§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Studholme.]
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
I make no apology for detaining the House at the end of what has been a long week, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because the matter which I hope we shall look at for a few minutes is one of some importance.
I wish to draw the attention of hon. Members to the situation which obtains when people whose rent is being paid by the National Assistance Board are faced with demands from landlords for increases under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, and which it seems the National Assistance Board is liable to meet in the majority of cases. I tried to obtain a little information on this subject by asking a Question in the House on 6th December, but the confusion that ensued in the replies given, not only to my Question but to various supplementary questions, made me think it necessary to clarify the matter by taking the opportunity of raising it on the Adjournment.
I asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance:whether, in the case of pensioners whose rent is being met by the National Assistance Board, he will authorise a check on the accuracy of increases which are being imposed under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, especially in view of the age and infirmity of many of the pensioners concerned.The answer was that every increase of rent is examined, but that the Board cannot undertake to give tenants what would be tantamount to legal advice regarding rent.
Later, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said:The instructions to the officers amount to saying that they are expected to be on the lookout for increases which are too excessive or which, because of the bad state of the property, are plainly improper.We need to know what the officers are supposed to do next when they find a case where the increase appears to be "too excessive," whatever that means, or when the state of the property really 2385 makes justification quite beyond possibility. What are the instructions to the Board's officers in those cases? We are told that:Generally speaking, increases under the Act would be at the same level in each area.The hon. Gentleman said:The officer has to consider whether it is reasonable having regard to the level of rents in the locality, not reasonable having regard to the particular increase.I submit that if that is the instruction which has been given to the officers of the National Assistance Board, it is quite a serious mis-instruction because the very purpose of the recent legislation was to ensure that only those specific properties on which the correct amount of money had been spent should be entitled to increases in rent. It has nothing whatever to do with the level generally obtaining in the district. Hon. Members will agree that it is possible to have two houses side by side one of which has had the requisite amount of money spent on it and the other has been neglected and therefore is not entitled to attract an increase of rent of any kind.
This confusion is most unfair to the officers of the National Assistance Board, who are doing a very difficult and splendid job of work in the community. We are all very much in their debt. When they are trying to help people find their way through difficult legislation, and when they have to make decisions about expenditure of public money, they need some help and guidance. I submit that they are not receiving that help and guidance.
I was further confused, and so I am sure was everyone else in the House, when my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) received a different answer to a similar Question. He was told:The Board inform me that no special steps are necessary. They have all the powers needed to enable them to deal with any new situation that may arise in respect of rent paid by persons receiving assistance."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 590–3.]If the Board has all the powers that are needed, it is difficult to see the reason for what has been happening in certain specific cases.
I cannot do better than refer to a specific case which puts the whole question very simply. With permission, I 2386 should like to read extracts from a letter which I have received from a constituent, an elderly sick lady, half-blind, who writes:I, among others have received an iniquitous demand for increased rent, for which there is not the slightest justification. The landlords are notorious for doing nothing, either repairs or decorations, for their tenants and the state of this flat has to be seen to be believed. I have been to the Town Hall and have been told that I have a good case if I can take the landlords to court within the specified 28 days. I am neither physically nor financially able to do this, but I wrote to the National Assistance Board and asked them to call and see me about it, as they will have to pay the increase, as I have nothing but my sick pay and National Assistance allowance. They have refused to come and see what I require. I enclose their reply.It does seem to me disgraceful that the State who will have to pay not only mine but thousands of other extra rents should allow these scoundrels of landlords to evade their obligations and just add to their already swollen profits and dividends with taxpayers' money and still leave their tenants in pigstyes they call flats. These landlords pay shareholders' dividends of 7 per cent. …The letter concludes:Whoever made that Act ought to have been choked with it before it was passed.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to The Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)
In that case the hon. Lady would not have been getting a reply from me this afternoon.
§ Mrs. Jeger
I dare say that I could have borne even that sacrifice.
Let us take this case a little further. This lady is told at the town hall that she has a good case. She is not able to take advantage of that advice, because the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friends have not yet seen fit to make legal aid available in the county court.
§ Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady. It is a most interesting and attractive flow. Is it not a fact that, if one goes to the council offices, the staff at the council offices do not say that one has a good case, but that the property does not appear to qualify for the increase?
