§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)
I beg to move," That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The House may recall that a short time ago, when I made my statement on housing policy, I outlined three proposals which the Government intended to adopt for the purpose of meeting the acuteness of the housing shortage. The first of those proposals was to try to make as much use as possible of existing accommodation, and in consequence of that a regulation was made recently which now makes it impossible to convert residential premises into offices without first obtaining the consent of the housing authority. A second regulation, which I hope will be promulgated very shortly will enable citizens to make available parts of their dwellings and will exempt those portions of their dwellings from the application of the Rent Restriction Acts. This Bill is the third stage in trying to protect the people of Great Britain against the consequences of the housing stringency. It is true that the Bill is a simple Measure and merely repeats, in almost exact words, the enactment which now applies to Scotland, but I would like hon. Members to reflect that there is a great deal of difference between the circumstances in Scotland and those prevailing in England and Wales, and the same enactment applied to both might have entirely different consequences. For example, there are in London alone very many more flats and very many more premises that could be brought under this Bill when it becomes law than exist in the whole of Scotland, and hon. Members who are familiar with the circumstances in London will appreciate that a piece of legislation which may be carried out with very simple administrative machinery in Scotland may require very much more elaborate and extensive machinery when applied to England and Wales.
The purpose of the Bill is, first, to protect those who are in need of homes against being charged exorbitant rents for furnished lettings or unfurnished lettings with services. Large 1939 numbers of men will be coming home from the Forces very shortly and large numbers of them will be getting married and will want to set up homes, and it would be much more desirable that they should set up homes in houses of their own—very much more desirable. [HON. MEMBERS:" Hear, hear."] I am very glad to get the support of hon. Members opposite. We all realise the way in which they exerted themselves to accomplish this purpose. But meantime, whatever we may do, this winter there will still be large numbers of people who will have to find accommodation in other people's homes. As a general rule, our people do not exploit citizens in distressful circumstances, but hon. Members know very well that there are large numbers of people who are at the moment, or will be very shortly, living in furnished apartments, who are being or will be charged unreasonably high rents unless they are given legal protection. It is one of the purposes of the Bill to try to give that protection.
There is another aspect of this matter that perhaps has not received as much consideration as it should. We are very anxious to preserve our reputation for hospitality and just treatment towards people coming to live here temporarily, and also very anxious that London should be visited as much as possible by people coming from other countries. Furthermore, we often need London as a centre for international conferences. In my judgment, and I am sure it is the view of the House as a whole, it is extremely undesirable that when visitors come to London they should be charged exorbitant rates for the buildings they need to occupy. So from those two points of view, that of our own people who will have to find accommodation, and the point of view of preserving our reputation for just hospitality, it is now necessary that we should have a Bill of this sort to bring these rents within legal control.
I know that a strong case can be I made for the enactment of the whole of the recommendations of the Ridley Committee, and the Government would not have been loth to do so were it not for the fact that the preparation of a Bill of that sort would have strained the machinery at our disposal and that we have not the Parliamentary time to devote to it. Therefore, I hope that in this matter the House will forgive the Gov- 1940 ernment for not getting on with a very much more ambitious Measure and will accept this Bill as a kind of first-aid treatment for the patient, who later, perhaps, will require a very much more radical cure. But there is this advantage in carrying out a small Bill of this sort, that it will provide us with a great deal of valuable experience in the operation of rent. tribunals The Ridley Committee, after having wrestled with this vexed problem of rent control, recommended the establishment of these tribunals throughout the country, a very large undertaking, a very formidable piece of administration. One of the by-products of the operation of this Bill will be that it will provide us with experience of this kind of administration, which has already been very valuable in Scotland.
It will not be necessary to establish these tribunals everywhere. Every village, town or city will not require to have this Bill applied to it. That is why it is elastic in its application. These tribunals will be established only where the local authority requires them to be established and the Ministry of Health, either on its own initiative or in consultation with the local authority, deems fit to establish them. Of course, in every instance the Ministry of Health would consult with the local authority before the tribunal was set up. There are large areas of this country where this problem does not exist. In rural areas it has no existence at all; in most of our provincial small towns tribunals dealing with this problem would be unnecessary. There the exercise and the discipline of public opinion and good neighbourliness are sufficient to keep the rents of furnished dwellings within reasonable limits. This problem is almost entirely a metropolitan one. It arises in areas where the citizen is a lonely creature, where he has to tramp the streets looking for accommodation and there is no climate of opinion that can assist him against a landlord or a landlady who is inclined to take advantage of his plight. Therefore, these tribunals in my view and in our expectation, will be established in a limited number of areas. Nor, indeed, is it necessary that they should be established for the whole of a local government area. They may be established in that particular part of it where the problem is acute and where the evidence shows that a tribunal is necessary. Therefore, instead 1941 of these tribunals being established at once, by ukase, all over the country they will come into existence where the local authority desires them to be established and where the opinion of hon. Members, derived from their local experiences, has satisfied us that they should be established.
Furthermore, it is not necessary in our judgment that the chairmen of these tribunals should always be legal persons. After all, no body of law has to be considered here. What is a reasonable rent is a question well within the competence of lay people, who have as much right to say what is a reasonable rent as has the Lord Chancellor. These tribunals will, it seems to me, work very much more justly and fit in more snugly with local circumstances if the chairman of a tribunal is usually a lay person. It has been suggested to me from some quarters that if we do not have legal persons and do not set up a code to govern these tribunals there will be different rulings in different places. Of course there may be, but different rulings in different places may secure more equity than the same ruling everywhere, because these furnished dwellings are in different social contexts, and, therefore, the opinion of a local tribunal as to what the rent should be in a particular place is of much more value than a decision based upon abstract rules which, if applied to everybody, might bear hardly on certain people. Therefore, I feel that these tribunals ought to work with the utmost freedom and should have regard, always empirically, to the circumstances of the case rather than that they should seek to apply juridical principles.
I know it will be said in criticism that one of the weaknesses of the Bill is that for the tribunal to hear the appellants and fix the rent will take a little time, and that where the previous rent has been too high the person who has been aggrieved will have no chance of recovering arrears. I think hon. Members will find on reflection that perhaps that is not quite so much of an anomaly as might appear at first sight. Hon. Members must realise that there is at the moment no objective standard of what the rent should be, and the individual who, in the view of the tribunal has charged too high a rent may not, in fact, have been guilty of any degree of abuse. After all, 1942 Landladies put different values upon their furniture, and I myself should hesitate to form a judgment on subjective impulses of that sort.
If the tribunal says the rent ought to be 15s. a week and it has, in fact, been 20s. it seems to me that it might create a very uncomfortable relationship between the tenant, who, after all, is living-in with the other people, if we enabled him to recover that 5s. It may impose an unnecessary hardship on the landlady, who may not be very well off and may have spent the money in the meantime, and it would not be too easy to recover the money. It seems to be very much more rational and common-sense, to try to expedite the hearing before the tribunals, and to let the new rent date from the time the rent is registered, rather than from the date when the rent was actually charged. To import into this rather loose machinery, the rigidity of the Rent Acts is to do violence to its intention. There is no statutory rent which can be charged. There is no standard rent and, therefore, until the tribunals have been operating for some time, landladies and landlords will have no criteria for determining what is a reasonable or unreasonable rent. Therefore, it would be unwise, in those circumstances, to import any power to cover arrears of excess rents.
There is a further criticism, and it has some substance in it. The landlord who has been taken to the tribunal and has been compelled to charge a lower rent than he was charging will, it is said, revenge himself on the tenant, and clear him out and, therefore, there is no protection at all in the Bill against that eventuality. I appreciate the problem. The Ridley Committee spoke about three months' tenure after the decision. There is, however, one protection and that is, that in any event the landlord will have to charge the registered rent; he will not be able to charge any more. He would be taking punitive action against the tenant in such a case. It would be pure spite. The new tenant will pay the registered rent unless there has been a substantial alteration in circumstances. There is one protection there. Secondly, and very much more important, the local authority will have the power to requisition the rooms and put the evicted tenant back into them if it wishes. That, I hope, is an observation which representatives of local authorities will note. It is 1943 the power of requisitioning. For instance, a landlord cannot say that he is not going to take anyone in because the fact that he had somebody in, will be prima facie evidence that the house is under-occupied. In most instances, remember, we are dealing with people who make revenue out of the letting of rooms, and not with the occasional householder, who is dealt with under the general regulation. The people to whom this Bill will apply in most instances are those who make a livelihood,' or supplement their income by normally letting rooms and, therefore, they will always have accommodation. If, therefore, they evict a tenant and say, "You are a nasty man; get out, because you took me to the tribunal," then, if the local authority does its job, it will take possession and put the evicted tenant back again.
§ Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)
If a landlord evicts a tenant and puts in another tenant, or the room becomes occupied, then the local authority could not requisition?
§ Mr. Bevan
I think that that is true, but, as I say, the landlord in that instance would not be obtaining any financial benefit from what he had done, though I admit that he would gain a certain amount of satisfaction perhaps, at having his revenge. The Government are in a difficulty, and it is one that faces the whole House. We are not dealing with any differences of principle. We are all anxious to try to make the machinery work and I shall listen to the Debate with great interest to discover whether hon. Members will be able to shed more light than I have been able to do on this very vexed question.
Then there is this difficulty—and it is a psychological one. If you tie families I together in a house by a legal enactment, a most unhappy atmosphere exists. I hope that the existence of the Act, and the operation of one or two decisions by tribunals, will have the necessary effect upon rents, and that we shall not have to resort to it in many instances. Experience has taught us in this country that when one or two decisions are given, citizens usually adjust their conduct accordingly. I hope, therefore, that the circumstances which some people have envisaged will not arise and that we shall not have 1944 decisions by tribunals followed by evictions. But I shall listen to the arguments with great interest, and if they offer some kind of protection and are sufficiently wide, the Government are prepared to consider the matter in the Committee stage. Hon. Members will appreciate I that we are dealing with a piece of territory which is comparatively uncharted; and where you are trying to deal with the relationships of people living in the same household, it is a very dangerous thing to tie them together under a statute.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
Does not that difficulty already apply to unfurnished lettings?
§ Mr. Silverman
I was referring to the difficulty of two people being tied together. It already applies to unfurnished lettings, to a room let unfurnished.
§ Mr. Bevan
It has also been suggested that the penalties under the Bill are rather harsh. The penalties under Clause 8 go up to £100 or imprisonment for six months, or both. I would remind hon. Members that we are really trying to protect our own fellow-citizens against a form of exploitation which is extremely injurious in many instances. Some of these people—I do not say all of them—have developed anti-social habits. It is bad enough for this country to lose, as we have lost, hundreds of thousands of homes by enemy action, but it becomes intolerable when the plight of their fellow-citizens is exploited by harpies who batten upon them, as they have sometimes done in London and the big cities. Therefore, where this anti-social conduct is discovered, it is necessary to protect the victims. It must be understood that, in any case, the penalties cannot operate until a tribunal has fixed the rent and the offenders have tried to get around it and fix a higher rent. Furthermore, a £100 fine will not matter very much to some people who let some of those expensive apartments in London. A fine of £100 to them is neither here nor there. Therefore, when they offend, they might pay the fine easily. During the war we discovered a lot of people with plenty of money in their pockets for whom to pay a fine was not a difficult thing; and the 1945 way to deal with such anti-social conduct was a term of imprisonment. I ask the House to bear this in mind when considering the question of fines and imprisonment under the Bill.
As I said, we have had experience of the operation of this Bill in Scotland, and, on the whole, the results have been satisfactory. A considerable body of experience has been accumulated which we hope to use in England. It is not the first time Scotland has shown the way. The administration will be watched very carefully. It is much more a matter of administration than of actual legal enactment, but I hope the consequence of the House passing this Bill into law will be to help to protect hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens this winter, when otherwise they might be the victims of what has become, in some circumstances, mercenary exploitation. The House will note that, at the end of 1947, the Measure will die. This is my own estimate—perhaps vague—of the period when the worst housing stringency will have ceased to exist. If, therefore, this Bill, when it becomes an Act, does its duty for two years, I am sure that everybody will be satisfied and if by that time—by the end of 1947—everybody has a home in which they can live without fear of the rack-renter, I am certain- that hon. Members opposite will be as pleased as we shall be; on this side of the House.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
Will the proceedings before the tribunals be in public? Will the Press be there, or will the only knowledge of their decision be when the changed rent is registered with the local authority?
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Willink (Croydon, North)
I have very little complaint to make with regard to the observations made by the right hon. Gentleman. Except for one characteristic and parenthetical observation at the beginning of his speech, and one remark at the end, which I thought rather optimistic, I was in agreement with the great bulk of what he said. This is a Bill dealing with a matter which we all agree needs, in the present great housing shortage, to be dealt with by legislation of some kind. I say, at once, that it is 1946 not a Bill the Second Reading of which my hon. Friends or myself will oppose. We accept the unanimous opinion of the Ridley Committee, which perhaps I might be allowed to quote. They said:We are satisfied that the existing powers are inadequate to control the rents of furnished lettings effectively.But we do want to improve the Bill in certain respects and I hope that my observations and criticisms will be taken in the spirit in which they are intended. They are intended to be constructive. Unless I am quite wrong, some rather serious flaws might arise in the working of this Bill. I give this general blessing to the Bill in spite of the fact that, in my opinion, this is a subject matter in which controlling the ordinary way and in ordinary times would be objectionable. Conditions of furnished lettings are so infinitely varied that it is very difficult to conceive of a statutory manner of controlling them which can ever be regarded as satisfactory.
I am very glad to find that, as I understand the position, the Government, in spite of a certain tendency towards controls, take the same view of this matter, because the right hon. Gentleman has just said that he hopes the duration of the Bill will be no more than appears on its face and will not operate beyond 31st December, 1947. I thought he was a little lighthearted about the fact that, as someone had said to him, there will be great disparity between the attitudes of various tribunals. It is right to say that local knowledge and local understanding of the facts and circumstances would probably give rise to what would only appear to be disparities, but, on the other hand, it may well be that there will be real disparities and, for instance, that there will be a very different attitude to what is a fair rent in two adjacent seaside towns. That will not be avoidable under this machinery and would be an unfortunate and unfair disparity. There is no co-ordinating body above the tribunal. I do not complain about that. There is no appeal. I do not complain of that, but it is just an example of the way in which this sort of legislation is very difficult to draft in a really satisfactory way.
This is, of course, a very close imitation of the Scottish Act which was passed into law towards the end of 1943. There was no corresponding legislation for 1947 England, and I imagine that what was in the mind of my predecessor—because it was in his time—and the Government of the day was that it was most important in England, where there had been an even greater reduction of housing accommodation than in Scotland, not to dry up in any way the supply of furnished lettings. It is most important that our housing accommodation should not be diminished at all through people feeling that there is now a system which would alarm them and deter them from lettings which they would otherwise undertake, that there was a form of control, which they could reasonably think might work unfairly upon them or might involve them in being dragged before tribunals possibly a very great distance from where they are living themselves—a point on which I will touch later.
I would say myself that I agree with the conclusion reached by the Government that it is right not to attempt to give statutory security of tenure. But this is not only a close imitation of the. Scottish Act. I feel that it is a slavish imitation of that Act, and I am a little surprised that the Government have not been able, as the Ridley Committee were able, to draw certain lessons from the Scottish experience after these two years. The right hon. Gentleman has been unimaginative on this occasion. Apart from two small matters, two very small matters, I think there are no changes. There is this change, quite technical really, that in this English Bill the local authority will maintain the register whereas in Scotland the tribunal maintained the register. And one recommendation made by the Ridley Committee has been accepted, namely, that if the applicant withdraws his application the tribunal is not bound to go on to fix a rent. That is a small matter. But on the Ridley Committee there were no fewer than seven Members of this House. Four are still with us: the Noble Lady the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Viscountess Davidson), my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree (Mr. Raikes), the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Key), and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary now responsible for housing for Scotland (Mr. Buchanan). They visited Scotland and, as a result of the experience that had been gained, they drew certain conclusions which have not 1948 been accepted or recognised in the drafting of this Bill.
