HC Deb 29 February 1952 vol 496 cc1583-610

Order for Second Reading read.

11.4 a.m.

Sir Austin Hudson (Lewisham, North)

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

Every hon. Member at some time hopes to be fortunate in one of our ballots, and he is particularly fortunate if he wins the one for Private Members' Bills and, at the same time, has a subject which he wishes to bring before the House in the form of legislation. Therefore, I realise how fortunate I am. I am sorry to find that in October next it will be 30 years since I first entered this House, though, of course, there have been periods when I have not been in, but they have not been long ones. During that entire period this is the first time I have been fortunate in a ballot for Motions.

I think that the omens for this Bill are good. The first is that it is the first Bill to be printed in the Reign of our Queen Elizabeth. The second is that today is leap year day, 29th February.

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

A double first.

Sir A. Hudson

I have always been told that, if possible, a Private Member's Bill should fulfil three conditions: it should be non-contentious, it should remedy grievances and it should, if possible, be of some assistance to one's constituents. I hope to show that this Bill fulfils all those conditions. Despite its comparative length and complexity it does one thing and one thing only: it gives to the sub-tenants, in law known as mesne tenants, of houses or flats which happen to be built on Crown Lands the same protection under the various Rent Acts as they would have had if their dwelling had not been so situate.

The Crown Lands in question are lands administered by the Commissioners of Crown Lands whose spokesman in this House is the Minister of Agriculture. They are lands belonging to the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster and certain lands belonging to Government Departments.

The position is that until recently everybody thought that these sub-tenants were so protected. The Commissioners of Crown Lands acted as if their direct tenants were so protected and so continued to treat them. However, in a law case, Rudler v. Franks, in 1947, it was laid down that the immunity of the Crown extended to these leases and subleases. May I say here that the direct tenant of the Crown probably does not even now know the position because the Crown still treats him as if he were under the Rent Acts. The position of the subtenant, however, is very different.

Certain people, seeing the implication of this judgment, started buying up these leases, putting up the rents and evicting tenants who would not or could not pay the increase. I have letters in my file here showing that this is the case. The properties in question, dealt with by this Bill, are nearly all in Lewisham, Woolwich and Greenwich, though there are a few in other parts of the country and in another part of London, around Regent's Park. That is the reason the Bill is backed by Members of Parliament for these districts, irrespective of party. The two constituencies most affected are my own, Lewisham, North, and Woolwich, West. The hon. Member for the latter constituency will second the Motion. In my own division there are 15 roads in which such properties are to be found, amounting in all to 1,300 hereditaments.

I raised the matter in the previous Parliament and was told that the Government were well aware of the problem and wished to deal with it as soon as Parliamentary opportunity arose. They were most helpful to me in my efforts to get something done. As regards the present Government, it must be obvious to Members of the House that I could not have produced the Bill, with its complicated drafting, unless I had had the goodwill and friendly co-operation of the Department concerned.

When I was having the Bill drafted, I had obtained the King's Consent, and I am assured that the Queen's Consent will be signified on Third Reading. The change of reign means that we shall have once again to obtain the necessary Consent. I hope, therefore, in view of the fact that both Governments have been so helpful, that the House will agree that the Bill is non-contentious.

I should like now to turn to the Bill itself. In the last Parliament I had considered, in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) whether a 10-Minute Rule Bill could be brought in to deal with this grievance which is felt by our constituents. In our innocence we thought it would be a quite simple matter to draft the Bill. We thought that we could call it the Crown Tenants Bill and could have just one simple Clause to the effect that after the Bill became law, all Crown sub-tenants of the right description should be subject to the Rent Acts.

As will be seen, however, we now have a Bill of six pages, and I am assured by those whose business it is to know that the Bill must be drafted in this form. Even now, it is not in its correct and final form. Among other provisions under which we hope to bring these sub-tenants, the Rents Acts prevent a mortgagee from raising the mortgage interest.

We had to draft the long title of the Bill in a hurry, because it had to be submitted by a certain time at the beginning of the Session, and it is not wide enough to deal with these mortgagees. I therefore propose, if I am fortunate enough to get a Second Reading for the Bill, to put this right when we reach the Committee stage. It is quite simple to amend the long title in that way. This will have the added advantage of enabling us to simplify Clause 1 and to dispense altogether with the First Schedule. We can, and, of course, will, deal with the detailed wording of the Bill when we come to the Committee stage. The House will, however, expect me to go very shortly through the Clauses of the Bill.

Clause 1 puts Crown tenants under the various Rent Acts, but the proviso in page 2, at line 11, confines the Bill to sub-tenants. The reason for this is obvious, because otherwise there would be all the difficulties of married quarters and 101 other things under which a direct tenant of the Crown, if included, would come. The direct tenants are well treated now, and if the Commissioners of Crown Lands started to be bad landlords, we could always hunt the Minister of Agriculture in the House. That is the reason for confining the Clause to subtenants.

Clause 2 applies the Rent Acts to Crown houses in the same way as the Rent Acts now apply to houses which were brought under control in 1939, with the necessary adaptation as to dates. Most of the adaptation as to dates will be found in the Second Schedule. As regards "standard rent," we felt that we could not go right back to 1st September, 1939, for the date from which the standard rent should be taken. We therefore adopt a formula that the standard rent is to be the rent at which the dwelling-house was let on the critical date. Those words will be found in Clause 2. The critical date for a house now let is to be the date on which the Bill was published—8th February. The critical date for a house let after 8th February but before 1st September, 1952, when it is proposed that the Bill will come into force, will be the date of that letting. The third critical date, after 1st September, 1952, would be the actual date of the letting.

