HC Deb 01 September 1939 vol 351 cc180-8

" To continue and amend the Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions Acts, 1920 to 1938," presented, pursuant to the Order of the House this day, by Mr. Elliot; supported by Mr. Colville and Miss Horsbrugh; and ordered to be printed. [Bill 240.]

9.6 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Elliot)

I beg to move "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill continues under control houses at present under control and provides that there shall be no decontrol of such houses by the landlord obtaining vacant possession. In addition the Bill extends the same form of control to all houses except those which in April, 1939. had a rateable value exceeding £100 in the Metropolitan Police District and £75 elsewhere in England and Wales and £90 in Scotland. The limits of rateable values are so high as to ensure that only a small minority of houses will be out of control. In fact the Bill will cover 98 per cent. of the housing accommodation of the country.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. David Grenfell

The House will heartily welcome the Bill because it continues legislation which was put into operation in the first few months after the outbreak of war in 1914 and which has had such beneficial results in protecting the homes and safeguarding the interests of the great masses of the tenants of the country. Since 1914 the limit of control has been to some extent reduced, but I understand that there are about 400,000 houses still under control, and the Bill proposes to continue that control and in addition to bring under control houses which but for this Bill would be uncontrolled. A great number of houses have been built between 1918 and 1939. Indeed, we have surprised ourselves by the extent of building operations in this country, but there is still the risk that certain abuses might occur unless legislation such as this were brought immediately into operation. The tenants of the country will be happy that there is to be no delay in making this provision, and we feel sure that large numbers of tenants, people with small incomes, who will be forced to undergo trials which war always brings, will be gratified by this contribution to the satisfaction of public needs and the appeasement of the people. Speaking for the party to which I belong and for the great mass of the workers I am glad that the Minister has not delayed in bringing forward this Bill.

9.10 p.m.

Mr. Stephen

I am sorry that the other members of my party have not been able to get here, but we had not very much notice and it was difficult, if we were not near the railway station, to get here at the time that I arrived. While we welcome the Bill, it does not go nearly far enough. It is true that it extends control to all ordinary working-class occupiers, but there are many people who will not be able to pay the controlled rent in the new circumstances into which they are going. The man is called to the Army, if in the Reserve, and so many children have been evacuated and the homes are in a complete state of disorganisation economically as the result of what has happened in the last few days. I think it is necessary for the Government to extend their powers to prevent the eviction of people from their homes. If a man is serving with his regiment is it not going to be an absolute disgrace if the family are evicted because of inability to pay the rent, or are taken to court, with all the ensuing hardships? It is not a very simple position in which we find ourselves. It is straining many of these people to pay the rent with the wages or salaries that they are earning, but now the wage has been reduced ever so such by the fact that the man has gone into the Army, and the pay and allowances are much less than he was getting in civil life. When the rent gets behind and the owner or factor takes the person into court, many tenants will not know what to do. The House ought to see to it that no family is evicted in this period on the ground of poverty.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Foot

I think hon. Members will agree that the point raised by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) is a most important one, but I suggest that probably it is covered by Clause 1 of the Courts (Emergency Powers) Bill, which the House passed a short while ago. That Clause seems to me to be devised precisely for that purpose. I wish to say that hon. Members on these benches welcome this Bill, and we think that there would be a good deal to be said for it even if we were not passing through an emergency.

9.16 p.m.

Mr. Buchanan

I think that possibly the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) has answered the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen), but it might be better if the right hon. Gentleman could see his way to provide that at least for some transitional period no action could be taken. There are two points I want to raise. I understand that the Bill re-imposes control in the case of houses that have passed out of control. To that extent, it is satisfactory. The first point I want to raise concerns the provision dealing with houses that are let with part of the furniture or services. As far as I gather, houses of that sort are to be exempted. In Glasgow, a large number of houses are sub-let to tenants; that is to say, a person takes over a big house and sub-lets portions of it to occupiers. I gather that this provision of the Bill exempts those people from rent control. In Glasgow, people cannot get houses and are driven into furnished lodgings, and these people are not to be covered by any form of control. In the right hon. Gentleman's Division and in my own Division, the position will be dreadful if men are to be called to the Colours and those they leave behind are not to have even the protection of the courts. I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he cannot bring furnished apartments within the scope of the Bill. The people living in these furnished lodgings are the poorest of the poor, the people with least to defend, and they are given little protection under the Bill. I ask the Minister to give two forms of protection to these people, the first being rent control, and the second, a provision to prevent them from being evicted from their homes without at least an appeal to the courts. I ask him seriously to consider the matter.

