HC Deb 16 May 1935 vol 301 cc1966-74

7.11 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 7, line 22, at the end to insert: Provided that such a prosecution may be instituted against the local authority themselves by another person with the consent of the Attorney-General. (2) The local authority may serve upon the occupier of a dwelling-house which is overcrowded in such circumstances as to render him guilty of an offence notice in writing requiring him to abate the overcrowdng before the expiration of fourteen days from the date of the service of the notice, land, if at anytime within three months from the expiration of that period the house is overcrowded, the local authority may make complaint to a court of summary jurisdictions and thereupon the court shall, by their warrant in form set out in the Schedule to the Small Tenements Recovery Act, 1838, or in a form to the like effect, order vacant possession of the dwelling-house to be given to the landlord within such period, not being less than fourteen nor more than twenty-eight days, as they may determine. Any expenses incurred by the local authority under this sub-section in securing the giving of possession of a dwelling-house to the landlord may be recovered by them from him summarily as a civil debt. The Clause which I rise to move contains two different matters, both of which are the result of prolonged discussion in the Committee, and which resulted in agreement. The Clause which I putdown expresses the substance of the agreement arrived at. The first matter is this: The Committee is aware that the Bill is based upon a standard of overcrowding enacted by law, an offence against which is an offence against the law on the part of the occupier of the house or the owner of the house, unless he takes any steps to deal with the matter. There you have the offence of overcrowding on the part of the occupier or the owner of the house. The next point to observe is that the Bill also provides that the only persons who can prosecute for such an offence are the local authority. That is because they are the persons who are interested, and in order to prevent frivolous prosecutions. A close analysis of this state of affairs in the Committee raised the following suggestion from Members of the Committee. In the old phrase, "Who shall guard the guardians?". Where the local authority itself is the owner of the house, who is to enforce the law against overcrowding, since the prosecution can only be by the local authority? In these circumstances, it would be only the local authority that could prosecute itself, and so you would have something in the nature of reductio ad absurdum. In reply to that, I pointed out that the Bill was originally drafted on this basis, that the real sanctions were the default Clauses. But, again, in reply to that, it was urged by Members of the Committee, particularly I think from the point of view of constitutional law, that there should be no offence which could escape altogether the sanctions of the law, and if the local authorities were committing an offence it was contrary to our general legal principles that there should be no way in which that offence could be punished.

That seemed to be an argument entitled to prevail, and it is made to prevail in the first part of the Clause I am now moving, which decrees that a local authority is to be liable for prosecution if it breaks the law, like any other owner of a house in question. I should like to make it as clear as I did in Committee that it is not my belief that the local authorities of the country will need this spur to the performance of their duties. It is not introduced because I believe it to be an essential weapon to get the order obeyed. It is introduced out of regard for our constitutional law. There is a safeguard to prevent frivolous prosecutions of a local authority, a safeguard also very familiar to us in our legal machinery, that a prosecution shall not be undertaken without the sanction of the Attorney-General. That is the best of all safeguards against vexatious prosecutions.

I turn to the second part of the Clause, which deals with a different matter. This also expresses an agreement arrived at after close discussion on the Committee stage. Under the Bill, if there is a breach of the law in respect of overcrowding, an obligation is imposed upon the landlord to obtain possession of the premises, thus putting an end to the breach of the law by the effective method of turning out the law-breaking tenant. It was pointed out that to cast upon the landlord the obligation of taking legal proceedings, might introduce some awkwardness and that it was, perhaps, a somewhat novel obligation, though I think the real weight of the argument was on the awkwardness of such procedure, and I was asked to see whether it was not possible to introduce some more practical and businesslike method of obtaining possession of the premises. It is such procedure which is proposed in this part of the Amendment. Instead of making the landlord himself take proceedings to recover possession, the local authority themselves shall be entitled to go to the court, in this case a court of summary jurisdiction, and obtain possession on behalf of the owner when there is a breach of the law against overcrowding being committed on the premises. Certainly that is a more businesslike proceeding, and I have no doubt it is the method which will be adopted if these powers are granted to local authorities. I cannot hold that the second part of the Amendment is novel, because it closely follows the wording of Section 39 of the Act of 1930. I commend the whole Amendment to the House as affecting the improvements which we were asked in Committee to introduce.

