§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
By the Rent Act, already the Government have succeeded in making it possible to put millions of houses and flats throughout the country into proper repair for the benefit of tenants and landlords alike. The Act has also succeeded in its parallel object of creating a free market in hundreds of thousands of houses and flats above £30 or £40 rateable value. And, of course, it is only in a free market that supply will come to equal demand. The Government intend firmly to maintain and safeguard both those purposes. That is why, during the passage of they Act, we resisted a variety of Amendments which would shave prevented a free market from coming into existence.
Equally, all the time that we have been keeping these aims in view, we have borne in mind the crucial importance of the transition from control to decontrol. I think that it was as long ago as January last year that I remember laying stress on the relevance of easing and smoothing the transition, because it was no part of the Government's policy that acute hardship and homelessness should befall people who in no way deserved it.
It was thus that we came to extend the standstill period so that no notice to quit could expire before 6th October, 1958, at the earliest, which is still, I would remind the House, more than five months ahead. Since the Rent Act became law, in June last year, two developments have occurred to make the transition more difficult. One of them is the high interest rate and intensified credit squeeze, dating from last September, which was imposed, and quite rightly imposed, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) to counter inflation. The mastery of inflation must be the primary responsibility, 1168 the primary domestic aim, just now of any responsible Government.
The other development since the passing of the Rent Act which has made things harder for tenants is the Socialist threat to repeal the Rent Act, to upset new agreements made under it and to municipalise rented houses. No one disputes that that ill-advised and well-publicised resolution last October has induced, and naturally induced, a great many owners to plan to sell their property with vacant possession as quickly as they can. This has led to thousands of tenants receiving notice to quit who would not have otherwise received it. To the people of this country, Socialism always brings suffering.
Despite these adverse developments, both unforeseen when the Bill was before Parliament, the majority of the 800,000 tenants of decontrolled houses and flats have already made new arrangements by entering into three-year agreements with their landlords or otherwise, and there is time between now and next October for many more agreements to be made. Indeed, I think that one effect of this Bill may be to expedite such agreements.
I am well aware, of course, that some landlords need, and have good reason, to serve notice to quit in certain cases. But, generally, I have urged those who have not yet offered their tenants fresh agreements to do so whenever they possibly can, and I repeat that advice today. To anyone who feels that he must serve notice to quit because of the threats of repeal of the Rent Act and the threats of municipalisation without adequate compensation, I say once again that the policies of the Labour Party have a way of not being fulfilled. Indeed, any such persons should remember that the Labour Party's wishful thinking has not won it the next Election yet, and is not going to.
The Bill is before the House for the single purpose of aiding the small number of decontrolled tenants who, by next October, may not have succeeded in making fresh arrangements although they have done their best. It is a Bill to protect them against undeserved hardship by giving them a bit more time to find other accommodation if they genuinely need more time. It is a Bill to smooth the transition, and that is why it is a temporary Bill. The number of tenants who have not solved their problems by next 1169 October, as I say, will not be large, but they will be concentrated in a few areas, particularly London and other big cities.
§ Mr. Brooke
Most of them are people who have been handicapped in their efforts to find other accommodation by age, disability, or some other domestic circumstance.
§ Mr. Brooke
The Bill will help them by removing their fear and by giving them more time, but it will help only those who show themselves prepared to help themselves.
It is not the intention of the Government to bring back control in any shape or form. The Bill is aimed solely at averting hardship by making it possible for tenants who are genuinely in difficulties to keep a roof over their heads. I do not want any tenants to be misled into imagining that because of the Bill they need do nothing further. Any tenant who is under notice to quit, and who wants to stay, should, if he has not done this already, write to his landlord telling him that and making clear that he is willing to pay a reasonable rent for his house or flat.
No tenant who gets notice to quit should take it for granted that he will have to go. A surprising number of notices to quit have turned out to be no more than a mere formality. If a tenant is offered a new agreement he ought to make sure that he understands the offer and that it is a reasonable offer before he signs it. He would do well to get advice first, before he signs it, from a citizen's advice bureau if not from a solicitor, house agent or surveyor. I should like to pay tribute once again in the House to the immense service which the citizen's advice bureaux are freely giving on this subject, as on every other subject on which they are consulted.
§ Mr. Brooke
If, for whatever reason, no agreement between tenant and landlord is possible, the tenant should start looking for somewhere else. Even in the most difficult areas people are managing to make new arrangements every day.
§ Mr. Brooke
The greatest mistake is to assume that the search is hopeless and to sit back and do nothing.
I want now to describe how the Bill will work. It is a short Bill of five Clauses, and, for my part, I propose to concentrate on England and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be ready to explain later how the Bill will take account of the different conditions north of the Border.
Clause 1 provides that the owner of a house which has been decontrolled under Section 11 (1) of the Rent Act who wants to get possession of his property on the expiry of a notice to quit must do so through the courts, and that, of course, will normally be the county court in England and Wales. If he tries to get possession by self-help, or if he tries to make the premises uninhabitable by cutting off services without reasonable cause, he will render himself liable to a penalty. I hope that the penalty will never be needed, but there are some bad tenants and there are some bad landlords, and we must remember both.
I suppose that I should properly describe "the tenant" as the erstwhile tenant, because he will no longer be a tenant, and he is referred to throughout the Bill as the occupier. If the occupier voluntarily gives up possession or enters into an agreement for three years or more, the Bill will cease to apply altogether. If, however, an agreement is made for a shorter period, as, I am sure, may well happen in some cases, the Bill will not apply until that tenancy comes to an end, but then it will apply. If the occupier dies, the protection given by the Bill will extend to his widow or other relative who could have succeeded to the statutory tenancy if the house had not been decontrolled.
Clause 2 sets out the conditions with which the occupier must comply if he remains in occupation after the notice to quit has expired and until the court hears the landlord's application for an order for possession. The rent payable during this period will be on the same basis as for a controlled house, in the normal case—that is, twice the gross value, plus rates and plus a reasonable charge for any services. The landlord will be treated 1171 as responsible for all repairs except internal decorations, but in all other respects the conditions of the previous tenancy will apply and the occupier will be entitled to all services which he previously received.
§ Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)
Will that rent of twice the gross value, in addition to the tenant doing the internal decorative repairs, apply in all cases, such as, for example, where a house is unfit for human habitation or there is a local authority order on it?
§ Mr. Brooke
Yes, Sir. This will apply in all cases where the tenant is staying on after a notice to quit has expired. There may be exceptional cases where the rent previously paid was higher than twice the gross value, perhaps because the landlord was responsible for all repairs, and in those cases the previous rent will continue to be payable and the existing repair liabilities will remain unchanged.
In Clause 3, we come to the hearing by the court of the landlord's application for an order for possession. Hon. Members will there see set out the matters on which the occupier must satisfy the court if the order for possession is to be suspended. The first condition, to be found in subsection (I, a), is that the occupier must have made all reasonable efforts to reach agreement with the owner on a new tenancy for three years or more. [HON. MEMBERS: "What does that mean?"] The second condition is that the occupier must have taken all reasonable steps to find other appropriate accommodation. The word "appropriate" involves having regard to the size of his family and other matters.
§ Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain what he has in mind by the phrase "all reasonable steps"? Does this mean that if a landlord can satisfy the court that he has thought of one reasonable step which the tenant has failed to take, the court has no jurisdiction to make a suspended order?
§ Mr. Brooke
In my judgment, the experienced county courts are sensible and wise bodies. The words "taking all reasonable steps" are perfectly plain English. If the hon. Member wishes to 1172 examine them further, he may be able to do so in Committee on the Bill.
I said earlier in my speech that many of those who are seeking the protection of the court will be likely to be people who are handicapped by age, by disability, or by lack of means. The Bill requires the court to take those matters into account in considering whether the occupier has fulfilled these two conditions. The third thing, in subsection (1, c), which the occupier will have to show is that he is up-to-date with his rents.
Those three are what I might call the qualifying tests. If the occupier satisfies the court on those three, the court will have to consider whether making an order for immediate possession, an order which would normally take effect in four weeks or so, would cause greater hardship to the tenant than a limited postponement would cause to the landlord. This provision is drawn in wide terms so that the court shall have regard to all the circumstances—for example, hardship not only to the tenant and the landlord and their families, but to anyone else, such as a relative or a dependant who might be affected by the decision.
If the court thinks that greater hardship would not be caused to the tenant than to the landlord, it can make an order for immediate possession. If, however, the court thinks that it would cause greater hardship to the tenant, it will suspend the order for a period, at its discretion, of not less than three or more than nine months. In many cases, that extra time will solve the problem of the transition, but if the tenant still, at the end of that period, cannot find somewhere else to live, he can, under the Bill, apply for a further extension for not more than six months at a time. In those circumstances, he will have to satisfy the court, again on the appropriate conditions.
During whatever period he may be allowed to stay on, the tenant will stay on the same terms as before the court hearing, except in the one matter of rent. If the court grants postponement, the rent will be the amount asked by the landlord, as it should be, unless the occupier says that it is beyond his means and the court agrees. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] It is because these are decontrolled dwellings. In that case, if the occupier claims that the rent asked by the landlord is beyond his means, under 1173 the Bill the court can fix a lower rent but not lower than the occupier was paying before the hearing of the case.
§ Mr. Brooke
What he can afford includes, of course, what other members of the family living with him can reasonably be expected to contribute. By virtue of subsection (1) of Clause 4, rules can be made to enable personal questions, such as questions about the tenant's means, to be heard in private. Subsection (5) of Clause 3 deals in a reasonable way with the case of agreements for sale entered into before the date of the announcement I made to Parliament on 2nd April.
Clause 5, besides dealing with miscellaneous matters, makes the life of the Bill three years. The Government do not think that the number of cases coming into court at any time will be excessive and before the end of the three years, as people, one after another, solve their problems, I believe that the number will dwindle and vanish.
The Bill is a fair one and since its publication it has had a very general and encouraging welcome in all quarters—[HON. MEMBERS: "The L.C.C. elections."]—a very general and encouraging welcome in all quarters, except, oddly enough, the Financial Times and the Daily Herald. [Interruption.] I am perfectly aware that this Bill, to mitigate the hardships of tenants, received a cold reception from the Opposition Front Bench when I first announced its introduction. That only confirms what I have said throughout, that in these matters the Opposition are more concerned with votes than with tenants.
§ Mr. Maurice Orbach (Willesden, East)
The right hon. Gentleman would deprive them of votes, would he?
§ Mr. Brooke
The moment that the Bill becomes law, the Government intend to do everything in their power to make its provisions known and to bring them home to all concerned. [HON. MEMBERS: "So do we."] I am quite sure that I can rely on the help of the Press and the B.B.C. in this, but I have it in mind also to prepare a leaflet in simple language showing how it touches both landlord and tenant, a leaflet which I hope to make available free of charge.
1174 The Government are not prepared to compromise on the principle of decontrol, but we are concerned to allay anxiety and, while acting fairly towards landlords, to bring reassurance to that small number of tenants who may not be able to make new arrangements within the next six months, who are facing up to special difficulties and who are genuinely deserving of help. I invite the House to endorse a fundamentally sound policy, strengthened and tempered with humanity.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I restrain, without much difficulty, my first impulse to be kind to a Minister who is so obviously eating his own words and striking such a pathetic figure when he does it. I do it because the delay in doing anything in this matter, the persistent and obdurate refusal to meet suggestion after suggestion on the lines which the right hon. Gentleman now proposes, has been grossly unfair to those tenants who have been driven into harsh and unconscionable bargains with their landlords by the lack of the kind of thing that the right hon. Gentleman is now proposing.
When I say that the right hon. Gentleman is eating his own words, this is indeed a very small snack. We on this side would wish the right hon. Gentleman a good appetite. May he eat more of his own words, and if he finds that the whole joint—the Rent Act—is too well-cooked by now to be eaten, let him take at least a solid slice or two and not content himself with this very miserable aril inadequate portion.
The right hon. Gentleman sought to defend himself by saying, "Things have changed since I brought in the Rent Bill. There were unforeseen circumstances. I, as a member of the Government, could not possibly foresee that the Government would be driven to put on high interest charges and the like." I simply say that that seems to me to have singularly little to do with the matter which we are considering today.
The right hon. Gentleman's second suggestion was too transparent and too disingenuous. Whenever he is hard put to it to attempt to defend an indefensible Measure of his own he always takes refuge in the same kind of irrelevancy; 1175 he looks for something or other which is nasty that he can say about the Opposition's future policy. That is a matter which we shall discuss in the country and, after we have won the next General Election, in the House. For the moment, I am concerned with the effect of that on the right hon. Gentleman's present move.
Let him remember that the policy to which he objects, the municipalisation of houses, was put forward in pamphlet form by the Opposition before the first measure was taken by the Tory Party to break their Election pledges and introduce the Rent Act. Our proposals came out, and it was as a simple version of our proposals that the present Minister of Defence intimated to the embattled Tories at Llandudno that he proposed to decontrol all rents and that the Rent Act would be the first instalment. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has got his timetable a trifle wrong on that.
I doubt whether the Brighton resolution has very much effect in these circumstances but, as far as it has, since then the right hon. Gentleman has refused proposals on the lines on which he is himself making proposals today. As I want him to see quite clearly that he is eating his words, and as I want the House and the country to know that he is doing so, I propose to refer not to all his words, which have been numerous and repetitive in this matter, but to a choice selection of them. I begin with what happened in Committee on the Rent Bill on 5th March, 1957.
A new Clause was introduced entitled, "Limitation on Distress and Eviction." It enabled tenants in cases of undue hardship to apply to the county courts and it enabled the county courts to give relief by way of postponement or by way of imposing conditions. It is not identically the same as the Bill now before us, but it was the same idea. It had the same objective and, broadly speaking, it was in the same terms, with some additional terms. But the right hon. Gentleman opposed it.
Let me remind him of some of the things he said, which apply exactly to his own Bill today and which were just as bad reasons for opposing that Clause as they would be for opposing this Bill. I am referring to Column 1094 of the 1176 OFFICIAL REPORT of the Standing Committee. Apparently, I had said that the new Clause was designed to help a number of really hard cases. So is this Bill.
The Minister said:Let us look at the matter in practical terms. What would happen if we accepted the new Clause?Or, what would happen if we accepted this Bill?It seems to me that it would inevitably be an encouragement to many people to put off looking for alternative accommodation until the very last moment in the hope that they might then be able to go to the county court and that the court would grant them an extension.Then he dealt with some minor points, and he said:I cannot believe that it is right to encourage tenants of all kinds of decontrolled property to think that it would be worth their while to try to obtain a deferment under provisions of this kind.After a few more words, we come to his final point. The House will remember that the Minister told us just now that he did not expect an undue rush on the county courts, but this was what he said at the time—and it was before the Brighton resolution, so that the Brighton resolution seems to have improved matters in this respect:My final point about the proposed new Clause is that it seems certain that it would give rise to unlimited litigation in the county courts. I appreciate the motives of hon. Gentlemen"—that was us—who have sought to bring the county court and its beneficent effects into these transitional provisions, but I cannot believe that any good purpose would be served by letting loose on the county courts such a flood of litigation that would follow if we were to give the proposed new Clause a Second Reading.I interrupted the right hon. Gentleman. I said that I was sorry to do so, and I asked:Do I understand from him that there will be a flood of cases of undue hardship?The Clause was about undue hardship. The right hon. Gentleman replied:No. The hon. and learned Gentleman has failed to follow my argument. I am painting out that if something like the proposed new Clause—something like it; not in its exact terms—is written into the Bill, all kinds of people, who would otherwise take successful steps to obtain alternative accommodation, will stay put, hoping that by claiming the benefit…1177 —and here the Minister referred to the hardship passages of the new Clause—they may have a chance of convincing the court that they would suffer hardship if they were to go."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A; 5th March, 1957; c. 1094–6]The right hon. Gentleman lost his opportunity. He voted against the Clause, and so did his hon. Friends. Of course, if that had been done then, during the passage of the Bill, we would not have the difficulties we have now. Between the time when the Bill came into operation, or even earlier, and the time when this Bill becomes law, tenant after tenant will have been driven into harsh and unconscionable bargains with their landlords, because they know perfectly well that if they make no bargain there is nowhere they can go but into the street outside. That is the position. It is for those tenants that the right hon. Gentleman must take responsibility in refusing to do then what he is trying to do now.
That was not the only occasion. That was only the first, and I am not going to quote all of them. There are hundreds of statements by the right hon. Gentleman. This is a little hors d'oeuvre of what he is doing—little bits of blue tomato, or whatever it may be. On 11th February, 1958, my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger), in the course of a flood of Questions directed to the Minister by various hon. Members about the effects of the Rent Act, put one simple and humane one to him. This is what she said:… does he not care at all what happens to the thousands of people who will be turned out in October?This was the right hon. Gentleman's answer:I care a great deal, and"—he always does on these occasions when it is a question of saying so—I have already said that, while there will be no amendment of the Rent Act, I am quite sure that the great majority of difficult cases will, in fact, find a solution before October."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1958; Vol. 582, c. 188.]That is to say, let us wait and see; let us wait, but there will be no amendment of the Rent Act.
What is this Bill but an amendment of the Rent Act? It does not become any less an amendment of the Rent Act because it is given another name. It could 1178 have been introduced as an amendment to the Rent Act, and something very like it was sought to be introduced but was turned down by the right hon. Gentleman. It was within the scope of the Rent Act, and it was even within its Title. Of course, what the right hon. Gentleman is doing is perfectly obvious. He is, in fact, now amending the Rent Act, and as recently as 11th February he said that that was the one thing he would not do.
More than that, on the same day—on 11th February, 1958—my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Orbach) sought leave to introduce a Bill—no more than that—to empower the appropriate courts to restrain or delay evictions from dwelling-houses decontrolled under Section 11 of the Rent Act, in cases of the aged, tenants of long occupation or of grave hardship. Of course, that is not identically the same as this Bill, but it is on exactly the same lines, and, if leave had been given to introduce that Bill, everything that is in this Bill could have been put into it.