§ Mrs. Jeger
Perhaps the hon. Member would just wait. The first advice is that it does not seem to be a proper increase and that therefore the landlords—in this case a very wealthy and flourishing 2387 Trust—should be taken to court by this elderly lady. In this case, as it happened—and the hon. Gentleman has anticipated me—not only had insufficient money been spent on the flat to justify the increase in rent, but the flat was in such a deplorable state that the sanitary inspector was able to issue a certificate of disrepair. Here we must not be confused. It is possible for a flat or a house not to be bad enough to qualify for a certificate of disrepair but also not to have had enough spent on it to qualify under the Act for increased rent. A certificate of disrepair was issued, and the increase of 20 per cent. which had been imposed has been saved, temporarily, from public funds
This particular flat is one of many in a tenement building. News of what had happened spread among the more timid tenants, many of whom have since said, "What about me?" They had, at first, been intimidated, as people often are, by these very impressive-looking forms which came from the landlord. Some of them, unfortunately, had signed the forms before the news spread that there was the possibility of a certificate of disrepair being issued. Although hon. Members know that such fears are unfounded, many of these people not very well versed in this sort of thing were really frightened of eviction.
There are several ladies living in identical flats who are receiving National Assistance. In their case, because of the lapse of the 28 days, the rent increases have now been agreed and there is no possible redress. For the rest of those tenants' occupation, therefore, the landlords will collect money from public funds to which they might not otherwise be entitled—or, at any rate, to which they have not yet proved that they are entitled.
This puts the National Assistance Board in a very difficult position. I must say that some area officers have gone to a great deal of trouble to instruct their officers in the Act. They have given them the excellent little booklet which the Ministry has prepared and have told them to ask to see the rent increase demands before agreeing to any increased payment.
One officer went to a house the other day and was confronted with a beautifully typewritten from which showed as 2388 an item the repair of a roof costing several hundreds of pounds. Quite naturally, he said, "That seems all right to me." But the tenant said, "It does not seem all right to me, because I know he got it out of the war damage." We in this House know that it is not right and that that sort of thing does not qualify a landlord to request an increase of rent under the Act.
But the National Assistance Board officials cannot do anything to take such a matter further. It rests entirely with the tenant to prove that the landlord is not entitled to the increase, and not, as many of us would wish, the other way round, with the burden on the landlord to prove that he is entitled to an increase. Because this argument about the roof had dragged on beyond 28 days without any one knowing quite what to do about it, that landlord again will collect some extra rent from public funds.
I consider this a serious matter, because a great deal of money can easily be involved. I wish to know whether the Government gave any thought to this matter when the Bill was going through the House. After all, the National Assistance Board is one of the biggest rent-payers in the country. I do not know whether hon. Members realise it, but the National Assistance Board is paying the entire rents of over a million householders in this country and part of the rents of 162,000 householders. The last annual report gives an average payment of 12s. 2d. a week, which means that we are paying out of public funds about o three-quarters-of-a-million pounds in rent. I consider that the National Assistance Board has done the landlords quite a good turn.
The constituency which I have the honour to represent, and in which I live, is the constituency in which Shaw was living when he wrote "Widowers' Houses." There is still a lot of property in the constituency which I am sure inspired Bernard Shaw to write that play. The National Assistance Board has done a great deal, of course, to help tenants and people in all kinds of distress. But it has helped the landlords too. There are not now the terrible battles to squeeze rent out of poverty-stricken people that there used to be. There are not quite so many 2389 "moonlight flits" as some of us can remember, because the payment of rent has become a liability which we accept when we compute pensions, and it has become a recognised charge on the National Assistance Board.
But, taking it that we are spending three - quarters - of - a - million pounds already, and in the case which I have quoted an increase of one-fifth in the rent was demanded, I wonder where we are going. I do not mind more money being spent on National Assistance. I should be delighted if more money were spent in that way. But I want to see it spent on the people who need it. As a taxpayer, I resent the fact that it should be handed out to landlords. That is what I cannot understand, and I am sure that there must be many other people in this country who do not understand it either.
