§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time." 1752 This Bill deals with three somewhat different aspects of this problem. In order to follow it, it is necessary to have in mind the provisions of the earlier Act which this House passed in the early days of the war—the Landlord and Tenant (War Damage) Act, 1939. As Members will know, that Act provided for this sort of general machinery, namely, that if a house was rendered unfit by enemy action, the tenant was enabled to disclaim his lease, and if he was a rack tenant, that probably was the best course for him to take. If the tenant did that, or sought to do it, the landlord could serve a notice to avoid a disclaimer, the landlord undertaking liability to make the house again fit. In that case no rent was payable unless and until the landlord made the house fit. The other course which the tenant could take under that Act, and if he had a valuable lease he would be inclined to do it, was to serve a notice of retention, and by serving that notice the tenant made himself liable to repair the house. Again, rent was not payable until he so made it fit. The Act also relieved the landlord and the tenant from any liability to repair war damage whatever covenant as to repairs or to the delivering-up in good condition might be contained in the lease. That was the broad effect of the Landlord and Tenant (War Damage) Act, which, of course, was passed at a time before there was any war damage Government scheme, the position at that time being the simple assurance that no doubt some money would be paid, but that we must wait and see how much money there was about, and how extensive was the damage.
There was also, in the original Act, a provision for an apportionment of rent, if, as might happen, part of the house was unfit, but part of it was fit and capable of occupation. That system of notices, disclaimer notices and retentions is inappropriate in the case of weekly tenants. A weekly tenant can always serve a notice to quit, but he does not follow these things, and naturally cannot do so, especially in these days, when very often a weekly tenant has his house destroyed and he is taken to a rest centre and moved off into the country. It would be quite unreasonable, as well as impracticable, to make liability for rent dependent on whether he has served a particular notice and so on. Therefore, 1753 the first Clause of this Bill makes certain special provisions as to weekly tenancies. It is provided in Sub-section (2) that if, for instance, a cottage which is being let on a weekly tenancy is unfit by reason of war damage and is unoccupied, either in whole or part, by the tenant, no rent shall be payable under the tenancy. That is what landlords have in the main been doing. The vast number of landlords are not seeking to exact rent from weekly tenants whose houses have been rendered unfit and the tenants have gone. But there are some who may try and do it, and there is also the legal position. At the moment a tenant is liable for rent unless he has served the appropriate document. He can get out of that liability and therefore we thought it good to make this provision. There may be a house which, though unfit, is occupied or occupied in part. There may be a house which is unfit in part, but fit in part. In these two cases there is a provision that the rent shall be reduced by agreement, as it is hoped, but if that cannot be effected it may be fixed by the court.
§ The Attorney-General
It is construed in the same way as in other Acts of Parliament. We have provided, if the hon. Member will look at Sub-section (5):For the purposes of this Section a. tenant shall not be deemed to be in occupation of and land which is unfit by reason of war damage by reason only—I think that meets the point which the hon. Member put. Sub-section (4) contains an important provision with regard to the procedure for settling the question whether a house is or is not fit, and it provides that there shall be a certificate by the sanitary inspector that the house is fit, and that shall be prima facie evidence that it is fit. In this provision we have followed in the main the distinction, or rather what was implied in the distinction, in the earlier Act, and that is, of course, that the standard of fitness must have regard to what can be done in war-time 1754 and in all the circumstances. The sanitary inspector seems to be the right person, at any rate prima facie, to express an opinion on that point. [An HON. MEMBER: "Is there any provision for appeal?"] Oh yes. If either the landlord or tenant wants to say that the house is fit and the sanitary inspector says it is not fit, or vice versa, he can go to the court. It will save a great many disputes, and it is a sensible provision in itself.
- (a) that furniture or other goods belonging to or used by him remain on the land;
- (b) that he visits the land from time to time for the purpose of removing, or taking steps to preserve, any such furniture or goods; or
- (c) that he retains possession of the keys of any buildings or works situated on the land;"
§ The Attorney-General
No, it must depend on the circumstances. Most of us have worked for a time in a room with no windows. I have worked in a room where the windows were replaced by boards. Now I have some linen stuff. What is fitness for habitation must depend in these days on circumstances.
§ Mr. Woodburn
Is a house fit if the roof is still broken and dust is still falling from the roof? Is it fit if a wall is still broken? Is it fit if there is no proper water supply? Is it fit if the sanitary arrangements arc not replaced? Is there not a minimum of certain things like that which must be stipulated?
§ The Attorney-General
We could put that in the Bill. The proper way would be for the Ministry of Health to lay down on what standards these certificates should be granted, and I suppose the water supply and sanitary arrangements would have to be in reasonable working order. I think that is how you would have to deal with that, and, if the standard is too low, that is the way to get it raised.
§ Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)
Do you not think that if it is not in the Bill, it will be a lawyers' paradise?
§ The Attorney-General
No. It may be a sanitary inspectors' paradise. I mean that it will be a matter to be dealt with by the sanitary inspector, having regard to the standards which the local authorities apply, and by the Ministry of Health. I think the lawyers will be out of it altogether. If you put it in the Bill, it would become a lawyers' paradise. If you tried to define a minimum standard of fitness, there would be matters about which people should go to court.
The following Clauses deal with notices of retention. If a man has a valuable 1755 lease, he can, under existing legislation, serve a notice of retention. Under that notice he makes himself liable to make the house fit. When the War Damage Bill was before the House we felt, though we could not deal with it in that Bill, that a tenant who had served, or might want to serve, a notice of retention was put in a very difficult position by the form which the War Damage Act took. If ultimately he was going to get a cost-of-works payment for repairing the house, that was one thing. He served his notice, and the work that he had to do he assumed would be paid for by the Government. On the other hand, if, when the time came, he got only a value payment, his share of that value payment might be small. He therefore would find himself getting only a small amount of the pre-war value of the house and still saddled with the obligation to build it all up again, and it seemed intolerable that he should be in that dilemma, not knowing whether the obligation which he had assumed would necessitate his not putting his hand in his pocket at all or putting it in and finding large sums of money. We therefore provide in this Clause for the service of a conditional notice of retention, a notice of retention of the lease conditional on the repairs ranking for cost-of-works payment. If when the time comes the Commission decides that it must be a value payment, that notice will operate as a disclaimer, and the later Clauses of the Bill adopt and adapt the appropriate procedure in that event. I think that is a fair provision to make, and there is nothing unfair for the landlord, and it really fits in the early piece of legislation with the position as it now is under the War Damage Act. We provide in Subsection (6) of Clause 2 that those who have served notices of retention in the past can now in effect convert them into conditional notices, and that seems only right and fair.
Clause 3 deals with leases comprising separate hereditaments and provides for a possible case in which the War Damage Commission may say that part of the property comprised in the lease can rank for cost of works and part for value. Clause 4 adapts some rather special provisions of the War Damage Act to this new procedure. Clause 5 is a useful piece of procedure providing for who is prima 1756 facie responsible for repairing the house asking for cost-of-works payments and so on. Clause 6 deals with the case, which may not be so likely after the Bill, of a tenant who has served an unconditional notice of retention, who is bound to repair, and it enables him to go before the War Damage Commission and, if a value payment is made, take the other party there; and, if he has plans for reconstruction which are approved, he can get the whole of the value payment. It is a useful piece of machinery, so that, where you have a value payment which may be split up among different people, the person who has undertaken the obligation can say, "If you give me all the money, I will reconstruct in this way." Clause 7 provides for a modification of leases when properties are reinstated not exactly as they were before, and Clause 8 applies certain machinery provisions of the War Damage Act to this Bill.
In Clause 9 we come to the third important matter dealt with by the Bill— that is, ground leases. The Landlord and Tenant (War Damage) Act differentiated between ground leases and leases which were not ground leases, and a ground lessee could not serve a notice of disclaimer except with the leave of the court, or a notice of retention. If one looks at the report of the Committee on which the Act was based, the view that they took was that the ground lessee has a long period to run. They also said, "We are relieving him of the very onerous obligation, which rests on all ground lessees, to hand over in good condition at the end of the period. As we are relieving him of that, we think it is not unreasonable that he should continue to pay the ground rent which represents the annual value of the site. "The position has in part changed by the passing of the War Damage Act. The relief from the liability to reconstruct is of much less advantage to-day than it was in 1939 because in many cases the ground lessee will get the work paid for by cost-of-works payment, and, in any case, he will get some payment in respect of what has been damaged.