It is outrageous that the hon. Members opposite have resisted time and time again, and always at the expense of the tenants, who have had to make bargains with their landlords, the very proposal which, in a weak and modified form, they themselves were driven by circumstances and by the prospect of an L.C.C. election to bring in today. Of course, that is what has happened.
On 3rd March, we had a debate about the consequences of what was happening in London, and we said, and rightly said, some very harsh things indeed to the right hon. Gentleman about it, but they had no effect at the time. On 1st April, 1958, the right hon. Gentleman was faced with a storm of Questions in the House about this, and the L.C.C. elections were coming on quite soon. On 2nd April, 1958, in time for the L.C.C. elections, the right hon. Gentleman stated that he would bring in a Bill in these terms.
It is playing politics a little bit far to go in for this kind of game and to say that it is the fault of the Opposition; to say "We will not accept it from the Opposition," and to do so at the expense of these tenants, and then, with the L.C.C. elections in prospect, to recognise that it was about time, that something must be done and that it was advisable, for 1179 good political reasons, to do a bit, but as little as one could.
That is the history of this Bill and the summarised history of the right hon. Gentleman's performances. I am not going to take up much time talking about the Bill, because we shall have to consider it in Committee, but it really does require a word or two of comment. I said about the rent Bill originally, and say so still, that that Bill stinks of the courts and of complications. Again and again, tenants are being driven to the courts in cases in which they need not be.
Let us now, in the light of that, look at this amendment of the Rent Act and see whether it is much better. To begin with, the first thing is that the landlord has to go to the court to obtain possession. The right hon. Gentleman, in a Written Answer the other day, told my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner), who has been very interested in these matters, that, anyhow, the landlord would have to go to the court. The Minister said:I am advised that, because of legal difficulties, landlords would not, in fact, find it practicable to enforce a valid notice to quit unfurnished premises without obtaining an order for possession from the Court."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1958; Vol. 584. c. 120.]I do not differ from that advice given to the right hon. Gentleman. We therefore conclude that Clause 1 is not much use to the tenant, but it could serve another purpose—so to narrow the scope of the Bill that we shall be unable in Committee to introduce many of the proposals which we would wish to introduce.
Now I come to Clause 2, which prescribes the terms on which the tenant—I will go on calling him the tenant, because, though I appreciate that there is a distinction, it is much simpler—may hold over pending a hearing in the county court. The Clause includes provisions about rent, rates and services, and those provisions must proceed on the basis that these are reasonable terms on which to continue the tenancy in cases where the tenant has to hold over. That is what they are intended to provide for; in fact, on any other basis, they would seem to be indefensible. I therefore accept them as reasonable terms on which the tenant may hold over.
1180 What happens when the tenant gets to the county court? The landlord has to apply for possession. Once he has got to the county court, the tenant has to prove everything. What are reasonable efforts to secure agreement? Let us suppose that the two of them differ about rent. Suppose that one says "Well, my original rent was enough", or, if we like, "Twice my original rent." Let us suppose that the landlord says, as landlords have been saying in London, "Oh, no; it is not. I can let it at a higher rent, and six or eight times your rent is the right figure." This is the right hon. Gentleman extolling the virtues of a free market. If it is as virtuous as all that, apparently, it is right that the tenant should have to pay six or eight times the former rent in some crowded part of London.
The question is whether the tenant has made a reasonable effort to secure agreement. Is it reasonable if he says "I cannot pay, and I will not pay, and I think it is wrong that I should be asked to pay"? The next question is whether reasonable steps have been taken to secure other accommodation. Many of the tenants with whom we are dealing today are not people with great and expert wisdom. They are not versed in estate management. They do not know their way to every estate agent in the district. Is it enough if they ask the council whether there is room for them anywhere and if the council, with certain duties in housing, replies, "Not only is there no room, but it is hopeless to try to get a house in this part of the country"? That is the position in very many parts of London.
Then we come to greater hardship, which is a most extraordinary provision. The phrase comes from the Rent Acts, but it was used there for a very different purpose. It was when the landlord or his family wanted to live in the tenant's house and the personal or social hardship to the tenant or landlord had to be weighed. In both cases it was a matter of a home, of living accommodation.
What is the hardship to a limited company which owns a large block of property? Does the court weigh the hardship of a man, who has to find somewhere else for himself and his family to live, against the hardship of a company which says, "We have a dear old shareholder who has had dividends of 1181 only 50 per cent. for the past ten years, and we think that it is time that he had 100 per cent., so you must give us possession. We are the Lock, Stock and Barrel Eviction Company"? That is nonsense.
Even in the Rent Acts, there were two other provisions where the burden of proof was not on the tenant. The landlord had to show that it was reasonable for him to want possession. If he showed that, the court still had discretion not to make an order unless it was reasonable to do so. Because the grounds given in a case were reasonable, or because a wish was reasonable, it did not follow that it was reasonable for the court to gratify the wish, and the court had to consider all the circumstances of the landlord and the tenant, and even the interests of the public. Those provisions have now disappeared.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Norwich, South)
What distinction does the hon. and learned Gentleman draw between the use of the word "reasonable" in the old Rent Acts and its use in this Bill?
§ Mr. Mitchison
There are two things. In this case the tenant has to prove everything, and the court is given no discretion. If the tenant has failed in any of these matters, the court is bound to turn him down, but if he has succeeded in all of them the court is bound to make an order. There was a distinction in the former case, and one very important matter in which the burden rested upon the landlord. This is a much harsher provision.
The tenant will have to show that his is a case of hardship greater than that of the landlord, that he has nowhere to go, and that his is a typical hard case, that he has done his best to come to an agreement and to find somewhere else, and then at the end of it he has to pay an unreasonable rent, the rent the landlord asked. That is subject to one exception, the case which I took just now, where the tenant might say that twice or three times the gross rateable value was reasonable, whereas six, eight or ten times was unreasonable. The only escape for him, however exorbitant the landlord's demands may be, is to show that he cannot possibly pay the rent.
When it comes to deciding whether he cannot possibly pay the rent, one arrives 1182 not just at a means test of the tenant himself, but an inquiry into the circumstances of the whole of his family living in the house. If, by going into all that, it can be shown that the tenant cannot afford to pay the rent, only then can the court do anything but order payment of the rent which the landlord asks.
The House will note that as a shining and conspicuous instance of the virtues of a free market, to show, in an overcrowded London, where it is precious hard to find room to live at all, what a perfect solution of all our difficulties the free market is. A free market, indeed! Has it been a free market all these months, when tenants with the street outside as the only place to go were driven by landlords into making harsh and unconscionable bargains? That is where the philosophy of the Tory Party is leading us.
Now I come to the next stage. Suppose all this process is completed and the tenant gets an order for three to nine months. At the end of it, if things are still the same, it is not the landlord, but the tenant, who returns to the court to show that the burden is still upon him and that his is still an exceptionally hard case. I know that the junior Bar is a little short of work nowadays and that one should never discourage the law; and I shall not do so—[An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"]—somebody else can do so, but I shall not. The costs of these proceedings are a matter very much to be considered, because the tenant has a heavy burden of proof on him and he is brought to the court because he cannot find anywhere else to go.
If the tenant fails on one of his grounds, in normal cases he will have to pay the costs of both sides. Is it unreasonable to suggest that those might be £25 a day? I ask any practising member of the legal profession to correct me if I am wrong. I do not think that that is overstating it. Every time the tenant returns to the court, he runs the risk of incurring those costs. I do not very much object to the Bill lasting for only three years. There will have been a General Election before that and I do not think that it will, in fact, last for three years.
If the right hon. Gentleman had said that he had not had enough foresight, that he has said some foolish things and 1183 had rejected some very sensible suggestions, that we should not be too hard on him today, and that he had now seen a little of the facts of life, we could all have treated him as the rather pathetic figure which he undoubtedly is and left it at that. However, when he comes here, having by his persistent blindness and obstinacy inflicted hardship on thousands of people who can find nowhere to live, and who have been driven into harsh bargains, and talks about a free market and the principles of this, that and the other, blind to what he has done in human terms, and then says it was not his but our fault, then we can only say that that will not wash. It is nonsense, and silly nonsense.
We shall not oppose the Bill. Even this snack is worth something to some people—[Interruption.] Does the right hon. Gentleman expect us to oppose it? He knows perfectly well that this is what we have been suggesting, except that it is less than what we have been suggesting. Of course we shall not oppose it. All we regret is that it is so small, so tightly and so narrowly drawn, that it will not meet the case. Our attempts to amend it to meet the case are bound not to fall within the scope of this Bill, drawn tightly for the purpose. So will the right hon. Gentleman take it and, eating his words, be proud of it?
§ 4.40 p.m.
Mr. Geoffrey Ripon (Norwich, South)
We have just listened to a characteristically vigorous speech from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). Perhaps it was even more tendentious and exaggerated than usual. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman never has to eat his own words, for there are certainly many of them. I think it is unfortunate that he has not approached this matter in a somewhat different spirit.
I regret the introduction of this Bill because I believe, as I said some time ago in reply to the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Orbach), that this kind of Measure solves none of the real difficulties. At best, it merely postpones them; at worst, it may aggravate them in so far as it creates new uncertainty.
However, I think that the House is bound to concede that the introduction of this Bill, or something like it, has been 1184 rendered inevitable by the speeches and the attitude of the Opposition. Whatever the hon. and learned Gentleman may say about this, there is no doubt that the position of many people has been made much more difficult by the way in which the Opposition discourage anybody from offering alternative accommodation. That is the inevitable result of the propaganda which has been put around London and elsewhere to the effect that the Labour Party will municipalise all rented accommodation. If, as the hon. and learned Gentleman says, there are some tenants who have been driven into harsh and unconscionable bargains, I suggest that this is partly due to the kind of propaganda that the Opposition have been distributing.
The document, "Carry on Labour", which they issued during the recent L.C.C. elections read:Now comes the threat of widescale evictions of people who can't afford what the landlord is demanding. A terrible problem of mass evictions next autumn is developing unless something is done quickly.I believe that there is no substance in that kind of violent language, but the fact that it has been used has alarmed many people. Similarly, the fact that there are people who would otherwise be willing to let accommodation but are discouraged from doing so, means that we must have this Bill.
§ Mr. A. Evans
Will the hon. Gentleman give way? He holds a responsible position in London government, I understand, so would he tell us what evidence there is to substantiate his statement that there is vacant accommodation within the County of London which could be offered for rent?
§ Mr. Rippon
I will deal with that point of the scope of the problem a little later. I agree it is a matter of some substance and I promise my hon. Friend that I will deal with this aspect of the matter then.
First, however, I will make a few general observations, because I am sure that sooner or later we must try to get a greater measure of agreement on this matter than we evidently have at present. I would have thought that in recent years no one would seriously deny the evils of rent control. Indeed, many hon. Gentlemen opposite have on many occasions acknowledged the need for an 1185 amendment of the Rent Acts. Who can possibly deny that artificially low rents, frozen for many years, have had gravely detrimental consequences?
First, they have led to a sad deterioration of our existing stock of houses because rents have been inadequate to cover necessary repairs and improvements. Secondly, the freezing of accommodation has resulted in under-occupation, and has savagely reduced the pool of houses which ought, naturally, to be available for letting to people who have to change their jobs, or who wish to move from place to place.
I believe that the success which the Government have achieved since 1951——
§ Mr. Rippon
—in building over 2 million houses in those seven years is a much more permanent achievement than any temporary electoral ones. I believe that success, plus the policy of the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, 1954, of encouraging people to make improvements and conversions, created a situation in which it has been reasonable to make a start on re-creating a free maraket in houses to let. We ought to recognise that the scope of the problem about which we have been arguing for so long is comparatively small. The Rent Act, 1957, only made a start on decontrol. Of the 15 million houses in this country only 5¾ million are affected by the Rent Act and only 800,000 are affected by decontrol.
§ Mr. Rippon
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans), who interrupted me a moment ago, will agree, I am sure, that we can only make an estimate in the absence of detailed statistics, but I am sure he will also agree that the vast proportion of the 800,000 occupiers of decontrolled houses——
§ Mr. H. Butler
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am in considerable doubt whether the hon. Gentleman, who keeps on referring to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) as "my hon. Friend" is not being insulting to him.
§ Mr. Rippon
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for any disservice I may have done him. I am sure he will agree that the vast majority of the tenants of those decontrolled houses have now negotiated fresh agreements, and that there is not much evidence, or, indeed, any evidence, that those are harsh and unconscionable agreements.
§ Mr. A. Evans
Since the hon. Gentleman put that point to me, I can say right away, from my experience in my own constituency, that the agreements into which my constituents have been obliged to enter because there is no alternative accommodation are, in many cases, harsh, and the injustice embodied in those harsh agreements arises from the action taken by the right hon. Gentleman in his Rent Act.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to interrupt, because it is important to get this right? On 26th February, the Financial Times published some figures showing that, in London, out of 190,000 decontrolled tenants only 90,000 had agreed new leases. I would not accept the Financial Times, but I put those figures to the Minister on 3rd March and he was good enough to say that they were well-founded. That is not a substantial majority. It is rather less than half.
§ Mr. Rippon
I was, of course, speaking of the 800,000, and the majority of those tenants have undoubtedly entered into new agreements. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am glad to accept that the position in London, as the Minister said, has a certain aspect of greater difficulty, but even there the majority have done so.
Various estimates have appeared in the Financial Times. One which was fairly widely quoted by the Leader of the London County Council took the form of a letter from a tenants' association, which said that of the 180,000 it looked as if 170,000 had negotiated or would negotiate a new agreement. That would leave a hard core of 10,000 who would be liable to eviction on 6th October. That figure of 10,000 applies to Greater London and not simply to the County of London
1187 The Manchester Guardian put the figure somewhat lower. I mention these figures only to show that we should recognise that in discussing the Bill we are considering only a hard core of difficult cases, which form a comparatively small proportion of the total number of tenants.
I now revert to the hon. Member's suggestion that it would be impossible to find alternative accommodation for these people.
§ Mr. Rippon
At reasonable rents. My feeling is that the way in which the Opposition treat the landlord—by regarding him as anti-social if he offers accommodation to anybody—has enormously affected the position.
§ Mr. Rippon
The hon. Member chooses, as he so often does, to be offensive. It does not contribute to the value of our debate.
§ Mr. Orbach
With the greatest respect to the hon. Member, and everybody in this Chamber, I referred to the grin on the hon. Member's face when he was making that statement. I do not think that he can say that I have been offensive in the Chamber. I think that he should withdraw that remark.
§ Mr. Orbach
With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I did not say, "a smile on your face," I said "a smile on his face."
§ Mr. Rippon
I am sure that the hon. Member was not intending to be offensive; he just could not help it.
§ Mr. Rippon
We all sympathise with the difficulty which faces people who may 1188 be evicted in any circumstances. I believe that but for the attitude of the Opposition this situation would have worked itself out. It would have been very much better if we could have allowed it to do so.
I accept the fact, however, that a situation has arisen in which this Bill is necessary, and we would wish to be sure that legislation of this kind does not operate to cause serious harm. It is obvious that we cannot have, without a change in the attitude of the Opposition, the kind of genuine free market that we had in the years immediately before the war, when the tenant was probably in a better position to drive a bargain than the landlord. However, I think that we are getting very near to that position again, in terms of the accommodation which might become available.
§ Mr. Rippon
The Second World War.
In the late 'thirties people could come to London and find accommodation to rent at reasonable rates in a free market. I think that it would be to the advantage of everyone if we could return to that situation, partly by building as many houses as possible and partly by making the best use of our existing accommodation. But we cannot achieve that position if we treat anybody who offers accommodation as an enemy of society, whose bargains will be overthrown as soon as there is a Labour Government, first by recontrolling his premises and fixing a new rent, whether by means of a rent tribunal or otherwise, and then by acquiring his property on the terms which the hon. and learned Member for Kettering suggested on 11th November.
The hon. and learned Member said that it was not inflationary to municipalise all rented accommodation, because the local authorities would take the rent and then offer the landlord the interest on an irredeemable bond, or something even less attractive than a post-war credit. In those circumstances we cannot achieve a real free market in houses. We cannot get it unless hon. Members stop trying to line up on the side of the landlord or the tenant. Hon. Members on this side of the House are always accused of being the landlords' friends, 1189 and hon. Members opposite always pose as the tenants' friends. What we ought to say is that we are for the good landlord and the good tenant, and against the bad landlord and the bad tenant. If we did that we might be able to reach a reasonable solution of our housing difficulties in a very short time.
I am inclined to agree with the hon. and learned Member for Kettering that there is a danger that the Bill will discourage tenants from entering into new agreements. In that respect, I thought that he accepted the view put forward by the Minister earlier. That is a danger, and it is very necessary that we should emphasise that the operation of the Bill is only temporary, and that tenants cannot sit back and say that because they have lived in a house since 1939, or whenever it was, at the rent fixed then, they have a prescriptive right to live in the house forever, whether or not they entered into a contract with the landlord for the duration of the war, for a week, or a month, or a year, or whatever it may be.
The hon. and learned Member is not fair in suggesting that the courts will have difficulty in interpreting the phrase, "all reasonable steps." I believe that the Minister was right, when answering the intervention of the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot), to say that the county courts, who have considerable experience in administering these matters, will have no more difficulty in interpreting the word "reasonable" now than they have had before. But these are matters which can be examined in Committee. The general policy of the Bill, as set out in the Clause, is right.
I also welcome the provision that landlords will have to get a court order before they can obtain possession. In any event, it is a bold landlord who would try to obtain possession without one. At the same time, this is a reasonable amendment of the law of landlord and tenant.
One feature of the Bill in respect of which I feel a little doubtful is Clause 3 (6), which relates to the assessment of the rent which should be payable. In this connection, I go a little way towards meeting the view of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering. I do not like the provision which says that 1190Any reference in this section to the means of the occupier of a dwelling-house includes a reference to the means of any members of the family of the occupier residing with him who have contributed or might reasonably be expected to contribute to the expenses of the household.It should not be necessary for the court to inquire into that matter. There can be no question of the tenant putting in someone else as nominal tenant, and if the court has to inquire into any means at all it should inquire only into the means of the occupier, and not range widely over his whole family.