It is important to note that the fact that in the Bill we have fixed 8th February, 1952, and not 1st September, 1939, is not wholly to the advantage of the landlord and to the disadvantge of the tenant, because where the critical date falls in a letting which began after 1st September, 1939, the tenant may apply to a rent tribunal to determine a reasonable rent if he feels that his rent is not a just and fair one. I am also informed that an increase of rent during this period, about which so many letters have been sent to me, either immediately before 8th February or round about that time, institutes a new letting and, therefore, gives a tenant the opportunity of going before a rent tribunal and having a reasonable rent fixed. This is nothing new; it is in line with the Landlord and Tenant (Rent Control) Act, 1949.

As regards Clause 3, which deals with the short title and so forth, we chose 1st September, 1952, as the date for the coming into force of the Bill in order to give everybody an opportunity first of seeing the final Act and deciding how it affects them. One is tempted to choose, perhaps, the end of July or a like time as the earliest possible date for the Bill, after completing all its stages, to become law. But the House has always wanted to be fair and to give a reasonable opportunity for legislation to be studied by those affected by it. In this case, a reasonable opportunity is given both to landlords and to tenants to see how the Bill affects them before it actually becomes law.

A tenant is protected from an unreasonable increase of rent between 8th February and 1st September, because, I am informed, he can recover illegal increases by going to the county court after the latter date. I can, however, think of no provision which we could put in the Bill which would prevent a tenant from being evicted in a harsh and unmerited manner by an unscrupulous landlord between these two dates. In such a case, I can only ask the Minister, who is represented here today by the Parliamentary Secretary, to use such powers of requisition as he already possesses, and as he has already used on appropriate occasions, in these cases of Crown tenants. If he can announce that he proposes to do this, he will prevent the will of Parliament from being frustrated in that way. I do not believe that we can put anything in the Bill which can prevent that, although, as I have said, any unjust increase of rent can be dealt with, because after the Bill becomes law a tenant can recover the rent if he can prove his case.

The First Schedule will disappear when we simplify Clause 1 and include the mortgagees. The Second Schedule fits in the provisions of the Bill with other Acts of Parliament, particularly as to date. In the subsequent stages of the passage of the Bill, I shall want the sympathetic assistance of the lawyer Members of the House. I am receiving it now and I feel sure I shall receive it then. If I have persuaded the House that there is a genuine grievance to be remedied and that this Bill will provide a remedy, I hope that they will give it a Second Reading.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. William A. Steward (Woolwich, West)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am very proud to have the opportunity of doing so because, if this Bill becomes law, it will bring a great deal of relief to many people in my constituency. There are 3,000 separate houses in that part of the Borough of Woolwich which I have the honour to represent, all held remotely under the Crown and all subject to the very injustices which this Bill is intended to put right. Many of the sub-tenants have lived in their homes 15 to 20 years paying their rent at regular intervals, weekly or monthly, and feeling safe and secure. In a number of cases, suddenly, out of the blue, the main lease is sold and a new landlord comes along and proceeds to raise the rent under threat of eviction, or gives notice terminating the tenancy without even giving the tenant the option of paying the increased rent demanded.

The tenant is placed in an impossible position. He cannot get a house through the local authority because he is not on their housing list; he has had no reason to think that it was necessary for him to get on the housing list. If he appeals to the court, or waits until the landlord takes steps to evict him, he finds that the judge is kind and sympathetic, but absolutely powerless to do anything but issue an order for eviction. When evicted he has one course open to him—to apply for rest centre accommodation. His wife goes into an institution, where only his wife and young family can be admitted, and he has to seek lodgings elsewhere. He is thus parted from his family and wife, probably for the first time since being married.

In the meantime, the landlord sells the property with vacant possession at an enhanced value, or re-lets at a very much increased rent and thus prospers while others suffer. Under the present law a deserving section of the community who have done nothing to warrant being singled out for persecution are suffering daily under the immunity enjoyed by direct lessees of Crown property. Old age pensioners, honest working men, widows and the like have to my knowledge been treated in the same callous manner. It is monstrous that this situation should be allowed to continue and, thank God, this Bill, if it passes through this House, will put an end to such practices. The provisions of this Bill, rightly, do not apply when the Crown is the immediate landlord. From personal experience I know the Crown would never stoop to such practices as I have mentioned. I ask the indulgence of the House while I attempt to describe what is actually happening in my constituency.

I know of a property owner, a married woman, who since the war has purchased 12 residues of Crown residential properties with the tenants in them. Many were long standing and at least one has lived there for 18 years to my knowledge. Hon. Members will be aware that houses bought with tenants in them do not fetch very high prices and in the case I mention the average of £800 was paid for each house.

A plan was then embarked upon to evict the tenants and re-sell with vacant possession, or re-let at the highest rents which could be obtained. As the House well knows, this is perfectly legal as the law stands today. So far five tenants have been evicted. Some houses have been sold with vacant possession at a profit of 100 per cent. on the capital outlay and others have been let for as much as six guineas a week, unfurnished, which is a very high rent for West Woolwich.

Three weeks ago this property owner brought court proceedings against a tenant for possession and I asked the local authority to use their powers of requisition to prevent this hardship, which involved a working man. Thereupon the property owner gave the local authority, quite voluntarily, an undertaking that she would live in the house herself when she got possession. As to my knowledge she has lived, or purported to live, at no less than six addresses—all her own property—during the last three years, hon. Members will not think me unduly sceptical when I say there may be a token possession, that is to say, a chair and table and a few odd bits of furniture will be put in the house for a week or two to comply with the undertaking given. After that no one can say her nay.

