HC Deb 16 November 1944 vol 404 cc2213-22

Lords Amendment: In page 60, line 16, at end, insert: ,so however that a person shall not be treated under this paragraph as in occupation of a building or property by virtue of his occupying a part thereof if he occupies it wholly or mainly in connection with the management, supervision or control of the building or property as a whole.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment"

The purpose of the Amendment is to exclude from the category of owner-occupiers a person who, perhaps, owns a block of offices or flats and has one room in that block which he uses for management purposes. This is designed to make that clear.

3.1 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

I sincerely hope the House will not agree to any such proposal. I hope we have open minds on these Amendments. This is a very serious point. Woolworths, the store which provides things for large numbers of people, or the Co-operative Societies, or Marks and Spencers or anybody else, can occupy the ground floor of their premises and let off all the other floors and still be regarded as owner-occupiers for the purposes of compensation. I hope my right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I am told that that is so. I am also told that if the ground floor is a shop with a considerable number of flats over it they are still regarded as owner-occupiers. Now my right hon. Friend comes along and says that the investor in bricks and mortar must be treated in a different way, and if the shop is an estate office, and the flats above are let, then the owner is not going to be regarded as an owner-occupier. This is a very complicated Bill and I am trying to follow all the arguments. I have read the Debate on this particular point in the other place, which was not very enlightening, and I would ask my right hon. Friend to say that there is not a discrimination in this Lords Amendment against the use of the ground floor premises because they are being used as an estate office, or because some small portion of the building is used as an estate office. If that is not so, I hope the House will not accept this Amendment.

3.3 p.m.

Lieut. - Commander Joynson - Hicks

I support my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith (Lieut.-Colonel Dower) in his argument, and I want to introduce the Parliamentary widow. We have not heard of her for a long time in connection with this Bill, as I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree. Does not this Amendment apply equally well to the individual, whether a widow or not, who owns one house, lives in the top half of it and lets the bottom half? She is resident there wholly or mainly in connection with the management, supervision or control of the building or property as a whole. It is true that the part in which she lives is her home, but the other part is equally the home of the person who lives there. I should like the assurance that this Amendment does not go beyond the very strict limits for which it is intended.

3.5 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I am very anxious to meet the points that are causing my hon. Friends anxiety but I should like to be sure that I have them clearly in mind and am not merely shadow fighting with something which is not troubling them. I understand the point of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith (Lieut.-Colonel Dower) is, in the main, concerned with people like Messrs. Woolworth, or Montague Burton, whose main occupation is the shop and who let off the office premises above for some purpose or another. I would ask my hon. and gallant Friend to look at the words of the Clause. They say: … a person shall not be treated under this paragraph as in occupation of a building or property by virtue of his occupying a part thereof if he occupied it wholly or mainly in connection with the management, supervision or control of the building or property as a whole. No one can say, and no court that I have ever had anything to do with could, I imagine, say that Messrs. Woolworth or Montague Burton occupied their premises wholly in connection with the management and control of their business. Their occupation would be for the purpose of the shop. Similarly, if I take the example of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chichester (Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks) of the widow who owns two houses, lives in one and has tenants in the other—

Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks

She has only one house. She lives in the top half and lets the bottom half.

The Solicitor-General

I am sorry. She lives in one half and lets the other, whether it be a lock-up shop, or rooms, or something of that sort.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

May I suggest that what I was saying was, Is it fair that Woolworths should qualify for the supplementary compensation whereas, if the ground floor office happened to be an estate office, they could not do so?

The Solicitor-General

If I might return for one moment to the argument of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith there seems to be all the difference in the world to me between Woolworths, who have a big shop and pay big rates in order to run their business, and somebody who reserves in a block of flats a little portion in which he can have an office. Where there is a big building and one firm—whose main source of income is the rents from that office building—run a little estate agency in that building, they seem to be in a totally different field from Woolworths' and so I must really, with great respect, differ from my hon. and gallant Friend over that.

With regard to the widow who occupies one half of the building and lets the other half, again I should say that no-one in the world could suggest that she occupies her own dwelling house "wholly or mainly in connection with the management, supervision or control" of the other dwelling house. The possibility of driving a coach and horses through this does not frighten me. I doubt whether my hon. and gallant Friend, with all his skill, could drive a coach or even a pony cart through this one.

3.10 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

With the permission of the House, may I ask my hon. and learned Friend whether the same consideration applies to an estate agency which deals with other estate work? I want to see whether the Government are discriminating against estate agencies. If the agents dealt with work over a comprehensive area, apart from that block of flats, I presume they would be regarded as owner-occupiers.

The Solicitor-General

If the House will give me leave to answer, I would reply that in that case they would not occupy it wholly or mainly in connection with the management, supervision or control of the building"; and, therefore, they would not come within the scope of this Clause.

Question put, and agreed to. [Special Entry.]

Lords Amendment: In page 60, line 19, at end, insert: so however that a person shall not be treated under this paragraph as in occupation of a building or property by virtue of any occupation thereof by a person employed by him as caretaker of that building or property.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

I think that the Amendment is self-explanatory.

3.12 p.m.