In any event, from questions I have been asked and representations that have been made to me by Members and from what I have found out myself, I have been led to the conclusion that the question of ground leases required reconsideration. There is undoubtedly some- 1757 thing to be said for the view which was embodied in the previous Act, but, on the whole, I think that the case for assimilating the ground lessee to the other lessee who is not a ground lessee is a strong one. Perhaps its strength can be seen best in the case in which the ground lessee does not himself occupy but leases to subtenants; he is a sub-landlord. Take the case of a man who takes a ground lease of premises. His ground lease is, say, £200 a year. He builds a house on the site and sub-lets to tenants for £1,500. They are all rack tenants paying sums which between them make up £1,500 a year. Parliament said in the Landlord and Tenant (War Damage) Act that all these occupying tenants, either by disclaiming or, indeed, by notices of retention, could get out of paying rent while the house was unfit. The sub-landlord was, therefore, being deprived of the source to which he looked to get his £200, but he had to pay his ground landlord. That was difficult for him to do, and I am told that many ground landlords are not getting ground rents from houses that are unfit.
§ Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
Is this to be retrospective? It is true that many ground landlords have acted reasonably in this matter but others have not. In many cases rents have been compounded by the ground lessee paying a number of years' ground rent and surrendering the land as well so that the ground landlord has gained a great advantage quite inequitably. Is there any provision for reopening transactions of that kind?
§ The Attorney-General
It would be extremely difficult to do that. It always happens that when Parliament decides that a thing is wise people will have proceeded on a basis that that was not the law. I am not saying that I do not appreciate the force of what my hon. Friend says, but I think it would be difficult to reopen the past. Another practical argument for this provision is that though in some cases it is easy to say what is a ground lease, some leases are obviously ground leases as defined by the Act, but there are a number of border-line cases in which it is difficult to say whether the ground lease is a ground lease as defined by the Act or whether there is something more than the site value affected in the sum. 1758 Clause 10 deals with a minor matter which wants to be put right. In certain mortgages, and possibly in certain other contracts, there was a provision that the land should be insured against war damage. In happier days one could insure against war damage, but that is now impossible. A decision of the courts has held, no doubt rightly, that the practical impossibility of effecting this insurance does not wipe out the obligation. This Clause gives relief from obligations to insure against war damage whether expressed or implied.
§ The Attorney-General
That is not insurance. Although we speak of the War Damage Act as in the nature of insurance, it is not insurance in the terms of this Clause. A further provision in the Bill is that if proceedings are transferred from the county court to the High Court, as they can be if they are very complicated, they shall go to one of the judges nominated under Section 94 of the War Damage Act. That is obviously convenient because the questions that arise under this Bill will be in a similar area to those that arise under the War Damage Act. Clause 13 merely substitutes the somewhat extended definition of war damage in the War Damage Act for the original definition in the Landlord and Tenant (War Damage) Act. The Schedule provides for certain extensions and modifications of Section 6 of the War Damage Act, which deals with the determination by the court of unfitness, and what classes are to have notice, and so on, and of Section 18, which deals with the somewhat complicated matter of multiple leases.
I hope that this is a sufficient exposition of a somewhat dry Bill which I hope will commend itself to the House. It is a very difficult area and it affects vast numbers of people. We have the novel conditions which arise from enemy action and we now have the War Damage Act providing for compensation, and it is difficult to be quite certain as to what are the best provisions in detail for dealing with the relations of landlord and tenant. I hope, however, that this Bill will commend itself to the House as an effort to solve satisfactorily the problems with which it sets out to deal.
§ Mr. Garro Jones (Aberdeen, North)
The House has once more had the advantage of a clear exposition of a rather intricate Bill from my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I do not know how many Bills he has introduced on Second Reading in this Parliament, but I hope that he is notching them off on his despatch box, or, less romantically, entering them in his diary. I am sure that no predecessor of his has introduced so many Bills in Parliament. If some record of them is kept it will provide a little relief in what he has described as the rather drab annals of the Law Officers of the Crown. Looked at merely as another Bill, and as an amending Bill at that, and as a Bill which on perusal by a layman might appear to be almost incomprehensible, this Measure might appear of secondary importance. The House ought, nevertheless, to recognise what a great deal of arduous labour and thought has to be put into Bills such as this. They are building up a very complicated structure of war damage law which permeates far into our war economy and social structure and prevents enemy action from throwing the relationship of landlord and tenant into complete chaos and disarray.
I propose to deal principally with Clause 1. The Attorney-General described it as an amending Clause, but it differs from other Clauses in the Bill in that it is an inaugural Clause of an important character and introduces a new principle governing the cases of weekly tenancies if they suffer war damage. Most of us will be very glad of that, I think, because the Clause greatly simplifies the procedure and weekly tenancies are held by persons who are, for the most part, those least able to afford that legal advice without which all the elaborate structure and elaborate system of notice and counter-notice set up in Part II of the principal Act can hardly be said to be available at all. Therefore, I think, we must welcome Clause 1, because it takes those weekly tenancies by the forelock, as it were, and lifts them right out of the complicated structure of Part II of the principal Act.
I ask the House to observe what Clause 1 offers weekly tenants in return for the old procedure. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman explained, Sub-sections (2) and (3) give weekly tenants of all kinds of premises, including 1760 dwelling-houses, the option either of vacating the premises and ceasing to pay rent or of continuing in occupation and paying such rent as may be agreed between the tenant and the landlord or, failing agreement, as may be fixed by the court. I would point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because he did not deal with this point very specifically, that the exercise of that option depends, first, upon the premises coming within the definition of unfitness as laid down in the principal Act. If the premises cannot be brought within that definition, though they may be severely damaged, there is no relief for the weekly tenant under the provisions of this Bill.
Sub-section (4) departs from weekly tenancies in general and deals with weekly tenancies of dwelling-houses, which form an important part of our property. It is rather important for the House to note, as I am sure hon. Members who have looked at the Bill have noticed, precisely to what class of premises Sub-section (4) applies. They must be dwelling-houses, they must be let on weekly tenancies, they must have been rendered unlit by war damage as defined in the principal Act, and there must have been some attempt to repair them before this Sub-section comes into operation at all. When all these conditions have been fulfilled the sanitary officer of the local authority can come along and, applying an entirely new definition of fitness, which is contained within the Sub-section itself, can pronounce the premises fit, bring back the tenant, who may have vacated them under the earlier option contained in Subsections (2) and (3) and require him to begin to pay the full rent of the house.
We are, therefore, confronting the weekly tenant of a dwelling-house with two difficult decisions, looking at this thing from a practical point of view. His house has been damaged to a greater or lesser extent and he has first to decide whether the options in Sub-sections (2) and (3) are, in fact, available to him, and he will be compelled to look at the definition of unfitness in the principal Act; and, then, though he may have vacated the premises, the local authority or the landlord may have stepped in within a few days of his vacating the premises, made some attempt—it does not specify how much attempt, it may only be putting in a few pieces of muslin in place of windows 1761 —to repair the house, and require him to reoccupy the premises and pay full rent for them, unless, as the proviso says, the accommodation has been substantially diminished.
An enormous number of people will be affected by this provision, and I want the right hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the definition of unfitness which a weekly tenant will have to consider before deciding what are his rights. There is, first, the definition in the principal Act, which contains the operative words:Unit for the purpose for which those buildings or works were used or adapted before the occurrence of the war damage in question.In the Sub-section which we are considering at the moment, the definition of fitness is:Shall be deemed at any time to be fit if it has been repaired to such an extent as is reasonably practicable at that time having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the locality, and sufficient to render the dwelling-house reasonably capable of being used for housing purposes.Then there follows a number of qualifications which are intended to clarify the definition, though in my view the qualifications are rather more subject to doubt and cavil than the operative words of the definitions themselves. Everyone who has had anything to do with the law knows that the phrases "having regard to" and "all the circumstances" frequently appear in statutes, rules and orders of court, and judges and masters are frequently compelled to listen to interminable arguments or what they mean. Although obviously there should be some elasticity in order to give some discretion to those who have to determine whether these premises are fit or not, I think it would have been better to leave the operative words of the definition in each case without these vague qualifications, which will result in different standards of fitness and unfitness in different parts of the country as, indeed, they are intended to do.
At the appropriate stage we on this side intend to propose that there shall be a different definition of fitness and unfitness as regards housing premises. In doing so we do not intend to reflect in the least upon those who have drawn up the existing definitions, nor do we pretend that any amount of defining can mitigate the discomforts of those whose houses are damaged, but we are dealing with dis- 1762 comforts inflicted upon house dwellers not as an isolated matter but in relation to the rents which they will have to pay, and in adjusting the rents I submit that we should not expend a great deal of learning in the legal sense and perhaps not quite enough in the way of that wise political decision upon which the statutes ought to have been drafted.
