HC Deb 15 December 1955 vol 547 cc1517-26

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

I want to deal with a problem that touches many people very much and which I consider is of great importance.

It used to be said that an Englishman's home is his castle. We have put a tremendous amount of sentiment around that saying and have led many people to believe that there was tremendous truth in it because it meant that when a man was in his home he had security. As time goes on we learn more about various subjects. I have found that the Englishman's castle is of such a character that he seems to have no standing or security whatever with regard to it, particularly when he is living in a council house. I do not want to go into the legalities of the tenure of a house. I am not in a position to do it. I want to deal with some of the principles of the subject.

I understand that when we passed the Rent Restrictions Acts we gave some security to the people in council houses and to that extent made an improvement on the past. Unfortunately, the tenants in council houses, about which we are so proud and upon building so many of which we congratulate ourselves, seem to have no security whatever. Many people will say that when we took these council houses we knew the conditions, and therefore we have little to grouse about if we have not fulfilled those conditions and are turned out.

However, the problem is neither quite as plain nor as easy as all that. So far as council houses are concerned, local authorities enlarge the various conditions which they impose upon their tenants, and enforce them very strictly, and unless tenants are prepared to fulfil to the letter the rules and regulations which the councils make, the councils can turn them out without any trouble whatever. A man's home is of the most vital importance to him; it is part of the basis of his social life; it is of immeasurable importance to his general existence. That being so, one would naturally think that we should protect the tenants of council houses just as much as the tenants of any other controlled dwellings. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I have made inquiries on the subject, and the results all point to this, that whatever the objection may be that the council makes against a tenant, however trivial it may be, if the council makes an objection against any tenant on an estate belonging to it, there is no discussion in the magistrates' court whether the cause for which the council asks for an eviction order is a just or fair one, or one that ought to be enforced. The application for eviction is made and there is no argument whatever about it and the eviction order is granted without discussion. That seems to be the case with councils and their tenants.

It is a remarkable thing, and it is one to which I individually object. I believe, however, that it is not an individual objection, for I feel confident that, although people are apathetic about cases of this sort, nevertheless their general attitude is one of sympathy with the tenant and of criticism of the council. If one asks amongst the general public what their opinion is about many of these cases of evictions, the general attitude of the public is found to be definitely against them.

Therefore, this is a subject which ought to be ventilated, a subject to which the public ought to address their minds, a subject which, in my opinion, the Government ought to consider with a view to seeing whether some improvements can be made and greater security obtained for the people living in these council houses, and other houses as well.

Let me take a few instances. Everyone knows that at present the possession of a car is almost like the possession of a bicycle a few years ago, in that it has become quite a common thing. One would naturally expect that if a family living in a council house are so fortunate as to have a car there would be no objection to their accommodating the car on their premises, provided that it does not cause a nuisance, provided it is done in the best possible way and in accordance with the conditions. One would expect that to be possible and that the family would not be turned out of the council house.

In my division a man who has a long journey to make to get to his work had a car to take him to it. There has been some difficulty in the locality about the parking of cars. He was particular about his responsibility for the parking of his car, and he parked it more than a mile away from home, by a public house, in the open. He did that to adhere to the dictates of the council about parking his car. This man had a breakdown with his car and he brought it home where he thought he could repair it more quickly. Because he parked it under those conditions for a day or two, he was given an eviction order, with no chance of the case being reconsidered; he was simply turned out of his house.

There are other cases in other parts of the country which are similar. This appears to the public to be a power which local councils are obtaining over the lives of their tenants which goes far beyond justice and far beyond that which we, as Englishmen, believe to be sound social policy. In another case in my division, people were evicted from a house by the Newcastle City Council. Two neighbours had some differences of opinion and one party was given notice. These people were given the chance of another tenancy, but they were satisfied with the house and the district in which they were living and did not want to leave it. Just before they received that notice the family took the other family to court on the ground that their 13-year-old son had been the culprit causing the trouble and difficulties.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Is there any Ministerial responsibility to rectify this?

Mr. McKay

I am not sure about that, but I presume that I am allowed to discuss the matter in general.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Not if there is no Ministerial responsibility.

Mr. McKay

The Minister has jurisdiction and some influence in the question of council houses and local government, and I presume that the subject is open for discussion on those general grounds.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the Minister has power to remedy the situation, but wonder whether he was power to remedy it. Perhaps the Minister could answer.

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

I was able to follow the hon. Gentleman as far as he had gone, but I thought he was approaching a point where he was getting outside our realm of responsibility.

Mr. McKay

This is a problem which needs ventilating. The Minister and his Department are connected with the whole question of council houses. Surely the Minister can sometimes use his influence on the question of eviction. I am trying to ventilate this matter and to suggest that in some cases the Minister should use his influence—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is his responsibility which matters, not his influence. If he has no responsibility he cannot deal with it.