The injury to the most unjustly treated tenant is further increased by reason of the fact that his landlord, demanding possession of an unprotected property, was able to ask for and to obtain costs on her successful action—another serious financial burden on an already unfortunate tenant. The grim irony of the situation is that, had the tenant not gone to court but quietly vacated at the demand of the landlord, he would not have been able to ask the local housing authority even for rest centre accommodation.

All this is done—this harassing and racking of tenants, evictions, extravagant if not extortionate increases of rent—in the name and under the cloak and authority of the Crown, the court of justice, the pattern and model of the good landlord, as indeed all men know the Crown, in its relationship with its tenants, is exemplary. But by what stretch of fantasy can the landlord I have described masquerade in court that she is outside the scope of the law? She has the seal and authority of the Crown. She can evict and sell over the tenants' heads. She can raise rents for no rent tribunal dare interfere with her. Justice is withheld from and denied to some thousands of innocent, hardworking and deserving people and it is denied in the name of the Crown. Let the House end this travesty, this gross anomaly, this ugly parody of our temperate and humane laws.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will agree to take action if head tenants or landlords wishing to avoid their houses being rent controlled proceed to dispossess their tenants prior to the operation of this Measure. There will be many smart Alec landlords with equally smart lawyers ready to explore every avenue in order to get out of the provision of this Measure before it conies into operation. This Bill should receive the wholehearted support of both sides of the House, for it has no political tag but is a humane step which should have been taken long ago.

Whilst in principle I am strongly opposed to retrospective legislation, I must confess that in my heart I sincerely wish that the date of 8th February, 1952, could be amended to read 8th February, 1951, or even before that. That would give an opportunity of putting right much grave wrong done to so many who have suffered through such a Bill as this not having already become law. I support this Bill in the fervent hope that it will become law as speedily as possible.

11.30 a.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

Everyone in the House will undoubtedly be in entire agreement with the object of this Bill. It is an absolute scandal that there should be the buying up of properties exempt from control because of an interest held by the Crown and an attempt made by the landlord to take advantage of the position by making these ill-gotten gains.

As I say, I agree wholeheartedly with the object, but I hope that I shall be not taken to task if I make one or two criticisms of the Bill. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson) said something about advice being given to him that the Bill could not be drafted in the form of what one might call a simple-sentence Bill. I have looked carefully through the Bill, and frankly I see no reason why a Measure very much more simply drawn could not have been placed before the House.

Why a Bill should not have been introduced which simply said that the Crown should not be exempt with regard to its properties from the application of the protective rights and benefits given by the Rent Restriction Acts, I do not know. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North, has said that one has to take into account properties which are, for example, occupied by soldiers. A very simple exemption Clause could have been included in respect of those matters. I am a little terrified at the idea that a Bill of this kind, which is supposed to achieve a very limited object, should contain so many Clauses and be drawn in such intricate language. I hope that some attempt will be made to simplify it in the way which I have suggested.

I wish to make my second point very strongly. As we have heard, the intention of the Bill is to limit the relief given to sub-tenants and I think also to ex-tenants. I know it is said that the Crown is an excellent landlord, but one must remember that the Crown includes the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, and Government Departments. We may say that every Government Department will act in a proper fashion and will not attempt to extort rents that should not normally be claimed. Government Departments sometimes act wrongly, however. I have known Members of the House criticise Government Departments in regard to certain matters.

Why should it be assumed that a Government Department will always charge a proper rental in respect of the letting of premises that come under that Department? If it is proper to argue that the benefits and protection of the Rent Restriction Acts ought to be given to subtenants and ex-tenants, why should that benefit and protection not also be given to direct tenants of the Crown.

I cannot see the justice of saying that in the one case sub-tenants ought to be protected but that tenants of the Crown directly ought not to be protected. I hope that that position will be remedied. Otherwise, the provisions of the Bill will be confined to a very narrow compass. The proviso to Clause 1 enacts that limitation. I hope that that proviso will disappear when the Bill is considered in Committee.

A further difficulty that might arise is that if the Crown or one of these Government Departments get possession from the tenants, then the Crown or that Government Department or the Duchy becomes the landlord of the sub-tenant, and the sub-tenant will not then enjoy the protection and privileges given by the Bill. We ought to guard against that danger, and I hope that provision will be made in that respect.

If one looks at Clause 1 (1, b) dealing with the prohibition with regard to requiring premiums as a condition of the grant, renewal or continuance of tenancies, I would point out that, unlike the main Act of 1949, to which it is supposed to refer, it makes no provision for the recovery of premiums where there is an assignment by the sub-tenant. That, too, is a difficulty which should be dealt with by the Bill.

A curious point arises under Clause 2 (2) where the definitions of tenant and landlord are dealt with. Under the 1949 Act there is the prohibition against premiums being charged for the continuance of tenancies or the assignment of tenancies, etc. A difficulty has arisen in law from the fact that very often a person who has negotiated a transaction and has received the premium cannot be proceeded against for the recovery of the premium because he is not the landlord or tenant. I notice that that difficulty has been dealt with in the Bill but it raises a curious anomaly.

I have always understood that a Private Member's Bill should deal with a limited object and should not, as it were, try to correct some defect that exists in the general law. I believe, in regard to premiums and their recovery, that where an agent negotiates a tenancy and receives the money, it is wrong that he should get away with it and be able to retain that premium.