Now may I shortly refer to one or two examples of lettings which will come within the Bill, which bear out my point as to the great variety of lettings that will come within it? In the first place there is a very large class, particularly in London—and the right hon. Gentleman was very right, if I may say so, in laying particular stress on London—of commercial lettings, for example, fiats furnished, or if not furnished, provided with services such as hot water, central heating, lifts, and the use of a lift and the services of a lift man, and matters of that kind. These may be for a period of years—a five years' tenancy perhaps. That is just a type of letting, and the longest type that would come within the Bill. Then one gets the very typical example of letting a house or rooms at a holiday resort perhaps in the cheaper months and perhaps also in the more expensive months. A third class of case is of the very domestic kind where possibly, as quite a temporary measure, people think they would like to increase their income because they have a spare room or, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they may shortly be letting them to quite a large extent under a sense of social obligation.
I think that the main principle of the Bill is to establish a register of rents which is to be operative and effective as from the date of entry in the local authority's register. Here I come to a criticism which the Minister of Health anticipated, because it is a point on which he has not accepted the unanimous recommendation of the Ridley Committee, concurred in by his own Parliamentary Secretary, That is the question whether it should be possible for the rent, adjudged to be proper by the Tribunal, to be made to operate retrospectively as far back as the date of application should the Tribunal think fit. I imagine that there may be in London quite considerable congestion before a number of these tribunals. I feel it is likely that there may be two or three months, perhaps even more, before some of these applications are heard and determined and I feel that the unanimous recommendation of the Ridley Committee, including the two gentlemen on the Treasury Bench to whom I have referred, is really preferable to what is provided by the Bill. The Committee based their 1949 recommendation on the suspicion that landlords might hold up hearings by being dilatory, but I would base it simply on the general principle that, when an application has been made, the Tribunal should have the right, in their discretion, to make the proper rent applicable as far back as the date of the application and no further—not that they should be under any obligation to do so, but that if they find that a really exorbitant rent has been charged for three months they should be free to make the reduction retrospective to the date when the applicant started his proceedings.
Then there was another considered and unanimous recommendation which has not been accepted by the Government in drafting this Bill, and I give these circumstances as an example of where I think this might apply. There are a good many cases where there is a furnished letting not on a business basis at all but where, to do a convenience to a friend or relative or somebody who is rather hard-up, whom one wants to help, a tenancy is arranged on terms very generous to the tenant and both parties are quite content with this; they are quite happy in the house together. They do not want to part; but something happens. The tenant ceases to be a rather hard-up person who deserves sympathy. The landlord thinks his tenant is paying too little and gives notice to increase the rent. Under the machinery of this Bill, as was noticed by the Ridley Committee, as soon as the tenant gets that notice he can take his application to a tribunal before the notice becomes effective, and the only rent the tribunal can consider then is a lower rate because it can only consider the contractual rent at the date of application.
Thus we find this extraordinary position tion under the Bill, that these tribunals are curiously bound. Once an application is made they have only two courses which they can take. They must approve or reduce. This is a case where, as I imagine, the Tribunal would like to say that it is quite reasonable that a man who was taken on a semi-charitable or very generous basis should pay a more normal rent now, but the tribunal is absolutely bound. It can only approve or reduce and it must do one or the other, although in the circumstances that I have indicated it may be that the landlord had acted perfectly fairly in saying that there 1950 should be some increase in the rent. This is an example.
§ Mr. Bevan
That, of course, has been considered, as these recommendations of the Ridley Committee were all considered, but the view I took of the matter was that in these circumstances of acute housing shortage the one in possession of the house really can protect himself very well in this matter and usually does and the Bill is intended to protect against excessively high rents. You can envisage all kinds of complicated circumstances such as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has suggested, but a Bill to be framed to deal with all of them would need to be a very ambitious Measure.
§ Mr. Willink
I agree that complicated circumstances may be envisaged. But I will give another example where it is most necessary, in the interests of general fair ness, to give the tribunal two additional courses of action. The tribunal should not be bound either to approve or to reduce. It should also be free to in crease and it should also be free to dismiss an application as vexatious and an abuse. It is a curious limitation on the functions of any tribunal that they should be so bound. Let me give that example at once. Let the House consider the typical letting of a flat with services, not furnished but with hot water and lifts and so on. And, as I have said, there might be quite a long-term tenancy. There are very many of these in London and when this Bill becomes law such tenancies will be somewhat anomalous because they will be within the Rent Restrictions Acts, which one normally thinks of as relating to un furnished premises, because in the circumstances I have mentioned the rent will not cover—here I quote the Act—Board, attendance, or use of furniture representing a substantial portion of the rent.They come within the Rents Restriction Act and they will also be within this Bill, as furnished lettings within the meaning of this Bill. It is a curious feature, though not necessarily harmful. With regard to tenancies of this kind, I would like to read what the Ridley Committee said in paragraph 81 of their report, because on this matter again they were unanimous and indeed said that this was a matter which should be given very high priority. It is a short passage, and if the House will forgive me I will read it: 1951Many flats comprised in blocks are let at rents which include a charge not only for the accommodation but for services provided and maintained by the landlord, such as porterage, cleaning, hot water, central heating, lifts and refrigerators. The cost of these services has, it is stated, risen substantially since the war by reason of increases in wages, fuel and other materials, but, on the other hand, there have been enforced economies due to the calls on manpower and the effect of rationing, which have resulted in the lowering of the standard of services.The next sentence is in italics, and this is all unanimous:"We agree that if the provision of these services in accordance with the standard agreed between the landlord and tenant involves the landlord in a greater expenditure than he had to incur before the war, he should be entitled to an increase in rent.The amount of the increase must obviously depend on the services provided in each individual case. This is a question eminently suitable, in our view, for decision by the Rent Tribunals, who will be able to decide on the appropriate increase on the evidence produced to them.Since the expenses of providing services may have been continuing for some time at a higher level, Tribunals should arrange to give applications of this kind a high priority"That is the recommendation to which the two Parliamentary Secretaries to whom I have already referred set their hands. It obviously appealed to them as an injustice to those who have let these flats with a promise to provide these services. We all know that the costs of the fuel and wages have gone up very considerably since these tenancies were entered into, and when these landlords are at a point where, even though their tenants have been indulgent in the war years, they will expect those services to be fully provided, and will be in a position to bring an action against their landlord if they are not provided, I can see no reason why they should not be brought into this Bill, by the simple expedient of giving the tribunals the power to increase as well as to approve or reduce the rents.
There is another matter on which I should like assistance from the Government, because as I read this Bill, it takes no account whatever of the fact, which I think is known and agreed to by all of us, that there are many let-able premises for which a fair rent varies greatly as between one part of the year and another. If that is generally agreed, 1952 and I hardly see how anybody can doubt it, and if the Bill makes no provision for that, and indeed would be embarrassing in relation to those circumstances, surely it is a very serious flaw which the Government will wish to rectify?
The scheme of the Bill is to register a rent, not as between the parties but in relation to the premises. In other words, supposing somebody has taken a substantial furnished house at £2 2s. 0d. or £3 3s. 0d. a week in an East coast town for the winter months, and has got that rent registered, that would be the maximum rent which would be chargeable for that house in June, July, August and September. It must be obvious to all of us that the only way to let a house of that kind is to charge something below the annual average cost in the winter and something above the annual average cost in the summer months. Surely, the remedy is that the register should only be binding on the parties? It should be a register of the proper rent between those parties. That would be a good guide to all who have to consider what is a fair charge in the future, but it would not be statutorily binding; it would not prevent what I suggest is the proper consequence, namely, that in a house the amenities of which vary between January and August there should not be this rigidity—
§ Mr. Bevan
Have I understood the right hon. and learned Gentleman aright, because it is a very substantial and serious criticism? Do I understand that the rent to be fixed by the tribunal should be a rent as between the lessor and the lessee, and not a rent for the particular premises, whether furnished or unfurnished, and that, therefore, if the lessor and lessee cease to be lessor and lessee the arbitration ceases, and a new arbitration should take place every time?
§ Mr. Willink
No, there is no need for arbitration unless people are dissatisfied. All that is necessary is to protect tenants. If there is a tenant who is a tenant for three months and is paying three guineas, but thinks it should be two guineas, and he can persuade the tribunal to register that two guineas, it should be so registered, but four months later, when summer comes, the parties should be free to fix what is in their opinion a proper rent, and again, if the tenant is dissatisfied, he 1953 can go and get a fair rent fixed for those premises. But how ridiculous that a rent that was fixed for January should be the statutory rent for those premises for all time.
§ Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)
On a point of Order, may I direct the attention of the right hon. and learned Member to the Bill. Under Subsection (3)—
Mr. Deputy - Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)
That is not a point of Order. If the hon. Lady wishes to ask a question, that is another matter.
§ Mr. Willink
I understand the hon. Lady is referring to a Subsection which refers to a change of circumstances. I hope that the Bill does not contemplate that it will be possible for parties to apply for a new hearing because it is April and not March. Surely that is not what is meant by change of circumstances? It is very doubtful whether that would be held to be the case.
I have already referred to the type of case where there is a furnished letting at a low rent to a relative, friend or some one who is not well off. People will be much deterred from letting in those circumstances if there is a risk that that generous rent may be registered as the rent as those premises for all time. If there is an application under this Bill for that rent or a lower rent to be registered, it is mandatory on the tribunal. Once an application is made there are only two courses they can take. They can either register the existing rent or a lower rent. If that is so, no one will be able to let on any generous terms. It seems perfectly clear there ought to be the power to increase or to dismiss the claims.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this procedure should be reasonably informal, though I must demur to his suggestion that there will be more justice with a lay chairman than with a legal chairman. I would not suggest in this Bill provisions for legal representation or costs in the ordinary sense. But on the other hand there is a strong case for inserting in the Bill a provision that tribunals should have power to award reasonable personal expenses in proper cases. There are plenty of cases in which somebody resident in London lets a furnished cottage or a furnished house they own, perhaps in 1954 North Wales or the Lake District. It would be very tempting to a rather unscrupulous tenant to say, "My landlord will never travel up to Windermere to fight the question of this rent. I will make an application. I do not believe he will come. I believe that he will settle rather than travel up at his own expense." It would be fair and just in cases in which the tribunal felt, having dismissed a claim, having refused an application, that it had really been a vexatious and unscrupulous use of the process of the tribunal, that they should have power to award the successful party something which might be denned as reasonable personal expenses.
There are two small points on the Bill itself to which I wish to refer. I am puzzled to know why, when the Statute Book contains, in connection with rent control, a deliberate change from the term "lessor and lessee" to the more familiar and equally accurate phrase "landlord and tenant," this Bill is so reactionary as to go back to that more technical expression. Finally, I am puzzled to know, as are some of my hon. Friends, why Clause 7 is so bare of any provision for the regulations to be made by the Minister being laid before Parliament. I should like an explanation of that. So much for the contents of the Bill, as drafted.
I wish to conclude with some more general remarks. I had the responsibility, with the then Secretary of State, for setting up the Ridley Committee just two years ago. The Committee worked very hard. As the right hon. Gentleman said, they reported last February, and their Report was published in April. Their Report recorded or disclosed many most unsatisfactory features in the law as it stands, one being its almost insane complication, and another the very unfortunate fact that by reason of the date of control or the date of building of a house, there are houses that are identical in quality and amenity with widely varying standard rents. The Committee made 47 recommendations in the summary of their recommendations, and on the vast majority they were unanimous. The Government, by now, should have been able to say more than that they have no Parliamentary time in which to deal with matters of this kind. The use of Parliamentary time is at their discretion, and I 1955 am sorry to hear that there is no prospect, as I understand it, of the recommendations of this Committee being brought before us in legislative form.
Among them there is one most pressing issue, the omission of which from the scope of this Bill my hon. Friends and I most deeply regret— the question of the position of owners of houses who have let their houses and of tenants of houses who have sublet while maintaining their tenancies, as a direct consequence of the war, and who want their homes back again. On this the Ridley Committee were, by a majority of 13 to 2, in favour of action being taken. There is the man who for many years had been paying for his house and then went into the Army, and his wife and family quite properly let it because they could not do otherwise; they could not afford to maintain it on Service pay. Then, there is perhaps the man who was directed to work in some other part of the country, and in similar circumstances either let his house or sublet under his tenancy, maintaining his tenancy all through the war. I feel that such people deserve assistance to get their homes back, as the Ridley Committee, by this large majority, felt. As the law stands neither the thrift of the owner nor the circumstances in which he let his home help him in any way to get it back; it is simply a matter of the balance of hardship that will arise if he is given the home or if he is not given the home. I cannot but think that most people in this country would take the view that was taken by 13 of the 15 members who sat on the Ridley Committee, that something should be done, and should have been included in this Bill to improve the position of those who want to get back their homes which they only left because of the war.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Mrs. Wills (Birmingham, Duddeston)
I am speaking for the first time in this House, and I hope I shall have the sympathy of hon. Members. I believe this Bill is very useful in so far as it goes. It is full of good intentions, but good intentions do not make for happiness, when two disagreeing parties have to share one home. I feel that some security of tenure is imperative if tenants are to know where they stand. Security of tenure helps to make some kind of living 1956 together possible, because both parties realise that they will have to live together for some time. I ask the House: Who are the people whom we hope to benefit by this Bill? I suggest that, in the main, they will be returning Servicemen, their wives and families, and the people who have been directed and sometimes redirected to work in various parts of the country by the National Service officer. These people are doing a job in the national interest for which we should help to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Where there is most demand for accommodation, there we find the problem is the greatest, and the price also is very often, if not exorbitant, at any late too high for the accommodation offered. I have had some experience of trying to get agreement on what is exorbitant, and it requires a lot of explanation and argument in order to reach any kind of agreement. I believe that the only way in which we shall know what is reasonable rent to be charged, is for the tribunals to fix the rent.
Price is not always paid in money. We get price in conditions of tenancy and in other conditions, such as no children, no visitors, no cats or dogs, no birds, no key with which to let oneself in if the landlord or landlady happens to be out—no privacy of any kind. These are prices which ought to be considered by the tribunals when fixing a standard rent for the house. Imagine the life of the tenant if objection is taken to the rent while the inquiry is going on. I suggest that it is during this period particularly that the tenant or sub-tenant needs the protection of this House. While I would not suggest that very long term securities should be given, I think a period of three or six months' security would give the tenant some feeling of possession of the home, and some peace of mind. Nobody, except those who have gone through it, can appreciate the average working man's experience of not knowing where he and his family are going to lay their heads in a day's time, a night's time or a week's time. I do not think the Bill will do what we want to do, unless we give some short security of tenure. If the decision is to reduce the rent, I think the security should be reasonably long in order to give the tenant some opportunity of finding somewhere else to live, because there are many people—particularly landlords and landladies, I am sorry 1957 to say—who would obtain satisfaction from getting rid of the tenant who was taking the action. We, therefore, want this security to last for a period of time such as I have suggested.
I would like to give a case in point. I could give hundreds, as I have been the president of the Tenants' Protection Association for 15 years, and I have had many hundreds of cases to deal with, but here is one to illustrate the need for this security, at any rate for a short period. It is the case of a woman who had done something that did not suit the landlady who was letting the furnished rooms. She was an expectant mother and had been told "No children allowed." When the ambulance came to take her to the hospital to have her baby, the week's notice was put into her hand as she went out of the house. She had nowhere to return, because she was in hospital more than the week for which her notice held good. I do not suggest that all landlords and landladies are as bad as that, because I can give examples, if I wish, of many who have made real sacrifices in order to take in people during the scarcity of housing accommodation. Where tenants let rooms to other people, they need security of tenure against their particular landlords, because I find that many of them have in their tenancy agreements conditions of tenancy which stipulate that they shall not sublet rooms or take in lodgers.
I believe that in this Bill there should be power for the tribunal to say, "This is a case where the tenant of the house has the protection of this tribunal, "or of the law, such as it is, and that they should be able to dispense with any such clause in the tenancy agreement. I believe that this will not inconvenience the good landlords and landladies. I would like added to the Bill a Clause whereby the landlord or tenant of a house who has rooms to let can apply to the tribunal to have a rent fixed before the rooms are let, because I believe many people would appreciate the opportunity of having the accommodation valued in order that they might feel safe from any further interference or prosecution. It would be just and reasonable to allow this. I believe that security of shelter is one of the greatest blessings that we as human kind can have, and anything that we can do to secure this for our people will add to our blessings.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Viscountess Davidson (Hemel Hempstead)
I am very glad to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for the Duddeston Division of Birmingham (Mrs. Wills) on her very useful and excellent speech. She speaks from personal knowledge and experience of the problems connected with those who have to live in other people's houses, and I am sure we all appreciate what she has said. I hope we shall often hear her speak in the future.
