HC Deb 28 April 1955 vol 540 cc1241-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

11.28 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

First, I should like to express my personal thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for having selected my subject for debate tonight. It is a subject of very great interest to many thousands of people who are badly in need of housing accommodation. Every hon. Member knows that the main worry of his constituents is that of trying to get rehoused. Certainly every hon. Member representing a London constituency spends most of his time in his weekly "surgery"—as we call it—trying to deal with these very sad cases.

I think that the House would agree that the most distressing case of all is that of the young married couple who want to get on the housing list—they cannot get on it unless they are married—and when they do so, no matter which local authority is concerned, they have to wait for four or five years, and in the meantime are compelled to live with their in-laws or live apart. They therefore make every effort to try to get rehoused of their own accord.

Some time ago I was approached by such a couple and asked if I had any knowledge of what they called the furniture and fittings racket. I confessed my ignorance, and they explained that in searching for unfurnished rooms they were amazed to find that in every case they were asked for a furniture and fittings charge. Some of the instances they gave me I shall illustrate in a moment, but the charges were so fantastic as to make it quite impossible for them to get those rooms—although the property in question was rent-controlled, and the rent was quite reasonable.

I investigated this matter because I thought that it was one which should be looked into. I found that it is of quite a national character. Evening and daily newspapers run what is called today an "F. and F" column—furniture and fittings—which is recognised throughout the country. Young people seeking rooms are expected to pay these charges. If anyone doubts that, he has only to look at any newspaper to see that my statement is true.

I went further into the matter, and, as a result of a Press report, I was overwhelmed with countless letters about these "F. and F" charges from young people all over the country who were seeking rooms. I will, if I may, quote from one of the letters. I have about 150 similar letters in my possession which I will hand to the Minister, if he wishes. I shall not, of course, mention the person's name. The letter says: I have been married for over two years to an ex-Service man, and owing to the wretched imposition placed by landlords on unfurnished accommodation by way of 'fixtures and fittings,' running usually into £400 to £500 for the 'favour' of renting a few rooms, my husband and I are forced to live indefinitely with in-laws. The letter goes on to say that the writer is gratified that someone is taking up the matter, as it is undoubtedly causing untold misery and hardship. It goes on: Although this practice has been continuing for several years now, nothing whatsoever has been done to eradicate it, even though a law was passed forbidding 'key money' to be taken. After all, what are 'fixtures and fittings' than another word for 'key money,' and is only another loophole to evade the law. Then the writer begs me to pursue the matter.

Other letters give instances of a young couple who went to see a flat which had a rental of 30s. a week. The flat consisted of three rooms and they were told that the carpets and curtains would cost them £700. In another case for a table and a chair in poor condition and for some bookshelves, they were asked £300, and so the story goes on. As a consequence, the people who have not the capital to put down have to decline rooms the rent for which was reasonable, and come away distressed.

I have another letter from a lady, in which she says: Last year I searched for three months, even gave up my annual two weeks' holiday in desperation, in an endeavour to find a flat, which proved hopeless … During these three months (evenings and weekends) I saw at least 100 flats supposedly unfurnished, and the tenant wanted to sell perhaps, as in one case, a chair and table for £700; in another case furniture worth about £20 for £1,000; in another a rug and a table worth £3 for £375. The extraordinary thing is that these addresses were given to these people by estate agents. I know of instances where estate agents have notices in their windows displaying flats to let, and they use the term "Furniture and Fittings Charge". The further I went into the matter, the more distressed I was to learn how many people were affected by it.

It has been said by experts that if all units of empty accommodation in the country were occupied, many of the housing lists would be reduced. I took legal advice to find out whether this practice is covered by the law. I found that it is. I am told that this matter was dealt with under the 1949 Act, but, as so often happens, the public do not always know what the law provides. If people can break the law and get away with it, they will do so. Because this practice has been going on for so long without anyone calling attention to it, many people in their ignorance have gone on paying these charges.

