any assurance of any kind that five years from now he, or whoever may follow him, will have solved the housing problem to such an extent that decontrol will be a completely safe process for the people who are the tenants of controlled houses. Whatever may be said in the Bill as regards the maintenance of control of class "C" houses, the situation is not nearly as satisfactory as regards the houses in classes "A" and "B." I know we shall be told by hon. Members opposite that these proposals follow the proposals of the inter-departmental committee's report. It is a good thing sometimes when Governments do govern. Hon. Members opposite have seen interdepartmental committees set up by their friends when they were in office and whose reports were never implemented at all. It does not follow that, because there is a considerable measure of unanimity on the committee, we need swallow completely all its proposals, especially as the evidence on which the report was based began to be collected in 1930 and it was in the hands of the public by July of last year. The right hon. Gentleman used one phrase two or three times. He said: "In this period of changing economic and social conditions." My submission is that the economic and social conditions prevailing to-day are not those that prevailed when the committee was considering the evidence that was submitted to it.
The right hon. Gentleman says it is not part of the purpose of this Measure to deal with hardships because of the hard times. I should have thought the very reason for maintaining control in class "C" houses is the hardship that would arise if they were decontrolled. The right hon. Gentleman really cannot run two horses in different directions this way. If it is right, because of the serious hardships that would arise owing to existing economic conditions, to decontrol class "C" houses, we are entitled to use 70 the hardship argument as regards the occupants of houses in class "A" or class "B," and it is undoubtedly true that, since the committee finished the taking of its evidence, unemployment is a much more severe problem than it was. There is a new type of unemployment. It is creeping upwards into class "B" and class "A" houses everywhere. There are scores of thousands of clerks and professional people who have no unemployment insurance benefit, and their case is one that cannot be overlooked. In the same time wage and salary rates have fallen, and there has been increased taxation, and the plight of many occupants of class "B" houses is far more serious than it was. The times are harder, and the people in these houses are either to receive no assistance at all or are to be actually penalised. If you take class "B" houses, you will find poor men, clerks, civil servants and so on. From July, 1931, to September of this year 50,000 of these houses have been decontrolled at a time when the economic position of these people was becoming steadily worse. If that process of decontrol—50,000 in 14 months—is to continue during the period of the operation of the Bill, it will mean that another 240,000 houses of these people will have been decontrolled by the time the Act comes to an end.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I will come to the question of the supply of houses presently. I want to say something about these natural laws of which we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman. I am saying that in present circumstances, if decontrol goes on at the same rate, by the time the Act comes to an end a fifth of all these houses will have passed out of control. In Scotland, as a matter of fact, the proportion will be rather higher. There is, therefore, I think, a case for reconsideration of the figures and the proposals of the Departmental Committee because of this variation in the economic and social conditions to which the Minister referred.
He tells us also that there is no proposal to reduce the standard rents. It is true that the Departmental Committee felt the difficulties and the anomalies that would arise from any attempt to reduce the standard rents below the maxi- 71 mum of 40 per cent. allowed by law, but the changing economic circumstances and the fall in prices do merit consideration of the case now for a reduction of the standard rent. If, during a time of soaring prices, 40 per cent. was regarded as reasonable—and I assume it was, because it was not a Labour Government that established that but a Coalition Government—I think it is reasonable to say there is a case for considering a reduction in these changed economic and social conditions. It is true that there are to be no steps taken to deal with houses that are already decontrolled. They exist in very large numbers. The extent of decontrol has been quoted by the right hon. Gentleman, and some figures have been given as to the general increase in the 'rent of decontrolled houses.
There are large numbers of individual cases which are nothing short of a public scandal. I will refer hon. Members to the evidence submitted to the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance—the minutes of evidence, Part VII, page 422, where the City of Newcastle submitted evidence of people receiving either transitional benefit or public assistance living in decontrolled houses where the rents have risen to an extent which really was a public scandal and indeed even a national scandal. I know perfectly well the case against any attempt to recontrol decontrolled houses. It is not an easy job. It would create new hardships. But there is hardship and injustice to-day where houses stand cheek by jowl and the rent of one is double the rent of the other. To get any measure of justice out of it, you must either reduce the one or raise the other. Whilst I admit that it is not going to be easy to do it, this Government, which came into existence to deal with far more complex problems, ought not to be baffled by a relatively small problem of this kind. Therefore, we do not view the Bill with wild enthusiasm. In the hope of making it more acceptable we shall move Amendments at the appropriate stage.
I should like to deal now with some of the more fundamental aspects of the Bill. This, as the right hon. Gentleman repeatedly told us, is the beginning of the end of control—the sooner and the more completely the better. One cate- 72 gory of houses is being controlled forthwith and another is being subject to the slow process of decontrol which has been going on for some years. The third is to be controlled for five years and, in order to render it a little more emphatic, but I suggest not to give it any more legal meaning, the Bill says until 4th June, 1938, and no longer. I suppose that was intended to be declaratory of the determination of the Government to bring control to an end at the earliest possible date. Of course, Part II of the Act of 1923 is going. As soon as this Bill is passed, that will be repealed. The campaign for decontrol of houses is not a new one. The opposition to the first measure of control came from the property owners' associations. Never, from that day until now, have they relaxed their opposition to any measure of control. The volume of their cries has been so great that it has reached to the Heaven of the National Government, which is now listening to them with more than sympathy in view of the recommendations of the Ray Committee and of that rather strange, nondescript, unofficial committee which reported at about the same time.
There is no dubiety in the view of the Ray Committee on this question. They say the best way would be entirely to remove restrictions and then, with a reasonableness that I did not expect, the unofficial committee confined its desire for immediate decontrol of Class A and B houses. I congratulate the unofficial committee on its rather broader and more statesmanlike view of the question. The landlords and property owners have pressed very hard for decontrol as complete as possible. The secretary of the National Federation of Property Owners only a day or two ago speaks of this being done at long last, and says:The new Bill provided that rent restriction should cease for all property after June, 1938, which was four years too late.Here is another statement of another representative of property owners' associations, Mr. E. J. Churchman:While the Bill does not go as far as we should have liked, at the same time there are many Clauses in it which we welcome, for instance, the decontrol of houses of a rateable value of £35 and over. We are naturally a little disappointed that they have thought fit to withdraw the decontrol of property of a rateable value of £13 and under.73 It means that really their view was that even this small concession for which the right hon. Gentleman pleaded so eloquently this afternoon should have gone the way of the larger houses. That represents the view of the landlords.
I submit to the House that there are two main reasons for the view of the property owner to get the control of their houses. The answer is not that they desire it in the interests of the tenants. The right hon. Gentleman has admitted the conflict of interest between the landlord and the tenant, and the buyer and the seller. The two objects which they have in mind are, first, to raise rents, and, secondly, to get rid of legislation protecting the tenant. As property owners—I am not speaking of them as potential house builders, but as existing property owners—there can be no other reason for this tremendously strong demand which they have made for decontrol. In my view, neither of those things to-day is in the public interest. There is no doubt about the desire of the landlord to obtain higher rents. The course of rents in regard to decontrolled houses has shown clearly that, once a house comes into the possession of the landlord and has been decontrolled, he will, wherever possible, claim a higher rent. I know that there are some people who argue that decontrol will mean lower rents. If that were so, I believe that all the representatives of the property owners would vote with us on every Amendment to try and strengthen the Bill and to prevent decontrol from coming about. But I imagine that they understand their own interests, and they desire this measure of decontrol in order to raise rents. Although the Minister thinks that in the case of the Class "B" house we are moving towards the time when the demand will equal the supply, it is not to say that we have arrived at it yet, and it is clear that there will be a possibility immediately for existing landlords, when houses become decontrolled, to continue to raise rents.
The other object is to get rid of protective legislation for tenants. They demand to have perfect right to do what they like with their own. That is an early Victorian theory which is not applicable today. It goes back to the time when the Minister of Health first learnt, and last 74 learnt, his economics. I am not complaining about it, but it is an obvious statement which can be proved up to the hilt from quotations which have been made year after year by the representatives of the property owners' associations. They want to keep to those good old days before the War, when the law and its administration weighted the scales on the side of the landlords, when ejectment was easy, and when the statutory obligations of both local authorities and of landlords were conveniently overlooked because of the composition of local authorities. The composition of this House being what it is, I assume that hon. Members would admit that the two arguments in favour of any kind of decontrol now are, first, in order that the landlord may get an adequate return on his capital, which we would interpret as meaning raising rents, and, secondly, in order to get rid of vexatious restrictions which prevent him, for the time being, from doing exactly what he likes with his own property.
The Minister talked about the natural play of economic forces. He used the phrase several times. He spoke of economic laws as though they were divine laws, or, at least, laws which had behind them the sanction of His Majesty's Government and of Parliament. This deference to the natural play of economic forces strikes me to-day as being a little out of tune with the kind of things which are taking place. The right hon. Gentleman wants to get back to free contracts and to the old system of building houses. He recognises and, indeed, he said that the problem of rent restriction cannot very well be discussed apart from the problem of houses. In that he is right. The Restriction Acts are a symptom of a disease, and that disease is the serious and the continuing housing shortage. If we take the right hon. Gentleman on his ground of demand and supply, clearly there is an absolutely undeniable case for control continuing as long as supply falls short of the demand for houses. Now the right hon. Gentleman says that we are to get back to the free play of economic forces and to free contracts, and that we are to solve the question in that way. I am sorry to have to say that I cannot agree with him.
We are to have the right hon. Gentleman elaborating his housing proposals in a few days time. He speaks of new expectations and possibilities. That view is 75 purely hypothetical, and, if some of us tried to put down questions about expectations and possibilities, I think that we should be told that they were hypothetical questions. Yet this change is taking place in the law relating to rent restriction. The continuance of it is bound up with the supply of houses, and the change is taking place, not on the basis of any certainty that the houses will be supplied, but because in these changing economic and social conditions there are new expectations and possibilities. I cannot argue the Housing Bill this afternoon—there will be another occasion for that—but if the right hon. Gentleman has put forward this Bill because he believes that his next Bill will solve the housing problem, I think that he will be doomed to disappointment.
I want to make our attitude clear about it. I have already referred to it. We welcome—and I think all of us who see the disastrous results of decontrol in the Class "C" houses do—the provision which will retain that control. We regret that the change in the economic circumstances of which the Government have taken note in the Class "C" houses is not to extend to Classes "A" and "B" houses. Wherever the Government have given independent consideration to the question of the decontrol of housing and to the measure of decontrolled rent, upon those matters we shall move appropriate Amendments. I will leave the matter there until the time to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred when we shall join issue again.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I congratulate my right hon. Friend upon the very clear exposition of this rather complicated Measure and also of the Rent Restrictions Acts as a whole. The Bill on the whole appears to be a fair and reasonable, compromise between what are admittedly conflicting views arising, in most cases, from a sincere desire to see housing improved. There is one respect in regard to the argumentation of my right hon. Friend in which he was perhaps on rather dangerous ground, though possibly I may have misunderstood his meaning. He spoke, in respect of class "C" houses, to which I will refer in detail in a moment, of the question of supply and demand, and suggested that the restric- 76 tions on the end of decontrol of those houses was, in the main, justified by the question of supply and demand. I do not wish to go into the details of the matter, but I suggest—and I make this a present to the Opposition—that it is a somewhat dangerous argument to use from the Front Bench because it might be extended in a great many other respects. It might, for example, be extended to the question of labour. It might be said that you should insist upon certain restrictions on the employment of labour because the supply of labour is much greater than the demand. That is my only criticism of the speech of my right hon. Friend, but I should prefer to say, in respect of Class "C" houses, that special circumstances arise which make a temporary period of further control necessary.
There can be no possible contact between the Socialist Opposition and ourselves in this matter. It is clear from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) that he is far less concerned with any question of good housing than he is with the question of private enterprise against public enterprise. The only thing in which he is interested is private and public enterprise. If private enterprise can supply better houses or anything else than public enterprise, that in itself is not a good thing but a bad thing, because public enterprise is the only thing that matters. We on this side of the House—and indeed I should imagine hon. Members below the Gangway—are interested in the question purely from the point of view of whether or not this Bill, or any other Bill on the subject of housing, does or does not provide good housing and improvement in housing conditions. That is the only point in which we are interested. Of course, to the Opposition it is anathema that anybody should make profit out of housing or out of any other private enterprise, and to them it is completely wrong and immoral. We cannot support that point of view, and that is the conflict between us and them.
Complaint is often made by owners of house property, and especially small owners who come under the rent restrictions, of the continuance of the Act in any form, 18 years after the outbreak of the War and 14 years after the Armistice. 77 I think that its continuance has caused hardship in certain instances, but it is in the main unquestionably justified by the lack of public spirit on the part of a minority of landlords who but for the Act would have profiteered on one or two classes of property. That is the sole justification for the continuance of the Act in any form. Let no one, however, ignore the fact and fail to recognise that the continued existence of the principal Act has led to great disadvantages, not to say scandals, in many directions, and in some districts, as I hope to show in a minute or two, has actually been the main buttress of slum and unhealthy property. The seriousness of the situation in this regard has hardly ever been put to the House, and it has never, or seldom, been fully demonstrated how inexplicably mixed are rent restrictions and slums.
I will give some instances from my own knowledge. Take the case, which is by no means uncommon, of a large estate in any part of England on which the ground rents on old, bad property have fallen in since, or just before, 1914. That relates to houses that were built about 100 years ago. On any well-conducted property in any part of England or Scotland before the War when such property fell in the superior landlord pulled it down and rebuilt it. I maintain, however, that the operations of the Rent Restrictions Acts have made that procedure almost impossible since the War. It is true that in certain instances, under a very complicated process, the landlord can claim possession for an improvement scheme, but the interpretation of "improvement" is narrow.
Let me give a specific example. In order to come within the interpretation of an improvement scheme there must be rehousing on the same site, but the site in question may be far more valuable and useful for commercial purposes, and it may also be much better for public health that the people should be rehoused on another site. It may be that the site is shut in and airless, yet the landlord has the greatest difficulty in getting possession of that site for the most profitable and economic use, and also for the most healthy use. As sometimes happens, all those conditions apply. You get a position where from the point of view of the health of the public and the interest of the landlord it is far better to 78 get rid of the houses, rehouse the people in what are known as Council houses, and use the site for some other purpose; but while the Rent Restrictions Acts continue in force it is almost impossible to do that.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
Assuming that what the Noble Lord says is correct, that a slum area is unhealthy, in a centre of a great town, that it is needed for commercial purposes and that 200 or 300 people are occupying the houses on the site. What would he do with the people? Possession can be got now through the local authorities, but the Noble Lord is going to throw 200 or 300 people adrift.
§ Earl WINTERTON
No. I will deal with that perfectly fair question in a moment. I am only putting the situation as it is, in areas where it is far better that the people should be rehoused elsewhere. This situation frequently arises. The landlord has to bear the obloquy and the moral reproach of owning old, bad property, but it may be property that just comes above the description of an unhealthy area; just above the insanitary standard. Therefore, it is not property that can be condemned under the Act of Parliament which deals with unhealthy areas, and the landlord has to bear the moral obloquy of owning that property, although he cannot help himself and cannot do what he would like to do, namely, put it to more profitable use. The housing reformers would say, and quite properly, that it is monstrous that such property exists, and the landlord would say: "I agree. I want to pull it down and to put the site to the best economic use. It is near the centre of the city and I would like to build garages, offices, or warehouses. The site is shut in and airless. There is no public park near, where children can play. Many of my present tenants are unemployed, and cannot find employment in the locality. It would be far better that these people should be housed in council houses elsewhere." [An HON. MEMBER: "Or in garden cities."] Or in garden cities.
The extreme housing reformer, like the supporter of the League of Nations, is sometimes extreme in his advocacy, and he replies: "What! Turn these people out and make them go and live in council houses, outside the town, where they may have to pay higher rent! What a mon- 79 strous thing They must be rehoused on the same site, even if it is unsuitable, at the same rent, however uneconomic. If you are proposing to put your property to the best commercial use, even though you sweep away a slum, even though the people are rehoused under better conditions outside, it is a monstrous proposal." That sort of situation frequently arises, and I suggest that the slum question will never be dealt with until a more reasonable attitude is adopted in these matters. There are numbers of great towns where it is uneconomic to house weekly wage earners in places where it is far better that they should not be from the point of view of health. It may be said that you could get over the difficulty by paying compensation to the tenant, but not every person can afford to do that. Even where that is done, there are cases in this city of Westminster, within a stone's throw of this House, where there have been improvement schemes, no doubt very necessary from the point of view of rehousing the people, where the people have been rehoused on sites which, from the health point of view and from the point of view of the structure of the buildings, are wholly unsuitable. Owing to the narrowness of the streets and the highness of the buildings adjoining, for example; the buildings in Victoria Street, we find that in these reconstituted areas there are flats where people never get any sun from the beginning of winter until the end of it.
In all these cases the real tragedy, as so often happens in human affairs, is that there is a conflict of ideals. There are opposing points of view, each of which has some substantial elemental truth in it. To my hon. Friend opposite it may seem a monstrous thing, even if the people are going to be provided with council houses under better conditions outside, that they should be taken away from the area where they have lived. To a great extent I agree, but you will never deal with the housing question and the slum problem until you do that. The existence of the Rent Restrictions Acts has made it more difficult to carry out this process through the agency of the private owner or even through the agency of public authorities than was the case before the Acts came into operation. I do not say that the Acts were not neces- 80 sary, of course they were necessary, but the situation to which I have referred does arise.
I should like to take another example, that of a case where an owner does not want to see the people rehoused on another site or removed to the outer suburbs but is willing to rehouse them at his own expense on the same site. Unless the houses on the site where he wishes to rehouse them are houses situated in an unhealthy or insanitary area as defined by the Housing Acts, he has no means of getting possession of them. In that respect the Rent Restrictions Acts operate as a deterrent to good housing and rehousing. Many such examples might be quoted in every great city. I should like to turn also to another matter, which affects the class "C" houses dealt with in the Bill. Take the case of the owner of a house of the value of £20 in London and £13 elsewhere, which during the continuance of the present Bill will remain controlled. Assuming that one of those houses becomes vacant. Under the Bill as it stands the owner will have no inducement to improve the internal conveniences or comfort of the house or houses. It is true that under one provision, I think it is Section 2 of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1920, he can if he makes certain structural alterations or additions to the house charge a higher rent, but he cannot do so if he merely improves what I would call the internal conveniences of the house by putting in, say, better cooking or washing arrangements, better sanitary conveniences or better cupboards, which in the aggregate may make a great improvement.