In dealing with local authority houses, where tenants enjoy a subsidy, it is right to ensure that the subsidy goes to those whose need is greatest, but even in that case most of us will agree that the means test should be as limited as possible. For example, I believe that a rent rebate scheme is preferential to a differential rent scheme. The question of reasonableness must be answered by looking at the state of the property and not the means of the occupier. In the case of local authority houses it is possible to deal with the question of a house being occupied by a number of people who are working by making a flat lodger charge, but that would not apply in this case.
My wish is that we should either very much limit the scope of the operation of the means test or, alternatively, amend Clause 3 (2) so as to leave the court with a wide discretion to fix the rent either at the rate demanded by the owner or, if the court is satisfied that the rent so demanded is unreasonable, at a lower rate. There should be no reference to the rent being,beyond the means of the occupier.I think it somewhat unfortunate that the rent the landlord receives should be determined by the means of the tenant. In any event, it does not seem to be a proper standard. If we are to have this temporary extension of the tenancy, it seems to me right that it should be either on the same terms as other premises still controlled or, alternatively, as was suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, three times the gross value. I hope that that is a matter——
§ Mr. Rippon
I withdraw that, if the hon. and learned Gentleman did not put it in a substantive form.
§ Mr. Rippon
Yes. I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman is putting forward the proposition that, rather than have a means test, it would be better if the rents were fixed by reference to the gross value whatever multiplier we might eventually decide on.
There are two other matters I wish to mention. Two alternative ways that still exist to deal with these hardship cases. First, the Opposition, sooner or later, must take a more reasonable, objective and responsible view. Secondly, I think that local authorities could still do more than is being done at present to implement the proposals put forward by the Government in Circular 55/57. They should build more accommodation for old people, particularly one-room dwellings, and they should use their powers to acquire property for conversion for this purpose whether by agreement or otherwise.
Local authorities already possess certain compulsory purchase powers which I have always felt they had in reserve to deal with the bad landlord if that became necessary. Quite apart from anything they might do by way of acquiring derelict property and bringing it up to date, I think it would be reasonable if local authorities considered the question—where there is, if I may use the phrase of the hon. and learned Gentleman, a "lock, stock and barrel eviction company"—of compulsorily acquiring property and letting it to existing tenants.
§ Mr. Rippon
A local authority has to make the first move and I hope that some local authorities may do that in suitable cases so that we can deal with the "lock, stock and barrel eviction companies" where they exist.
§ Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)
Surely, above all others, the hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that that procedure is far too slow and cumbersome, and too costly.
§ Mr. Rippon
There has already been a considerable time in which to consider whether to do it. There is still a period of five months and in suitable cases—no 1192 one is a friend of a "lock, stock and barrel eviction company"—I see no reason why a local authority should not make a compulsory purchase order and let us see how quickly it could be operated.
§ Mr. Silverman
I tried to introduce a Bill to ask for precisely the powers which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, and he and his hon. Friends voted against it.
§ Mr. Rippon
Of course we voted against it. There is no point in having on the Statute Book a Measure duplicating powers that already existed in the housing legislation of 1936, now incorporated in the 1957 Housing Act.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the genuine anxiety that whatever housing policy we pursue, it should ultimately result in the creation of more accommodation for letting. I believe that to be the policy of the Rent Act; and that is why I support it. I believe that that policy will succeed much more speedily and easily if it has the co-operation of the Opposition. Hon. Members opposite must appreciate that before the coming of the Rent Act there was a situation in which the rent that anybody paid was a lottery. The community was divided into two classes. On the one hand, there were the fortunate people who had a controlled tenancy dating from before the war, and those people who had council property with, possibly, a subsidised rent. If they had a controlled property, it was probably a house falling into disrepair because rents were too low.
To get council property one had to be on the housing waiting list and be a Londoner, or live in Birmingham or somewhere for a sufficient number of years, or have a sufficient number of points. Before the Rent Act we recognised that the position was unfair to the good landlord and involved hardship for those people who got married or started a family after the war, and had no hope of getting a council house or a rent-controlled house; people who were being forced to go into furnished accommodation and to pay rents far in excess of the pre-war rents being paid for better unfurnished accommodation.
Everyone was then saying that the Government should have the courage to tackle a difficult problem. We knew that 1193 the transition would be hard, but it had to be done. Now, public sympathy has switched from the landlords who were harshly treated, and from the homeless people who could not get rented accommodation, to this hard core of cases facing possible eviction. I think that the position has been exaggerated, but it is right that such sympathy should exist. What is wrong is that natural public sympathy should be exploited by the party opposite for a temporary electoral advantage.
I hope that anyone in the House with any pretence of wishing to deal with the housing problem in a statesmanlike way will take the long view and assist in trying to create a situation in which many thousands of people now homeless, and having great difficulty in changing their jobs or moving to London or other towns, will have an opportunity of securing rented accommodation. If that involves some people, who need no longer to live and work in London, having to move, we shall have to accept that position.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)
I should not be justified in detaining the House for any length of time, if only for the reason that there are a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House whose constituents will be materially affected by the provisions of this Bill while only an infinitesimal proportion of my constituents will be affected.
I found much of the observations of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) to be unnecessarily provocative. His general observations, as I understood them, seemed to be directed to indicating that the Bill was quite unnecessary. Having taken that line, the hon. Gentleman grudgingly conceded that it was necessary. The plain fact is that the Minister, though obviously it is very much against the grain, has come to the conclusion that the Bill is necessary. As has already been indicated the right hon. Gentleman, has had to eat humble pie over this matter. We should be grateful to him for putting the interests of those people, whose difficulties are meant to be dealt with in this Bill, above his own digestion. We should he grateful to the Minister for his somewhat belated repentence.
Though it is possible to exaggerate the picture, undoubtedly a minority, but a 1194 substantial minority, of tenants were stampeded into entering into harsh agreements. That would not have happened had provisions on the lines of those in this Measure existed initially, or been introduced at a far earlier date. While, within its limits, the Bill is good, it is unfortunate that the matter was not dealt with very much earlier.
The Bill deals not only with hardship to tenants, but with circumstances in which a landlord has behaved unreasonably and improperly, or where a grasping landlord has demanded an utterly exorbitant and extravagant rent. Clause 2 deals with the position of occupiers "holding over". The basis of the rent payable is laid down in the Clause and I have no substantial quarrel with that provision.
Clause 3 sets out the rent which will be payable by the occupier while possession by the landlord is suspended, and the basis upon which the rent will be arrived at is totally different. I would have much preferred the basis of rent in respect of people covered by Clauses 2 and 3 to be the same and on the basis set out in Clause 2. The general principle in Clause 3 of taking the means of the tenant as a basis is open to objection. The Bill is intended to cover occupation for only a relatively short period. Bearing that short period in mind I should think it far better to have a common basis of assessment, namely, that which is set out in Clause 2.
There will be a great deal of dissatisfaction at the fixing of rents on the basis in Clause 3. It could easily be avoided without hardship to the landlord. There will be irritation and annoyance, and in some cases a sense of grievance, all of which could be avoided if the basis of calculation in Clause 3 were the same as in Clause 2.
County court judges will face a large number of difficult cases when they try to apply Clause 3. I do not suggest that it will be beyond the ability of county court judges to deal with these matters, because they have had to deal with greater-hardship issues for a substantial number of years and the present Bill is only an extension of the principle. I am not at all happy about one or two of the provisions in paras. (a) and (b) of Clause 3 (1). Those paragraphs refer to "all reasonable efforts" and "all reasonable 1195 steps" to be taken by the occupier. I should have thought that "reasonable efforts" or "reasonable steps" would have been quite sufficient. The onus is on the tenant. The landlord may be able to 'establish that a dozen reasonable steps could have been taken, but by an oversight on the part of the tenant one of them has not been taken and that the tenant has therefore not taken all reasonable steps.
I am not sure whether the greater-hardship principle is confined to tenants. What is the position of a sub-tenant? Is his "hardship" to be considered? I am not happy about Clause 3 (5), part of which relates to circumstances in which the owner is obliged to give vacant possession of a dwelling-house to someone else by reason of an agreement entered into before 2nd April, 1958. It can be said that the validity of these agreements will have to be carefully scrutinized to see that everything is above board. I do not see why the greater-hardship test should not be applied in such instances.
It can be opposed on the basis that one is interfering with a contractual obligation entered into between two persons, without the knowledge, so to speak, of the Bill. When we re-open these matters, they may cause difficulty all along the line. The person with whom a landlord has entered into an agreement to give vacant possession might be put into difficulties in other ways. However, on balance, I consider that the county court should have power to consider the greater-hardship question, as between the person who has entered into an agreement with a landlord for vacant possession and the person who is to be evicted, as it has to consider it between the landlord and the occupier.
I believe that the Bill will go some way to alleviating hardship which undoubtedly exists, and to that extent I welcome it.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Maurice Orbach (Willesden, East)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me early in this debate, because I have other engagements. I am happy to follow the hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen), because he has been semi-consistent in this matter. He abstained from voting, if I remember correctly, when the Rent Bill came before the House.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)
The hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) and the Liberal Party voted for the Rent Bill.
§ Mr. Orbach
I must withdraw my earlier remark and say that I regret that the hon. and learned Member, like hon. Members opposite who have spoken, shows complete inconsistency in this matter. I remember that the Liberal Party voted in the Aye Lobby when I moved my Motion for the introduction of a Bill, which has been said to be very similar to this one.
I did not happen to be present last week when the right hon. Gentleman announced that he was to introduce this Measure. It has been described as a very similar Bill to the one I tried to introduce, but I want to make it clear that I do not accept joint parenthood for this Bill. I do not know who was the lady concerned, unless she was the charming woman the right hon. Gentleman spoke about on an earlier occasion, who went shopping and, "she said this" to him and "he said that" to her for about half an hour.
Although I shall support this Bill because it offers some measure of relief to a few people, I would point out that it is in the main a demonstration of the failure of the policy of the Minister. It must be said emphatically, inside and outside this House, that he has had to eat his words. All the statements he has made in his constituency and elsewhere about there being plenty of accommodation next October are proven to be untrue. The Minister ought to have come to the House in sackcloth and ashes and apologised for his statements.
I want to deal with the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon), who took upon himself the job of opposing the Motion when I tried to introduce a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill in March. He made it clear this afternoon that he opposes this Bill because it would aggravate and not mitigate the situation. Those were the words he used on the former occasion, for similar reasons.
§ Mr. Rippon
I am sure the hon. Member does not wish to misinterpret me. I 1197 have been misinterpreted as saying that the Bill was not necessary. What I have said is that it would not have been necessary if the Opposition were more reasonable in their attitude. I said the Bill had become necessary as a result of the situation which the Opposition have done so much to create.
§ Mr. Orbach
The hon. Member has taken on himself the job of going round the administrative county of London saying that if it were not for the fact that the Labour Party has declared opposition to the Rent Act and that it proposes to municipalise rented property and to bring about recontrol, there would be plenty of accommodation. It has been suggested that there are properties let at £1,000 or £2,000 a year to people who cannot claim to have incomes over that amount when they put in their Income Tax returns, and that that would not have happened but for the Labour Party's propaganda. My answer is that the Rent Act of 1957, and the Minister's refusal time and time again to amend it, brought about a stampede among tenants which forced them to accept harsh and unconscionable conditions.
I asked my secretary to give me a sample of the letters I have received on this matter in the past two weeks. I could detain the House for hours giving descriptions of what is happening. Constituents of mine have come to the Labour Party committee rooms for advice, or gone to the citizens' advice bureaux, and have been sent by them to my office. They have been told by me to write to the Minister, and the Minister has offered them advice. He has told them they ought to negotiate with their landlords, and that he feels sure their landlords will he quite reasonable. I have cases in which he has offered that advice, but the tenants, who have gone to every possible extent to reach agreement, have failed in their approach.
They have come to their Member of Parliament, who told them to approach the Minister, and they got the advice from the Minister, "Settle with the landlord". They have settled with the landlords and as a result many of them will be responsible for external repairs. Does this Bill take note of the fact that people have been forced recently to pay two, three, four or five times the gross value of the property and rates, and to be 1198 responsible for internal repairs and also for external repairs?
§ Mr. H. Brooke
Consistently, I have advised tenants in that position not to sign new agreements without having professional advice as to their reasonableness.
§ Mr. Orbach
Of course, but what is the professional advice offered to them? I happen to be only a layman, but I have had letter after letter about this matter. I have two letters which quote lawyers as saying, "This is a landlords' Act". That is not a statement made by a Labour Party member, or an hon. Member of this House, but by lawyers. They say, "This is a landlords' Act and you can do nothing about it." Apart from cases of that description, I can quote cases in my own family. I do not want to quote my own case, but I still have not got an offer from my landlords. If the Minister is interested, I can tell him that I still have a notice to quit. My landlords are trying to reduce the rateable value so that I shall pay less in rates and they will be able to have more from me because of services. He knows that perfectly well. He knows what I am talking about, because he has about 2,000 constituents who are in the same position. That is an "insignificant number," of course.
There are members of my family who have been asked at this time to sign an agreement. I suppose it is a reasonable one from the point of view of the right hon. Gentleman, but I hope the courts will not think so. A member of my family is asked to pay three times the gross value in rent, to be responsible for rates, and for all internal repairs and, at the end of the tenancy in three years' time, to make a contribution of two quarters' rent for redecoration of premises which are not being redecorated now. That kind of thing is happening all over London. The right hon. Gentleman knows it as well as anyone else. He knows the exorbitant rents charged and he knows that every possible device is used to drive people completely to desperation.
In the past few months I have visited many hundreds of places offered to me as a possible home. Invariably, I have been asked not only to pay rent and rates and to sign an agreement that I shall be responsible for interior decoration, and to see that the place is more 1199 habitable when I leave it, but for a sum of money for "f. and f."—furniture and fittings. In a place round the corner from Reddington Road, which I wish the right hon. Gentleman would visit, on the top floor, in a little attic under the eaves, I asked, "What are the fittings?" The reply was, "The lamp". There was a plain electric lamp bulb without even a shade. For that they were asking £300.
§ Mr. Orbach
I thought the demand made to me was outrageous, but what could I do about it? There is nothing in the Bill to help me or the thousands of other tenants who have paid £300, £500, £1,000 and more to get some sort of accommodation. What is not understood is the hardship and distress suffered by people at the present time.
It is easy enough for the hon. Member for Norwich, South—who knows better than anyone else how to lose an election—to declare that people must move out of London. Why does not he move out of London? Many a Conservative would like him to go out of London and wishes that he had never come into London during the course of the London County Council elections.
Some of us have children who have gained places at certain schools and have been there four, five or six years, and we are anxious that they should complete their education there. There are other associations that we have with the areas in which we reside. I do not know whether the courts would say that such things constitute hardship cases. I think they would probably say, "You must take your child away from the school in Hampstead, and you can go to Norwood or Dulwich or somewhere else and find another school." I agree that there is a lovely school at Dulwich.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)
I doubt very much whether there is a school in London to compare with the schools in Dulwich.
§ Mr. Orbach
That is perfectly true, and it is because the famous Dulwich School was headed by a very great Socialist for a long time. I regret to have to tell the hon. Member that his constituency will 1200 be represented by a Labour man after the next General Election.
I began by saying that I did not accept any responsibility for the Bill, although I tried to introduce something similar to it, something which I thought would guarantee a measure of security to the aged and those who had long tenancies as well as those suffering from grave hardship as a result of the operation of the Rent Act. We can only be charitable about the Bill. I do not accept parenthood for it, and the hon. Gentleman did not until a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps it is an orphan of the storm, the storm created by the hon. Member for Norwich, South in his approach to the electors of London.
I am sure that the Bill has come to us only because the London County Council elections were impending, and is being proceeded with only because it may influence some elections in the near future. It is a bad Bill, but it offers some measure of relief to a few people, and for that reason I shall support it; but I hope that during the Committee stage it will be very much amended and its scope extended to decrease the hardship cases created by the Rent Act.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)
Listening to the debate, I have come to the conclusion that it does not matter whether the Bill was introduced because of the imminent evictions which were obvious after the Rent Act had been in operation for a few months, because of the increase in the Bank Rate, because of the credit squeeze or, if it is so, because of the action of the Opposition in saying that they propose to buy up all the rented property.
It really does not matter at all why the Bill is being introduced. The important thing is that my right hon. Friend has taken this step—perhaps going back, not forward—of introducing the Bill once he was satisfied that it was necessary to do so. Some time ago he said that he had had only 1,900 letters of complaint. Some of us got busy to ensure that he got all possible complaints, and I am certain that his post bag was amply filled daily and weekly from then on. It became obvious after the beginning of the year to everyone, and particularly my right hon. Friend, that the Act was not working in the way that had been anticipated.
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
It was obvious to the hon. Member months previously that it was not working, and it was equally obvious to me and to my hon. Friends. Why did the man responsible know less than any of us about what was happening? Being so blind to what all of us knew, how is he fit to be in office?
§ Mr. Jenkins
The answer to that is that those of us in the constituencies were receiving letters and felt the pulse there. My right hon. Friend was not in that position. I say quite deliberately and sincerely, having in mind my background with regard to the Rent Act, that I am satisfied that my right hon. Friend was not in a position, the Rent Act having been passed, to make any concession or to bring forward an amending Bill until he was absolutely certain that it was vitally necessary to do so.
The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) was not in a generous mood this afternoon. He could have been more generous to my right hon. Friend. He could have said, with complete truth, precisely what I have said. The attack he made was perfectly fair, but he was not his usual generous self. He could have conceded that the Minister, once he was satisfied completely of the necessity for it, brought this Bill forward. I believe it was a statesmanlike action. I have been in public life in various forms for thirty years, and I have never found that by retracting one loses any face. I do not believe that the Minister has lost face on this occasion in taking action when he was satisfied that it was necessary.
