HC Deb 30 July 1957 vol 574 cc1222-30

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

11.13 p.m.

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I must first thank the Minister of Housing and Local Government for remaining in the Chamber after what I know has been a long and tiring day. I make no apology for the subject matter of this debate, namely, the availability and use of the forms required under the Rent Act so recently passed by this House and which has caused great trouble and anxiety throughout the country.

On 16th July the right hon. Gentleman made a statement about the distribution and supplies of these many forms. At that time I said something about the special difficulties of my constituents and I wish to follow up those remarks this evening. I welcome the circular which the Minister has issued to local authorities on the subject of the prescribed forms and the fact that he has made some provision to enable local authorities to acquire stocks of these forms at rather more reasonable prices. There is no doubt that this has made some contribution, and has helped to ensure that tenants and others may acquire the forms rather more easily than when this matter was raised previously in the House. To that extent, therefore, we have achieved something, but the position is still very patchy.

Some friends of mine say that it is extremely difficult to get supplies and that, in some cases, the only place where they are obtainable is the local Labour Party office. It is gratifying to know that we are so efficient, but I think that all hon. Members will agree that it should be possible for tenants to get the forms, easily, near their own homes.

There is then, also, the question of price. It is absurd that all kinds of prices seem still to be charged for them, ranging from as much as one shilling—and I have even heard of higher figures being asked for Form G—to one penny, which is the cost of the form printed by the Labour Party.

It is true that the availability of the forms has improved, and the question which I want chiefly to bring to the attention of the Minister is, undoubtedly, the use being made of forms by landlords; certainly in my own constituency and, so far as I can understand, elsewhere in the country. When I intervened the other day after the Minister had made his statement, I mentioned that landlords in my own constituency were using forms which were improper. They were duplicated forms, containing only part of the information which is supposed to be on the face of them—information which is supposed to be required—and in the two which I am holding in my hand at this moment there are other improprieties. I might add that these were issued from a well-known firm of estate agents, and not merely an individual landlord. For instance, in one there is a rent increase demand for 9s. 9d. coming into force on 1st October—that is obviously improper—and in another there is a demand for an increase of 17s. 4d. with effect from 4th October.

Hundreds of these forms are being distributed throughout the area, and several tenants have raised these points with me; but there are very many more who do not come to me because they are afraid to raise their queries. While the Minister may very well think that full provision has been made, I assure him that the provisions are quite inadequate. We need, without further delay, a clear statement from him that landlords are required to use proper and correct forms which set out fully the information for tenants as is laid down in his own booklet and in the forms he has issued; and a clear statement that landlords are not entitled to issue the sort of notices which I hold in my hand.

Secondly, landlords are not including any statement on the front of the forms as to whether any certificate of disrepair is outstanding on a particular property. In my own area, notices of increases of rent are being issued to tenants who hold certificates of disrepair issued quite recently by local authorities under the recent Act. As I understand it, these notices of rent increase are, therefore, quite invalid and should not have been issued. I should be grateful if the Minister would emphasise this point in particular.

Many landlords are distributing these notices generally throughout the area in respect of all their properties even though those properties are in a bad state of repair and are, quite obviously, not subject to any rent increases.

Many tenants still believe that if they fill in a form giving notice of disrepair they are in danger of being evicted. I ask the Minister to dispel that illusion once and for all and to let tenants have the certainty that the fact that they propose to prepare a notice on Form G does not mean that they in any way subject themselves to the threat or danger of eviction. There is evidence that agents of some landlords are going round to those properties trying to frighten tenants into accepting the present condition of their homes and to agree to rent increases without repairs being done. This is a monstrous situation. A clear statement by the Minister now would be of some help.

A tenant now has the responsibility of submitting Form G, or using Form T in regard to improvements carried out by the tenant. I believe there is great need for further advice to tenants on filling in the forms, as to what can and what cannot be put on them. Local authorities are by no means clear on the matter. In different parts of the country they give different advice. There is urgent need for the Minister to make a further statement. For example, can a tenant include something to the effect that the structure of the property is damp and that that may or may not be due to defects in the structure itself? Some local authorities say that as long as the tenants include lists of items for repair similar to those included in the old Act that will be satisfactory, but other authorities advise differently.

