HC Deb 08 July 1941 vol 373 cc128-37

As amended, considered.

NEW CLAUSE.— (Refund of rent in certain cases.)

  1. Where land is rendered unfit by reason of war damage and the rent therefore has been paid in advance there shall be refunded by the landlord to the tenant such proportion of the rent so paid as is equal to the period during which the land is not occupied.
  2. Where land is rendered unfit by reason of war damage and is partially occupied by the tenant and the rent there for has been paid in advance there shall be refunded by the land-lord to the tenant such proportion of the rent as may be agreed between them or, in default of such agreement, as may be fixed by the court.— [Mr. Glenvil Hall]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

It is customary for rents to be paid in advance— almost every lease or sub-lease contains a clause to that effect but, owing to a decision of the courts it is by no means certain that, if a house suffers from war damage and the rent has been paid in advance, the tenant can recover that proportion of it which is properly his for the time that he is out of occupation of the premises. The Attorney-General may say that much which I wish to achieve was covered by words inserted in Clause I in Committee. But those words refer only to a short tenancy, and later on we are given a definition of a short tenancy. A short tenancy to which these words will apply is a tenancy of not more than three months. In a very large number of leases tenancies are for periods much longer than that. Therefore, although that may go a long way to meet the point that I am trying to get ventilated, it only partially covers the point. Even if the words can be said to cover most cases, they do not cover the case of a man who has put in a disclaimer. If the Attorney-General cannot accept my form of words, I should like to ask for an assurance that in another place words will be Inserted to cover a gap which ought to be filled.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

The hon. Member was quite right when he told the House that, so far as short tenancies are concerned, the point was properly covered. I can assure him that it is covered. We inserted words in Committee in Clause 1 (2) to make it clear. The words are, "in respect of that period," and by a recent decision of the Court of Appeal that has been held to make the rent apportionable. It is, however, true that, as the result of two recent decisions in the Court of Appeal, the position is as follows: In the case of a notice of retention or a notice of disclaimer, rent payable in advance can be apportioned up to the date when the notice became effective, but under one of the decisions if a tenant of a tenancy other than a short tenancy serves a notice of disclaimer in the middle of a period in respect of which he has paid in advance, he cannot recover back, but an apportionment is made of the rent after the day of notice. That decision is based on the landlord and tenant law that if the least: comes to an end in the middle of a rent period, rent paid in advance cannot be recovered back. It is worth consideration whether we might not reasonably make the rent apportionable in that case. The hon. Member's words would not do, because they are quite general and would be restricted to a notice of disclaimer, but I will look into the point. As at present advised, it seems to be a point which might reasonably be met, but we will go into it, and, if we find that there is no objection, we will certainly consider making the change in another place.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also consider the first point about long tenancies being included? At present only short tenancies are covered.

The Attorney-General

That is the point. So far as long tenancies are concerned, either a man serves a notice of disclaimer or a notice of retention.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

CLAUSE 1.— (Provisions as to weekly tenancies.)

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 2, line 7, to leave out from "and" to the end of line 11, and to insert: continues to be in that state of repair. This Amendment and the next are intended to meet a point that was raised in Committee. A certificate of fitness might properly be given shortly after the damage was done, and it might be a perfectly proper certificate having regard to the conditions then existing, the materials available and so on. But four or five months later it may be that more materials are available and the standard on which the certificate was given has ceased to be a reasonable standard of fitness, having regard to all the circumstances. It was suggested that the tenant might go back to the local authority and say, "I want my house looked at again," and if an official of the local authority came to the conclusion that it had not been kept up to or improved up to the proper standard as at that date, he could withdraw the certificate, and the house would be treated as unfit. The words are designed to carry out that suggestion, and I think I hey will satisfactorily do so.

Amendment agreed to.

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 2, line 18, at the end, to insert: (5) If the local authority in whose area any such dwelling-house is situated issue a certificate that the dwelling-house has been repaired to the extent mentioned in the last foregoing subsection the production of the certificate shall, at any time while the certificate remains in force, be sufficient evidence that the house is fit for the purposes of this section at that time, unless the contrary is proved: Provided that the local authority shall, on the application of the tenant made not less than three months after the issue of the certificate or after his last application, inspect the dwelling-house, and if they are satisfied that—

  1. (a) further repairs have become reasonably practicable since the issue of the certificate and have not been carried out; or
  2. (b) the works of repair carried out before the issue of the certificate have not been maintained in a reasonably efficient state;
they shall revoke the certificate and serve a notice of the revocation on the tenant and on the landlord, and, as from the date of the service of the notice and until a new certificate is issued under this subsection, the production of the notice shall be sufficient evidence that the dwelling-house is unfit by reason of war damage, unless the contrary is proved. This Amendment is consequential on the last Amendment, and I dealt with it in my speech.

Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, in line I, after the word "If," to insert: "the sanitary inspector or other officer of."