§ Mr. A. Evans
We would be less annoyed with the Minister if he admitted that some parts of his Rent Act were ill advised; if he had had the courage to say, "in some cases I find that this Act is working harshly, and I propose to take steps to impede its operation." Had he done that, I think that the Minister would have deserved some measure of respect from this side of the House.
§ Mr. Jenkins
I do not intend to discuss the actual details of the Bill—that will be done in Committee—but for the benefit of hon. Members, I should like to point out the type of landlords who have produced this situation: There are certain landlords who, in my view, are 1202 really housing black marketeers and sharks of the very worst type, and the type of thing that they do should be exposed. I will not take up a lot of time, but I will cite four specific kinds of action taken by these sharks. They have all occurred in my constituency, but I am sure the same thing applies to practically every other constituency in the built-up areas.
I think that this Bill will kill these people stone dead, because of their exposure if they go to the county courts. Some newspapers are, rather belatedly, realising that there was something in the opposition to the Rent Act as it was a few months ago, and because thousands of their readers are affected the great national newspapers will be allergic to the cases brought before the county courts.
One of the worst types of action is the racket that has grown up of selling flats on long leases of 80 or 99 years. I am well aware that this has been going on in Scotland—though not as a racket—for many years, but in England and Wales, and particularly in the built-up areas it really is a complete racket. Let me quote one example from the many that I could mention. It was brought to my attention only three or four weeks ago.
The case concerns a block of flats in London. Until a few weeks ago no offer of any kind had been made to the tenants. Three or four weeks ago the tenants got notice to quit, with no other documents coming forward. When they wrote asking on what terms they could stay, they received a letter stating that they could do so on the basis of paying £2,500. This was for a two-bedroomed flat. They were told that they would have to pay ground rent, on an 80-year lease, of £20 a year. On top of that they would have to pay Schedule A and an unknown amount each year for services and repairs to some company for the purpose of spreading the burden of services to repairs——
§ Mr. Jenkins
Internal and external repairs alike. The inclusive amount for basic rent, rates and services for a two-bedroomed fiat in that block of 54 flats was £10 17s. 3d. a month—a very low rent. I have seen the tenants, and every 1203 one of them would have been prepared to pay far more than that, but they were faced with the purchase of an 80-year lease for £2,500. The tenants have been trying very hard to get the offer of better terms, and I am hoping that, as a result of hon. Members listening to me this afternoon, the sharks who are doing this throughout London will stop it. My recommendation is that tenants should refuse such proposals, and should take their landlords to the county court under the procedure outlined in this Bill.
Another class are those in scarcity areas who are charging far in excess of what anybody thought reasonable. There was a case in my own division—and the same landlords have property in six other London divisions. We approached them, and they reduced the rents from 4¼ times the gross value to 2½ times, and deleted the repairs clause. It really is not a function of Members of Parliament to be estate agents. In this case the landlords were very fair. They did come down and many concessions have been made, but there is a very large number of others who may not do that.
Those hon. Members who, like myself —and I do not claim to do more than others—meet these tenants, talk to them and see how they live, will appreciate what a frightful thing it is that people have to pay 4 or 4¼ times the gross value, plus rates, plus internal and external repairs. It is sometimes more than half the family income.
Next are the rapacious types who are offering agreements, and I was very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) stressed how important it is that tenants should make sure that they understand the agreements offered. Many agreements seem to be all right as regards gross value and the like, but a reading of them reveals that the tenants are to be responsible for decoration, both inside and outside. In addition, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Orbach)—and I reinforce this—there is a clause that they must put the house in perfect condition before leaving in three years' time.
These are the properties that are in the worst condition. The landlords should have had more income—2 or 2½ times the present rent—for several years past. Then they could have put the 1204 properties in good order. It is wrong, however, whatever may have been the past position, to place on the tenant the burden of maintaining a house that is not his.
The last type that I have in mind is the rapacious landlord who is out for capital gains. There are many instances of this in London, and one in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) was featured in the Sunday Press some time ago. This man bought up a little backwater in South Kensington and then proceeded to give notice to quit to each of the twenty tenants, some of whom have lived there for thirty or forty years. It was nice accommodation, in which three or four people could live comfortably. Offers of up to three times the present rent were offered and were refused, and those people, who have lived there for many years, have to go in October. Fortunately, that type, the landlords seeking a quick capital gain, will be caught by the Bill, because they will now have to go to the county court and show that they will lose more than the tenant. If the tenant can show exactly the point that I have mentioned, I think that the county court judge is bound to view him favourably——
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
But does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that, even in such a dreadful case as that, the Bill gives only a limited security. The tenants have to get out in the end, and the shark wins.
§ Mr. Jenkins
I am much obliged for the hon. and learned Gentleman's comment. I entirely agree that that is true but, at any rate, there is a respite. The Bill is to remain in force for three years, so, instead of people in this frightful position being forced out in October next they will have some protection, and I believe that, by the end of three years, the Rent Act will work——
§ Mr. Jenkins
I am afraid that I am not prepared to follow the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) along that line.
1205 There are these various bad types, and I mention them today in order, if possible, to scare them and make it abundantly clear that they are the people who have done their best to wreck the Rent Act. The Bill before us today has done something to give hope to people who, a few weeks ago, were really in fear. If hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite were really to think about this matter, they would agree that those who were in real fear and dread have gained a tremendous amount of comfort from the Bill. As a result of it, justice will, I believe, be done. It may be on a temporary basis, but justice will be done. When the Commitee stage comes, I have not the slightest doubt—I have no reason for saying this except that, from knowing him, I believe that he will do it—that my right hon. Friend will be amenable to all kinds of suggestions to improve the Bill.
One of the reasons—indeed, really, the only reason—that I support the Bill is that, in five months' time, when October comes, there will be no evictions. People who have not been able to sleep in their beds at night will now be able to do so. There is the possibility of their continuing in occupation for three years, if they make out their case. If my right hon. Friend does what he says he will do, as I know he will, and publishes that simple pamphlet, making sure that everybody who is in difficulty or trouble has it and has explained to him what the position is, there will be enormous advantage to those people who have been in such dread and fear for so long.
By the Bill, the decision as to whether people are to be evicted is being taken out of the hands of the landlord and placed in the safe hands of the county court judge. I am delighted, therefore, to know that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering proposes to advise his hon. Friends to vote for a Bill which will bring substantial benefits to the people whose interests it is designed to protect. It may not go all the way that hon. Members want it to go, but there will be substantial benefits, easing and dissipating the tension which has been growing steadily over so many months past.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Mr.. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)
We have had a speech from the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) which was a replica of nearly 1206 every speech from every Tory local government operator up and down the country. He started by saying that he regretted the spirit in which the Opposition had approached the Bill. In what kind of spirit does the hon. Gentleman expect us to approach it? We are here as the representatives of the people who will be hit by the Government's attitude. Naturally, we do not talk in very polite tones about those who are doing injury to the people we represent. Some of the arguments he used were the kind of arguments which have grown hairs on them by now, they are so old and useless.
The hon. Gentleman trotted out the old argument about artificially low rents being responsible for the deterioration of property. I can remember local government since 1918. I can remember the amounts of money which were given to landlords so that they could keep their properties in repair. Much of that very property was allowed to go into disrepair, even though the landlords were receiving, I think it was, a 40 per cent. increase for repairs.
I remember case after case in Birmingham where we had to go in and do the repairs, as a public health authority, and charge the landlord for them, because he had ignored the representations made by the sanitary authorities. These are the people being defended by the hon. Member for Norwich, South, and by the Government, the people who have neglected their responsibilities as landlords and are now whining about their poverty and their need for increased rents to cover up their past misdeeds.
The hon. Member for Norwich, South, told us that we had no right to make a fuss about these things, that the situation would work itself out if we did not open our mouths so much and make such a fuss. Everything, he said, would have been all right in time. We have heard that story before. We know how a situation works itself out for the workers; the workers always get the worst end of the stick. He told us that if we would only allow the free play of private enterprise, there would be plenty of houses available to let, as there were after the war. When I challenged the hon. Gentleman about which war he meant, he said that he was referring to the 1930s, when there were in London plenty of houses to let at reasonable rents. Of 1207 course, he was talking about the time when we were faced with mass unemployment. Of course, anyone can solve a housing problem by depleting the incomes of tenants and forcing them into lodgings. If that is the Government's solution, let us hear about it.
We are told that we on this side are responsible for exploiting the hardships of people for political ends. My, my! Good gracious! I can remember the days when the Labour Government were in power, immediately after the most devastating war in history, when we were trying to bring the country out of the bankruptcy to which the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) referred. Every little hardship was exploited by the Tories in their Press and at the street corner. The quarter of an ounce of cheese, the ounce or two of bacon—everything like that was exploited against a Government facing a far more difficult economic situation than the present Government face. When we deal with real, human facts, we are charged with exploiting hardship for party ends.
This Bill, like the one it amends, is weighted against the tenant. The landlords will easily outwit both the Government and the tenants by exploiting its loopholes. The "St. George of Whitehall" warned the landlords, in dulcet tones, some time ago that, if they were not good lads, he would do something about it. We told him then that the landlords would cock a snook at him. Now, in this Bill, he is going for the reluctant dragon with a pea shooter, and even the peas are made only of putty.
Before a tenant will have any protection in the courts, he has to run the gauntlet of exceptions and exemptions. More obligations are imposed on the tenant than on the landlord. The Minister told us, in his opening speech, that, before he can receive the protection of the Bill, the occupier must make a reasonable effort to reach agreement with the owner. We have heard from both sides of the House what some of these agreements are. The tenant, we are told, must take all reasonable steps to secure appropriate accommodation. I do not see anything in the Bill which tells us what "appropriate accommodation" is.
1208 I have uneasy memories of people being driven to squat in Army huts in the height of the housing shortage at the end of the First World War, as well as at the end of the Second World War. So long as they squatted in Army huts, would that be "appropriate accommodation" for them? If they had a caravan and got a temporary caravan site, would that be "appropriate accommodation"?
Surely we can expect, when the Bill goes to Committee, something, say, a Schedule, to lay down what is meant by "reasonable steps" and what is meant by "appropriate accommodation". For instance, one of the provisions is that if the tenant gives up possession the protection of the Bill is withdrawn. There are no provisions to penalise the landlord who gains possession by threats, guile and misrepresentation.
We all know—and we have had examples this afternoon—the type of landlord and agent who use every subterfuge to gain their pound of flesh. Estate agents generally are a shady lot. They are entrenched on local councils, but whereas the councillor who is a council house tenant is treated as a criminal, the estate agent, with his private builder pal, uses information gained in the council to enrich himself and gets away with it.
These people sell property, after faking it up, to unsuspecting couples desperate for accommodation and then, as members of the health authority responsible for compulsory closing orders, turn the same people out. They buy up bug-ridden and bug-infested property. They fake it up by, for instance, putting in a new, up-to-date fire grate, ripping the skirting boards away and nailing them up with something else in order to sell for 500 "quid" a house built for 70 "quid". Also, they lend the people the money and get the interest as well.
I had a case like that only two or three years ago in my old constituency, in Birmingham. A young couple were told that they could have the house, but that they would have to borrow the money from the person selling the house and pay 10 per cent. interest on the money that they borrowed.
These are the kind of people who get protection from the Government. If a tenant accepts a new tenancy agreement he loses the protection of the Bill. But 1209 there is no provision to ensure that the agreement is an agreement. A thing that is imposed is not an agreement; it is an ultimatum. We all know that many of these agreements are signed under duress. They are harsh, cruel and unjust. No doubt the flinty-hearted Minister will say that the tenant signed with his eyes open. But the landlord has his hands and pocket open, too, for all that can be put into them. It is a grotesque travesty to call these documents agreements.
What will happen to these poor people? These so-called agreements are enforced under the threat of eviction. Many of these tenants are old people who have lived for many years and have raised families in the house. They have made bricks and mortar—often decaying bricks and perishing mortar—into a home, a place with memories of a lifetime. These are the kind of poor old people who will be penalised and turned out as a result of the actions of the Government, and the Bill gives them no real protection.
The Government used to bring tears to our eyes by a recital of over the hills to the poor house. We could bring tears to the eyes of even the Minister by telling him about these old people. We know that we cannot get blood out of a stone, but we might get tears out of flint. We could bring to his notice cases of these old people who have reared a family and perhaps grandchildren in a house. They have all their old treasures there. Every stick and ornament has been bought out of their hard-earned toil. Their home has been built around them with love and care. They have an affection for it. Are we to allow scandalous landlords to say, "Unless you pay three or four times the rent that you have been paying, out you go"? The Government do not, by any part of this Bill, give protection to these people. The agreements imposed upon them ought to be vetted by the Government if they propose to use the agreements as one of the instruments of their Bill.
The conditions laid down for the suspension of the order for possession by the county court are reminiscent of the old-fashioned Tory methods of dealing with the workers. They are merely a replica of the old "not genuinely seeking work" formula, only now the formula is "not genuinely seeking housing accom- 1210 modation." Just as the unemployed tramped round with empty bellies and aching feet seeking non-existent jobs, so old-age pensioners are expected to tramp round seeking non-existent houses. If they do not find them, out they go. The hon. Member for Norwich says that they must go and that they do not matter.
Then there is the greater hardship provision which always works against the tenant, especially the poor tenant who cannot afford legal advice. I dislike the glib way in which the Minister and his minions say that these people must go to a lawyer, an architect or a surveyor, as if the workers have "oodles" of money that they can spend on professional advice. The onus ought not to be on the tenant, but on the landlord. The provision with regard to "own occupation" or "occupation by relatives" is merely another loophole for sharp practice by slick operators. The Bill does not say "permanent occupation." Therefore, a flit in and a flit out after a few weeks would suffice to get possession prior to sale at an enhanced value, and they pocket the money and the old people suffer the pain.
Clause 3 provides a reasonable example of the pro-landlord bias of the Bill. It seeks to assume that the Rent Act had not ceased to apply to the dwelling house. It does not give the tenant the protection of the Act, but favours the landlord by telling the court that he may refuse to assist the tenant.
I have tried to be as quick and as direct as possible, because I believe in speaking directly, and I believe in speaking out, because what we have to say ought to be said from the housetops. This Bill is the result of a cowardly climb-down in response to the internal pressure of Government supporters. The Government are afraid to wound their friends, but are willing to strike at the tenants with this bogus Bill, which, while claiming to give some meagre and conditional protection to the tenant, by its very conditional proposals gives much greater protection to landlords than to tenants. A courageous Government, in view of the opposition from their friends and the London County Council elections, would have repealed the original Act. Had they done so, this make-shift mockery of a Bill would have been unnecessary.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John Maclay)
I confess that tears involuntarily came into my eyes during part of the speech of the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons). But I wondered, when the full emotional impact of the hon. Gentleman's words was having that effect upon me, how many of those whom he was describing are living in houses of over £30 rateable value or £40 in London. It was a very emotional speech on behalf of some—I suspect a large number—non-existent people who are affected by this part of the Rent Act that we are discussing. I always react to that kind of appeal, but it is extremely wrong to produce that kind of appeal when it is irrelevant to the subject we are discussing.
I would say this in general before I go on to the detailed Scottish part of the Bill. I wonder how many hon. Members remember, as I do, people saying to them over the years, "Isn't it a pity that we cannot take this problem of rent control of houses out of party politics?" That has been said to me time and time again. The reason for it is that everybody recognises that those countries which have maintained a tight system of rent control on and on, year after year, because nobody had the courage to tackle the problem, landed themselves in a very grave housing mess. One can look abroad wherever one likes and see that. Hon. Members opposite must themselves have said that sooner or later this problem must be tackled.
Let me give one of the reasons why I feel that our Scottish problem must be tackled. It is not just the purpose of the Rent Act to make possible the better repair of the houses, important though that is. One purpose is to get greater flexibility of movement as between houses. That is what the decontrol Section of the Rent Act is intended to achieve.
If there was a part of the country where we need that, it is in certain parts of Scotland, where every morning we have this extraordinary movement of people going to jobs in one direction and crossing others going to jobs in the opposite direction. If only we could get greater flexibility we could avoid a lot of unnecessary travelling and unnecessary tiredness at the end of a long day's 1212 work. Anything we can do to achieve that, I am certain that we are right to do. I believe that hon. and right hon. Members opposite agree with us in that.
What we have done is to take a brave decision. Now, as both my right hon. Friend the Minister and I have said for months past, when we have seen that certain problems are arising we are having the courage to deal with them. I regret bitterly that this type of problem is inevitably party political. I agree with the hon. Member opposite who said that in opposition one perhaps does these things, but this is one of those human problems where, if it is tackled safely and wisely and without making use of it for election purposes, we might get much quicker—[Interruption.]—I say that it might happen on either side and that we ourselves occasionally may have done that—we would get a much quicker solution to one of our greatest human problems.
I should like briefly to say something about the Scottish part of the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will feel it useful if I intervene at this stage of the debate to give an explanation. Had I spoken later, hon. Members would justifiably have wondered why I had not given my explanation of the Scottish Clauses.
I repeat that there is good reason to believe that the large bulk of the owners of decontrolled houses are acting reasonably and that, as matters stand, it is only a relatively small proportion of the tenants of these houses in Scotland who will be under notice to move in October. Nevertheless, it seems right that those who receive notice to quit and have not succeeded in making other arrangements should, in certain circumstances, be able to seek a further period of occupation so that they may have more time to find alternative accommodation.
§ Mr. Douglas Johnston (Paisley)
The right hon. Gentleman said there was reason to believe that the majority of tenants in Scotland have been able to reach reasonable agreements with their landlords. What is the ground for that belief?
§ Mr. Maclay
The ground for that belief is the evidence one gets of the proportion of hard cases of which one hears where agreement has not been reached to the total number of houses involved. There 1213 are certain limited areas where, I know, there is real difficulty; but by and large, over the whole of Scotland, as far as one can judge by the letters that come in, one way and another the problem is not on a big scale except in certain limited areas where, I agree, it is on a substantial scale.