The Attorney-General might ask what the wise political decision is, that we should propose. The first suggestion is that Clause 1 should contain a definition of fitness on a more real test, namely, to what extent the dwelling has suffered appreciable diminution of value owing to the war damage and to what extent the rent should be adjusted, whether by a sanitary officer, or by any other officer who it might be considered should more appropriately do it. That is a point which is worth some thinking about. We have no objection to a sanitary officer making this apportionment of rent according to the damage done, yet we think it is hardly right that the sanitary officer should be compelled to say that premises are either fit or unfit. You can never say that premises are absolutely fit or absolutely unfit for their particular job. You might as well ask a sanitary officer to say that a certain object is square or round when it is really of neither shape. Perhaps the sanitary officer might be asked to determine a measure of fitness or unfitness and the rent to which the tenant is liable, according to that measure. If the sanitary officer is not considered able to carry out this function there is no reason why he should not act as assistant to the liabilities adjustment officer or the local agents of the War Damage Commission, who will have to be brought into the matter later on.
The second point which we shall seek to have embodied in the Bill at the appropriate stage is that the simpler procedure of Clause 1 should be applied to all dwelling-houses and not only to those which are under a weekly tenancy. I am unable to understand why a weekly tenant is able; by the simple process of giving a week's notice to quit, to escape from his obligations when he can no longer fulfil them, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman very fairly pointed out, while a monthly tenant is compelled to have recourse to the extremely elaborate procedure of Part II of the principal 1763 Act. We shall, therefore, propose, and it is as well to let the right hon. and learned Gentleman know this, that the simpler procedure, which we welcome in the case of weekly tenants and which is laid down in Clause 1, shall extend to dwelling-houses of whatever tenancy. There are weekly tenants who pay very high rents and monthly or annual tenants who pay very small rents. There is a very good case to be made out for giving the benefit of the simpler procedure to the dwelling-house, the roof, of the person whose home has been damaged. We shall make that proposal at a latter stage.
We can make the proposal with the more force because we think that, in the case of dwelling-houses, the procedure should be characterised by greater celerity. There is a greater element of urgency in the case of a householder who wants to know what his rights are. Sometimes very hard things are said in this House, not only from this side but the other side, about the Parliamentary draftsmen, and against the legal profession in general. Such hard things may sometimes be justified, but they are often based on the carrying out by the legal profession of the administration of principles which have been prescribed for them by higher authority. It is, therefore, only fair to say that it is not always the fault of the lawyer.
There is a tendency, among both politicians and lawyers, when they begin to find themselves adept at procedure, to extend procedure out of all proportion to the practical considerations involved. In the development of our legal system that process has frequently had to be checked and reversed. No doubt every hon. and learned Member will remember how the old forms of procedure used to begin with statements of claim followed by counterclaims and replies, followed by rejoinders, followed by sur-rejoinders and so on, before the action began at all. I am reminded of those old forms very much by the procedure in Part II Of the principal Act, with its notice to elect, notice of disclaimer, notice to avoid disclaimer and notice of retention, to say nothing of that rather odd provision—I must say that there is something to be said for it—under which a conditional notice of retention can, if the War Damage Commission de- 1764 cide to make a value payment, be treated as a notice of disclaimer. Procedure has been carried a little too far.
I do not suppose for a moment, if a tenant whose house had been damaged were able to afford legal advice, that his lawyer—there are some lawyers in this House who would be very competent to do it—would be unable to take him by the hand and lead him through the tortuous maze of this legislation, with an occasional pleasant interlude in the county court, to ultimate justice. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the average tenant and average landlord, or even the average lawyer, would prefer a simpler path to that goal. It is a great mistake to think that solicitors are fond of complex legislation. This kind of legislation wastes the time of solicitors and frightens the client. As for barristers, every barrister knows that the best and most persistent litigants are those who think they know something about the law. So I submit to the Government, if they find any merit in the proposal which we shall put forward for simplifying procedure and extending the simplification, that they should give this proposal favourable attention.
I do not propose to detain the House by an examination of the numerous amending and miscellaneous provisions of the Bill. Many of them are of far-reaching effect, and hon. Members will, in their turn, make observations upon the Clauses which particularly interest them. We all recognise the complexity of the legal problems, to say nothing of the human problems, which surround the whole question of war damage, but I believe that we shall determine to solve them, if we can, in a way which will promote among those affected, whether landlord or tenant, a sense of justice done.
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)
I hope that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the House, will forgive me if I begin my speech with two personal points of apology. One is that I have to attend a Select Committee. If I am out of the Chamber during any portion of this Debate, it will be only for that reason. The second is that, perhaps, I ought to say that I have some interest in ground rents; not very much, and not quite direct, but I have, and perhaps I ought to say so.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
The hon. Member can guess. I wish to come to a point of principle in the Bill. I disagree with the Attorney-General in finding the Bill dry and arid. It may be because I have not understood it, but it has seemed to me rather exciting and, to use a disagreeable phrase, an epoch-making Bill. A minute ago I was going to say that I was the only Conservative Private Member in the House, but now I cannot say that, and perhaps I am not so much surprised that the Conservative party, which is traditionally supposed to defend property and especially the ground landlords, should, with a very becoming kind of proud modesty, exhibit a certain pudeur about taking any interest in what might be supposed to be its interests. But I am a little surprised that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite should not have been rather more anxious to be quite certain that there was no sort of advantage to doctrine or party in this Bill.
It seems to me that in this Bill as it is drafted there is a doctrinaire effect which I should have thought ought to be considered more fully by the House than it seems likely to be. After the explanation of the learned Attorney-General, it is quite clear what the tenant gets out of this. He can either disclaim or he can retain his lease, but without paying rent while the property is damaged, or he has now a third alternative; he can retain in such a way that the landlord has no certainty that he will effectively retain the lease when the time for paying rent comes round again. The tenant therefore gets very great advantages out of the Bill. The landlord, on the other hand, gets none, which would be perfectly reasonable if it were argued that there ought not to be landlords and the sooner they are abolished the better, but while those are principles which would be perfectly proper in a general election, I cannot believe that anybody in the House would wish to proceed on such principles in the present circumstances. But if we do not proceed on those principles, what are we really doing?
Any bargain between two parties contains some elements of a bet. One party bets that things will continue in such a condition, and the other in some other condition. In the case of a long lease, one party bets that on the whole the value of currency will not fall very much, and 1766 the other party bets that on the whole bricks and mortar will last. In fact, the man who, as a ground landlord, entered into such a bet in 1913 has done very badly out of it. He saw the value of money knocked endways by the war which came almost immediately afterwards— heaven knows where the value of money will be knocked to by the present war—and look at the position he is now placed in. The house which has been built on the land which he let is blown away. He ceases to get any rent and, therefore, ceases to get the one certainty which he thought he was getting. He thought that in running the risk of currency depreciation he would have the certainty of receiving so many pounds sterling every year. Whatever else may happen, he is now having that taken away from him, and even when that right is to be allowed to revive, at a date which no one can predict and which the tenant himself is not bound to fix, he is to receive his rent in some new sort of pounds—in a depreciated sterling. The ground landlord therefore is the person who is, most particularly, being made to carry the heavier end of the burden and who is getting no consideration whatever.
I do not wish to make a Committee speech, but I do wish to suggest that if the landlord is to lose his immeditae rights by legislation, he should receive some kind of compensation. I would like to remind the House in parentheses how this legislation came about. The learned Attorney-General will correct me if I am wrong, but let me begin by correcting him. He said that the principal Act was passed at the very beginning of the war. I am almost sure he is wrong and that it was passed before the war began. I think it was one of those big batches of Bills which were passed in a day with absolutely no consideration by this House, having been based on very full consideration by a Committee. The point to which I am now addressing myself particularly is that the Bill before us proposes to go back on part of the Committee's recommendations, and I think the House ought to consider the matter very carefully before doing so. Between now and the Committee stage, I would like to ask hon. Members to consider whether something of this sort could not be done. Could we not say to the tenant that, since in every one of the cases he is to be let off 1767 his rent for a long period—perhaps one, two, or three years—he should pay something for it, namely, if he opts to retain his lease he should either continue to pay his rent as he would have had to do but for Clause 9 of this Bill, or, if he does not pay his rent, when the rent revives it should be a rent in post-war pounds? Supposing all the interests were in the hands of one person, that is what would happen. If I own all the interests in a piece of land with a block of buildings on it and the buildings are blown to bits, that is very bad luck on me; I lose the benefit of the property for the duration of the war and maybe for a year or two afterwards, but, when the usability revives, it revives for me in that case in terms of money at the time of revival. When, however, the interests happen to be split between two or more persons, then one of those persons is certain to lose in the interval, like anybody else, but he is also certain not to be allowed to gain at the end. He is certain to lose more again at the end. That is a very important point of principle on which the Committee took the line that I am now taking.
