HC Deb 19 December 1952 vol 509 cc1845-56

1.49 p.m.

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

In initiating this debate this afternoon, I want to make it clear at the outset that I am not attacking the majority of private landlords. Indeed, I am aware of the difficulties which face many private landlords in these days of rising costs, and, bearing in mind the limitations placed upon the rents which they can demand, conscientious landlords have great difficulties in maintaining their properties at the standard which they would like and to which the tenants should be entitled.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that there is a growing realisation of the need for revision of the Rent Acts, but I am sure that the cases I propose to put before hon. Members today will be deplored by the majority of decent property owners. They concern, primarily, people resident in my constituency, but I suspect that the practices to which I shall later refer are by no means confined exclusively to that part of the city of Manchester.

However, it is my duty to refer to cases affecting my own constituents, that is to say, cases in the Hulme and Chorlton-on-Medlock districts of the city. This part of Manchester is characterised by having the type of housing which is so common to our great industrial areas. There are rows of very old back-to-back properties, most of them without baths and the amenities which all hon. Members now agree are necessary in modern housing standards.

It is affecting this type of property that the practices to which I propose to refer have been indulged in. In my constituency there is a body known as the Hulme Community Council. It is a nonparty organisation and is representative of the churches, of political parties and of social workers of all kinds, all united in an effort to make life for the people who live in that area a little better and to brighten the drabness of their surroundings.

The cases I propose to cite to the House have been directed to my notice by the activities of the Hulme Community Council, of which, as the Member for that area, I have the honour to be the honorary president. I think it will be quite clearly seen that whatever we may think about the Rent Acts, Parliament's intention under those Acts to protect tenants by security of tenure and the like is being frustrated by the activities of a small minority of unethical agents and landlords.

I will tell the House exactly what is being done, and I shall refer in a moment to detailed cases. It is the practice of persons representing these firms to visit people, generally in the evening and sometimes quite late at night, and sometimes, indeed, on Sundays. An attempt is made, often on the first occasion, to persuade the sitting tenant who is, of course, protected by the Rent Acts, to buy the houses. I think that if the House accepts my account of the methods employed as being an accurate record, they will be condemned in all quarters of the House.

The tenant is told, first, "If you do not buy this house, you will find that very shortly your rent will be put up." Indeed, the date of such increase of rent has been given to some of my constituents; they have been told that in March next their rents will be increased. Secondly, the tenant is told, "If you buy the house, you will have security of tenure." Of course he will. That observation in itself is unexceptionable, but the implication in that form of salesmanship is that if he does not buy the house he will have no security at all. One gentleman concerned in these practices admits that he has actually said these two things.

The vendor arrives armed with an agreement ready drawn up and with stamp attached. All that is wanted, if the tenant is persuaded to buy, is his signature, and that, too, is sometimes obtained on the first visit. I have considered whether to name in this House any of those engaged in this practice. I have armed myself with advice from hon. Members with a much longer membership of this House than I possess, and I have been made aware of the peculiar privileges which we as Members of Parliament enjoy, and of the need not to abuse them too easily.

Nevertheless, in the interests of my constituents and of the decent property owners, I have come to the conclusion that while, on this occasion, I will not mention individuals by name, I do feel obliged to mention the companies concerned in these practices. If, at a later stage, my attention is drawn to further instances of this kind, I warn the House, and, through the House, the individuals concerned, that I shall have no compunction or hesitation, either in debate or in Parliamentary Questions, in naming them.

I wish now to turn to the first specific case. It is a terraced house which, I am advised, is one of six which were purchased about February, 1952, by a firm called the Talbot Estates, Limited. The tenants of these houses are all sitting tenants, protected by the Rent Acts, and, therefore, the properties cannot be regarded in these days as a valuable investment. Nevertheless, these houses were bought in February, 1952. and it is believed that the price paid for the six was about £300.

Mr. N. M. Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)

Fifty pounds each.

Mr. Griffiths

On Sunday, 21st April, a gentleman representing the Talbot Estates, Limited, called on one of my constituents and persuaded him to purchase the house in which he was living, and, indeed, to sign an agreement to that effect over a sixpenny stamp. My constituent and his wife were, so they say, taken by surprise, but by the next morning they realised that they had been unwise, and the wife called at the offices of the company to say that they were unwilling to proceed with the purchase.