Mr. Dermot Campbell

I am not very happy about this Amendment. I think it shows every evidence of not having been properly thought out. The Bill lays down that certain classes of property owners should be paid compensation at a certain rate, and another class at a higher rate. This Amendment seeks to ensure that certain occupiers shall not winkle them- selves out of one class into another. To that extent it is desirable. But I submit that it will have an effect greater than that which is desired. In spreading the net to include those hypothetical winklers, the Amendment includes a number of other perfectly reputable persons, who vacate their premises temporarily, for perfectly legitimate reasons, in the course of their business. This legislation has been so rushed through that it was only this morning that I secured a copy of these Amendments—when I went to the Vote Office before, they were not available. Consequently, I do not know how to get round this difficulty. But I am sure my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench should be able to think of a way out. Take the case of a small hotel at a seaside resort. That hotel is open only during the season. When the season is over the hotel closes and the management put in a caretaker. If the local authority wish to secure possession of that hotel for development, all they have to do is to wait until the season is over, and then say "Snap,' and the property is theirs at a lower figure. My right hon. Friend shakes his head, but I am convinced that I am right.

3.14 p.m.

Mr. Erskine-Hill

I would like to support my hon. Friend. In the time at my disposal I have not been able to clear my mind of the fear that what he says may be true. I would like the Minister to give a full explanation, because in that large class of cases, where there are boarding-houses Which are shut up for six months or more in winter-time, the proprietors should be protected.

3.15 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

The important thing is to see why the caretaker is there. The caretaker could be there for either of two purposes: to let the premises, in which case the owner is not the occupier, or to look after the premises for the owner, in which case they should be treated as being owner-occupied. I urge my right hon. Friend to look into that matter.

3.16 p.m.

Captain Duncan

I am not very happy about this either. What does this occupation really mean? I quite understand the case of an owner who, wanting to dispose of his property, takes the furniture out, and leaves a caretaker in the basement to look after the place and show prospective purchasers around. In that case there may be an argument for the words in the Amendment. But the seaside hotel proprietor leaves the furniture there, with a caretaker, with the object of opening up when the season arrives. The rates are still being paid if the furniture is in the house. If "in occupation" means in rate-paying occupation, I think the Clause is all right; otherwise it wants looking into again.

3.17 p.m.

Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)

I am a little disturbed about the remarks which have been made. Reference has been made to seasonal caretakers at boarding-houses, and so on, but there are other cases. For instance, on the Norfolk Broads there are many establishments, apart from boarding-houses and hotels, catering for visitors during the summer months, which for a great part of the year are left in the charge of a caretaker. I would like to see their position safeguarded.

3.18 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks

I cannot see how there can be any certainty as to the meaning of this Clause. My right hon. and learned Friend will, I am sure, deal with the point in his lucid and learned way, but the expression "occupation," to which attention has been called, and also the expression "caretaker," struck me as being exceedingly difficult of interpretation, and liable to lead to very great hardship, particularly on the South coast and elsewhere, where so much damage has taken place, among people who are in occupation as caretakers in some form or another, even, it may be, in their own homes.

3.19 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I very much appreciate that all my hon. Friends desire clarity in this matter. Therefore, I would ask them to spare one moment to look at the portion of the Bill to which this Amendment will apply. It is paragraph (c) of Sub-section (6) of Clause 53, which says: a person shall be treated as in occupation of a building or property if it is in the occupation of a person in his employment for the purposes of that employment. That is what we start with. Suppose a farmer has a cottage in the occupation of one of the workers on the farm, in his employment; he is in occupation of that cottage, through his employee. That we all approve of, and want to maintain. We did not want that provision to be abused, so we inserted these words: so however that a person shall not be treated under this paragraph— that is, the paragraph which I have read— as in occupation of a building or property by virtue of any occupation thereof by a person employed by him as caretaker of that building or property The word "occupation" has, in this connection, the sense which it must bear in the context which I have already read out. If we take the example given by one hon. Member, who referred to the seaside hotel which puts in a caretaker for a portion of the year, and I think the hon. Member for North Kensington (Captain Duncan) had in mind the same example, there would be no doubt at all, in my view, that occupation would be by the hotel proprietor or the hotel company, and I cannot see any danger of anyone saying that because, for the winter months, occupation was by a caretaker, for that reason the person was not an owner-occupier. The answer to that would be: "I occupy this building to the full, proper, reasonable, economic extent for which it can be occupied for the purpose of running a seaside hotel." My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Erskine-Hill) was, I think, asking only for a fuller explanation, and I do not think he had in mind any specific point in addition to that with which I have tried to deal.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith (Lieut.-Colonel Dower) seemed to me, if I may say so, to put his finger right on the point. Why is the caretaker there? That is the real test in the matter, and that is the test which is laid down in the Act when it is read, as I have endeavoured to point out to the House, with the context in which it is introduced. Although I fully appreciate that my hon. Friends are anxious that there should be no hardship in these cases, equally, I and my hon. Friends are the last people who would desire anyone with no real occupation to get a benefit because of the position of a caretaker. Therefore, if I may sum it up, we have protected the person who really occupies by a servant, like a farmer and the worker in his cottage, we have protected the person who is in seasonal, but none the less real, occupation as an hotel keeper, and the only person we have not protected, but deliberately refrain from protecting, is, in the clear words of the Clause, the person whose only occupation is by virtue of any occupation thereof by a person employed by him as caretaker of that building or property. I say to my hon. Friend who have doubts about the drafting of the Clause that it will protect the caretaker as occupier of his own premises, as, in some cases, he is given a little flat, but it would not let him in as caretaker of the whole premises because he has that little flat. I hope I have made the matter clear.

