HC Deb 16 December 1952 vol 509 cc1209-11
Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson (Ilford, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the taking of certain commissions in dealings with persons seeking houses or flats to let and the unauthorised advertisement for letting of houses and flats. The purpose of this Bill is to deal more effectively than is possible today under the existing law with certain persons who are conducting what appears to be a very unwholesome type of estate agency business. It seems that in recent years there have sprung into existence a number of these letting agencies or, as they call themselves, "accommodation agencies," which are conducted upon lines which in fact amount to a fraud upon those people who are induced to deal with them.

These agencies invite people who are searching for houses or flats to register their requirements with them, and in return they promise to supply lists of vacant accommodation. First, before anything is done, as a condition of registration, a fee is payable. The fee may amount to only a few shillings or it may be as much as two, three or even five guineas. This fee is payable before any service is performed for the applicant, and it is from these fees that the agencies obtain their remuneration. I am told that there are agencies which have been taking as much as £600 a week in registration fees. The applicant is then supplied with a list of premises which are said to be vacant.

In many of the cases to which my attention has been called, it is a condition of the tenant being accepted that he should pay a substantial sum, usually far beyond his means, for furniture or fittings, or even for decorations. Then, in many cases, when the applicant calls at the address which has been given to him he finds that the accommodation is no longer available. What is more significant is that the landlord is often completely unaware even of the existence of the agent. In fact he has never entrusted the agent with the task of finding him a tenant at all. It is clear that the address has been obtained from the advertisement columns of the local paper, or from a shop window where these things are posted, or from some other source.

The House will appreciate that no respectable or reputable estate agent or house agent conducts his business on these lines. Normally he acts for the landlord, and he charges no fee until the service of finding a tenant or purchaser has been performed. I am satisfied that fraud and dishonesty are almost inevitable where an, agency is conducted upon the lines which I have described.

Accordingly, this Bill will make it unlawful to accept money merely for registering the name and requirements of a person seeking the tenancy of a house or flat. It will make it unlawful to accept money in consideration of supplying persons with the addresses or particulars of houses to let. It will further make it unlawful to advertise a house to let without the authority of the landlord or his agent.

Some months ago I raised these matters in an Adjournment debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government then issued a very firm warning to these people that in cases where it was possible to prove fraud, proceedings would be taken against them. I was very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that and, indeed, I see from today's papers that he appears to have been as good as his word. Nevertheless, I am satisfied that owing to the difficulties of proving fraud, of which some of my hon. and learned Friends will be very well acquainted, only a very limited number of cases are likely to be brought within the law unless the law is strengthened, as this Bill aims at strengthening it. Many of these gentlemen are very well acquainted with the law of fraud and they take very good care to keep on the safe side.

After the debate last April, I received a great number of letters from people in all parts of the country—far more, I am afraid, than I was able to acknowledge. They have given me a very illuminating insight into the methods of these gentlemen. What is more important is that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken to me of what has befallen their constituents at the hands of these agents. There is no doubt in my mind that these agencies have been trading on the distress and misery under which so many unhappy families are still unfortunately suffering. What married woman with her husband, and perhaps children, all living in one room, with inadequate sanitary accommodation, would not gladly pay two guineas or five guineas or a great deal more to be put on somebody's "priority" list for a flat? I am tempted to read one letter—a very short letter, from a lady who wrote to me from Birmingham last October. This is what she said: I am a woman van driver and had just got enough money to buy a pair of winter slacks and shoes when I saw the enclosed advertisement. I know these people want gaoling, but had it been £30 and I had got it, I would do it to get my girl a place to live. That is the sort of letter I have received from these unfortunate people.

Mr. Speaker

I must remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that, under the Standing Order, speeches should be very short in seeking permission to introduce the Bill.

Sir G. Hutchinson

I hope to conclude within the appropriate limit. I know of no opposition to this Bill and, indeed, I have enjoyed the help and encouragement of hon. Members in all parts of the House. I have the support of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) and the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). I am very grateful to them for their help.

I am convinced that we are here confronted with a deliberate and calculated fraud which it is the duty of Parliament to bring to an end at the earliest possible moment. I believe this Bill will effectively accomplish that purpose and I hope the House will now give me leave to introduce it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson, Mr. H. Brooke, Squadron Leader A. E. Cooper, Sir Edward Keeling, Mr. Robert Jenkins, Lieut.-Colonel Lipton, Mr. Grimond, Mr. Sparks, Wing Commander Bullus, Mr. Black and Mr. R. A. Allan.


"to prohibit the taking of certain commissions in dealings with persons seeking houses or flats to let and the unauthorised advertisement for letting of houses and flats," presented accordingly, and read the First time: to be read a Second time upon Friday, 23rd January, and to be printed. [Bill 35.]

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