It may be that a number of the tenants in this position will be old people, and we are particularly anxious that their cases should receive sympathetic consideration. I do not want to go over everything that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs has said before me, but hon. Members will have seen that in considering whether the occupier has made all reasonable efforts to secure a new tenancy agreement, and has taken all reasonable steps to obtain other accommodation, the court is required to have regard, among other things, to the means of the occupier, to his age and to any disability to which he may be subject. That is covered by Clause 3 (3).
My right hon. Friend has explained in some detail the way in which the whole Bill will operate. In all essentials, it applies to Scotland in the same way as to England and Wales. In dealing with the differences that arise, I will got go over the Bill as a whole. First, I should perhaps deal with the requirement of Clause 1 that the owner must go to the court if he wishes to recover possession of his house. The general position in Scotland is that the owner of a house who is entitled to recover possession has, in the ordinary course, to go to the sheriff, if the house is not given up by the tenant, to obtain a decree of removal.
At present, however, in considering an application for decree, the sheriff may give only a relatively short period of postponement of possession in terms of the general discretion vested in him. It is because of this that we are applying to Scotland as well as to England and Wales the provisions of the Bill requiring the owner to go to the court for an order for possession and enabling the court, if the qualifying tests outlined by my right hon. Friend are satisfied, to grant a postponement of possession for a period of not less than three months nor more than nine months. I mention that because the hon. and learned Member for Paisley 1214 (Mr. D. Johnston) might well have taken me up on it later as to why it was necessary to do this in Scotland, where the normal practice is that the landlord has to go to the sheriff. I am advised that this is much the simplest way of clearing the point of the three to nine months. Any other way would have been very complicated.
As will be seen in Clause 2 (5), the provision governing the rent payable by the occupier in the period before the court decides on the landlord's application for an order of possession takes another form for Scotland as compared with what will apply in England and Wales. The reason for this is that, whereas for England and Wales the Rent Act, 1957, laid down new rent limits for controlled houses based on valuations for rating, the position in Scotland is meanwhile quite different. In the absence of up-to-date and uniform valuations—we shall not have these until 1961–62, as hon. Members know—the Rent Act, 1957, in its application to Scotland provided merely for interim increases in rent.
What the Bill proposes is that, in the period before the Sheriff's decision on the landlord's application for an order of possession, the occupier will normally pay the existing rent of the house together with an increase amounting to one-half the 1954 rent; that is to say, an increase equivalent in amount to the repairs increase chargeable under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, 1954, as amended by last year's Rent Act. The occupier will thus be paying an increase in rent equal to the maximum increase that he could have been asked to pay if the house had remained controlled. This increased rent——
§ Mr. Maclay
They are there if the hon. Member looks at Clause 2 (5). I beg pardon, I think it is a slightly different point. I will come to it later. I think I realise what the hon. Member means.
The occupier will thus be paying an increase in rent equal to the maximum increase that he could have been asked to pay if the house had remained controlled. This increased rent will also be the minimum below which the sheriff cannot reduce the rent when granting a postponement of possession if satisfied that 1215 the occupier cannot pay what the owner asks.
The rent provision in Clause 2 (5) may appear complicated, but it is relatively straightforward if one remembers that the 1954 rent is the same as the present rateable value. In May, 1957, following the abolition of owner's rates under the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1956, all rents in Scotland were reduced by the amount of owner's rates for 1956–57. In the normal case, the existing rent of a house decontrolled under Section 11 (1) of the Rent Act, where a new three-year tenancy has not been entered into by landlord and tenant, is the 1954 rent reduced by the amount of owner's rates.
There is, therefore, considerable variation as between one district and another in the existing rents of houses of the same rateable value, but under the Bill the amount of the increase payable by the occupier in the period before the sheriff decides on the landlord's application will be the same for all houses of the same rateable value.
I apologise to the House for having to go into such detail, but I think it is very important to make these complicated provisions as clear as I can.
Where the existing rent includes a repairs increase under the 1954 Act, that increase will be excluded from the calculation, so that only one increase will be payable; that is, the increase under the Bill amounting to one-half of the 1954 rent. This leads me to emphasise that the increase for which the Bill provides is not, of course, a repairs increase, although it is equivalent in amount to the repairs increase under the 1954 Act as amended by the Rent Act.
§ Mr. Ross
The right hon. Gentleman said that in the calculation of the increase the repairs increase would not be taken into account. He went on to say that that means that tenants will pay only one increase. Does he mean to say that if landlords have already been granted under the 1954 Act, as amended by the last Act, a 50 per cent. increase, they are not going to be allowed any further increase? If so, all he requires to state is that they will get no more than they are now getting. There seems to be something wrong with his explanation.
§ Mr. Maclay
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will find it wrong if he reads it carefully. It is complicated. The object of the provision is to say that the minimum figure is not less than the maximum of the controlled figures, which is the only fair thing to do. The hon. Gentleman will find that what I bye said—I checked it very carefully, because it is complicated—is correct: if the provisions were not made in the way they have been made there would be a risk of a double application.
§ Mr. Maclay
I would not attempt to answer that straightaway. I do not think it is relevant to the point I was making. My major point is that we had to provide a fair figure, and I think this is the device which will produce the fairest one possible.
Perhaps it might help if I illustrated the rent provision with a couple of examples. In Glasgow, a house with a 1954 rent of £45 and a present rateable value of the same amount will, with the reduction for owner's rates, have a net rent at present of £23 16s. 3d. a year. To this existing rent will be added an increase of one-half of the 1954 rent—an increase of £22 10s. This makes a total rent of £46 6s. 3d.
Then there is another example. In Edinburgh a house with a 1954 rent of £60 and a rateable value of the same amount will, with the reduction for owner's rates, have a net rent at present of £44 5s. The increase to be added to this is £30—one-half of the 1954 rent—and the total rent is thus £74 5s.
§ Mr. McInnes
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is scrupulously fair in his analogy, for the simple reason that he has no regard to the pre-1954 position, the pre-rating and valuation position, when the owner's rate element was contained in the rent. I think it would overcome his difficulty if he simply said that what happens is that the amount of rent recoverable will be the 1957 rent plus an amount equal to one-half of the 1954 rent. That is all that is involved.
§ Mr. Maclay
I think that that is correct. That would have been a simpler way to have put it. I am always cautious; I do not want to be too sure about all these formulæ. I thought it right to deal with the matter as accurately as I could to show how we arrive at the result, and that is why I have done it.
The Government consider it reasonable that the occupier of a decontrolled house who remains in possession should be asked to pay an increased rent: during the "standstill" period he has been paying the same rent as before decontrol.
The rent I have been mentioning is the rent payable under the Bill in the period before the sheriff decides on the landlord's application for an order of possession. Obviously, a specific rent has to be laid down for that period by the Bill since both owner and occupier must know where they stand. But if an application is made to the sheriff and he decides that possession should be postponed for a period within the limits set by the Bill, the rent payable by the occupier will be the rent the owner asks, unless the sheriff is satisfied that this is beyond the means of the occupier. In that case, the sheriff may fix a lower rent, but not below the figure that the occupier was paying up to the date of the sheriff's decision.
That minimum figure, under the provisions of Clause 2 (5), will be the rent now payable together with the increase equal to one-half of the 1954 rent. This represents the maximum that the tenant of a controlled house could be asked to pay, and we consider that, in fairness to the controlled tenants, the sheriff should not be able to reduce the rent below that amount in granting postponement of possession in a case where he is satisfied that the occupier cannot pay the rent asked by the owner.
We consider that this provision is best suited to the circumstances with which we are dealing. The houses we are concerned with are houses that have been decontrolled, and we take the view that it is not for us—or for the courts for that matter—to lay down what the rent should be. The rent of a decontrolled house is a matter between owner and occupier, but no occupier will be forced to agree to a rent that he cannot pay during the period of postponement granted by the court. We consider, moreover, that this is the fairest arrange- 1218 ment, having regard to those tenants of decontrolled houses who have entered into agreements with their landlords for new three-year tenancies.
As in the case of my right hon. Friend, once the Bill comes to be enacted it is my intention to have a separate Scottish leaflet prepared and made available as widely as possible so that everyone involved can find out exactly how the Bill affects them. We intend to circulate it to the citizen's advice bureaux and local authority offices and get it into the hands of as many factors as we possibly can. The leaflet will, of course, be free of charge. It is hardly necessary to say that in the case of Scotland.
I hope and believe that between now and the end of the "standstill" period in October many more landlords and tenants will reach satisfactory arrangements for new three-year tenancies. I would advise those tenants who wish to continue occupation of their houses but who have not so far tried to obtain a new three-year tenancy to approach their landlords now with a view to seeing on what basis they might be willing to enter into an agreement. Tenants who have been given notice to quit should also consider a further approach to their landlords.
I have said this before, and I say it again today, and I may go on saying it, because I know at this moment of cases where people are not taking these essential steps to ascertain what the position will finally be and whether agreement can be reached.
There is one further point that I should mention about this. In some cases there may be scope for agreement for a new tenancy for a shorter period than three years beginning after the "standstill" ends. For example, it may be possible to continue the tenancy on a yearly basis. Under Clause 1 (3), where a shorter tenancy of this kind, beginning after the end of the "standstill" period, has been agreed between the parties, the provisions of the Bill will not apply to the house while the tenancy lasts. The effect of this is to enable owner and occupier to come to their own arrangements, but the provisions of the Bill will be there in the background to prevent hardship at the end of such a shorter tenancy to the occupier who can satisfy the court on the qualifying tests.
1219 I should repeat that what we are essentially concerned with in this Bill is preventing hardship to the tenant who is unable to reach a new three-year agreement with his landlord and has made a genuine effort to find alternative accommodation but has been unsuccessful. I believe that the Bill can achieve that purpose and can help during the transitional period which is causing some of us and some other people anxiety.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)
The Minister began his speech by saying, in response to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons), that we were dealing today with a human problem. When I look at the provisions of the Rent Act and at the provisions of this Bill, I wonder whether or not there is a recognition that we are dealing with a human problem.
The right hon. Gentleman said at the outset of his speech that, in his opinion, the large majority of owners were acting reasonably and had been able to come to agreements with their tenants. When my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. D. Johnston) asked him where he got the information, the right hon. Gentleman replied that it was according to what one hears.
§ Mr. McInnes
If that is the case, I am surprised, because we on this side have not received a single letter from any constituent indicating that he has been able to come to an agreement with the landlord or owner on this issue. It always amazes and irritates me when people make statements without being able to substantiate those statements by giving fact and figure, but merely say in a general sense that there is this evidence.
Quite candidly, I confess that there is no such evidence existing in Scotland which is available to the right hon. Gentleman or to any hon. Member of this House, because the information has not been collated. Indeed, by way of Question and Answer in this House, we keep 1220 endeavouring to solicit from the right hon. Gentleman or his Under-Secretaries up-to-date information, but they are unable to provide figures for us. To that extent, I think it is unwise of the right hon. Gentleman to create the impression that landlords or owners are acting reasonably and are able to come to agreements with their tenants. That attitude irritates me, and this Bill also irritates me.
I am irritated that the Secretary of State for Scotland should give us another illustration of how slavishly he has superimposed a Sassenach solution on a Scottish housing problem. His master has gone, and he is left to deal himself with an English solution to a Scottish housing problem which has absolutely no relationship to the problem existing in England and Wales.
This Bill provides for the postponement in certain cases of notices to quit under the Rent Act for a period between three and nine months, with the possibility of further extension. It applies in cases where a tenant has failed to reach agreement with his landlord, when he will be able, when the notice to quit expires, to remain in temporary possession of the house, pending the decision of the sheriff court on the case. The sheriff will give a decision provided that the tenant is able to satisfy the court on four conditions, and these four conditions are outlined in Clause 3. One of these conditions is that the tenant has taken all reasonable steps to secure other appropriate accommodation but has failed.
Why has the tenant failed to secure other appropriate accommodation? We were told, during the Second Reading of the Rent Bill, that the fundamental reason for the introduction of that Bill was that we in this country had reached equation in the law of supply and demand for houses, and that the time was now opportune to relax the restrictions imposed in the Rent Restriction Acts. I pleaded at that time that, whatever might be the position in England and Wales where equation is concerned, it was certainly not true of the position in Scotland. I pointed out that it would not be possible for us in Scotland to reach equation within the next ten years. I further indicated that Scotland required 400,000 houses before we could say that we had reached equation in the law of supply and demand. I also pointed out that the four 1221 cities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, had waiting lists which totalled 200,000 in the aggregate. In proportion, London would require to have a waiting list of almost 600,000 people.
The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that the housing problem in Scotland is radically different from that of England and Wales, and yet no allowance has been made in the Bill, nor was it made in the Rent Act, for the difference. The tenant of a house in Scotland does not have the same degree of flexibility as a tenant down here may have. It is almost impossible to find alternative accommodation in any part of Scotland, and that is especially true of the large cities. A tenant in Scotland is, therefore, left to the mercy of the landlord, and to that extent the landlord can impose any increases in rent he wishes, and can even give a tenant notice to quit.
I made these points during the debates on the Rent Act, and I repeat them this evening. Despite all my pleas, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite argued that the Rent Act would result in a greater pool of houses becoming available. That statement was made by one of the Joint Under-Secretaries of State, who said that there would be more mobility and greater flexibility. If those assertions were correct, why do we have the Bill today? If there has been a greater pool of housing in Scotland, more mobility and greater flexibility, what is the necessity for the Bill?
The hon. Baronet, the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) went so far as to say that the Labour Party was wrong in asserting that as a result of decontrol demands for houses and rents for those houses would reach astronomical proportions. He said that it was fantastic to suggest that rent levels would soar to astronomical heights and he said that the fears of my hon. Friends about extortionate rents were unfounded and greatly exaggerated. Surely, the reason for the present Measure is the fact that extortionate rents are being asked and the fact that they are being backed by the threat of eviction.
I am satisfied that the right hon. Gentleman now recognises that the sky is the limit—or the threat of proceedings under the Rent Act—and that is undoubtedly creating worry, distress, hardship and anxiety among thousands of people in 1222 Scotland. Any Act of Parliament which creates those feelings should be repealed and replaced by more humane legislation. I do not regard the Bill as humane legislation. It does not meet the situation in Scot land today.
What is a tenant to do? At the behest of the landlord, a tenant has to go to the sheriff's court. As we have so often indicated, any decent-minded citizen is reluctant to go to the sheriff's court to settle a rent dispute. It is a reluctance which we can all understand, because most people regard the sheriff's court as a court not of civil but of criminal justice. Under the provisions of the Bill, tenants will have to go to the sheriff's court to defend their possession and, in the process, they will have to incur legal expense.
I do not know what the legal expense in Scotland may be. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Paisley may be able to say. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) estimated the figure at £25 per day in England and Wales. Having gone to court to obtain a postponement of possession by the landlord, the tenant has to satisfy four conditions. However, as the right hon. Gentleman himself indicated, pending the court hearing, the tenant must, in accordance with Clause 2 (5), pay the 1957 rent plus an amount equal to half the rent in 1954. That could mean anything from £25 to £40 a year more in rent. It would largely depend on the pre-1954 rent.
That does not carry any guarantee that repairs will be undertaken, but worse is to follow. If the sheriff grants postponement, he can also decide that the new rent will be that demanded by the landlord, even if he grants a postponement of eviction for only six months. What will that rent be? The right hon. Gentleman gave us the example of a Glasgow rent at £45, but it is conceivable that the sheriff could decide that the rent should be not £45 but £145.
We find ourselves right back in the position which existed under the Rent Act. In other words, the sky is the limit for the rent which the tenant will have to pay during the period of postponement of this eviction. If the tenant cannot afford to pay what the landlord asks, the sheriff can also decide to make the rent smaller, but in the process of doing so 1223 he will have regard to other family incomes coming into the house. It is conceivable that, when all the earnings are added together, the total may be sufficient for the sheriff to feel justified in granting the landlord an exceedingly high rent.
The Bill is not a satisfactory solution to the problem with which we are faced in Scotland. I suggest to the Secretary of State that he withdraw that part of the Bill which relates to Scotland, or completely repeal the application of the Rent Act for Scotland. If he wants to introduce legislation dealing with rents, let him do it without decontrol, and by fixing a rent ceiling, and making adequate provision for repairs, but without powers of eviction.
I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman not to be associated with the Bill. It is no solution. The only solution, even from the Tory point of view, is the complete withdrawal of the Rent Act. If time and the rules of order permitted, I might argue the policy of the Labour Party. However, being unable to do that, I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to realise that this Bill is no solution to the problem. It will not relieve the hardship, distress, anxiety and worry which it is intended to relieve, and to that extent it is not a Measure worthy of any consideration.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)
I should not have the temerity to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes), or to intervene in connection with the Scottish side of the Bill, but I should like to comment upon the speech of the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons).
I was sorry that the hon. Member did his best to raise the heat of the Chamber, which, so far, had not been too high. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful, because he was speaking to an even smaller number of people than are listening to me. He was a little ill-advised—in attacking us over the housing problem and this Bill—to quote what was happening in the years immediately after the last war. After all, if it had not been for what we did in the years when we first came to power, six years after the war, we should be in a far worse housing position than we are now.
1224 The hon. Member referred to the unfortunate people who were squatting in Army huts. I remember them well enough in my old constituency, in those days, and anybody less charitable than I might have been inclined to say that if the party opposite had remained in power some of those people, who are now living in comfortable houses, would still be squatting in those Army huts.
I am glad that the temperature of the debate has been fairly low, because through all the long drawn-out discussions during the various stages of the Rent Act, and then Tuesday after Tuesday at Question Time in the Chamber, and recently, every week, during the introduction of Bills under the Ten Minutes Rule, rather vicious attacks have been made against Conservative Party policy and against my right hon. Friend the Minister. I do not believe hon. Members opposite intended what they said in those attacks, any more than I believe the counter-accusations which have been flung from this side of the House, in the heat of debate, about hon. Members opposite looking forward to mass evictions in the autumn and being sorry that this Bill was introduced because it would put a stop to them and, therefore, remove from their hands a very useful propaganda weapon.