There ought to be some provision in the Bill—it is the only respect in which I would suggest an Amendment—by which an owner when one of this class of "C" house becomes decontrolled and ho wishes to improve it in the way I have described, can get possession and be able to charge a higher rent. I propose to put down an Amendment to that effect, but I would hedge it about with the most rigid restrictions. I would only allow him to charge a higher rent if he goes to the county court and obtains an order. The county court would fix the rent and only presumably fix it after an inspection had been made of the actual improvement by some competent officer. The House obviously intended when it amended the law and allowed 8 per cent. 81 extra to be charged in respect of structural alterations of controlled houses, that the effect of the Amendment should be to improve the house from the housing point of view, but a narrow interpretation of the word improvement has largely nullified the efficacy of that provision. I would be prepared to abridge very considerably the power to charge 8 per cent. in respect of pure structural alterations, and give the power to the county courts to allow a higher rent to be charged where the internal convenience of the house was improved. The object of the Rent Restrictions Acts is surely not to allow bad landlords to get a, high rent for rotten houses but to encourage the good landlord to make improvements, and then to give him a fair return on the outlay. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be favourable to my suggestion when it comes forward in the Committee stage. I believe that it is possible in this way, by some form of reconditioning, greatly to improve the accommodation and to provide also opportunities for private enterprise.
It is an unquestioned fact that a, very great evil of rent restriction has been over-crowding, through tenants taking in sub-tenants. On most well-managed estates before the war tenants were not allowed to take in sub-tenants without the permission of the landlord. The House will appreciate that the landlord to-day in regard to controlled houses is practically without power. It is true that he may get the local authority to take action on the ground of overcrowding, but the experience in London and other towns has been that even where the local authority—in some cases where the local authority has been composed of a majority of the party which supports hon. Members opposite—have gone to the magistrates to ask for an order, the answer has been, "There is nowhere else for the people to go, and we can do nothing about it." Therefore, the superior landlord, who is most frequently blamed, and not only by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, is in nine cases out of ten entirely innocent of any responsibility for it. The sole responsibility rests with the tenant, and I think it is a most valuable provision in the Bill—and one hardly noticed in the speech from the Front Bench opposite—that for the first time since rent restriction came into operation, the landlord is given 82 power to deal with this most grievous question of overcrowding by the tenants.. After all, the tenant cannot object to the provision in the Bill, because all that is laid down is that in future there shall be a fair apportionment of rent between him and the sub-tenant. This is one of the most valuable provisions in the Bill.
While I do not oppose generally the continuance of rent restriction for a further period of years, let no one ignore that one effect of rent restriction is undoubtedly to cause greater hardship to the good landlord than to the bad landlord, wherever it is applied. There are enormous variations in the "rent-restricted" rent of the same class of house, and the reason is obvious. Before the War, and at the time when rent restriction was applied, these variations existed, and, broadly speaking, were the variations between a good and a bad landlord, the good landlord charging a low rent and the bad landlord a high rent. The effect of the Rent Restrictions Acts over the 18 years they have been in operation has been to perpetuate this injustice between the good and the bad landlord. Perhaps "injustice" is too strong a word to use, because it suggests something that can be removed, and I admit it is very difficult to remove this by Act of Parliament. Nevertheless the hardships exist, and the bad landlord who charged a high rent has for all these 18 years been enjoying an advantage over the good landlord.
Anyone familiar with working-class areas can point to astonishing variations of rent in the same district. So much so, that both in the interests of the tenant and the landlord, and of good housing throughout the country, if there is to be a continuance for many years of rent restriction if, for example, the next Government are formed of hon. and right hon. Members opposite, I hope, in fairness to all parties, they will consider setting up a form of court which will decide what the rent shall be. At the present time the injustices are nearly intolerable in some cases. On my own behalf and on behalf of other Members interested, I would like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courage in bringing in such a clear and reasonable Bill.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Mr. LLEWELLYN-JONES
I would like, first, to express my disappointment that the Minister has not gone a good deal further, and, instead of introducing 83 another Amending Bill to the series of Rent Restrictions Acts, has not faced the question of introducing a consolidation Bill. I mean by that a Bill which would have amended the earlier Acts in many of those particulars which have repeatedly been before the courts, and on which from time to time there has been a certain difference of judicial opinion on various points. I believe I am right in saying that the High Court or the Court of Appeal have had to decide between 300 and 350 cases, and it is a remarkable fact that in more than one case the judges to whom the appeal went, particularly in the Court of Appeal; have expressed very strong opinions as to the bad draftsmanship of the earlier Acts. Here was an opportunity which the Ministry of Health have had since July of last year to prepare a consolidation Bill which would amend the old Acts, and at the same time introduce such other Amendments as were deemed necessary.
I am fairly certain that this Bill is not one which will give satisfaction to any section of the House. There have been objections from the right hon. Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench from the point of view of the Labour party, and we have already heard them from the Conservative standpoint. If this Bill is enacted in the form in which it has been introduced, you will find in various parts of the country a great amount of discontent. It is quite conceivable that before the five years are up, and even before five months are up, further protective legislation will have to be introduced. I note from the speech of the Minister of Health that the Government have come to a definite conclusion that the duration of this Measure is to be until 24th June, 1938, "and no longer," as the Clause itself lays down. So we have to look forward to the whole of the Rent Restrictions Acts coming to an end in something like 5½years.
On more than one occasion the Minister of Health referred to the report of the Inter-Departmental Committee. What does that Committee say on this point? This is one of their observations:While it is not desirable to retain control longer than is necessary, we cannot accept the suggestion that regardless of the shortage a day must be fixed for final decontrol.84 Further, they say:The shortage of the least expensive houses, that is the real working-class houses, is still in many districts acute, and we are unable to say when it will be met.I am afraid there are many areas in the country where that shortage will not be met in the next five years. Do we not realise that, even if trade improves and if unemployment ceases to be the grave issue it is, we shall always find areas where there will be difficulty with regard to the finding of a sufficient supply of houses for the demand. Looking back, one is rather surprised that even before the War no one suggested legislation of this kind. One has known what it has meant for industries to be planted in a particular area, for large numbers of workers to migrate into that area, and for the housing problem to be as acute as it is in many districts to-day. I feel certain the time that has been fixed by this Bill for doing away with control will have to be extended. Otherwise there will be areas in the country where you will have most acute problems which the Government of that day will have to face. The Bill proposes to decontrol at once, as soon as it is placed on the Statute Book, all the houses which are in Class "A," that is substantially, in London all houses between £45 and £105, which is the present limit, and in the country all houses between £35 and £75.
The moment that this Bill gets on the Statute Book, I think I am right when I say, subject to correction by the Minister and by the Law Officers of the Crown, the effect will be that a very large proportion of the 500,000 tenants of the houses in Class "A" will find themselves in a decontrolled house. What will be the result? At the present time a large number of the tenants of Class "A" houses are persons who in the first instance have had leases for three, five, seven or 10 years. Their leases have come to an end, and they now continue as tenants of these houses subject to the provisions of the earlier Acts as statutory tenants. Then you have another, and probably a very much larger class, tenants who have received notice to quit, possibly some years ago, in order to enable the landlord to bring into operation the permitted increases in rent. The general opinion among lawyers is that notwithstanding a certain Section of the 1923 Act, all these tenants immediately this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament in 85 its present form will be liable to eviction. The landlords will be in a position to go to the county court for possession, or, if the tenant is not prepared to leave the house, will be in the position to extract from the tenant such rent as they think the tenant will be able to pay. Who are the people who are covered by this 1 Who are the 500,000 tenants of these houses? Of course the Labour party does not concern itself very much with these tenants, because they are occupying houses rated in London at over £45 and in the country at over £35, but I certainly am surprised to find that a. Conservative Minister of Health is going to throw these people to the wolves.
Who are they? In the first instance you have a very large number of professional men, doctors, solicitors, architects and dentists, and probably I am right in saying that about 70 per cent. of the professional men in this country are in this class. Who else are included? A very large number of persons in receipt of incomes of £250 to £400 per annum from investments. Those are people who are being hit to-day to an extent to which they have never been hit before. There are lodginghouse keepers in the suburbs of our towns and in our seaside places, and a very large number of small shopkeepers. All of these people will be sacrificed at one stroke if this Bill is passed in its present form. They have no organisation, no means of combination. There is no class of people more inarticulate than they. One can imagine what will happen if only a small proportion of these 500,000 tenants find in March or April of next year that their tenure of their houses has come to an end.
But this is not all. The previous legislation dealing with this matter recommended that there might be discretion in this connection, and the Minister has recognised to-day that so far as mortgagors and mortgagees are concerned the legislation should continue in an amended form. But what has the Minister done in this Bill? We find in Sub-section (3) of Clause 1 a proviso which states:Part II of the Act of 1923 (which contains provisions as to restrictions after the expiry of the principal Acts) is hereby repealed.What was Part II of the Act of 1923? What did it contemplate? Clearly the Legislature at that time contemplated that some day the Rent Restriction Act 86 would come to an end. So in Section 12 of the Act of 1923 there was included a provision which said that after the Act had come to an end, not merely when decontrol took place but when the tenancy expired as the result of that legislation in 1923, there must be a. waiting period; the landlord was not to be entitled to go to the court and to apply for ejectment; the court could attach conditions, and it is doing so at the present time when proceedings are taken. All that will come to an end as soon as this Bill becomes law.
There is another point in the first Clause of the Bill to which I would draw attention, and that is the proviso at the bottom of page 1. I really am at a loss to understand why the Government could have inserted a proviso of that kind. It says:Provided that where any dwelling-house consists of or comprises premises licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquor for consumption on the premises, the principal Acts shall, as from the date of the passing of this Act or as from the date on which the premises are first so licensed, whichever is the later date, cease to apply to that dwelling-house.I am certain that the great mass of the tied-houses tenants from one end of the country to the other will be in a state of panic when they realise what the effect of that provision will be. I speak without any hesitation in this matter. I am not concerned in any way with the licensed trade. I rarely go inside licensed premises, as I am a total abstainer. But I am anxious that the tied-house tenants of the country should have the treatment which is being accorded to others. Avery large number of licensed houses in various parts of the country come within the limits of category "C" to which the Minister has referred. Why has this provision been included in the Bill? On page 50 of the report of the inter-Departmental Committee there appears this statement:We see no reason, however, why public-houses should not be decontrolled. We have received representations from the Brewers' Society to this effect, and have had cases of hardship resulting from the present system brought to our notice.So far as cases of hardship are concerned I am in a position from my own professional experience to refer, not to one, not to half a dozen, but to a very large number of cases of hardship in respect of tenants of tied houses. There is no class 87 in the community which occupies the position of bond slaves in the same way as the tenants under many of the brewers of the country hold their positions. I know of cases in my own constituency of persons who have consulted me. I have succeeded in keeping them in their houses, notwithstanding every threat from the brewer. They will remain there until the day when this Bill gets on the Statute Book. Then they will find themselves driven out by the brewers. I hold no brief for the publican, but the position very often is this: I know of dozens of cases where a man with perhaps £200 or £300 has gone into a tied house. Gradually his money has disappeared, and when it has disappeared the brewer is anxious to get rid of him in order to get someone else with available capital.
There are one or two comments I wish to make on Clause 2. In Sub-section (2) provision is made for a certificate of the housing authority being obtained by a landlord who wants to get possession of a house, and such certificate is to constitute evidence that there is suitable accommodation obtainable or that the authority has got houses of a similar class available. That may be all right in boroughs and urban districts, but there will be a serious difficulty in rural areas. In Subsection (3) one finds that where no certificate is provided the court has to be satisfied that the house that is available as alternative accommodation is reasonably situated in relation to the needs of the tenant and his family, having regard to its proximity to his place of work, and so on. I know a very large rural district which runs something like 20 miles from one end to the other. In one part of that district there is housing congestion; the demand for houses cannot be met. In another part there has been a great migration, owing to industries being closed, and there are actually council houses which are empty. That is a distance of about lb miles from the point where there is the housing shortage. Obviously the landlord who has a house in the congested area and wants to get possession of that house will go to the housing authority of the rural area and will get a certificate that there is a house available for the man he wishes to eject. But it would be 15 miles off. As the Bill stands, in such a case that certificate 88 would be conclusive, and the court, unless it dealt with the case under an earlier part of the Clause, would find itself obliged to give possession to the landlord. I am certain that the Government do not wish that kind of thing to happen. I propose to put on the Paper an Amendment dealing with this point. It is not unreasonable to ask that where a landlord gets a certificate of this kind he should also satisfy the court that the alternative house offered is reasonably suitable to the needs of the tenant and his family.
§ Mr. LLEWELLYN-JONES
It does not meet my point. Sub-section (2) calls for a certificate of the housing authority. The area of the authority means the whole of the area of the authority, and that is where the difficulty arises. In a small compact urban district it would not matter, but it would be vastly different in a large rural area.
§ Mr. LLEWELLYN-JONES
I wish to make perfectly clear that the words in the following pagereasonably suitable to the needs of the tenant and his family as regards proximity to place of work.should also apply to the case of the houses to which I refer.
There is an interesting provision in Clause 7 as to the powers of local authorities for giving information and advice. I happen to have had a good deal of experience on a local authority, and I think that while the intention of this Clause is excellent the three words "and give advice" may cause considerable difficulty. The Clause purports to give power to local authorities to publish information—and give advice for the assistance of landlords and tenants as to their rights and duties under the principal Acts, as to the procedure for enforcing such rights or securing performance of such duties, and as to the availability… of alternative accommodation.It is right that a statutory obligation should be placed on the local authority to give information upon all these points and the officials of a local authority are 89 often in a better position than anyone else, to give information as to the purport of an Act dealing with housing. But the Clause goes a good deal further, and I think it is treading on dangerous and difficult ground to suggest that a local council might call upon its officials to give advice for the assistance of landlords and tenants as to their rights and duties under the principal Acts. When one of the previous Acts came into operation I advised the council with which I was connected to publish in a short form information as to the main provisions of the Act. Frequently one is asked to give information, but giving advice on intricate matters as between landlord and tenant may create considerable difficulty.
My hon. Friends know that, frequently, cases arise under the Rent Restrictions Acts and other Acts concerning landlord and tenant, and if one is asked for advice upon them one has first to be satisfied as to the facts. That often takes a considerable time, considerably more time than the official of a local authority may be able to afford. Then, under this Clause an official might be asked to give advice to a landlord on one day and to a tenant on the next. If the Clause were left without this obligation to give advice, it would be an excellent Clause as far as local authorities are concerned. It must he remembered, however, that many of the smaller authorities have not staffs competent to give advice on these matters. However well equipped those staffs may be in knowledge of public administration and local government law, they may not have confidence in their ability to give advice on matters of controversy between landlord and tenant.
Clause 8 is a clause of the type to which objection is constantly being taken in this House, concerning the power of the Minister to make regulations. Under this Clause the Minister may make regulations prescribing forms to be substituted for those contained in the First Schedule to the Act of 1920. What is the necessity for this provision? The legislature in 1920 indicated the forms. They appeared in the Schedule. Why should not the Minister do the same in this Bill? Once a Measure goes through in this form and once the power to legislate is conferred upon a Department, hon. Members know what happens. It is true that the last Sub-section provides that all regula 90 tions made under the Clause are to be laid before Parliament "as soon as may be after they are made." But how often do we find objection actually being taken to regulations made by one of the central departments even though those regulations may be open to serious objection? Instead of giving the Minister power to make regulations in matters of this kind the House of Commons ought to retain that power itself. A considerable time will elapse between this Debate and the period when the Bill will be considered in Committee and I suggest that the altered forms should be included in the Schedule and should be in the hands of hon. Members before the Committee stage.
There are just two or three general points on which I wish to touch. Reference has already been made to the obligation on the landlord to keep controlled houses in repair. At the moment a tenant who has received notice of the landlord's intention to increase his rent can go to the local authority and ask for a certificate that the house is not in a proper tenantable state of repair. If that certificate is granted it can be produced to the county court. I am certain that the greater number of the houses which come under this Measure do not comply with the conditions as to repair imposed by the earlier Acts and if it is not too late I suggest that in the case at any rate of the class "C" houses—because the class "C" houses are to continue to be controlled—the landlord before he can let the house to a fresh tenant, if there has been a change of tenancy, should be under an obligation to obtain a certificate from the local sanitary authority that the house, in all respects, complies with reasonable requirements.
There are many ways, unfortunately, in which the Acts can be defeated and something might be done by legislation to meet such cases and to prevent what is now happening in some parts of the country. In a district not very far from where I live, a number of slum houses were sold by the former landlord and bought by a speculator at a ridiculously small price. Had they not been sold the local authority would have compelled the former landlord to take immediate steps to put them into proper repair. The speculator as soon as he purchased these houses, 30 or 35 in number, went to the 91 tenants and put before them a proposition which seemed generous. He offered to sell the houses to the tenants—at a sum in respect of each house several times what it had cost—and he then offered to leave the purchase money as a mortgage on the house, the principal to be paid by instalments at a considerable rate of interest. The purchaser of those houses, the man who had become the landlord, was enabled by that means to defeat the intentions of the legislature in the Rent Restrictions Acts.
I was not consulted professionally on this matter, but I was consulted in regard to those houses in another way, and I said that I did not think there was any remedy whatever. Those tenants are now occupier-owners with a mortgage on the property and can be ejected by the mortgagee in case of default in payment of principal and interest. He is under no responsibility with regard to repair. The mortgagor is the person who is called upon to pay the rates and the sanitary authorities are faced with this difficulty —that the only way in which they can remedy matters is by turning on to the street a number of people who have been deluded by a speculator into buying the houses under the conditions which I have indicated. I believe that that represents only one of the ways in which the intention of the Acts are being defeated. Other ways have been utilised by speculators to defeat the obvious intention of the Acts, and I suggest that the Minister—not in connection with this Bill —should consider what can be done to protect tenants against a repetition of such procedure. Although there are many objections to this Bill in detail, I believe that, as far as class "C" houses are concerned, it is a step in the right direction. There are bad tenants and bad landlords, and some of the provisions which the Minister has described will enable good landlords who desire to get their property from bad tenants to get possession, and, at the same time, will deal with some of the grievances which tenants are at present suffering.
§ 6.28 p.m.
I was glad to hear the vigorous and practical speech of the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton). He speaks with a practical knowledge of these matters as one who 92 has done all that is humanly possible to alleviate conditions in the slum area in the centre of the town in which he is interested and I trust that the Amendment which he proposes to move in Committee will be favourably and sympathetically considered by the Minister. It is nearly 18 years ago since the first Measure was introduced dealing with rent restriction and since then three major Measures have been introduced dealing with this question. I think it is the general wish among all concerned that some definite conclusion should be reached in regard to the subject. I suggest that whatever legislation we introduce or pass on rent restriction must be in the nature of a compromise of outrages. If you decontrol, it is an outrage to a certain section; if you continue control, or keep houses under control longer than is necessary, it is an outrage to another section.
I believe that the Minister in this Bill has steered the happiest mean possible under the circumstances. The mere fact that he is opposed, on the one hand, by extremists like my hon. Friends on the benches above the Gangway here, who believe that all working-class houses should be controlled, and, on the other hand, by the extremists representing the property owners, who desire to see the decontrol of all houses immediately, suggests that it must be a fair Measure, and if for this reason alone, I shall support it. Having been on the Inter-Departmental Committee, naturally I am very grateful to the Minister for what he said to-day, and for the fact that the Bill follows so closely the main findings of that Committee. As I understand it, the Bill puts into incomprehensible but, I understand, strictly legal Parliamentary language the perfectly clear and comprehensible language of the report, but, as the Minister has explained, that is necessary. Although I thought I understood somewhat the findings of the Committee, I must admit that when I first saw the Bill it took some time before I realised that there was any connection whatsoever between it and the findings of the Committee.