The House swallowed the principal Act without any consideration whatever, and I think the important point of principle ought now to be put to us. With all respect, it is not a point for the learned Attorney-General. It is a political and not a technical point, in regard to which there ought to be a political decision, and I hope the House will consider very carefully whether this Bill as it stands at present is not inequitable. As I said before, there are all sorts of arguments for it which would clearly be perfectly good arguments at a general election, but they are not arguments which could be decently used at the moment, and, leaving them on one side, I cannot see that any great case can be made for the equity of Clause 9, and certainly neither during the proceedings on the principal Act nor yet in the proceedings on this Bill has the House had any such argument. The Clause should not pass as it stands without a great deal more such argument than we have had.
§ Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
After listening to the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn), I do not think any of us has any doubt as to what class of interest he is speaking for. I asked 1768 him when he disclosed his own interests from which standpoint he was affected by ground rents, as one having to pay or as one receiving? I think it is obvious that he is speaking as one having to receive them.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I thought it right to make it quite clear what interests I have; but I spoke on the subject purely from my own understanding of the matter.
§ Mr. Bellenger
Yes, but I think it makes a big difference whether one is a ground landlord or a ground lessee. I propose to examine the Bill from the point of view of equity, and not from that of any one class, whether landlord or tenant. When the hon. Member talked of this House passing the original Act without considering it, I do not think that he was correct. I do not think I was in the House when the original Act was discussed and passed, but I know that it was based on the report of the Uthwatt Committee. I have read other documents that have emanated from that learned judge; and I must say that this Report was very reasonably, and very concisely and precisely, stated. It seemed to give the pros and cons, and come to conclusions quite accurately- Upon that Report, the original Act was introduced and passed. The original Act, although it does not deal conclusively with the subject, does deal with it in a very fair manner. But even the War Damage Act had to be revised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer during its passage through this House, and in this case the original Act will need to be revised as the war is prolonged. My hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) dealt with Clause 1, which relates to weekly tenancies. There is much in what he said that I agree with. I do not think we should limit this to the weekly tenant. Many people are now taking tenancies on a month-to-month basis, and even on a quarterly basis. I think you should extend to the monthly tenant the provisions of this Clause.
With regard to ground leases, the Attorney-General was most charming, but most disarming. He started off with this thesis: If a house is damaged by enemy action, it seems a bit unfair that the lessee should continue to bear all the obligations imposed upon him by the original lease, which probably was the building lease. 1769 He went on to say that one of the most onerous obligations, the repairing covenants, had been thrown overboard by the original Act. That is true It is a step in the right direction. Coming to the question of ground rent, he said that it seemed hardly fair that a lessee should continue to bear other obligations, such as payment of rent, if he did not get beneficial occupation of his house. We agree so far; but we might ask, as the Americans often do, "And how?" How does he propose to relieve the tenant of what he admits is a somewhat unfair burden? He says that to ground lessees the same rights are to be extended as we have given to other lessees by the original Act. They can either retain or disclaim their leases, or they can retain them conditionally. He goes on to say that if they decide to take this action, they can then be relieved of paying rent until the place is put in repair, either by the landlord or, in the other type of case, by the lessee himself. What does that mean?
In discussing a rather complicated legal problem, the best thing is to give a concrete case. Concrete cases are happening all over the country. The people with whom I am concerned are those who can bring concrete cases to our attention. A man's house is hit, and damaged beyond repair. The tenant is lucky if he escapes with his life and the clothes he stands up in. He says, "There is my house gone; no more beneficial occupation for me." Some days afterwards he receives a reminder from the ground landlord that he has not paid his ground rent. If he ignores that notice a writ is issued to recover possession—not always to recover possession of the ground rent, but to recover possession of the lease. There is a reason why ground landlords, particularly in London, want to get back their leases or their land. In view of the devastation that is taking place in and around our big cities, land is bound to increase in value, whatever steps are taken to stop speculation. If a landlord whose forbears originally granted a 99 years' lease in 1865 —with, therefore, about 20 years to run— can recover possession of the reversion more quickly than otherwise would have been the case, the value of his land is enhanced. At the end of the war he will have land—which we in this party have always- said is the sole source of wealth. He can let that land at a much higher 1770 ground rent than was possible 99 years ago.
The Attorney-General has admitted in this Bill the right of a weekly tenant not to pay rent if his premises are unfit. Why not carry that principle a little further? If a ground lessee's premises are unfit, why should he not enjoy the same advantages as the weekly tenant? It is true that he need not pay that ground rent if he does one of three things—retains or disclaims the lease, or conditionally retains it. But he has bought that lease before the war, at a high premium probably, in the open market. To do so, he has gone to his bank, building society, or insurance company, and has borrowed money. So he is doubly involved in this transaction. He is liable not only for ground rent to the ground landlord, but for mortgage repayments and interest to his mortgagee. We have been told, in connection with the War Damage Act, that mortgages are a personal bond, and that, however much you may shelve your leases, the mortgage bond remains tied around your neck until you die. If you have other security than your house, the mortgagee can get it. He can get it through the ordinary processes of the court. It is unjust and unfair that we should adopt this rather cumbrous method of half-protecting the lessee, but at considerable expense to him, because under the Bill the only thing he can do is to get rid of his lease and his whole capital investment, which may represent the savings of many years. Let us proceed on the system, which I thought we had laid down in this House, of equality of sacrifice.
Why should ground landlords receive a penny out of those leases if the tenant of the premises receives no beneficial occupation or income whatever? There is no reason in equity for it, and I suggest to my hon. Friends on this side of the House and, I hope, to broadminded hon. Members opposite, that we cannot allow this Bill to pass in its present form. If we do, we shall be benefiting ground landlords as a class, because they are concerned with the capital value of their interests, whereas the ground lessee, in the majority of cases, is concerned with his house, or his home, if he is an occupying owner. At any rate, his capital value will dwindle right away in the course of time as the lease expires, and it 1771 has dwindled now because a bomb has destroyed his house. It is not only a question of a man owning land and letting it to a builder, who will build a house upon it. It may perhaps have been a speculation on the part of the original owner of the site to let his land at a ground rent, hoping to come into the reversion one of these days, with the house in full repair, but the fact remains that the values of land are bound to rise in populous centres, and the more destruction there is, the more that value will rise.
I suggest to the representatives of the Government present that they should look into this question of ground rents a little more closely and proceed on the fair lines that they have adopted in Clause I of the Bill as far as weekly tenants are concerned. May I put a further argument, which, I hope, will convince Members? Under the War Damage Act we absolve the owner of the house, whether he be freeholder or Jeaseholder, from paying any contribution at all by way of war damage premium if the house is unfit. The Government have decided that they will not collect the extra taxation until compensation is paid after the war if the house is unfit. That is very fair. They have also decided that, in the case of war damage premiums, the burden is to be spread between the freeholder, the mortgagee and the lessee, which is also a very fair provision. Why not, therefore, adopt the same measures when it comes to the question of paying ground rent? Let me give the Government a very convincing case. They themselves are ground landlords. They own quite a number of Crown lands, in Regent Street, for instance. I put a Question to the Minister of Agriculture the other day and asked him whether the Crown were insisting upon the full payment of ground rents which they owned where premises had been affected by enemy air-raid action? The answer was that in some cases the Crown had made provision either to waive or to mitigate the burden of ground rent on their own lessees. If the Crown have so far admitted the principle of relieving lessees of part, or perhaps the whole, of their burden where they have suffered damage by enemy air-raid action, why should we not make it compulsory upon the vast body of ground landlords, many of whom—and 1772 I say this in no class spirit—are either rich corporations or rich individuals? Why, for instance, should it be fair for the Duke of Bedford, who has inherited that land, or the Duke of somewhere else, to insist upon collecting ground rent where houses have been razed to the ground? That is the sort of suggestion that we shall have if the Bill passes in its present form. You will have thousands of lessees saying, "We get national unity but class legislation." If hon. Members want to continue this unity throughout the war they must give a fair deal to all classes.