I very much sympathise with the point that she has particularly emphasised—that of security of tenure. As the House is aware, our Committee recommended on the lines she suggested, and that has been omitted from this Bill. The House is aware that I was the one woman member on the Ridley Committee, and when we were appointed by the Minister of Health we understood that the matter was extremely urgent. The present position with regard to rent restrictions is chaotic; I cannot emphasise that point too strongly. If I may be allowed to say so—and I know the other hon. Members who were on the Committee with me will agree, particularly the Parliamentary Secretary who will later be replying—we worked extremely hard for what seemed to be a long period, but I can assure the House it was not a long period for the amount of evidence we had to hear and the amount of work we had to get through. During the time that we were sitting, questions on rent problems were frequently asked on both sides of the House, and again and again, the Minister had to answer that he was waiting for our report. I believe the late Government intended introducing legislation shortly after we had reported. Therefore, I very much regret that this Government have not found it possible to bring in a very much fuller Bill.
We realise the difficulties of legislation on such an important matter; nevertheless, the Government have a certain period of time lying ahead of them, and they should have been able to introduce a Bill covering the whole of this extremely important problem. I particularly regret that the recommendation which we made with regard to people who, through no fault of their own, have had to leave their homes and go away either into the Services or on work connected with the war, 1959 should not receive the priority treatment. I am a little afraid that there is a certain prejudice rather than fairness shown here, and I believe the Government will regret that they have not found it possible to include some form of legislation, if not to cover the whole ground, at least to meet this particular problem. It is one which will be growing day by day as the men and women come back home from the Services.
The present Bill, as we all know, is based on the recommendations of the Ridley Committee, and is really framed on the lines of the Scottish Bill with certain omissions. I want to stress the importance of giving the tribunals definite powers to raise rents if they think necessary. That would not be giving an unfair advantage to the owner of a house; it would be giving fair treatment, and it would be giving to the tribunal what I believe they themselves need. It is as a result of having studied the working of this Bill in Scotland that we made some additional suggestions. The House will realise, as the Minister has stated, that this Bill is a forerunner of others. Former Committees set up to examine rent restrictions before now have often discussed setting up tribunals, but they have never agreed that these were workable. We on the Ridley Committee believed that tribunals could deal with the many problems in connection with rent restrictions, and recommended their use. If they are now successful, then they will be successful in the future. Their success depends on their personnel and on the way in which they do their work. They must carry the confidence of the country if they are to do their work properly. The choice of the personnel rests with the Minister. It is not a question whether Mrs. Jones can pay such and such a rent, or whether Mrs. Smith should charge it. The decision of these tribunals must be based on justice. This is extremely important. They must be based on what is right, just and fair according to the facts that come before them, and not according to the hardship of one side or another.
I am very glad that the Bill will cover all kinds of premises. We shall very naturally welcome the day when a Bill of this kind is no longer necessary, for it will mean that the supply of accommodation has caught up with the demand, but 1960 we realise that in this very real emergency some Bill had to be passed and something had to be done. My own fear, and it is obviously shared by the Minister is that the source of supply may dry up. That is a fear that we shall have to face. Time can only show what will happen. I want to emphasise that the most important points are the choice of the personnel of these tribunals and the way in which they interpret their duties. May I once again repeat that they should be allowed to recommend decreases of rent, that rent should stand as it is, or that rent should be increased. I believe the Bill can be of real benefit to many people as long as those who serve on the tribunals are people of the highest integrity, that their findings are entirely fair and impartial and that they themselves are given these extra powers.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Weitzman (Stoke Newington)
I ask the indulgence of the House in making my first contribution to its deliberations. My justification for participating in this Debate is that I have had some little experience of matters connected with the Rent Acts. It is common ground that the Measure is rather overdue. It deals with the evil of profiteering in furnished premises. As has already been pointed out there has been a Scottish Act in existence for some time. Why that Act was not applied to England I do not know, since the evil existed clearly in England in much the same way. There is some justification in the criticism that the Bill shows a slavish adherence to the provisions of the Scottish Act. I have looked at the Scottish Act, and I can see only two differences between it and the provisions of the Bill. The first difference is very curious. Under Section 7 of the Scottish Act, the punishment for an offence is a fine not exceeding £100 or imprisonment for six months Under the Bill the punishment for an Englishman is apparently to be a fine of £100 or imprisonment, or both. Whether that difference is because the Government think that a Scotsman will take a more serious view of having to pay £100 than the Englishman I do not know. The reason for the difference does not seem to be very apparent.
The only other difference is that under Clause 9 a local authority has the power 1961 to institute proceedings and nobody else, whereas in Scotland any Scotsman who suffers can bring proceedings. Why a Scotsman can be trusted in this respect and not an Englishman I do not know. My respectful submission is that this matter ought to have been thought out anew in regard to England. The fact that the Government have followed so closely the system set up in Scotland has resulted in the setting up of tribunals. Why is there a proposal to set up tribunals here? It must not be forgotten that in this country we have a judiciary that is second to none. We have well-tried, independent county court judges who are able, experienced and impartial, and who have a great knowledge in particular of Rent Acts matters. What is the objection to placing a matter of this kind, a question of decision in regard to the amount of rent in furnished premises, before a county court judge? I know it might be said that the Ridley Committee recommended that tribunals should be set up, but that suggestion related to matters connected with the overhauling of the Rent Acts and not particularly to furnished places. Moreover, the Minister of Health said that this Measure would be at an end by the close of 1947, whereas we know that protection under the Rent Restrictions Act will go on for many years thereafter. Why, in those circumstances. I do we not take the simple course of referring these matters to a county court judge?
If it is said that the county court Judges have too much to do, I would remind the House of the provisions relating to workmen's compensation. The county court judges will at some future date no longer have that class of work to do. The result is that county court judges will have the time to deal with matters of this kind. My submission is that if we think of the matter in a simple way, as of a contract made between lessor and lessee, or landlord and tenant in regard to a house, fixing what the amount of the rent should be, a simple complaint could surely be made to a county court judge and he, with his great knowledge and impartiality, would be able to deal with the matter and come to a decision.
Under the Scottish Act there is no appeal, and there is no appeal under the Bill. If the whole matter were referred to the county court there would be no appeal, except on a question of law. If 1962 the Government thought that the Bill ought to be restricted in regard to appeal, a simple Measure saying that the decision of the county court was final would have been sufficient. My objection to this part of the Bill is that there is no necessity to set up tribunals, with an army of officials and with more expenses, all, I submit, entirely unnecessary. It is largely because this matter has not been thought out as relating to England rather to Scotland and that the Minister of Health has slavishly followed the provisions of the Scottish Bill, that we are to have the tribunals set up.
There is another objection. The fact that these tribunals are to be set up is contained in Clause 1. If we look at the wording of the Clause we shall see that it begins in this way:Where, as respects a district consisting of the whole or part of the area of a local authority, the Minister of Health…is satisfied on' representation by, or alter consultation with, the local authority that it is expedient that the provisions of this Act should have effect in that district, he may…In other words, before the application of the Bill the Minister has to consult with the local authority, or there has to be a representation made by the local authority. Why? Why should the local authority intervene in the first instance? Why is it necessary that the Minister must consult them? This evil in regard to furnished houses exists not only in London but all over the country. It may be, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that it does not exist to the same extent in other parts of the country, but is it suggested, if you have one case of perhaps extreme profiteering in a rural district, that the case should escape the decision of a tribunal merely because the Minister cannot set up a tribunal except by representation or consultation with the local authority? If my suggestion of the county court judge were adopted, we should not want those representations, or consultations, or tribunals. We should need only a simple Clause in the Bill saying that in any case of furnished premises the tenant might apply to the county court judge complaining about the matter and asking for it to be dealt with. It does not do away with the Register or with the local authority carrying out the provisions of the Bill, but we should save expense, officials and delay and we should get the matter dealt with in a simple and expeditious way.
1963 I would add my protest at there being nothing in the Bill about eviction. It is all very well for the Minister to say that powers will very shortly be given to local authorities to come in and take these premises if the landlord evicts the tenant, but we know, human nature being what it is, that if a tenant takes a landlord to the court and makes a complaint, it is a hundred to one that the tenant will receive notice to quit, and out that tenant will go. It is no satisfaction for the tenant to know that he has got the amount of the rent nicely set out in the Register, while he himself has been nicely set out in the street. It would be the simplest thing in the world to insert a Clause in the Bill dealing with eviction.
It might be that the grounds already in existence in the Rent Restrictions Acts on which possession could be obtained might have been made applicable or, as an hon. Member has already said, the period of six months might have been put into the Bill as some security of tenure. Whatever it was, some sort of protection ought to be given. We do not want to get an evil dealt with under the Bill merely with the result that the tenant who has registered the grievance has been thrown out into the street.
I should like to deal with one or two other points. Clause 2 contains a reference to payment and consideration, which includes payment for the use of furniture or services. The Interpretation Clause does not define "furniture" or "services." It is true that the term "services" is to includeattendance, the provision of heatingand so on, but nowhere are the terms actually defined. That raises a very serious difficulty. Suppose there is some linoleum on the floor or some curtains. Suppose the porter merely brings up the coal. Is that "service" within the meaning of the law? Does the Bill mean that however little the furniture and however small the services it gives a right to complain?
I suggest that having regard to the difficulties and complexities under the Rent Restriction Acts, it is essential that something should be said in the Bill to give the meaning of "furniture." That is all important. In the Rent Restriction Acts there is already a provision for protection in respect of the furnished premises which 1964 are within those Acts. I did hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) say that, whether all premises that were furnished came within the Rent Acts or not, they came within the Bill. I respectfully suggest that that is not so. My reading of the Act does not show that that follows clearly from its provisions. Are premises within the Rent Restrictions Acts within this Bill? I think it ought to be made quite clear whether this Bill applies not only to premises outside the Rent Restrictions Acts but to premises that come within it. I offer these observations to the House, and respectfully submit that they are matters which might be dealt with by the right hon. Gentleman when he comes to reply.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham. Erdington)
It is with a mind unfurnished with a great deal of experience of the customs and moods of this House, that I venture upon this my maiden effort, and crave the indulgence of the House for my few comments upon this Bill. A few months ago a woman came to see me. She was a widow with three children, and her total income amounted to £3 15sa week. She was occupying two furnished rooms with the joint use of the usual household conveniences, for which she was paying a rent of £2 5s. per week. It is safe to say that the value of the furniture of those rooms at 1939 prices was not more than about £40 or £45. I suggested to her that this was a suitable case to be reported to the Public Health Committee for action under Section 10of the 1920 Act, and she said, "No, because if you do that, I shall simply be thrown out on to the street. So please do not take any such action upon it at all." She said she had spent many weeks going round from place to place trying to find a landlord who was willing to take her children in, and she did not want to make the same interminable round again.
Here is another case of a rather different nature. The tenant in this case was paying £2 15s. for a furnished house under a written agreement in 1943. In 1944 the rent was increased to £3, and in 1945 to £3 5s. The furniture was of moderate value, not too good and not too bad. In May, 1945, the landlady decided that she wanted somewhere to 1965 live, so she came back to the house and occupied half of it herself, in consideration of which the rent was reduced to £2 15s. per week. In that case again the tenant said that he did not want to do anything about it because there was a family of five and they had nowhere to go, and no prospects of getting anywhere. I want to ask the Minister of Health what comfort, what consolation and what aid does this Bill bring to these people, and I put it to him that without some security of tenure this Bill has no teeth. It has no teeth because it is no use asking tenants to report cases of extortion to the local authority, or to go to the tribunal and take action, when they know they will be turned out. It is no use telling the tenant, as the Minister is suggesting, that if he is turned out the next tenant will get the benefit of the reduced rent; that offers no protection to him, and unless people are prepared to report exorbitant rents to the authorities this Bill will not go very far.
I, like many other hon. Members, have read the Ridley Report, which is against general security of tenure. The reasons it advances are reasons of some substance, yet I do not think they are entirely valid. For instance, the Minister today said that it is a difficult and an awkward thing when you get two households tied together in the same house. But that has already happened in tens of thousands of cases; there are already houses divided into unfurnished apartments where the landlord and the tenant are tied together under the Rent Acts and where people have to live together. No doubt in many cases it is very difficult, but they manage to carry on. So far as furnished lettings are concerned, the worst and most exorbitant cases in my own experience are not those of people who let rooms in their own houses, they occur in connection with what I might call the professional furnished room letter, who lets rooms for a profit. It would be quite possible to deal with them entirely separately under theBill. There is no reason whatsoever why general security of tenure should not be granted—making an exception, if you like, for the person who lets rooms in his own house, because I agree entirely that it is desirable to encourage that as much as possible at the present time.
We have had no explanation of why the restricted form of security of tenure 1966 suggested in the Ridley Report—that is, three months security after the tribunal has given its arbitration—has not been adopted, and I hope the Under-Secretary will deal with that in his reply. There is one further point. Hon. Members have all heard of the Probation of Offenders Act, under which the criminal law extends its clemency to first offenders and frequently let them off with a caution. Here we have a Bill which constitutes a Probation of Offenders Act for landlords, but in fact it goes further than any Probation Act in existence. What it says in substance is that if a landlord robs a tenant for two years and is brought before the tribunal and found out, he is not punished, he is simply told that he must not do it any more and, what is more, he keeps the proceeds of his robbery. I can see no justification for that at all. Of course it is true and I want to put it perfectly fairly—that if the tenant is sufficiently courageous, and foolish, and is not short of money, he may be able to take proceedings, which the Act still allows him to do under Sections 9 and 10 of the 1920 Act. I do not think he is bound to get very far, because I do not think that anybody knows what those two Sections really mean. Accordingly, the tenant is left without adequate protection, and will not have very much more under this Bill.
It is said that this is an emergency Bill to deal with a special emergency, and it seems to me that there are certain other matters which should also be dealt with under emergency conditions. There is, for instance, the question of repairs—a most urgent problem in the City of Birmingham, as many of my colleageues will tell the House. Existing powers for dealing with recalcitrant landlords who will not do repairs are quite insufficient. I think it is a pity that something cannot be done at this moment, as an emergency Measure before the main Bill is introduced, to deal with this particular and pressing problem. This may be only an emergency Measure, but the fact remains that under this Bill it will be a very long time indeed before a majority of the tenants occupying furnished apartments are protected. Let us see what will happen. In the first place the Minister has to declare the area or district under Clause 1, after consultation with the local authority. We do not know how long that is going to take. Even so, not all the houses in the area become protected. They do not be- 1967 come protected until each individual house has come before the tribunal and has been dealt with. Then, for the first time, it becomes in the proper sense of the term a protected dwelling, in the same way as, for instance, dwellings under the Rent Restrictions Act are protected. I do not know how long that is going to take; it may take months or years, it all depends on the rate at which the tribunal makes adjudications.
I do not think that this is satisfactory, and if I vote for this Bill it is simply because it does, after all, create the machinery which a better Bill in due course will be able to use. There is one point I should like to make. The right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) mentioned the question of the alteration of the grounds for obtaining possession which is dealt with in paragraph 89 of the Ridley Report. I want to say that in this respect I am in entire agreement with the minority report, if as a maiden speaker I may associate myself with two gentlemen who have been translated to the Olympic heights of Ministerial rank. It is my experience, not only as a public representative on the local authority but as a lawyer practising in the courts, that in the vast majority of cases landlords who want to obtain possession of their house would be able to say that they left their house for purposes connected with the war.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that that argument would be advanced in 80 or go per cent, of the cases. What is going to happen? We shall see this sort of case—perhaps a childless couple or maybe a single man or woman will come along and say that the family with four or five children—perhaps an ex-Service-man, or perhaps the family of a man at present serving abroad—shall be turned out of their house. The court would have no discretion in the matter whatsoever, and. would be obliged, if this particular section of the Ridley Report were put into operation, to turn the family out. I can only say that I can conceive of no Measure which would cause such a great amount of hardship in this country at the present moment. I might even say that there would be serious danger to public peace in this country if such a Measure were put into operation.