It is not enough for the Minister to say this is a matter of interpretation of the Act and it is not for him. He has a continuing responsibility for this Measure. He was not only individually and collectively, as part of the Government, responsible for the passing of this legislation, but he continues to be responsible for its administration. Therefore he cannot escape responsibility to see that what he at one time declared were the objects of the Measure—that properties should be repaired and kept in proper order—are carried out. I therefore ask him at this last opportunity before the House rises for the long Recess to make a statement that tenants do not endanger the security of their tenure by completing form G on repairs; a statement that landlords must use forms which include at least the full notes to tenants; and a statement that where certificates of disrepair under the old Act are in force they remain in force and invalidate notices demanding rent increases.

What I have said and the evidence I have with me proves that the complaints we made during the consideration of the Bill by the House were fully justified. Unless the right hon. Gentleman takes further vigorous action, the rights of countless numbers of people will be sacrificed.

11.25 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I welcome this debate and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop)for initiating it. The fact that there are at this moment six hon. Members present in the House—and six only—including yourself, Mr. Speaker, suggests to me that I was right when I informed the House a fortnight ago that the supply of forms would rapidly become adequate. In spite of what the hon. Member has said tonight. I have noticed that all complaint about the shortage of forms has died away in the Press. I am hearing no complaints about the matter.

I am perfectly well aware that in individual localities it may from time to time not be easy to find a supply in stock at a given moment, but I am quite sure that the arrangements I have helped to make have sufficed to ensure that throughout the country everybody concerned can with very little trouble get hold of the necessary forms.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that in very large part that is due to the circularisation of these forms throughout the country by the Labour Party?

Mr. Brooke

No, I do not think it is that. I said beforehand that there was an ample supply of these forms in existence and that I felt quite certain that the distribution system would rapidly right itself, and that is what has happened.

I thought it right to follow up my original circular to local authorities, in which I asked them to ascertain and inform inquirers where in their neighbourhood forms could be obtained, by a further circular ten days ago in which I specifically invited local authorities to send for forms and stock them if they felt there was a need.

Local authorities have responded to that invitation, but if it is suggested that, apart from that action, there would have been a grave shortage, I think it right to point out to the House that although there are some 4¼ million tenants in England and Wales who might theoretically need to serve Form G on their landlord because they were liable to an increase in rent, by yesterday only about 40,000 orders for that form had been received from local authorities as the result of the circular which I sent out.

That means, therefore, that I was, if anything, over-insuring by inviting local authorities to take that action. But I am glad that I did. I think it right that I should have done so, and the present situation is that anyone anywhere in the country who finds difficulty in obtaining a form locally can apply to his local authority. I have very little doubt that the local authority will be able to assist him either directly or indirectly.

I fully appreciate that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East has initiated this debate not because he is still complaining about the lack of forms, but because there are three or four matters on which he thinks that tenants would welcome further advice and help. I am quite ready to agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is the duty of all of us to give as much information as we can to anybody, whether landlord or tenant, who is affected by the Act and who may not be entirely clear as to his position under it.

One point which the hon. Gentleman sought to make was that a number of tenants were being worried by receiving from their landlords either copies of Form A or substitutes for Form A which had been wrongly, if not illegally, filled up. I would invite the hon. Gentleman's attention to subsection (4)of Section 2 of the Act which says: If a notice of increase contains any statement or representation which is false or misleading in any material respect, the landlord shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50 unless he proves that the statement was made innocently and without intent to deceive". There is, therefore, a heavy penalty on any landlord who serves a form of this kind containing any false or misleading statement with intent to deceive, and I am glad to have the opportunity to call the attention of all concerned to that subsection. It should be known that landlords are liable to be proceeded against if they insert any false information or complete a form in a way which is liable to mislead the tenant with intent to deceive. That might well be the case if they gave misleading information alleging the non-existence of a certificate of disrepair when such a certificate was in existence.