With one major exception, the Bill follows the findings of the Committee, and that exception is the termination of control in five years. I think it is per 93 fectly right that there should be a definite time limit when this control should come to an end, or when, at any rate, the whole question can be reviewed. One of the reasons why there should be a definite limit is that conditions by then, I think, will be such as to make this control unnecessary. Every year conditions have improved—even since the report was printed conditions have improved —the costs of building have gone down, and the London County Council have reduced the rents of houses on three of their estates, which is indicative of the movement that is taking place, a movement in the right direction. As regards the minor alterations, I do not say which differ from the findings of the Committee, but which clarify and amplify them, I think they merely constitute some machinery by which certain suggestions as regards alternative accommodation, registration, or questions of sub-letting can be dealt with; and those who sat on the Committee, I believe, will heartily approve of the changes that the Minister has put into the Bill.
May I make a few observations as regards housing generally? The Minister told us that, in 1920, 98 per cent. of the houses in this country were controlled. To-day, I believe, the comparable figure is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 64 per cent. There are to-day some 9,500,000 houses in this country, and it is computed that there are 10,000,000 families. Therefore it may be seen that housing conditions to-day generally are definitely better than they were in 1911, and I think it is arguable that this question is to-day not a general but a particular problem. It is a problem of the large towns and the congested areas, where the problem is one of local labour for local industries, such as the case of Covent Garden, or industries in London where it is, in the very nature of things, impossible that there should be adequate, reasonable, and proper accommodation for workers within measurable distance of their daily occupation, and where, owing to the very size of the towns themselves, it is impossible for those individuals to live in the country districts and be in time to reach, or able to afford the railway fare to, the centre of their work.
It only requires the most superficial knowledge of conditions in our slum areas 94 to realise what an appalling blot they still are on this country. It is calculated that still some 3,500,000 people in this country live in over-crowded and insanitary conditions, and I doubt whether this will ever be cured until a National Housing Committee is set up and is given plenary and dictatorial powers to deal with this problem. I recognise, however, that this is a matter more suitable for discussion on Thursday that it is to-day.
I want now to try to answer some of the objections and problems that have been raised in regard to this Bill. Rent restriction, as the Minister has said, was a war measure. It effected direct interference with one form of private property, and it is reasonable to argue that everything else, every other form of private investment or property, in the war rapidly and greatly increased in value, but that, owing to the Rent Restrictions Acts this one form of private property did not follow the example of all the others. But it cannot be denied that it has in the past fulfilled, and does to-day to a very great degree fulfil, the object with which is was originally introduced. It has given over a considerable period of time a security of tenancy and a very definite limitation of rent to a very large number of working people in this country.
The Bill adopts the same classification of houses as was suggested in the report of the Committee. The "A" class houses are to be decontrolled at once, and may I say, in answer to the hon. Member for Flint (Mr. Llewellyn-Jones), who opposed the immediate decontrol of this class of house, that surely the whole argument for decontrol is that there is a sufficiency of these houses. That is the evidence, and therefore, when he says that these half-million people are going to be thrown by the Government to the wolves, the fact is that there are no wolves to throw them to. The fact is that there is a very large number of these very houses for which people cannot find tenants to-day. The hon. Member may dispute that, but that is the result of the evidence which we took. If he will investigate, I think he will find that that is so, and if that is so, and he accepts that, his whole argument as to these individuals being thrown to the wolves immediately falls to the ground. I believe there is an ample supply of this class of "A" houses, which these people, if they 95 are turned out of their houses, will be able to occupy, but I believe that what will happen is that the landlords will be only too grateful if they will continue in occupancy of these houses.
As regards "B" houses, decontrol is to go on as now under the 1923 Act; and with regard to "C" houses, the decontrol is to cease but control is not, of course, to be reimposed on those that have already been decontrolled. The reasons for the Committee's findings were, I think, along these lines: We felt that Class "A" houses should be decontrolled at once, on the one hand because there was sufficient of them, and also because the individuals who were able to pay the rents which these houses commanded should not look for further protection from the Government. In regard to "B" class houses, there was no evidence to show that there was a lack of this type of house, and, as a matter of fact, the needs of the greater proportion of the people living in them and paying the rent that these houses command have been met by municipal enterprise during the past few years.
With regard to "C" class, the working-class, houses, this is the most important class, obviously, and the most numerous. It may be deplorable, but it is nevertheless true that, in spite of the fact that over £15,000,000 a year of public money has been spent in housing subsidies, in spite of the fact that building societies have lent anything between £70,000,000 and £90,000,000 a year for building houses, in spite of the fact that over £1,000,000,000 has been spent in working-class houses since the end of the War, and, lastly, in spite of the fact that nearly 2,000,000 new houses have been built, the dismal fact remains that the problem of providing houses which can be let at rents within the wages of the working classes has not yet been met. Therefore, some further and continued protection and restriction are essential with regard to this class of house. We also found—and the Minister has given us figures to substantiate it—that the average increase in rents in "C" class houses that have been decontrolled is very striking indeed, which proves that unless we are to continue to control this class, as these houses became decontrolled so the working classes to-day, who are in no better position than they 96 were a few years ago to pay increased rents, would be forced to do so.
Why is it that this class of house has not been built? There is a variety of reasons. It is partly, of course, because they have been under control all this time and partly because private enterprise has naturally turned so that most remunerative field, namely, "A" and "B" houses; also—and it must be faced—there is the reason that the costs of building have greatly increased since pre-Wardays. I am not going into the arguments why they have increased. In 1914, to lay 100 bricks cost 17s. 5d.; in 1926, it cost 75s.; in 1931, the comparable figure was 48s. 5d. Therefore, it will be seen that the cost of laying 100 bricks to-day is 200 per cent. more than it was in 1914, and I think it is obvious that that is a very substantial reason why these "C" class houses have not been built in the numbers that we could have wished in the past few years.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
Does the hon. and gallant Member's figure include in the comparable cost the cost of the bricks, or does it only refer to the cost of the bricklayer's work?
The figure includes a large number of items which, if the hon. Member would like, I will give him. There are five or six items included, but if there are any other comparable figures, and mine are not correct, I shall be only too happy to get them. I have not entered into the question whether or not these bricks are dud bricks, because that would lead to considerations which are not pertinent to the question. I believe that the abolition of the subsidy will tend to reduce the price at which these "C" class houses are built in the future. One of the reasons for the continued unemployment in certain areas is, no doubt, the reason that the Minister gave to-day, namely, the immobility of labour. It is the fear of the individual that, if he leaves his present home, he will not be able to find comparable accommodation elsewhere. He may find accommodation, but he fears that if he leaves his controlled home, the home to which he may be able to go will be decontrolled, and he will have to pay a higher rent for it. That is a very reasonable and practical fear that the worker has to-day, and it is one which keeps him in one locality for 97 the very good reasons that at any rate he has a roof over his head and a, rent which cannot be increased.
The fear has been mentioned, especially by those representing London constituencies, that this Bill is striking a blow at working class accommodation in London. I think this has largely arisen from a misapprehension of what the word "house" constitutes. The best definition that I can give is that a house is a dwelling, a room, two rooms, three rooms, half a house, or a whole house, which is the subject of a tenancy. The Minister has already told us that for the next five years there will be a pool of no less than 4,000,000 Class "C" houses. If I understood aright what the Minister said, the facts are these. You may have a house in Class "C" of a rateable value of £100, which is very nearly the top limit. If a landlord has let that house into 10 separate dwellings, those dwellings have to be controlled for the next five years, and although they are in a big house, the annual value of which is £100, they still continue to be 10 "C" class houses for the next five years.
Suppose, however, a landlord has a house the annual value of which is £100, and he lets to a tenant, say, Mr. Smith, and in the original lease there is nothing forbidding Mr. Smith to sub-let. Since the lease was signed, Mr. Smith has sublet nine portions of the house to nine separate families, constituting nine separate tenancies. As I understand it, the moment this Bill is passed Mr. Smith himself is decontrolled. The landlord can either turn out Mr. Smith, who is living in one part of the house, or he can raise the rent. If he turns out Mr. Smith, the nine other individuals in the house will become the direct tenants of the landlord instead of Mr. Smith. In any case, as long as they remain in the house they cannot be turned out or have their rents increased. When they do go, the portion of the house they occupied will become decontrolled, and either Mr. Smith, if he remains as chief tenant, or the landlord can treat it in any way he likes as a decontrolled tenancy. I dare say that this is a very simple matter, and I hope that the explanation I have given is correct, because I know that there is a good deal of confusion of thought in understanding the position among Members who represent London and other big 98 cities where there are a large number of fair-sized houses which in the last few years have been let out to many subtenants.
Clause 4 is one of the most important. It tends to simplify the action of the subtenant in obtaining a reasonable apportionment of his rent. Although the tenant can go to the court and get an apportionment order, it is true that he may not like doing so and sometimes would not know that he can do it. With regard to the interruption of an hon. Member as to what the Bill did in the case of a collusion between a landlord and the senior tenant who decide to charge a sub-tenant more than he ought to be charged, the answer is that the sub-tenant has an equal right with the tenant in getting an apportionment order stating what he ought to pay. The subtenant is perfectly entitled to go to the court and ask the court to decide what the standard rent ought to be. Under this Bill and under the last Act the court is entitled to say what that standard rent ought to be and apportion the sub-tenant his proper rent. There may be a number of sub-tenants who will not take the action which is allowed them and provided for under the Bill. It is difficult to legislate for individuals who will not help themselves, but I am certain that there are in every city numerous individuals and organisations who will give adequate and satisfactory advice on these somewhat complicated matters to individuals if they will only ask for it.
There are a number of other small matters which it is better to discuss on the Committee stage. I believe that the Departmental Committee has steered a middle course between the private ownership of property on the one hand and the interests of the working class who have to be housed at reasonable rents on the other, and I hope and trust that this Bill will be given a Second Reading without a Division. Inadequate housing is at the root of many of our social and economic problems, and I hope that this Measure, coupled with the Housing Bill which is to be introduced on Thursday, will constitute a definite step forward in solving the housing problem. If they are able to do that, they will go further and do something towards solving other and more vital problems.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Sir WALTER GREAVES-LORD
I join with the hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) in believing that this Bill will be some contribution to the ultimate settling of the extremely difficult housing situation. I am inclined to think that that portion of the Bill which decontrols class "A" houses and enables some of the class "B" houses to be decontrolled from time to time will be a material contribution towards the solution of this question. The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) said that the thing to do was to go on waiting until supply and demand met one another. My own humble idea is that one of the things which is preventing that happy consummation of the supply being equal to the demand is the continuance of control in class "A" and class "B" houses. I know, of course, that you cannot decontrol all these houses without some measure of hardship, and, as the hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham said, there is a sort of competition of hardship with regard to these houses.
There is one sense in which decontrol of those houses will lead materially to a supply of accommodation. In my own constituency there are a number of cases of this kind. There are houses which are controlled in neighbourhoods which are definitely altering in nature. People are living in those houses and are certainly not using all the available accommodation. I know of some cases where people are continuing to live in houses with four or five rooms shut up and never used. They continue to do that simply because of control. They have a fear that they may not get other accommodation, although I think that if they look for it they will find it much easier to get than they imagine. They also have a fear that there may be an economic rent put upon the house, but for one reason or another they are continuing to live in, a neighbourhood and in a house in which they would not continue to live if it were not for rent restriction. One definite result of the decontrol of that class of house will be to make those people seek more convenient accommodation elsewhere, which, having regard to the trend of rents in my constituency, they will readily find, because the trend of rents of certain classes of accommodation which 100 those people would be glad to get is certainly downward.
They would leave their controlled houses and the landlord would be able to decide what to do with the houses. In many cases he would find it far more advantageous to turn each of them into two or three dwelling-places of quite decent accommodation and properly fitted for the reception of smaller families. In that way much could undoubtedly be done to reduce the housing shortage. Therefore, I think that decontrol will help to meet the demand. While I say that, I certainly think it may be necessary that there should be some safeguard with regard to that type of decontrol. I am against decontrol if it means that the landlord is deliberately going to keep his house vacant in order to get a rent which is in excess of the real value of the house. I should like to see some care taken in this Bill to provide that where there is unreasonable withholding from the market of a house which has become decontrolled, some steps should be taken for the refixing of control.
The Minister has dealt carefully with the question of overcrowding, and there is no doubt that that question is very serious. Overcrowding by tenants is well known. Only the other day a man came to me and asked me to help him to get a dwelling place of one of the big housing trusts. I wrote to several of them and eventually got him accommodation in a building of one of these trusts. The man's representation to me was that he and his wife and two children—and there was a third expected—were living in a room 11 feet by 11 feet at the top of a house. One of the housing trusts wrote to me that they had already refused to do anything in this case because the overcrowded conditions of the house in which the man lived were caused by the avaricious nature of the mother of the man; she was the tenant of the house; and she was letting off portions of the house with a few sticks in them for very high rentals, and practically forced her own son, wife and children to live in the room at the top of the building. The trust added that they did not want to encourage that kind of thing, because directly the man went out someone else would be put into the room under the same conditions. So much for the safeguarding of tenants. I am very glad in 101 deed that the Minister is taking steps to deal with that type of overcrowding, but, I think, at the same time, he must safeguard the public against another type of overcrowding with regard to the houses he proposes to decontrol. I could take him to a part of my own constituency where houses have been decontrolled. They were bought by speculators when they became decontrolled, and these speculators, instead of taking steps to reconstruct a house to provide reasonable accommodation in three or four dwellings—which might have been done without overcrowding—have deliberately set themselves to a policy of overcrowding. If you are going to legislate in order to protect the public from overcrowding in houses which are controlled, where you are giving the right of decontrol, you should take steps to see that that decontrol is not used for the purpose of establishing overcrowded conditions.
There are a few other points to which I wish to refer. I want to say, in support of the argument put forward by the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), that I cannot help thinking that this Bill would be more complete if there were something in it which would allow a little elasticity in favour of development and improvement schemes, and in the provision of better houses where there are now houses very much in the nature of slum dwellings. Unless you have some means of moving people from class "C" houses, which it is desired to pull down in order to rebuild and provide fresh houses, I think you will not be able to carry out half of the schemes of improvement which may be desirable. I quite agree that there is a difficulty in rehousing people you remove; at the same time, there does come into all these cases the moment when there are only just a few people remaining who are preventing a scheme from being carried out. In these cases the provision of alternative accommodation might be a comparatively-easy matter if you could only force the people to take it. But improvements are held up because of the stubbornness of one or two people.
With regard to the question of subletting, my hon. Friend who last spoke has, I think, managed to unravel what is certainly, to my mind, the extremely difficult proviso in Clause 2. It certainly is not easy to unravel, and I congratu 102 late the draftsman upon his ingenuity, although I regret he has probably given opportunity for much litigation upon the point. I only wish it had been couched in much simpler language, as nothing can be so bad for our system of law as legislation which is doubtful and leads to litigation. But there is an aspect of subletting which certainly does bring about considerable hardship. My hon. Friend spoke of the man who, being himself in possession of one-tenth of a house, lets out the other nine-tenths in separate dwellings. He spoke of the difference between him and the landlord who lets the house out in 10 different dwellings. In one case the control remains; in the other the original tenant for one-tenth becomes decontrolled, and the others may become decontrolled under this proviso as from time to time the landlord gets possession of those parts of the house. Among the grounds upon which the landlord would get possession is the ground that the tenant has, without the consent of the landlord, assigned, or sub-let, the whole of a dwelling-house, or sub-let part of the dwelling-house, the remainder being already sub-let. It is right that the landlord should be able to get possession in these circumstances, but there are other difficulties. Let me give an illustration from my own knowledge and in my own constituency. A lady, who is dependent entirely upon rentals from houses which were left to her by her husband and built by him out of his savings, has a house which was let to a tenant 15 years ago. Some 12 years ago the tenant took upon himself to sub-let a few rooms in that house to his son-in-law, the house being a controlled house. The tenant recently removed from the house, but instead of yielding up the house, as he would ordinarily do at the end of the tenancy, he left the sub-tenant in possession of two or three rooms of the house. Without being a person such as a county court judge would be satisfied was too objectionable, he happens to be rather objectionable. But he is protected and, while he is in the house, this poor woman has not got the smallest chance of letting the remainder of the house. This Schedule is no protection to her. She has let the house to one tenant, and she is left with a tenant who takes only three rooms. She can only get the rental of those three rooms. She cannot let the house because 103 that person is there; and she cannot let the rest of the house because he is there. She cannot take any steps. It is undoubtedly a hardship, and it is constantly recurring. It is one with which the Minister might well have dealt while dealing with other matters.
I cannot help thinking that a certain amount of unnecessary criticism has been made about the date which is put forward in the first Clause of the Bill. It is probably well to insert the date there for the reason that it should be made clear it is not the intention of this country that it should go on indefinitely with rent restriction legislation. At the same time, the only effect of putting a date in the Bill is to ensure that the matter comes up for reconsideration on, or before, June, 1938. This Parliament cannot bind future Parliaments, and the only effect is that when this Bill comes to an end it will be competent for this House to reconsider the whole position, and consider whether it is necessary to continue this legislation. The effect of it will be to ensure a review of the position, otherwise the matter might not be reviewed quite as early. The fact that it will be reviewed will be permanently before the minds of Members of this House. The Bill is a useful and necessary piece of legislation, and I hope while attention is paid to finding safeguards for those who have to rent houses that, at the same time, there will be some safeguard for those who have to live by the letting of houses.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir Godfrey Collins)
I trust that the hon. and learned Member will excuse me if I do not deal with the points he has raised. I do not desire to repeat the general arguments in favour of this Bill. I wish to deal more especially with one or two aspects of the Bill so far as it affects Scotland. In view of the changed economic conditions, it gives an opportunity to the House of Commons to review the legislation between landlords and tenants of houses. The Bill is based on the report of the Marley Committee, and may I remind the House that on that Committee were four Scottish Members representing different interests? Therefore, as is not unusual among my fellow countrymen, as there were four members, there was a Minority Report. This Com 104 mittee gave great thought and study to this problem. They had much evidence from various organisations north of the Tweed, and their recommendations are contained in the Bill. The first point to which I wish to draw attention is that, so far as Scotland is concerned, there is to-day a real shortage of class "C" houses in Scotland, although local authorities, during the last 10 years, have made a big effort to erect houses of that description. The Government are alive to the necessity of erecting houses for low wage earners in Scotland, and I hope before this House rises for the Christmas Recess, to introduce a Housing (Scotland) Bill dealing with this problem. In the application of this Bill to Scotland class "C" houses are those of £26 and under, which is a striking contrast to the figure of £13 in England. It is worthy of note that the total proportion of houses controlled in Scotland is larger than in England. An hon. Member this afternoon has drawn attention to the fact that 64 per cent. of the houses in England and Wales are controlled. In Scotland the number is not 64, bat as much as 71 per cent. of the houses are controlled.