In my experience, in so far as justice may be stretched, the elastic majesty of 1968 the law always tends to favour the serving man, and I am sure that county courts, in their interpretation of the great hardship clause of the Schedule to the 1933 Act, deal with this matter fairly reasonably and justly, always bearing in mind that even at present there is still some bias in favour of the landlord in that the onus of proof of greater hardship is upon the tenant. From my experience, I think that that is enough. In conclusion, I hope that the Minister of Health, conscious of the deficiencies in this Bill, will do something to improve it before it goes on the Statute Book, in order that those tenants who are subject to this extortion should receive real and adequate protection.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)
It does not fall to the lot of every hon. Member to have the privilege of congratulating two hon. Members on their maiden speeches. The first maiden speech was that of the hon. Member for Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman). Stoke Newington is a very important part of this great Metropolis, and after listening to the very knowledgeable speech of the hon. Member, I feel that the housing problems of Stoke Newington will be very adequately put forward in the House. I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Erdington (Mr. Julius Silverman) on his very earnest and sincere speech. Hon. Members are always ready to listen to speeches that are sincere, even though they may not agree with the contents of those speeches. I would like also to congratulate the hon. Member upon being a representative upon the local authority in Birmingham. It is real public service to be a representative on a local authority in a constituency and then to have the honour of being returned to Parliament, as Member for that constituency, to play a part in Parliamentary affairs.
I draw the attention of the Government Front Bench to both those maiden speeches from their own back benches. We sometimes suggest that maiden speeches should be non-controversial in character, and I always understood that being non-controversial meant that hon. Members on one side should not offend hon. Members on the other side of the House. These two hon. Members on the Government side put forward some very shrewd criticisms which came very near 1969 to being controversial, and I hope that the enterprise, initiative and courage which they have shown in putting forward those views will come to the attention of the Minister of Health when he reads HANSARD tomorrow.
I thought this Bill was to be a very non-controversial Bill, and I wondered how it would be possible for the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health to produce a Bill that was non-controversial and perhaps rather dull. I must say that, after listening to his speech on a Bill the principles of which most of us support, I thought that when he came to diversity of views between Scotland and England, at any rate we had got down to the controversial part. Most of the speeches that have so far been made have been directed not so much to the objects in view as to the question how the Bill can be made to work in practice. Almost every hon. Member has pointed out that, although a certain thing might be intended, the Bill might have the reverse effect put into practice. Of course, a great deal of legislation does have the reverse effect from that intended. I well remember that Lord Runciman, who used to be President of the Board of Trade, once told me, when I was Member for Stockport, that the real trouble he would have in giving effect to an application I had made, which had to do with rabbits, would be that the niggers in West Africa would be deprived of their top hats, and that it was quite likely there would be a riot. Legislation sometimes has peculiar effects. I suggest that in regard to this Bill, it is not enough for the Minister to want to bring about a certain state of affairs; he must be sure that the Measure will bring about that state of affairs.
All hon. Members want to see profiteering stopped. With all the arguments concerning that I entirely agree. We have to consider this Bill from the point of view of seeing how it can be made to work. The first point with which I want to deal is this. We do not want to discourage people from letting rooms. We must make more premises available, and if in fact the Bill makes fewer available, it will not be a success. There may be a large number of people who, when they realise the heavy sanctions which there are under this Measure, will be frightened to let part of their premises or their 1970 houses. I suggest to the Minister that in such cases, before a contract is signed, it ought to be open to the parties concerned to take the contract to a tribunal and say, "We are considering making a letting at this rent; may we have your sanction for this being a reasonable rent?" This would avoid frightening people who might very well be frightened by the provisions of the Measure.
The second point I want to put to the Minister is based upon the argument that was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink). I think his argument was overwhelming, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to look into the matter. In the case of a very low rental, an application can be made to a tribunal, and as far as I can see from the Bill, the tribunal can either approve or decrease the rent. Obviously, in the case of a low rental, the tribunal would not decrease the rent. It will be obliged to register the existing rent, although in fact it is below a reasonable rent. This means that a tenant who may have premises at a very low rental will at once say, "I will have this registered as the rent, although in fact it is worth considerably more. "The result of this provision will tend to be to prevent lessors from making generous lettings.
I know of instances in my own part of the country where cottages are let at no rents. [Interruption.] I do not know why the entire Independent Labour Party, which usually sits close to me, has now gone down to the end of the Bench. I should have thought that on this occasion, when it is a question of letting cottages at no rent at all, they would have come quite close to me. I feel there is a point in the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon that the tribunals should have power to increase rents where they decide that such an increase is necessary.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Dower
I am obliged for that interruption. I am sure that in 90 per cent. or 95 per cent. of cases, the hon. Gentleman is right, but there is a small number of cases where there are generous lettings. In those cases the rents are far below the values. This provision will prevent generous lettings of that nature 1971 unless the tribunals have power to increase the rents in this small number of cases, although I agree that in the vast majority of cases it will be a question of the tribunals decreasing the rents. The third point I wish to make concerns the scope of the Bill. Several hon. Members have drawn attention to the very loose wording. It is very difficult to know what will come within the provisions of the Bill and what will not. I feel that the definition of the word "services" is far too wide—so wide that it is not, I respectfully suggest, a Committee point, but a proper matter to raise on the Second Reading. According to the definition, the word" services" includes anyfacility connected with the occupancy of a house or part of a house.How can any tribunal decide what those words mean? A "facility" might be a doormat or it might be a common entrance which was divided two feet inside the building. That definition ought to be made more clear; otherwise, no one will know what falls within the Bill and what does not. It is that sort of loose wording which creates uncertainty and brings the law rather into disrespect.
The qualifications of those who will sit upon the tribunals will have to be very high. The tribunals will have to judge the lettings of small houses, and I do not think that will be a difficult problem; it is something which reasonable and ordinary people will be able to handle. I can imagine the tribunals functioning extremely well in those cases. But they will have some very difficult problems to handle when they come to deal with more extensive flats and lettings. I think we are entitled to know from the Minister what he feels would be a reasonable rent for letting silver, silver plate, linen, perhaps a grand piano, and some masterpieces. We are going to throw a great deal of work on these tribunals, which I think will perform a most useful function where small lettings are concerned, and perhaps prevent any kind of victimisation through high rents. But they will get into difficulties over the variations in rent for houses or flats of the type I have mentioned. There may be flats in the same building where the difference in rent is as much as 100 per cent. I hope great care will be taken in choosing the people 1972 who are to be appointed to these tribunals.
I suggest that here is a Bill which commands the approval of nearly every quarter of this House, but all hon. Members are worried about how it is going to work. The Minister will have to watch it very carefully to see whether it will really have the effect to which I have referred, and I also suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the speeches made in the Debate today should be read most carefully by him. All kinds of points have been brought out which might influence the Minister upon his future proceedings. I hope the right hon. Gentleman may be able to introduce Amendments during the Committee stage to give effect to these very helpful suggestions which have come from all parts of the House.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)
I welcome this Bill, and, if I have any disappointments concerning it, I share the feelings of a great many hon. Members that some of the recommendations of the Ridley Commission might have been adopted. I feel, however, much more strongly on the failure to deal with the purchase price of houses for sale. I notice that the Minister, in absolving himself from that duty, suggested that it was impracticable to deal with profiteering in the sale of houses. Yet he finds it practicable to introduce a Bill dealing with profiteering in rooms, which necessitates the setting up of a tribunal which shall judge the area and environment in which the house is situated, the amenities surrounding the house, the construction of the house itself, whether it is damp and dry and habitable, the furniture inside the house, the state of the carpets, the cutlery and blankets, and, in addition, shall assess, on a psychological basis, the particular relationship between buyer and seller, or, shall I say, between lessor and lessee. In other words, I feel that my right hon. Friend strains at a gnat and swallows a camel. Nevertheless, I welcome the camel. This plan has been exceedingly useful wherever it has been tried, and it has been tried in Scotland. It does require valuers, who are said, in the Morris Report, to be almost nonexistent, though every tribunal in Scotland finds that a valuer appears for the lessee, another for the lessor, and, very 1973 often, the tribunal itself consults a valuer, and there has never been any trouble whatsoever in getting a plethora of valuers to judge particular furnished rooms.
We ought to emphasise that we do appreciate the great value to this country of the women who let furnished rooms. Many of them have been very fine, motherly creatures, who have put up with a great many hardships in the performance of their duties, and have always charged a reasonable price. They also, under this Bill, may become the object of suspicion by the population, and I, frankly, do not like it. The customer is not always right, and the lessee is not always right, either. The lessee, very often, can be a very great disturbing factor in an otherwise peaceful house. Nevertheless, I understand that the chief object of the Bill is to stop profiteering. The question of what is profiteering is left to the tribunal, who have all the facts at their disposal, but it should be noted that the tribunal's decision is final, and that there is no appeal against that decision. Therefore, the utmost care has to be taken in selecting the tribunal.
One hon. Member asked what is a reasonable rent. It is impossible to lay down definite principles that could be uniformly applied throughout England, and the Bill again places the onus entirely on the tribunal. I believe that one criticism of the Bill was that they had no power to increase the rent. Once the rent is fixed by the tribunal and is entered in the register, there is power to increase it. The right hon. Gentleman who made that criticism was wrong and could not have made himself fully acquainted with the Bill. In Clause 2 (3) it is stated that the tribunal shall have power to increase the rent payable, but only after it has been entered in the register. There are sets of circumstances, such as have been described, namely, increased cost of services or increased cost of refrigerators and so on, in which the rent can be increased on application due to that change of circumstances.
§ Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)
May I intervene for a moment? I think the hon. Lady has not fully understood that point. The point was that, when the application was made, the circumstances had altered, and, therefore, the rent would have to be fixed with an 1974 allowance for the increased cost. The second application would, therefore, be worthless.
§ Mrs. Mann
I think that, when two people enter into an agreement, lessee and lessor, the lessee has power to apply to the tribunal, and, at that juncture, it is true that the conditions are surely the same as they were when the agreement was entered into. At any rate, we take it that they were. There are some weaknesses in the Bill, the chief of which is that of the threat of eviction. Where we have had this operating, we have found that tenants could be protected by the Defence of the Realm Act, Section 85. It is now suggested that they may be protected by requisitioning, but we found that there were certain local authorities who were very reluctant to use their powers under the Defence of the Realm Act, and it may be that there are local authorities who are equally reluctant to-use their powers to requisition the houses. After all, let us remember, in these cases, that we are enforcing the law against our own ratepayers rather than against the bird of passage, and local authorities are more prone to sympathise with the static ratepayer than with the bird of passage, who flits from furnished room to furnished room. Therefore, you have a real grievance.
After the tribunal has finished the job, what happens when the two women concerned go back to a kitchen? My right hon. Friend says "One would not push out the other for spite. "He has very little knowledge of what a woman will do. One woman takes another woman to court, and, unfortunately, newspaper publicity is given to all these cases. I think that, in many cases, which ought not to be so. Many a decent woman, perhaps because she charged is. more than the rest, becomes the talk of the little village for days afterwards, and, naturally, they feel that nothing can solve this grievance short of getting rid of the sub-tenant. It is very difficult to ask the two of them to share the same kitchen morning, noon and night. The architect is not yet born who can design a kitchen suitable for two such women. Very often the sub-tenant, we found, just quietly packed up, feeling, like Solomon, thatIt is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house.1975 So they take their departure. I think the criticism directed to this aspect of the Bill is very solid. It may be that, if the lessee and lessor knew that if the tribunal was appealed to, their security of tenure would last, say, three months, it would give them a chance either to readjust their differences or for the sub-tenant to find new accommodation.
There is another weakness in the Bill. The Bill is an exact replica of the Scottish Measure. Word for word, it is the same. There has been a blood brotherhood in this that we in Scotland appreciate. It is very complimentary to us that England should follow us line by line, but there is just one line where the Bill departs from the Scottish Measure, and it is Clause 2 (2), where, in the English Bill, these words are introduced:unless at any time before the tribunal have entered upon consideration of the reference it is withdrawn by the person or authority by whom it was made,In other words, the English Bill allows for a withdrawal; the Scottish Measure does not. May I read this from the Appendix to the Scottish Measure:The Department's solicitor advises that it is not only competent, but, under the terms of the Act, obligatory on the tribunal to consider a contract competently prepared for them, and, in some cases, where a tribunal suspected that withdrawal have been induced by threats on the part of the lessor, or that the lessor was grossly overcharging, a tribunal might well consider it highly desirable that the case should proceed.I think that weakness in the Bill might be eliminated, particularly in view of the fact that we find a tendency on the part of Scottish landlords to contract out of the Rent Restrictions Acts by letting houses partly furnished and so escaping the restrictions of those Acts. In other words, they put in a sofa or an old carpet and feel they have escaped from the control of the Acts. It might conceivably be that the tenant has been bullied to withdraw, and I think, in the circumstances, it is well that a tribunal should fix that rent for all time, even if the tenant has had to give up the tenancy. Under Clause 5 (3) the local authority has power to publish information, but is that power permissible or is it obligatory? I think that the publishing of information should be obligatory.
The hon. Member for Erdington (Mr. J. Silverman) thought that it might be possible and advisable to fix rents in 1976 advance. I do not think that it is either possible or advisable. Tribunals usually take into consideration the value of the premises, the value of the furniture, and the amount of depreciation, and then they add a profit which might be anything from 10 per cent. to 33⅓ percent. Now in so fluctuating, the tribunal is often guided by the personalities occupying a house; for instance, there might be a wild set of people who would tread the carpets, burn gas and electricity at all hours, blare out their wireless into the early hours of the morning, and who are taking a great deal more abuse than use out of a particular apartment or set of apartments. Therefore, I do not think it is advisable to fix rent in advance. Many of us know of people whom we could not tolerate in our homes no matter how much money they gave us for being there, and so I think it is best to leave it to the tribunal. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look again at one or two of the weaknesses—he might strengthen the Bill before it goes forward—and I am sure it will not bring up all the problems that we anticipate. In Scotland, some of the tribunals have not sat for a year. The very fact that there is a tribunal that can be appealed to has acted as a deterrent all over the country. I wish the Bill Godspeed and the success that the corresponding Measure has been in Scotland.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lieutenant William Shepherd (Bucklow)
I have one or two observations which I would like to offer to the House on this Bill. I have a particular interest in the Bill because, like many hon. Members on this side of the House, I have been searching, since I have been returned here as a Member, for some accommodation. I have gone the usual rounds of people who are offering to let furnished and unfurnished accommodation, without much success. I wish this Bill well and I hope that it will achieve its purpose, but I feel there are inherent weaknesses in it which will defeat the intentions of the Minister The Minister told us that if a tribunal gave an award which was considered unfavourable by a landlord, that landlord might be inclined to give notice to the tenant. He said, further, that would bring no financial advantage to the landlord, but, on the other hand, that brings precious little consolation to the tenant, and I most earnestly ask the Minister to try to strengthen the Bill by giving some 1977 security of tenure to the tenant. It is not merely a question of the loss of accommodation which tenants will suffer. A more serious aspect of this lack of tenure, in my opinion, is the fact that it will prevent a large number of people coming forward to the tribunal to put their cases. If they believe they will be thrown into the street, in the present straitened circumstances, they will bear the evil of the high rent, rather than seek justice. So I implore the Minister to try to make some Amendment in the Bill.
Another aspect of the tenure is this: As soon as this Bill becomes law, the people who earn large sums of money, by taking advantage of the present unfortunate circumstances, will be seeing how they can get round it. One obvious way is to get rid of the tenant who is on a fixed rent and get a high premium from the next tenant who comes along. I am quite certain that will happen in a large number of cases, that it will happen secretly, and that the law will not be able to prevent it happening. If however we grant tenure to the tenant, then we shall to a large extent prevent this happening. The other point I want to make is on the question of the chairmen of these tribunals. To my mind the whole of the success or otherwise of this idea depends upon the ability of the chairman to present an impartial judgment and to have the confidence of the people in the locality. If the chairman were a member of the Communist Party who believed that all rent was immoral, he obviously would not please the landlord; if, on the other hand, he were a well-known local landlord, he might well not please the tenant. May I suggest to the Minister that he considers making members of the legal profession chairmen of these tribunals? For my own point of view I do not like the entry of the legal gentlemen into this 6phere, but I think that in this case, at any rate, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
I want for one moment to point to one other possibility of evasion which exists very readily for those who seek to evade the provisions of this Bill. It is that if service or food or board is given, this Bill does not apply. Now it is easy to imagine that, if that is the case, it is possible for people wishing to evade the Bill to grant some small service, such as 1978 breakfast, which can be of a very nominal character, and so evade its provisions. I put that to the Minister as a possible means of evasion, because the success of this Bill will depend on whether we can counter those people who are seeking to evade it when it becomes law. In conclusion, I wish this Measure great success. I hope it will achieve the purpose for which it is intended, and that we shall see an end of the exploitation which is very rampant at the present time.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)
May I first take the opportunity of congratulating my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bucklow (Lieutenant W. Shepherd) for the very clear and concise statement of his case, for the excellent manner in which he placed it before the House, and for the very thoughtful view he gave in respect of the matters which he had in mind in dealing with this particular problem? I am quite certain that in his case, this House will always listen with considerable interest to all he has to say, and will welcome any contribution he has to make to future Debates.
