HC Deb 26 March 1957 vol 567 cc982-7

No notice to quit any premises let (whether before or after the commencement of this Act) as a dwelling shall be valid unless it is given not less than four weeks before the date on which it is to take effect.—[Mr. Bevins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This proposed Clause, which, in a different form, has had an outing already in Standing Committee, applies both to Scotland and to England and Wales, and it seeks to extend the minimum period of notice to quit from one week to a minimum of four weeks. This constitutes quite an important change in the relations of landlords and tenants. It recognises, as I think the House will, that a period of only one week is uncivilised and inappropriate to the times in which we live.

This proposal may apply to all lettings which are determinable by notice to quit. It applies both to furnished and to unfurnished lettings, and not only to private lettings but also to lettings by local authorities. It would not apply, of course, to lettings which had been agreed for a fixed term of so many weeks or months, and which expired in the ordinary way by the effluxion of time without the need for any notice to quit. Such things as holiday lettings, therefore, would not be covered by this provision.

In the early stages this reform would apply to houses which are to become decontrolled under Clause 10 (1), or on the letting or reletting of houses when the Act comes into operation. I think that the House will see that as the lower rated houses become free from control, as we believe they will do in the course of time, then this provision will have increasing application and be a considerable benefit to many people.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

The Opposition welcomes the new Clause in this Guillotine Bill. We differ from the Parliamentary Secretary in thinking that it will make extraordinarily little difference. It certainly will not in the case of council houses. I do not think that it would at present in the case of ordinary tenanted houses. It is, however, possible that the Bill as a whole will cause such chaos and difficulty in ordinary relations between landlord and tenant that the Government are wise to provide this slight mitigation in favour of the tenant.

Sir I. Horobin

As it was I who introduced the original provision in Committee, I should like to say how pleased I am that it received the support of the Government immediately and has now been introduced in a slightly different form.

It is typical of the approach of hon. Members opposite to housing matters that as soon as an important and practical housing reform is introduced they are so angry that they did not think of it that they immediately try to crab it. It was noticeable that their first effort upstairs was desperately to try to think that they could hope that it would not apply to council houses at all. I have the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Standing Committee with me, but I will not weary the House by quoting from it. The Opposition's approach was, first, that it did not matter, and, secondly, that it must be possible for a local authority to turn somebody out on to the street with the shortest possible notice if that was desired.

Mr. Mitchison

That is quite untrue.

Hon. Members

Read what was said.

Sir I. Horobin

The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said: Before the hon. Gentleman rises to withdraw, if he is going to do so…. That was myself, in response to the Government's decision. … may I just ask him one question? We are quite clear, are we not, that though a tenant of a council house has a tenancy and had a tenancy terminable by notice, this new Clause is not intended to apply to that type of case?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 5th March, 1957; c. 1149.) The point is that today it should be impossible for a landlord to give such a short notice as one week, whether the landlord is a council or a private person, whether the landlord is in England or Scotland, whether the landlord is a housing association or anything else. It is no longer consonant with our social sense that ordinary people should live at the risk of a week's notice.

As more and more houses will be decontrolled as time goes on, the abolition of the weekly tenancy is a thoroughly good and long-overdue reform. I am sure that when a great deal of the pother about the Bill has passed into limbo, more and more people will have reason to be grateful that the Government have accepted a suggestion which has the support of many people of all parties outside the House and made it part of our law.

Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

I would remind the House that the courts have consistently condemned the way in which previous Rent Acts have been drawn. I should like to know whether the effect of the Clause is to convert weekly tenancies into four-weekly tenancies. If the provision is to apply to the landlord, am I right in assuming that it would apply to the tenant? The tenant will want to know his position, especially at a time when, if the Government are right, more houses and flats will be available. The tenant will want to know whether he is bound, as the landlord is, to give four weeks' notice.

Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether my interpretation of the Clause is correct.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Page

I have two more questions for my right hon. Friend, and I apologise for not having given him notice of them. Both questions arise out of "let" in the Clause. The phrase is: No notice to quit any premises let…as a dwelling…. That would, of course, include service tenancies. I wonder whether that is intended.