My fellow-countrymen are more concerned as to the 40 per cent. increase of rent which this Bill permits to be levied. In the recommendations of the Marley Committee they draw attention to the fact that 25 per cent. of the 40 per cent. is necessary for repairs. They also draw attention to the fact that the 25 per cent. was fixed originally to cover all houses, and to the fact that the larger houses are to be decontrolled. In their report, paragraphs 63 to 65, they bring out the fact that the cost of repairs to the smaller houses is higher, relatively, than those to the larger houses. It is well also to bear in mind that these houses are to-day 17 years older than they were when the original Act was passed, and age has had its effect upon their structure. The Committee summarised their conclusions on this point in paragraphs 64 and 65, in which they say:There is no case on these figures for altering the permitted increase of 25 per cent.That is the report of this carefully balanced committee, which sat for 40 days.
§ Sir G. COLLINS
The Majority. I drew attention to the fact that there were Minority recommendations. What is the position to-day, in the case of a house of £15 pre-War rent in Glasgow, as it affects the landlord and tenant? I admit that the rates are high in Glasgow, but they are higher in other places in Scotland. In 1915, the landlord received £15 for the house and his rates were £2 is. 3d. His net receipts, therefore, were £12 18s. 9d. In 1932, the rent of this £15 pre-War house is £22 2s. 6c1. From that the owner has to pay owner's rates of £6 1s. 8d., leaving a net rent of £16 0s. 10d. That is an increase not of 40 per cent. but of 24 per cent. Out of that 24 per cent. he has to pay the increased cost of repairs and increased interest on mortgage money before he gets, if any, an increased return on his capital. If the rents were lowered this margin of 24 per cent, would be reduced.
Now let me take the case of the tenant. In 1914 he was paying £15, and in addition he paid the occupier's rates—in Glasgow—of £3 17s. 6d., a total of £18 17s. 6d. In 1932, the rent is £22 2s. 6d. and to this must be added £8 2s. 3d. for occupier's rates, a total of £30 4s. 9d. This figure of £30 4s. 9d. does not include £8 2s. 3d. only for rates, for there is a. portion of the £22 2s. 6d. to be allotted to rates, and the total for rates comes to £9 4s. 9d. Thus the rates paid by the tenant have risen from £3 17s. 6d. to £9 4s. 9d. It is, therefore, very apparent that the problem of rents in Scotland is closely allied to rates, which play a very high part in the high charge for accommodation in Scotland to-day. I would draw the attention of the House to these figures, as they have a direct bearing upon our problem in the north. In the early days of the War I had the opportunity of being present at the Treasury when rent control proposals were first considered. Little did those who sat round that table, some 18 years ago now, think that 11 or 12 Rent Restrictions Bills would be introduced into the House of Commons. This Bill, in my judgment, holds the scale as fairly as any of the others between landlord and tenant, and it is on that ground that I commend it to the House of Commons.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mrs. TATE
I welcome this Bill because I am convinced that the time is ripe for the total decontrol of all Class "A" houses, and also feel that Class "B" houses should by gradual degrees become decontrolled. But the houses in which I am most interested are houses and parts of houses in Class "C." I am delighted that this Bill ensures that these houses shall remain under control, and I am particularly pleased that they will not in future, as has formerly been the case, become decontrolled upon the landlords getting vacant possession, but I think it would be wise and of benefit to housing generally if the Bill could be amended in order to allow controlled houses to pass from control provided genuine reconditioning takes place. This point was made by the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton). I am very glad he intends to submit an Amendment in order to achieve that end. As the Bill stands I see no hope of any genuine reconditioning of Class "C" controlled houses, which will in time have a very serious effect upon housing conditions generally. A great deal of reconditioning of this class of property has recently been carried out, particularly in the Metropolitan area, and it is interesting to note that it has been possible to carry it out on an economic basis with but a very small increase of rent, and that the rental so charged has been generally below the rentals of the new and subsidised houses.
In my constituency, West Willesden, the subject of subletting and the taking in of lodgers is one of vital interest, because that very frequently happens there. The Departmental Committee made certain recommendations for protecting the interests of sub-tenants, and they have been embodied in this Bill. The Committee believe that those recommendations will go a long way towards protecting sub-tenants. All of us who represent congested urban districts know that sub-tenants do need protection. In many cases they are being appallingly overcharged for really terrible accommodation. Only last week a woman came to see me and told me that she and her husband and their six children were living together in one room, out of which opens a small kitchen-scullery, and week that room they are paying 21s. a week in rent. I am sorry to say that I have no 107 great confidence in the provisions in this Bill designed to protect those sub-tenants. I do not believe that the state of affairs such as I have quoted existing at present will in actual fact be remedied by the Bill. The provisions are twofold. First, the landlord is given a right in cases where the sub-tenant is overcharged by the statutory tenant to apply for possession of the house. With very great respect I submit to the Minister that that is not a practical suggestion. I am anxious to stress that point because it is one over which everyone who represents an urban district must feel great concern. Does the Minister or any other Member of this House really and truly believe that a landlord with, perhaps, several houses let out to tenants who regularly pay their rent, will take the trouble to evict them just because they are overcharging their sub-tenants? However desirable such a course might be, I venture to think it is unlikely to happen, and therefore I feel this Clause is not very practical, nor will it be practical so long as human nature remains what it is.
A further provision is that embodied in Clause 4 laying it down that the tenant must inform his landlord of any sub-letting in his house. I would remind the House that the landlord is entitled to a 5 per cent. increase of rent for every sub-tenancy which he allows. Only a short time ago four eight-room houses in the Division of Willesden which were inspected for reassessment were found to have 71, 52, 65 and 54 people respectively living in them, and in one of those houses there were 17 adult persons living in two small basement rooms. I agree that under the provisions of the Bill the landlord may be able to apply for repossession of this House, because of those conditions, but I think a very good point was made by the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) when he interjected the question, "What about cases where there is collusion between the landlord and the tenant?" I think he meant that in some cases it may he to the advantage of the landlord to overlook cases of overcrowding. A 5 per cent. increase on each sub-tenancy may not sound very much, but if there is such an extraordinary amount of sub-letting in houses some unscrupulous landlords may not be doing so badly.
108 I do not claim in any sense to be an expert, but I do claim to have an intimate knowledge of existing conditions in the constituency which I represent, and I look at this Measure from one point of view only, and that is to see how it is going to benefit the people whom I represent. A very strong recommendation was made in the Departmental Committee's Report. In paragraph 99 they stress it, and elsewhere in the report they refer to it. Their recommendation is embodied in the Bill in Clause 7, where it says:The council of every county borough and of every county district shall have power to publish information and give advice, for the assistance of landlords and tenants, as to their rights and duties under the principal Acts.I regret that I have no legal knowledge, but I would like the Minister to say exactly what that means. Does it mean that it is going to be compulsory on the councils to set up these advisory committees? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Because, if not, that paragraph is of no value whatever. We all know that local authorities are already over-burdened with work.
I would like to make another point. Safeguards are already provided by law for tenants and for sub-tenants, but very little use is made of them, in the majority of cases. The reason is that the people are ignorant as to what their rights are and they are generally so thankful to obtain even the meagre and costly accommodation that they get that they are in no mood for trying to enforce their rights. There is a danger that these committees may never be set up. I would like the Minister to amend this Bill so that these committees should be compulsory. Even if the committees are set up there is a great danger that unless they are properly constituted they will do as much harm as good. I would like to see them of real value. Their existence should be enforced but I very strongly urge that it would be in the interests of all parties if they were not confined to the members of local councils but had an equal number of co-opted persons.
Robert Browning makes Pippa, in his poem "Pippa Passes," sing at noon on her holiday:God's in his heaven—All's right with the world.Closer examination of that poem raises very grave doubts as to whether all was 109 quite right in Pippa's particular world. The Departmental Committee which made the recommendations which have been embodied in this Bill are a little inclined to say the same kind of thing. They sing this sort of song:Every council having power to give advice,Will render tenants' lives secure and nice.I very much doubt whether that is going is be the case unless the committees are compulsory and made widely known. A large part of the benefit conferred upon the community by the money spent on health services and on education is nullified by the appalling housing conditions of our people. The Bill is before the House to enable us, at least in part, to remedy and rectify that state of affairs. That is why it is necessary to ensure that it shall be a Bill practical in application and not only admirable in theory.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Mr. NEIL MACLEAN
The Secretary of State for Scotland, in dealing with this Measure as it applies to Scotland, has promised Scotland another Housing Bill. The proper time to examine these details, in order to see how far the Bill is calculated to improve the lot of the people who are dwelling in tenement houses in Scotland at the present time will be when that Bill is introduced. The Secretary of State for Scotland went on from that to tell us how the Bill which has been introduced to-day is to benefit those who are dwelling in the houses cited in the Bill, and how it was likely to affect Scotland. I did not hear him, during the whole of his remarks, make any reference to what I am certain he is bound to know, the feeling in the working-class areas in Scotland. He should know perfectly well, as does every Scottish hon. Member representing an industrial constituency, that the feeling, that is not suppressed but obtains considerable vehemence in its utterance, is a demand, not for a continuation of increases in rent, but that we should go back, so far as pre-War houses are concerned, to pre-War rents. He knows also that that is the common feeling in Glasgow, not merely among those who are generally looked upon as members of the working class, but among those who might be described as the lower middle-class.
110 He gave figures in regard to the amount which he claimed was all that remained to the proprietor of the tenement in net rent. I say that even if it was only 25 per cent. that remained to that tenement proprietor or to the factor —or house agent as they call him in England—that would be too much for him to have as an increase in rent. The Secretary of State for Scotland must remember that the increases allowed by previous Rent Restrictions Acts is not 25 per cent., but is 15 per cent. The proprietor of the houses obtaining 25 per cent. is getting 10 per cent. too much. The Secretary of State for Scotland made it clear that in bringing up the 25 per cent. net increase, he was including, as a part of the increase in rent, the amount allowed for repairs. Why should it be allowed as an increase? If the factor or house proprietor has not repaired the house, he is not entitled to 25 per cent. The Secretary of State for Scotland should know that one of the things that is very general in Scotland is that no repairs are being done in the houses.
I could take the right hon. Gentleman round streets, and into tenement dwellings in those streets, which are close to the very desirable and famous works that are owned by his family. I could take him down Rotten Row—not the Rotten Row in London but a less salubrious place, a real Rotten Row. I could take him down Dean Street. I could take him down Balmano Brae. I could take him into the back lands that are still there. I could show him houses for which 40 per cent, is being charged—the full amount for repairs and for increases—while there is scarcely a whole pane of glass in any of the windows in some of the houses. Stairs leading up to houses are broken and dilapidated, while the tenement itself is falling to pieces. The 25 per cent. which is allowed to the house proprietor is not being spent on repairs. I want to know from the Secretary of State for Scotland, and also from the Minister of Health for England, whether they are putting anything in the Bill to deal with this matter. There is nothing in the Bill at present insisting that if the 25 per cent. is continued for repairs, those who obtain that 25 per cent. shall expend it upon the buildings where it is most necessary.
111 I want to know if there is going to be more insistence upon this point. At the present it is left to the factor himself or to the proprietor of houses to carry out what they consider to be repairs. In some cases, if they do a bit of lime washing to the common entry, that is looked upon as sufficient money for them to spend on repairs. That is one of the essential things that are left out of the Bill.
Let us consider further whether the Government have considered that since this Committee's report was rendered matters have become very much worse in working-class areas, and that the findings of the Committee as they affect working-class dwellings no longer apply. In my constituency there are houses that as far as age is concerned are somewhat similar to those which I have just described. There are several streets, but one in particular, where the houses have been standing for over 80 years and the people are paying more in rent than, indeed three or four times as much as, they were paying in the first year or two after the houses were erected. I have yet to learn in regard to housing, which is a commodity as much as anything else, that the longer a house stands the greater its value becomes. If you have a suit of clothes, it deteriorates in value, and so does everything that you use and purchase, except housing, which we are told is the one thing that increases in value. We have only to look at the various rents that are drawn by the owners of houses, estate agents and others to realise that they look upon houses as increasing in value from year to year. They place what they call a scarcity value upon them. The Government, by the announcement that was made of its intentions in regard to housing, has clearly indicated that it considers that, so far as this assistance is concerned, it is no longer necessary for them to have a greater number of houses built to meet the present shortage.
There is another point. The Secretary of State for Scotland quoted extensively from the report of the committee, which merely points out the increase of houses built by municipalities. Therefore, I take it that at that time there was no indication or hint of the withdrawal of the housing subsidy. The Marley Committee 112 believed that the present system, which widely prevailed when they were conducting their inquiry, would continue. They therefore said that control should continue, until housing had been increased to such an extent that there would be no scarcity value placed upon houses. The Secretary of State for Scotland knows perfectly well that, so far as houses are concerned, it is not the case that scarcity value determines the rent of the houses. As a Glasgow man he knows that at one time, not so very long before the War, there were between 10,000 and 15,000 houses in Glasgow in purely working-class areas and at working-class rents, and that the houses in Glasgow similar in kind never dropped by 1s. a year, because the factors combined to keep those houses in such a manner that they could not operate in the way that any other commodity operates where there is a larger quantity on the market than that for which there is a demand. They were closed up in such a way that the scarcity value was a fictitious scarcity value, and there is no guarantee in this Bill that, even if there were a large number of empty houses in any part of the United Kingdom, the factors and estate agents would not combine and again place a fictitious scarcity value upon the houses now available. The matter, as far as we are concerned, has become very serious, and the Bill does not meet the situation as it affects the people in the country to-day.
The Bill as it stands has one or two good points. It continues control for over 4,000,000 houses, but there are other houses that it will allow to be decontrolled when they become vacant, or when for other obvious reasons an owner or factor considers it necessary to have such a house vacant. What is the right hon. Gentleman going to do to prevent what is happening to-day? The factor is taking advantage of tenants falling into arrears, even by a week or two, to get them out of their houses, so that the houses, having become vacant, can be decontrolled.
§ Mr. ESSENHIGH
Can the hon. Member say in how many instances it has happened that the sheriff court has made an order in such circumstances?
§ Mr. MACLEAN
I cannot give definite figures, but the hon. Member will find, as a result of any application that he makes to any—perhaps the hon. Member 113 will allow me to finish before he shakes his head, and then he will find that I have been shaking some sense into it.
§ Mr. MACLEAN
I am not concerned as to whether it is Scottish humour or not, but, until I have replied to the hon. Member's interruption, he ought not to show his dissent from what I am saying. In Scotland it happens every day. Every lawful day upon which the rent courts and the sheriff courts are sitting, in Glasgow or elsewhere, tenants are being summoned to appear in those courts, and, when judgment is given against them for an ejection, the house becomes decontrolled and the rent is invariably increased. That has happened, not in a few cases, but in several thousand cases in Glasgow alone. I will leave Scottish Members who take an interest in the rents of working-class houses to deal with the matter as it affects their own constituencies.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State for Scotland knows, but certainly the Lord Advocate knows, that there are two-apartment room-and-kitchen houses where, when the tenant takes over the house, it is laid down as one of the conditions of letting that the rent is to be paid in advance, and the month's rent must be laid down at the beginning instead of at the end of the month—a thing which, until a year or two before the War, was unknown in Scotland. If the tenant falls behind with his rent for a week—in other words, if one week of the month passes without his paying—he is liable to be summoned to the sheriff court for arrears of rent. I may say, for the information of the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Essenhigh), that I have appeared on behalf of tenants in several cases of that kind in the sheriff court in Glasgow, to defend them and endeavour to obtain a satisfactory agreement with the factor allowing them to continue in occupation.
§ Mr. MACLEAN
I am not standing here representing the Government, with several Civil Service officials to whom I can send a private secretary for the necessary figures. If the hon. Member is so 114 anxious to get the figures, he can address a question to the Secretary of State for Scotland on any Tuesday, and he will get the figures as they are given in the returns of the sheriff courts throughout Glasgow. It is quite an easy matter. I am not Secretary of State for Scotland—yet.
What guarantee is there that, in the case of the houses which are to be decontrolled under the Bill, the same proceedings that I have described will not be carried out again? What security of tenure is to be given to the tenants? The report of the Marley Committee states that a large number of houses have been decontrolled in circumstances such as I have described, and I consider that those houses ought to be brought back under control. It may be thought that that would be likely to create hardship, and we are told in the report that the Committee's reason for deciding against that course is that properties may have changed hands, that people may have paid high prices for dwelling-houses that have become decontrolled and are now yielding higher rentals than they did previously, and that to control such houses again would mean a, reduction in the incomes of these people. We are now, however, talking about Scottish matters, and Lord Marley and some of his Committee may have been considering this question from the point of view of English housing.
So far as Scottish housing is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that there may be tenements like one that I have in mind in my own constituency, where there are 14 tenants living in 14 separate room-and-kitchen houses. Six of these, having been vacated by their previous tenants, have become decontrolled, while eight are still under control, and you have this anomaly, that, while the tenants of the eight houses in this one tenement which are still under control are still paying the controlled rent, the rents of the six houses that have become decontrolled have been increased by 2s. and 3s. a month. I want to know why these houses cannot be brought hack under control. Is it because the tenement has been sold? If that tenement has been sold, the fact remains that the rents of the entire tenement have not been increased, and whoever purchased the tenement in such circumstances could 115 only have been induced to do so on the possibility that the remaining eight houses would become decontrolled, and that, therefore, he would receive a larger increase of income. Under this Bill, however, the eight houses that still remain under control will not become decontrolled, even if they become vacant and new tenants come in; but the six houses that have been decontrolled are to continue decontrolled, no matter haw often they become vacant and how many new tenants enter them. There is, therefore, the startling anomaly that, in the one common entry, with 14 houses, some tenants are compelled on going in to pay higher rents than others for the very same accommodation and convenience.
That is a contradiction which ought not to be allowed to continue. It is one of the anomalies which the Rent Restriction Acts have led this House and the country into maintaining. The right hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that, when these Rent Restriction Acts were passed, it was generally considered that they would only be required for a few years. I remember that on one occasion an Act was passed under the impression that it would come to an end about 11 years ago. We are now bringing in another Bill to continue it until 1938—another five years. Can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee to the House that in the year 1938 he will not require to put this Measure into the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, or to bring in another Rent Restriction Act to modify in some way in the interest of the tenants the Measure which we are now discussing?