7.18 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman took considerable trouble to make himself clear, but I frankly admit that I am not yet certain as to the exact purpose of the first few words of the Amendment—those which give power to prosecute a local authority. Is my interpretation right that this is a power to prosecute a local authority if it should fail to do its duty to stop overcrowding in its own houses?


It is a power to prosecute local authorities for any breach of their duties as a landlord, but not in relation to their duties as health authorities, which is another matter.


That makes it quite clear. I think the local authorities will like to know in what position they stand. No one would suggest that local authorities should be in a better position than the private owners of houses. On the contrary, it is their duty to be model landlords, and to set an example to private interests. Before we part with the Amendment I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to inform the Committee whether he has reason to believe that any considerable number of local authorities have been permitting overcrowding which could have been prevented if they had taken action. To my knowledge—it is no secret—localauthorities in London have allowed overcrowding. I could give instances of it. But as far as my knowledge goes they have only permitted it reluctantly because alternative accommodation could not be found. In almost every instance that I know of, and I have had a long experience, the overcrowding has arisen from the natural expansion of the family, which has brought the house or tenement within the scope of the regulations against overcrowding. Already there is provision to meet cases of that kind by exemption, by licences, and before we make this reflection on local authorities, because it amounts to a reflection [HON. MEMBERS: "NO!"] I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can suggest that local authorities in any part of the country have been deliberately permitting overcrowding which could have been prevented by action on their part.

7.21 p.m.


As I was responsible in Committee for urging that this provision should be introduced into the law, I should like to say something upon the Amendment. I think the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) has inadvertently confused a simple issue. There is no question of any stigma resting upon local authorities through the insertion of these words. One cannot discriminate between the position of local authorities and private individuals in the matter of overcrowding. Overcrowding is overcrowding whether it is permitted in the houses of a local authority or of private individuals. Many cases have come to my notice in which the house of a private owner is overcrowded against his wishes because there is no alternative accommodation for the people, and no doubt exactly the same circumstances apply in the case of houses owned by local authorities. Therefore, there is no question of any stigma. The sole reason for inserting this Amendment, for which many of us are very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, is to place all overcrowding on the same basis, and to make it clear that if there is overcrowding the law will operate. As the Bill stood originally it was difficult to see how the law could be made to operate in the case of houses owned by a local authority. As to the second part of the Amendment, it is to enable the law to act with expedition and to deal in the first instance with the person who is responsible for the overcrowding. The Committee ought to thank the Minister for having thus clarified the law.

7.23 p.m.


There is one small point which I should like to have cleared up. The Minister has told us that the first few words of his Amendment apply only to local authorities in their position as landlords. It seems to me that as the Clause will run after the Amendment has been inserted, that provision would apply to other questions in the first nine Clauses of this Bill, because the Clause would say: It shall be the duty of a local authority to enforce the foregoing provisions of this part of this Act as respects dwelling houses in their district, and a prosecution for an offence against the said provisions shall not be instituted otherwise than by the local authority, provided that such a prosecution may be instituted against the local authority themselves by another person with the consent of the Attorney-General. That would enable a prosecution to be brought against the local authority for any matter contained in the first nine Clauses of the Bill. In regard to the first Clause, under which it is the duty of the local authority to inspect dwelling houses, a private person could indict the local authority for not having carried out its duty in that respect. That is not the intention, and the right hon. Gentleman might consider the desirability of clarifying this position on the Report stage.

7.25 p.m.


I am obliged to the Noble Lord for his observations, with which I warmly agree. I think that what he said with reference to the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) was true. This is no sort of reflection upon local authorities, either as regards the past or the future. It is only a question of a legal principle or legal form. As regards the observations of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle), I am advised that a prosecution can relate only to offences in respect of overcrowding.


It says an offence "as respects dwelling-houses."


I am advised that the position is as I have said, but I will certainly look into the point the hon. Member has raised in order to assure myself that the view I have stated is correct, and perhaps he will be content with that at the present stage.