The class which is least able to bear these burdens during the war is the class with the smallest amount of income. Hon. Members will know that thousands of property owners, who are really house-owners who have worked hard all their lives in order to acquire their little cottage or home, stand to-day almost at the door of ruin, and no Bills such as those which we have just passed will help them. They are looking to the country for equality of sacrifice, so that if they put their whole efforts into the war they will have a chance at some time of building up their homes once again. It seems that at the present time there is very little chance of that, because if it is a valuation payment, the probability is they will not get enough to pay their mortgagees. I have put the case as forcibly and fairly as I can, and I would ask the Government to reconsider it. I desire as much as any hon. Member in this House to prosecute the war to a satisfactory conclusion. We have to obtain a better Britain and better circumstances in the future. We must throw overboard a lot of old conceptions and look at individuals as individuals. We have to say, "What are your circumstances? If your circumstances are harsh, we will do our best to ameliorate those circumstances." Perhaps, as the Parliamentary Secretary representing the Ministry of Health is here, the hon. Lady will answer this question at some time. Under a certain Clause in this Bill a sanitary inspector is the one to give a certificate as to fitness or unfitness. But it is quite possible that opinions of sanitary inspectors will differ according to the various districts, and I think that the Attorney-General said that some standard would be laid down by the Ministry of Health. If the Ministry of Health is to 1773 issue some Regulations on that point, would it not be possible to have them laid in some draft form, so that we can sec what they are like before we come to the Committee stage?
There is another point with regard to Clause 1, about which I would like to ask a question which applies particularly to the Ministry of Health. What is to be the position of the local authorities? If you absolve a tenant from liability to pay rent because he is not in occupation, although his furniture may be there, is the landlord or somebody else then to be compelled to pay rates to the local authority? I think that if by circumstances of war you waive a rent, that is a consideration which ought to be taken into account by the local authorities. If there is no rent, there should be no rates, and I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that local authorities, if they have not already got it, should be given power to waive rates entirely in such cases. At the present moment I think it is purely an act of grace on their part when they do waive the rates. The circumstances of the ratepayer are taken into account when coming to that decision. Clause 2, Subsection (2) states:If the War Damage Commission determine to make a value payment as aforesaid.…When will the War Damage Commission say they will make a value payment or a cost-of-works payment? If it is to be left until after the war, it seems to me that the other provisions of this Bill will not be able to operate. The War Damage Commission will have to say quickly whether they will make a value payment or a cost-of-works payment, so that the ground lessee can decide which of the three alternatives he will use—retention, conditional retention or disclaimer.
There is only one other thing I wish to say, and I suppose it is a hardy periodical. Is it not time that we tried to bring our form of legislation up to date? In looking through this Bill one has to keep an eye on the original Bill. Is it not possible, in a Bill of this nature and in other Bills, to bring all the legislation under one roof? As we go on in this war introducing legislation and amending legislation, we should try to keep it as compact as possible. I know the Parliamentary Secretary will not be able to answer that point, but it has come before the House on previous occasions 1774 and has come forcibly before me as I have tried to unravel this legislation by dodging from this Bill to the original Bill.
§ Mr. Woodburn
I naturally approach this Bill with some humility, as one who is not one of the learned Members of the House, and in dealing with points of law that is, indeed, a handicap. I do not propose to enter into the many questions upon which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) has touched, because, quite frankly, I do not think it is possible in a Bill of this kind to remake the social legislation under which we live. It may be true that dukes and devils should not be drawing unearned increments, but I think that is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to deal with rather than this Bill.
I think it is a good thing that Subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 1 make it clear that the tenant pays no rent if his house has been blitzed and that if a house is unfit by reason of war damage, it may be possible to come to an agreement for lesser payment of rent as between tenant and landlord. This, of course, has been anticipated in practice, because people by common good sense have in many cases come to an accommodation in this matter. Both landlords and tenants have shown a reasonableness which I think is a credit to our population, although I am sorry to say there have been cases where landlords have been alleged to have said that they would rather see their houses stand empty than not get their full rents. I hope the Government will take steps to persuade the courts to deal with such cases, so that people are not kept out of houses simply because they are not prepared to come to an agreement to pay rent for a damaged house.
There is another point which is not clear and which I hope will be made clear later. The definition of a dwelling-house says that a dwelling-house means a house or part of a house let as a separate dwelling. But suppose you have a house in which only part is fit for human occupation and the rest unfit. Does the tenant have to pay rent for the complete house if he is able to occupy only a part of the house? If he is able to occupy only half of the house, does he have to pay rent for the whole house? Under the definition that is certainly not clear.
§ Mr. Woodburn
This part of the Bill refers to a weekly tenancy, although I support the idea that it might be extended to cover monthly or other tenancies. The question of whether land or a house is unfit by reason of war damage quite clearly depends on what war damage means. If war damage means that half a house is wiped out, does the tenant have to pay a proportion of the rent for a portion of the house?
§ Mr. Woodburn
Sub-section (4) of Clause 1 says:… having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the locality …"Locality" is a wide term. Does it mean within the region of the local authority, a ward or the district? For instance, the whole locality of Clydebank is blitzed.
§ The Attorney-General
Is the hon. Gentleman taking that as an illustration, because this Bill does not refer to Scotland?
§ Mr. Woodburn
Yes, I was taking it as an illustration. Let me take another illustration. Suppose East Ham was blitzed. Does that locality or the whole London County Council area come in? If you take in the whole London area when you are dealing with East Ham, it means that you have other normal houses to compare with the houses in the blitzed East Ham area. But if you take a limited area, you may have circumstances which make the dwelling-houses fit for habitation if they keep out the rain but give you no other protection at all. It says that a sanitary inspector of the local authority may give a certificate, but you might have a local authority area where the boundary is a street. On one side of that street, you may have normal houses facing the bombed houses. Are the blitzed houses to be compared with the normal houses? I respectfully suggest that the decision of a sanitary inspector is not enough; the decision ought to be on the authority of the medical officer of health or the chief sanitary inspector. If it is done by a sanitary inspector, you might get varieties of opinion as to the fitness of a house. Some practical illus- 1776 trations have proved that such certificates do not meet the issue.
The law in my part of the country says that a house is fit for human habitation if it is wind and water-tight, and I think the instructions of the Ministry must go a little further and stipulate certain minimum standards. I think the roof and walls should be covered, that the floor should be whole, that the house should be capable of being locked up, and that there should be clean water, sanitary arrangements and light available. It may be that if the whole country was wiped out, that would be impossible, but as far as we can see it is possible to ensure certain minimum standards. I suggest that the Ministry should set up some minimum and guarantee that people will not be asked to pay the full rent for a house which does not provide them with that minimum.
At the present time, we examine these Bills not for the purpose of finding fault with them, but for the purpose of drawing upon the knowledge and experience of the House to ensure that a Bill, when it becomes an Act, covers all possible contingencies and is the best Act that the House can make. It is in that spirit that I have made my suggestions, and I hope that the result may be one or two improvements which will make the Bill more satisfactory. The Bill will be welcomed by those people to whom it will give protection. I am certain that this Bill, like other Bills that we have passed, makes for a fairer distribution of the burden of the damage that occurs. I am sure it is the will of the House that this damage should be equitably shared by all sections of the population. Those for whom I speak will not grudge making their share of the sacrifice if others do the same.
§ Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)
I had not the advantage of hearing the Attorney-General's speech, and, therefore, I hope the House will forgive me if I raise one or two questions with which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has dealt. This is a most helpful Bill. It is one of those Bills that are brought forward nowadays almost weekly and which take into account the changing conditions arising particularly from the bombing of various areas. Week by week, in this way, the House endeavours to help people and to moderate the effects of the 1777 bombing attacks and other ills which befall the population of the country in these days. As one of my hon. Friends has said, it is true that, in dealing with these Bills, we are always in a certain difficulty in that there is a great deal of reference to previous Acts. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of the fact that for many years there have been Consolidation Committees. I have had the fortune, or the misfortune, to sit on those committees for many years, and from time to time before the war a number of Consolidation Acts dealing with various aspects of local government, health, housing, and so on, were brought before the House. For obvious reasons that process has not been continued during the war, and, moreover, I think it would be waste work to consolidate Acts on the subject of landlord and tenant, for example, when almost monthly alterations are made in the law regarding them. However, I join with my hon. Friends in expressing the hope that the process of consolidation will go on as soon as circumstances permit.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) made, if I may say so, an excellent speech and offered certain suggestions, one of which, at any rate, I wish cordially to support. It is the proposal that the Bill should be extended to all dwelling-houses, and not merely to those let on weekly tenancies. I should like to see it further extended to small shops. It is wrong in these days of war to confine our efforts to helping the less fortunate members of the community who were formerly known as the working classes. I do not think any of my hon. Friends on this side of the House will contest the fact that many people in the working classes are earning to-day very much more money than the so-called middle classes, small shopkeepers, and so on, who have frequently suffered severe reductions. I feel that such advantages as are conferred by this Bill ought not to be given to one class of the community only, but, as far as possible, to all classes. Therefore, I should like the Bill to apply not merely to weekly tenants, but to the tenants of all dwelling-houses, and to small shopkeepers and people of that class, if an appropriate definition can be found.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) suggested that the certificate of the fitness or otherwise 1778 of the house should be given by the medical officer of health and also that some definition or instruction should be issued as to the precise condition which would enable the sanitary inspector to give a certificate. In the matter of sanitary inspectors, I am an interested party, as president of the north-eastern centre of their association. I am bound to say that I have been amazed by the qualifications which sanitary inspectors appear to have in these modern days. Most people imagine, as quite frankly I did until I became more closely associated with them, that sanitary inspectors have no examinations, or at any rate very easy examinations, to pass, and that not a very great degree of intelligence or knowledge is required to enable them to carry out their functions. But I find that the modern sanitary inspector is an extremely well-qualified man, and that in point of fact many of the medical officers of health who give evidence at inquiries, and so forth, derive all, or almost all, the facts necessary for their evidence from their sanitary inspectors, with the result that in many cases the sanitary inspector does the work and the medical officer gets the credit.
§ Mr. Woodburn
May I interrupt my hon. and gallant Friend to say that I meant no reflection on the sanitary inspectors? All I intended to say was that in some towns there is no chief sanitary inspector, and that the medical officer of health acts as the chief sanitary inspector. The sanitary inspector's qualifications may be different, but in his own department they are quite equal to those of the medical officer of health.
§ Major Milner
I know that sanitary inspectors would welcome the appointment of chief sanitary inspectors everywhere, and little by little that is being done. My hon. Friend also wanted a rather more precise definition of the condition of the house. I should have thought that the Bill was sufficiently clear on that point, for Clause 1 (4) states:A dwelling house let on a weekly tenancy which has been rendered unfit by war damage shall be deemed at any time to be fit if it has been repaired to such extent as is reasonably practicable at that time, having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the locality, and sufficient to render the dwelling house reasonably capable of being used for housing purposes.It seems to me that there would be no difficulty in a sanitary inspector, or any 1779 other authority accustomed to considering the condition of dwelling houses, giving a certificate in accordance with that definition, and in that respect I feel that no Amendment to the Bill is necessary.
The only other point to which I want to refer is that of ground rents. As I understand Clause 9, the principal Act, which formerly did not apply to ground leases, will now apply to them in like manner. I should be grateful if the Attorney-General will note this point, because there is a difference of opinion on these benches in regard to this matter, which is extremely complicated. I understand that as a result of Clause 9, the owner of a ground lease will be in a position to serve a notice of disclaimer if the property is rendered unfit. Of course, whether he will do that or not will depend on a great number of factors, one of which would clearly be that where the lease is a beneficial one, and where, if the lease is for a number of years, the property is likely to increase in value. Presumably in such cases he will not serve a disclaimer but a notice of retention. If he serves such a notice, he will be entitled, following the procedure under the Schedule, to have an abatement of rent in regard to his ground lease. As,I understand it, under the Schedule it will be possible to do what is obviously just and equitable, but if that is not possible, I hope that some alteration will be made to ensure it. The provisions of the Schedule are very wide and appear to envisage a reduction of the ground rent pro rata to the abatement enforced by the tenant or sub-lessee, against the ground landlord, so that the tenant, the lessee and the ground landlord will all bear not unequally a fair proportion of the loss. If I am wrong, perhaps whoever is to reply will deal with that question
§ The Attorney-General
My hon. and gallant Friend will realise that that part of the Schedule to which he refers applies only where there are two or more separate tenements covered by one lease.
§ The Attorney-General
Yes, Sir. It applies to ground landlords where there are two or more separate tenements.
§ Major Milner
Perhaps the Attorney-General will tell me why the same privileges or rights are not given in the case of one tenement.
§ The Attorney-General
I think that, if one considers the normal ground lease where there is only one tenement, it is difficult to see how an apportionment would arise. The provision for apportionment was directed to a case of a building where, say, one storey has gone, and the rest was fit. If there was any beneficial occupation of the site, the ground rent would presumably be payable because the site was being used. If the whole site is being used, the whole of the ground rent is payable.
§ Major Milner
Quite clearly that is what I do not "desire to see. Although it may be true that the ground may be fully occupied, by that interpretation the ground would also be fully occupied if there was a destroyed building upon it or even a few bricks. It is a matter of some importance on which I should like to have an explanation.
§ The Attorney-General
No doubt we can discuss the matter at a later stage. As I understand it, under the provisions of the original Act there is power to apportion rent if part is fit aud part unfit for occupation. Under these powers, so far as ground leases are concerned, for what I call totality sites, plus buildings which are unfit, then the ground lessee can disclaim and get out of paying his rent, or, given a conditional notice of retention, receive cost of works, which is a very beneficial arrangement. Supposing he occupies the ground floor of the building, then the rack rent may be apportioned, but the ground rent would be exigible.
§ Major Milner
Of course, we cannot go into details now, but clearly where only a portion of the building on the site is occupied the ground landlord should forgo a similar proportion of the rent to that forgone by the tenant. Otherwise there is no equality of sacrifice. It means that the ground landlord will get the full rent and everyone else will have to make a sacrifice. With the other observations I have 1781 made, and which were made by other hon. Members on these benches, and subject, as 1 hope, to some alteration in this latter respect, I think the House may properly approve the Second Reading of the Bill as a further useful contribution to the laws passed on this matter.
§ Sir Robert Tasker (Holborn)
There are one or two matters to which I wish to refer very briefly. The first is that it will be wrong for us to make exaggerated statements, which I am sure are not made deliberately. It was stated that the value of the ground rent could not arise, but that could be qualified because there are thousands of families in this country where it cannot be altered because they are granted under what is known as a fee farm rent or a perpetual ground rent. One of the grievances felt to-day by people who are living in partially demolished premises is that the competent authority for determining whether or not rates are payable is the local authority. My experience goes to show that the local authority invariably say that so long as there is any article of furniture in the premises, rates are payable. That, to my mind, is most unjust, and that power ought to be taken away from the local authority. The Bill would be greatly improved if a Clause could be inserted, making it perfectly clear that if any premises suffer from enemy action, and cannot be used in a normal way, then the owner should be relieved of this charge for rates.
I am a little concerned about the Clause which refers matters to the War Damage Commission. The War Damage Commission are a body of people who seem to be tremendously overworked at the present moment. They seem to be between wind and water. Great powers are conferred upon them, but, as I understand it, their ruling is always subject to the ruling of the Treasury, in dealing with property which has been damaged by enemy action. I find myself travelling in a circle. First you apply to the Board of Trade, who, to some extent, deal with your claim, and then it is handed over to the Ministry of Works and Buildings. You get so far, and then it is passed on to the Commission, and when you get to the Commission they say it is subject to the ruling of the Treasury. When you get there, the Treasury say, "Have the Board of Trade agreed to the licence?" So you go round and round and never get anywhere. You 1782 do not get any claim settled, and you never get any adjustment. I would ask the Minister to consider whether the War Damage Commission have not already sufficient work to do without imposing this further liability upon them.
One of my hon. Friends referred to locality. My experience is this. Locality, in practice, means the local authority, and you find no two local authorities taking the same view. I think the object of the Bill should be to make for uniformity and to compel local authorities to act in a uniform manner. In one borough you will find that business in a given area has fallen off. People are giving up their leases. The landlord, to secure some kind of revenue, has reduced their rents, whereupon the tenants go to the local authority and say," I have given up my lease and have a short lease granted me at a much less rent. Will you please adjust my rateable value? "One local authority will say," Yes, that is reasonable. "Another will say," It is impossible for us to do that unless we take into review the whole of our area. "I should be happy to send the Attorney-General such a case to illustrate and prove what I have advanced. Another thing that might be brought into operation is to make each of these Clauses retrospective.