I would refer the Minister to Section 3 of the 1949 Act which deals with excessive prices for furniture to be treated as premiums. The purpose of that Act was to repeal what was then the racket of the day—key money. In those days the racketeers used to charge £50 or £100 merely for the key for unfurnished rooms. Parliament dealt with that in the 1949 Act, and also very wisely included provision for these excessive prices for furniture; for Section 3 (1, b) states that where the price exceeds the reasonable price of the articles, the excess shall be treated, for the purposes of the foregoing provisions of this Act and, so far as they continue to have effect, of the provisions of section eight of the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (Restrictions) Act,* 1920, as if it were a premium required to be paid as a condition of the grant, renewal, continuance, or assignment of the tenancy. That Act made such premiums illegal; and I think it can be said that this racket to which I have made reference is illegal. I think it can be said that many thousands of our people have been exploited, and that, if knowledge of the fact that it is illegal can be brought home, the House tonight will have done a good job of work; and that is especially so in the case of young people who are affected by the housing shortage.

I feel confident that I shall get the support of the Minister. I know that he is anxious to stop something which is clearly illegal and at the same time to help our people to get accommodation which is available. I admit that there has been an increase of house building in recent years, but it is an extraordinary fact that, in spite of it, the housing shortage continues. This is one of the worst types of case with which a Member of this House has to deal. Local authorities have their priority lists, and when persons are told that they have to wait then-turn if they wish to get local authority accommodation many of them think of what else they can do. So this is a very human story; and for some reason the national newspapers have been involved in a gigantic swindle by allowing these advertisements to be publicised.

I want to make it quite clear that we do not believe there are no reasonable landlords in cases where charges are made. I should like to believe that there are many more honest people than dishonest, but none the less this is becoming a tremendous racket.

What is required? First, I suggest that publicity needs to be given to the fact that this "F and F" charge is illegal and that, if it can be shown that any charge demanded is unreasonable, a person has the right to report the fact to the police, who have power to prosecute. In asking the public to co-operate in bringing this matter to an end, one has to remember that that is not easy for everybody. A couple may, for instance, find some rooms at, say, 30s. a week, but if they report to the police that they have been asked a large sum for furniture and fittings, they are not likely to get the tenancy because the landlord will be exposed.

It is not an easy problem to solve, but what seems to be necessary is strong pressure from the Ministry; and although I do not know how that can be achieved, I suggest that perhaps the police themselves might take an interest in this matter. After all, the police are supposed to protect the citizen from rackets. If a demand is made for, say, £300 for a small amount of very poor furniture, why should that not be checked by the police? If it is found that the furniture is most certainly not worth £300, why should the police not prosecute? In asking for the co-operation of the public, and for making known the fact that this practice is illegal, I suggest that pressure is also needed on the part of the police.

I am glad, Mr. Speaker, that you have selected this subject because of the hardship it has caused. Letters which I have received prove that this racket is going on all over the country, and several hon. Members, when they knew that I was raising the subject tonight, told me that they had had similar letters on the matter.

I am not blaming the Government in this matter. I hope that the Minister will say that he shares with me the hope that, if I may humbly say so, between us we may stamp out this evil. I am not saying that the person who has good furniture and fittings has not every right to ask a reasonable price for them, but I ask that the next racketeer who demands from a poor young couple, living in great distress with in-laws, an unreasonable price for furnishings and fittings should find himself in court on a charge of attempting to obtain money under false pretences.

I hope that the courts will deal with such people as severely as possible. Nothing could be worse than for people to make money out of the misery of others, and nobody could be more miserable than those who live in bad housing conditions. I speak as one who has lived in such conditions for the greater part of his life. I know what distress they cause. I hope that the Minister will make it quite clear that this is the final warning that people of this kind will receive.

11.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I have no doubt at all that the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has done a valuable service in raising this topic. I read with interest his article in one of the London evening newspapers a few days ago on what he calls "The furnishings and fittings racket." Now he has brought the matter forward in this debate. Both these services are valuable because publicity about this kind of thing is the strongest and most effective deterrent. That is the first and most important point that I wish to stress.

I hope to convince the hon. Member that it is a case not so much of the law being weak as of knowledge of the law on the part of those concerned being very shaky. Nearly every example which the hon. Member quoted in his newspaper article, some of which he repeated tonight, represented a breach of the law which is a punishable offence. Perhaps I should mention one example which is not a punishable offence. That is the case where two years' rent in advance is demanded. It may be undesirable, and I think it is, but it is not illegal.