I approach the consideration of this Bill with somewhat mixed feelings. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that. He is undoubtedly providing a remedy by this Bill for some of the injustices which were left untouched by previous legislation. I think we all agree that the rentals of furnished lettings should be put under proper control, particularly in view of the increasing number of such lettings. I would like the House, when dealing with the Rent Acts, to note the beautiful terminology that is used in the Acts themselves, because it illustrates how perfectly clear are the Acts and how every citizen can know all that ought to be known about them. The Rent of Furnished Houses (Control) (Scotland) Act, 1943, in the main, contains similar provisions to those which have been included in this Bill, and I think we can take it for granted, from the reports we have heard from time to time, that that Act is working comparatively well and fairly smoothly. The introduction of similar provisions for England and Wales is very long overdue.
I think by this time my right hon. Friend will have appreciated that there is a very strong feeling in this House that 1979 protection from eviction should be given to tenants of furnished houses or furnished apartments. In addition to the arguments which have been used already, there is this point to consider, that if a tenant is ejected in consequence of the fact that he has taken proceedings before a tribunal, not only is he likely to be ejected from the house or rooms he is occupying but also he may find considerable difficulty in obtaining other accommodation. The landlord of the rooms or of the house to whom he makes application for fresh accommodation will almost certainly want to know what is the opinion of his previous landlord concerning his suitability as a tenant. To ask for a reference from a landlord whom one has taken to court or to a tribunal, and against whom an order has been made, the nature of which is objectionable to the landlord, is not a very easy matter, and I have no doubt that the reference in such a case, if applied for, would be very unsatisfactory.
After all the good things have been said that can and should be said about the Bill, those of us who follow the working of the Acts relating to the control of rents and the dispossessing of tenants are sorry that my right hon. Friend has not been able yet to introduce a much more comprehensive Measure. For about 25 years it has been my lot, almost daily, to try to unravel the mystery which lies hidden behind the wording of the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions Acts from 1915 to 139—and some which bear even more heavy names than that, as my right hon. Friend knows. There are still some nine of them in existence, apart from the Scottish Act. Surely, there has never been such a set of confusing Acts on the Statute Book of this country. Lawyers and laymen find themselves bewildered by the chaotic mass of words which they contain. Even judges—and I speak with great respect for those high authorities in the land—have often protested against the almost unintelligible state of the law on these subjects. Decisions are constantly given by Courts of Appeal of a varying nature. I would like the House to listen to what one of the learned Judges said. I was present when Lord Goddard, who is now a Law Lord and who was at that time a Lord Justice, stated in a judgment:To expect the average owner of house or cottage property to remember the provisions 1980 of the Rent Restrictions Act is to look for the impossible. I think there have been 12 altogether, and it is always necessary to consult more than one as the Amendments by subsequent Acts have been endless. It is too much to expect that he would understand or be able to solve problems which have puzzled the Judges again and again, and often led to marked differences of judicial opinion.That is but one of the examples of expressions of opinion which have been used in the High Courts.
It is perfectly true that the controls imposed by the Acts, both in respect of rents and in respect of possession, have been of tremendous value as a protection to tenants. One very public-minded citizen who rendered incalculable service to his fellow men in this respect, Mr. Daniel Rider, who, the House will regret to hear, died a few days ago, estimated that some £300, 000, 000 had been saved for tenants in consequence of the Acts. I should like to pay a tribute to the memory of this great man of the people. That may have been an overstatement of the case, but, undoubtedly, many millions of pounds have been so saved. The main trouble lies in the fact that the vast majority of tenants and landlords do not understand the first thing about the Acts, with the result that vast sums of money have been and are still being overpaid by tenants in respect of irrecoverable rent, and, in some cases, landlords have not been able to recover what they would have been entitled to receive had they understood what the Acts really meant. The provisions relating to furnished let-tings have to be ascertained by considering Sections 9, 10, and 12 (2) of the Act of 1920, Section 10 (1) of the Rent Restrictions Act of 1923, and Section 3 (12) (b) of the Act of 1939, in addition to this new Act, in respect of which the Bill has been introduced. I would refer the House to Clause 2 (1) of this Bill. I do not know whether hon. Members have noticed the words:…whether or not, in the case of such a contract with regard to part of a house, the lessee is entitled, in addition to exclusive occupation thereof, to the use in common with any other person of other rooms or accommodation in the house.…One might think that these words are superfluous, but, in fact, they are highly essential, not because they ought to be essential, but because they are essential in consequence of the confusion which has arisen in the interpretation of the Rent Acts as they exist.
1981 In the case of Neale v. Del Soto, the findings of the Court dealt a violent blow to the views which had long been held by practitioners in relation to the provisions of the Rent Acts. In that case it was held that to allow the joint use of a garage, kitchen, bathroom, lavatory, coalhouse and conservatory to be included with the use of two unfurnished rooms put the whole of that letting outside the provisions of the Acts. The Court held that the tenancy was not protected by the Acts, and, indeed. Lord Justice Scott, in the course of his judgment, said:It was suggested, in the course of the argument, that if the County Court Judge's decision is upheld in this case, the result might follow that a letting of two rooms, together with the use, in common with the landlord, of, for instance, the lavatory would be outside the acts.I want hon. Members to think about this, and I hope my right hon. Friend will think of this when he is dealing with rectifying the matter of control. The learned Judge added:I am content to leave the matter to be dealt with if and when it arises.It would seem that he was not prepared to give a ruling on the point, which means, of course, that he preferred not to state categorically that if part of a house is let, as so many thousands of parts of houses are let with, possibly, the joint use of a lavatory, the whole of the lettings are outside the control of the Rent Acts.
There are 10,500,000 houses controlled in this country under the Rent Acts, and the Judges may hold that if a tenant is entitled to use the same lavatory or kitchen as the landlord, the Acts would not apply to that letting. I should like to know what the result would be, in so far as protection is concerned, should such a decision be given in a Court. Surely, we have come to a stage where this chaotic state of affairs should be ended. Let us understand what the Acts really mean. Let us have some indication of the real position by means of a consolidation Act as speedily as possible. Let us have a proper understanding of the Law so that an individual will not be put to the expense of consulting lawyers and, even then, have to go to the Court of Appeal and discover that he stands in a very different position from that which he thought he stood in after having taken expert advice. My right hon. Friend says 1982 that is going to be a difficult thing to do. I quite agree; it is not an easy set of Acts to put into a consolidated form and it will require some time to do so, but there is something which could be done, and which could be done speedily. I ask that while such a Measure is being considered, my right hon. Friend should send out instructions to local authorities so that, instead of some local authorities not fulfilling what rests within their power at present under the Acts—that is, to give the necessary advice and assistance to the public generally about the Acts—all the local authorities should be urged and, if possible compelled to give such information and advice as are essential in order that the ratepayers, the citizens, should know where they stand under the existing Acts.
I think the Bill itself is good, although it requires patching up, as many hon. Members have said already. I urge my right hon. Friend to put the general position right as speedily as possible. The Ridley Committee said it was a matter of urgency and they were right. Everybody realises that people cannot be left in the uncertainty in which they find themselves at present and will find themselves until the introduction of a new Act in a consolidated form. Something could be done in the meanwhile to enlighten citizens on their rights and obligations and my appeal to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues is to see to it that this is done speedily.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Price-White (Caernarvon Boroughs)
I feel that the House in general, and, above all, the right hon. Gentleman who introduced this Bill, would appreciate a brief intervention at this stage. I would like to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to three points which, I believe, actively concern him as features of the Bill. The first is that of definition. All too long this House, and the draftsmen of Bills, in the most earnest of endeavours, have done nothing more than, eventually, to produce a veritable harvest ground for members of the legal profession. That has been due to inability to describe adequately and accurately in definition Clauses that which they sought to describe. In that regard I would direct the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to Clause 2 (1) of the Bill, which refers to payment for services, and the use, in 1983 common with any other person, of other rooms or accommodation in the house, and also to the reference to services in Clause 11.
It would appear that the Bill, as framed, is capable of applying, virtually, to every letting of every flat. For, in fact, if a completely empty set of rooms provides the services of a hall porter, or the right to transmit gas and water pipes through neighbouring flats then, in my submission—and, I may say, in the submission of another body which made representations to the right hon. Gentleman—that would automatically make the letting of such empty premises subject to this Bill. In other words, there would be many tenancies, furnished tenancies for the purpose of the present Bill, which would also be subject to the provisions of the Rent Restrictions Act. Clause 6 makes it clear that where the Rent Restrictions Act and this Bill are in opposition, the provisions of the Rent Restrictions Act will prevail. I feel that the Bill ought to define more accurately than it does at present what, in fact, is meant by services, so as to make it perfectly clear to those upon whom the obligation of the carrying out of the provisions of the Bill will fall. We may well have the position of a standard rent of premises, covered by the Rent Restrictions Act, being fixed. This Bill will enable the tribunal to fix, equally properly, a lower rent, and the higher rent, therefore, provided by Clause 6, will not apply.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman seriously to consider this point, and to make it clear where the standard rent or the tribunal rent under this Bill will apply. Secondly, I ask him to consider a type of landlord who may be peculiar to these times, the man now in the Services, and who is, from what we hear and see, likely to remain in the Services for quite a time to come. When his turn came to report for service, it became necessary for him to let his house due, largely, to the somewhat indifferent rates of Service pay and allowances.
In fact his wife had "to go back to mother." He had to give up their house and let it, at what he thought was a very helpful and economic rent, to a person who, through no lack of patriotism, was remaining behind, merely because of the type of employment in which he was 1984 placed. Is that Serviceman to come back and find that this Bill operates against him? I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give very earnest consideration to making special provision for the case of the ex-Serviceman who comes back, and finds that not only is his house not available to him, but that, in the very difficult early rehabilitation period, the provisions of the tribunals under this Bill may operate against him financially—due entirely, at the outset, to his very patriotism.
Finally, I make a suggestion in regard to the constitution of the tribunals to be set up under this Bill. There is a tendency now to ignore the proper and useful qualifications of the members of the legal profession. I make no apology for being a member of that profession, because I observe that the party opposite, in the recruitment of the army which is to lead us in the way we are now tottering towards Utopia, are not afraid to pay regard to the members of that profession when they are recruiting. In this Bill and in the Industrial Injuries Bill there was a tendency to forget, or forgo—we do not know whether it is a deliberate policy or not—the undoubted qualifications of those who are legally trained. I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has any intention to reconsider that. Much more has come to the legal profession from those people who, at the outset, sought to disregard it, and, in the end, had to realise that the lawyer was very often a practical need for community purposes I suggest that the operations of this Bill would be facilitated for all concerned if the right hon. Gentleman amended it, so as to provide that one at least of the members of a tribunal should be an experienced member of the legal profession. It would not be a question of paying attention to what after all is a trade union, and a very strong trade union. Members of the legal profession are rightly trained for such work, and, in their work, as a profession, they would undoubtedly benefit the community under this Bill. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to introduce into the tribunals one member, the chairman, or even the clerk, from the ranks of the legal profession. I suggest to the House that that consideration ought to be taken into account in the further proceedings on the Bill.
§ Mr. Orbach (Willesden, East)
I am grateful for the opportunity of addressing this House for the first time, and I thank hon. Members, in anticipation, for the courtesy and tolerance which I hope will be extended to me. After the series of speeches to which I have listened, I may be pardoned if my speech is uncritical. I wish to say something on this Measure, because it does, to an extent, affect the division which I have the honour to represent. The East Willesden Division was once renowned because of the waters of Kilburn Wells located on its borders. A hundred years or so ago, it became a dormitory suburb, providing bed, board and accommodation to the burgesses of a growing London, who escaped from their business warrens to the quietude of Cricklewood, Brondesbury, Mapesbury, and Dollis Hill, which lie in my division. Although it has its slums in the misnamed Carlton Vale, where it is not uncommon for six persons to live in one room, Willesden contains masses of well-built, suburban houses, accommodating in their 10 or more rooms two or three of the well-to-do; but the arterial roads that have given us ribbon development, and bad planning and the lack of building space in the London area have created on the Northern borders and to the West huge industrial establishments.
During the war, from these industrial establishments there poured forth aeroplane parts, precision instruments, tools and food; and, at the same time, more and more workers have been attracted or directed into the borough, as a result of these war conditions. The good residential property has remained good, but because of the fear of bombing, and of the bombing which actually came, voluntary evacuation caused many of the previous owners to leave. They subsequently let or sold the houses in which they lived, and, all too frequently, these houses were bought by people who sought to take advantage of the prevailing situation. The workers, needing the accommodation, without chattels, took the furnished rooms offered them, and paid, and are paying, in some cases, four and five times the normal rent, because of the provision of furniture, both inadequate and rickety. The bombing of central London and of parts of Willesden has accentuated his problem, and today there are many hundreds of people who will be affected 1986 by this Bill, most of whom will, I am sure, come to thank the name of my right hon. Friend. Like other hon. Members, I have received shoals of letters on the question of housing, and, not least, on this aspect of it. Many people have been driven into paying large amounts, which are demanded because of their dire need for accommodation and a place to live. But the outrageous thing is that a large number of them are the wives and families of serving men.
One of the cases which came to my attention last week, concerns the wife of a sergeant in the Royal Signals. She occupies a room 7½ ft. by 10½ ft. in one of the houses in my borough. It is furnished. It has a table, chair, arm chair, chest of drawers and a Tate sugar box, which contains crockery—and that gives an indication of the type of furniture in the room. It has a table lamp, a bed and a gas ring, but frying is not allowed. Gas and baths have to be paid for separately. The service provided includes cleaning, occasionally, and, once every two months, there is a change of linen. For this "Englishman's castle, "which has to be seen to be believed, the sergeant's wife is charged 30s. a week. Cases of that nature are all too common in my division, once the salubrious neighbourhood of the very well-to-do. I am glad to pay that this Bill will limit, and I hope stop, the cruel and inhuman fleecing of people who have no homes of their own. From this Bill should emerge a useful safeguard against the scandalous exactions which are felt so intensely and intimately by the sufferers.
I am, however, disturbed at the defensive character of the phraseology of the final paragraph of the Financial Memorandum. I hope that tribunals as provided in Clause 1 will be set up by every local authority where there have been instances of this gross profiteering, and, if it is to the public good, I hope that the Minister and the Treasury will not boggle at the expense and talk about 150 tribunals and the expenditure of £50,000. I believe that the very act of setting up a tribunal will serve as a deterrent against overcharging, and that it may be a warning to those mean people who have been exploiting others worse placed than themselves in respect of housing accommodation.
This Bill, as other speakers have said, is not directed at the good landlords or 1987 good landladies. Not only have they nothing to fear, but it should assist them in their calling, in getting rid of unconscionable people. Each case is to be decided on its merits, and I am sure that the local tribunal will consist of people well qualified to decide such questions as the value of furniture or the value of services. I am glad to see that any award under the tribunal affects the premises and has no relation to the tenancy or contract, that the introduction of a new tenant will not upset the award. Like other speakers on this side of the House, I regret that nothing in this Bill seems to assist the tenant who is being evicted. While this Bill is receiving its Second Reading today, one of my constituents is being placed on the streets and has nowhere to go. Unless our harassed billeting officer in Willesden is able to help, he and his family will have nowhere to sleep tonight. This morning I telephoned the billeting officer, and he was unable to afford any assistance.