As I have said, there are some good points in the Bill. There are many other good points affecting tenants that can be brought into it, and I hope that, when the Bill comes before the House in Committee, we shall be able to do so. I am glad that the Committee stage is to be taken on the Floor of the House, because, in my opinion at any rate, there are greater opportunities for amending a Bill when it is kept on the Floor of the House than when it is sent to a Committee upstairs. I hope that during the Committee stage we shall have an opportunity of impressing upon the Government the necessity for important and adequate Amendments to improve the Bill in the interests of that large mass of tenants 116 whom it is leaving untouched or will affect adversely in its present form, and that they will accept such Amendments and will guarantee to these people—many of whom are in a state of great anxiety as to what their future is going to be in the houses in which they are now dwelling—security of tenure and also, if possible, a reduction in the rents that are being charged them at the present time.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Mr. JAMES DUNCAN
I welcome the Bill as a whole and in principle, and only rise to put two points, which, quite frankly, I might have deferred until the Committee stage, but which, in view of their importance in my constituency, I desire to raise now. I will take the lesser point first. It concerns Clause 7, in which powers are given to local authorities for the purposes of giving information and advice. The advice given under those powers will undoubtedly have to be competent and skilled legal advice, and I wish to put forward the plea that, after this Bill has become an Act, the 11 or 12 Rent Restriction Acts that are already in force should be consolidated. If local authorities are to be encouraged to give this advice and information to landlords and tenants, it is vital that there should be adequate expert knowledge, such as no ordinary members of local authorities can have, and they will certainly have to have expert advice. Consolidation of these Acts is necessary in order to encourage the local authorities to make use of such powers.
My second point is as to whether decontrol occurs where a tenant has subtenants. I think the Bill is perfectly clear that, where an owner lives in a house that is going to be decontrolled as a whole, the tenants living in the house with the owner will remain controlled. What I am not certain, reading the words of the Act of 1923, is whether where an owner does not live in the house which will be decontrolled, being over the £45 limit—and that applies to most houses in Kensington—the sub-tenants will be decontrolled or not. Let me give one instance. It is a case in the report of the Medical Officer for Health for Hammersmith, where the owner is not living on the premises and the tenant lets the house room by room at extortionate rents. He pays the owner only £70 a year. 117 Obviously, under the Bill the house as a whole is decontrolled but, not being in the occupation of the owner, the words of the 1923 Act are not clear whether the sub-tenants are decontrolled. Let me give one more case from my own constituency where the owner does not live on the premises and the rateable value is £36. That is a case where, on actual change of tenancy, the house will become decontrolled as between owner and tenant. The total rent from letting amounts to £206 9s. 8d. I think the Bill covers it, but I want to be perfectly certain at this stage, in view of the importance to so many of any constituents, nearly all of whom are affected by the Bill.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Mr. JANNER
Hon. Members on these benches are prepared to give a Second Reading to the Bill, because there are some elements in it which they consider to be of some value; but there is one very important matter on which they consider that the Government might have been induced to frame a Clause on the recommendation of the Committee. It is in respect of the question of consolidating the Measures already on the Statute Book and making them intelligible not only to the man in the street but to the many lawyers who have to deal with them from time to time and, indeed, sufficiently intelligible even for the hon. Gentleman on the Opposition bench, who it appears has misinterpreted what the Acts since 1923 have really meant in one respect. I have a great regard for his opinion. I know, as a fact, that he does a considerable amount of useful work in his constituency and assists in the courts to the best of his skill and ability. Since 1923 he has been assisting people in cases under what I believe to be a complete misapprehension. He said a few moments ago that a large number of cases came before the sheriff court and he was prepared to satisfy the House that, when the sheriff made an order for possession on the ground of arrears of rent, the dwelling-house became decontrolled and the landlord immediately increased the rent. I have had a number of cases under these Acts. I have been wrong on many occasions, as have many hon. and, indeed, learned Members of this House, but I do not think I am wrong on this point. If this Section applies to Scot 118 land in the same way that it applies to England, my hon. Friend should assist us in trying to get the matter cleared up. The proviso to Section 2 of the Act of 1923 which deals with this matter says:Provided also that, when the landlord comes into possession under an order or judgment made or given after the passing of this Act on the ground of non-payment of rent, the principal Act shall, notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this Sub-section, continue to apply to the dwelling-house.
§ Mr. MACLEAN
It has already been decided in the courts in Scotland that, where a house has been vacated through non-payment of rent and an order given and the house agent has received possession of the key, it becomes decontrolled, and he can charge the new tenant. There are scores of houses in Glasgow in respect of which tenants are paying an increased rent owing to that decision.
§ Mr. JANNER
If that is so, it illustrates the point even more clearly, because I have been dealing with cases under the Acts since 1923, and I am not clear on the point myself. My own view however, still is that the courts were not entitled to decontrol the dwelling-houses, because the Act itself specifically applies to Scotland in this regard, and what I have read out is perfectly clearly and unambiguously stated, although this is not to be said of everything in the Act. We had hoped that the new Bill which was promised in respect of the important and complex subject of restrictions on the rights of possession and on increases of rent and mortgage interest would have been in the nature of a Measure consolidating the existing Acts after making such Amendments as were necessary in order to meet the conditions that prevail.
Legislation by reference is bad at the best of times and it is highly important, particularly in a Measure which affects so many people throughout the length and breadth of the land that there should be no ambiguity. One can hardly expect anyone to read through nine or ten complicated Acts and come to a conclusion as to what is the actual position in respect of any or all of them. Since 1915 the courts have spent a considerable amount of time, involving an enormous amount of public and private money, in dealing with the points which have arisen under the various Acts. Lawyers, judges and 119 laymen have weltered through a sea of confusion to decide what was the exact position even in respect of many a very small tenancy. Now is the opportunity for rectifying that matter, and we hope that, by the time we reach the Third Reading, the Government will consider this suggestion and will see if it is possible to have a codifying Act with the Amendments which will be carried later included in it.
May I appeal to the Government to put the Act in the simplest possible language? There are some Clauses, even of this new addition to the long series of enactments, which strike terror into the hearts of those who attempt to understand them. Take, for example, the proviso to Clause 2 (1). A more complicated piece of wording one would have to go very far to discover. I am sure there will be others whose opinion of its interpretation is entirely different from mine, but I am going to ask the Minister later to tell me whether my opinion is right and, if so, I shall have something to say about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Flint (Mr. Llewellyn Jones), referring to the power to be given under Clause 7 to councils of county districts and boroughs, said he agreed that information should be supplied, but he did not agree on the question of giving advice for the guidance of landlords and tenants. I am of opinion that the latter provision is of considerable value, and I hope these facilities will be widely and extensively used. Up to now this has been left to the generosity of individuals and institutions, who have come forward in a full-hearted voluntary manner in order to give information and advice to the best of their ability, but there is certainly no reason, now that we are dealing with the question of a new Bill which we hope will elucidate the position, that local authorities should not also have an opportunity of giving advice and, if necessary, being guided in that advice by some some person of legal knowledge who would have an understanding of the Bill as complete as possible.
Let me give one instance of the necessity for this. There is a proviso in the principal Act whereby a landlord is not entitled to charge the 25 per cent. increase of rent if repairs are not done by 120 him. How many tenants are there of the millions who are affected who have ever come across that point and who know that they have that right to claim that these should be done? There may be innumerable people who have never heard of it, and have no opportunity of hearing of it except when they come in contact with such friends as the hon. Gentleman who spoke from the opposite bench. A simple practical way of dealing with the matter would be to have some local office of an authority where every tenant and landlord would have an opportunity of receiving not only information but advice. We have been talking about economy for a very long time, and I can assure the House that there would be a considerable effecting of economy if tenants and landlords were able to obtain their information without having to go to court on every occasion when any dispute arose.
I said a few moments ago that we had grounds for accepting the Bill. We accept the Second Reading because we feel that the Clause which provides for the removal of the right of decontrol in respect of some Class "C" houses is in itself a sufficient justification for anybody in the House to accept the Second Reading. We have our views as to whether the Bill goes far enough, and as to whether other provisions should be or should not be introduced, but here a clear question of principle is involved. It is the removal of the right to decontrol a very large number of houses, and because of that I think that Members on all sides of the House are fully justified in voting for the Second Reading of the Bill and in holding over their other points of view for the Committee stage so that the Bill may be amended to their satisfaction.
The Rent Acts are of the greatest social importance. They affect in their operation something like 90 per cent. of the population of the country, and even after this Bill is passed they will affect almost a similar percentage. It is clear, therefore, that the policy of the Acts should be very clear and should coincide with the interests of the greatest number of people. We are agreed that it is the poorest class of tenement that needs the greatest amount of protection. It is just and right that this class of houses in which the working classes live shall remain available for them, not at an arbitrary rent which the landlord may desire 121 to impose, but at a rent fixed and controlled by the Acts.
We ought, however, to hesitate for a moment and see what the full results of that decontrol is going to be. In April, 1931, there were 625,000 of such houses decontrolled, and from April, 1931, to 30th September, 1931, a further 225,000 became decontrolled. This should obviously be stopped, but, unfortunately, the proviso to which I have referred, and which is couched in such difficult language, allows portions of a dwelling-house which are rated at or below £20—I am using the London figure for the moment so as not to repeat myself on every occasion—but which happen to be a part of a house which, as a whole, has a rateable value of less than £45, to become decontrolled as and when they come within the conditions which are set down in Section 2 of the Act of 1923. That is a very serious matter, because we are not aware of the number of those dwelling-houses. There may be a very large number of such dwelling-houses becoming decontrolled as and when the provision of that particular Section comes into operation, and this will constitute a very serious menace as far as the housing accommodation for the working and other classes is concerned.
We do not believe that the limits for decontrol which are laid down in Clause 1 are satisfactory. I will give one illustration, and, of course, I am referring to the question of further decontrol. It may not be clear to Members of the House what that Clause really means. Take the case of London. You have a house in respect of which hitherto £105 was the rateable value to which the Acts referred. Today we are going to reduce, if we accept the Bill as it stands, the rateable value to £45, or a recoverable rent of £45. That in itself sounds a very big drop and in our view is one which on the face of it we ought to be very careful about accepting. But it does not stop at that. The standard rent which was referred to in the other Acts was the rent which prevailed in 1914. Forty per cent. was allowable as the increase on the net rent, which was the standard rent after deducting the rates. The landlord was also entitled to charge the difference between the rates Which prevailed in 1914 and the rates which are now being imposed. It has been calculated that that 122 meant, on an average, an increase of 50 per cent. upon the standard rent of 1914, so that the recoverable rent of £45 represent a standard rent of £30, and therefore, the real measure of the drop is not from £105 to £45, but, in my contention, from 2105 to £30, and similarly with regard to the provincial standards.
I will give an illustration of the hardships which are likely to ensue as far as Birkenhead is concerned. There were 15,000 houses of a rateable value of £13 and under, that is, 47.5 per cent. of the 31,573 houses in the borough at the end of 1931. There are 10,500 houses at a rateable value of between £13 and £17, being 33.3 per cent. of the whole number. The rents in the class rated at £13 and under run up to 11s. 3d. per week inclusive, as against up to 7s. 9d. for similar houses in 1913. The rents in the class rated between £13 and £17 run up to 13s. 3d. per week inclusive, as against 9s. in 1913. Thus in the town rents of cottages are on an average from 45 to 50 per cent. higher than in 1913, and running up to 94 per cent. higher. It is essential in our view that, in a town like Birkenhead, at least a £17 maximum rateable value should be substituted for £13, because this would bring 18.8 per cent. of the houses into the class not subject to decontrol on becoming vacant. There are no houses of this class available in Birkenhead. I understand that the police returns of unoccupied and uninhabited houses on the 30th June this year, in the whole of the borough, showed that only one cottage, and not even a dock cottage, was vacant.
I have some startling figures as far as the borough of which my constituency forms a part is concerned. The House will be interested to hear the position in that borough, because it will illustrate not only the argument in respect of the desirability of an increase from the £45 rateable value standard but a very much more interesting matter—the question which is being introduced into this Bill, and which was not mentioned in the report at all, that of the landlord obtaining possession on the grounds of overcrowding. The population of the borough of Stepney, according to the census of 1931, was 225,203 inhabitants. The number of assessments is 43,242. The number of inhabited houses is 39,084. I should like the House to remember that number, because a very important 123 point turns upon it. The total number of dwelling rooms is 164,670. The average rooms per person is 69 against the average rooms per person in the County of London of 96. The total number of private families is 55,832, of which total 10,877 are living more than two persons per room. The average population per acre for the County of London is 60 and for Stepney 141, while the average population per acre for St. Georges in the East, in the north-east ward, within my own constituency, is as much as 240, the highest rate of density in the County of London. Last year 11,359 houses were found by the medical officer of health not to be in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation, and notices in respect of defects so found were served upon the owners. Out of a total of 39,084 houses no fewer than 11,359 were in the condition to which I have referred. I hope I am not detaining the House unduly, but I am dealing with a borough which is very deeply concerned with this Bill. Almost the worst area for congestion in the whole county is the north-east ward of St. George's in the East. I should like to give a quotation from a very well-known and very well-versed social worker in London. She says, referring to the north-west ward of St. George's in the East:It possesses some of the most cramped and insanitary courts and alleys in the county, many only a few feet wide. Their houses are without backyards, without drainage and without water, the only supply being outside in the open court. Such sanitation as is available is also outside, sometimes less than a yard away from the living room in which the food of the family is kept and eaten. Shut in by other buildings or walls, the sun seldom penetrates into these hidden dwelling places, for they are really hidden, the approach through arches under houses being so narrow, that no one but the inhabitants and social workers know of their existence. The majority of the old houses in the streets possess basements to which air and light only come through a small grating in the pavement. Most of the oldest dwellings are vermin-ridden and seem to render hopeless any efforts by the sanitary authority to exterminate the nuisance. In the summer some of these 'homes' are almost uninhabitable.The census returns show that 15,952 persons are living more than three to a room, that close upon 2,000 people are living more than five to a room, 124 and that 17,093 people are living in 8,357 rooms. These people are, in fact, living in definitely overcrowded conditions. Of course, conditions vary. Some are worse than others. One case, seen the other day, showed 10 persons, father, mother and eight children, the eldest 12 years of age, living in one room, for which 10s. weekly was paid. In another, the parents 'and five children lived in a sort of loft, up a rickety staircase. The most serious instances are those of parents and adult boys and girls, compelled to occupy only two rooms because they cannot find other accommodation.
It may be held, because of these facts, that the provision which is now to be introduced to give the opportunity for the landlord to eject a tenant from a house in cases of overcrowding, is going to help. I think I am correct in saying that that was not mentioned in the report. How is it possible for the ejectment of any tenant who happens to have overcrowding in his house to relieve the position which exists in circumstances such as I have mentioned. It is quite clear that there is a considerable amount of overcrowding, but it would be harsh to say that that necessarily is the fault of the landlord, and it would be harsh to force the penalty of that overcrowding upon the landlord. There are many people who are not very fond of landlords who would agree with me upon this point, that to force that penalty upon the landlords would be unfair. The position ought to fill us with a full sense of its seriousness.
There are many good people who are occupying houses in congested places who have no alternative accommodation available. They have nowhere else to go. What are they to do? There are men living in my constituency who work at the docks, or who work in the tailoring trade. Where are they to go? Are they to go to dormitory estates far out, such as Becontree? They cannot afford that. Moreover, they have not the time at their disposal, even though they are in many instances unemployed for long periods. When they are on the spot there is at any rate an opportunity of getting an odd job at the docks or at their particular work. Therefore, it is not right to say that the superior tenant is responsible for overcrowding. How can he turn people into the streets? How is he going to say that he has taken reasonable or unreason- 125 able methods to remove the people? What is a reasonable method? Who knows what it is? How can a man turn to persons in his house and say: "You have to go," when he knows that those people are going to be thrown on to the streets.
The superior tenants will probably be brought to court on the most trivial offences. It will be said in the courts of law, as has been said in this House very incorrectly, if this Measure goes through as it stands at present, that there is overcrowding, that there are so many people living in a certain house, and that consequently the tenant will have to go out. The superior tenant may have to go out, but that is not going to relieve overcrowding. The principal tenancy may only be that of a man and his wife, whereas the overcrowding will still remain in the sublettings. I think that that particular proviso is not going to help the position at all. It cannot help the position for another reason, because in these areas when efforts are made to relieve congestion it will be found, first of all, that a large number of houses have become decontrolled because they are used as business premises or because they have been used as furnished flats. The whole of the area will have been built upon. There are no sites available for building, or if there are any a heavy price must be paid for them.
Until some relief is given in respect of housing conditions it is not a question for landlord and tenant but a question in which we as a House must be deeply interested, in order to put the matter right. There are other matters that hon. Members will desire to speak about in the course of the Debate, but I should like to put forward one or two further suggestions, based, upon experience, and perhaps the Government will consider them in the light of that experience and amend the Bill to some extent. There is one point in regard to registration. I agree that it is highly desirable that a decontrolled house should be registered, but it seems an anomalous position that there will be a number of houses decontrolled under Section 2 of the Act of 1923, and they will not be registered. Penalties will be put upon the landlord if he does not register, in that a house will not be decontrolled unless he can satisfy the court that there has been reasonable excuse for not registering. But registra- 126 tion itself is not going to give any prima facie right to anybody. The Act says that in case of dispute you have to bring the whole matter before the court and that it is for the court to decide, even when you have registered, whether the house is controlled or decontrolled. I suggest that it might be possible to introduce some provision in the Bill which would enable the local authority, in the same way that it gives advice on matters relating to the interpretation of the Acts, to accept something in the nature of evidence by way of affidavit from the landlord who says that his house is decontrolled, and submit that affidavit to the tenant, allowing the local authority to decide as to whether there is a prima facie case established that the house is decontrolled and register the house accordingly. That, in itself, would avoid a considerable amount of unnecessary waste of time, not only of the courts but also of those people who might very well be at work and much better engaged.
There is just one other point. There are a number of anomalies in the old Acts which, in my view, ought to be remedied. We have all come in contact with quite a large number of them in our day-to-day experience, and there is one in particular that I would like to mention. Hitherto the question of the right of possession has depended on the tenant. The Acts have made it a question of the tenant's right, and not a question of the right of the house itself. This has been fought to a considerable extent through the courts. It has been held that a trustee in bankruptcy does not take over the tenancy of a bankrupt, and that if a person leaves his house to get work elsewhere and to reside there and leaves his family behind, the family is not protected in that house because the tenancy depends on the tenant's holding and does not run with the house itself. I believe it has been held that where a, man who has gone to seek work elsewhere and has taken up residence in another district, and who indeed may well be put, out of work in a short time, when he has not been able to take his family with him and they have remained in the house, that that house was no longer protected by the Acts because the tenant had left and the family itself was not remaining in a protected sense.
There are provisions in the Acts whereby if a man dies, his widow or some other 127 member of the family is entitled to be regarded as the statutory tenant of that house. I say it should not be beyond the ingenuity of those who framed such poetic works as these Acts before, and possibly there are some of them who are left in the House still, to introduce some Clause whereby a tenant would be entitled to look for work, entitled to go to reside in another district, and know that his family were not liable to be removed from the house but were similarly protected. I am sorry to have kept the House so long, and I hope in the circumstances I shall be forgiven. I hope also that the Minister will accept some of the suggestions which I have made in the spirit in which they have been put forward, that is, with a view to helping this Measure, and that during the Committee stage we shall have his assistance in bringing them into effect.