May I digress for a moment to admit at once that this House cannot protect either foolish or ignorant people against this sort of thing? It is perfectly legal to sell a house if the person to whom one is selling it understands exactly what he is doing. But it is my case that undue pressure was brought to bear on these people, and that the whole practice is one which strikes me as being disreputable. As I say, on Sunday, 21st April, my constituents were persuaded to sign an agreement, but went next day to the company to say that they were unwilling to proceed with the matter. But in spite of that, a letter dated 21st April—the same day—was received from the vendors' solicitors saying that they had been advised that my constituents wished them to act for them. Presumably the vendors had instructed that firm of solicitors to write to my constituents.

On 30th April, my constituents, through the solicitors, informed the company that they did not intend to proceed in the matter, and at that stage it was the impression of my tenants that the solicitors were prepared to accept that fact. However, I have since been informed that they are not. My constituent continued to pay his rent in the normal way until Tuesday, 18th November, when the agent refused to enter the amount paid in the rent book. Instead, he entered it on a card. On reading the card, my constituent found that it purported to be a record of instalments for the purchase of the house. He protested and the agent refused to accept the rent.

The House will be aware, of course. that it is an intimidating device adopted by some agents to refuse to take the rent, and presumably that was an additional pressure brought by these people following the initial signature. My constituents were advised by the citizens' advice bureau formally to write to the owners confirming their refusal to proceed with the sale.

Here is another feature of great interest. There is a building society known as Hollins Permanent Building Society and the interesting thing about it is that the secretary of that society is the son of the vendor, the most active member in the companies of whose activities I am complaining. When the Building Society communicated with my constituents advising them that they were prepared to lend £300—and the house was being sold for £400—the documents sent by the society were signed by the same individual who approached my constituents on behalf of the vendors to sell them the house in the first place, which seemed to me a most extraordinary proceeding.

I turn now to a further case which concerns people who are also living in the area and who have been tenants of the house since 1940. It was purchased by a company which is associated with the one which I have named, known as Stuart Street, Limited. Early in 1952 my constituents were approached by one of the directors of the company and his clerk, who called at 9 p.m. There were the same tactics again. It is alleged that they advised the tenants that if they did not buy the house they would have to pay more rent, as all rents would be increased in March. The tenant accepted this statement as true and he was told that if he did not sign he would be put out. Where was he to go, it was asked of him. My constituent believed that he could be put out, it was late at night, and anyhow he signed the document.

Next day he realised what had happened and he telephoned to say that he was not prepared to continue with the matter. He was approached originally on 6th November and on 17th November another firm of solicitors wrote to say that they understood that the tenant wanted them to act for him. He telephoned to say that he did not wish to proceed and would sign no deeds. This business is still going on. This man has now been advised that he should put his case into the hands of a solicitor and I believe that that has been done. Incidentally, what I have been saying comes from a signed copy of a statement by the tenant concerned.

An employee of the company, writing on 25th November to the tenant to whom I have referred and urging him to proceed with the contract, used these words: It has been explained to you that when the very much overdue increase in the rent is granted by the Government the total weekly outlay… and so on, to persuade him to buy. Surely this is intimidation, and, as it were, a false prospectus and a bringing to bear upon poor and ignorant people what I regard as a most improper and unfair pressure.

I turn now to a further case in which I have been furnished with a report by a prominent social worker in Manchester. This is really a most incredible story. Here was a poor family living in deplorable circumstances with a not too happy domestic set-up, so much so that the N.S.P.C.C. are interested in the case. They were persuaded to buy a house. Not only that, there is some doubt as to how they became tenants in the first place.

Hon. Members realise that nowadays landlords often disappear for a while when they have this kind of property on their hands and, later, somebody else duns the tenants for arrears of rent. I am advised that these people were invited to attend at the office of the company concerned, Stuart Murray, a company associated with and consisting of the same people as the other two.

The housewife concerned in this case was asked to sign an agreement. When she explained that she could neither read nor write, the agreement was read to her and, without consulting her husband, she signed the paper which was put in front of her. This was an agreement to buy not one but four houses for £200, which sum was offered on mortgage again by the same building society. Incidentally, the Corporation has had to maintain this property in a reasonable state of affairs.

I have in my possession particulars of further cases of the same kind. I am quite prepared—indeed, it is my intention, to send all the documents concerned to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I hope and believe that he will cause investigation to be made. I appreciate that his powers in these matters to protect the ignorant and the weak are not very great. He can only give publicity to what protection they have, as we all try to do. Nevertheless, he might consider it worth while, after he has studied them, to pass the documents over to his colleagues in the Law Officers' Department. I submit that the matter should be looked at very carefully.