Mr. McKay

These houses are subsidised by the Government and, presumably, there is some connection.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

They are subsidised under an Act of Parliament, and if the hon. Member is suggesting legislation that is equally out of order on the Adjournment.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Surely the point is that where the local authority is exercising its powers in a tyrannical and meddlesome way, it is not out of order to suggest that the Minister should use his influence with them to get them to behave in a more sensible manner.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is not his influence; it is his authority to do something. If he has no responsibility he cannot answer.

Mr. McKay

He may say that he has not entire responsibility or entire power, but he certainly has influence and sends circulars on these matters to local authorities. I expect that to that degree the matter could be discussed—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the Minister has responsibility of course it can be discussed, but if he has not got responsibility of course it cannot be discussed.

Mr. Deedes

I do not know whether it would assist the hon. Member if I were to say that generally my right hon. Friend does not intervene in the management of housing by local authorities. On the other hand, he does arrange for general guidance to housing authorities on matters of principle.

Mr. McKay

That is the whole point. These are matters of vital importance to the tenants and, so far as the Minister can use any influence and give any guidance, to that extent the matter ought to be ventilated in this House. That is what I am trying to do. I am trying to bring these matters to the attention of the House so that the Minister may have more information about them and perhaps in any future case he might intervene and use his influence and give guidance.

I had a letter from Accrington from an alderman of a county council who mentioned a case in which a family of six had rent arrears of £2 8s. 6d.—about two weeks arrears—yet the council took action and evicted that family. There is no remedy, no power and no influence which can be brought to bear on the local council in that matter. As a responsible man in the area, the alderman attempted to use his influence, but it was of no avail. He took the family into his own house for 20 weeks, feeling that it was a serious injustice for a family like that to be turned out. He was kind to that family in difficulty and when they did get a house they were good tenants. In any amount of these cases, such as the case I mentioned in my area, there could not be better tenants either for cleanliness, honesty, or moral character. In the case I have mentioned, because for three nights the man parked his car near his home thinking that he could remedy its defects, he was turned out.

I want to ventilate this question not only because I think there is a weakness in the position affecting individual tenants, but because it appears that local councillors are getting such power that they are actually becoming legislators. They are laying down rules and regulations which to all intents and purposes become laws. They are made by councillors who sometimes have been elected by only 500 votes, yet they can evict families. The time has arrived when something ought to be done for people in council or privately-owner houses. In so far as they pay their just dues, such as rent, and meet their liabilities, they should have some security in their homes. The Englishman's home is his castle, but he is easily turned out of it by some local authorities.

10.30 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. McKay) has raised an important subject. I think his theme, "The Englishman's home is his castle," is the concern of all, and I am sure it will command general sympathy. I am bound to say, however, that he is under a genuine misapprehension when he says that the council tenant has no standing or security.

I think I am right in saying that the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman centres mainly on the experience of a constituent as a result of not complying with council regulations over his motor car. I have studied the particulars of this case. I shall not go into the details of it for two reasons—because I think the hon. Gentleman has perhaps too readily generalised from the particular, and I want to concentrate what I have to say on the general principle which is involved, namely, the security of tenants of council houses.

I should like to try to get this matter into some perspective. There are 2,500,000 tenants of council houses in this country, and my information is that, on average, about 0.1 per cent. of families leave council houses as a result of notice to quit. That is about one in 1,000. The proportion of families who are evicted is smaller still. I do not want to minimise the nature of the problems when they do occur, but I suggest that it is somewhat to the credit of the local authorities that they occur so seldom. The figure of one in 1,000 puts some perspective into the picture.

The first point that I want to make in a general sense—and it arises where I think the hon. Gentleman may have strayed to the verges of order in his remarks—is the fact that the local authorities have always had complete responsibility for the houses they provide. Under Section 83 (1) of the Housing Act, 1936.

The general management, regulation and control of houses provided by a local authority … shall be vested in and exercised by the authority, and the authority may make such reasonable charges for the tenancy or occupation of the houses as they may determine. That means that the cost of these houses is borne by the community, and it is right that they should be managed by the communities' democratically-elected representatives who are, in fact, the people with local knowledge.

It is a long-established principle, as I hinted a moment ago, which has been accepted by successive Ministers occupying the post which my right hon. Friend now holds, that local authorities shall be free to decide their responsibilities in this sphere without undue interference from the central Government. Although my right hon. Friend is often asked to sponsor the causes of particular individual applicants, he has always taken the line that it would be wrong for him to do so. What he and his predecessors have done, and have done in this particular sphere which interests the hon. Member, is to make available to local authorities, particularly through the agency of the Housing Management Sub-Committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee, the best advice on general principles of housing management and on the special problems with which they have to deal. That is the limit of my right hon. Friend's duty and, indeed, rights, in this matter.