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Mr. RALPH BEAUMONT
I think that the large majority of Members will welcome this Bill. Not only does it remedy many of the abuses and anomalies which have made themselves apparent during the working of the Rent Restrictions Acts, but it also gives a greater measure of protection to the lower-paid section of the community. Not only is it very satisfactory to know that there is some chance that the flagrant abuses of sub-letting are going to be dealt with, and that in future it is to be easier for the owner of a house to obtain possession of his own property for his own personal use, but it is also very gratifying to know that decontrol is to cease to apply to the lower-rented working-class houses. While it is of course essential that capital should be attracted to the building of this type of house, it is obvious that the full play of the law of supply and demand cannot yet be allowed to take place. It is also true to say that even the present restrictions have not really been sufficient to prevent considerable hardship being caused by the decontrol of these houses when they have become vacant.
This has applied with particular severity in the city of which I represent a part. In Portsmouth, the acquisition of land for building has presented a very serious problem for, as hon. Members know, Portsmouth is practically an island almost entirely surrounded by the sea. The only direction in which it can 128 expand is in the direction of the narrow bottle-neck which joins it to the mainland. Building land, therefore, if it exists at all, commands a very high price. While we are hoping that the reduction of building costs and the lowering of rates of interest on outside investments will result in a renewal of building, hitherto house-building in Portsmouth has presented very serious difficulties. While there are a number of very reasonable and fair landlords, yet it is usual for the rents of houses, particularly smaller houses, to be raised on decontrol by as much as 80 to 100 per cent.
I, therefore, cordially welcome the extra security which has been given in this Bill to the tenants of the smaller houses. At the same time, I think it is rather difficult to view without a certain amount of apprehension the proposal to decontrol entirely the better type of house—the house with a rateable value of more than £35. The inter-departmental committee on the Rent Restrictions Acts certainly came to the conclusion that a large enough supply of these houses existed, and that continued control was no longer necessary, but while that may be so, in a great many districts and, perhaps even in the country as a whole, I do not believe that it is the case everywhere, and in my own area the same difficulties persist and rents are raised on decontrol in very nearly the same proportion as in the case of the smaller houses. Moreover, these houses are inhabited by a class of people who have been hit just as badly as any other, people who have retired either on pensions or on their own savings. They have been hit in many ways, and if on top of this there is to be a danger of their having to pay increased rent through the complete decontrol of their houses, their position will be still further impaired.
In districts where there is an ample supply of these houses this danger may be remote or even non-existent, but in areas where there is not a sufficient supply and in districts where building has been hampered or where special difficulties have existed, I am afraid there is a distinct possibility that if these houses are completely decontrolled the tenants will be called upon to pay considerably increased rents. I only hope that this fear will not be realised, and, 129 apart from this one aspect, I think the Bill must commend itself as dealing with a question that has been, and still is, causing more heart-burnings than any other, that of high and very often excessive rents. The other day, in the course of a Debate on housing, the hon. Member for North Hammersmith (Miss Pickford) said:It used to be considered, before the War, that in a working-class family budget a fair proportion to be allotted as rent was one-sixth or, at the outside, one-fifth of the weekly income. I assure the House that it is not exceptional but usual in my constituency to find working people who pay more than half their weekly income in rent."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th December, 1932; col. 1642, Vol. 272.]From the experience in my own constituency I can to a very large extent bear out the statement of the hon. Member. Iii Portsmouth rents are higher, and on the average wages are somewhat lower, than in the industrial areas, and it is quite usual to find dockyard men and other working people paying, at a moderate estimate, well over 40 per cent. of their weekly incomes in rent. It is a matter which has been causing very serious discontent. A large number of my constituents are naval ratings, who have to leave their wives and families for long periods. They have to make allotments of their pay to enable their wives and families to keep themselves in their absence, and there is no provision of married quarters in the Navy as there is in the Army. The high rents are a very serious strain on these allotments, and there is no doubt that much of the unrest that occurred in the Navy some 14 months ago was very largely due to the quite understandable fear that the reductions in naval pay would seriously affect the allotments which naval men make to their wives, while at the same time their wives would have to continue to pay those same very high rents.
I believe that much of the hardship that exists will be removed or at any rate alleviated by this Bill. It will remove from the minds of the lower-paid sections of the community the fear of increased rents. I believe it will go a long way towards putting an end to the scandalous exploitation of the sub-tenant by the tenant, and it will, I think, safeguard the tenants of the smaller houses until a larger supply of those houses at a fair and reasonable economic rent can be made available.
§ 8.40 p.m.
An hon. Member opposite began his speech by expressing a wish that the Minister had introduced a Bill to consolidate the various Rent Restrictions Acts. So far as consolidation is concerned none of us on the Labour benches would complain. There is a far more important thing that makes me wish that when the Minister was bringing in this Bill he had taken steps to pull down the high rents that the working classes are paying. When the working classes read to-morrow that the House has been debating this Bill, and that the Bill leaves them practically where they are now, they will feel that they are left shivering in the cold, and that the Bill means very little to them. The hon. Member who has just sat down said that in his Division this question of high rents has been causing a lot of heart-burning. It is doing that all over the country. The one thing that is agitating and upsetting the working classes at the present time is the extremely high rent they have to pay.
After having waited so long for this Bill—we were told last year that there was to be a Bill to deal with rents, and we were told in the King's Speech that at last the Government were to deal with the matter—we believed that the Government would deal not merely with the question of the control of houses, but would deal far more drastically with the question of the control of rents. The title of the Bill is altogether misleading. Anyone reading it would imagine that it was a Rent Restriction Bill. As a matter of fact it simply leaves the rents where they are now; it leaves the working classes at the mercy of the property owners just as they have been in the past. A Bill that does that cannot satisfy us. We do not object to the Bill so far as it goes, and we are prepared to welcome it, but we consider that a rent Bill brought forward by the Government now should have gone a great deal further.
We were entitled to expect that the Government would not be content to deal with the question in this pettifogging way. They are simply repeating the principle of the Act that was passed 18 years ago. When the War broke out we began with the control of houses. But conditions have altered immensely during the last 18 years. When the Act of 18 years ago was passed there was not a scarcity of houses and rents were 131 not so high. Moreover, wages were a great deal higher than they are now. During the last 18 years there has been a gradual pulling down of wages and every trade has suffered. But there has been no reduction in rents. If anything rents have been increased. We are entitled to complain, in the interests of the working classes, that the Bill does not go nearly as far as it ought to go. Control may be necessary, and we do not complain of that. Personally I am glad that the Government at last have decided to deal with Class "C" houses, which up to the present have not been de-controlled. I give the Government credit for that. But they have done it because houses of Class "C" have not been built for the working classes. If it was essential to stabilise Class "C" houses so that they cannot be decontrolled, I hold that it was just as essential to bring into control the 1,500,000 Class "C" houses that have been decontrolled.
I know that the Minister said that to bring those Class "C" houses that have been decontrolled into the Bill, to bring them under control again, would really-be confiscation. I was rather amazed, because the Minister delivered a very clear and able speech, if one takes it as a whole. I was rather amazed at the Minister's argument that it would be confiscation to recontrol those Class "C" houses that had been decontrolled. He said that during decontrol some of these houses might have changed hands and because a house had passed into the possession of another during decontrol he argued that it would be confiscation to bring that house under control again. Why are the Government passing a Bill to stabilise control in the case of the Class "C" houses that have not been decontrolled up to the present? The Minister said that the aim of the Government was to march to decontrol. Yet the Government realise that it is essential to protect the tenants of these Class "C" houses that have not been decontrolled and, if it is essential to do so, I hold that. it is equally essential to protect the tenants of the Class "C" houses which have been decontrolled.
The Government ought not to hesitate, particularly when they realise how few houses are being built for the people who occupy houses of the Class "C" type. 132 Of the houses that are being built now only 13 per cent. are Class "C" houses and the Government ought to have been bold enough to have taken the important step of controlling all Class "C" houses. We may have a word or two to say on this subject later. I am not sure that the Minister can dismiss this question of the Class "C" houses as he proposes to do because we find that under this proposal half of the Class "C" houses are to be decontrolled and the other half controlled. Then if one looks at the rateable values of the Class "B" houses one finds that they start at £13 which leads one to believe that an immense number of working people living in houses of that class will be liable to find their houses decontrolled in the very near future. I hope that in Committee we shall have an opportunity of saying something about these Class "B" houses and that the question will not be left just where it is at present.
I am concerned that the Government should do something to bring down the excessive rents which the working classes at present are called upon to pay. Working men in distressed areas in the North of England are being called upon to pay from 10s. to 16s. a week. They simply cannot afford it, and this question of rents is one of the most important things to which this Government could put their hands. It is to me far more important than the American debt question, or the disarmament question, or the question of London transport. To me those questions are of secondary importance compared with this all-important matter which is affecting the working classes so intimately. These rents are crushing many of them right down to the ground. I have said that wages have fallen in every trade. Not only is that the case, but it is wise to remember also when considering this question that we have a big army of unemployed. They have to live in houses. We have this army of unemployed existing either upon the dole or upon parish relief. The public assistance committees in the North of England have to give out money to recipients of Poor Law relief, and that money has to be paid in rent to landlords, in order that those people may be allowed to remain in their houses. The condition of the working people is such that we are entitled to make our protest and to 133 ask the Government to take steps to reduce these high rents.
Yesterday morning I heard Mrs. Hugh Price Hughes make a moving appeal at the Wesleyan Mission in Kingsway on behalf of some poor people. She told us of the case of a man who had lost his business and was now in very reduced circumstances and who had to pay out of his scanty income no less than 12s. 6d. a week for one room. It was on hearing of that case that I made up my mind to put in this plea that something should be clone by the Government to deal with these high rents. At that religious service the reference to that case caused a murmur of discontent, because people felt that to charge 12s. 6d. a week for one room was a crime that ought not to be tolerated. Then yesterday afternoon I took up the "Sunday Express" and read an article by James Douglas on the case of an ex-soldier who had been sentenced to be hanged. He wrote in that article:At the Old Bailey Frederick Joseph Powell, aged 33, was found guilty of murdering his wife.His wife and he had decided to gas themselves, and the article goes on to say:Powell and his wife were a most devoted couple. They lived in one room and they were both in a terrible state of health. The wife was suffering from heart disease to such a degree that her death might have occurred at any time. The husband was suffering from tuberculosis of an advanced kind.It is then pointed out that this couple out of their scanty means of 15s. a week paid 12s. 6d. a week for rent and lived on 2s. 6d. a week. James Douglas goes on to say:The jury and the judge recommended him to mercy. The gassed ex-soldier stood erect, with his hands behind his back, while sentence of death was passed.He adds:There is something wrong in a society which condemns a gassed ex-service man and his good wife to despair in the hell of unrelieved disease and unsuccoured penury. They were both left dying like dogs in their wretched room, and neither public nor private aid was provided for them. Who is guilty?Who is to blame? I submit that the person to blame is the profiteering landlord who takes 12s. 6d. for rent of a room. Any property owner who took 12s. 6d. a week for one room ought to have been sentenced to be hanged instead of this man. You may talk of sub-letting 134 as much As you like and about the greed and savagery of landlords. The Government in this Bill ought to make it illegal to charge more than 2s. 6d. a week for one room. That is as much as the law ought to allow. When one thinks of it, many of these one-room houses were built 50, 60, or 100 years ago, and have been paid for over and over again; and then we have people so unscrupulous as to charge these exorbitant rents. In to-night's "Evening News" there is an article headed:Kensington rent profiteers. How poor people are being exploited.It states that the Kensington Housing Association report the cases ofA family of 10 paying 22s. a week for a first floor back room.A family of 11 paying £1for two unfurnished rooms.Two ground-floor rooms in the same house let at 18s.I submit that we should not allow this sort of thing. This House, too, is guilty, and should not allow any landlord to charge such figures. I hope that before this Bill gets through, some steps will be taken to put in a Clause to prohibit these profiteers charging such rents. They should be sent to prison, and I am not at all sure that the better way would not be to sentence them to be hanged, and hang them straight away. When I came into this House I was opposed to capital punishment, but the older I get and the more I see, the more I feel that the time has come when it would be a good thing to hang some people. Then we might get something done for the working classes. I plead with the Minister that the owners of these old houses ought to be prevented from charging such excessive rents, because the working classes cannot afford them.
We have another problem too, and that is the problem of the council houses. It is almost impossible in many cases for the working classes to afford to live in these council houses, and the Government should face the question of rents in these council houses. I have in my division men who have to pay anything from 12s. to 16s. a week in rent, and we have thousands and thousands of our men who, when they are working full time, earn only a little over 30s. a week, yet they are forced to pay these rents. I hold 135 that the Government, while dealing with this rent question, should be prepared to deal not only with the old class of property, but with the council houses as well. There is only one way for the Government to do that, and that is for them to raise a big loan, so that the money can be lent to the local authorities to wipe out the present debt, on which they are paying 5 or 6 per cent., at not more than 2 or 2½ per cent.
I believe that, just as the Government have succeeded in raising other loans at a very low percentage, if they went to the country and stated that they were raising a big loan in order to cheapen the rents of working-class houses, they would be able to raise an immense loan, which would enable them to reduce the rents in council houses. I have read somewhere that a reduction of 1 per cent. in the rate of interest means a reduction of 1s. 2d. a week in rent,. Instead of these local authorities having to pay 5 or 6 per cent. for the money with which to build these houses, if that rate could be reduced to 2 or 2 per cent., it would make an immense difference to the rents of the working classes. It is not sufficient for the Government to be satisfied merely with carrying on the principle of the control of houses. They should go much further than that. They cannot stop there. They must be prepared to deal with rents, and in doing that, they will be dealing with one of the most important problems that faces this country to-day.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Sir F. FREMANTLE
I believe the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) would have been very much interested if he had been on the Inter-departmental Committee and had heard us discussing these subjects. The extravagant rents that have been charged in many instances can have no support from any side of the House or outside, but the difficulty is, and the whole object of the Inter-departmental Committee was, to find some practicable method of controlling these rents. The idea of the hon. Member for Spennymoor that people would be prepared to put their money into a loan merely in order to reduce rents, without a chance of getting any money back at all, seems to me to have come out of Bedlam. I do not under 136 stand it, but perhaps the hon. Member will explain his proposals during the Committee stage and put them in the form of Amendments, because if there is any useful and practicable scheme, we ought to discuss it, as I am sure the whole House would be with him in the effort to reduce rents.
Various hon. Members have put forward proposals during this Debate, especially Members belonging to the legal profession, such as the hon. Members for Flint (Mr. Llewellyn-Jones), Whitechapel (Mr. Janner), Norwood (Sir W. GreavesLord), and Govan (Mr. Maclean). Their intimate experience of cases in the courts has shown that they have great contributions to make to the discussion, and I suggest that they should make them in Committee. Those who have been through the mill of the Departmental Committees will rejoice if they can hear of any evidence that will help them more than the evidence which they have heard already. I have the advantage of sharing with the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. D. Graham), who has not yet spoken, the distinction, if it be a distinction, of having endured the toil of the two Departmental Committees on this subject, in 1922 and in 1930. In each case we sat on opposite sides, not only of the table—although I think we actually sat side by side on one of those occasions—but in the reports, because the hon. Member for Hamilton signed a minority report in each case. That, I think, was partly his nature.
The hon. Member for Hamilton, with the hon. and gallant Member for Rhondda (Lieut.-Colonel Watts-Morgan) signed the minority report, which I think they had considerable help from outside in preparing, in 1922, and on the last occasion, in 1930, it is significant that out of five or six Members of Parliament belonging to the Labour party who sat on that Committee, only one, the hon. Member for Hamilton, signed the minority report. The others all signed the majority report, which was unanimous with that one exception. It was a very great tribute, if I may say so, to the work of Lord Marley as its Chairman that, although, or perhaps because, lie belonged to the Socialist party, and still belongs to it in another place, he managed to get general consent to the solutions that we put forward. If that be the case, the 137 real reason was that we envisaged both sides of the problem. It is necessary to do that. A good many people speaking on this subject—and I have heard some in the House this evening—do not recognise that there are two sides of the case, or, if they recognise it, they state only one side. The Departmental Committee, whatever the politics of the members, sought to see both sides, and all who have to deal with the housing question recognise that the two sides have to be considered. On the one hand, there is the responsibility which we all recognise so keenly for the appalling position of those who are tenants, particularly of Class "C" houses. On the other hand, and equally important, is the responsibility of being fair and just to property owners.
That point was recognised in both the majority and the minority reports. There was no question that there could be any general confiscation of house property. That is the only alternative, and, if that is not adopted, we must recognise the rights of private property. One of the first things that the committee had to recognise was that housing property is in many ways exactly the same as any other property and has to be treated as such. It happens to be different because of the accommodation that it offers and provides for the working classes, for which reason special measures had to be taken during the War to control it; but actually the rights of the owners are just as definite in the case of housing property as any other sort of property and must, subject to overriding considerations, be respected. Just because people have invested their money in houses rather than in stocks and shares, shops and other forms of property, it was felt by the committees that have considered this question that we must not penalise them more than was absolutely necessary. It was necessary to penalise them during the War, and their treatment was a penalty. That case is blurred over by those who make so much of the malevolent landlords. We recognise the existence of the landlord who squeezes the poor, and he has come down to us through history. They have less power of doing that in the present day than in previous centuries, but they remain in these days, especially in certain parts.
One of the lessons we had to learn in the committee was the extraordinary 138 difference of conditions in different parts of the country and in different towns. These tales of the malevolence of landlords are confined to certain large cities. We do not get them in the smaller towns, where things are more in the public view. It is in the slums of the great cities where we find them rampant. In this particular problem we really want to deal with Class "C" houses. Classes "A" and "B" do not appeal to us very much, except in so far as the houses may be divided into sub-tenancies and taken out of those classes. We are really concerned with the 5,000,000 houses in Class "C," the houses of 10s. or 15s. rental.
The hon. Member for Spennymoor suggested that this Bill did nothing for the poorer working classes, but he shut his eyes to the fact that we are making a great exception in the treatment accorded by Parliament in successive Acts in that we are stopping the decontrol of these houses. The reason was not fully given by hon. Members who have spoken previously. Houses that were decontrolled could not be recontrolled, as has been suggested by some, and in that way added to the number of houses available for Class "C," because we found in the Departmental Committee that the houses in Class "C," when they were decontrolled, passed in most cases into Class "B" owing to the fact that their rental went up, and that, once having passed out of Class "C," they could not be returned down the scale into that class. That is a practical question which it is not worth while to elaborate further at this stage, but I am sure that if hon. Members will think it out, they will find, as we did in the committee, that we could not recontrol these houses right down the line and bring them back into Class "C" from which they had originally come.
The pool of houses for Class "C" has been diminished by those houses that have been controlled, but against that are the new houses that have been built; 700,000 have been added to take the place of 850,000 that have been decontrolled, but still the pressure continues. It is a pressure constantly in Class "C." I am bound to say that I am under no illusion with regard to the possibility of having an end to this problem. I am afraid that the pressure in Class "C" is bound to continue, and I do not see any end to it. That pressure is due to a lot of causes. 139 People who go down into Class "C" have been increased largely by the impoverishment of workers. Besides them, there are in Class "C" always bound to be a large number of people who are incapable of earning a full income, such as widows and dependants of those who have died, people who are deficient in one way or another, and people who are careless and are always sure to exist below the economic level. Then an increase is always going on through those who are most careless and thriftless having a higher birth rate. There is also the extra pressure of recent years through the strange movement back into London, which is probably connected with the industrial and financial troubles of the present time. People in the provinces still think that London is paved with gold and that if they come up to London they are likely to get employment or looked after in one way or the other.
