HC Deb 23 May 1950 vol 475 cc1979-85

The tenant of a dwelling-house to which this Act applies shall not without the consent in writing of the owner thereof make any change in the use thereof or of part thereof or any structural alteration thereto the effect of which would be that after such change of use or structural alteration such dwelling-house would no longer be a dwelling-house to which this Act applies, and every lease or tenancy of a dwelling-house to which this Act applies shall be deemed for all purposes to be subject to a covenant on the part of the tenant not without such consent to make such change of use or structural alteration.—[Mr. Higgs.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Higgs

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

This Clause is proposed to the Committee in order that, through unwitting failure on the part of anybody to understand the implications of the Bill, a house may not lose benefits which the Bill seeks to confer upon it. In drafting the Clause we had, of course, some difficulty in that we did not know what would be the state of the Bill by the time we reached the end of the Amendments and the beginning of the new Clauses. It may be that in our anxiety to cover as much as possible we covered rather more than is necessary, having regard to the state of affairs which now obtains.

We are still faced, however, with a situation in which, by any increase in rateable value, and by many a change of the kind of use to which a house is put, a house which is at present within the benefits of the Bill may be put outside those benefits. Having reached this stage in the passage of the Bill through the Committee, the most serious problem, as I see it, is the case where a house is already let to a tenant. No doubt in future, once the terms of the Bill become generally known, landlords in letting their houses will direct the attention of their tenants to the necessity of keeping within the provisions of the Bill by imposing clauses in their tenancy agreements and printing them on the backs of rent books and so on, which will bring this matter clearly to the notice of tenants and prevent them from transgressing in innocence.

After all, no tenant is going to seek to take the house outside the Bill any more than is the landlord. Here, at least, we find that the interests of landlord and tenant are identical. Therefore, we have prepared this new Clause, and we hope that the Committee will adopt it, at any rate in regard to those tenancies which are already in existence. It may well be that there are tenancies in existence which place upon the tenant an obligation entered into prior to this Bill being published to do the very things which would take the house outside the Bill. It is by no means unknown for a landlord to let a house to a tenant at a rent which may be so low as to be uneconomic in consideration for the tenant making additions to the house, and improving it in some way or another. Again, it is by no means unknown for a house to be let upon a condition that a certain type of business shall be started in it.

These obligations, entered into before the Bill was published, will now take the house outside the Bill unless something is done to prevent that. Therefore, we suggest, particularly with regard to those houses which are already let, that this provision should be inserted. It is a matter of comment and no more on this particular Clause that the same consideration will apply—and no doubt provision will be made for it—for houses already under mortgage. We hope that the Minister will see his way to concede us this Clause, at any rate in so far as it relates to houses let on contract before this Bill was first published.

Mr. Robens

I do not think we could ask the Committee to accept this Clause. In the first place, it refers to dwelling-houses to which the Bill applies, and then lays upon those tenants certain obligations. The Bill applies to dwelling-houses with a rateable value of £32. That would mean that the tenant of every house in this country with a rateable value of £32 would be placed in the position of being prevented from making structural alterations under a Bill never designed for that purpose. I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that we could not possibly accept a Clause of this kind to legislate for things for which the Bill was never intended.

It is also a dangerous Clause because, if accepted, it would mean that there could be widespread evasions. It would then be possible for the owner of a house to let it to a tenant on the understanding that he would build an addition to it, possibly a nice garage, or something of that character. When the owner took back the house from the tenant, he would find himself with a house of a greater rateable value than £32 which was still covered by the provisions of this Bill, and he would have done it legally because of the inclusion of this Clause. Therefore, we could not accept it on those grounds.

There are other grounds upon which it is not acceptable. For instance, if there is any question of a house being let, the landlord usually draws up an agreement stating that structural additions cannot be undertaken by the tenant unless he has the permission of the landlord. In such cases, it is perfectly clear that the landlord would know the position under this Bill, and if he agreed, whether in writing or not, to a structural addition to the house which brought it over the £32 rateable value, it would be quite wrong to keep that house within the Bill.

9.45 p.m.

If this Clause is included that would be the case. On a number of grounds, as I have just stated, it would be wrong to include this Clause. It would enable houses not intended to be brought within the Bill to be brought within its terms. It would not be of real benefit, but it could lead, and would lead, to many evasions. On those grounds, the Clause should be rejected.

Mr. Bracken

I noticed that the Attorney-General scurried out during the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's most curious explanation of the law. He first told us, without the Lord Advocate batting an eyelid, that this Bill would affect every person in the country whose home has a rateable value of £32. If I may say so with all courtesy to the hon. Gentleman, that is perfect nonsense. This Bill applies only to certain people. It is no good the hon. Gentleman coming along and trying to raise our hair by saying we are legislating for the whole community. We are legislating for a small, but important, part of the community, that is, people affected by subsidence.

It is wrong, therefore, to reject the new Clause and to say that if we adopt it we are going to present more problems for the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Works. This particular language only fits the cases of a number of people who, for the most part, are people of limited means who have invested their money in houses and really fear damage by subsidence because it is not a marketable thing.

The Parliamentary Secretary may not know it, and the right hon. Croesus, the Minister, of course, does not know it, but the poor find it very hard, strange as it may seem to the Minister, to get rid of a so-called asset that has been damaged by subsidence. It is hard for me to get hon. Gentlemen opposite to see this, point; but it is not easy, even for the best Socialist salesman, to get somebody to buy a house damaged by subsidence. That is why I am surprised that we do not get more support from hon. Members behind the Front Bench opposite, because they can speak with greater knowledge than I can.