Without making a party point at all I believe that the majority of my colleagues will agree that to bring the attention of the House to practices of this kind is very worth while indeed.

2.7 p.m.

Mr. N. H. Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)

I am sure that the whole House would agree that in unfolding this tale of sordid rapacity my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) has rendered a very signal public service. I rise as the Member for the division adjoining that of my hon. Friend to corroborate what he has said about what is going on in the City of Manchester. He has already gone into the detail of the dealings of this complex of companies, with their tame building society and interchangeable officials and estate agents, and the likely consequences of their activities.

I am not at all sure that I agree with my hon. Friend that these agreements are not to be criticised if they are not obtained by wrong inducements. After all, when experienced business men buy property they require a proper form of contract, they are advised by their solicitors and they have ample opportunity to consider all the consequences of what they are doing. In any case. when one is dealing with working-class homes freedom of contract does not apply to the tenants, and that is the whole purpose of the Rent Restrictions Acts. Since Esau sold his birth right for a mess of pottage I think that the idea that there should be freedom of contract in all circumstances has been open to challenge, even by the disciples of the Manchester School.

These cases are an exemplification of the fact that the Rent Restrictions Acts no longer provide the protection for working class tenants which Parliament intended that they should provide. If we were not speaking in a debate on the Adjournment I would say that it is high time that the Government bestirred themselves and took up Parliamentary time to repeal those Acts and to replace them with an up-to-date Act which would provide protection for the tenant, and, at the same time, provide facilities for landlords to keep their property in proper repair. But it would be wholly improper for me to castigate the Government on an Adjournment debate on grounds which involve legislation.

The putrescent Rent Restrictions Acts continue in force all sorts of evil, maggoty practices which seriously weaken the protection which tenants require. We have had an exemplification of the quibbling that goes on, with people buying these houses for £20, £30 and £50 apiece while knowing perfectly well that they can blackmail the people living in them into buying them through a building society for £200 or £300. They can make an exorbitant profit provided that they can get possession, and they go into all sorts of detailed investigations and quibbles to try to do so.

Although these landlords are in a minority their example is being copied to such an extent that it is even affecting public authorities. An estate agent dealing with some property of the Railway Executive in Manchester seems to think that if a woman is deserted by her husband—her husband being the tenant—the Railway Executive can take possession of the premises so that the unfortunate woman, in addition to losing her deserting husband, loses her rent-restricted home.

The next aspect of the matter which is of vital public importance is that in their anxiety to get possession of these rent-restricted houses landlords are universally refusing to agree to tenancy exchanges. If we are properly to use the housing accommodation of this country it is vital that exchanges should be granted by landlords in reasonable circumstances. Landlords of the type which have been exposed by my hon. Friend would certainly not agree to such an exchange but I have found that even reputable landlords refuse to do so, even where most humane considerations arise. I have appealed to them over and over again to grant exchanges on grounds of health, and I have failed.

1 was informed of a case recently concerning a man who travelled from my own constituency to work in Rochdale. He wants to exchange with an engineer—a respectable man—who is travelling from Rochdale to Manchester every day, but in the hope that he will eventually become tired of his position and that the property will be vacated and become available for sale the estate agents refuse to grant the obviously desirable consent to an exchange.

The Minister will know that in cases of leases the court has power to grant permission even though the landlord refuses it. I hope he will devote some attention to this very serious point, because it is desirable in the public interest that exchanges of rent-controlled tenancies should take place in proper cases so as to make the maximum possible use of housing accommodation and to see that the present situation— where the refusal to agree to an exchange is almost universal and causes great hardship and much social loss—is brought to an end.

In these cases the tenant is very often bribed out of the protection he has been given under the Acts. Sometimes a man is offered as much as £100 to vacate the premises, so that they can be sold. It is, clearly, not the intention of the House that working-class tenants should sell out their rights and lose the protection of the Rent Restrictions Acts, and I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with that point.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)


2.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

If I take the rest of the time allotted for this Adjournment debate I have precisely five and a half minutes and as the hon. Gentleman who raised the debate was fortunate in the Ballot for the Adjournment I think it would be courteous if I replied to his points first.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) unfolded his case most reasonably and with great restraint. I hope it does not sound prim, but I think that he was very dignified in the way he dealt with the matter, by not disclosing the man's name on the first occasion. There is generally a man behind the company in these cases and if this kind of thing should occur in the future the hon. Member would be more than justified in disclosing the man's name, either by putting down a Question or in an Adjournment debate, and if he did so that man would have no complaint at all. He has been treated in a most gentlemanly way by the hon. Member.