The second point I want to raise has reference to shops. I think the Bill does not cover this point, but a number of shops are used by working-class people as dwelling-houses. Unfortunately, they cannot get houses, and frequently they take a shop and occupy it as a dwelling-house. I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether these people will be covered by the Bill, both as regards rent and the power of eviction, as there is a provision in the Bill regarding the exclusion of shops. Shops which are occupied as residences ought to be covered, and the local authority should have right of interfering for the purpose of giving advice and guidance to the courts. With all due respect to the courts this will be necessary. What will happen in an emergency? In many cases the man will have gone away and a woman will have been left behind. Unless you arrange for that woman to have some advice the courts may unwittingly do her an injustice. Before the court makes an order, the local authority should have power to intervene and the right hon. Gentleman ought to enforce on the judge the necessity of consulting with the local authority before making an order. In other words I want the courts not merely to consider the evidence which is led but to have the advantage of some further investigation such as the local authority can make. With the best will in the world, we may leave certain people defenceless in this matter. The services of lawyers will not be easily obtained. They, like other sections of the community, will be doing other work, and the courts will have to rely more and more, on their own judgment. Before an order is made there should be a responsibility on the judge to consult the local authority.

9.22 p.m.

Miss Wilkinson

As the right hon. Gentleman who spoke earlier said, we agree with this legislation and we welcome it, but I ask the Minister to take a rather bigger view of the question of getting this matter conveyed properly to the ordinary citizen, who is terribly worried about the present position. We are passing this legislation here. We have to take these two Bills together; we can refer to the terms of the Measures and we know what the position is, but there are thousands of people who are being worried into neurosis about what is going to happen with regard to these rents. I know the case of a woman whose twin sons are responsible for meeting her household expenses. Their wages were £3 a week. Now both have been called to the Colours together and the total amount which they can get is 17s. a week, and that woman has to pay a large rent.

We realise that there is also the question of the small landlord. There is the small owner who has just two or three houses and who may actually be in the position that people who can afford to pay him the rent are not doing so, on account of this legislation. Of course, we do not want that kind of thing to happen, but we do want to see that the woman whose only support is someone who has been called to the Colours should know that if she requires this protection she can have it. It is very simple to put in such words as "except with the leave of the appropriate court." We know that a woman in such a case as I have mentioned, can go to the county court, but I ask the Minister to remember that we are dealing here with the large mass of wives and mothers who will be left behind, who have had no experience of the law and to whom the mere idea of a law court is postively frightening. I would like to ask the Minister whether it would not be wise if he went to the British Broadcasting Corporation and spent a quarter of an hour in explaining to the ordinary woman what her rights are under these two Acts, and at the same time make an appeal that those who can afford to pay their rent ought to do so.