I feel that it is my job this afternoon to pose the problem as it has come to me in my constituency work. I find it rather difficult to suggest a solution. Of course, we know that the National Assistance Board has a legal department and that in 1953, for example, it met the legal costs in 108 affiliation cases and 160 maintenance cases. That was money spent on legal costs to safeguard public money, and to prevent expenditure falling on public funds which it is not proper for such funds to bear. It may be that the Government have in mind some way of expanding the legal assistance which the National Assistance Board can give to people.
The other answer, that of the extension of legal aid to the county courts, is rather like shutting the door after the horse has gone in this case, because it is in the last few months that the vast spate of increased rent orders has been issued, and once they have been issued and not taken into court, there is nothing which can be done about them.
I think we might pick up some of the worst of these cases if we suggest to the Board that, where applications are made for rent increases, the Board should, as a matter of routine, ask the local authority to send a sanitary inspector to look at the property. That is not foolproof, but it would catch some of the most flagrant cases, such as that which I quoted at some length.
2390 We have had a very long week and, in addition, I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary plenty of time to reply, because I am sure he will have many helpful remarks to make about this dilemma which is causing so much concern. I will, therefore, put it to him as a problem which we must all face, whichever side of the House we represent. We have a problem of making sure that an Act of Parliament, which some of us opposed but which is now the law of the land, is being properly implemented in every case. There is a duty upon us to see that we do not indirectly connive with unscrupulous people who are seeking their own profit in a way which is illegal, unfair and undesirable.
§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)
I do not suppose that anyone in the House can recall a Motion put before us in critical terms at once so pleasant and agreeable as those used by the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger). I think that if some hon. Members opposite who have hard things to say about Her Majesty's present advisers would take a lesson from her, they might gain their point and retain the good will of hon. Members on this side of the House.
It seems to me that two points of great importance emerge from what the hon. Lady said. First, in the preparation of the legislation which lies at the basis of the subject which she has raised, the Government, in putting that legislation through the House and through long and arduous discussions in Committee, bore in mind the fact that the tenants' interest ought to be preserved; and certain very important, comprehensive, and quite complicated reservations and precautions were written into the Bill. It is because those reservations exist that it is possible for the hon. Lady today to maintain that the tenants ought to be still further assisted in taking advantage of the protection which the Government wrote into the Bill. I am very glad to know that the hon. Lady has recognised the effort which we made to be fair in framing the Act.
The second point of importance which arises in what she said is that the system which we operate in this country—not only now but which we have done for 2391 a very long time, including the time during which the party opposite was responsible for our affairs—provides that those who are very poor, those who are in the greatest need, shall have assistance from the rest of the community towards the payment of the rent of the house, or flat, or rooms, in which they live. I regard that as being a thoroughly good thing, and a necessary and important piece of social legislation; and I was glad to note that the hon Lady paid full recognition to its importance, and to the significance which rent payments have in the lives of the ordinary poor people who form so large a part of many of our constituencies.
It seems to me that from there the hon. Lady proceeds to what may possibly be a confusion. While we are providing financial assistance in the form of rent, and while we are providing legal protection for the tenant against the provocative, careless, or wilful abuse of the powers of the landlord under the Act—
§ It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. R. Thompson.]
§ Mr. Thompson
While we are doing that, we ought not, by the same piece of machinery, to be required at the same time to give what amounts to technical advice on the condition, structure and fitness of the house, and legal advice as to how the tenant of the property should be able to take advantage of the provisions of the law.
It seems to me that the machinery that pays the money, that gives the assistance where assistance is needed, should be completely separate from that relating to the other provisions of the law, either the actual use of the machinery of the law in the courts or the technical facilities that are available for advising the tenant as to how the courts can help.
§ Mrs. Jeger
Would the hon. Member not agree that the trouble is that the legal protection in the Act is too expensive, and is beyond the reach of people who are living on National Assistance?
§ Mr. Thompson
I am trying to show, very inadequately, I admit, how the three 2392 separate parts of the machine should be kept separate. The tenant who is in need should have a right to go for financial aid, to show the need, and to have the need relieved. Whether the need arises because of a variation in one single factor in the course of maintaining the family, is an altogether separate issue. The machinery for relieving the need exists, and the two come quite easily and conveniently together.