What is being done in the Bill—and it is a good object—is to give the right to recover that premium from the agent. The result will be, however, that in this limited case a person will have a right to recover the premium from the agent, whereas under the general law he has not got that right.

Finally, I wish to refer to Clause 2 (2) and to make a strong point in showing how cumbersome the Bill is as drafted and how difficult it will be to interpret. I should like to read that subsection so that Members can appreciate the position. It begins in extraordinary fashion with the words "For the avoidance of doubt." One would have thought that something simple would follow, but let me read it and let us see what it means. It states: (2) For the avoidance of doubt it is hereby declared that the provisions of this Act are not such a limitation of rent as is mentioned in paragraph (b) of subsection (7) of section one of the Landlord and Tenant (Rent Control) Act, 1949 (which paragraph excludes the operation of that section while a limitation of rent is in force which is imposed by or under certain enactments), and the provisions as to standard rent of the said Act of 1949 apply where the standard rent is determined, in accordance with subsection (1) of this section, by reference to a letting (whether of the dwelling-house in question or of a property of which it forms part) beginning after the first day of September, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine, as they apply in any other case such as is mentioned in subsection (1) of section one of that Act. I have listened very carefully to the speeches of the hon. Members who moved and seconded the Motion for the Second Reading. I heard the hon. Member for Lewisham, North, say that he was going to explain the Clauses of the Bill, and I hoped that he would deal with that one. I went through it carefully and tried to see what it means. I can put two or three possible explanations on it, all of which are probably wrong, but for the life of me I do not know with any degree of certainty what it means.

I hope that I shall not be thought guilty of captious criticism. I have some recollection of the Workmen's Compensation Act, and how it was said that it was a very simple Act and that the lawyers would have nothing whatever to do with it. I remember, and the House will know, of the wealth of learning which grew up on practically every single sentence of that Act. This is another rent Bill; and when one looks back on the Rent Acts, beginning, I think, in 1915; when one looks at the number of cases which have gone to the Court of Appeal and how almost every single word of them has been argued and discussed from one angle and another, I am sure that the hon. Member who moved the Second Reading Motion would not like to think that he has added yet another Bill to the chaos of the previous Acts, which will certainly allow the lawyers to obtain—and I make the point despite my profession—a very good living from the interpretation of these provisions.

That is not the idea of this Bill. It has a very limited object. I suggest that pains might be taken to convince even the draftsman who gave his very helpful assistance of the necessity to simplify it very considerably so that the difficulties I have referred to do not arise. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) spoke about some court proceedings for the recovery of possession of premises of this kind by unscrupulous landlords. Just think of the proceedings being brought in the county court and the days of argument regarding what the details of this Bill really mean.

I offer this criticism, I trust, in a helpful way. I think this is a small Bill meant to achieve a very good object. But I do hope that some effort will be made to simplify it so that it sets out in ordinary English which any subject of Her Majesty can understand what that object is and that some effort is made to meet the criticisms I have made.

11.43 a.m.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

The House will regard with the utmost sympathy the intention of my hon. Friends in bringing forward this Bill. We all welcome their very gallant attempt to rectify what is quite obviously an anomaly in the law relating to the Rent Acts, an absurdity which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) has said, has created undoubted hardship.

But while we congratulate them upon what they are seeking to do, we can commiserate with them on the enormity of the task they are undertaking. As the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) has said, one criticism which can be brought against this Bill is the enormous complexity of the language. It is a complicated Bill. It seeks to do something which anybody in this House could state quite shortly in ordinary language. But while, as a lawyer—not, I hope, one of the "smart Alec" lawyers referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West—I rub my hands at the prospect of the litigation which undoubtedly will come out of this Bill, as a legislator, I feel quite incensed at the fact that yet another one of these Rent Acts is on the way to the Statute Book.

The Rent Restriction Acts are a mass of chaotic piece-meal legislation. Anyone who has anything to do with them inherits a headache he would like to get rid of. It has really become a farce. Nothing has been done by this House or by successive Governments to clear up this mess. Judges are in great difficulty over the Rent Acts as a whole, and I hesitate to think what their opinion will be unless we do some pretty drastic pruning of this Bill when it gets to the Committee stage.

Lord Justice Mackinnon once remarked that the Rent Acts were a chaotic series of Acts which were prematurely hastening judges to an early grave. Lord Normand once said the Rent Acts were a by-word for confused draftsmanship. Lord Justice Scrutton once regretted that he could not order the costs to be paid by the draftsmen who compiled the Acts and the legislators who passed them. That is a point which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson) might remember in future.

I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary is in his place this morning, because I wish to put a question to him in general terms before discussing the Bill. In view of the fact that we have this chaotic situation with regard to the Rent Restriction Acts, extending from 1920, now on the Statute Book, when can we expect the first step to be taken towards the consolidation of the Rent Restriction Acts? Sooner or later Parliament has to amend the Rent Restriction Acts. I should be ruled out of order if I attempted to discuss that this morning, but let me say this in connection with this Bill. If, eventually, someone takes his courage in his hands and amends them, the first thing to be done must be to have the Acts consolidated so that we start with one main Act which can then be amended.

It is often said that we cannot possibly consolidate the Rent Acts, because it is an enormous and impossible task. People said the same thing about the Income Tax Acts, scattered as they were over a series of Finance Acts of many years. But that job has been done. The Income Tax Consolidation Bill is going through the House at the present time, and that does seek to consolidate the Income Tax Laws. If it is possible to do that for the law relating to Income Tax why should not it be possible to do it for the Rent Restriction Acts? I suggest that we have to do something about that, and I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary, if he is to speak in this debate, to give us the benefit of his opinion on that point.