7.27 p.m.


I do not object to the general principle of the Amendment, but the wording of it strikes me as being rather curious. The second part says that the local authority may serve on the occupier of a dwelling-house a notice requiring him to abate overcrowding before the expiration of 14 days, and proceeds: and if at any time within three months from the expiration of that period the house is overcrowded certain consequences will follow. It seems to be quite possible for the tenant to abate the overcrowding and, indeed, to leave the house and for some other person to come in within three months and to overcrowd the house. I assume that it is the intention of the Government that the complaint to the court of summary jurisdiction shall be made in regard to the original tenant who failed to comply with the notice to abate the overcrowding within 14 days, but as the Amendment is drawn it would appear to be possible for the original person to whom the notice is given to have abated the nuisance or, indeed, to have left and for some other person to have come in and for that other person, the house being overcrowded, to be subject to a complaint before the court of summary jurisdiction. I suggest that the Amendment should be so worded as to ensure that the complaint to the court of summary jurisdiction is made in respect of the original person upon whom the notice was served, and that it should not be possible for it to be applicable to an entirely different person. This matter might receive the attention of the Solicitor-General.

7.29 p.m.

The SOLICITOR - GENERAL (Sir Donald Somervell)

I rise in response to the invitation of the hon. and gallant Member. I do not think that any mistake will arise. This Amendment is to enable possession of a house to be obtained in a case where a landlord who ought to have got possession has failed to do so. I think the Amendment is rightly worded. A notice is served on the occupier, and if at anytime during the next three months the house is found to be overcrowded, possession can be obtained.


Overcrowded either by that occupier or another?


Overcrowded either by that occupier or another. I think the intention of the Amendment might be defeated if during the three months another family were allowed to occupy the house. I do not think there has been any mistake.

7.31 p.m.


I am not quite clear on one point which is, does the first part apply to the second part? If the local authority, as landlord, do not take action against themselves, who is it that applies to a court of summary jurisdiction for an order against the local authority? If, under the first part, another person does it, is it within the meaning of the provision for the landlord to take action against himself on his own behalf?


The machinery of part two is not applicable where the local authority is also the landlord. The machinery of part one can be used for bringing a local authority to book.

7.32 p.m.


May I ask the Solicitor-General to look further into the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner), because the point is a legitimate one? This, as I understand it, is the position: The offence is committed in the first place, 14 days' notice is given and if, at any time during the next three months, overcrowding is permitted, possession of the house can be obtained. If the three months go by without that happening, the process has to start afresh with a new 14 days and a new three months. That is intended, quite clearly, in relation to the same occupier throughout. If that is not the purpose, the effect is to deprive a man who happens to come into a house after the 14 days' notice has been given, but who has no knowledge of the notice, of the rights that are given to another person. One person, let us suppose, has committed an offence and is told about it. He abates the offence, but the notice nevertheless has been served. In six weeks' time he goes out, and another tenant comes in, and there is overcrowding. The tenant does not get 14 days' notice, and the authorities can secure an eviction order against him without having given him an opportunity to correct the offence with which he is charged. It appears to be necessary to put that position right when the Bill goes to another place, and I hope that the Solicitor-General will look into the question.

7.33 p.m.


Is there no way of simplifying the procedure for the local authority? Every time the local authority have to censure anybody for overcrowding, have they solemnly to pass a resolution under the seal of the local authority authorising prosecution and authorising the clerk of the council to take the necessary steps in regard to proceedings? That seems to be rather unnecessary. I cannot find anything in the Bill—I confess I have not looked very carefully—to make that procedure unnecessary in regard to the ordinary law of the land. My second point is: Against whom is the summons to be issued? Is it to be against the lord mayor, burgesses and citizens of the city of X? On whom is it to be served? These matters require simplification if the procedure is to be carried out without unnecessary expense and delay.

7.35 p.m.


The Bill does not make any alteration in the general law affecting the legal status of local authorities. To do so would be quite improper in a Housing Bill. The existing procedure regarding summonses against a local authority under the law remains, as I am sure it should remain, completely unaffected by the Bill.

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