HC Deb 02 July 1935 vol 303 cc1814-8

9.38 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 43, line 10, after "times," to insert: or, if the house is occupied by an owner thereof and has been owned and occupied by him or by a member of his family continuously during the three years immediately before the date on which the order is confirmed, two and two-fifths times). Clause 57 recognises that some owners of houses which are unfit for human habitation by reason of inherent sanitary defects have endeavoured to make the best of the property, and it proposes to give special allowancs to those landlords, as distinct from other landlords who have allowed their property to sink into an unfit state without making any reasonable effort to maintain it. The amount of the allowances to be given is based on the assumption, in the first place, that an average yearly expenditure of one-fifth of the rateable value of the house is a normal incident of ownership and gives rise to no claim for special treatment. Accordingly paragraph (a) of Sub-section (2) of the Clause proposes that the allowance for good maintenance shall be confined to the extent to which expenditure on repairs, etc., has exceeded that fraction of one-fifth, or in other words, over a period of five years the extent to which it has exceeded the rateable value of the house.

The alternative basis of payment contained in paragraph (b), which lays down a minimum payment of one and one-fifth times the rateable value, has been put into the Bill to meet the case of small owners who may not be in a position to prove their expenditure over a period of five years. It is paragraph (b) that the Amendment proposes to alter in favour of owner-occupiers. If an owner-occupier has kept his house in good order he will be entitled to a minimum payment of two and two-fifths times the rateable value instead of one and one-fifth, as the Clause proposes at present. In addition he will, of course, receive site value, or will be left with the site of the house in his possession.

It is felt that the case of the owner-occupier deserves particular consideration in this respect. In the first place he is not a landlord in the usual sense of the term, but primarily an occupier. Generally he is a person of very slender means who has invested his life's savings in acquiring the best home that he can afford. To dispossess him without an adequate allowance if he has done his best to maintain his house in good condition, would be in many cases to inflict real hardship, involving, in addition to the loss of savings, the uprooting of a home.

The interests of the owner-occupier are, therefore, more vitally affected than those of other owners. But there is a further distinction. It is a fundamental principle in the ordinary case that an unfit house has no value and that the owner should not be allowed, in the interests of public health and decency, to offer it in the house market. But the owner-occupier is not in the position of having caused injury to the health of others in this way or of having profited by trading an unsound commodity.

9.43 p.m.


At an earlier stage to-night the Secretary of State justified one of his Amendments on the ground of what he termed the lack of precision which it is necessary to secure in these matters. That is my excuse for intervening now. This Clause confers on local authorities the discretion to order the payment of a grant in certain circumstances, and if an order for payment be made the amount is prescribed by the Statute. Accordingly if a dispute arises as to the amount it might become the subject-matter of litigation. Therefore, we must approach the language of this Amendment with the utmost caution. The Amendment provides that the grant should be paid if the house is occupied by the owner thereof and has been owned and occupied by him or by "a member of his family." In Part I of this Bill the expression "a member of his family" also occurs, and in Committee I drew attention to the lack of definition of that expression. I have not pursued the topic further because that part of the Bill deals with criminal matters, and I hope that the court in a criminal matter would place an indulgent interpretation on the expression.

Here we find the expression "member of a family" again introduced. This is not a criminal matter. This is a subject about which litigation might well arise between a local authority and the owner of a dwelling-house—a dispute about pounds, shillings and pence. There is no definition of this expression "member of a family." Is a second cousin, an uncle or a step-mother to be regarded as a member of the family? I humbly submit that if we are to attain that degree of precision which is necessary in these matters this omission ought to be remedied in another place and some definition of this phrase provided in the Bill. Otherwise we shall be placing an unfair burden upon His Majesty's judges. If no such definition is supplied, then, of course, "it is an ill wind that blows naebody any good," and this will provide, in the language of the Parliament House in Edinburgh, "a dripping roast" for the lawyers.

9.46 p.m.

Duchess of ATHOLL

The point raised by my hon. and learned Friend is a material one because this expression is vague and requires definition, but I wish to draw attention to the main point of the Amendment, namely, the increased compensation proposed to one class of owners. I am pleased, as we are all pleased, that the concession which was given to the English owner-occupiers at a late stage in the proceedings on the English housing measure has now been extended to Scottish owner-occupiers, a class which stands to suffer considerably through the operation of the Bill. Two and two-fifths, however, of the rateable valuation is not at all high compensation. It represents a very few years purchase for anything of any capital value, and I regret that the concession, inconsiderable though it is, has not been extended to all owners. The Under-Secretary said that many owner-occupiers were persons of small means. That is true, but there are many persons of small means who do not come within the category of owner-occupiers and yet are owners of houses. There are many women whose fathers or husbands had invested their savings in house property, perhaps in one or two houses, and who are left with that property as their means of livelihood. The increased cost of upkeep since the War, combined with the fact that rents have not risen in proportion, means that much of this property has been yielding very little income. In many cases such properties represent the only source of income of the owner. There are many owners in Glasgow and elsewhere who stand to lose most of their small means if this Bill goes through because much of their property is not in good condition, or even if it is in good condition—

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Captain Bourne)

The Noble Lady is now going far outside the Amendment.

Duchess of ATHOLL

I was trying to show why the Amendment should be widened. The Under-Secretary also based his argument on the dictum that a house which had been declared to be unfit for human habitation had no value but with all respect I dispute that view. At a meeting of representatives of the small burghs in my constituency to discuss this Bill I asked them if there were any houses in their burghs which had been declared unfit for human habitation but were being used for any other purpose. I received answers of "Yes" from all round the table and I was told that there were such houses being used as garages, stores and so forth.


Again I must point out that the Noble Lady's argument has nothing to do with the Amendment.

Duchess of ATHOLL

I was trying to meet the argument of the Under-Secretary but I have made my point and I am glad to have had the opportunity of doing so. I tried to move Amendments on this point in Committee and on the Report stage, but it was held that such Amendments would increase the charge on public funds and they were ruled out of order. I am very much disappointed that the point has not been given consideration and I would ask the Secretary of State before the Bill is discussed in another place to consider whether this concession could not be extended to owners in general, many of whom have very small means.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

9.50 p.m.


I regret that the Lord Advocate or some representative of the Government has not seen fit to make even a formal acknowledgment of the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Fife (Mr. Milne). It is perhaps ill becoming a lawyer to tell the Government of a method of avoiding litigation but none the less my hon. and learned Friend has had the courage to do so. Obviously there are no phrases which lend themselves more to ambiguity than phrases like "a member of the family." May we have some assurance that the Government will look into this matter and if they think it ought to be cleared up, take the necessary steps in another place to do so?

9.51 p.m.


I am sorry that my hon. Friend should think that I had acted with any discourtesy but I had made a note of the point made by my hon. and learned Friend. I know the difficulty but I know that this phrase has been carefully considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary for State and the Lord Advocate. They appreciate very well the difficulties involved and my hon. Friends may rest assured that, when they raise a definite point such as this, the matter will be looked into to see if a more satisfactory form of words can be found.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.