I wish to follow a point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North with regard to the ambit of this Bill. In moving the Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North made it clear that his intention was to deal only with the position of sub-tenants of Crown property. I must confess I was a little mystified when I realised that apparently it was not intended to deal with the position of direct tenants of the Crown. My hon. Friend skated over the difficulty which might arise if ordinary Crown tenants were included with an agility which did him credit, but he might have considered that a little more closely.

After all, there is not the slightest reason why one should accept the position that the Crown will always be a good landlord. Often in practice the Crown means a Government Department, and often in practice a Government Department means some quite obscure local office of the Department. Frequently—I have had no personal experience of this, but I am convinced that it happens—local offices of Government Departments, acting in the name of the Crown, are extremely tyrannical in the way they deal with the subject. There is always the remedy which the subject has of bringing his trouble to us in this House, and we can cross-question Ministers about it. But that is a cumbersome way of dealing with the matter, and I suggest we ought to consider whether we can include the ordinary direct tenant of Crown property in the ambit of this Bill.

The Rent Acts at present provide safeguards and protection for sub-tenants, but do not cover all the cases of sub-tenants of the Crown which we are told already exist. Why should not the Crown be brought within the ambit of the Rent Acts? Quesions of protection against eviction, against increases of rent, taking premiums and all the rest of these things are already dealt with in the Bill, so why should not the Crown be bound as is the private tenant?

There is one further point to which I want to draw attention. Lawyers in the House will recollect that the Rent Acts operate in rem in regard to the property; that is to say, as far as the buildings themselves are concerned and not as concerns the people who occupy them. What will be the position under this Bill? I can see what my hon. Friend wants to do, but it has been clearly stated that, so far as Crown property is concerned, the Rent Acts operate on the property, and, once the Crown has had an interest in a house, automatically, the Rent Acts are excluded.

Now, my hon. Friend comes along with this Bill and says that, if there is a subtenant, we must protect him and make him subject to the Rent Acts protection, but what will be the effect on those cases in which the Rent Acts operate in this particular way? The effect will be that, as far as these sub-tenants are concerned, the protection will apply, and that in the case of other tenants it would not apply. What will happen in regard to the interpretation of that rule if this provision goes through, with its effect of bringing subtenants of Crown property within the ambit of protection?

I want to add another point concerning the standard rent provisions contained in the Bill. Since the 1949 Rent Control Act is to apply, it means, as my hon. Friend the promoter of the Bill has said, that the tenant can go to the rent tribunal and ask for the tribunal to fix a reasonable rent. It is all right up to that stage. When the tribunal fixes a reasonable rent, because of the provisions of the 1949 Act that reasonable rent immediately becomes the standard rent of that property, but the proviso to Clause 2 (1), as I read it—and I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington that it is very difficult to follow what the draftsmen mean in some of these Clauses—that proviso, in my opinion, purports to fix the standard rent.

What is then the position? We should then have a variance between two Clauses of the Bill. On the one hand, the 1949 Act gives the tenant the power to go to the rent tribunal, and that tribunal having fixed a reasonale rent, that rent becomes the standard rent. On the other hand, Clause 2 (1) states that such and such an amount shall be the standard rent. The effect might easily be that the tribunal's jurisdiction would be ousted.

When that point was raised earlier, my hon. Friend indicated that he thought the tenant would be able to go to the tribunal, but he ought to look at that point, because it is quite possible, if my contention is correct, that the rent tribunal would have no jurisdiction in the matter at all. They would be entitled to say that, by the Crown Lessees (Protection of Sub-Tenants) Act, Parliament had fixed the standard rent and that therefore the application must be dismissed. I suggest that that point ought to be investigated.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will exercise with care, and very sparingly, the powers of requisitioning where cases of eviction take place. I have every sympathy with these people who are evicted in this way because of this anomalous position of the law. They have no protection, but I hope that no administrative action would be brought into play, where the law happens to provide the opportunity, until such time as Parliament has attempted to put the matter right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North said that the intention was to leave the coming into force of this Bill until September next, and he asked that, in the meantime, the Ministry of Housing should exercise their requisitioning powers. I see no reason why this Bill should not come into effect immediately on receiving the Royal Assent. After all, these people who are concerned with Crown property, whether as direct tenants or as sub-tenants, will have a lively interest in this matter already. No doubt, reports of this debate will appear in the Press and be given on the radio, and my hon. Friend has said that he has already received a great deal of correspondence about it.

I see no reason why the date of operation of the Bill should not be brought forward to the date when the Bill receives the Royal Assent, rather than have this very unsatisfactory situation of my hon. Friend being required to snoop about and make requisition orders if he is satisfied that, in some case, somebody is unjustly affected and is not now given protection in the way the Bill gives protection. Let us make this protection start with the Royal Assent, and let us bring that Royal Assent forward as quickly as we can by giving this Bill a speedy passage through the House.

I have one final point. As I understood him, my hon. Friend said that as far as protection against eviction is concerned, people who have been sub-tenants of Crown property and have been evicted before the Bill reaches the Statute Book will be included in the protection which it gives. That is what I understood him to say.

Sir A. Hudson

I was dealing with increases in rent. If they had increased the rent, they could then go to the court.

Mr. Hay

I am greatly obliged to my hon. Friend. The fear I had was that possibly in the meantime interests might have been created by reason of this anomaly which would have to be disturbed if this protection was ex post facto conferred on the tenant.