As to my second point, I take it that it would not include licences granted to occupiers of requisitioned dwellings. It is the practice of local authorities to let requisitioned dwellings not by means of an ordinary tenancy but by licence. Consequently, the occupier is not a tenant but a licensee. It has been held again and again that such property is not let to the occupier; the occupier is not paying rent, and the Rent Acts do not apply.

If local authorities are to be bound by the Clause in relation to their ordinary letting of council houses, I should have thought it would be reasonable to bind them to the Clause in respect of the licences of requisitioned houses. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will look into the possibility of altering "let" or adding words to cover the licensing of an occupier.

Mr. Hay

There is a point arising from what was said by the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) which, I hope, my right hon. Friend will examine carefully. I hope it will be made clear beyond a peradventure that the alteration in the law which is being made applies on both sides, that it will not be just the landlord's notice to quit which is affected but also the tenant's notice.

I was glad to hear the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw say that a great deal of new accommodation would come on the market. He is right. When that accommodation comes forward the Clause will prove its value.

I would point out, however, that the Clause will not affect statutory tenancies which have already commenced to run. I refer here to statutory tenancies under the Rent Acts which have followed contractual tenancies, weekly, monthly or for a period of years, which have been determined by a notice to quit some time in the past. Although the Clause has some retrospective effect, I do not think that it operates to affect notices given in the past, which have had the effect of converting contractual or, as they are called under the Bill, controlled tenancies into statutory tenancies.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

If the hon. Gentleman is correct, surely the Clause will affect only council houses.

Mr. Hay

Council houses are not affected by the Rent Acts. I am talking about statutory tenancies only. The effect of the Clause will be to deal only with new tenancies created after the commencement of operation of the Measure. There will be no effect upon statutory tenancies which have arisen consequent upon notice to quit given in the past.

This is a very desirable alteration in the law. My right hon. Friend was right to say that nowadays we are a little more civilised than we were in the past and that there should be a month's notice to quit. It is wrong that people should be turned out at a week's notice. The Clause will cause some problems for landlords, but I think that, in conjunction with the point that I made on the last Clause about rent being paid in advance as part of a normal commercial transaction, most landlords should be able to safeguard themselves against arrears under this Clause by granting tenancies with rent payable in advance but payable only at the begining of the tenancy.

Mr. Bevins

I think that we may be able to dispose of one or two of these question quite quickly. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) asked whether this provision imposed an obligation upon the tenant as well as upon the landlord. The answer to that is quite clear: this provision operates both ways. The responsibility is upon the tenant as well as upon the landlord.

The question was also asked whether this provision applied to service tenancies, and the answer is that it does. As regards requisitioned houses, which was a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), as these are matters of licences rather than of letting it does not apply to that particular form of licensing.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, I think that the position is that where a weekly tenancy is current at the commencement of the Act there is just room for argument on lines familiar to my hon. Friend as to whether, without the words … (whether before or after the commencement of this Act)…, this Amendment would not interfere with such tenancies. The insertion of these words is designed to remove all doubt that all existing tenancies are covered. I do not think that there is any doubt about that particular point.

I would ask the House to bear in mind that as regards houses which will presently be coming out of decontrol, under Clause 10 notice to quit, as the House well knows, is not a matter of one week or of four weeks, but, of course, of six months.

Mr. Hay

I do not think that my hon. Friend quite understood what I was driving at and I am not surprised, because I put it very badly. I want to be sure that the retrospective effect of the words which he has read out: … (whether before or after the commencement of this Act)… will not affect the position of statutory tenancies which have been created perhaps years ago by a week's notice to quit given at that time.

The general position is that if one has an ordinary contractual tenancy for a week or a month one can convert it under the present Rent Acts, by giving a week or a month's notice to quit, into a statutory tenancy. I want to be sure that this does not operate retrospectively to reconvert these statutory tenancies back into contractual tenancies thereby requiring fresh notice to quit to be served throughout the country. That is the point. I know that it is a difficult one to answer straight away, but I should be glad if my hon. Friend would look into it.

Mr. Bevins

My right hon. Friend will be glad to consider that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.