There are one or two points which to me, at any rate, are confusing. There is a little confusion between ground lease and ground rent. A ground lease, as I understand it, is the original lease granted by the owner of the land, and the ground rent is the charge upon that land for a certain period. I think it is only fair that, if a property is entirely demolished and all income ceases from it, I, as a ground landlord, should bear my proportion. If half-a-dozen houses are destroyed, clearly the income of the lessees is nil, and I, as a ground landlord, should say that my income shall be nil until someone comes along and rebuilds. That can be done to-day by forfeiture of lease, but surely the victim of enemy aggression has suffered sufficiently by having his property destroyed without inflicting a further penalty upon him by saying," You can get out of your obligation by surrendering." It seems to me that the appropriate thing would be for the ground landlord to be compelled to grant a new ground lease, as it were, at 1783 the same ground rent for the unexpired period. I am desirous that there shall be equality of treatment between ground landlord, ground lessee and others interested in the property, except the house-farmer. I would hang him, because he has let out four corners of a room and grumbles because he cannot let the middle of the floor and the ceiling. There axe various other considerations, but I would rather wait till the Committee stage and until the Attorney-General has had an opportunity of considering the points that I have put forward.
§ Mr. Silkin (Peckham)
I, like others who have spoken, welcome the Bill because it is an improvement on the position as it is to-day. There are three points with which I want to deal. In the first place, Clause I relates to weekly tenancies only. I fail to understand why this simplified procedure should be confined to weekly tenants. It is possible for a yearly tenant to pay his rent weekly. There are many tenants in London, occupying houses side by side, paying exactly the same rent, though in one case the rent is paid weekly and in another monthly. It is fortuitous whether it is paid one way or the other. Sometimes, as a matter of convenience, where the tenant is not at home very much, an arrangement is made for monthly payments, though the other conditions are exactly the same. Under the Bill a person who pays his rent weekly will have the benefit of this simplified procedure, while the tenant who pays monthly, or a monthly tenant, will not get the benefit. There are a large number of yearly and quarterly tenants paying the same kind of rent as a weekly tenant. I think there must be an underlying assumption in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's mind that a yearly tenant is a person who pays a high rent and a weekly tenant a person who pays a small rent. Normally that might be the case, but, in London certainly, large numbers of people are yearly tenants, paying their rent monthly or quarterly, and a still larger number are monthly tenants, paying their rent monthly. I hope that in Committee it will be possible to enlarge the scope of the Clause so as to bring in monthly, quarterly and yearly tenants. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman should think it necessary to impose some limitation, I should be 1784 prepared to accept the limitation of rent making it apply to tenancies where the rent is under £120 a year, or something of that sort, in the same way as the Rent Restriction Act, where the application is limited to rent under a certain amount. That will be a simpler way of dealing with the matter.
The second point to which I want to refer—and I confess that I do not know the answer to it—is that this Bill is a very complicated Measure. There is a great deal of legislation by reference, and if it is intended for the small man, it will be very difficult for him if he has to have in front of him copies of this Bill, of the Landlord and Tenant (War Damage) Act, 1939, and of the War Damage Act, and has to roam from one to another before he can understand the position. Inevitably anyone who wants to take advantage of this Measure will have to get legal advice and pay for it. In the interests of the people for whom we are legislating, it would have been better to have had more simple legislation.
§ Mr. Silkin
I deplore this legislation by reference, which seems to be growing. Clause 8 is a perfect example of it, and no layman could possibly understand its meaning.
§ The Attorney-General
He will not need to. It would have been waste of paper to set out all these provisions in full, for they do not affect the rights of the ordinary member of the public at all.
§ Mr. Silkin
Anyone who wants to ascertain to what extent this Measure applies to him will have to read and understand Clause 8. He cannot afford to let it go by on the assurance that it might not apply to him.
§ The Attorney-General
It relates to certain powers of the War Damage Commission exercisable in connection with their functions.
§ Mr. Silkin
I cannot accept that the exercise of those functions would not affect the ordinary person. It might conceivably affect all sorts of people. It is a pity that legislation should be drafted in such involved language.
Another point that I want to make is that Clause 1, which is admittedly for the 1785 benefit of small people, makes it necessary, in default of agreement, for people to go to court. The normal rent may be 12s. a week, and the tenant may submit that it ought to be 6s. on account of damage, but in order to get his rights, to have his rent reduced he must go to court. The expense of going to court will far exceed anything the tenant is likely to gain. I hope that it will be found possible in small differences of opinion of this sort to avoid the necessity of going to court by providing some cheaper and more expeditious procedure. I should not hesitate to give the decision on these matters to a person like the liabilities adjustment officer who will be appointed under the last Measure that we discussed. Instead of the landlord and tenant going to court, paying heavy fees, and having to discuss matters in legal and technical language, they could go to somebody and get a decision of what is a fair rent of the premises, having regard to the damage that has been done. It would be preferable to have a bad decision quickly and cheaply than to have to go to court, with all the expenditure and complexity involved, and perhaps get a better decision. There is no reason to imagine that you would not get a wise decision by leaving it in the hands of somebody like an estate agent or a sanitary inspector or somebody of that sort, and there is no reason to suppose you would get a wiser decision if you went to court and left it to somebody who could not inspect the premises but would have to rely on the evidence and consequently might easily go wrong.
A point which has been discussed by several of my hon. Friends is the position of the lessee who holds a long lease and whose premises have been damaged. After the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Holbom (Sir R. Tasker) who spoke as a ground landlord and accepted the view put forward on these benches, it is not perhaps necessary for me to say anything. I would, however, like to emphasise a fact which has not been fully brought out, that there will be cases where premises held on a long lease on a ground rent will be entirely unusable. The tenant or the lessee admittedly has the option of disclaiming the premises, in which case he may have to give up what is a valuable lease. His only other alternative is to go on paying rent.
§ The Attorney-General
No, it is not. The whole point of the Bill is, by enabling him to serve a conditional notice of retention, to be relieved of paying his rent. It is made conditional on his receiving cost-of-works payment, and he can be assured that he will not be called upon to undertake the liability to make the premises fit unless the War Damage Commission regard it as a case for a cost-of-works payment
§ Mr. Silkin
If that means that the lessee will pay no rent until the premises are in repair or are restored to their original condition, or that he will get his share of a value payment, I will admit that the difficulty is met. I would like to have an assurance that that is the case.
§ The Attorney-General
I tried to explain the matter on Second Reading, but substantially that is as I stated it.
§ Mr. Silkin
I will not press the matter further, because if my right hon. and learned Friend is really endeavouring to meet this difficulty, it merely becomes a Committee point should it turnout that the position requires strengthening. I must confess, however, that as a lawyer I read the Bill and did not get that interpretation. I hope that other lawyers will be more successful in getting it. I trust that the Bill will reach the Statute Book at the earliest possible moment.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Horsbrugh):
My right hon. and learned Friend, I know, will realise that this Bill has been welcomed by hon. Members in all parts of the House. The welcome of Clause 1 is such that many hon. Members have expressed the wish that it should be extended to various other cases, and that not only weekly tenancies, but monthly and other tenancies, and that not only houses, but shops and other properties, should be included. My right hon. and learned Friend says that he is willing to look into the matter to see whether there can be adjustments, because, after all, this Bill was brought forward to meet certain definite difficulties in connection with war damaged houses.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) says that the ground lessee is only half protected. I wrote down those words, and so he will see that I have taken note of them. I did not quite understand 1787 all his argument, but I shall read it in the OFFICIAL REPORT. It seemed to me that he did not want to be wholly protected only, but wholly protected and getting something better than he had ever had before; but perhaps that is not the suggestion. In moving the Second Reading of the Bill my right hon. and learned Friend explained the meaning of Clause 9, which deals with the difficult subject of the ground lessee. It actually deals with many of the points which hon. Members have put forward as difficulties which ought to have been dealt with, and I think that when they have studied it further they will see that it does go a long way to meeting those difficulties, though it may not meet them all; but, as my right hon. and learned Friend says, the details will be further considered on the Committee stage and if possible an improvement will be made.