I will say in conclusion that, though this is a good Bill as it stands, it can be enormously improved by attention to the draftsmanship during the course of the Committee stage. It will undoubtedly do a great deal to help a very deserving type of person who finds himself by reason of this lacuna in the law placed in an intolerable situation. I believe that my hon. Friends have done a great service in devoting the opportunity which the luck of the draw has given them to bringing forward this Bill, and I am certain it will have the unanimous approval of the House.

11.59 a.m.

Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)

I want to add only very few words to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay).

I would start by emphasising the main point that, while this Bill is obviously filling up a gap which became evident to all of us when dealing with recent leasehold Measures in this House, it is again only another patch in the whole pattern. It is really absolutely monstrous that this House should be called upon to go on producing a quilted patchwork in this way in relation to the whole of our leasehold problems in this country. It is scandalous for the layman, and I am fortunately in the position in which I can consider the layman a great deal more than a professional lawyer.

I want to say that it is not only the consolidation of these Acts that we want, but consolidation with a view to Amendment, and I am not at all sure that consolidation in regard to this group of legislation is really going to help at all.

I believe that we have got to have a completely new leasehold Measure, and a major one, starting right from the beginning and try to rid ourselves as much as we possibly can of a great many of the restrictive ideas contained in this batch of legislation. I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that the two-year period of our last leasehold Measure passed by the late Government is running out. It is an immensely large subject, and there has got to be a new Measure within those two years. Such a Measure ought to be one for which every lawyer and layman interested in this subject is crying out

I want to deal again with the second major point. This Bill is not drafted to bring in the direct tenants of the Crown. It is perfectly true that at first sight that seems to be anomalous, but one has to remember that whereas every other relation of landlord and tenant is between individual and private citizens for which no Minister can be made directly accountable, direct tenants of the Crown are a class quite unique because their landlord, whether it be the Duchy of Lancaster, the Duchy of Cornwall, or a Government Department can be chased in this House by their Member of Parliament in a way that does not exist in regard to any other private tenancy between parties.

Mr. Weitzman

Is that because the Crown can do no wrong?

Sir P. Spens

The Crown can indeed do wrong.

The only statement with which I think I disagreed was the idea that the Crown was always an ideal landlord. I know many cases where it has not been the most ideal landlord, but where either a letter to the Department concerned from a Member of Parliament or a Question asked in this House gives a direct remedy to the tenant outside the law courts, and it is sometimes a great deal cheaper to be able to proceed in that way than by the ordinary legal practice. Therefore, there is a great deal to be said for regarding those tenants as a class a part.

There is, I think, a serious technical difficulty in that the Bill having been drafted in this way and introduced, and having been given its Short Title as a protection of the sub-tenancy Act, there may be great difficulties, even on Committee, if we come to the conclusion that it is desirable to extend it to direct tenants. But there is the more important difficulty of all. From the discussions which we had in dealing with the last leasehold Bill, it was quite obvious that in regard to direct tenants of Government Departments, in particular, more than the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall, there would have to be so many exceptions from the provisions of these protection Acts that I believe we should get a Measure almost too complicated to handle in a Private Member's Bill.

Mr. Hay

I well remember the discussions which the hon. and learned Gentleman mentions, but I am wondering about the points of exceptions. The only major exception I can think of is the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson), namely, married quarters occupied by soldiers, sailors or airmen and their families, and there, surely, the general law under the Rent Restrictions Acts as to a service occupant would come in. I cannot think of any other exceptions that one would need if one agreed the general principle.

Sir P. Spens

If it really is necessary to introduce an Amendment, no doubt somebody will do it. The point will have to be thrashed out in Committee, but I do not think that on Second Reading one ought to go into too many details. The view I have provisionally formed is that it would be very difficult to make certain that we were not introducing a good deal of trouble if we tried to introduce direct tenants who, I think, are reasonably well protected by the Parliamentary procedure available to them.

The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) referred to the question of premiums. I am bound to say, not having seen this Bill in detail until a very short time ago, that he has discovered a point which defeats me. If it is in fact in the Bill that we are making a provision as regards premiums which is going to apply to the transactions under this Bill, and which does not apply generally, then I am inclined to think that the suggestion in this Bill, as indicated by the hon. and learned Gentleman, is a good one. As we are dealing with this patchwork quilt, as I say, it will be one more anomaly, but it will not be unique or alone in the whole of this lot of legislation. If it is right that it should be done, then I think we ought to make a start with it, and it may have the result of another Amendment being introduced at a later stage.

I will end by saying that this is a Measure which has not been cried out for over any long period of time, because it was not necessary until a certain decision was given not so very long ago. It ought to have been dealt with as soon as that decision was given, and I congratulate my hon. Friends the mover and the seconder for having taken this opportunity to get rid of this anomaly.

12.7 p.m.

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

May I also join in congratulating the hon. Gentlemen the mover and seconder of the Motion on bringing forward this Bill? I think I can speak for everybody on this side of the House in saying that we very much welcome it. I must say that I was a little entertained when the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson) contemplated that he might have a simple little Bill. I could not help observing the knowing Chancery smile on the face of the hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). If the Common Law really thinks that it can produce a simple little Bill to deal with anything inside the Rent Restrictions Acts, then I hope that such a proposal will be brought forward in Committee, when we shall have a most fascinating lawyers' orgy.