This case has also interested me because I know that part of Manchester very well. As a small boy I was taken to the Manchester Hippodrome for my Christmas treat and last Saturday I was in that district again. I took a short time off from my official duties to visit Maine Road, where Manchester City play foot-ball. They are at the bottom of the First Division, but they are well represented this afternoon.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, because it gives me an oppor- tunity of giving some publicity to the Rent Restrictions Acts and the protection they afford to the tenants. I hope that the Manchester newspapers, and the Hulme newspapers in particular, will underline this particular point. The tenant can be evicted only by an order from the court, and such orders can be given only on very limited grounds. That is the publicity point I should like to see hammered home in Manchester, so that the people in the hon. Member's constituency will not be taken in by people with glib tongues who tell them all sorts of fancy stories to get them to part with their houses.

These practices are not very widespread in the country generally but they are occurring, and when I hear of them in Manchester I remember the saying, "What Manchester does today the rest of the country does tomorrow." I only hope that on this occasion that saying will be proved wrong. If the practices continue to grow, however, it may be that the national Press will take up the point that the tenant can be evicted only by order of the court.

What can the tenant do if anyone comes round trying to make him buy the house? The first thing he should do is to go either to his local authority or the citizens' advice bureau, because they can always give him good advice on these legal points. There is no need for him to pay for the advice. The offices of local authorities are usually open at reasonable hours and the citizens' advice bureaux are open in the evenings. If he goes to certain centres he can get free legal advice from the poor man's solicitor.

There are three such places in Manchester, one of which is in Hulme and another, I think, in Cheetham. I therefore beg the tenants not to part with their houses until they have taken proper advice either from the citizens' advice bureau, the local authority or from a solicitor.

It was suggested that the Department or my right hon. Friend could go into this particular case. But there is very little that he could do, even if he did go into it. I have made some inquiries—because the hon. Member was kind enough to give me a great number of details; he has gone into the case very thoroughly and has spent a good deal of time on it—and I think the hon. Gentleman might consider whether the details should not be Sent to the Registrar of Friendly Societies, 17, North Audley Street, London, W.1, to see whether there should be an inspection of the proceedings of this building society under the Prevention of Fraud (Investments) Act, 1939. I see no reason why the details should not be sent to them, so that they can be asked for their comments. We have made inquiries from the regional office in Manchester and we are told that the situation is now well in hand.

I could not follow the hon. Member of Cheetham (Mr. N. H. Lever) into his strictures on the Rent Restrictions Acts and what he wants to do with them, but my right hon. Friend has the question well in mind and he is considering the whole position of those Acts. They certainly form the most complicated series of Acts which I have ever looked at. If anything is to be done about them a good job should be made of it and not merely a little patchworking here and there. It is no use tinkering with such a problem, because it is so involved. My right hon. Friend is considering the matter and he hopes to be able to make some announcement at some time in the future.

Mr. N. H. Lever

Will the hon. Gentleman say at this stage because this practice is obviously being adopted by unscrupulous people—that the Government have no intention of altering the Acts in such a way that the tenant would be deprived of his existing security of tenure?

Mr. Marples

I cannot say what the Government propose to do, but whatever they propose to do must be passed by the House before it becomes law. We shall thus have an opportunity of commenting on any decision about the Rent Restrictions Acts. The Acts prevent people from raising rents and give security of tenure. We are mostly concerned here with security of tenure. The hon. Member should be congratulated on bringing this matter to the notice of the House, and I hope he gets the publicity in Manchester which both he and the Government would like the matter to receive.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

Would the hon. Gentleman consider this point as a possible line of immediate action for the protection and advice of tenants who might be affected? Would he consider arranging a broadcast, on a national service, to give advice to tenants not to fall for such inducements or threats, supposing such are made to them? They will then be in a stronger position to resist such inducements and threats.

Mr. Marples

The Government do not decide on broadcasts; that is for the B.B.C. I will, however, bring the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to the notice of the talks department of the B.B.C. I will write to them myself. I have listened to a talk on this very subject in a series known as "Can I help you?" The very point which the hon. Gentleman wanted to raise was made on that occasion. That is no reason why I cannot again bring the matter before them for their attention. This was six or seven months ago, and perhaps they could have another talk in the series "Can I help you?"