§ Sir F. FREMANTLE
Other people encourage them, too. We have heard of the hunger-marchers recently. The Census shows that during the past two years there have been no fewer than 400,000 immigrants into London, and these have increased the pressure on the Class "C" houses. Finally, there is always the pressure from above. The fact must not be forgotten that everybody has to economise nowadays, beginning with the highest in the land with the demolition of the old palaces and with the upper classes who come down from one part of London to another, so that eventually you get people who formerly would not have been in Class "C," coming down to those houses. It has been one of the difficulties of the post-War housing problem, that whereas the houses were intended for the working classes, there has been a constant pressure from those who could really afford to house themselves, but who applied for these houses which have been put up by the State, and which were not intended for them at all. That has led to pressure on the artisan class and thence to pressure on the workers and the poorer classes.
From all these causes therefore you have overcrowding, and I am afraid that 140 is a position which will always exist until some way can be found of providing sufficient houses to relieve the pressure. I do not know whether that will ever be done, but the only way is that we shall have, in the proposals of the Government, more than we have hitherto had in the way of the provision of houses to overtake overcrowding and to enable us to escape from this vicious circle of the restrictions which have been the subject of so much trouble. The hon. Member who spoke last did not seem to realise that the local authorities, even Socialist authorities, have had the power to provide houses all this time at low rents if they had liked to exercise the power.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House where these Socialists who are in control could have let houses at lower rents?
§ Sir F. FREMANTLE
In every part of the land. If they had liked they could have put up the rates, and they could always have used the rates in an extra subsidy for housing to make up for the loss of rent.
§ Sir F. FREMANTLE
In Scotland and elsewhere. If the local authorities had desired, they could have subsidised to any extent out of the rates. They have not been using that power. I do not want to get into a housing discussion now. As regards rent restriction, we have to recognise definitely that there are great difficulties in dealing with Class "C," and I am now appealing to every side. There are the property-owners who have strong objections even to the continued control that we propose for Class "C" houses. There cannot be any indifference in this House to the continued difficulty Which we have to face among the very poor, and we have to recognise the fact that we can only help to solve the difficulty by passing measures such as we have in this Bill for the decontrol of property by degrees, and with a definite limit for the future, while still giving people reasonable conditions of security in Class "C" by means of the deferred control we are proposing in this Measure.
I cannot deal with all the points which I should have liked to have dealt with, but there is one particular point on which 141 the Bill differs from the proposals of the Departmental Committee, namely, in definitely laying down a limit to the control. They have laid down a definite limit of 1938, whereas the committee laid down no limit. I object rather strongly to the hon. and learned Member for Norwood suggesting that it is only merely a pro forma proposal. It is nothing of the kind. The proposal for 1938 is, on the contrary, a very definite one to which we must try to work. I would remind the House that the Departmental Committee of 1922 proposed to end control in three stages, in the years 1923, 1924 and 1925. The hon. Members for Hamilton and East Rhondda signed a minority report suggesting the end of control by 1932. That seemed to us an appalling proposal, but, still, they proposed ending control by then.
The hon. Member will also quote me correctly, and admit that we both said there were certain conditions which must be carried out.
§ Sir F. FREMANTLE
That is so, but tie hon. and gallant Member will admit that they proposed there should be an end of control. This Measure suggests the end of control in 1938. It is not possible to suggest, as my hon. and learned Friend suggested, that this is purely a pro forma proposal. We should make sure, therefore, we do everything possible to make whatever provision is necessary in our housing Measures and otherwise to secure, without harm to the tenant, the end of control, and that the Government should have a proper system of housing on newer lines in the year 1938. I hope that this Bill will really see the end of the rent restriction Measures, and will be carried with the help and general consent not only of the House but of people of all classes concerned with both sides of the proposition.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Sir ROBERT ASKE
I agree with hon. Members who have expressed the view that in its main aspects this Bill will prove a great advantage to the potential tenants of the Class "C" house, but in certain of its features I think it requires somewhat careful and anxious consideration in the interest of tenants of that class, particularly as affecting those areas where there is a great deal of unemployment, and, at the same time, a great amount 142 of overcrowding. The problem of rent restrictions involves two main features, first of all, fixity of rent and, secondly, security of tenure, and one has to examine the proposals of this Bill from those two aspects. For the first time in legislation of this character one finds that the existence of suitable alternative accommodation is, in itself, a ground on which, subject always to the control of the court., a sitting tenant can he turned out of his house. Therefore, the question of what is meant by suitable alternative accommodation requires very careful consideration. One would have said that suitable alternative accommodation would mean, first, that the tenant could get another house at a like rent to that which he was paying, and that the accommodation was similar, but, so far from that being the case, under this Bill neither of those considerations enters into the question. A man may have paid his rent promptly throughout, may have been in every respect a good tenant, and yet can be turned out if there is in existence another house, it may be at a far higher rent than that which he is paying. That is a position which could only be justified by very substantial reasons. In Sub-section (3, i) of Clause 3 there is a definition of alternative accommodation which says that the rent must be similar, not to that of the house which the tenant is occupying, butsimilar as regards rental and extent to the accommodation afforded by dwelling houses provided in the neighbourhood by any housing authority for persons whose needs as regards extent are, in the opinion of the court, similar to those of the tenant and his family.Take a practical illustration. Assume that a tenant with seven persons in the family is living in two rooms at a rent of 7s. 6d., enjoying that low rent because it is a controlled house. The landlord offers him as alternative accommodation a house on the other side of the street, having four rooms, at a rent of 14s. a week—nearly double his present rent. The landlord would justify that on the ground that the 14s. is similar and the extent of the other house is similar to that of dwelling houses provided by the housing authority for persons whose needs as regards extent are similar to those of the tenant and his family. And that would be right, because the housing 143 authority would require that it should be a four-room house for a family of seven. That is the case in Newcastle, where the local authority will not allow a family of seven to go into any council house with fewer than four rooms. In that case the position of the tenant would comply in every way with the provisions of the paragraph I have quoted. At any rate, if that is not the case I shall be very glad if the Minister would explain the situation. Another point which arises is that for the first time the means of the tenant are not an essential ingredient of the definition of alternative accommodation. In paragraph (i) there is no reference whatever to the means of the tenant—a most important thing to have been left out. [An HON. MEMBER: "Paragraph (ii)."] Paragraph (ii) is an alternative, and one cannot read the word "means" into paragraph (i) without altering the word "or" at the end of it into "and."
§ Sir H. YOUNG
It is stated that the alternative accommodation must in the opinion of the court be "reasonably suitable" to the needs of the tenant.
§ Sir R. ASKE
I quite agree, but I would point out to the Minister that it says it must be reasonably suitable to the needs of the tenant as regards proximity Lo work. That is the only respect in which the needs of the tenant come into the question at all. Another point arising on this Clause concerns the certificate which is to be given by the housing authority, because the letting value of the houses belonging to the local authority is to be the criterion as regards the suitability of the alternative accommodation. We find in all industrial areas local authority houses which have been built at different periods. First of all, there were the Addison houses, the rents of which are probably 4s. a week higher than the rents of houses in alt respects similar being built at the present time. Take the case of four-room houses built during the Addison housing period and let at 14s. a week. Exactly similar houses are being built to-day to let at 10s. Which rent is the housing authority to insert in the certificate under Sub-section (4), which is going to be conclusive evidence as between the landlord and tenant? It appears to me they could with equal truth insert either the 14s. or the 10s., 144 and whichever was inserted would be binding upon tenant arid landlord. Tyneside provides a good illustration of another factor which is introduced into this Bill as a ground on which a sitting tenant can be turned out of his house. It is contained in paragraph (f) of the First Schedule. That provides that the landlord will be entitled to possession when the dwelling house is so over-crowded as to be dangerous or injurious to the health of the inmates:and the court is satisfied that the tenant has not taken such steps as he ought reasonably to have taken… to prevent the over-crowding.The usual reason for over-crowding is a large family, and therefore what the court has to consider is whether the tenant has taken such steps as he ought reasonably to have taken to prevent a 'large family. I do not know whether the Government are now advocates of birth control and whether they intend their views to be retrospective. It is reasonably obvious that, in the ordinary way, this Section cannot very well be put into force as it stands.
There is another important fact in relation to this Clause. Some of the steps to be taken into account are those for the removal of a lodger or sub-tenant. The problem in our area, where there is great overcrowding, is that there are three classes. There are the people where the head of the household is in work and can afford to pay a better rent, but cannot get another house. There is not a house to be had in my area among the working-class dwellings. There are therefore hundreds of people living in overcrowded conditions, not because they want to live in those conditions or because they cannot afford to live in better conditions, but because they cannot get houses. We have brought the utmost pressure to bear, week after week and month after month, on behalf of hundreds or thousands of such people, without any chance of getting them. into better accommodation. The next class is that of people who are living in overcrowded conditions and who, even if they could get larger premises, cannot afford to pay a very high rent. The third class is that of people who have been turned out of their houses, and have not been able to get a dwelling of any kind. They have been able to get some well-minded person to let them have a single room, taking them into 145 their own houses in order to give them shelter which otherwise they would not have had.
Those are the three kinds of cases in which overcrowding exists. What are the Government going to do in those cases? Are they going to make it still harder for all those people, and to give a landlord the right to kick them into the street? What is the remedy? There is no reference in paragraph (f) to alternative accommodation. The mere fact of overcrowding, subject always to the control, is the ground on which a landlord can get possession. No such provision as that ought to be brought into operation in places where there is an enormous amount of overcrowding due to the shortage of housing accommodation.
I join with the hon. Member who expressed regret that council houses built under earlier housing schemes had not been dealt with under this Bill. Rents are being charged for houses, such as on the Walker Estate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which the tenants cannot afford to pay, except at the sacrifice of necessary food. A large number of people living in houses like that and paying rent of from 14s. to 17s. per week, are unemployed. They went into the houses when they were in work and when they were earning good wages. Then they had a reasonable opportunity of paying the rent, but now, due to the depression, they are out of work, and they are absolutely unable to get out of the houses and into smaller houses, because there is no available accommodation. There is no doubt that the rent of such houses, and of many of those older housing estates, are far higher than would be charged if they belonged to private landlords. The value of the houses has come down, and in my submission the rents ought to have come down too.
The only other point I wish to raise is in connection with Section 7 which provides that local authorities may set up committees to advise landlords and tenants as to their rights and duties. Rent restriction legislation has given rise to more intricate problems, doubts and difficulties than any legislation passed since the beginning of the War, and on no subject have eminent judges differed more often, as hundreds of different decisions show. Now, one is to have the 146 situation of city fathers setting out to advise landlords and tenants on these most difficult questions, which the most experienced lawyers have approached with trepidation, and where archangels might fear to tread. One will have to expect that there will be many cases when landlords and tenants will be advised to do those things which ought not to be done or to leave undone the things which ought to be done. Some of the town clerks are wondering as to where the indemnity will come from for the landlords and tenants who act upon the advice given to them. Will the members of the committees be liable and will the city council indemnify them; and will the Government indemnify the city council? These are matters which are giving rise to some considerable doubts in the minds of city council officials. On these matters which arise out of the Bill I should be glad to have the opinion of the Minister.
§ Sir H. YOUNG
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Baronet, but I would not like a misconception to get about in regard to alternative accommodation where double the original rent is charged. I would like to call the attention of the House to Clause 3, Sub-section (1), which preserves an equitable jurisdiction of the courts to refuse an order for repossession unless it considers that the alternative accommodation is reasonable in regard to all the circumstances of the case; and, secondly, under Sub-section (3) it is expressly provided that the alternative accommodation must be reasonably suitable to the needs of the tenants.
§ Sir R. ASKE
May I, with reference to what the Minister has been good enough to say, point out that paragraph (ii) of Sub-section (3) of Clause 3 is purely an alternative Clause and that as long as the conditions of paragraph (i) are satisfied the court can order a tenant to be turned out. I submit that is perfectly plain, because there is the word "or" and not the word "and" at the end of paragraph (i). In regard to the point about the control of the court, I specifically mentioned in my observations that the court had that power, but that it was left purely as a matter of discretion. If the court thinks that a landlord ought to have possession, the tenant can be turned out, even if the rent of the alternative accommodation is double that which the tenant is paying.
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Mr. RHYS
The hon. Member for East Newcastle (Sir R. Aske) has stated that many judges and learned lawyers approach this subject with some trepidation. I am bound to say that, if this Bill passes into law, they will approach it with considerably more trepidation than at present. I think the House will be disposed to congratulate the Minister on the clarity of his exposition of the Bill, but not on the drafting of the Bill. It seems to me that this is the worst example of legislation by reference that we have seen for some time. It is not only necessary to consider the principal Acts of 1920 and 1923, but, until one has amended the principal Acts in accordance with the Second and Third Schedules to the Bill, it is impossible to understand what is at present before the House. If one turns to the Third Schedule, one finds that certain parts of the Acts of 1920, 1923, and 1925 are to be repealed, and that Section 1 of the Prevention of Eviction Act, 1924, is Also to be repealed. As regards the Second Schedule, I regard it as such a classic of draftsmanship that I should like to read it to the House. It says:Provision to be amended and AmendmentSection 5 of the Act of 1920—For Subsection (1) there shall be substituted the provisions of Section three and Sub-section (1) of Section four of this Act and of the First Schedule thereto; and in Subsection (7) for the reference to the grounds specified in paragraph (d) of Sub-section (1) of that Section there shall he substituted a reference to the grounds specified in paragraphs (g) and (h) of the First Schedule to this Act.I see the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) in his place, and I should very much like to hear his views on the construction of a paragraph of that kind. It seems to me that the lawyers will find a very fruitful field of litigation in this Bill. The Second Schedule also states that Sub-section (9) of Section 12 of the Act of 1920 is to be amended by taking out certain words, and in the Third Schedule there is a provision to the effect that the words which have already been taken out in the Second Schedule age to be repealed. This legislation will have to be construed in ordinary everyday life in dealing with what is known as real estate and the relation's between landlords and tenants, and I think it would have been better, in spite of many objections that can be 148 advanced, to have introduced some simpler Measure, so that the vast interests in landed property might at least be able to understand what the Government are trying to do. What they are trying to do may be all very well, and I imagine we shall all agree in the hope that in the future all control may come to an end, but I am a little sceptical as to whether the time has yet come for that.
I hope that the proposed decontrol of the higher class of houses is not going to result in a raising of the rents against the tenants. I could not agree with some of the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), but he did put forward with great skill the case of those whom, for want of a better term, I may call the black-coated workers, who are at the present time undergoing very great hardships. If the Government envisage the possibility of all control ending in five years, it might have been better to suffer the ills which we are now undergoing and to deal with the whole matter at that time, but I am very much afraid that if we pass this Bill, and houses of the higher class are decontrolled now, we shall find in five years' time that we shall need to continue control of the houses in the lower categories. We have to admit that there are certain profiteering landlords who make this sort of legislation necessary, but it does not seem to me to be easy to justify differentiation between the different classes of houses.
There are one or two points which I should like to put to the Minister, and with which, perhaps, he will be good enough to deal when he comes to reply. Suppose that the owner of a decontrolled house, under Section 2 of the Act of 1923, has since sold the premises, and the purchaser has resold them to a new purchaser who has paid the full market price; and suppose that the new purchaser is unaware that the house originally came under the Rent Restrictions Act, and fails to register it. I have listened to many speeches this afternoon and evening, but have heard no reference to the machinery for the registration of houses in order to secure their decontrol in the future. Supposing that such a house is not registered, what is the position? Can the house come under control if it is in one of the categories in which control still continues; and is it to be 149 controlled at a lower rent, thereby depriving the purchaser of much of the money that he would have obtained in return for the price he has paid for the house? Again, suppose that an owner somes into possession of a dwelling house which was controlled and that he subsequently dies. The Estate Duty valuation is always calculated by the Inland Revenue authorities upon the assumption that the house may become decontrolled, and Estate Duty is always charged upon that valuation. At present, as we know, houses become decontrolled on their becoming vacant, but under this Measure houses of the lower class are to continue under control. What will be the position as regards the Estate Duty valuation in the case of a house of that kind?
With regard to Clause 2 of the Bill, there seems to me to be a grave omission. Clause 2 deals purely with cases where the owner has a house to let, and the right hon. Gentleman issued a statement this morning in which he said that no house which is at present decontrolled will become controlled in the future, but I have searched the Bill through and see no reference whatever to the owner-occupier. Sub-section (2) of Clause 2 states that the landlord of any dwelling-house let as a separate dwelling-house must register it, but I see no machinery to provide for the registration of a house which is occupied by the owner, even if it be a Class "C" house. I hope I am wrong. I shall be very happy if the right hon. Gentleman can point out any part of the Clause which allows the owner-occupier of a house to register his house. It may be an oversight in drafting, or an oversight in my reading of the Bill, but I have had it very carefully studied, and have studied it myself, and I believe that this is a point on which it may have to be amended.
We have dealt this afternoon and evening with the new proposal in the Bill to make the landlord responsible for overcrowding, and the right hon. Gentleman adduced this proposal as a strong reason for supporting the Bill. I take, however, the strongest exception to the proposal. At present the local authorities have complete powers under the Public Health Act to prevent overcrowding if they desire to put those powers into operation. The local authority has not put them into operation in many cases because there has been nowhere else for the displaced 150 tenants in overcrowded houses to go. I am unable to see why now the landlord, who may have had no responsibility for that overcrowding, should have the onus placed upon his shoulders, and I think it will enable local authorities to slide out of their responsibilities and the powers already given them by the House and to say: "It is not really our job now under the new Act. It is the owner of the house who ought to do it." The owner of the house really will no more be able to do it than the local authority, for the reason that there is nowhere for the people to go, and the courts are only human, after all. It is going to make it much more discouraging, if you want private enterprise to put money into the building of houses, to put an additional burden upon them which I do not think they ought to be called upon to bear. I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the provision about obtaining possession of houses that are wanted by the owners. There is undoubtedly a large class of people who have bought property for their occupation and have not been able to get it, and I welcome in that direction any steps that may enable a man to live in the house in which he has invested his savings.
I should like to turn to the question of agricultural cottages. A certificate of the Ministry's officials that a dwelling-house is necessary for a person engaged in an agricultural occupation has to be obtained, but under the Bill that certificate is not necessarily final. One of the policies of the Government is the regeneration of agriculture, and we wish to restore large numbers of agricultural workers to the land. Anyone who has experience of agricultural villages, particularly in the South of England, will realise that a large number of labourers' cottages are now occupied either by week-enders or by artisans in other trades. It is no good attempting to put large numbers of people on agricultural land unless cottages are available for them at the low rent that the agricultural labourer can afford to pay. Owing to the decline in agriculture, a good many cottages have passed into other hands. I should very much like to see a strengthening of the powers of possession of what were originally agricultural labourers' cottages in order that they may be restored to their original use. One of the reasons why an agricultural labourer received a 151 comparatively low wage was that he was able to get a cottage at 1s. 6d. or 2s. a week. I am very anxious indeed that the power to secure possession of agricultural cottages should be strengthened if we can possibly do it.