One letter last week from o constituent gave particulars of a room occupied by the wife of a leading aircraftman in the R.A.F. On the plea that the room was required for the invalid son of the landlady, she found, on coming home from work one night, her clothes outside the locked door. She was able to get accommodation in the home of people as hard pressed as herself. The room has been let, not to the invalid son, but to a young couple, who, I am sure, are paying more than the 22s. 6d she was asked for the one room. Another of my constituents was commenting last week on the introduction of this Bill in Parliament to a friend. She was overheard by the landlady and she has received notice to quif. I suggest that such intimidation ought to be taken up immediately and I ask my right hon. Friend, with all the reservations he has made, cannot he, whose resource is such a byword with us all, devise some protection against eviction, and particularly such spiteful eviction, which is these people's greatest dread?
I am not going to find fault with the Minister for trying to remedy a great evil even though he does not do other things I want as much, or even more. The problem of inadequate housing is at the root of the trouble. There is no satisfactory solution except the provision of houses as they are needed, but I regard this 1988 Measure as a real attempt to deal with a serious menace to the health and well-being of our people and I ask him to take whatever action he can to curb the activities of the vultures who are living on the needs of the nation. Let him, at the same time, keep his eye on other aspects of this problem. To deal with this and other matters, the Willesden borough council has suggested there should be a compulsory register of all empty properties, and that all persons who desire to let or sublet should register with the local authority. It seems to me that this would not only deal with the question of attacking gross profiteering, but will kill the black market—the pernicious system of premiums to landlords and gratuities to agents and hangers-on who learn of rooms to let. My right hon. Friend is being asked to receive a deputation, and I hope he will give this matter the most sympathetic consideration when is directed to him.
At the same time I would remind him of the Question I put on the Order Paper of this House some weeks ago in which I pointed to the large number of unoccupied domestic premises over shops, shops which are let and shops which are awaiting occupation. Coming down in a bus to the House this morning I counted the number of such premises in one suburban shopping street as over 50, and if he would provide one of his inspectors to tour the suburban shopping centers he would be surprised at the accommodation available. May I, however, end these mild criticisms with thanks to the Minister, and assure him that this Bill, dealing as it does with petty meanness, is a human Bill and will have our whole hearted support, and that in whatever measures he may take to make shelter more available and adequate he will have active support in this House and the help and co-operation of the whole nation?
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Captain Gammans (Hornsby)
It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity and the honour of congratulating an hon. Member upon his maiden speech and I have a special pleasure in doing so now in the case of the hon. Member for East Willesden (Mr. Orbach), because he, like myself, represents a North London borough, and both of us have some idea of the magnitude of this problem and, I am sure, are prepared to 1989 Support the Government in any reasonable Measures which would tackle it.
I support the underlying principle of this Bill but, like other hon. Members who have spoken, I think it could be improved, that is, if the Minister is prepared to listen to any criticisms from the House of Commons. There has undoubtedly been some exploitation, but I think the Ministers right when he says that on the whole the vast majority of people who let flats or furnished lodgings have played the game. There is, however, a minority, and that minority is not restricted to any one section of society, We are rather apt to talk about profiteering in luxurious West End flats, but there is a very bad "racket" going on in some of the working class districts. One of the worst instances I have heard recently is of a case of two rooms in a council house being let at the name charge as the rent of the whole house.
The object of this Bill is to deal with exorbitant rents in whatever quarter they may arise, but there is a danger, and I think the right hon. Gentleman realises it. The danger is lest we frighten out of the market that section of the population to whom the right hon. Gentleman made a special appeal the other day, those people who do not normally let lodgings but who are prepared to grant accommodation in the emergency which now exists. An old lady in my own constituency who found herself overcome by the right hon. Gentleman's eloquence on this subject came to see me the other day and said: "I have a couple of rooms, and I am prepared to let them although I do not need to, but I am terribly afraid of this new Bill, with its tribunals and all that sort of thing and of what might happen to me if I let those two rooms." We ought to be careful about that, because otherwise we may find the Bill may do more harm than good.
There is an acid test of this Bill, and that is whether it will give justice to both sides. If it aims at giving justice to one side then not only will it be basically unfair, but it will do the very thing which the right hon. Gentleman does not want to do. I think the question of justice revolves round this one point of possible increase. Are we prepared to allow the tribunals to grant increases in certain circumstances? If they have the power to do so 1990 It would be a check upon what may be a danger, frivolous appeals. There is a very real danger of almost everybody coming to the tribunal just to "try it on, "because it is not going to cost them anything. If a tribunal has the power to grant an increase where it thinks it is right to do so that danger would be avoided.
There is another case that of flats with services. There are a good few of them in London that were completed and let for the first time after the war started. There is no standard rate in those cases. They were let in 1940 and 1941 at "blitz rentals" and it is not right that they should be excluded, as they are today, from increasing their rents. But I think the. Strongest case for allowing increases is found in the point rose by my right hon. and taught Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink). The Minister said that the Government would not have time to implement the recommendations of the Ridley Report, though, if I understood him aright, the Government feels that many of those recommendations should be implemented. He has an opportunity in this Bill to remedy what is admitted to be one of the greatest grievances which exist at the present time, the grievance set out in Section 81 of the Ridley Report. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that deals with those fiats which provide services and where the cost of providing those services has gone up out of all recognition on account of the war. The cost of coke, for example, is more than double what it was in 1939, and porters' ages have more than doubled.
There is a genuine grievance, admitted by the Ridley Committee, I think without a single exception, and if the Minister wants to be fair he can, by a very simple amendment of this Bill, include that section of the population. If I may say so to the Minister of Health, this point is an acid test of his own impartiality. Does he intend to be fair to all sections of the community or does he wish this Bill to be fair only to one section, because if he refuses to put in the word "increase" and to take this simple opportunity of granting justice to a particular section of property owners, then all who have invested their money in property will have to realise that so long as he remains at the Ministry of Health they will not get elementary justice?
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Sparks (Acton)
I am very pleased to have this opportunity of addressing the House for the first time upon a subject in which I have been greatly interested for a number of years. Among my other activities I have been a member of Acton Borough Council for some years, and chairman of its housing committee, and we have been gravely concerned over the number of complaints that we have received during a long period of time on the subject of extortionate rents charged to persons who have had to reside in the borough of Acton. Acton is a suburban borough of London, a place where there has been an intense concentration of war industries during the war years, and a large number of people have been attracted to the borough to work in those factories and have had to seek accommodation in furnished houses and furnished fiats. As a consequence we have found a tendency in our borough for the rents of furnished dwellings constantly to increase, and we have had many cases in which persons have been given notice to quit, and have had to quit, because they occupied furnished accommodation and were not protected by the law in the same way as persons occupying unfurnished premises would be. We have always found that we were unable to deal with these cases of persons who were charged extortionate rents.
While I do not wish to burden the House with too many of the details in letters which I have received upon this subject— such as, I am sure, many, if not all, Members living in London and the Greater London area must also have received— I must ask the House to bear with me while I read this short letter, which is typical of many. This is a letter which I received a few days ago from a major in the Royal Artillery who has recently been released from the Forces. He writes:Two weeks ago I returned, on release from Italy, and since that time have been vainly searching for a home for my wife and myself. Four days ago my wife returned from the Balkans, where she has been engaged on relief work.During our search we called at 18, Lancaster Terrace, Lancaster Gate, where my wife had shared a bed-sitting room with a friend of hers during 1940–41. At that time they were charged £ 2 10s. A week for the room and break fast and service. Now I was asked to pay, for a room on a higher floor, without any meals, five guineas per week. We tried to get some sort of reduction, but we were eventually told that the room had been let.1992I consider that this kind of thing is no less than extortion by persons who are taking advantage of the situation. I feel so disgusted with the lack of any sort of control in this country, that I am seriously considering applying for a job out of the country, which would mean yet another parting from my wife.I am reporting this matter to you in the hope that the Government will be prevailed upon to take firm action to protect the homeless from being robbed.It would be true to say that the object of this Bill is designed to put an end to that kind of extortion. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is to be congratulated upon the promptitude with which he has dealt with this problem. He could make a very good case indeed for failing to proceed in this matter. The success or otherwise of the tribunals which he proposes to set up under this Bill will depend upon the commonsense and judgment which they will bring to bear upon individual cases. I hope that he will not hand the job of this tribunal over to the legal profession, because I believe there is a happy hunting ground for them here, if they are allowed too much control of a tribunal of this kind. When we come to deal with these exceptional cases where people are being charged extortionate rents, if the tribunal is to be successful, the Minister must have some regard to the facility for tenants bringing cases to the tribunal. As previous speakers have mentioned, the question of the security of tenure of the tenant who is making the complaint is important. There are many cases of illegal rents being charged today for unfurnished accommodation due to the fact that the tenants are afraid that they will be dispossessed if they take the case to court, and you have great difficulty in convincing them otherwise. Therefore, the tendency will be that a large number of people will prefer to suffer in silence, fearing that if they attempt to redress this grievance they may find themselves out in the street.
It has been the practice—I would not like to say it is common, but it is generally known—in some cases that the door has been locked upon persons who have been tenants of furnished premises, when the landlord wanted to get rid of them. It is a simple process to lock the door and keep them outside. While certain persons may have a remedy by going to court, the law is on the side of the landlord, and they hesitate very much to take cases like that to the court. Unless we can ensure to the tenant some reason- 1993 able degree of security of tenure when cases are submitted to the tribunal, I believe the absence of that will cause a position to arise in which these cases are not remedied.
I suggest to the Minister that he might consider that, in all cases referred to the tribunal, there should at least be a period of three months or six months during which the complaining tenant cannot be dispossessed of the premises. I believe that that would help to bring a number of matters before the tribunal with which they ought to deal. It is most important that, if the tribunal is to function, there should be the widest publicity given to its purpose. There is a great deal in what my right hon. Friend says, that the mere fact of establishing these tribunals in the localities will have a salutary effect upon all persons engaged in letting furnished premises to tenants. I believe that as a result of the establishment of the tribunals themselves it will have a bettering effect upon these extortionate prices which are being charged for furnished tenancies. Therefore, I hope he will proceed as rapidly as is possible with the establishment of these tribunals.
I am not quite sure how the Minister proposes to elect these tribunals, but it is important that we should have somebody on those tribunals with knowledge of local circumstances. Whether he proposes that the whole of the members shall be recruited from local residents or come from outside the area, I am not sure but it is most important that we should have people serving on those tribunals who are aware of local circumstances and local conditions. If each individual case is treated on its merits in a commonsense way rather than by involving legal arguments about the worth of a carpet or the use of a piece of silver to the tenant and things of that description, I believe that the tribunal will be successful.
There is one point I would like to mention before I conclude. It concerns cases which have been mentioned by hon. Members on the benches opposite in which a rent might be fixed at an exceptionally low figure, because the persons concerned are not accustomed to making furnished letting and are not doing it to make money out of the job but are doing it out of a sense of being able to help their fellow men or some friend or near relative in a difficulty. I do not know whether the 1994 tribunal, assuming a case was referred to it where the tribunal felt the rent was so low, would have power to dismiss the case. If the tribunal could have such a power that, where it felt there was no justification for confirming the rent or even of registering it, it could dismiss the case rather than have to put it on the books, that would to some extent tide over the difficulty. There are undoubtedly many cases where people are allowing their furnished rooms to be used by persons because of the great shortage of housing accommodation which exists particularly in London and suburban areas.
I think that the Minister could help in that way by a reconsideration of this matter. I hope he will not close his eyes to the desirability in some cases of an appeal above the tribunal's decision. There might be cases of that sort and I do not know what machinery could be proposed to enable appeals to be made when circumstances arose in which it would be advisable to take the cases to a higher authority for review. At least, if there cannot be an appeal to a higher authority there ought to be some provision for a review of the case. It is not quite clear what the "changed circumstances" mean in the Bill and if there is that facility and that power to review cases from time to time, in order to avoid injustice, I feel sure that it would be on the right lines and would help to make the Measure successful.
Once again I wish to express my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health for the prompt way in which he has dealt with this question of rent of furnished premises. I assure him that the people whom I represent here today are glad that he has introduced this Measure. We wish him every success in the efforts he is making to reduce the rents of furnished premises to a more reasonable level, and to prevent the payment of extortionate rents to unscrupulous persons who are trying to take advantage of the fact that housing accommodation is short.
§ 7.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)
I am delighted to have the opportunity of congratulating the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down on his excellent maiden speech particularly in that, in the somewhat unpromising field of rent control, he was able to put Acton on the map in a manner which presaged that he is 1995 going to represent its interests in this House. We shall, I know, be very glad to hear him again. I did think that the hon. Member was getting near to breaking one of the Rules of the House when he entered upon the controversial subject as to whether or not lawyers should be allowed into this thing. Particularly did I think it somewhat controversial when he said that the law as it now stands was always on the side of the landlord. I can assure him that that is not so.
There are, however, one or two points with which I wish to deal in the Bill, particularly the matter that was referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) of whether or not there should be the capacity in the tribunal to increase rents. There appears to be some misunderstanding about this. The hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. J. Mann) asserted that there was a right to increase already in the Bill, in the case of those people who were rendering service such as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the provision of hot water, central heating and so forth. As the Bill stands, it is a completely mistaken belief that there is any power to increase in respect of such services. There could be no application for an increase, unless the premises had already been registered, and the first application for registration would be in the circumstances that these services were provided. Therefore, on the application for an increase for these registered premises there would, in fact, be no change of circumstances, the same services being supplied as at the time of registration. Therefore, the provision under Clause 2 (3) for an increase cannot apply to those cases.
On Clause 2 there is one matter which I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to think about again. The power of the tribunal to approve or reduce rent is set out in that Clause, which says they may do so if, in all the circumstances, they think it reasonable. I really do think there ought to be some words qualifying this, setting out the criteria to which the tribunal should have regard because, at the moment, there is nothing to guide the tribunal on the circumstances which they should take into account. This, in one way, links up with the point of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). He pointed out that there was 1996 no right of appeal here at all. I am not in the least anxious to create a right of appeal, because all this should be a fairly summary procedure, but I think the safeguard should be there because in the event of the tribunal making a completely fallacious decision there would be no protection and in this Clause as it now stands, if a tribunal were to make a completely baseless award as, for instance, in premises worth say 30s. a week the tribunal were to say that 2s. 6d. was the proper rent, there would be no appeal. They may do what they think is reasonable, and it does not matter what someone else thinks. If, of course, some criteria were set out then it would be possible, I think, to raise the matter in the courts in order that the thing should be put right where it was apparent that the tribunal had not had regard to all the circumstances, to which they should have had regard.
There have been many references to security of tenure. This is a difficult subject because, normally, the contract between the parties does not provide for that security, for instance where there is a weekly tenancy in which the tenant can be evicted at a week's notice, when it is clearly impossible to substitute an. entirely new contract and to provide that security. I do appreciate the difficulty that the right hon. Gentleman is in over this matter but there is one suggestion I would put to him in this regard. I think we all feel some sympathy on this point of security of tenure, particularly when the matter has come within the purview of the tribunal, and the tenant and the landlord are at loggerheads and there is considerable difference between them. I think it is impossible to devise any means of security of tenure, but I think there should be a standstill from the moment the application is made to the tribunal, and I think the landlord ought to be prevented from evicting the tenant during that period, until the matter has been before the tribunal. I think that would be a safeguard.
There are one or two other matters to which I would like to refer, particularly one dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon, although I am not sure I am completely in agreement with him about this. He suggested that the rate fixed by tribunal should be only between the parties and should not relate to the premises.
1997 That is to say, the tribunal should fix only the appropriate rent as between that landlord and that tenant, and as soon as that tenant went, and a new tenant came in, that fixed rate should not attach to the premises. I am obliged to say that I can see that making considerable difficulties. I do not myself feel that it is the proper way of dealing with the matter. It would only result in numerous resorts to the tribunal and would probably make the scheme unworkable. However, I have considerable sympathy with the idea, representing as I do a division containing two seaside resorts, one of the major industries of which is the letting of furnished rooms.