It was said today—and agreed to by hon. Members opposite—that the general accusation made against our party in the matter of the Rent Act is that it is the landlords' party.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
I thought that I should get support from the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis).
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
I hope that I can convince the hon. Member of my argument as I go on.
It is said that the Tory Party is the landlords' party and that the object of the Rent Act is to evict tenants or make 1225 them pay an unduly greater amount of rent in order to put more money into the pocket of the landlords, who already have far too much. A moment's reflection will show what an untenable argument that it. How many landlords are there, and how many tenants?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
We know that there are roughly 5¼ million tenants of private landlords. We do not know how many landlords there are; we can only guess. We know that some landlords have only one house, in addition to that in which they live; that others have two or three, some half a dozen, some half a street, and the large property-owning companies, thousands. We can at least say that there are infinitely more tenants than landlords, and any party which set out to benefit the landlords unfairly at the expense of the tenants would be committing political suicide.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
Quite apart from the fact that such a policy would be politically mad, I do not feel that hon. Members opposite think so badly of us—
§ Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)
Can the hon. and gallant Gentleman tell us how many farmers we have, and how many consumers of food? Does not he agree that farmers are very well done by by the party opposite, but that consumers of food are much more numerous?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
I do not want to follow the hon. Member in that argument. Fortunately, in my present constituency, Central Nottingham, I do not have to deal with any farmers, or with agricultural problems.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
The Rent Act was bound to be unpopular, but hon. Members opposite, however much they may dislike it and attack it, must at least give us credit for good motives in introducing it, and agree that the reason we did so was not simply to enrich the landlords but to make the best use we possibly could of existing accommodation, to prevent the formation of new slums, and continue the policy which was exemplified 1226 when we came to power by our enormous increase of building, the provision of the maximum number of decent homes for our people.
The Rent Act was undoubtedly very unpopular, and it was for this reason that its supporters have often described it as courageous. In many respects it certainly was courageous, but because of Section 11 (1) I never felt that that adjective could properly be applied to the Act as a whole. There is nothing very courageous in frightening a lot of people who are old and ill, and perhaps eventually turning them out of their homes. But this Bill is courageous. Some unkind things have been said about it, and words very much the reverse of "courageous" have been used, but it is courageous if one eventually finds that things have not gone quite as one prophesied, to recognise the fact immediately and take action to remedy it.
§ Mr. John Diamond (Gloucester)
The hon. and gallant Member knows that it is not generally regarded as courageous to lead one's regiment from many months behind, and from nowhere near the firing line. The Bill is being introduced because of pressure from these benches and the benches opposite, besides the pressure of the public, and the meetings in Holborn.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
The action of my right hon. Friend in bringing forward the Bill has been taken because he has finally become satisfied that action was necessary. He did not want to take it prematurely, but now that he is satisfied he has taken it.
Some hon. Members on this side of the House have always believed that Section 11 (1) of the Rent Act must produce considerable fear and anxiety for hundreds of thousands of people, and eventual distress and hardship for tens of thousands; others have believed that it would have worked perfectly well if it had not been for the actions and the declared future policy of hon. Members opposite, while still others of us have believed that it would have worked out quite well if it had not been for sheer bad luck, because of things like the credit squeeze. Whoever is right, there is no doubt that my right hon. Friend feels that there would be hardship if legislative action were not taken, and he has 1227 very courageously taken it. This Bill is the result.
When my right hon. Friend made his statement on 2nd April he said that the families evicted would be concentrated mainly in a few areas. That is true. My own postbag, which has been very extensive on the subject, is composed, as to over half, of letters from tenants in London and nearby areas, but I have, nevertheless, had many cases brought to my notice from hardly-placed tenants all over the country, in widely different areas, from Kent to Cumberland, and Norfolk to South Devonshire.
I do not want to weary hon. Members by quoting particular cases. I know that their postbags must be full of them. But perhaps I may be permitted to quote one from my own constituency to illustrate my point. I hasten to say that Nottingham is not a place where this problem is acute. The case I have in mind recently came to my notice and concerns a lady aged 67, who is in poor health. She suffers from heart disease, diabetes and asthma. She has rented a house in Nottingham for a long time and keeps going by letting some rooms furnished. At present, they are let to two civil servants and their wives and one single man. A couple live there rent free, to help with the house.
Not long ago the House was sold to an Indian and soon after the passing of the Rent Act he gave notice that she was to go as soon as possible, at any rate not later than 6th October. The reason he gave—and these are more or less his own words—was that he had got a good many men coming over from India and they must have somewhere to live. Had the matter gone as he intended not merely would this elderly lady have been turned out, but two other English families and another Englishman would have been turned out to make room for some of these Indian parasites now flooding over to this country who create one of the most difficult housing problems that we have in Nottingham. I should have been happier to see the legislation proposed take the form——
§ Mr. Lawson
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it permissible for an hon. Member to abuse a nation with whom 1228 we are on friendly relations, as the hon. and gallant Member opposite has done—to talk of "Indian parasites"?
§ Mr. Speaker
I did not understand the hon. and gallant Member to use that expression against the Government of India in any sense at all. It is a matter of discretion what language hon. Members use about other people outside this House, The hon. and gallant Member did not use it against any hon. Member of the House or against any Government. It is open to hon. Members to have their own views about the propriety of the language
§ Mr. Lawson
In this case, the hon. and gallant Gentleman is making an assertion about a people and there is no question of anyone challenging what he said. Is not that something which he should be asked either to substantiate or to withdraw?
§ Mr. Speaker
Hon. Members frequently make allegations about people from other countries, but that is no concern of mine.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am glad of the opportunity of saying that what I said was in no sense directed against India or the Indian nation as such. But having referred to Indian parasites in Nottingham. I take back not one word of what I said. I have referred to the matter before and I hope that I shall be able to refer to it in the future in greater detail.
§ Mr. H. Butler
Would the hon. and gallant Member describe English landlords responsible for similar happenings as "English parasites"?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux
No, I will certainly not follow the hon. Gentleman in that, except to say that in my experience a considerable proportion of the extortion going on in that way in Nottingham is due to the actions of people who are not English.
I should prefer to see this legislation in the form of a repeal of Section 11 (1) of the Rent Act, which would put the tenants concerned on exactly the same footing as those occupying controlled tenancies. But I know perfectly well that we never get all we want. I regret the provisions of Clause 3 (5) which prevent a court from granting protection to the tenant if the landlord has, in fact, 1229 promised a house with vacant possession to someone on a particular date, having done so before 2nd April.
I ask my right hon. Friend—I know the difficulties—whether it is possible to look again at that matter and consider whether the court could be allowed, if asked, to consider the question on a hardship basis; so that eviction cannot be allowed unless the prospective occupier can show that he would suffer greater hardship if the eviction did not take place than would the existing tenant if it did. That would put the tenant under the same protection as is afforded to tenants of controlled houses, if under the existing law, the landlord wants to take over the house for his own occupation or the occupation of near relatives.
Similarly, in the case of Clause 3 (2), I feel sorry that when the court has granted an extension the rent to be paid is to be decided by the landlord, and will be exactly what he says unless the tenant can show that the rent demanded is beyond his means. I had hoped that the minimum rent allowed would he twice the gross value, the same as it is from the time that the notice of eviction expires to the time when the case is heard by the court. Nevertheless. I believe that this Bill will produce a great measure of justice for the tenant, in the same way as I know the statement of the right hon. Gentleman on 2nd April has already lifted a great burden of fear and anxiety from their shoulders.
There is one class who will still feel considerably aggrieved if the Bill becomes law, and that is the tenants who, not expecting such legislation, met what they considered the extortionate demands of landlords. We hear a great deal about the large number of tenants who have reached satisfactory agreement. Those agreements may be satisfactory to the landlord, but in many cases they are not satisfactory to the tenant. I know of many cases where the tenant could well afford the new rent, but there are also cases where tenants have agreed to hard terms because they were desperate to keep their homes. Now, some of them are getting into debt and some are going hungry.
I know how difficult it would be to do anything for those people, but I am wondering whether my right hon. Friend would see whether it is possible for such 1230 people to apply to the county court to fix a fair rent if the present rent is beyond their means. They would then be treated on the same basis as those tenants who are catered for by the provisions in Clause 3 (2). Of course, I know that we shall never be able to protect the people who need protection most. They are the people who signed those agreements and find it difficult to speak for themselves and to battle with their landlords, and for whom the very ordeal of going to the county court is almost unbearable.
As I understand, this Bill is, ostensibly, a temporary Measure, but I hope that it will so work out that it will grant permanent security to the hard cases. When my right hon. Friend made his statement on 2nd April he said that the people concerned… are likely to be elderly people with limited means—the type of people whose problems, naturally, take longer to solve, and who might be exposed to severe hardship if they were not given a little more time to find suitable accommodation within their means."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1958; Vol. 585, c. 1225.]In a leading article, the day after this Bill received its First Reading, the Daily Telegraph stated:The Bill, in providing for a delay of from three to nine months before the landlord can regain possession, gives the tenant adequate opportunity to make new arrangements for accommodation.That is just not true in the really hard cases. In nine months' time the old people will be nine months' older and the sick people will probably be just a little bit more ill. Both of them will be less fit to find other accommodation within their means.
On the same day, after the Bill had reached its First Reading, the Political Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph said:The Minister is confident that the proportion liable to eviction after 6th October will he small. The purpose of the Bill is to give them more time to find suitable accommodation within their means, not to ensure that they will he able to remain in their present houses indefinitely.On the contrary, that is just how I hope the Bill will work out. I hope that, in practice, it will ensure permanent occupation to the really hard cases, the elderly and the sick, as well as the not-too-old and the not-too-sick who are just keeping 1231 going by doing a little work in their own localities. I hope that they will be able to stay in their homes for the rest of their lives. In the ordinary course of nature, the majority of them will not retain their tenancies for very much longer. From now on, death will decontrol those flats and houses at an ever-increasing rate.
I hope that, in practice, the Bill will ensure, and that the way in which county courts interpret it will help to ensure, possibly with the aid of further amending legislation and an increase in the duration of the Bill, that these people will be able to feel that they can remain in their homes for the years that are left to them.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
It is a great pity that the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) marred an otherwise excellent speech by remarks which I do not think were warranted or were worthy of the hon. and gallant Gentleman.
In Scotland, we regard property owners as a class. We do not try to distinguish between one nationality of owner and another. If those who are causing trouble by threatening eviction are parasites, let us call them "property-owning parasites" and not suggest that there is some special significance in the fact that some of them are not British. The Secretary of State for Scotland will confirm that the landlords causing trouble in Glasgow are, as usual, just Glasgow people themselves. They do not care very much who are their tenants; they will take whatever they can get from their tenants.
I was interested to hear the hon. and gallant Gentleman's remarks about hardship, cruelty and injustice. The Secretary of State for Scotland, when he summed up on the Third Reading of the Rent Bill, had something to say about this. He followed a speech by myself in which I had said, referring to the rousing speeches we had at that time from the Tories about strength and courage, that cruelty should not be identified with courage nor injustice be identified with strength. The right hon. Gentleman said he did not think that we were entitled to use the adjectives which were used in the last part of my speech. Yet it is because 1232 the country has generally recognised that there is injustice which has led to physical hardship and mental cruelty that the Government have been forced into action.
It can have come as no surprise to the Government that there are possibilities of injustice and hardship. Right from the Second Reading of the Rent Bill, through the long Committee stage, Report stage and up to the Third Reading, hon. Members, not only from this side but from the Government side, pleaded with the Government to take effective action to prevent hardship, but right to the very last minute Ministers on the Government Front Bench scoffed and scorned, and said there would be no hardship and that we were exaggerating. I have all their speeches here, but I will not read them. Other hon. Members want to speak.
Only a month ago, on 3rd March, we heard speeches from the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and the Secretary of State for Scotland saying once again that the whole position had been exaggerated. Now they are getting on to the road to Damascus. They have seen the light. It has been a very winding road. It led through Lewisham, Rochdale and Kelvingrove.
§ Mr. Ross
The Government's action in bringing forward the Bill is prompted more by political cold feet than by warm hearts. The Bill does not go far enough. It is prompted not by any change of principle but purely and simply by political expediency. Let no one forget that it is a temporary Measure. It may be that the position will not be caught up with in three years and that people will be facing the same problems of eviction in three years' time. Can the Secretary of State for Scotland, knowing the housing situation in Glasgow and in Scotland as a whole, be sure that accommodation will be available at that time? If there should be a Tory Government—which the electors might very well forbid—they will be quite prepared to let this little protection lapse and to leave the unfortunate occupiers, whom they are now trying to protect, to the mercy of the property-owning parasites in Scotland, England and Wales.
1233 I am not satisfied that the Government are prepared to take the kind of action which is necessary. They have done as little as they possibly could. There is no guarantee that anything but the prevention of eviction in October will be effective. Thereafter, the landlord will have to go to the county court, but that is very much easier for the landlord than it is for the occupier. The Bill deals with the cases of people who are poor and old, and who can least afford to defend themselves properly in a court. They are terrified at the very mention of the sheriff's court. The Secretary of State knows this; he knows there is no guarantee that the people concerned will be able to defend themselves.
What is the first thing that will take place? It is a new rent, and in Scotland that will be the present net rent plus 50 per cent. of the 1954 rent. I wish to clear up the point in relation to the repairs increase of 1954. If that has been already granted it remains, but it is left out of the calculation of the new increase. The repairs increase itself was 50 per cent. of the 1954 rent. So now we have two increases of 50 per cent. of the 1954 rent added to the net rent.
§ Mr. Ross
I should like to have confirmation that I am wrong in respect of that. We have had this kind of thing from right hon. Gentlemen before. The Government say one thing and then, half an hour later, they apologise and tell us they were wrong. One class has to be able right away to pay an extra £21 or £22 at the very least. The assessed rental of 1954 is more than £40 and they have to be able to afford an extra £20 as a minimum. They are the people who, under terror and the blackmail fear of eviction, have already signed agreements. They cannot even afford the food with which they normally provide themselves. How can this be justified?
What is to happen if they cannot pay that additional £20 per year rent? Where does the protection come in? The protection of Clause 3 (1, c) is thereby not fulfilled, and they are subject to eviction. They are subject to eviction because of their poverty. If they can afford the £20 they are all right, but, if not, out into the street they go. This is Tory justice. If they can afford £20 and pay 1234 the stipulated increase, before they can prevent eviction they have to satisfy three other conditions, the first of which is that the occupier:has made all reasonable efforts to secure agreement with the owner for a tenancy of the premises for a term of not less than three years;Once again the whole question of rents and the whole question of poverty comes in. There is the definition of the words "reasonable efforts". Suppose that the tenant is unable, after taking all reasonable steps, to obtain other accommodation. This savours of something we on this side of the House knew long ago when we heard the phrase, "not genuinely seeking work". Now it is "not genuinely seeking other accommodation". The proof is on the occupier. Suppose that away in Inverness there are a couple of cottages available and a landlord says to a tenant, "You are a retired person. Did you make the proper efforts to find whether that accommodation was there? You are not tied to a particular spot. You do not need to stay in Glasgow or Edinburgh; you can travel around". How will people in that position be affected?
On the last occasion when the Secretary of State for Scotland spoke in this House he was quite unrepentant about suggesting that there was plenty of accommodation available. He went so far as to tell us that more than 98 per cent. of houses vacant were being re-let. Some people may wonder why I get a little short-tempered with him. He came back a few days later and said he was sorry it was not 98 per cent., but 75 per cent., or something like that—the figures came from the property owners of Glasgow, and it was a sample.
§ Mr. Maclayrose——
§ Mr. Maclay
I made it clear at the time that it was only a sample. The moment I knew the figure was wrong I came to the House and corrected it. From the word "go" it was a sample. I made it absolutely clear on the first occasion that it was a sample.
§ Mr. Maclay
I was not saying that what the hon. Member said was untrue, but he conveyed the impression that on the first occasion I did not make it clear that it was a sample. I made it clear the whole time that it was a sample. He will see that is so if he looks at HANSARD. I am sure he did not mean to convey a wrong impression, but that is what he did.
§ Mr. Ross
The right hon. Gentleman asked why we should not trust such figures given at the time. It was interesting to notice that today, one month later, he did not produce a single figure to prove his case. He was very wise in that because he has no figures to substantiate his case. I am surprised that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) is not present. The figures the right hon. Gentleman and that hon. Member gave during the Third Reading debate have never been justified. They referred to owner-occupied houses which were to be freed for accommodation. The right hon. Gentleman has made it almost impossible for people to get appropriate accommodation. I think they will prove to the satisfaction of the sheriff that they have done everything possible to obtain that accommodation.
What does subsection (1, b) of Clause 3 mean when it says:after taking all reasonable steps for that purpose, to obtain other appropriate accommodation;"?Far too great an onus is being placed on the occupier in these matters, and a heavy onus is being thrown upon the sheriff. If it is desirable that the question of hardship should be adjudged as between owner and occupier, why should not the same criterion be laid down in respect of the owner who at present has signed an agreement? If the agreement was signed before 2nd April I do not know who is to prove that it was a bona fide agreement and that the accommodation would not be occupied by some member of the landlords' family, irrespective of the hardship of the former occupier.
If an eviction order is stayed for three to nine months the rent is the rent fixed by the landlord without any limit at all, unless the sheriff decides that it is more than the person can pay according to a family means test. I hope that the Government will think again about this 1236 matter, because it is most unfair. How is the sheriff to judge the family means? Is he to judge the family living in the house with the parents, or is it to be a very much wider consideration of the family? These provisions are riddled with difficulties. The more we examine the Bill the more difficult it is to understand how there can be justice for the occupier.
