HC Deb 16 March 1943 vol 387 cc1142-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir J. Edmondson.]

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

I desire to call the attention of the House and in particular of the Minister of Health to some of the grievances of tenants which I raised with him at Question time on 4th February. In the time available I can do no more than list a number of grievances which have been brought to my attention and ask the Minister to take urgent action upon them, because I wish to leave time for some of my hon. Friends who wish to put forward points of their own. I will recite a number of grievances which I have investigated and of the authenticity of which I am perfectly satisfied. We owe a debt to the men and women who have been transferred or evacuated in the national interest. Tens of thousands have gone to new homes in order that they may obey the nation's call either in the Services or in industry, and an obligation lies upon us to protect them in every way. The protection they get now is completely inadequate and not worthy of the Government or the House.

The first grievance relates to the practice which has grown up of demanding key-money as a pre-condition of the letting of a house. I have a number of examples of this. The worst is the case of a man evacuated on national service. He was desperately anxious to keep his family with him. He heard of a house which was vacant and approached the landlord and was told that he could only hire it provided he paid £50 as key-money. In his desperation that man paid the £50. I raised his case in the House, and the Minister said the man had his remedy. The man is now taking his remedy, and in due course the case will come before the courts, and I hope the courts will deal adequately with it. Very often people do not take action in court because their need for houses is so desperate. Next I would ask the Minister to take action to stop the furnished apartments ramp. If he says that he has not the power, let him get the power, because this House will give it. It if frankly a ramp. In order to make a house into a furnished apartment a new dodge has been introduced known as the table and chair dodge. You get a table and chair and put them in a room and call it a furnished apartment, and at once you take it out of the protection of the Rent Restrictions Acts, and you can charge what you like. The Minister may shake his head, but the point is that poor people are often helpless in these matters because they have no legal knowledge. Every hon. Member has examples of the furnished apartments ramp which he could give to the Minister.

Thirdly, there is the case of sub-tenancies. It is growing up, particularly in the case of houses of some size with five or six bedrooms. They are divided up and let in a series of sub-tenancies. I have a case of a house which, if rented as a whole, would not fetch more than £2 a week, but it has been divided up into a number of sub-tenancies and is now bringing in £5, £6 or £7 a week in rents. That is a very bad form of exploitation, and it is increasing rapidly. I direct the Minister's attention to it and ask him to deal with it.

About the sale of houses, the Minister may say he has no jurisdiction, but very often people are evacuated and find that the only way to obtain accommodation is to purchase a house. Otherwise, they must remain separated from their families for the period of the war. I have some examples, particulars of which I am prepared to give to the Minister in order to satisfy him. The first is of a house within 30 miles of London. The house was sold six months before the war for £950. It was re-sold last year for £1,500. I am giving only examples which I can verify. The second example is of a cottage which was sold three months before the war for £575 and was re-sold three months ago for £1,075. Other instances in the countryside have been brought to my notice which I have not been able to verify in which houses, which were actually condemned before the war, were sold at £500 or £600.

Let me mention one other point. My attention has been called to the practice which has grown up in one town in the North-West of England—I am told it exists in other towns in the South—by which agents for landlords canvass tenants and ask them whether they are willing to give up their tenancies for a consideration—not immediately, but at the call of the landlords. They are told that if they are prepared to do so when called upon, they will receive £25 or £50 in cash. The agents then proceed to advertise the houses for sale with vacant possession. The houses are controlled, but they get out of the control by the tenants being induced to accept the £25 or £50 so that the houses can be advertised. One example is of a house, value £450, sold in the circumstances I have described for £855. I will give full particulars to the Minister.

On the question of standard rents, I have no end of cases of people who are finding it very difficult to get a statement of the standard rent from the landlords or from the local authorities. As one who has a very great deal of respect for local authorities, I say that in remote districts the part-time clerk of the council is very often an agent for a set of landlords. That creates a difficulty and the Minister ought to look into the matter. I have stated the grievances and the complaint is that what the Minister, the Ministry, and the local authorities do is not adequate.