There are two difficulties about this problem which perhaps the hon. Member recognises. The first is ignorance of the law. The second is that if the victims are desperate enough to obtain accommodation, there is often unwillingness to call in the law even though they may suspect that it can be useful. There may well be a great many cases in the latter category, and a stronger law, which I hope to be able to show is unnecessary, will not help them.

The least that the hon. Member and we at the Ministry can do is to ensure that any potential victims know as much about the law on the subject as possible. Unfortunately, the Rent Acts which concern the subject are a thicket through which even hon. Members find their way with difficulty. But knowledge of the law is not indispensable. If one is in any doubt two courses are open. The first is to consult a solicitor. That may cost something but it is always worth doing where there is any doubt. The second is to inform the local authority, which is in a position to be helpful.

It might help if I referred briefly to the history of the law on the subject. It is rather longer than the hon. Member may think. I hope that I shall be able to convince him that the teeth are there and that what is needed is a means to make them bite. The Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (Restrictions) Act, 1920, is the beginning of this history.

It rendered illegal the requiring of a premium as a condition of granting the tenancy of a controlled house or flat. A person who was convicted of that offence could be fined up to £100 and made to repay the unlawful premium.

That, however, did not cover premiums demanded on the granting of a lease of a controlled house for a period of 14 years or more, or the premium demanded by a tenant who assigned the remainder of his lease to another tenant. Those were two loopholes. Section 9 of the 1923 Act provided that, where the purchase of furniture or other articles was required as a condition of granting the tenancy of a controlled house, if the price exceeded the reasonable price for the articles, the excess was to be treated as if it were a premium, which brought it within the scope of the offence that I have mentioned.

In 1945, as the hon. Gentleman said, those provisions were found to be not adequate. It was found that leases of 14 years or more were being granted for premises which normally would be let on shorter tenancies, simply to enable the landlord to get the premium. It was found that there was some exploitation by tenants assigning their leases at a premium. It should be noted that there was and still is exploitation by one tenant of another, in which the landlord has had no say, and gained no benefit.

The provisions on premiums were dealt with in the Landlord and Tenant (Rent Control) Act, 1949. Sections 2 and 3 of that Act repealed and re-enacted the earlier provisions in respect of premiums, and also provided that no premium could be charged on the assignment of a tenancy or on the grant of a tenancy of a controlled house, even though it was granted for 14 years or more.

The present position is that the legislative provisions are stringent enough, and cover both premiums and the excess charges for furniture and fittings. The hon. Gentleman has already quoted the words of Section 3 of the 1949 Act, which I think are unequivocal, and should offer ample guidance and support to anyone who might wish to take action on it. But, as I have said, the operation of these provisions demands to a large extent on readiness by the people concerned to come forward and report abuses.

It may be, though I rather question it, that this is a racket at the moment, which, as the hon. Member said, is on the increase. In any case, in the long run the only sure way to avoid a situation of this kind is, of course, the provision of ample housing. But I fully recognise that does not absolve us from doing all we can to prevent the exploitation of the harmless, and most often in this context, young couples setting up home for the first time. They are the most ready victims of this kind of thing through these exorbitant and illegal demands.

I think the course which the hon. Gentleman has chosen to call attention to this matter represents the most effective kind of action one can take, and I only hope that between us tonight we have spared some prospective victims of this unhappy sort of exploitation.

Mr. Mellish

Would the hon. Gentleman deal with the point about the police in this matter, and whether they should not be watching out for such cases? If they were sometimes to do something on their own initiative, particularly where estate agents have prices in their windows, and if they were to check whether those were true, it would need only one prosecution to stop a lot of this kind of thing.

Mr. Deedes

I want to be very careful in suggesting whether or not the police may find it possible to take action. That is almost a subject in itself. All I would say is that there have been cases where the police have quite recently taken action, not necessarily in individual offences, but where there have been quite obviously rackets—that is the word we are using—by agents. There is ample evidence of action being taken by the police where there has been an accommodation agency racket, but I am anxious not to define, and perhaps define wrongly, the terms under which the police may prosecute in cases of this kind.

Mr. Mellish

I am much obliged.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Twelve o'clock.