3.23 p.m.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

I am sure we have never seen so much gloom spread amongst the Conservative Party as we have witnessed recently, and all this seems to arise from their friends in another place, whose ability to say what they mean and ability to draft what they mean seems to be the cause of all this. Perhaps the Solicitor-General would be good enough to tell them, and this House, whether a caretaker put in by a Noble Lord in his Park Lane house when he goes to the Riviera is a caretaker in occupation?

3.24 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I am sorry that the hon. Member opposite should have thought it necessary to bring in matters of that sort, appropriate only to those who seek to gain party capital. I should have thought that both sides of the House were in entire agreement with the objects which it is intended to achieve, that is to say, to stop someone getting the 30 per cent increase by a bogus trick. The hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) raised this point, and I, personally, am very glad that he did so, but I must confess that I feel some doubt still, in spite of what the Solicitor-General has said, whether the drafting of this Clause does not go beyond our common objects and might result in some injustices to people whom no one wants to injure by discriminating against them in comparison with other people. Having heard the Solicitor-General and his objections, it seems to me a matter of doubt whether this Clause and the Amendment achieve the agreed objective. My right hon. and learned Friend says it all depends on the purpose of the caretaking. There is nothing in this Amendment to distinguish between different kinds of caretaker. What it says is: That a person shall not be treated … as in occupation of a building or property by virtue of any occupation thereof by a person employed by him as caretaker of that building or property. It seems to me that those words are quite wide enough to cover the case of the South coast hotel, so as to be able to say that an hotel or boarding house for a seasonal period is in occupation by a person employed by the owner as a caretaker and so does not come within this Clause. I would like to ask the Minister to consider this matter further. I think both sides of the House are agreed upon the objective, but I think the Amendment goes a little beyond what is required. Although our opportunities of amending this Amendment are limited to-day by considerations of what might happen if we did, and although, in respect to what the hon. Member for Peckham said, I am not one of those who do not wish to see the Bill on the Statute Book, if the Minister will consider this wording further, and, if necesary, bring in a one-Clause Amending Bill in the light of that reconsideration, I should welcome it. I am not satisfied with it as it stands.

3.27 p.m.

Mr. Silkin

I think the House is very much indebted to the Solicitor-General for his explanation of the Clause, which certainly has been perfectly clear and satisfactory, although some hon. Members, like the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), who, if I may respectfully say so, is usually very clearheaded, have not quite appreciated the explanation that has been given.

After all, when a person is an owner-occupier of premises, it must be a question of fact for the aribitrator to decide, and it is impossible to legislate for every conceivable type of case. I have not the slightest doubt that, if a boarding-house keeper who only occupies for six months of the year claims to be an owner-occupier, the arbitrator, if in his full senses, would accept the fact that she was an owner-occupier. I cannot see that there can be any doubt about it, whether she put a caretaker in or not. Supposing this woman was a boarding-house proprietor who occupied the premises for six months and then left, but did not put in a caretaker. There could be no question at the end that she was the occupier of the premises. Surely, she does not get into a worse position merely because she puts in a caretaker to look after the premises? No one interpreting this Bill could possibly suggest that, because there is a caretaker looking after the premises, she is worse off and ceases to be an owner-occupier. I think that what those hon. Members who do not understand the wording of the Amendment have failed to appreciate is that, as the Solicitor-General has said, these words are tacked on to an existing Clause—Clause 53, Sub-section (6) (c) —

Mr. Loftus

There is just one phrase in that Sub-section which seems to narrow it very much—" for the purpose of that employment." Would not that narrow the definition?

Mr. Silkin

The purpose of this Subsection is to enlarge the rights of persons who claim to be owner-occupiers. But for this Sub-section a person would be an owner-occupier if he employed somebody else. This enlarges the opportunities for people to treat as owner-occupiers, but the Amendment is designed to see that the enlargement does not go too far. I think it is clear and I hope that we can now accept it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: In page 60, line 32, at end, insert: (e) no regard shall be had to occupation or intended occupation of a budding or property entered into, or intended to be entered into, with a view to rendering a sum payable under this Section in a case in which it would not otherwise have been payable.

3.30 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This Amendment deals with a paragraph which my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) wanted to be inserted to meet the point he raised on the Report Stage, applying it to the bona fide owner-occupier. My hon. Friend suggested doing that by means of a test, and I put forward for consideration the contrary suggestion of making the test bona fide occupation in order to get increased compensation, and on that my hon. Friend let the matter go. This new paragraph is to meet that point and it is a common form provision in its application and has the result of limiting it to owner-occupiers in the way we suggest.

Question put, and agreed to.