I would make three suggestions. The first is, Why not do the big thing, which seems to get to the core of the problem? Give power to the local authorities to secure control of all the vacant property in their areas, for them to let it and control the rents. Surely that is the right thing to do. If we evacuate people, if we transfer people to places, we have no moral right to do that unless we secure that when they are transferred they are not exploited. I cannot see any way of doing that except by requisitioning all vacant property. Let it be in the hands of local authorities, and let them decide who shall have it, based on need, and not on ability to pay. If the Minister came and asked for power of that kind, and authority to confer that power on local authorities, I believe the House would unanimously give him that power, because we all desire to see these people protected against these forms of exploitation. In the second place local authorities should be requested to set up tenants' protection committees to which people who have been transferred and have grievances about their rents can go. I do not think we can say to them, "Go to lawyers." We ought not to place on them the onus of the expense of legal advice. Finally, I ask the Minister and the local authorities to give publicity to these matters, to these grievances. They are growing in number, and, believe me, there is a sore feeling, a very strong feeling, about them. I hope this is not the last occasion on which we shall debate this matter, which is a matter touching the lives and welfare of the people very closely. I hope that we shall get an indication from the Minister that his Minis- try intend to take some really strong and adequate action about this matter.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I do not want to take more than two or three minutes at the very most, because we are all very anxious to hear what the Minister has to say about the point which my hon. Friend has raised. I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said, and with his proposals, but of course that would deal only with or mainly with houses that are vacant. These Rent Acts have been in existence now for nearly 30 years. In the course of those 30 years, especially in the last few months, it has become patent that the Acts themselves are inadequate. It has become perfectly clear to anyone who either politically or professionally has had anything to do with the administration of these Acts, either before the war or since the war, that a number of anomalies have become perfectly clear which only amending legislation can put right. Take this point about the furnished house. When my hon. Friend said that if you put in a table or a chair or any other furniture you take the premises outside the protection of the Act, the Minister shook his head, and appeared to indicate that he dissented from that view. I respectfully agree with him. It is not correct. It does not take the premises outside the protection of the Rent Acts, but when you look at the Rent Acts to see what is the protection afforded by them, you find it is so ill-defined that it is impossible to administer.

It is quite true that the Act provides that in the case of furnished premises you shall not charge an unreasonable or extortionate rent, but it nowhere defines what is an unreasonable or extortionate rent, and if my right hon. Friend has had the curiosity to compare the decisions of courts in some parts of the country with decisions of courts in other parts of the country, he will find it perfectly obvious that the standard of what is reasonable and what is extortionate differs with the length of the magistrate's foot. The protection afforded by the Act is so nebulous as in practice to amount to no protection at all. One of my hon. Friends showed how you could get out of the Act altogether by inducing the tenant to accept a 14 years' lease, on the assumption that a 14 years' lease gave him greater security; than the protection given by the Act. But it does not. The Act gives indefinite secur- ity while certain conditions remain. All I want to remind my right hon. Friend of is that, in answer to a supplementary question by me a little while ago, he promised to consider sympathetically the appointment of a Select Committee, to examine these anomalies and to propose remedies that could be applied quickly. It is certain that until you have a comprehensive amending Act you will not get justice applied and you will not get the common will of the people on this matter carried out. A great many things can be done administratively, as my hon. Friend said, and those ought to be done forthwith. But the time has come when the whole machinery of the control of dwelling houses ought to be overhauled and brought up to date.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Ernest Brown)

I am indeed very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and I am sure the House is grateful. Hon. Members will do me and my immediate predecessors the justice of realising that a very keen watch has been kept from the centre upon the various problems involved in the housing position of this country, from the very beginning. Circular after circular and advice after advice to the local authorities on particular points have followed one another from the centre. That close watch was necessary because here we are dealing with one of the universals of human need, shelter. When there is a particularly difficult artificial situation the watch kept on the operation of that situation upon the life of our people is bound to be even keener than would normally be the case. I say straight away that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue; and I am grateful to him from a second point of view.

I think that on one or two points he over-stated his case, and that on others he under-estimated the difficulty of finding a solution. [Interruption.] Take the point about furnished lettings, for instance. Three Government Committees have sat on that problem. They were appointed by different Governments. One was presided over by Lord Salisbury, one by Lord Marley, and the third by Lord Ridley. All those Committees, appointed by varying Governments, came to the conclusion that to solve the problem was not so easy as to state it. One moment's thought will show the House the central difficulty. It is, of course, that there is such an infinite variety of accommodation. There may be infinite variety of circumstances, even under one roof, and it is not easy for Parliament to bring forward a law and to state it in such definite terms as would solve the infinite problems that would arise.

Since when this matter was raised in the House at Question Time, key-money was the point specially stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), I will begin with that subject. Like hon. Members, I hope that we shall have other opportunities of dealing with it. I want to show that I am alive on this issue, and that I do not want to shirk any issue. Here you have a case where the protection is almost—not quite—complete. I want to make that protection quite clear to people outside. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure they are, for giving us this opportunity of doing it. What is the law about key-money? It is obvious that legislation to control the maximum rents which may be charged for houses would have little effect if landlords and their agents—and indeed tenants, in the case of sub-letting—are to be able to reap a rich harvest by charging a premium or key-money and holding up accommodation for the highest bidder. Parliament has realised this. The very first Act passed to restrict the increase of rent—the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restriction) Act, 1915—contained a Section making it illegal for any person to require the payment of a premium or key-money in addition to the rent and enabling the tenant to recover from the landlord any sum so paid after 25th November, 1915. This Section had, however, no sanction behind it. This was a serious detect and, when the Acts were consolidated and extended in 1920, a Subsection was added making the breach of this Section an offence for which the offender became liable to a penalty not exceeding £100 (Section 8 of the Rent Restriction Act, 1920). This Section is still—I want the House and the public outside to note this—the operative provision, and it has been applied, with some minor consequential Amendments, to all the houses which were newly brought under control by the Act of 1939 at the beginning of this war. So the protection there is a formidable one.