May I now say a word on the need for regulations by local authorities which are engaged in housing management? The hon. Gentleman will accept the fact that in the management of any large housing estate there must be regulations to ensure that it is kept in reasonably good order, to maintain the good appearance of the houses and to avoid unnecessary friction among the tenants which may arise through the follies or unsociable activity of a minority or of an individual. There must be regulations for these purposes.

Generally, the regulations which the local authorities make are reasonable and designed for the benefit of the tenants as a whole. Many local authorities—the hon. Members knows this is true—make great efforts to keep the appearance of their estates good and a credit to them. They have specialist advisers who help them. It is to the benefit of the tenants that such amenities should be preserved and pride taken in them.

Of course, there are isolated cases in which local authorities are criticised for the making or enforcement of regulations which appear to be—and, indeed, on rare occasions are—rather petty. It is on such occasions that these issues receive wide publicity. The fact that they occur very seldom is, again, testimony to the general good sense and common sense shown by the local authorities. The difficulty arises over the unsatisfactory tenant. I am not dealing with the specific case which the hon. Member has in mind, but with the unsatisfactory tenant generally. Local authorities are not free to reject unsatisfactory tenants who may be in serious need of housing accommodation.

A very careful study of this problem was made by the Housing Management Sub-Committee, to which I have referred. The Sub-Committee was told by local authorities which it consulted that there were three main reasons for regarding tenants as unsatisfactory: first, arrears of rent; second, neglect of house or garden; and third, behaviour causing a nuisance to neighbours. The Report pointed out that more than two-thirds of the authorities gave rent arrears as the main reason for finding tenants unsatisfactory. Some authorities said they thought this was the only reason to justify eviction. Under the general heading of behaviour causing nuisance to neighbours were matters such as lack of control of children, quarrelsomeness, the use of abusive language, and noise.

Throughout the Report, the Housing Management Sub-Committee laid stress on the serious consequences of breaking up a family, and recognised that while eviction may sometimes be inevitable, it is a weapon which should be used only in the last resort. Moreover, it was pointed out that eviction is not necessarily a final solution of the problem, and that the step should not be taken without regard to further action on the family's behalf.

This was the guidance given by the Sub-Committee in its Report. Its main recommendations were, first, that the aim should be to keep the unsatisfactory family together as a unit in decent accommodation; second, to discourage tenants from falling into arrears with rent; and, third, to give practical guidance through a single social worker, to those whose standards make them unacceptable as tenants to other landlords.

Let me say a word about minor infringements of tenancy regulations. This is where I come to the specific point raised by the hon. Member. The kinds of things which I have in mind are regulations governing the appearance of housing estates and rules about heights of hedges, the cultivation of front gardens, the parking of cars and erection of garden sheds. Local authorities devote a good deal of time to the appearance of their estates and, naturally, do not like seeing their work spoilt by the thoughtless or inconsiderate behaviour of a few. Generally, we find it quite safe to leave these matters to the good sense of the local authorities, who, again I remind the hon. Member, are democratically elected and answerable to the people who elect them. The great majority show common sense and toleration in enforcing the minor conditions of tenancies; I have dealt with the major conditions.

In its 1948 Report, the Housing Management Sub-Committee pointed out various ways short of eviction in which local authorities can ensure that their amenities are not destroyed. For instance, it suggests that if a tenant wilfully neglects to cultivate his garden, it should not be a case for eviction, but that the local authority might well do the work itself and charge the tenant for the job.

As to the parking of cars, which is a point that I must mention in conclusion, my right hon. Friend said, in answer to a recent Question by the hon. Gentleman, that he thought this a matter best dealt with by the local authority in the light of its local knowledge. I think that most local authorities do wish and will wish to assist tenants to find accommodation for their cars wherever that is possible.

Where cars are persistently parked on land which the council owns, I should have thought that the local authority might well consider whether it should not take county court proceedings for trespass with a view to obtaining an injunction to restrain the continuance of the trespass. Or, again, in the case of the parking of cars in estate roads, it would be open to the local authority, in consultation with the police, to find a remedy for the obstruction. I think that is a fair step for the local authority to take, because the matter affects the good, not of one person, but of all on an estate.

I think that most local authorities approach these problems with a good deal of tolerance and understanding, as do the tenants, and there is a certain amount of mutual regard for the amenities and the need for these regulations. Local authorities keep their restrictions to the minimum, and we very much hope that they do not discourage the initiative or the interest, and even, in a small way, the will of individual tenants, since everyone has his own way of doing small things.

To the tenants, we can only say that we feel that such rules as they are asked to observe are usually in their own interest, and as members of responsible communities they are no doubt prepared —I think they usually are—to accept them for the general good. I hope that I have done something to show the hon. Gentleman that eviction is not an automatic reaction of a local authority.

Mr. McKay

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reply.

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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 eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.