In principle, we on this side of the House are opposed to any privileged position, whether of the Crown or anybody else. I want to quote, because it puts it very clearly, from the interim Report on Leasehold Reform, when Lord Uthwatt was chairman of the Committee, which was signed by hon. Members opposite as well as by hon. Members on this side of the House, and which lays down the principle which I suggest we should follow in this Bill. Speaking of the Crown and other similar authorities, paragraph 89 of the Report says: It is a broad question of policy how far authorities of these kinds should be exempted from legislation which applies to the ordinary citizen, but for the Committee's purposes we see no reason to exempt them from the principles of the scheme except where a case can be made for exceptional treatment for the purpose of distinctive statutory functions. That, to my mind, is a salutary principle to be applied wherever exemption for the Crown is claimed. Indeed, it was in accordance with that principle that the Labour Government, in 1947, brought forward the Crown Proceedings Act which, for the first time, made the Crown liable to be sued and liable in tort in the same way as the private citizen. But it is a corollary of that, of course— we must have a balanecd view of this—that where there is a purpose to be carried out, then power must be conferred for that purpose and any necessary exemption must be conferred for that purpose, the principle being that any privilege or exemption must be limited to but conferred for the purpose for which it is necessary.

May I, in an aside to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, say that that is why I, personally, deplore the Ministry's policy in inducing local authorities to sell houses when they should be available for renting from time to time to the citizens who need them and for whose benefit the powers of local authorities were conferred.

The great point which has rightly emerged on the Second Reading of this Bill is the big question of principle, whether this exemption from the Rent Restrictions Acts should be preserved to the Crown or whether it should be abolished. Now in the present position it has got as far as this; that where the Crown has any interest in the property—even when the Crown is only the ground landlord—the occupying tenant from a mesne landlord, not direct from the Crown, is exempt from the Rent Restrictions Acts, which quite obviously, on the face of it, is wholly unnecessary. It does not affect the position of the Crown and it stultifies the object of the Rent Restrictions Acts. Quite clearly we all agree that this Bill is to be welcomed because it does away with that anomalous and unnecessary position.

Now we come to the position where the Crown is the direct landlord of the occupying tenant—and that is the point raised by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) and mentioned by other hon. Members. On principle, I should be in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Henley. I see no reason at all in principle why, where the Crown is the direct landlord, the Crown should not be subject to the Rent Restrictions Acts in the same way as any other landlord. The difficulty we have is precisely the practical difficulty, which is so much in the knowledge of the hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South, of specifying and making the exemptions.

The hon. Member for Henley mentioned married quarters. But there might be all kinds of lettings—for instance, a temporary letting where a house is required for a short period and where it is not inconvenient for those concerned that it should be a short letting. Nevertheless, if exemptions are not made, it would mean that though the Crown would require the property for a statutory purpose in the interests of the country, it would find that if it let the property it would be caught by the Rent Restrictions Acts. Therefore, the Department might decide not to let the property at all and that would not be in anybody's interest. I should welcome any proposal for bringing in a remedy, provided it can be done in a clear manner which would not involve a cumbrous series of exemptions.

Mr. Hay

The hon. and learned Member has just mentioned the possible exemption which might be required in the case of premises let for a short period for some statutory purpose. Would he not agree that one of the ways round that would be simply to carry out the First Schedule to the 1933 Act, making such a situation ground for the court granting an order for possession?

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

That, again, would mean applying to the court, and that is the difficulty. This very problem was considered in another context in the Leasehold Committee from which I have already quoted. The difficulties of specifying exemptions in such a way as to ensure that statutory purposes are carried out without hindrance are in fact very formidable. If the hon. Member for Henley or anybody else brought forward in Committee a Clause which would do it very clearly and simply, I should welcome it, but I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South that the difficulties are indeed very formidable.

I join with the hon. Member for Lewisham, North and the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) in asking the Parliamentary Secretary that, if steps are necessary to see that the purposes of the Bill are not defeated between now and the time when it comes into operation, he should not hesitate to take action. I am sure the House has been very much impressed by the instances given by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West. It is appalling that when there is a gap in the law, such as the one which this Bill will attempt to fill, one immediately finds tearing through that gap gentlemen who seek to take advantage of it by exploiting, by speculating, by evicting, by stopping short at nothing, however cruel the result, in order to make some money out of it.

I am sure that that would be contrary to our purpose when dealing with the Bill, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take any steps necessary to prevent that condition of affairs before this Bill comes into law. I have very much pleasure indeed in welcoming this Bill and in congratulating those fortunate enough to have brought it before the House.

12.15 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson (Ilford, North)

I should like to join with other hon. Members in offering my congratulations to my hon. Friends the Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Steward) who have taken advantage of the opportunity which the Ballot has given to put right a matter which certainly stood in urgent need of correction.

In my constituency we have some Crown property where the difficulties to which my hon. Friends referred have certainly manifested themselves, though perhaps in a less acute form than they appear to have done in West Woolwich.

This Bill has been said by several hon. Members to be a very complicated Measure, and indeed it is. But I cannot find it in my heart to blame my hon. Friends for that, because I think some hon. Members have failed to realise that this Bill is necessarily complicated because it seeks to do something which, as far as I am aware, has not been done in a Rent Restrictions Act before. This Bill seeks to protect the sub-tenant whilst leaving the tenant of the ground landlord unprotected. That is a new departure in rent restriction legislation, and any new departure necessarily involves complications of the sort to which the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) referred.

I must admit that I do not share the admiration for the Crown as a landlord which some of my hon. Friends have expressed. I am inclined to agree that the Crown should be treated in the same way as other landlords. There is no reason, unless some special conditions exist, why different treatment should be accorded to the Crown. But, listening to this debate, I am bound to say that I think that it has appeared that the complications involved in extending this provision to Crown property would be so great that it is probably impracticable to do so.