The Section provides that a person shall not, as a condition of the grant, renewal or continuance of a tenancy or sub-tenancy of any dwelling-house which is controlled, require the payment of any fine, premium or other like sum or the giving of any pecuniary consideration whatever in addition to the rent. Any person requiring a payment in contravention of the Section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100, and to refund any sum which has been improperly paid in this way.

There is one gap. It was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) and my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) at a recent Question time. The gap is this: The Section does not apply to the grant, renewal or continuance of any tenancy for a term of 14 years or upwards. I have looked this up. It appears to have been added to facilitate the granting of long-term leases at a small rent, plus a premium. The House took particular notice of it and acted on that notice because there had been a legal case which showed that to be impossible under the Act of 1915. That was why the House took the view that it ought to facilitate the granting of the longer leases for the protection of the tenant, and so that became the law. I have said, in answer to my hon. Friend who first raised it—I have not heard of more than one district where at the moment abuse of this provision is taking place—that I have noted the matter among other things for possible legislation.

There was also another way in which, despite Section 8 of the Act of 1920, a sum equivalent to a premium could be extracted, and that was by requiring the prospective tenant to buy furniture or fittings at prices greatly in excess of their value. That has been safeguarded by Section 9 of the Act of 1923, which provides that, where the purchase of any furniture or other articles is required as part of the grant, renewal or continuance of a tenancy or sub-tenancy of a controlled dwelling house, the price shall, if requested, be stated in writing, and if the price exceeds the reasonable price of the articles the excess shall be treated as if it were a fine or premium and the provisions of Section 8 of the Act of 1920 shall apply. The House will see, therefore, that the law provides very full safeguards against the evil of key-money. The Rent Restrictions Acts apply to the great majority of the houses in the country—in fact, to about 90 per cent. of our 12,000,000 houses.

I am not overlooking the other points which have been raised. I will note them carefully, and no doubt we can have further discussions about them. I want to take advantage of the opportunity which my hon. Friend has given me of making an appeal to the public in this matter. After all, here is a case where the law is, on the whole, adequate, and if action is not taken by those against whom offences are committed the law is impotent. What is wanted here is the public spirit and the moral courage to make the Statute law effective. The public must co-operate with the law makers and with those who administer the law, otherwise the law itself is impotent. It is for the people with evidence to achieve the ends for which the law was framed——

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

Cannot the local authorities take up the case for a tenant? Will the right hon. Gentleman push that through, so that local authorities will do it, because the tenants themselves are too poor?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend has taken up half a minute of my time in which I might have made a complete statement. I was about to come to that. Local authorities have power to undertake prosecutions for breaches of the law, and I am confident that they use it and will continue to us it to the full. But it is obvious that they cannot do their duty unless tenants do theirs. We have been keeping a very keen watch on this all through the war. Two and a half years ago I urged local authorities to exercise special vigilance on this and other provisions of the Rent Restrictions Acts. I have been getting reports from 1,500 housing authorities every six months, and I am glad to say that over the whole field I have not had many complaints of exploitation of this kind. But in order to make quite clear our view as to the action which should be taken, I am arranging now to send to local authorities a special poster which, among other things, will contain the following sentences: The charging of a premium or key-money is illegal and subject to a fine up to £100. Tenants of unfurnished premises cannot be evicted without an order of the Court, which can be given only in special circumstances. The Council have power to prosecute for offences but they cannot act unless complaints are made to them. I ask the Press to take notice of this and to help us, as they have done in the past, by making this known. In so far as the law is not complete, we shall watch developments and analyse the reports we get, and I have no doubt that in the course of future Debates I shall be able to go more fully into details of actual cases. It is our desire to see that the war is not exploited to the disadvantage of those who, in the national interest, are on service in various parts of the country.

Mr. J. Griffiths

There is only a minute left. May I say that several of my hon. Friends would have liked to take part in this Debate? I know that the right hon. Gentleman has not covered all the points he would have liked to have covered, and I would ask him to use his influence in order to see whether we can have an early day for a discussion of this matter more fully.

Mr. E. Brown signified assent.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.