I submit that the alterations which were made in the Bill on the Committee stage are likely to cause serious difficulty and certainly considerable delay. This is war emergency legislation, and it is essential that speedy decisions should be given in all these cases as to whether or not houses can be repaired. The original Bill contained the words "the sanitary inspector of the local authority," and the duty was cast upon him of giving the appropriate certificate. On the Committee stage, for reasons which the Attorney-General explained, and which I thought insufficient, the sanitary inspector was left out and the matter was left to the local authority. Local authorities in matters of this sort which are committed to their special care have to act judicially. They have no power, unless it is given them in the Act, to delegate their duties. It would be their duty to instruct one of their officers, no doubt the sanitary inspector, to examine the property and to make a report to them. That report would come before the appropriate committee of the local authority and the committee would pass a resolution approving or disapproving of the report of the sanitary inspector. That resolution would come before the council and would be approved or otherwise by the council as a whole. That would involve considerable delay in these days when councils are frequently meeting only quarterly and when in some cases councils do not meet for even longer periods. There is an insuperable objection to the Clause, as amended by the Attorney-General, which leaves this matter to the local authority.

There are ample precedents for my Amendment. The Housing Act, 1936, and a number of other Measures dealing with slum clearance, development, and so on provide that the local authority shall, on the representation of an official, do so-and-so. That would be the case here. I was never clear why the first thoughts of the Minister of Health, the Attorney-General and the draftsmen were not best and why the matter was not left to the sanitary inspector, although I was willing to have added the words: "or other official designated by the council. For years past the sanitary inspector has had such matters left to him. The Minister of Health, in Circular 2376 of 13th May, indicated to all local authorities that the sanitary inspector's know and experience were indispensable in giving certificates in regard to the repair of war damage. One of the Attorney-General's reasons for deleting the term "sanitary inspector" and leaving it to the local authority was that he desired to be able to supplement him by other officials if necessary. I would point out that these are not certificates that would be required immediately after bombing had taken place and that there would be ample time for the sanitary inspector to go round damaged properties and give the appropriate certificates. I have no objection to the council being enabled to authorise other officers. Another reason which the Attorney-General gave for deleting "sanitary inspector" was that he desired a uniform standard to be achieved as far as possible. That is an object with which we are in agreement. It is far more likely that sanitary inspectors, acting as they have to do daily in accordance with instructions of the Ministry of Health, would be able to bring about a fairly uniform standard of certification but to leave the matter to the local authority at large or any official of the authority would widen the range of decisions, for the medical officer might do it in one case, the surveyor in another and the city engineer in another. That would reduce the thing to an absurdity.

The third ground on which the Attorney-General deleted the term "sanitary inspector" was that he desired complaints to be addressed to the local authority and not to any particular official. I am in sympathy with that view, but for nearly 50 years, and more so in the last 20 years, sanitary inspectors have been standing between landlords and tenants, and as far as I know there have been no serious difficulties. I am at a loss to conceive why at this late hour and in the midst of war the Attorney-General should take so much thought for the comfort of those who make these reports and should suggest that there would be a difference between complaints addressed to the local authority arid those addressed to the sanitary inspector. I submit that the alteration was uncalled for and that it will result in speedy decisions being made impossible. There is a great number of Statutes dealing with various questions of this sort. The Rent Act, for example, provides that a certificate should be given by the sanitary authority, but it also has a provision enabling a certificate given by any official to be good in a court unless the contrary is proved. I would call the attention of all those, whether landlords or tenants, who have been in the habit of applying for certificates to sanitary authorities that very probably those certificates were wrongfully given and would be subject to challenge in any court because they were not given by the sanitary authorities in the majority of cases but by the sanitary inspectors. I want this Bill to provide that the responsible, knowledgeable official shall give the certificate in order to obviate delay. If my Amendment were made, it would do away with all the difficulties, ensure speedy decisions and give satisfaction to all those concerned in what may well be an extremely important matter.

Mr. Silkin (Peckham)

I beg to second the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

I am seconding this Amendment in only a half-hearted way. I should have preferred the words as they stand if I could be assured that it would not be necessary that the certificate should be issued after a meeting of the council. That is the gist of the whole thing. If these words mean that only after a meeting of the council, which may take place only quarterly, can certificates be issued then obviously the thing is not workable; but if it means that the certificates can be issued on the authority of the council at any time I should prefer that the certificates should be issued on the authority of the council and not on the authority of the sanitary inspector or any other official. While I have seconded the Amendment in order that we may have an explanation from the Attorney-General, I hope it turns out that a local authority can issue these certificates without waiting for a full meeting.

The Attorney-General

After the explanation which he has given us of his reasons for seconding the Amendment to the proposed Amendment the hon. Member will, no doubt, be regarded by some of his friends as in the nature of a Parliamentary Quisling. I think my hon. Friend who moved the Amendment is really not quite right in his statute law. I do not think he will find in those statutes cases in any way comparable with that which he has put forward in which the sanitary inspector has, as an official, this responsibility placed upon him. There are certain provisions under which he can return a certificate to the council and on that the council can act, but that premises that the matter has been before the council and that is the thing we want to avoid, I still think that it would be wrong as a matter of principle to place the responsibility for this action upon the sanitary inspector as such, so that the local authority could say in effect, "It is no good your complaining to us. The Bill has made the sanitary inspector the unappealable judge." Our intention is that the sanitary inspector should do this work and should do it as an official of the local authority, and I certainly agree that it is most important that the machinery should not involve the necessity of waiting for a meeting of the council, or, indeed, a meeting of a committee of the council, in respect of each certificate given, and I doubt whether the words on the Paper could have been so construed.