I hope that during the Committee stage hon. Members opposite, who have joined with us over a long time in trying to bring to bear pressure that is so necessary in these cases to prevent hardship, will continue to fight. This Measure does not meet the needs of the situation. I am sorry that once again the Secretary of State for Scotland has not been able to assert himself. We have traditions in Scotland relating to housing and trying to defend the poor, the old and the sick—those whose needs the Bill does not meet. I hope that after the Committee stage we shall have a much better Bill as a result of Amendments which will be accepted.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. John Eden (Bournemouth, West)
I have for some time been an interested witness of the gyrations of hon. Members opposite. Some have been reviewing the Bill rather cautiously, wondering whether or not it is a good thing, and dropping an occasional hint that they think it is. Others have come out more strongly on the side of deciding that the Minister was doing nothing short of eating his own words. The Opposition cannot have it both ways. They cannot in one breath indicate that this is such a paltry contribution towards meeting the needs of the moment that it is of little or no account and in the next triumphantly proclaim that my right hon. Friend has at last completely capitulated and recognised the utter failure of the Rent Act by bringing in the Bill.
§ Mr. Eden
My right hon. Friend has not eaten enough of his words, using the hon. and learned Gentleman's phrase, because the case which the Bill is designed to meet was not as widespread as hon. Members opposite would have us believe.
I can speak only from my experience in Bournemouth. Bournemouth is among 1237 the towns which have been most seriously affected by the Rent Act, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the recognition which he has given to this fact. I am grateful to him for introducing the Bill, because it will go very far indeed to help meet the needs of the minority of elderly people, of which Bournemouth has a greater proportion than any other town in the country, who are affected by the Rent Act.
Hon. Members opposite may, as usual, ignore what goes on in other parts of the country, but I hope they will bear in mind for a moment that, while their own constituencies may be not so seriously affected or may be very seriously affected as the case may be, Bournemouth has its problems in this respect, and it is about Bournemouth and my experience in trying to help tenants and landlords alike that I wish to speak.
First, I want to endorse what my right hon. Friend said about the effect on the operation of the Rent Act of the attitude of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, or, to put them collectively, the Socialist Opposition in the country. One aspect of it was the threat of municipalisation, but that was not the only one. I can say from my experience that many tenants and landlords have been hesitant to come to terms and have failed to enter into negotiations because of the attitude adopted generally by the Socialists. I do not expect, any more than my right hon. Friend expects, hon. Members opposite to approve that statement, but I am bound to emphasise this point, because tenant after tenant has been induced to adopt an attitude of opposition to his landlord, and landlord after landlord has been scared into getting out of the domestic property market solely as a result of the attitude of the Opposition towards the operation of the Rent Act.
§ Mr. McInnes
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the Labour Party's nationalisation proposals came out long before the introduction of the Rent Act?
§ Mr. Eden
Yes, it was because I realised that that I said that situation was not due solely to the threat of municipalisation. The cause is the Opposition's general attitude towards the Rent Act. Whether it is on one particular issue or not is immaterial. The fact is 1238 that hon. Members opposite have consistently sought to identify themselves with one section of the community and have endeavoured to force tenants of decontrolled properties to adopt an attitude hostile to their landlords, thereby spoiling the opportunities for negotiation which certainly have existed since the introduction of the Act.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Can the hon. Gentleman produce a single scrap of concrete evidence to bear out his statement?
§ Mr. Eden
I will willingly hand my complete file on the operation of the Rent Act to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his perusal, but I would ask him to accept what I said earlier, that I am basing my remarks on my experience. I could have given specific cases, but I do not think that hon. Members would wish to be wearied by such details. I am not an expert in estate management or estate law or the property market, and I know nothing of the normal jargon of estate agents and landlords and tenants. All I am trying to do is to tell the House something of what I have discovered of the operation of the Rent Act which leads me to support the Bill. I am convinced that the difficulties which the tenants have had in coming to terms with landlords are in no small part due to the attitude of the Labour Party and Opposition Members of Parliament in particular.
To give a specific case, there is a property company in my constituency—by and large, property companies have been extremely reasonable in their attitude towards the operation of the Rent Act, most of the cases of difficulty which I have discovered involve small property owners, in my constituency mainly landladies—which owns a number of blocks of flats in Bournemouth. It has finally been persuaded to clear our of the domestic property market solely as a result of the threats by Labour Party spokesmen in the House and in the country.
§ Mr. H. Butler
What does the hon. Gentleman want us to do because it has cleared out of the property market—send it a wreath?
§ Mr. Eden
This is not a laughing matter. There is no question of sending a wreath. I thought the hon. Member was concerned about the position of 1239 tenants. The tenants of that property company would have been very much helped had it remained in the property market and negotiated new rents with the tenants. However, the company was not persuaded to do so because of the Labour Party threats. Consequently, the hon. Gentleman should more suitably be giving the tenants a wreath.
§ Mr. J. Silverman
What have the property owners done? Have they sold the block of flats? If so, presumably the purchaser has also heard about the prospect of municipalisation.
§ Mr. Eden
The property company has offered extremely reasonable terms to its tenants which give them the opportunity to purchase their flats and become, as it were, shareholders in the block of flats in which they have hitherto been tenants. I may say that the terms are so extremely reasonable that many of the tenants have accepted them. The fact nevertheless remains that, by and large, some of these people have been persuaded to get out of the property market as a result of what right hon. and hon. Members opposite have said, and nothing that the Opposition can say can convince me otherwise.
I said a moment ago that most of the cases of hardship that have been brought to my notice in a constituency such as Bournemouth involve landladies and generally speaking landladies who have only one or two properties, although sometimes, but rarely, they have more. It is those who have only one or two properties who are the hardest-hit cases. The landladies themselves and not only their tenants are the cases of hardship.
Just as other hon. Members have probably found in their constituencies, so in mine I have found that the landlady is herself very elderly, long since retired, living very penuriously indeed, dependent solely on the small income derived from the investment of her capital in property—admittedly in addition to her pension, but, outside that, dependent on the small return from her capital. I have found that the landlady has been living very close to the knuckle in these past years.
Many of them perhaps have a small sum coming in from some other form of investment, but I would point out that these people have invested money, which 1240 they have saved during their working years, in property in a pleasant seaside town such as Bournemouth to provide them with some small additional return for their own old age and thereby taking a burden off the State.
These people have been very hard hit by post-war circumstances. Their incomes have not increased with the cost of living as have those of other sections of the commuity that have a powerful voice and are strong enough to demand an increase. These are the people who have been badly hit by the fall in the value of money and the increase in prices. It is they whom I have in mind when I say to my right hon. Friend that many of the problems between landlord or landlady and tenant, or between property owner and occupier—if hon. Members opposite prefer that—are very intractable indeed. Sometimes when visiting a tenant I have at one moment come down emotionally on his side, but when hearing the landlady's case I have come down emotionally on hers. I have had to adopt a rather cool and hard-headed attitude, which I personally find difficult when trying to decide the merits of the case as between the two sides.
I ask hon. Members opposite to appreciate that by no means all landlords or landladies whom the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) described collectively as "property-owning parasites" come anywhere near that description. He might try to broaden his imagination enough at least to encompass the lot of the very poor and hard-hit people I have mentioned, of whom a large number live in my constituency.
I may also say that there are many tenants, again old-age pensioners, again hard-hit by post-war circumstances, who nevertheless are more than willing to pay an increase in rent. They themselves are fair-minded people, as are their landladies, and acknowledge quite openly—and have said so to me and to their friends—that they would willingly negotiate with their landladies to pay a reasonable increase in rent.
It is to that end that I have bent my endeavours. I have tried to bring about these negotiations, but I must confess that there are circumstances in which many of these property owners need either to get possession of the property or to try to sell it. My right hon. Friend 1241 indicated that the chief purpose of the Bill is to bring landlord and tenant together in order to negotiate a new and increased rent. I hope, indeed, that that will be the result, but we cannot completely ignore the position of those landladies who understandably wish to make some small realisation of the capital they have invested in property in order to get out of the worries, trials and tribulations of property ownership and instead to spend the capital in a way of their own choosing in the latter days of their lives.
I could sing songs of hardship every bit as genuine and emotional as those sung by the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons). I could sing those songs on behalf of the tenants as well as the landlady, but what I am trying to indicate is that by no means all of these cases of hardship are cases so clear-cut as to come down on the side of the tenant. I know of cases in my own constituency where the landladies themselves will not be relieved of hardship until they are relieved of the burden of property ownership, which has become a burden too great for them to bear.
It is right, therefore, that at this stage they should be able at least to try to sell their property. During recent years, while rents have been restricted and the tenants tied to their house as a result, landladies have not been able to get a reasonable price for their property. With decontrol they will have a greater opportunity. Even if they enter into an agreement with the tenants for the three-year period, they can still offer their property for sale on terms that will be more attractive than they could have obtained before the decontrol provisions were introduced.
I will end by asking my right hon. Friend one or two questions about the Bill, chiefly concerning the procedure by which the landlord or the owner will bring his case to the court. In asking, I wish to emphasise that it is, in fact, the owner on whom the principal onus lies. If he wishes to regain possession of his property—and it is in that context that it should be looked at rather than that of evicting the tenant—he must take the case to court. As I understand it, the courts are likely to come down in favour of the tenant if he can show that he has met certain conditions, principally those of having attempted to negotiate with the landlord and of having attempted to find alternative accommodation.
1242 My right hon. Friend will no doubt correct me if I am wrong there, but that, in the main, is what will happen. I should like to know whether some provision could not be made for a certificate or form of some kind—much as I hate them—which could be completed by the tenant or, if he likes, by the landlord, preferably before taking the case to court, to show that these simple processes have already been gone through; that the landlord has attempted to negotiate with the tenant, and that the tenant has attempted to find alternative accommodation. If that could be completed beforehand in a simple form, it might prevent a number of cases coming unnecessarily to the courts, and it might also help to bring about negotiations between landlord and tenant.
I, too, should like to know what the position of the sub-tenant is in this respect. Again, while I sympathise tremendously with a tenant who is caused hardship by the operation of the Rent Act, I am, nevertheless, bound to say that the tenant may well be in a property into which he or she has taken three or four other paying sub-tenants. I have found property after property where the official tenants have been receiving far more income than have the owners. In my opinion, that is entirely out of balance, and it is obviously the purpose of the Rent Act to try to put the matter right. If the tenant can receive £5 a week from a property, why should not the owner of the property obtain a fair return of £5 a week on the money he has invested?
§ Mr. Weitzman
Does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that that cannot legally be done, and the owner has his remedy? It is not possible in law to have sub-tenants paying large sums in that way, and the owner has his legal remedy.
§ Mr. Eden
I quite agree that, in many cases, it is not legal, but that does not prevent tenants from doing it. I know perfectly well that it is not inscribed in the tenancy agreements of many houses I have visited that tenants shall be permitted to take in sub-tenants. Nevertheless, the practice has grown up to such an extent that, either new agreements must be drawn up, which is the purpose of negotiation, or the owners of the properties should be given an opportunity themselves to have a fair return, which, up to this point, the tenants have 1243 been getting. I believe that some of these things will be worked out in the course of the next few months. I am not, however, quite sure what is the position of sub-tenants under the Bill.
§ Mr. A. Evans
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that he is now asking his right hon. Friend to amend the Rent Act, and that the matter he is now putting before the House is not covered by the Bill?
§ Mr. Eden
It is one of the aspects of the operation of the Rent Act and one of the reasons that it was necessary to bring the Bill into law. It is one of the complexities of the whole housing situation which has arisen as a result of the long standing Rent Restriction Acts restricting rents at totally artificial levels, as even those tenants who are hardest hit are honest enough to recognise.
I know very well that cases of genuine hardship exist amongst elderly people, including the elderly sick. I know that there are people who have lived in one property for forty years or even longer. They have come to regard the place as their home and they cannot, towards the end of their lives, face having to find somewhere else to go. Most of the landlords or landladies in cases of this kind to whom I have spoken, if they wish in the first place to regain possession of their property, have very readily admitted to me that in no circumstances would they attempt forcibly to evict their tenants. They are not unreasonable people. They are living in circumstances themselves very similar to those of their tenants.
One of the criticisms of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) against the Bill concerned the timing of it; he thought that it should have been brought in much earlier, rather than today. For my part, I should like to have seen it come in much later. I should like to see the normal processes of the rent Act working out almost towards the end of the standstill period. Many of the landlords and landladies to whom I have been speaking are human, understanding people, just as are their tenants; the two sides were coming together and agreeing new terms. I hope that, far from hindering this natural and welcome process, the Bill will encourage 1244 it and make more people realise—I no longer envisage any prospect of making hon. Gentlemen opposite recognise it—that landlords are not criminals. They are not people solely interested in driving their fellow men out of their homes. Landlords themselves have obligations to their own families which they should be encouraged to meet. If others can defend themselves against hardship resulting from the rise in costs during post-war years, landlords, surely, are equally entitled to do so.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden) complained that we did not welcome the Bill enthusiastically enough. On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I will tell him at once that our welcome for the Bill is much more enthusiastic than the one he has just shown in his speech. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand our point of view, I can put it in a nutshell for him. We welcome this relief.
We are happy to think that some of the people in Bournemouth—a town for which I have a very warm regard; it was very kind to me during the war years—who have been suffering anxiety because of the threat of eviction will have that anxiety removed by the Bill. But we believe that the anxiety from which they have been suffering would never have been necessary if the Rent Act had not decontrolled the property in which they lived. The Bill does not go far enough. It comes too late to relieve some of the distress which the Rent Act has caused
Those of us who have had close personal contact with people suffering under the threat of eviction next October find it very difficult to say, in Parliamentary language, what we think of the Government for passing the Rent Act, in the first place, especially that part which decontrolled three-quarters of a million houses, and then for being so long in granting the relief which the Minister indicated he would introduce some months ago.
One of the stalwarts and founders, one of the six great Socialists in the history of the Southampton Labour Party, died in hospital a few weeks ago. He was a very great soul. In all his weeks in hospital the one thing he wanted to talk about day after day, the one thing which 1245 he was always anxious about, was where he would go when he got better. He faced eviction this October. I cannot forgive the Government for the deep anxiety which they unnecessarily caused to the late Mr. Len Brighton.
When the Rent Bill was first brought to the House, in November, 1956, the Parliamentary Secretary said that the decontrol provisions would enable landlords to let houses rather than sell them. It has done the opposite. Landlords are desperately trying to get houses empty, because the Rent Act has added hundreds of pounds to the value of every empty house in the country and the Act has put an instrument in their hands by which long-standing tenants can be removed.
The Parliamentary Secretary also said that the Bill would ensure that houses were repaired. Many of the worse landlords in the country, in dealing with tenants in decontrolled houses, are making those tenants accept agreements under which they accept full responsibility for both internal and external repairs. He said that the rents of decontrolled houses would not be too high, that he was decontrolling enough houses to keep the free rent of houses at some kind of economic level. He referred even to London, saying that… rents … will be not much in excess of the rents which will be permissible under the rest of the Bill for houses remaining in control."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1956; Vol. 560, c. 1770.]But many tenants of decontrolled houses in Southampton, London and other parts of the country have been blackmailed into paying wickedly exorbitant rents. This Bill has brought a heyday—and the last day—for the rapacious landlord. I shall say a word about the good landlord before I sit down. The behaviour of the worst landlord has harmed the good landlord and has made certain the end of landlordism in this country. When the next Election is over the evils of landlordism will be on their way out. I do not think that will affect the chief sinners, because they are the speculators who went into property dealing in the years just before the Rent Bill, made millions of pounds and cleared out to find a new source of easy money.
In the debate in November, 1956, the Parliamentary Secretary also said that one of the purposes of decontrol was to get small or shrinking families out of larger 1246 houses into smaller ones. A part of that aim is certainly being achieved. Already, poorer families who cannot pay the exorbitant uncontrolled rent which landlords have demanded are getting out of decontrolled houses into rooms and into the homes of their "in-laws." It is those who cannot do that for a variety of reasons whom we are now seeking to protect from eviction under the Government's own Act by a new Act of Parliament.
We fought against decontrol for over a year and the evictions that this Bill will postpone for a second time should have taken place last December if the Government had had their own way. It was the solid opposition of these benches, plus the revolt of a few decent Tories who could not stick the cruel, cynical indifference of the Government, that got the date for evictions pushed back from last December to October of this year. The original grand design of the Minister was that eviction was to be a Christmas present for thousands of tenants last December. Now the Minister yields again to another year of pressure since the Act was passed. Some people are to be spared the full benefits of Tory freedom. They were saved from being thrown into the streets last Christmas. This Bill will save them from being thrown into the streets in October.
Why are the Government relenting? Is it kindness of heart? Is it a deathbed repentance? Judging from the callousness of the Minister's speech this afternoon, I hardly think that that is the case. After all, the main purposes of the Rent Act were to make several millions of pounds for the property owners and to get as many people evicted from large houses as possible. I have already quoted the eviction operation, in the Parliamentary Secretary's own words, to geta small or shrinking family to seek to reduce its commitments."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1956; Vol. 560, c. 1761.]by getting out of larger houses into smaller ones. Getting them out is proving to be easy. The wickedest landlords, those who have not given the tenant a chance even to this day of a racketeer's rent increase, have merely been doing the Government's dirty work for them, the work which the Rent Act enabled them to do.
1247 The Minister was right this afternoon, and logical, when he said that it would be wrong for the Government to surrender one of the main features of the Rent Act—decontrol. But it would have been much better for Britain and much kinder for thousands of worthy British citizens if the Minister had accepted the advice of the Opposition, two years ago, and the advice of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) and a number of other hon. Members, and introduced a protective Measure like this into the parent Act.
This Bill cannot make up for the unhappiness which the Government have already caused to thousands of our citizens. Many have already come to bad terms with the blackmailing landlords to pay rent savagely above that laid down in the rest of the Rent Act as the kind of rent that the Government thought was fair. Many of them have tied themselves for three years to agreements which are crippling them.