Mr. Blenkinsop

In the form which I have here they omitted all reference to the question of a certificate of disrepair, whether in existence or not; they missed that section out.

Mr. Brooke

I am sure that some of these forms may be incorrectly or carelessly filled up, and we cannot provide against all eventualities, but what I am seeking to prove is that severe penalties lie against anybody who attempts to mislead by the way in which he fills up or fails to fill up the form.

The hon. Member asked me about forms which were wrongly drafted or which omitted the notes. The Regulations do not require that the form shall be completely accurate in all respects; the form will not be invalid because it has a typing error, for instance. The Regulations which I have made, however, require the notes to be printed on the form, and although neither the hon. Member nor I can decide these things, prima facie a form which is served omitting the notes is invalid. I will certainly take such steps as I can to make sure that everybody realises that fact.

He was also concerned, and I think rightly, if he has any evidence, that tenants were gaining the impression—which is a false impression—that if, having received Form A, they counter by serving Form G on the landlord, they may render themselves liable to eviction. That cannot be the case, and there again I will consider whether I can take any further steps to make absolutely certain that no one is misled in that respect. The tenant who serves Form G, if he is a controlled tenant, can, like all other controlled tenants, rely on the security of tenure which the Rent Acts afford.

The hon. Member was further concerned about the difficulty which a tenant might meet in properly stating defects on Form G. If he will study the notes on Form G he will find that in note 2 considerable information and guidance is afforded. That note gives examples of differences between defects of repair and other defects which are not due to disrepair but are defects inherent in the structure. I think that this should broadly enable the tenant to distinguish one from the other, but let me hasten to say that if the tenant fails to distinguish correctly he will in no way be prejudiced and he certainly will not invalidate the form by including in it defects which are not defects of repair.

He will not invalidate the form, or his application to the local authority for a certificate of disrepair, if he includes certain items which technically are not defects of repair. It will make no difference to the validity of the notice of defects if the list is rather more extensive than it ought to be, and the local authority will merely ignore the other defects when deciding whether to issue a certificate. The tenant cannot possibly be prejudiced if he makes a mistake; nor should local authorities have difficulty in telling the difference between defects of repair and other defects.

They are guided by the notes on the form. Apart from that, it is a job which local authorities have already been doing under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act. 1954, so they are accustomed to it. In issuing certificates of disrepair under that Act, they have had to distinguish between what are technically defects of repair and other defects. There is no reason to suppose that local authorities themselves, or their public health inspectors who have been dealing with these matters as part of their day to day routine, will have difficulty in distinguishing in individual cases.

I know—because he has put down a Question to me on the matter—that the hon. Member would like me to consider issuing some circular of guidance to local authorities, or to lay down detailed rules. That would not serve any purpose. I am not aware—certainly I have no evidence—that local authorities consider that they are likely to find difficulty in distinguishing in these matters; nor do I believe that matters like these can be rigidly defined in a circular of general application which would have to cover every conceivable variety of circumstance. If I tried to go into every detail, I might find myself in conflict with the principle that only the courts can authoritatively interpret statutes.

I hope that I have succeeded in giving the hon. Member a substantial and definite reply to each of the points he raised. If I have not done so, I trust that he will let me know. I appreciate this opportunity to remind the House afresh of what the position is. I will certainly consider whether there is any further action which I can take to ensure that these important facts are known to all landlords and tenants who may be affected.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Can he say anything on the point about certificates of disrepair under the 1954 Act remaining in force? I have many examples of tenants who are being served with the new notices, although they have in their possession certificates of disrepair tinder the 1954 Act.

Mr. Brooke

I can assure the House that if a certificate of disrepair under the 1954 Act which relates to repair is in force at the time, then it is effective against an increase of rent under a Form A notice served under the Rent Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve o'clock.