This really is a point of major importance. I agree that it only affects a limited section of the community, that is, people who saved up to buy their houses in the mining areas. They have not speculated or gone to dog racing meetings. They have put their humble savings in their homes. Surely they should be protected. The Home Secretary is interrupting as usual but he, as always, has the grace to do it sitting down. It is a pity, in a way, that the right hon. Gentle-roan does not get up and give the House the benefit of his comments or mutterings. But perhaps he feels it is impossible for us to know what exactly he is saying about this Bill.

I appeal to people like the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) and the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) to realise that these are matters of high consequence to the mining world. I hope—and I do not want to bring controversial language in here—that the Minister will have another look at this Clause. It could be redrafted in such a way that most of my hon. Friends probably could support it. Can I leave it like that? Will the Minister tell us that he will give this matter reconsideration? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I was asking the question of the Minister who, although he is reduced in Cabinet status can answer for himself without the aid of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner). I asked him if he can give that assurance, and then we can pass to the rest of our task on this Bill.

Mr. Higgs

I am rather surprised that the Parliamentary Secretary has completely misunderstood the meaning of the words in this Clause. The purpose of this Clause is to say to the tenant, "You must not so change the building itself or the use of it that you will take it out of this Measure." The Parliamentary Secretary, from what he said, clearly understood it to mean that if the tenant inadvertently takes a house out of the Bill, this Clause will bring it back in. That is not the intention of the Clause at all. I hope the hon. Gentleman will think about it again, perhaps in the cold light of dawn tomorrow, when he is able to read it once more.

All we are seeking to do is to say to tenants, "You must speak to your landlord and talk it over with him before you do anything which will take your house out of the benefits of this Measure." We do not seek to make the National Coal Board or the public purse poorer by one halfpenny by the inclusion of this Clause. It seems to us that the Clause will serve a very useful purpose by causing tenants to think of these matters before they take any step which, in the end, will perhaps rob them of their homes.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

There has been a genuine misunderstanding. I think the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Higgs) has just said puts rather a different complexion upon the Clause from that which he had in mind when he made his speech. I do not think we are asking for very much in requesting reconsideration, and I ask the Minister to say whether he will reconsider the Clause in the light of the misunderstanding.

Mr. Robens

I am afraid we cannot give the Clause reconsideration, and there is no misunderstanding about it. It is not the purpose of this Bill to interfere with the normal obligations as between tenant and landlord. It seems to me that landlords look after themselves very well.

Mr. Higgs

That is just what it does do, in respect of those landlords whose houses are already let on contracts which were made before they had knowledge of this Bill. I particularly ask the Minister to consider it again in respect of those tenancies which were made before this Bill was framed. In the ordinary way the landlord would give notice to terminate the tenancy and grant a new one with a clause to cover this point, but owing to the operation of the Rent Restriction Acts they cannot do so. I predict that every mortgage in the country which relates to a house which might be within the ambit of the Bill will be called in. Borrowers will be put to the expense of a new mortgage deed to cover themselves, but landlords cannot do that with their tenants because of the operation of the Rent Restriction Acts. That is why I moved this Clause with respect to those houses already let.

Mr. Bracken

We want to get on. [Laughter.] Hon. Members opposite may not know it, but the Whips do. I suggest that the Minister should give this a little more consideration. What the Parliamentary Secretary does not understand is that the landlord in this case may often be the Coal Board itself, and may be the Coal Board on a very big scale, because the Coal Board are the largest landlords in Britain. When the Parliamentary Secretary says that the landlord can look after himself, hon. Members do not realise that the landlord is the Socialist Coal Board, and that landlord has not shown much sign of mercy so far.

A remark was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgiove (Mr. Higgs) which ought really to warn us, irrespective of party, of the dangers of this type of legislation. People nowadays have to mortgage their houses and they are up against many difficult circumstances, more particularly if they have got children to educate. The owning of house property, despite what some hon. Members opposite may say, is on the whole a good thing. As my hon. Friend rightly said, if we pass this Bill in its present form almost every mortgage will be called in by cautious solicitors and their clients. [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Leicester, North West (Mr. Janner) wish to say anything? I was referring to cautious solicitors.

I beg the House to consider this matter. If we are not careful we shall expose people who do not deserve this sort of treatment to a sudden demand for capital which they have not got, because they have mortgaged their houses in many cases to help their children get a start in life.

Mr. Robens

They might transfer them to the Co-operative Permanent Building Society and then they would be all right.

Mr. Bracken

In better times it used to be said that hon. Members in this House should not advertise their own squalid commercial concerns, but here we have a former employee and a hopeful employee in the future—and I hope it will not be too long delayed—boasting of the virtues of the Co-operative Society, interrupting me when I was making a point which I thought appealed to hon. Members opposite.

All I have asked the Minister is, would he mind considering the implications of the warning given by my hon. Friend that this Bill strikes at a section of the community which depends upon small savings? I think it is quite a fair point. Would the Minister reconsider this? There are various other things we have to do tonight. In many cases the Bill affects people who have placed their small savings in houses and have borrowed on the security. These are among the best people in the community. Do not let us heedlessly penalise them.

Question put, and negatived.