9.26 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

I think I can do better than that. It is difficult for us to see how each Bill which we are passing reacts on the other, but the two very important Bills which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has been steering through the House, and particularly the Courts (Emergency Powers) Bill, go a very long way to meet the difficulty brought forward by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen). It is impossible to go back on each detail, but the House may remember Sub-section (4) of that Bill, where it says: (4) If, on any application for such leave as is required under this Section for the exercise of any of the rights and remedies mentioned in Sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) of this Section, the appropriate court is of opinion that the person liable to satisfy the judgment or order, or to pay the rent or other debt, or to perform the obligation, in question is unable immediately to do so by reason of circumstances directly or indirectly attributable to any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, the court may refuse leave for the exercise of that right or remedy, or give leave there for subject to such restrictions and conditions as the court thinks proper. That is a very wide Clause and goes a very long way to meet the point of the hon. Members for Camlachie and Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan). The latter pointed out, quite rightly, that the Bill does not apply in terms to furnished rooms, but at this stage it is obviously most undesirable to try and amend the well understood and established rent control, and we might get into tremendous confusion if we started amending it in emergency legislation of this kind. We merely extend it, but a very long way, and, of course, along familiar lines. It covers the shop which is partially a dwelling-house, but that wide set of circumstances and possible queries raised by the hon. Members for Camlachie, Gorbals, and Jarrow (Miss Wilkinson) as to hardships arising in some way or other, where the rent previously contracted for could no longer be paid, where furnished rooms were being occupied by a tenant who feared eviction—all these things are dealt with in much better form by the more general powers conferred on the courts to examine hard cases of all kinds, by reason as the Act says in the widest possible terms, of circumstances directly or indirectly attributable to any war in which His Majesty may be engaged. That is a very wide power, covering a very wide set of circumstances. There is one further point made by the hon. Lady. She suggested a 15-minutes' talk on the B.B.C., but I can go further than that. The local authorities have powers, as is known, to publicise matters connected with rent restriction and housing, and I intend, if the House give me the Bill to-night, to send out, as soon as possible, a circular to the housing authorities in England and Wales, and a similar circular will be sent out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, calling attention to the great extension of rent control which is now to be passed into law, and saying—I quote from the draft of a circular which I intend to send out: Section 10 of the Rent Restriction Act of 1933, which gives local authorities power to publish information relating to rent restriction legislation, extends to other provisions of a like nature in the new Act, and I am to request that the local authorities will forthwith take such steps as they consider necessary to give due publicity to the new provisions in their area. I think that will meet the point made by the hon. Lady better perhaps than a short discussion on the wireless.

Miss Wilkinson

Surely a friendly talk from the B.B.C. would be more effective —a homely talk?

Mr. Stephen

I think that that is a good form of publicity, but one of the things I fear is that the court will not have the machinery. I suggest that the Minister should not only ask the local authority to give this publicity but should have one of their officials named as a person to whom people could go and state their difficulties.

Mr. Elliot

That is a valuable suggestion, and it shows the desirability of having the name and habitation of the person who is to be consulted in this matter, which the ether does not fully provide. A talk on the ether is all very well, but when it has gone it has gone, whereas a circular to the local authority and publicity by them mean that there is a door at which persons can knock and ask for the provisions of the Act to be explained to them.

Mr. George Griffiths

The last Rent Restrictions Act passed about two years ago de-controlled thousands of houses and the rents went up. This Bill will control them again. Now that they are to be controlled again will the rents go back to what they were before they were decontrolled, or will they remain where they are?

Mr. Elliot

If we were to attempt to fix a new set of rents and go back to the old set of rents we should be in a great difficulty with a great mass of houses which have been built since the War. We cannot go back and begin to fix a new set of rents. The houses will be controlled at current rents, and that applies to the new houses which have been built. This Bill extends to millions of houses which were not under any form of control and it will be difficult to go back and fix different rents.

Mr. G. Griffiths

If I may speak again by the leave of the House, there is no difficulty whatever in the matter, because it was only about two years ago that the rents were raised, and the old rents could easily be ascertained from the rent book. Let the Minister do the job fully and then everybody in the country will be pleased.

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey

In view of the very helpful assurance which the right hon. Gentleman has given as to publicity, I should like to ask whether he will consider having a very simple announcement put up in post offices. There it would be read by practically everybody. The notice would come to the attention of people who would not see formal circulars and might not be able to understand the language which would be used by the local authorities. It would allay a great deal of anxiety in the near future if some simple announcement could be displayed in post offices. I also ask the Minister to consider introducing some Measure in future to deal with lodgings which were referred to by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan). In the crowded cities of England the way in which poor people are exploited in so-called furnished lodgings by being made to pay enormous rents as compared with the value of the house amounts to a very real evil. At such a time it is important that this question should be borne in mind, as I am sure it will be by the Minister.

Mr. Elliot

I can give the assurance that I will take both those matters into consideration.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time; considered in Committee; reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.