The hon. Lady's trouble arises because she says that perhaps the increase in the need is illegal or improper. But provisions are written into the Statute to protect the tenant from that form of abuse, whether he is drawing assistance from a public fund to meet it or is paying the increase from his own pocket. The Statute provides that the tenant shall go to a local authority, and that the local authority shall say whether he is justly being called upon to bear an increase in the rent above the statutory rent. If the local authority, with all the technical resources at its disposal, decides that the property should not qualify for the increase in rent, the local authority has the proper machinery for issuing a certificate to prevent the charge being made.
§ Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)
Will the hon. Member deal with the case in which there is a dispute, not about the condition of the premises, but about whether the property qualifies for the increase by the amount expended upon it in repairs? That can be tested only in court, at the insistence of the tenant. If the tenant is a poor person he simply cannot take that step, and so this protection is largely illusory.
§ Mr. Thompson
Assuming that the local authority does not issue a certificate of disrepair, because the house is within the definition of the Act as being "fit for human habitation," and the tenant disputes who is responsible for the fact that the house is in habitable condition—which is the sort of case that would arise under the conditions which the hon. Member has in mind—the tenant can withhold the rent and have the matter contested.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
In the case of a tenant who is assisted by National Assistance, what inducement is there to contest the matter if he knows 2393 that the National Assistance Board will pay the increased rent anyhow?
§ Mr. Thompson
It all depends. The National Assistance Board does not simply sit calmly by. In most areas the Board is ready and, I believe, anxious to help, but it is not anxious to be mulcted by anybody, and if there are grounds for believing that the demands are unreasonable, the Board does what it can to advise and help the tenant.
Proceeding to the third stage, it is not the job of the National Assistance Board to provide the technical advice about whether a house is fit. I am not quite sure how far the Board should go in providing financial aid to fight against the increased rent.
It seems to me that we ought to keep completely separate in our minds these three separate functions—the relieving of need, the application of the terms of the law as it applies to any given house, and the facilities for anyone to use the courts, with such assistance as they can get, in order to see that the law is applied fairly in their case.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
This debate, for which the House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger), arises out of what are really appalling answers to Questions given by the Parliamentary Secretary on 6th December. Those present on that occasion realise that a very serious state of affairs has been revealed.
For a long time past, the National Assistance Board has quite properly been paying out to those entitled to receive National Assistance amounts for rent in addition to the other payments which the Board is authorised to make. Recently, the Housing Repairs and Rents Act enabled some landlords, for the first time for many years, to raise some rents, and a good many landlords are now in process of trying to increase rents. Those tenants who are fortunate enough to get professional legal advice, or are physically strong enough to go to a citizens' advice bureau and have also received advice, have discovered, in a great many cases—in a great many in my own experience—that numerous landlords in London and elsewhere are trying to increase rents which they are not entitled to raise.
2394 The law is by no means clear, and it would be an under-statement to say that there are several very obscure passages in the Act. In many cases, it is abundantly clear that, for one reason or another, a landlord has been assumed to have given notice requiring an increase in rent when he is not entitled to do so, either because the notice was bad, because he had not spent the proper amount of money on repairs, because the rateable value of a whole house had not been apportioned in cases where it was let, or for a variety of other reasons. Cases are being argued in the courts, and some tenants will get protection, hut what is happening in the case of those tenants who have their rent paid by the National Assistance Board?
In a great many of these cases, the Minister seems to admit that the rent can be raised automatically by the landlord, and that the National Assistance Board will pay it. In other words, landlords are being subsidised out of the public purse for fictitious increases of rent to which they are not entitled, and the National Assistance Board, in a great many of these cases, is doing nothing about it.
§ Mr. Marples
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, after his wanderings to get particulars of these cases, will be good enough to send them to me. To what is he referring now?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I certainly will. The Minister is convicted out of his own mouth, because he has admitted this. He admits that in some cases, in which excessive illegal increases of rent have been paid, the National Assistance Board did nothing about it, and that the Board intervenes only if the increases are too excessive. I can understand the major difficulty about the machinery, but the present attitude of the Assistance Board and of the Government, who are responsible for it, is quite unpardonable, because it means that public money is being spent in paying to landlords throughout the country increases in rent to which they are not entitled. The evil does not end there, because these increases of rent, which are being cheerfully paid by the Assistance Board, are setting a standard.