It is known that bodies have to act and do act through their officials. In some cases matters come before the council or a committee, and in other cases they are perfectly prepared to leave it to the official to act in individual cases in his own name under the authority of the council and on their behalf. I agree that it is most important that we should be certain that we have not used words which in law would involve the necessity for a meeting of the council or a committee before the certificate could be issued, and if it is found necessary to insert words to make that certain we will do so; but it is a matter which calls for rather careful consideration, because there are other more or less analogous provisions in Acts dealing with local authorities, and we do not want to insert words here if the effect would be that their absence in other cases would suggest in those other cases that there has to be an appeal to the council. We will do our best to see that, before the Bill becomes law, it is made as clear as it can be made that a meeting of the council or committee is not necessary.

Major Milner

May I ask that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be good enough to communicate his decision to me in good time? Last week this matter was left to be considered, and naturally I communicated with him to hear what view the Government took.

The Attorney-General

The hon. and gallant Member wrote me last week. I did not get the letter till this morning. I did, in fact, write a letter to him yesterday evening.

Major Milner

I am much obliged to my right hon. and learned Friend. I wrote to him communicating certain further observations which had occurred to me, but I had rather anticipated having regard to what he said last week that of his own volition he would further consider the matter.

The Attorney-General

I did consider the matter.

Major Milner

Then I withdraw that observation entirely. I think that what has happened is that he wrote me a letter, and that before I received it my letter to him came along. If he will be good enough to communicate with me in time to give me an opportunity to have the matter ventilated in another place if that should be necessary I should be grateful. One further point occurs to me, the possibility of some division of responsibility arising. A council might authorise the surveyor or the medical officer to make an examination and he might give a certificate that the premises were fit, but then the sanitary inspector, whose duty it is at present to inspect the premises, might come along and say that the premises were not fit and serve a notice of repairs. In that case there would be divided responsibility. I beg to ask leave to with-draw my Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Proposed words there inserted in the Bill.

CLAUSE 2.— (Conditional notice of retention.)

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 5, line 21, after the third "to," to insert: execute all such works as are reasonably practicable for temporarily meeting the circumstances created by the damage; (b) to. This Amendment and the two following ones are submitted in order to meet a point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) during the Committee stage. He suggested that a tenant whose house was slightly damaged might serve a conditional notice of retention in order to get out of paying his rent while the War Damage Commission were dealing with the vast number of cases with which they will have to deal; that he could wait until they had decided that they would give him costs of works; and that in that way the landlord would be kept out of his rent for a long period although an expenditure of a few pounds could have made the house fit. One answer to that would be that the land himself could go in and do the work; but we felt that there was a point to be considered here, and we now propose to put upon the tenant who is in such a position an obligation which it is clearly reasonable that he should bear, and that is to execute all such works as are "reasonably practicable for temporarily meeting the circumstances created by the damage." Those words are taken from Section 5 of the War Damage Act and describe the type of repair for which the tenant will get a cost of works payment irrespective of whether the ultimate decision, or what I may call permanent decision dealing with the building, is cost of works or damage.

Mr. Garro Jones (Aberdeen, North)

Could my right hon. and learned Friend give us any indication of the type of repairs he has in mind and of the maximum liability which could be imposed upon a tenant in these circumstances?

The Attorney-General

I think it would be difficult to define the maximum, because that would depend upon the size of the building, but the type of repair one has in mind is, for example, where a roof has some damage to it but could at comparatively small expense be made weather-proof by being covered by a tarpaulin, and so on. It is the type of repair which is reasonably practicable to meet the circumstances created by the damage. This would include window repairs with boards or other material which enables the house to be lived in and prevents the weather coming in.

One starts with a notice of detention, under which the tenant is liable to do all the repairs as and when practicable. The present proposal enables him to get very much more advantageous notice by making it a condition of his getting a cost-of-works payment. When one is giving him an attractive option to relieve him of the liability which he was under by the principal Act to have the repairs done, there is no reason why he should not have a wider obligation to do temporary repairs to make the house fit to live in. It is reasonable that this type of repair should be a liability on the tenant when he takes advantage of this option.

Amendment agreed to. Further Amendments made:

In page 5, line 25, at the beginning, insert "to take."

In line 25, leave out from "practicable," to "to," in line 26.— [The Attorney-General.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."— [King's consent signified.]

Mr. Moelwyn Hughes (Carmarthen)

I desire to make clear what I could not state in moving my Amendment during the Committee stage of the Bill, and that is to express my appreciation and that of those who are associated with me, of the very generous extent to which the Attorney-General has carried out the assurances which he gave. He has seen fit considerably to alter the words which I put upon the Order Paper, but I make no complaint about it. He has also gone further, and included provisions for the maintenance of the repairs which have been carried out. I should like to express my appreciation of those additions.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.