Several hon. Members have brought up points as to the certificate of fitness which is to be given by the sanitary inspector. The suggestion has been made that we should lay down what is to be the standard of fitness in Regulations that could be seen by Members of the House before the Bill is passed. Those of us who have had to deal with this subject to a certain extent realise the difficulties. As the war goes on, it becomes a question of the material and the labour that are available, and we cannot lay down a standard of fitness which would be the standard of fitness in peace-time. We could not say in war-time that unless certain things were in a house it must be considered to be not fit for habitation. For myself, I should be very sorry to see an attempt made to standardise in great detail what was to be considered as "fitness." We might prescribe a particular standard at one time, and then find some localities where they could go beyond that standard, but if that standard had been laid down then things would be kept down to that limit.
§ Mr. Bellenger
The only reason why I suggested that we ought to see what is in the draft Regulations was that the Attorney-General, when he was asked what would happen if a number of sanitary inspectors disagreed, said it would then become a question for the Ministry of Health.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
That is because we already come in under the heading 1788 "First-Aid Repairs." As the hon. Member knows, there have to be repairs to make a damaged house fit for habitation, and so we have already had a certain amount of practice in trying to get this standard, but I am bound to say that we need not have uniformity throughout the country. If in one area certain supplies are available, then, naturally, the sanitary inspector there would press for those supplies to be used. In another part of the country it might be quite impossible to get corresponding supplies. I think hon. Members will see that if we attempt to lay down a general standard we shall probably do worse for the people of the country than if we leave it to be the standard of the local authority or the locality. That is what we are doing with "First-aid repairs." Of course, the house has to be wind- and weather-tight. I was asked whether, if the roof was leaking, that would be considered all right. Certainly not. In our first aid repairs standards the house must be wind and weather-tight. Then we had been asked about the water supplies. Hon. Members will agree that on some occasions there may not be water in our houses, but yet we have to live in them, and in due course the water supply comes back. It is the same with heating, lighting, the windows, and all the rest. After a great deal of consideration I think it is better to leave it to the different localities to see that the standard of fitness for habitation is drawn up with those ideas in mind and taking into account the labour and material available.
§ Mr. Woodburn
It is not so much a question of the condition in which the house is before it may be lived in, as the question of what standard of fitness has to be reached before the tenant will be liable to pay the full rent. They may be two different points.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
I think I am right in saying that if the whole of the house is habitable, has been made fit for habitation, the rent will have to be paid. If only a part of the house is fit and a part unfit there will have to be a deduction in the rent for the unfit portion.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
I do not think the hon. Lady has yet quite grasped the point. We are not dealing with fitness in the abstract sense, but fitness in relation to rents. It is impossible to say that 1789 a house is absolutely fit or absolutely unfit. Our point is that according to the measure of damage done to the house so the rent should be reduced.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
I want to try to get this point straight. We do not say that because a house is not exactly as it was before it suffered the effects of enemy action—it may have a window out or two windows out—the rent has to be reduced. What we do say is that if a part of the house is not fit for habitation the rent will be reduced in proportion to the unfit part which cannot be used.
§ Mr. Woodburn
I am sorry to interrupt again, but there is a distinction; at least, I feel that I can see one. I agree with what the hon. Lady says, but we have been discussing the degree of fitness when the whole rent would have to be paid. Is there to be a minimum degree of fitness? The hon. Lady gave an example where the full degree of fitness was not reached and yet the people would have to live in the house, say, without water or without a lock on the door. Will the fact that people are living in the house mean that they will have to pay the full rent, or is there to be a degree of fitness before full rent will be exacted?
§ Miss Horsbrugh
I am sorry if I have not made the point clear, and I will try again. The house will either be unfit for habitation, in which case the rent is not paid, or it will be fit for habitation and the rent will be paid, but in saying that it is fit for habitation we have not laid it down that the house has to be up to the full standard of pre-war fitness.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
The point I am making is that in one area the whole house may have to be looked at in the light of the availability of materials and labour, and in a heavily blitzed area the standard of habitation may be so low as to impose immense discomfort on the inhabitants, and although we may not be able to avoid 1790 that position of affairs we ought not to insist upon the tenant paying the full rent.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
Yes, I agree, but the standard we ought to be able to reach is, "fit for habitation." The hon. Gentleman says, I gather, that if the sanitary inspector has said that a house is fit for habitation, the person that occupies it shall pay the full rent, although the standard of fitness might have come down low because of the lack of material. If the person in question says that he considers the standard so low that his house is not fit for habitation and he cannot agree with the sanitary inspector or the landlord, there is an opportunity for an appeal to the court.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
Like other hon. Members, I have had a certain amount to do with damaged houses, and we all realise the difficulties. I want to make it clear from the start that we are not setting up a housing standard for war-time or saying that, because somebody's house is not up to the standard it followed before the war, the rent has to be reduced. We say that if a house is not fit for habitation, the rent shall not be paid; if it is a case of division, one part of the house being not fit for habitation while the other is, the rent shall be apportioned. Supposing a person goes to the court, we must leave it to the court to decide whether the house is fit for habitation.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
We are getting a bit nearer, but the courts will have to take into consideration precisely the same points as a sanitary officer will have to consider when he says whether a house is fit or unfit. If conditions are such that it is impossible, in a heavily blitzed area, to provide even a 20 per cent, standard for the whole house, nevertheless the tenant will be obliged to pay the full rent, so that the safeguard of going to the court, besides being expensive and difficult, will leave him in no better case than if he had accepted the decision of the sanitary officer.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
If hon. Members will look at the Bill they will find that we 1791 have gone as near as we can. There is a chance for hon. Members to put down Amendments for the Committee stage. I think they will agree that if we were now to give a list of what was meant exactly by "fit for habitation" during the war, or what standard we should be able to continue to have, they would find it difficult to do so. I think we must leave it at that. I am sorry if I have not been able to satisfy hon. Members. We are convinced that it is not possible to go further than the general idea, which we are following out now with first-aid repairs, of making houses fit for habitation, and wind-and-weather-tight. I hope that hon. Members are familiar with what we have been doing in first-aid repairs. This is the matter which affects my Department and on which we have had a certain amount of experience.
I have tried to put the matter as clearly as possible. I noticed that the hon. Member for Holborn (Sir R. Tasker) said he found a few points in the Bill confusing. I can only say that he is very lucky if he found only a few confusing points. On the subject of the discussion which we had on ground landlords and leases, my hon. Friend also said he hoped the Minister would consider the speeches which had been made. We hope that those who have spoken will also look at what my right hon. Friend has said. When we come to the Committee stage we shall be able to deal with this matter further. Far better and clearer explanations can be made by my right hon. Friend than I shall be able to make, after what I have just done.
On the subject of rates, we have sent a circular to the local rating authorities pointing out the difficulties and some of the rating problems. The case was mentioned to-day that tenants who have left houses which are not fit for habitation may have been allowed to leave furniture in the houses, keep the key and to go back, perhaps to get things or to see how the furniture is going on. It was suggested that rates should not be charged merely because there was furniture in the house. We have suggested to the local authorities that, where houses are not habitable and rent is not paid, rates should also not be levied. The rating authorities have the final answer on this matter.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
May I remind the hon. Member that an arrangement was come to with other local authorities long before the arrangement with the City of London? I have answered Questions in the House on the subject, and it has been laid down that, if a local authority cannot carry on its essential services without putting up its rates to a great extent, it should apply to the Ministry of Health, and that these appeals will be examined. It has been done over and over again, long before the arrangement with the City of London.
§ Miss Horsbrugh
The hon. Member can certainly take it that the matter would receive consideration. If, because of difficulty experienced in war-time, not only on account of damage, but because of evacuation and other matters, the essential services of any local authority cannot be carried on without an increase of rates to a certain extent, the authority should certainly apply to us.
§ Mr. Silkin
In the same way as the hon. Lady suggests that rates should not be paid, would she agree that the Schedule A tax should also not be paid?
§ Miss Horsbrugh
I have given the answer about the rating authority, and I answered the question a little time ago on the subject of Schedule A. I referred the questioner to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think we might keep to the actual facts of rents and housing problems in discussing the Bill. We can keep the matter much clearer. Another point 1793 raised by hon. Members was a complaint about legislation by reference and a desire to have more consolidation. The Bill should not give much ground for that complaint by hon. Members. Legislation of this emergency sort is of a rather different character. If hon. Members will turn to the Schedule they will see it set out in full how Section 15 of the principal Act is modified. That was put in so that hon. Members would not have much difficulty. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw said that the ground lessee was only half protected. I think he will agree that we have gone half way to assist in this matter. We are glad that the Bill has been welcomed, because it is an attempt to deal with a very difficult problem. I can assure the House that the points which hon. Members have raised will be examined very carefully by my right hon. and learned Friend before the Committee stage.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.—[Sir James Edmondson.]