Rents which other landlords will be able to demand from other tenants who do not have to go to the National Assistance Board will come to be judged in the courts as the standard for the 2395 neighbourhood, in comparable cases. That is one of the standards laid down by the Act. The indirect result of this muddle on the part of the Government is that rents are being raised which ought not to be raised, and the raising of Which, if proper steps were taken, would be prevented.
Before the debate is concluded, I hope we shall hear that the Minister is going to find some method of stopping the National Assistance Board from paying these increased rents unless a reference has been made to the local authority or some other competent body to see whether the increases are justified; and also to see that, in the meantime, the tenant is fully protected so long as the old rent continues to be paid.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)
I have only three comments to make, and I shall finish by 4.15, because I know that we all want to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say.
First, I want to comment upon something which was said by the hon. Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson). I do not think that he is unsympathetic to the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger), to whom we are all grateful, but I do not share his touching faith that the provisions inserted in the Housing Repairs and Rents Act for the benefit of the tenant are generally effective. It would be out of order to go very far into that question, but I should like to give one example.
When serving a notice of increase, a landlord does not have to send the document by registered post; he can drop it into the letterbox. His word alone that he has done so is all that is required. In houses where several tenants live, anyone can pick up such a notice, and the tenant to whom it is addressed may not know anything about the notice until 28 days have passed, and then, for all time, the new rent is fixed at the higher level. If the House is under the impression that the tenant is really safeguarded in many instances it is not looking at the matter correctly.
To me, the alarming thing about what we have heard so far, by answers from the Parliamentary Secretary, is the 2396 reference to the consideration of the "district level of rents." Nothing could be more misleading. First, any of us who has any practical experience knows houses of almost identical construction in the same street, some of which are old rent-controlled houses, and others new rent-controlled houses, which have entirely different rents. It would be absurd to imagine that we can obtain a real average rent in most districts.
In addition, there is the further complication of the recent rent legislation, which does not make this assessment any easier. Some of the cases which have arisen under the new legislation are still being considered, and there are others upon which there is dispute. If that guide is the only effective one which officers of the Ministry can use, it is apparent that quite considerable sums of public money are being paid which are unauthorised and illegal.
When one thinks of the zealous care which is normally exercised by most Departments and by Committees of this House in regard to the expenditure of public money, it is surprising that this lax attitude towards landlords should exist. I dare say that it has arisen quite accidentally, but it is an astonishing contrast to the normal attitude.
My third point refers to the future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will add his representations to those which the Attorney-General is making to the Chancellor, in regard to the necessity for bringing into force the remaining sections of the legal aid scheme as soon as possible. If the provisions of Section 7 were in operation there would be proper legal advice centres, and by other Sections help would be provided in the county courts and even, in some cases, the police courts, in regard to certain types of rent increases. If that were achieved it would have a tremendous beneficial effect.
Many areas today do not possess a free legal advice centre of any kind. I am not saying that individual solicitors or barristers may not help, but that there is no recognised centre to which one can go. Many centres have been closed down under the impression that they are no longer necessary, or because they cannot get the funds, and in London two centres have been kept going only by a grant made by the L.C.C. One way in future of dealing with this problem of the 2397 tenant's right and the control of public money would be the extension of the legal aid scheme, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will help in this matter when it comes forward when the legislative programme is being considered.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)
I think that the whole House is grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) for the reasonable, agreeable and engaging way in which she has raised this subject. It is all the more credit-worthy because the hon. Lady sat up all night and did not pair—and I think that applies to all hon. Ladies on both sides of the House. I myself had a long discussion with the hon. Lady at 6.30 this morning in the precincts of the House, in quite respectable circumstances.
I am sorry she thought that there was confusion in my answer the other day, but it is not always easy by means of Question and answer to dispose of a complicated matter and. if I failed to do so in any way, I am sorry. I will try to clear up that confusion this afternoon, and I should be obliged to her if she would send me particulars of the case which she read out—the one which contained a great many friendly sentiments towards landlords and the Minister and Parliamentary Secretary who had something to do with the Housing Repairs and Rents Bill.