It would be almost impossible to enumerate the classes of cases where the Crown enjoy exemption. If it is to be done at all, it will have to be done, as so often happens in rent restriction legislation, by leaving it to the discretion of the county court judge. That is a very easy way out of the difficulty for this House; not quite so easy for the county court judges, although they have undertaken similar tasks in several other directions. This matter might be left to the county court judges they might be allowed discretion where the public interest was involved. But I am bound to say, having listened to the debate, that I think that my hon. Friend has made the right choice in restricting this Measure to sub-tenants.

I agree with what was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). The time has come when we ought to endeavour to simplify the Rent Restriction Acts if we can do so. Something more than consolidation is required. Consolidation is a comparatively simple matter, although, as a member of the Consolidation Committee, I should not encourage the House in the belief that it would be easy to undertake the consolidation of these Acts. Indeed, the result of the consolidation of these Acts might well be to make the task of those who have to advise upon them more difficult than it is at present.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) drew attention to the fact that rent restriction legislation applies to the premises as such and not to the parties who are interested in them. That is perfectly true. He asked what was going to happen, whether this Measure would abrogate the rule that the Rent Restriction Acts operate in respect of the premises and not the parties concerned. This Bill has been rendered necessary by the existence of that rule. It is, indeed, in order to withdraw Crown properties from the operations of that rule that my hon. Friend has brought forward this Bill.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

I am a little alarmed at this plea that Crown property of all kinds should have no right of withdrawal from the Rent Restriction Acts. Am I to understand that there is now a claim being made that the piece of Crown property known as No. 10 Downing Street should be put in the same position as all other property under the Rent Restriction Acts? Has the tenant now a permanent right of residence there, in view of the fact that the nation, as it will very shortly, will chuck him out?

Sir G. Hutchinson

I am sure that the hon. Member will appreciate that a great many other considerations arise in that case. The tenancy of that property is, after all, always in the hands of this House.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

It is a tied house!

Sir G. Hutchinson

I have only one other observation to make. I share with some of my hon. Friends the doubts which they entertain about the wisdom of protecting tenants from eviction by the use of the Minister's powers of requisition. I have certainly no desire that tenants should be left at the mercy of landlords who take proceedings for eviction before this Measure becomes law. But the House should recognise that there is here a question of principle involved. The Minister was given these powers of requisition, not for the purpose of protecting tenants who might otherwise be evicted, but for the purpose of making available accommodation at a time when residential accommodation was in short supply. It is a dangerous thing where powers are given for one purpose to encourage the exercise of those powers for another purpose.

I would prefer to take the course which was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley and bring this Measure into operation as soon as it receives the Royal Assent. I see no reason why this Bill should be delayed for long in this House, and there is no reason why it should be delayed for long in another place. If my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North, took that course, I think that all the tenants who might otherwise be evicted in the interim period would continue to enjoy their homes until this Bill comes into force.

12.27 p.m.

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

It might be convenient to the House if at this stage I made a short intervention in order to make known the Government's intentions on this Bill. It is significant and I think, ominous for my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson), who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, that the last five speakers have all been lawyers. One of them has been a judge; another is the former Solicitor-General, and others who have spoken belong to different branches of the law. If my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Sir G. Hutchinson) thinks that in Committee there is a likelihood of this Bill being rushed through speedily, he has greater faith in his own profession than I have.

I think we should all congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North first on having won the draw and having had the good fortune to be one of those hon. Members with the right to bring forward a Bill to this House, and secondly, on what I thought was a lucid introductory speech which simplified the complicated Clauses in the Bill and signified a very simple intention. I thought he was a little modest when he said that he could not have drafted this Measure without the help of Parliamentary draftsmen, and I must congratulate him and say straightaway that the Government give this Bill their support and will do what they can to help my hon. Friend to carry out the intention which he expressed in his introductory speech.

It is wrong that this anomaly should exist and that there should be a gap in the rent restriction law which has caused many families to be exposed to the anxiety of either a rent increase or eviction, when similar property nearby has received protection merely because the landlord happened not to be the Crown.

There is only one other point to which I shall refer and that is the question of those cases between now and 1st September, 1952, when the Bill, if enacted, will come into operation. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ilford, North suggested that the Bill should be amended so that the date can be brought forward, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North will consider that suggestion, but I think it will be found not to be practicable, because the Bill will have to be printed and made known to the public before it becomes law, in accordance with the wishes expressed in this House in regard to all Measures. It seems to me that the earliest date at which it could be printed is round about August and, therefore, it could not become law until about September. If it is possible to bring the date forward, no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North will look at that point.

If this proves to be impossible, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has authorised me to say that he has agreed to delegate to the local authorities the power to requisition houses occupied by tenants of the Crown in cases where that is necessary to avoid hardship—that is, between now and 1st September, 1952. I think that meets the points raised by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas). It is perfectly true that the power of requisition is one not to be used lightly. But the period between now and 1st September, 1952, would be only a short one. The law would come into force then and I do not think that the use of the power in the meantime would create a breach of the principle so admirably expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Ilford, North.

As to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) that there should be a consolidation of the Rent Acts, I will bring his observations to the notice of my right hon. Friend. I think my hon. Friend will sympathise with me when I say that I fervently hope that, if the Acts are consolidated, I personally shall participate very little in the Parliamentary discussions on the subject at the time.

Therefore, the Government support the Bill. They will use the power to requisition between now and 1st September, 1952, where necessary, but they hope that it will not be necessary, and that the warning that has been issued will be sufficient to deter unscrupulous landlords from using this period of time to evict tenants. I hope that I have clearly indicated the position of the Government on this Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Standing Committee.