I do see that there is a possibility of injustice in these circumstances, such for instance, as the right hon. and learned Member for North Croydon suggested, the case of a tenancy during the winter months in December when rents are low in the seaside resorts and weekly rents of, say, 20s., 25s. or 30s. may be fixed by the tribunal. If that be done and the rent then attaches to those premises, when the summer comes round it is the time when both—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman the Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) assumes that all landlords belong to the criminal classes. Let me assure him, as representing many thousands of them in this House, that that is not so. These are people in quite a small way of business, who have a few rooms to let. Their winter lettings are uneconomic but they make, over the whole year, a reasonable return for their work. They let at an under-value in the winter, and, of course, increase the amount in the summer. It is only by the spread over that they arrive at a reasonable return for the whole year. It seems to me very hard that if a rent is attached to premises on a December letting, that should be the appropriate rent, certainly in seaside resorts, throughout the summer as well.
While not supporting the manner in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon suggested that that position should be dealt with, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to look into it in some way. I do not think it is incapable of being met. It would be perfectly possible for a tribunal to fix a winter rate and a summer rate, or something of that sort. Just because a finding is made in the winter it should not be binding as 1998 the summer rate. It would be equally unjust for the tenant if the summer rate, just by reason of the mere time that the application was made to the tribunal, were fixed at the summer rate. A person coming to those premises in the winter would be paying an inappropriate price for that season of the year. I hope the hon. Gentleman will look into that point and see if some means cannot be found of solving it.
Would the hon. Gentleman give us some explanation of the rather unusual wording of Clause 7, which is the Clause that enables the Minister to make regulations? Where that power exists it is nearly always coupled with the requirement of laying those regulations on the Table of the House, so that we may have an opportunity of seeing what regulations are made. That requirement is absent altogether from this Clause. The Minister may make regulations of which Members of this House will have no knowledge at all. I feel that the usual words should be inserted to ensure that we may keep an eye on any regulations being made under this Measure. So far as the question of penalties is concerned, I am bound to say that I do not regard them as at all excessive. A picture has been painted of people finding themselves unknowingly in the police court, by reason of the provisions of Clause 8. That could not really happen. They can only be summoned before the courts under this Clause when they have quite flagrantly exceeded the amount already registered. There is no offence until there has been a registration. Therefore everybody must know what the rent is once there has been a registration.
My interest in Clause 8 goes rather deeper. Power is given to the summary court dealing with the matter to order repayment of certain overcharges. The only overcharges which can be ordered to be repaid by the court are overcharges accruing after a registration. This Bill, as it now stands, will apply to contracts entered into whether before or after the passing of the Measure. We all know that particularly during the last few months there have been numerous cases of people having been driven to enter into hard bargains, which they would never have undertaken had normal supply and demand existed. People have been paying premiums and excessive rent. While this Bill is designed, and we all welcome it, to defeat that, it is rather unfortunate 1999 that no means are provided to recover excessive charges that have already been made. As the Measure is to apply to contracts entered into before its passing there appears to be no reason why definite conditions should not apply, where appropriate, so that those who have already entered into contracts should be able to recover any exorbitant amount, or the excess over the reasonable amount, from a landlord who had, as I say, virtually-blackmailed a tenant into entering into an exorbitant contract. I ask whether word-to that effect could not be inserted?
I would also ask the hon. Gentleman to look at Clause 10. I think his legal draftsman has perhaps gone a little wrong there. It is a Clause to which nobody has yet referred, and makes a certificate receivable in evidence. It is rather an unusual wording because it only says that a certificateshall be receivable in evidence of that entry in all courts and in any proceedings.It does not say, as one would have expected, whether it is to be evidence of the facts contained in the register or evidence only of the fact that there is an entry. There are two well recognised forms of making a document admissible in evidence. This provision seems to have fallen between the two, and not to have made itself clear.
I think the question of board, which occurs in Clause 11 (3), will lead to considerable difficulties unless those words are clearly defined. As one hon. Gentleman has stated, it will lead to evasion, and this House does not want to pass a Bill in a form which will allow the will of this House to be defeated. It is quite clear that by ingenious devices of almost fictitious board this Measure could be defeated, in many cases. I ask the hon. Gentleman to fix some standard as to what amounts to board, so that evasion shall not take place. This is a Bill which I think is welcomed in all quarters of the House. I hope the hon. Gentleman will look into the points I have raised in order that it may be made a still better Bill.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Bottomley (Chatham)
This Bill again brings to the notice of the House the housing situation and its accompanying evils, which must claim our attention more and more as demobilisation increases 2000 and less accommodation becomes available. I share the regrets of other Members at the limited scope of the Measure which we are now debating. The Minister has our support for the drive, and the new outlook which he is bringing to bear in the provision of new houses, but there are other aspects of the housing problem which must claim his attention in the interim period, before the provision of new accommodation eases the situation to any great extent. This Bill is a further example of the patchwork legislation on this most vital social question of the day.
I would, if I could, urge the Minister to review his method of approach. Are we to deal with housing matters partly by Acts of Parliament and partly by Defence Regulations? Is the Minister to secure the passage of this Bill now, follow it next week with Defence Regulations dealing with unused accommodation and the extension of requisitioning powers, and then come to the House later with another Bill dealing with another aspect of the housing problem which requires an urgent solution? I suggest that this method is unduly complicated, and does not make for easy administration, particularly for the hard-pressed local authorities.
The Ridley Committee were appointed on 25th November, 1943, and they submitted their report to the then Minister of Health on 21st February this year. This Bill deals with only one of the direct recommendations that were made, and no great thought has been necessary because, as other hon. Members have said already, it follows very closely the Act applying to Scotland. I suggest that the Rent Restriction Acts urgently require Amendment and consolidation on the lines recommended by the Ridley Committee. I ask the Minister, even at this late hour, if he cannot consider the production of a comprehensive Measure dealing not only with the rent of furnished houses but with the recommendations of the Ridley Committee and ancillary matters connected with the housing problem. Such a Bill would be welcomed by, and would facilitate the world of, the local authorities and those concerned with housing administration.
If this Bill must proceed—and I do, not minimise in any way the Minister's difficulties in introducing a comprehensive Measure—I would like to make these four 2001 points. First, I hope there will be no undue delay in the establishment of tribunals which, I imagine, are required for the whole of England and Wales in spite of what has been said already about only applying them to particular districts. The Minister is right in consulting with the local authorities in the first instance, and I trust that the initial consultation will lead to continued collaboration between the local authorities and the tribunals. With the exception of the county councils, the other main local authorities are the housing authorities, which have a wealth of experience as a body and through their officers, such as sanitary inspectors and housing managers. The local authority can help the tribunal in its day-to-day administration, and the work of the tribunal will assist the local authority as it will deal with the rents of furnished houses, the power of the local authority being too inadequate or uncertain to solve problems of that kind brought to their attention daily.
Secondly, although the tribunal has power to examine and obtain full particulars of the contract of tenancy, its powers are limited either to approving or reducing rent and entering it in a register. Of course, as we have heard this afternoon, the Bill makes provision for sanctions to be imposed, but if we are to hive tribunals with, as I have already indicated, the necessary administrative macnmery, I wonder whether it will not be possible to broaden their terms of reference to include such matters incidental to the relationship of landlord and tenant. The tribunal will be faced mainly with contracts for furnished lettings where the landlord lives in the house and lets part furnished. In many cases the contracts are not the straightforward kind involving a weekly payment for the accommodation provided with no extra charges. The tribunal will and, as local authorities have found, weird and wonderful arrangements which involve separate charges for use of the electric light or the kitchen or cupboards on the landing. These arrangements, coupled with close living associations, lead to much unneighbourly conduct which is distressing to the sufferers but is not within the scope of any local authority to remedy.
For example, the landlord annoys his tenant by forbidding access to the garden or the coal shed, or by pulling out a fuse 2002 and plunging his tenant into darkness. Local authorities are powerless to deal with complaints of this character, but I should think the triounals, sitting in an informal atmosphere and hearing all parties before them, could act in effect as a domestic court for landlords and tenants. This problem will have to be faced sooner or later, and it seems to be an opportune time for experimenting so far as furnished rooms are concerned.
Thirdly, there is a great danger that the Bill will result in many families being called upon to leave furnished rooms. I know that the Minister this afternoon did give a broad indication that this would cover unfurnished rooms as well, but might not there be ways by which a landlord could still so arrange the letting of buildings or houses that there could be an evasion of the method and by which a tribunal could consider the matter fully and give a satisfactory decision?
The question of security of tenure for furnished rooms was raised on the Scottish Measure, and at this late hour I will not go further into the arguments that were put forward. Doubtless the Minister knows them much better than I do. The point really justifies the need for a comprehensive housing Measure. If my fears are justified—and I hope they are not—is the Minister himself satisfied with the accommodation and facilities provided by the public assistance authorties for unfortunate people who are dehoused? We hear very little of this side of the Minister's functions. I hope we shall not have rest centres acting as casual wards. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary knows of cases in London where rest centres are in fact acting as casual wards, full of a forgotten army of people living in accommodation where the ordinary comforts of family life are impossible.
Fourthly, I trust the Minister will choose the personnel of the tribunal with skill and foresight. They are the machinery for dealing with the evils which the Bill seeks to remedy, and they will, without doubt, be the tribunals for unfurnished houses and rooms when effect is given to the Ridley Report on Rent Control generally. I am glad that the chairman and his associates will be chosen, not because of their legal knowledge of the law of landlord and tenant, but because of their insight into the lives and conditions of the ordinary person, whether landlord or 2003 tenant, who will seek the wise guidance of the tribunal.
So far as their place of meeting is concerned, I trust the Minister in his regulations will insist that the tribunal meets wherever possible at the local town hall or council offices, the place where both landlord and tenant can go in these days for advice on their problems. I feel sure they will have the co-operation of the local authorities. I would be happier, as I have indicated, if we were debating a comprehensive housing Measure, but if this Bill cannot wait until then we ought to give this Measure a Second Reading and a speedy passage in order that the tribunals can be quickly established, working in collaboration with the local authorities to settle grievances which have existed too long without adequate machinery to secure their remedy.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Captain Marples (Wallasey)
I think the Government in the course of the next few months will be introducing several Bills having principles with which we on this side of the House will not agree. I think all Members on both sides of the House are agreed that the principle underlying this Bill is an exceedingly sound one, and any observations I may make tonight will be merely to assist, criticise and, I hope, improve the Bill. The hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Janner) said that this Bill is drafted very loosely and rather incomprehensibly. If he looked at the Building Restrictions (Contraventions) Bill, which was the first Bill to be introduced by the right hon. Gentleman, he would have found that it was far worse.
As far as this Bill is concerned, my criticism is that some of the Clauses give the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health and his officials too much power without bringing to the notice of the House details of what they are doing. We have, for example, Clause 7, whereby the Minister "may make regulations" and, as previous hon. Members have said, they will not be laid on the Table. It reminds me of when I was in the Army and of the question of the use of Section 40 of the Army Act. Hon. Members will know that a private soldier can be charged under Sections 4 to 44 of the Army Act. All those Sections indicate offences, with the exception of Section 40, under which 2004 you can charge a man when he has committed conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline; in other words it includes anything which is not in the other Sections. When eventually I became a sergeant-major although I had grumbled about it when I was a private soldier—or a "Tommy Atkins." as hon. Gentlemen opposite would say—I thought it was extremely useful. The Minister has done precisely the same thing. When he was on this side of the House he used to object to Ministers taking too much power but he is doing precisely the same thing himself now.
I wish to criticise Clause 9 on a point which has so far not been mentioned. We find from the Bill that the only person who can institute proceedings shall be the local authority. I had always understood that it was a principle of our law—I am not a lawyer and perhaps I should leave this point to the lawyers—that if a person in this country were aggrieved he was always entitled to bring proceedings and get his grievance put right. I may be wrong, but here it seems to me that the only person who can bring an action is the local authority. I do not think that this Clause was in the Scottish Bill, and if it was I still think it is wrong. I still think that an individual—an ordinary man in the street—shouldhave the right to bring an action. The hon. Lady who spoke on this subject said that the local authority would tend to look after the ratepayers rather than the bird of passage. Take the case of the civil servant living in a seaside town. His rent is too high so he goes to the local authority and asks them to institute proceedings. If they say "No" he has no remedy, because he cannot begin proceedings of any sort. I say frankly I think that is wrong.
Another point which no one so far has mentioned relates to the notice to be given to landlords under Clause 2 (1). The tribunals have power to give notice to the landlord or lessor and to ask him to give any information that they may require. The Bill goes on to make a proviso that the notice shall not be less than seven days. The right hon. Gentleman has pinned his faith to the local authorities for his housing programme. I have had a deal of experience, from the landlord's point of view, of local authorities. This morning I looked up some correspondence 2005 with the local authority and I found that, excluding the usual card of acknowledgment, the time that the local authority took to reply to me was usually 21 days. I tell the House quite frankly that I am interested in this Bill, as a landlord of furnished rooms. My staff could not reply to the local authority within seven days at the present moment because they have to deal with P.A.Y.E., the Ministry of Works, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the local authority licences, and the Ministry of Fuel and Power for coal and coke. I would ask the Minister to make the period 21 days. I agree that the landlord should not be allowed to delay the proceedings, but in these days we have so many forms to fill up that the Minister ought to give the same chance to landlords as is given to local authorities, and, generally speaking, they take at least 21 days.
The penalty if I do not reply is to be sent to prison for two months or fined £20. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to look at this matter again because it is very important from my point of view. I stand a chance of being fined £20 or being sent to prison for three months under Clause 8 (2). [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] That may please some hon. Members opposite, but I would point out to them that although our numbers on this side are comparatively few, the quality is good—I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he would amend that period because he will only increase his majority by one if he does not. I could not reply within seven days.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Key)
Is not the hon. and gallant Member under some misunderstanding? The Bill does not say "reply within seven days"; it says that there is to be a period which is not less than seven days.
§ Captain Marples
I quite agree, but suppose the tribunal make it seven days. All I say is that you should make the minimum time 21 days, or else make the same rule apply to local authorities or Government Departments and that would mean that they must be fined or sent to prison if they did not reply within the same time. If they were sent to prison we might get some more business done. I would ask the Minister to consider the matter again in the Committee stage.
2006 There are a few points about furniture. The hon. Lady opposite said that the Scottish tribunals took into account the personalities concerned when they were using furniture. I think that is a good principle. I have several furnished tenants. Some are very good but I remember a case I had before the war. I bought myself an extremely nice divan and I let it to a soldier of a Central European Ally. When I came to reclaim the divan this year I am afraid it was in a very parlous state. Many reasons have been put forward why it was so. The international situation is so delicate that I do not think I will tell the House any more about it, except that that divan cost me £20 to put right. The gentleman responsible has now gone back to Central Europe, and I cannot claim.
Another question is the increased rent for services, The Ridley Committee, on which sat the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, made a unanimous recommendation that blocks of flats supplying services should receive priority in going before the tribunal, so far as the increase in rents is concerned. I want to bring an example to the notice of the Parliamentary Secretary of a block of 130 flats not very far from this House. The amount of coal consumed there is one ton a day. In 1939 they consumed a type of coal known as Northumberland Washed Singles, which came down by sea from Northumberland. The price in 1939 was 39s. 6d. per ton. The price in 1945 is 62s. 6d. a ton, making an increase of 23s. per ton which is an increase in cost of 23s. per day. We have on the one hand the Minister of Fuel and Power saying: "You will have to pay the increase, "and, on the other hand, we have the Minister of Health saying, "You cannot increase your rent." The coal costs the landlord £400 a year extra, or just over. I ought to tell the House quite frankly that I am the landlord and that I am paying that sum. The average rent in this block of flats, with central heating, constant hot water, refrigerator and linoleum, is 30s. a week. I do not think that is unreasonable, because out of that, rates, Schedule A, full services and everything else have to be paid.
The position at the moment—and I would like some advice from the right hon. Gentleman when he comes to reply—is this: The contract between myself and 2007 my tenants does not covenant for me to supply those services; legally I can stop providing hot water and central heating, but morally I cannot. For five years I have paid over £400 a year extra for coal alone—that amounts to over £2, 000—not counting the increase of costs regarding porters, lifts, and electric light. All I ask is that I shall receive the same treatment as a tenant and be allowed to go before the tribunal and let them fix my rents. I would be delighted if they would. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to be just and fair he must give all parties the right to go before a tribunal, and let the tribunal decide what the rents shall be.