§ Mr. Marples
I shall be delighted to look into any individual case. It is not easy on the Floor of the House to argue the merits of an individual case, if the Minister has not seen the details and gone into them. I am at the disadvantage of not having investigated the merits of that case, and I look forward to getting it, and also the cases referred to by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher).
As the hon. Lady has said, there are three separate questions involved. The first is whether the provisions of the Housing Repairs and Rents Acts are adequate and working well, which it is 2398 not my job to deal with, although I shall mention it in the course of my contribution; the second, which deals with the question whether legal aid should be given, is a matter for the Attorney-General; and the third is that of National Assistance aid.
I will deal first with the problem of National Assistance. Before I do so, I should like to say that I think that the House should get it quite clear that, under the Housing Repairs and Rents Acts, there are really two tests. The first is the once-and-for-all test, that the landlord has to prove that he has expended a certain amount of money in a given period of time; but the more important test is that the house shall be in good repair and that it shall be kept in that state of repair. The amount of money to keep the house in repair is the amount of the permitted increase.
The hon. Lady raised the point about what action the Board's officers are expected to take when they are notified that the rent paid by the applicant for National Assistance is being increased under the Housing Repairs and Rents Acts, 1954. Let us look at the statutory duty of the National Assistance Board. The scale rates are set out in the Second Schedule of the National Assistance Regulations—the officers of the National Assistance Board are required to calculate a person's need for assistance according to these scales. The scale rates provide for requirements other than rent for which a special addition must be made.
In the case of a householder, the Regulations require the Board's officers to allow for rent theNet rent payable or such part thereof as is reasonable hawing regard to the general level of rents in the locality.Every hon. Member knows how difficult it is to define the words "reasonable" and "excessive." The hon. Lady used the phrase "flagrant cases." How does one define a flagrant case? It is difficult to define with precision the exact meaning of rather imprecise words we use. I believe the courts have not been able to Grid a comprehensive definition of the word "reasonable." However, it has always been in the Regulations. When right hon. Members opposite were in 2399 charge of our affairs it was in the Regulations, and it is still there because we cannot find a better word.
Provided that the rent is reasonable in relation to the Board's general standards, on which it has the advice of local advisory committees, the Board's officers do not find it necessary or practicable to make meticulous inquiry into the propriety of the exact amount charged. I think hon. Members would complain, and that hon. Members opposite would be the first to complain, if the issue of an Assistance allowance to a person in need were held up, or the amount of it reduced, pending elaborate inquiries of that kind.
Alterations in rent are of common occurrence. Hon. Members have talked as if these were the only alterations ever to have taken place. There are two types of increases which take place regularly. The first results from a change in local rates. The Board's officers have to adjust every week large numbers of allowances on that account alone. The second type is of rents increased for repairs. Under the Rent Restriction Acts since 1920 there have been permitted increases in rent for repairs, and it has been open to tenants to challenge the increases.
The situation, therefore, is not a new one, but this is the first time there has been any suggestion that the Board's officers should make themselves responsible for seeing that the conditions warranting increases in rents are satisfied by landlords. The delay involved might cause inconvenience and even distress to an applicant. As it is, the Board's officers issue about 60,000 revised allowances each week, almost all of which include allowances for rent.
The second most important objection against the Board's officers taking this responsibility, in addition to the administrative objection, is that they do not possess the technical or legal knowledge required to be able to say whether the several conditions prerequisite to a rent increase have been satisfied, or whether the rent increase is accurate, and they must not usurp the functions of local authorities in pronouncing upon the state of repair of a dwelling.
There are many bodies whose duty it is to see that these rent increases are 2400 properly made. I remember that I mentioned some of them from this Box when I belonged to another Department. First, there are the local authorities; then there are the citizens' advice bureaux, various voluntary organisations, local councillors, to whom the tenants may go, and Members of Parliament, to whom they often go. Very often there are Parliamentary candidates, too, who, for reasons best known to themselves, give advice in the constituencies which they hope to represent.
I believe that the party opposite declared its intention of setting up a series of offices on a nation-wide basis to deal with this problem. I hope they have been found successful—
§ Mr. Marples
—in dealing with rents which are demanded but which are not legal.