In Clause 3 alternative accommodation must be suitable as regards proximity to the place of work. I once represented Romford in this House and in that division we had the large County Council building estate of Becontree and Dagenham. The inhabitants on that estate nearly all had to work at that time in London, and they found the money they had to pay for travelling expenses a very heavy drain on their weekly budget. I should like to know what proximity to work means. Does it mean that a man who is at present working in the Victoria district and lives in Pimlico will be considered to be in adequate proximity to his work if he is moved out to Becontree or Dagenham, with the heavy additional railway fare that he will have to pay?
I see it is provided that a general rate shall defray any expenses that a council may incur. For years we have been passing Bills which have enabled a penny or halfpenny rate to be levied, and I had really thought that in these days of economy we were coming to an end of allowing an additional general rate to be placed upon different localities. Perhaps it was inevitable in this Measure, but I hope the Government will not bring forward any more departmental Bills which enable local rates to be placed upon local inhabitants. I cannot, also, help feeling that, having been granted a 40 per cent. increase of the standard rate of rent in August, 1914, and with the heavily falling cost of building material, the landlord on the whole has not done too badly in the last two or three years, and we ought to be very careful before we take steps that may lead to a heavy increase in certain classes of rent, but I know one Department which will be thankful to see this decontrol take place, and that is the Treasury. There is no doubt in my mind that the Treasury has had to lose a certain amount of income owing to the compulsory keeping down of the assessment on houses. I see in this Bill a good opportunity of securing higher assessments in order that the Treasury may not 152 lose tax, as they are certainly losing it at present. This is no time at which to place higher burdens on our people, especially that class that has been extremely hard hit. I only hope to be convinced by the right hon. Gentleman that the Measure will not involve any increases of rent. He said that was his view, and I hope in the course of the Debate we shall have many further facts which may convince us that he is right. I congratulate him on his courage in introducing the Bill. Whether this is the correct moment to do it, I wait to be further convinced.
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ Mr. McENTEE
This Bill appears to me to be very much like the curate's egg that we hear of from time to time. It is good in parts. It is undoubtedly an advantage that that class of tenants who are described as Class "C" tenants will be secure in their houses, subject to certain conditions, and in the rents that they are paying without any increase for a period of five years, but I am afraid the hope that was expressed by the Minister to-day that at the end of the five years, because of another Bill that he proposes to bring in on Thursday, the supply of houses will be so largely increased that it will be a reasonably easy matter to decontrol all the houses that remain controlled under this Bill will not be fulfilled. It would very much surprise me if the new Bill increased the supply of houses to any extent at all. I venture the opinion, that, as a consequence of the Bill, the number of houses which will be built in the next five years will be less rather than more than the number being built at the present time.
The Bill says that the houses described as Class "C" shall be controlled for five years and for no longer. Apparently, the Minister and the Government, if they remain in office for five years, or if they come back again after the next General Election, are determined that the control of houses of all classes shall cease at the end of five years. I am afraid that the position at the end of five years will be very similar to that which it is now. I remember, even more than five years ago, Ministers telling us that at the end of five years it would be reasonably easy to decontrol houses because the number of houses that would be built would be sufficient to enable the decontrol of all houses. Those prophecies have certainly 153 not been fulfilled, and it is safe to say that the condition of housing to-day is quite as bad as it was five years ago.
In the area in which I live we recently issued an invitation to people who desired houses, and the replies showed that between 3,000 and 4,000 people in Waltham-stow still needed houses. Five years ago the position was about the same as it is to-day. I imagine that as a result of the new legislation the local authorities will practically cease building and that the probable consequence will be that five years from now we shall be in a worse, and not a better, position in regard to housing accommodation. Therefore, we shall not be in a better position to decontrol houses than we are at the present time. It appears to be unreasonably stupid to make provision in the Bill that those houses shall be controlled for five years and no longer. I hope that, at any rate, they will be controlled for very much longer than five years, although I should like to see, what the Minister has apparently in mind, plenty of houses available at the end of five years. Before the War, in the area in which I live, landlords used to advertise that they would convey free of charge furniture of persons taking one of their houses. They also paid the insurance premium on all the furniture, and some of them even provided a portion of the furniture if persons were prepared to move into their houses. They advertised on the sides of tramcars running through Walthamstow that they were prepared to move persons free, and to pay their insurance premium. In some cases I know that they actually provided furniture for tenants coming from the East End of London to flats at Walthamstow, and some of them no doubt are still using the furniture they received at that time.
There are one or two things in the Bill to which I would like to draw the attention of the Minister. One thing was mentioned in the form of an interjection by a Member on this side of the House, namely, the possibility of collusion between landlords and tenants. The Bill presumably provides that if a tenant has overcharged his sub-tenant he is bound to inform his landlord of the rent which he is charging his sub-tenant. It is then open to the landlord to make an application to the court to get the sub-tenant's rent reduced, or perhaps he may even get 154 his own tenant out of the house altogether. It is not an uncommon thing for landlords, particularly small landlords who have two or three houses, to be on very friendly terms with their tenants. It is possible that those landlords in collusion with their tenants may arrange that the sub-tenant should be charged more than the rent which they ought to be charged, and no report would be made to the court, on condition that the landlord and the tenant shared in the amount of the overcharge to the sub-tenant. It has been done, it can be done under this Bill, and it is a very considerable danger. I hope that in Committee something more definite and clear than the provision in the Bill to prevent anything in the nature of collusion between landlord and tenant to exploit the sub-tenant, will be inserted.
In regard to overcrowding, it will be difficult in places where almost every house is overcrowded, to work the Act. In many places in London and in other centres houses are overcrowded, not because people desire to overcrowd or because the landlord desires them to be overcrowded, but because there is no reasonable possibility of the people getting out of the houses and finding suitable accommodation in the area in which they live. I doubt whether if they went outside the area they would find accommodation reasonably near to their work. The overcrowding Clause in the Bill may act very harshly in regard to some tenants. The Minister made use of a rather interesting expression in regard to the conflict of interests between landlord and tenant. I do not know whether some of his Tory friends will agree that there is that conflict of interests. In nearly every municipal election that I have fought I have been told by my Conservative opponents that there is no conflict of interests between landlord and tenant, and that they are the best of friends and that their interests are the same. Those of us who have pointed out that there was a conflict of interests were told that we were entirely wrong. I am glad to have the admission of the Minister that there is a conflict of interest between landlord and tenant, just as there is a conflict of interest between the employed man, the employed woman and their employers. One has to buy cheap and the other has to sell dear. Whether it be the workman selling his labour or the tenant purchasing the right to live in a house for a week 155 or a year, there is a conflict of interest between employer and employed, between landlord and tenant.
§ Mr. McENTEE
I am talking about ordinary landlords. The conditions in regard to councils are entirely different. A council does not make any profit out of its houses. I have never known any council make any profit out of its houses, but I do not think the hon. Member would say the same in regard to some of the big house-owning companies. They are in the same position as a council. I could give instances of very considerable dividends being paid from year to year to shareholders in house-owning companies, from profits made out of the tenants. Therefore, there is between that section of houseowners and their tenants a conflict of interests, which ranges around the amount of dividend that can be paid to the shareholders through the exploitation of the tenant.
There is one point with which I should like to deal, and that is in relation to the term "reasonable accommodation." The only thing that is definite in the Bill in that regard appears to be that it must be reasonably suitable in this sense, that the tenant who is going to be put out of his house must have suitable accommodation where he can have reasonably easy access to his work. The hon. Member who has just spoken gave some instances that could be multiplied by hundreds and thousands. Suppose someone in Walthamstow was put out of his house on any of the grounds permitted. If a county court judge decided that reasonably suitable accommodation could be found in Hammersmith, Woolwich or Ealing, then I suppose the tenant would be compelled to leave his house and move to a district miles away from his friends and the place where he had lived perhaps all his life. It could be argued that it was as easy for him to get to his work from Woolwich or Ealing as from Walthamstow. I know of no reason why, because somebody who owns a house desires his son or his father to live in it, a man who has lived in that house for the greater part of his life should be evicted and be compelled to move into other ac 156 commodation which might be at the other end of London. I think that the reasonable accommodation should be in the same area as the house from which he is evicted.
Again, the alternative accommodation offered might be at a rent of 10s. a. week compared with 7s. 6d. that the man might be paying. There is nothing to prevent a judge saying that the man should be compelled to accept the accommodation at the extra rent, but 2s. 6d. or even a shilling a week might mean that the man's family might have to go short of food, particularly in the cases of those thousands of people who are at present unemployed. I would like to add my plea to the Minister that "B" class houses should be taken out of the Bill altogether, or treated in the same way that "C" class houses are to be treated. There is no question that many thousands of men who a year or so ago could have afforded to pay a higher rent are utterly unable to do so now. To take these houses out of control and enable the landlord to increase the rent to almost any extent would undoubtedly be a very great hardship indeed. I hope when the Bill goes into Committee that the Minister and the House generally will insist that "B" class houses shall be maintained under control in the same way as "C" class houses.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Mr. SIMMONDS
The advent of this Bill has been looked forward to, particularly in industrial constituencies, with immense interest, and at any rate so far as Birmingham is concerned I feel confident that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will receive the due congratulations, especially on his treatment of the "C" class house. I think everyone will agree that the excellent innovation of controlling the dwelling rather than the tenancy will give great satisfaction to those who have to move from one "C" class house to another. But there are two special problems about which I wish to inquire. On a number of occasions the Minister, by innuendo if not in definite terms, has expressed his desire to do something for the houses which are sub-let in a furnished or a nominally furnished condition. I have read Clause 4, and I have looked searchingly to see whether this type of subletting has been dealt with, but I cannot 157 discover how this very serious abuse of a controlled house by the tenant is prevented by this Bill.
In the past a great number of tenants in industrial areas have been paying grossly excessive rents. Committees have discovered that sometimes they were four or five times the appropriate rent under the Act, and these rents have been charged under the plea that they were not sub-tenants in the ordinary sense of the word but were sub-tenants of furnished rooms. We have in Birmingham a large number of cases where a table or a chair and a curtain have been placed in a room, and by this means the law has been evaded. I feel sure that many hon. Members hoped that the Minister of Health, either in this Bill or in some later legislation, would deal with this problem. Can he tell us whether this is the Bill which deals or purports to deal with this abuse, and, if not, whether we may expect early legislation on the subject, or whether he is in a mind to accept Amendments to this Bill such as will finally prevent a continuance of this evil.
There is another very serious abuse which takes place in houses which are condemned by local authorities on account of their insanitary condition. After a house has been condemned the local authority has no further control in any way over it. As a result such dwellings are purchased by the unscrupulous, who seek tenants and then fleece them for their rents. That, again, is a matter which must be dealt with, not only because the rents charged for these condemned houses arc in many cases higher than the rents charged for the nominally furnished rooms in controlled houses, but also because these condemned houses are sinks of the worst insanitary conditions. Many of them have no main water laid on, and certainly no appropriate sanitary accommodation, and yet they are allowed to be let at these disproportionate rents. I hope that my right hon. Friend, or whoever may speak for him, will indicate in what manner those two classes of tenants are to be safeguarded.
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ Mr. LEWIS
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) at the beginning of his speech, now many hours ago, told us that, in his view, the wording of the Bill and the phrase 158 ology used by the Minister in the speech in which he moved its Second Reading, showed conclusively that the Minister is a confirmed and unrepentant individualist. I cannot imagine anything more calculated to commend both the Bill and the Minister to all classes in this country because we are, as a nation, confirmed individualists. That is why we have been able to contribute so much to the wealth of the world. Our friends the Socialists, however good they may be at dissipating the wealth which other people have painfully collected together, have precious little themselves to contribute in the way of the creation of wealth.
I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he has contrived to keep before his eyes the necessity, under present conditions, for a continuance of rent restrictions and at the same time to keep in view the ultimate goal of the complete abolition of rent restrictions. I think he has held the balance very fairly between the desire of the landlord to get rent and the desire of the tenant to hire a house in which to live. The various classes who are affected by the existing rent restriction laws and who are likely to be affected by the alterations set out in this Bill, have, in their turn, secured champions in this Debate with the exception of one class of which little has been heard. That, to my mind, is one of the most deserving and desirable classes in any country, namely, those who wish to own their homes. We have heard little to-day of the position of the man who desires to live in a house that he owns and who is debarred from doing so by the operation of the laws on rent restrictions. It is quite true that the proposals in the Bill, as it stands, open up a more favourable prospect for this class of persons than has existed since the Act of 1920, but I hope that it will prove possible in Committee still further to improve the position of those people.
Let me remind the House that this is not a case of a clash of interests between a wealthy landlord and a poor tenant. It is a case of a clash of interests between two people of the same class wanting the same house, the difference between the two individuals being that, whereas one has set aside part of his earnings in the form of savings to buy a house, the other has used his earnings for other purposes, 159 and has preferred, so far as a house is concerned, merely to rent one from week to week or from month to month, as the case may be. A situation arises in which these two men both desire possession of the same house. One man has been living in it as a tenant; the other man owns it. As the law stands at present, it is governed by Section 5, Sub-section (1) of the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (Restrictions) Act, 1920, a very long Sub-section, with which I will not weary the House, but I think I can give its substance when I say that in such a case the owner would not be allowed to claim possession of the house unlessthe court is satisfied that alternative accommodation, reasonably equivalent as regards rent and suitability in all respects, is available.To my mind, that is really an absurd condition. It is the very fact that there is only the one house available, which both men want, that creates the hardship for the owner of the house. If there were easily obtainable in the neighbourhood alternative accommodation of the same kind, there would be no hardship. It is the very fact that cases occur where a man who has saved and bought a house is debarred from living in it and cannot get equally suitable accommodation that creates the hardship. I maintain that in that respect far too much attention has been paid to the point of view of the tenant as against that of the owner of the house. I am saying nothing whatever where it is a matter of rent as between one man and another. I am simply taking the case where the owner of the house desires to live in it. In my view, he should be entitled to gain possession of the house on showing that he bona fide intends to live in it or to use it for his children or his parents, and there should he no condition as to alternative accommodation.
The present Bill recognises that to some extent, because it tells us in Clause 3, Sub-section (1), that this suitable alternative accommodation requirement may be waived under certain conditions, which are set out in the First Schedule, one of which is that the dwelling-house is reasonably required by the landlord, with certain qualifications, for occupation as a residence for himself, his son or daughter, father or mother. If it stopped there, it would really be per 160 forming all that I am now pleading it should perform, but I would invite the attention of the House to the fact that it is hedged about by a good many qualifying words. The expression that the court has got to be reasonably satisfied occurs in more than one place. There are qualifications as to when the house was bought, and there is at the end of the Schedule a qualification to the effect that the court has to be satisfied as to who would suffer the greater hardship, the tenant or the landlord, in such a case. All those qualifications are, to my mind, undesirable weakenings of the claim that a man should have to be able to live in the house he has saved money to buy.
I hope other hon. Members will assist me in Committee to strengthen the provisions, which I admit, are from the point of view of the owner of the house in these circumstances, preferable already to the provisions of the existing law. I do not expect to get very much help from my friends of the Labour party, because I do not think that at any time they have shown any great interest in the idea that people should be encouraged to buy their own homes; it does not square very well with their creed. I do expect, however, considerable sympathy from the Liberal and Conservative benches. I hope that a great effort will be made to do whatever is possible within the scope of this Bill to encourage every man who wishes to do so to secure a home of his own in which to live, instead of depending on a house part of the rent of which is paid to the landlord under rent restriction, or on a house part of the rent of which is paid by his fellow workers under some rate-aided scheme of municipal housing.
§ 10.46 p.m.
§ Major JESSON
I welcome the Bill as a whole, but there are certain points to which I take some exception. I do not propose to follow the arguments of many of the speakers, because they would be better confined to the Committee stage. I think that the Minister of Health is taking the right course by leading up to gradual decontrol in 1938 "and no longer." I was glad to hear the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) say that there was a meaning in those words "no longer." I remember that they occurred in the 1915 Act, which said that the Act should exist during the continuation of 161 the war and six months after "and no longer," but we still have that Act to-day. I wonder whether those words were a gesture of sympathy for the class of people who have not had many bouquets thrown at them to day, namely, the landlords. There are good landlords as there are good tenants, and there are bad tenants as there are bad landlords. These words "no longer" may be thrown out as a sympathetic gesture to the landlords, but we are told that sympathy without relief is like mustard without beef.
I want to direct the Minister's attention to Clause 2, Sub-section (2), which deals with the decontrolled houses becoming controlled again. Retrospective legislation is never good, but under this Clause great hardships may occur to owners of houses that have been decontrolled if they should forget or should not know the necessity of re-registering under this sub-section. The Minister must agree that countless small owners will know nothing of the Act and will fail to register. That may be serious to them because an owner who obtained possession, say in June last, may have reconditioned his house at considerable expense and then let it at the market rental. The tenant would be able to claim that the statutory rent only was payable and he would get back the difference between the rent paid and the statutory rent and this would continue on the lower basis for the remainder of the five years. If it is essential to have this sub-section in, may I make this suggestion to the Minister? Would it not be possible to put a time limit of, say, six months, after which provided a tenant had not made complaint that the house was under control, then it might prima facie be assumed to continue decontrolled?
I want shortly to refer to what I think is one of the most serious Clauses in the Bill, namely, Clause 7, which I suggest to the Minister should he deleted. The Minister said to-day that the object of the Bill was to prevent overcrowding, but I think he is going to transfer the overcrowding from the houses to the town halls of this country. This is a most serious Clause, and I wonder whether its full meaning has been realised? I venture to say it will cause a fog of doubt and misunderstanding throughout the country. It is going to convert the town clerk of 162 your borough into a poor man's lawyer, and anyone who has had experience of local government will know that the town clerk is a man fully occupied already, and it would be impossible for him to give the necessary consideration and time which would be required.
It should be remembered that there are millions of tenants involved, and that there are 10 or 12 Acts which have to be considered. Is it likely that the town clerk is himself going to attend to this work? It will be put on to some underling or clerk. It will be a very serious matter, and there will be probably a, liability on behalf of the local authority. I wonder at the hon. Member for White-chapel (Mr. Janner), who is a member of the legal profession, favouring the Clause, because it seems to me that to-clay there is a legal liability on lawyers if they are neglectful. What will happen if this is carried to the extent of the local authorities, and advice is tendered by somebody who is not efficient and gives wrongful advice? Lawyers are not too busy now, and why should free law be given to certain landlords and tenants, which is denied to landlords of houses of higher value? It is the thin end of the wedge. My criticism is intended to be quite friendly. I know the Minister has a difficult task, and has to steer between the rapacious landlord, if you like, and the grasping tenant, but I hope before the Committee stage he will consider whether it is not advisable that this Clause should be deleted.
§ Motion made, and Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned," put, and agreed to.—[Captain, Margesson.]
§ Debate to be resumed To-morrow.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.