§ Mr. Gallacher
If the hon. and gallant Member will excuse me—is not the remedy for that very simple? Let him increase the rent of his flats from 30s. to 45s. and then the tenants will go before the tribunal.
§ Captain Marples
I cannot; they are covered by the Rent Restriction Act and I cannot increase the rents like that. The main point is—the hon. Gentleman who dislikes landlords looks at me, but I am innocent enough in all conscience—will the right hon. Gentleman agree that what I have said is reasonable? I only ask to go before the same tribunal, put my case before them and leave it in their hands. The right hon. Gentleman must give that point consideration if he is going to be fair and impartial. If he is not, then, of course, it is another matter altogether, but I think I have made a case. I have only mentioned coal; I have not mentioned the question of paying extra labour, porters, lifts, lighting and all the services that go with these flats at 30s. a week—and in passing I may; tell hon. Members that I am not trying to let the flats. I am able to let them quite well; they are not very far from here. As far as I am concerned as a wicked landlord, I agree with this Bill in principle, but I ask that I as a landlord should be able to do exactly the same as the tenant.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Raikes (Liverpool, Wavertree)
In making the final speech from the Opposition benches I should like both to congratulate and commiserate with my ex-colleague on the Ridley Committee who has to reply for the Government this evening. I congratulate him because I 2008 know, from my experience on that Committee, that there is no hon. Member on the opposite benches who will put a case on housing better than he will, and to commiserate with him because the Government of which he is now a member appear so completely to have disregarded everything that was done by the Ridley Committee, upon which he and I were, I hope, such prominent members.
The Measure before us tonight is a small one. It touches only one aspect of what is a very great problem, and beyond that, it follows slavishly the Scottish Act. It could have been produced without setting up any rent commission whatsoever, and I tremble to think what sort of a performance would have been put up by the present Minister of Health if he had been in Opposition and a Conservative Government, -with a rent report behind them, had solemnly produced as the only thing they could produce in the first Session of a new Parliament a Measure that dealt merely with one very small phase. After all, the question of fair rent tribunals for unfurnished premises, for example, is of equal importance, and covers a far wider field so far as numbers are concerned. It has anomalies which are quite as wide if not wider than those which exist in regard to furnished premises. I confess that I thought that, when a Commission composed of all parties had come to a unanimous recommendation that fair rent tribunals should be set up to deal with furnished and unfurnished premises alike, it would not have been asking a great deal of the new Minister of Health to try to combine the two in one Bill, instead of producing a very small cherry, with just a hint that, possibly, later on, another more substantial piece of fruit might follow.
Apart from that, I want to refer to another matter which is not within this Bill, a matter to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) made reference; I mean the law of possession. It is true that on that question the Parliamentary Secretary and myself took different views on the Ridley Committee. When I heard the Minister of Health, in the eloquent speech with which he opened this afternoon, saying that what we wanted was homes for the men who are coming back from the Forces to go to, I could not help being reminded that the majority 2009 report of the Ridley Committee recommended homes as of right for serving men who had let their homes while they were away. This Measure has entirely failed to touch that question in any shape or form. I have listened to a number of speeches by hon. Members opposite who have touched on that question and they have made a point which I imagine the Parliamentary Secretary will make when he replies, that, after all, if you alter the law of possession to give absolute right, subject to certain conditions, to a man who has given up and let his own house during the war, it will mean that in a number of cases you will have tenants who are serving men having to make way for any owner who may not experience as much hardship as they will. I know that point has been made, but another has not been made in this House in regard to possession, which I think should be made in this Debate.
Suppose there are two owner-occupiers living side by side on the outbreak of war. One of them volunteers and goes to serve in the Army, sends his family away and lets his house. The other, for some reason or another, does not serve at all, but remains comfortably in his home. At the end of the war, the owner-occupier who has done nothing is left safe in his own house, even if there is the greatest shortage of housing accommodation in the area in which he lives, whereas the man who has gone out and served, and the woman who has accepted the orders of the Government and has been evacuated with her children, can only go back home by showing that there is greater hardship to them than to the tenant. Between two owner-occupiers, under the law as it stands today, there is a premium against patriotism, and to the advantage of the man who has never served. I suggest that at an early date something should be brought into operation under the Bill to enable an owner-occupier whose move was because of the war to have the opportunity of coming back.
I turn to the Bill itself. I am glad that my right hon. opponent the Minister of Health is now in his seat, because he has disappointed us in this Bill. When he first became Minister, the right hon. Gentleman announced to the world that he was going to be the most unorthodox of Ministers so far as the Ministry of Health was concerned. The right hon. Gentleman has behind him the Ridley 2010 Committee and all that they were able to produce, and most of their recommendations were signed by the hon. Gentleman who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. But instead of showing imagination and using this great opportunity to bring forward a new Measure to tackle the whole question of rent control, he says, as the most timorous Liberal would say, "Well, after all, these things take time; I must produce a first-aid Measure, and perhaps something more will come later on." What would have happened if the right hon. Gentleman had been in Opposition and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon had produced this Measure and had referred to it as first aid? What an outburst there would have been from the right hon. Gentleman. He would have said it was a stop-gap Measure and that there had been a failure to take a great opportunity of tackling a great problem in a big way. Now the right hon. Gentleman produces this mouse of a Bill, a Bill which, as far as it goes, is an advantage on the present law, but it goes a terribly little way.
I differ from some of my hon. Friends on these benches on one thing in regard to this Measure. I signed the unanimous report of the Ridley Committee, which contained a recommendation that there should be some degree of security of tenure for tenants of furnished lettings. I realise the Minister's difficulties. He does not want to dry up the lettings. I believe that any full security of tenure which placed a tenant of furnished premises on the same footing as a tenant of unfurnished premises would dry up a number of lettings, but all those who served on the Ridley Committee felt that some degree of security of tenure would be an advantage. Tenants who are overcharged may feel a certain anxiety about making an appeal. It is all very well to say that the owner will not get any more rent from any other person, and therefore, will not turn out the person who makes an appeal. But owners, like other people, sometimes get a bit irritable. Nobody likes to have his tenant bring him to court and challenge the rent that has to be paid. In many cases an owner would take the decision of the court and do nothing further, but nevertheless, I feel that if I were a tenant and was not quite sure of the temper of my landlord, I should be very 2011 nervous about making an appeal unless I had some small degree of security of tenure. I think the most that is needed in this Measure is that the tribunals should have a power of discretion to give a degree of security of tenure up to a very limited time. The Ridley Committee suggested three months as the outside limit, and I think that is as far as one could reasonably go, although in many cases the period could be shorter. The tribunals would not find it necessary in many cases even to grant a minimum security of tenure. They would be able to judge of the temper between the landlord and the tenant when they came before them, providing, of course, that there are set up the sort of tribunals which we expect, tribunals composed of men of experience who have some knowledge of human nature. I think there is a case for limited security.
I was very surprised by the objection of the Minister of Health to the very moderate proposal that was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon to permit the tribunals to increase rent as well as to stabilise or reduce it on the occasion of the first appeal. What did the Minister say? He said, "It would be too complicated, and we have got to deal with the question of preventing people from having to pay rents that are too high." Would it be so much more complicated if the Measure provided that, if a person applied to the tribunal on the threat of an increase, the tribunal should decide whether that increase was justified or not? If there is not inserted a provision of that kind there will be any number of frivolous appeals. I suggest to the Government that, if they want to strengthen the case for some security of tenure for the tenant, they had better get rid of frivolous appeals, because to grant any form of security of tenure would merely encourage a tenant to appeal on any grounds, and the position, might be worse than it is at present. If, on the other hand, a tenant were faced with the possibility that an appeal might be dismissed as vexatious or that, if he had not got a high rent, the tribunal might increase the rent if they thought the appeal was frivolous, it would cause a great deal more reason to be exercised all round. I hope that on the Committee stage the Government will consider again the question of the 2012 tribunals being able to deal with the whole question of rent, up or down, in the first instance. The suggestion has been made that if the landlord unduly delays, it should be possible for the court to fix the rent at the date of application and not at the date of hearing. That was one of the proposals of the Ridley Committee; it could easily be incorporated in the Bill, and it would do something to hasten up matters.
I cannot help wondering how the Parliamentary Secretary will defend the three ways in which this Measure differs from the proposals of the Ridley Committee, which he and I signed—namely, the question of tenure, fixing the rents both up or down, and, finally, fixing the rent at the date of application. It does appear that in this Measure the whole of the Ridley Report is being swept aside. The Government seem to take the view that rent control is much too big a question to tackle in a big way, and apparently they have decided that, as they must do something, they will take the Scottish Act without bothering to see whether it can be improved upon, so that they may be able to say they have done something. That is not good enough. I suggest that the Minister must go a great deal deeper into rent control. If the Government have listened to the criticisms that have been made, and will continue to listen on the Committee stage—I think all the criticisms tonight have been constructive—I think it will be possible to make this a better Measure than it is.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Key)
I think that on the whole the Government have every reason to be satisfied with the reception given to this Bill. Although a goodly number of points have been raised, many of them were of a minor character, and are such as to warrant careful consideration on the Committee stage. I am sure the House would not wish me to spend time on all the points that have been raised, but I assure hon. Members that between now and the Committee stage very careful consideration will be given to them. They have been carefully noted and will receive due attention. As I was a Member of the Ridley Committee, I know a good deal about the difficulties of this particular subject, and also about the urgency of dealing with rent 2013 control generally, and I will be perfectly frank and say that I would like to have seen a much more comprehensive Bill than this brought forward for consideration, but we have been left with a lot of work to do. There is an enormous amount of Business to be brought before this House, and, as a result, not merely is there not the necessary Parliamentary time for dealing with such a Measure—and it would be a very big Measure indeed if we really dealt with all the consolidation Business that will have to be done with nine other Acts and other things that are to be dealt with—but it would take what, again, we have not at our disposal for this purpose—the services of Parliamentary draftsmen in preparing the necessary Bill. Therefore, we have had to take that part of the work which is of a really pressing character, and that is the problem of dealing with furnished lettings.
This business of furnished lettings is, I am certain, in the months ahead of us, going to be a very serious business indeed. We have an increased number of families to deal with, because of the marriages that have taken place during the war, and a very seriously decreased number of houses in which to accommodate them, and, even in the cases where young people may be able to find unfurnished rooms, their difficulty in getting the necessary amount of furnishings to put into them will be such that a great number of them will have to give up that idea in despair. So there is going to be a very greatly increased demand for furnished lettings in this country in the months ahead, and, for that very reason, it is absolutely necessary for us to make some provision for preventing extortion taking place so far as the rents to be charged are concerned.
There is one other point with regard to the wider problem—the point raised in regard to obtaining possession of houses by people who have had to give up the tenancy of the houses which they owned. We gave very careful consideration to this on the Ridley Committee, and my hon. Friend behind me and I did not agree that there should just be an automatic sort of arrangement. We had got to give very careful consideration to the point of view of the existing tenant. It is all very well to talk about returning ex-Servicemen and things of that sort, but I think it might well be, and, as a matter of fact, in a great many cases, it will be, the fact that the existing occupants will be the wife and 2014 children of a Serviceman who would be dispossessed. What we have decided is that the existing arrangements, by which there was an appeal to the court and the court would decide the matter on the question of greater hardship, was really the correct way of dealing with this problem, and our experience was that the courts have been very fair and decent in arriving at decisions in the matter.
With regard to the question of security of tenure, as I have pointed out, the real seriousness of this problem is the great increase in demand that there will be for furnished lettings, but we also have to face the fact that, to the extent to which you gave security of tenure to people in furnished lettings, to that extent did you deter people from willingly taking in people at the present time, and that is a very serious problem for us. As has been pointed out already, one thing that would protect the existing tenant is the fact that, when once the tribunal had decided the rent and that rent had been registered with the local authority, there was no advantage in getting rid of the existing tenant because no additional rent could be got from any subsequent tenant. Secondly, there is this power of requisition, which the local authorities could use in cases where their knowledge was that an injustice was being done to a tenant in furnished premises, who had made application to the tribunal.
I would add this point. It has been suggested during the Debate, that the rent that was decided upon should be a rent that was not attached to the premises, but was fixed for the particular tenant. I want to say that to the extent that you did that, you would take away this very protection there would be for the existing tenant, because there would not be a deterrent on the landlord, and the landlord would be able to think that, by getting rid of him, he could get an increased rent from somebody else coming in. The Bill itself does not carry with it the proposals involved in the Ridley Committee's Report, but, so seriously do we regard this problem, that I undertake quite definitely that the matter shall be looked at very carefully again between now and the Committee stage, and it may be possible, on the Committee stage, for something to be done in order to improve the proposals in the Bill and give some sort of added security to the individual tenants concerned.
2015 The point was also raised why we wanted to set up tribunals for this business at all, and why we could not depend upon the courts actually dealing with this matter. On the Ridley Committee, I think all of us were impressed with the evidence which was given to us by witness after witness of the fact that, if you were going to deal with this rent business adequately and properly, then you had to take it away from the courts and set up tribunals which should deal with it. It may be without reason, though I do not think it is quite true, but in the minds of a great number of the poorer people, there is a great dread of ever having to go to court to get a decision, and that when, to get their grievances decided, it was necessary to go to a police court or magistrate's court, they hesitate very much to do it. We felt that, with tribunals, it will be very different, and that they will be prepared to go to these tribunals, and particularly if they consist of ordinary people. I cannot see that there is any reason for the claim which has been put forward that one individual on these tribunals should belong to the legal profession. This is just a simple, plain, ordinary man's question of saying "Is this a fair rent for these particular premises?" and I do not see that it involves any legal training for it in order to make that decision. If any legal problem were involved, the tribunals would have the opportunity to avail themselves of people whom they could consult, and I think there should be no idea whatever of making it essential that one member of the tribunal should belong to the legal profession.
Other points were raised with regard to the number of the tribunals, and it was suggested that what is to be done here will not be sufficient to meet the need—something like 150 tribunals for the country as a whole. I think it is true to say, however, that the Ridley Committee considered that round about that number would be sufficient not only to deal with furnished lettings, but would be sufficient to deal with the whole problem of the control of rents generally. As I have said, very careful consideration will be given to the other points which have been raised, and the Committee stage will give us opportunity for dealing with them. On the whole I commend this Bill to the House as dealing with a real 2016 social problem, particularly in the bombed and blitzed areas of our great towns, and I hope that, as a result of the Bill, in any amended form which it may reach, we shall be able to give protection to tenants in furnished premises without drying up the source of those furnished premises for which there will be such a demand.
§ Captain Gammans
When the hon. Gentleman says that the Government will give consideration to the points raised today, doe she mean that they will also give consideration to the arguments that have been put forward that the tribunals should have the power to increase rents?
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)
I have listened to most of this Debate with the greatest interest without attempting to speak, and I hoped to hear from the Government a less self-satisfied answer than we have just heard from the Parliamentary Secretary. He opened his speech by saying that he thought the Government had fairly good reason to be satisfied with the reception which this Bill has received in the House. That may or may not be so, but I do not think they will have reason to be satisfied with the reception that this Bill receives in the country, because they have presented us with this very limited Measure on the excuse that they have not the Parliamentary draftsmen or the Parliamentary time to bring in a more comprehensive Measure, which I think the Minister of Health himself admits would be desirable if the time were available.
When that excuse is put forward, I think it relevant to consider the sort of Measures that the Government are offering to this Parliament. They say they have not the time to bring in a comprehensive Measure on rent control, which is of intense interest to the great mass of our people when there is widespread dissatisfaction with the present state of the law. Yet they are offering us purely political Measures like the Bank of England Bill and the Bill to repeal the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Act. Such Measures are introduced for no reason whatsoever, except to gratify a few party politicians upon 2017 their side—Measures of no interest whatsoever for the people of this country, and yet, when we ask them to increase the scope of this Bill so as to clear up the state of the law—which gives little satisfaction in any quarter except to a very few protected tenants who are enjoying conditions to which they are really not entitled at all—[Interruption.] There is profiteering on both sides. There has been profiteering on the side of some tenants as well as upon the side of some landlords, and I am sure that this House would desire to see justice in all quarters. That is the reason why I say that we should have amendment of the law on a very wide scale, so as to secure that justice shall be universal. I think that when we appeal for that, and the Parliamentary Secretary merely replies that the Government have not the time, he is bringing this Government into well-merited contempt.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.