The first objection, therefore, is an administrative one. The second is that the Board's officers have not the technical or the legal knowledge. The third is that the Board itself has not power to intervene as a party to any dispute, and its officers cannot, as such, apply for certificates of disrepair or challenge an increase in the courts.
So far I have dealt with why the Board cannot do what the hon. Lady asks, and one reason is that its officers may not usurp the functions of local authorities or solicitors, but it must not be assumed that because they cannot do that they automatically give increases when they are asked for. One position is black, and the other is white, but there are shades of grey, and there are things they can do, and, in fact, are doing. It must not be assumed, merely because I have said they cannot undertake the whole responsibility, that they should not consider the problem at all, or take any reasonable action whatever.
The Board does not accept without question any reported rent increase, and the House ought to rid itself of the impression that was contained in the hon. Lady's speech that it automatically adjusts Assistance allowances. It does not do that, but there is much it can do and is doing. I will tell hon. Members something about what they do.
2401 When a person in receipt of National Assistance reports to the officer that he has been asked to pay an increase in rent under the new Act, the officer first asks to see the notification from the landlord in order to satisfy himself as far as possible that the statutory notice has been given in the proper form. He will look at it in a common sense manner, as any of us would do; the officers are quite reasonable in that way. The officer uses his judgment, as any hon. Member opposite would do, in deciding whether it is reasonable or, perhaps, "flagrant." I use the word employed by the hon. Lady so that I cannot be accused of using the wrong term.
The officer might then advise the tenant to take the matter up with the landlord, in the meantime withholding payment of the rent increase, and he might advise the tenant to go to the local authority. The officer would not take any action beyond giving advice to the tenant, withholding the rent increase, and ensuring that the tenant did not suffer any hardship. All that relates to notification.
With regard to the repair, if the tenant himself expressed doubt about the state of the dwelling—the lady who wrote to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South expressed doubt in no uncertain terms—and it also came to the knowledge of the officer that other tenants in comparable property proposed to raise the matter, he would probably advise the tenant to get in touch with the local authority. In such cases, no increase in rent is payable pending the decision of the local authority and, therefore, no increase in National Assistance is required.
I heard a murmur just now that the lady sent information to the National Assistance officer. I have asked for details of the case. I do not know where the lady went or what she did. I cannot say more than that I will look at the case.
The situation is that the National Assistance officers cannot take the place of a local authority or of a solicitor. They are not trained to inspect property or give legal advice, but they are trained to know about the general level of rents in a locality and to know a locality very well. They probably know as 2402 much about their locality from the point of view of rents and National Assistance as any hon. Member. Certainly, my local officers know more about the level of rents in Wallasey than I do. Therefore, they are very suitable people to say whether an increase is "flagrant" or not. If a case was "flagrant," they would pass it on to a local authority.
I must emphasise that in the last resort the only action open to an officer who has any doubt about the propriety of a rent increase made under this Act or otherwise is to advise the tenant about his remedies at law and, meanwhile, to withhold any increase in the rent allowance. This action obviously requires great circumspection if we are to avoid inconvenience and hardship to applicants, particularly if they are old and sick. It is not always easy to strike a balance in these affairs.
I answered certain questions in the House the other day. I hope the House realises how difficult it is to say at what precise point a National Assistance officer should say whether a tenant should go to the local authority or should not go. On the whole the officers do not do a bad job, but if any hon. Member has a case which he thinks has been neglected by a National Assistance officer, I hope he will write to me, and I will then see that the case is taken up and that the officer goes into it again. That should result in justice being done in any cases coming to the attention of hon. Members. Sooner or later, most of us have difficult cases brought to our attention.
When she began, the hon. Lady referred to a letter in great detail. She said that the landlord was getting 7 per cent. extra and that it was swelling his profits, or something like that. I forget her exact phrase, but it was fairly severe. Leaving aside the friendly sentiments uttered about the former Minister of Housing and Local Government and myself, I should like to point out that that was not the view of her right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who said that the Act was not generous to the landlord and that it was unfair. He used a vivid phrase—"a mouldy old turnip" or "an old mouldy turnip" or perhaps it was just "a turnip."
§ Mr. Marples
If landlords are trying to take advantage of the provisions, I hope the instances will be brought to my notice, and I will then do all I can to ensure that injustices are remedied.
§ The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.