In parenthesis, may I pay my honest tribute to the good landlords, to the many uncontrolled landlords who have not used the power that the Act gives them? Some of them have said to their tenants, "I can charge what rent I like. But I propose to make my standard the standard laid down for the 4½ million controlled houses". Some of them are even more generous than that. Some of them have never used in negotiation the threat of eviction, but have been fair to those who have been their loyal tenants over a long period of years. That is what I mean when I say that the bad landlord has done so much harm to the good name of the good landlord.
Tenants have come to me, as I am sure that they have come to every hon. Member, saying, "What can I do? The landlord will not see us. He has not spent a penny on the house since the war. We have taken pride in the house"—and it is a wonderful experience to be shown proudly round a house by a proud tenant. They say, "We have done all sorts of odd jobs in the house. We have paid our rent regularly". Incidentally, millions of people can show their rent books with pride. They say, "The landlord has not negotiated with us at all. He has made no offer to us at all. He simply says, 'Get out—notice to quit'".
1248 Some landlords add insult to injury. One of them told an 83-year-old constituent of mine and his wife, "Your children ought to be looking after you", although the children are living in a council house and have no room to take in their own parents and are already paying their parents' rent for them. Another tenant writes:My husband served in the last war with some distinction. My only son was wounded and carries a bullet in his back. We and nine other neighbours are now threatened with eviction. We have been here 17 years and not one thing has been done to the interior of the house in that period. … Now in our old age … we have had our three score years and ten. We class ourselves as British refugees. Could not we be allowed to spend the rest of our lives in peace and quiet. God help any Tory, local or otherwise, that calls at this house for our vote.From my own knowledge of Southampton, which covers about thirty years, I doubt whether those people have ever been Labour in their lives.
Another constituent writes to me:After paying rent for eighteen years and having redecorated the inside of the house as well as having new fireplaces put in, we have been served with notice to quit or buy.Three other families of the same landlord are served the same. What are cases such as ours to do? My husband suffers from osteoarthritis of the spine and has been on the registered disabled list for years. We cannot take on the responsibility of buying a house in his present state of health.Hoping that you will do your best to fight this injustice to people who have been good tenants".So far as the Bill recognises the just claims of people who have been good tenants, it is a move in the right direction. Another constituent writes:My wife and I are old-age pensioners. We have had our rent increased from 24s. a week inclusive to 40s. plus rates. When we protested that such an increase seemed a savage one … we were told to get out if we didn't like it. This, after twenty-three years, and to old-age pensionersThe gentleman concerned is a civil servant. He has a small civil service pension. He is just above the National Assistance Board rate and gets no subsidy from the Board to meet this extra blackmailer's rent which he has to pay now, and which now brings him down to just above the National Assistance Board level. He says, very wisely—and his words have been strangely echoed in 1249 anticipation by the hon. Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux):I think that a maximum per cent. on the old rent should have been fixed and the local authority given the power to requisition in cases of bad overcharging.
Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)
Can the hon. Member say what was the gross rateable value of that particular house?
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
If the hon. Member cannot say what it was, how can he call the landlord a blackmailer?
§ Dr. King
The rent has gone up from 24s. to 40s. a week. The 24s. included rates, the 40s. excludes rates. I am certain that no old-age pensioner will accept a rent increase which more than doubles the rent he has to pay, unless he is in the position of the tenant of every decontrolled house, his landlord has a pistol in his hand and the tenant has to accept whatever terms the landlord can give. That is why, in this case, I used the term "blackmailer".
Last week, I visited another couple who are due for eviction, an aged widow, who is not getting the widow's pension, who is keeping her 45-year-old blind son on his blind pension and occasionally letting a room and eking out a living by taking in lodgers. Until the Bill came along, she, too, faced eviction unconditionally in October. At no time has the landlord even offered to her a reasonable rent or a blackmailing rent.
Where can the evicted families go? They cannot live with their relatives, unless their relatives are generously housed. When their children offer them a house or home cover, many of them refuse. They want to be independent. They want to keep their own home. Who wants to end his days selling up his furniture and moving into a furnished room or rooms? These people cannot get council houses. If they could, many of them could not afford the rent, which has gone up tremendously as a result of the Government's financial policy.
Southampton still has a long waiting list for council houses. One out of every two persons who come to my constituency at the weekend comes in quest of a house. 1250 The Rent Act is adding to Southampton Borough Council's heavy housing list, just at a time when the Government have slashed Southampton's housing programme to ribbons. Many local authorities—Southampton is not one—have already stopped building council houses, apart from their slum clearance schemes.
Against that bitter background, I welcome the Government's new Bill. I think that some of the cases of the type I have quoted will touch the heart of the county court judge. I pay my tribute to the work of county court judges, who are not exceedingly well paid, are very hard worked and, on the whole, do the drudgery of the law equitably and fairly. Here, however, the heart of the judge has nothing to do with the case.
The county court judge has to satisfy himself first on condition (a), whether the tenant has tried to get a three-year agreement. That will dish most of the wicked landlords with whom I am concerned, unless they now rush to the tenant, having not spoken to him since the Rent Act was passed, and offer him a new agreement at a fantastically high rent. Condition (b) is that the tenant must show that he cannot get other appropriate accommodation. That should be helpful, because it is exceedingly difficult in any town even for an able-bodied young couple to find accommodation. Last weekend, a young couple came to my wife tired out after searching for furnished rooms in Southampton. No old couple could endure the physical strain of wandering round a big city day after day long enough to find furnished or unfurnished accommodation, even if it exists.
The county court judge must satisfy himself also of condition (c), that the tenant has paid his proper rent, and condition (d), that eviction would be a greater hardship than to suspend the notice. A later part of the Bill, as the Minister has rightly pointed out, states that age and disability must be problems that weigh in the mind of the county court judge.
Those four considerations, however, are not alternatives. The judge has to be satisfied on all of them. He may say that (a) applies and that the landlord has not had the decency to get into negotiation with the tenant about the rent. He 1251 may say that (c) is true and the tenant has paid his rent regularly. He may say that (d) is obviously true and that it is harder for the tenant to be thrown on to the street than for the landlord to have to wait an extra nine months for the extra £1,000 that the Rent Act has added to his property.
The judge, however, may have to say that (b) is not true. He may say to the tenant, "You have not really tried to find appropriate accommodation." He can quote the Tory Minister in November, 1956, and say, "You are a shrinking family, living in an oversized house. There are only two of you. Why did you not find two rooms?", or, "There is only one of you. Why did you not find one room?"
The county court judge must be satisfied on all of the four conditions. If we refer back to condition (b)——
§ Mr. Weitzman
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that under (c), if the tenant has paid even 1s. less than the rent due, possibly because of a miscalculation, no grace is shown to him in the way of security under the Clause?
§ Dr. King
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for pointing that out. I would only add that another condition is that the appropriate rent increase has been paid. The tenant must have paid the rent mentioned in the Bill which, in England, is twice the 1956 gross value. Some poor people, in spite of the Bill, will find that the new rent, reasonable as it may be in comparison with the rest of the Rent Act, may be crippling and prevent them even from going to the county court judge.
I hope that the county court judges will forget the declared aims of the Rent Act and will concentrate on easing the human problems of thousands of decent human beings who will appear before them. The landlords, especially those who have been engaged in buying up property in the years prior to the Rent Act, in order to make the profit which the Rent Act provided for them, are now seeking to unload these houses at high prices before the Labour Party's own new Rent Act eats into the value of their ill-gotten excess surplus value of houses. These property-owning syndicates will have the best legal representatives pleading their cases in the 1252 courts. The tenant will often have to represent himself, unless we can persuade the Government in Committee to provide the tenant with free legal aid to protect himself against the ill effects of the Government's Rent Act.
§ Dr. King
I hope that we will be able to strengthen the Bill in Committee. At best, it defers for nine months the agony for thousands of citizens. Then, after nine months, follows a kind of cat-and-mouse act with extended periods of six months, always provided that the tenants can satisfy the county court judge.
One interesting detail of the Bill is that whilst the case is before the county court the tenant has to pay the rent of twice the gross 1956 value. If the Government consider that a reasonable rent for a decontrolled house, why not abandon decontrol, even at this late hour? Why not fix the rent for this three-quarters of a million houses at this level as was done for the other 5 million houses? Why not give the tenant who has lived in the house, kept it well and paid his rent regularly for years the security which has been taken away from him by the parent Rent Act, always reserving to the landlord the right to take over his own house if he wants to live in it himself?
We shall support the Bill. We shall try to improve it and when we win the next Election, as I am certain we will, we shall repeal the Rent Act and introduce one of our own. I say quite sincerely, however, that it is no consolation to some of us that one of the reasons why we shall win the next Election is the misery that the Government have caused, quite unnecessarily, to thousands of people by decontrolling three-quarters of a million houses, leaving such people for nine months to the mercy of landlords and then, at this very late hour, introducing a kind of consolation which may at least alleviate their position.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)
I think it is proper that I should at once declare an interest in this matter because I am President of the Federation of Property Owners. I think it proper that that should be known. I would say in parenthesis that there are about 150,000 property owners, most of them comparatively small owners of one, two or up to a dozen 1253 properties. It is with that background that I should like to support the Second Reading of the Bill.
I was delighted to hear that the Minister does not propose to compromise about the terms of the Rent Act. It is worthy of note that about 5 million houses which are occupied by their owners have been decontrolled, and that enables the owners of those houses, if they so desire, to accommodate other people and, if the arrangement is not successful, to terminate it. In addition, there are 4½ million houses which continue in control and where, generally speaking, the position has been accepted as being satisfactory, with the additional rent which the Rent Act provides. The matter ought to be looked at in that sort of picture.
In talking about these matters it is possible to talk about parasites and blackmailing landlords and to use all sorts of epithets which can be applied to people. The tenant is not always a perfect person. It must he known to many people that there are many tenants who do not behave well and do not look after the house. I do not think we get anywhere on the basis of complaints and the use of strong adjectives.
It is therefore important to look at the subject in a less passionate way and to see what is happening. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) mentioned a house with a rent of 24s., including rates, and said that the rent was being increased to 40s. plus rates. My knowledge and experience tell me that a house with a rent of 24s. including rates is very unlikely to be affected by this Bill. As I understand it, it would not be decontrolled under the terms of the Rent Act, because the rateable value of the house would be below £30.
The principle we have to bear in mind is that of seeing whether the Bill will achieve a greater degree of agreement between tenant and landlord. It would be very unfortunate indeed if the results of any legislation passed by the House were to make it more difficult for an agreement to be arrived at. Accepting the Rent Act as law, probably every hon. Member on both sides of the House will agree with that sentiment.
The Bill seeks to deal with a very limited number of cases. Listening to some observations made by hon. Members opposite, one would think that these 1254 cases were very plentiful, but in fact they are very few in number. There is also a certain class of landlords who cannot help themselves in this matter. Let me give an example. I have a constituent who is the executor of a very small estate, the main asset of which is a house worth about £1,000. He has six beneficiaries. He is anxious to sell the house and divide the proceeds among the six beneficiaries. In the house there is a man, his wife and aged mother. That produces a problem for which nobody is responsible. It is a problem which is bound to arise when we have a change in housing arrangements—a change which, taken over the country, I am perfectly satisfied has been successful.
What I like about the Bill is that it will now be possible for the whole matter to be gone into before a county court judge. Having sat as a deputy county court judge, I must say that this will add to the problems and difficulties of the county court, but that is why the county court is there. The decision will have to be made on the relevant facts—on the position of the beneficiaries, of the aged mother and of the tenant and his wife. The problem which I have outlined is nobody's fault, but the Bill provides a method by which it can be settled.
Secondly, the Bill equalises the position between tenant and landlord in making reasonable arrangements. I admit at once that there are some landlords who have sought to make more out of the Rent Acts than they should have done. I believe that they will be brought up very sharply by the Bill. I do not believe that the Bill necessarily means going to court, despite what has been said by some hon. Members opposite. As a lawyer, I like to think that there are some advantages in not going to court and that many of these problems will be settled without the necessity of recourse to the courts.
We have heard a great deal about old people and the problems and difficulties affecting them and how a county court judge will not have an opportunity to use his heart. I venture to suggest that Clause 3 (3) is very clear and specific on this matter. It says:In considering whether any of the conditions specified in paragraph (a) or paragraph (b) of subsection (1) of this section are fulfilled"—1255 that is the subsection which requires the four conditions to be fulfilled—regard shall be had, among other things, to the means of the occupier, to his age, and to any disability to which he may be subject.While we all get hard-luck letters from constituents, to say, as has been said from the other side of the House, that there is no opportunity for a judge to use his heart in dealing with these matters is incorrect. I believe that fundamentally comparatively few cases will be brought before the courts under the Bill, and that those few will mostly be those which will have to be decided by a court because of some responsibility of which a trustee or similar person could not easily be divested except by the court.
There are many people living in houses to which the Bill will apply—more than £40 rateable value in London and more than £30 rateable value in the provinces—whose present accommodation is too large for them. They would be quite happy to have a portion of the house for their own use and to let the other portion go to somebody else.
Is there any reason why in Committee we should not empower judges in certain cases of that kind to make an order as to the rent of the portion of the house in which the tenant remains while at the same time making the other portion available for another tenant? That does not seem to be unreasonable and in many cases might be helpful to a tenant, because the anxiety of giving up the whole house is a worry to the tenant, while if he could be allowed a tenancy only of the portion which he wanted, while letting the rest go, that would be to his advantage and would relieve him of worry.
Finally, I congratulate the Minister on taking this step. How necessary it is one does not know, but it is one which will ensure that there is a "safety net" for people who might be materially and adversely affected by the Rent Act decontrol provisions.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington), with his great experience of property matters and who told us that he has sat as a deputy county court judge, making 1256 his comment about the suitability of part of a house as alternative accommodation for people who do not need the whole of the accommodation. That kind of situation can be met without the Bill and without the Rent Act. That kind of situation was provided for under the old Rent Acts legislation, when all that a landlord had to do was to go to the county court and satisfy the judge that he had made an offer of reasonable alternative accommodation, namely, the upstairs or downstairs part of a house.
§ Sir E. Errington
I suggest that with the houses which I have in mind there is some difficulty in applications for apportionment.
§ Mr. MacDermot
Of course, now they do not need to, because the properties have been decontrolled. The old Rent Acts provided for that situation entirely.
Earlier in this debate, we had a speech from the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins). It was another of his characteristically restrained, dignified and fearlessly honest speeches in which he showed something of the nature of the real evil at which this Bill is aimed, namely, the "sharks"—that was his own term—who have invaded the property market to exploit to the hilt the opportunities given to unconscionable dishonest landlords as a result of the Rent Act. I feel sure that the hon. Member for Aldershot, with his august organisation, cannot have encountered the activities of these people, and people like them, or he could not have spoken about this Bill in the way he did.
The mere fact that the Government have had to introduce a Bill of this character shows completely the bankruptcy and failure of the policy underlying the Rent Act of last year. The Minister of Housing and Local Government stated over and over again in the debates that the whole object of the 1957 Act was to make a great deal more housing accommodation available for letting, as opposed to being available for selling. The right hon. Gentleman said it in quite categorical terms on 26th March, 1957. There was then a debate initiated by an Amendment put down by some hon. Members on his own side of the House and aimed at softening the situation which was going to arise precisely in 1257 October of this year. In rejecting the Amendment, the Minister said:… I am certain that an enormous amount of property which is at present under-occupied will be let almost as soon as the market is freed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1958: Vol. 567, c. 1001.]Those of us who know the situation in areas like London, where there is real housing congestion, know that that prophecy has been falsified. There has not been an enormous amount of new property available for letting on the market and, because of that, this whole crisis has arisen necessitating the introduction of the present Bill. It will not do for the Minister to try to blame subsequent events for that situation. Many people, including a number of hon. Members opposite, prophesied to him during the debates on the Rent Act that this situation would arise. But the right hon. Gentleman obstinately refused to listen to that counsel.
He now seeks to blame it on to two things. First the rise in the interest rates last autumn. How can that possibly have anything whatever to do with this situation? The rise in interest rates can affect the situation for people wanting to buy their own houses. But we were told over and over again during the debates on the Rent Act that the problem was not the availability of houses for purchasing. We were told that all the "for sale" boards put up all over the place would come down.
I seem to remember one hon. Member who represents a Croydon constituency saying that he had information that there were then about 1,000 properties for sale in Croydon, but the "for sale" boards would all come down and be replaced by "to let" boards. So how does the increase in the interest rates affect that situation? It can only be an additional factor to help more letting, because it would make it more difficult for owners to sell property and more difficult for buyers to buy, and so owners would be more tempted to let the property. Nothing of the sort has happened. In spite of the swingeing interest rates, there is still an ample market in London for properties for sale.
Secondly, the Minister says that his policy has been frustrated by the Labour Party's declaration of its intention to repeal the Rent Act and carry out its 1258 policy of municipalisation. There is nothing new in that situation. It was known of and spoken freely about at the time of the Rent Act debates. I seem to remember that in his winding-up speech in the Third Reading debate the Minister of Housing dwelt almost exclusively on this very matter of our proposals.
It is not as though at that time the country had not already shown its complete lack of confidence and trust in the present Government. Many by-elections had taken place, including my own, in North Lewisham, and had shown quite clearly that the death knell of this Government had been sounded. It must have been quite clear when the Rent Bill was going through the House that the measures which we were proposing would be carried out in a few years' time by a Labour Government. None of these excuses will do. The fact is that the Minister made a complete miscalculation, and the whole policy upon which the Rent Act was based, and which is supposed to be its justification, is also a complete miscalculation and misconception of the true situation.
Now let us see how the Bill proposes to remedy the situation. In my submission, it is a miserable and puny little Measure. We have heard the Budget, introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, described as a "mouse" of a Budget, and I suggest that this Bill is a midge of a Bill, because a great number of those who are threatened with eviction in October will not be touched by it. I propose to devote a few moments to seeking to explain why that is. I cannot speak for other parts of the country, but I estimate that in my constituency about 50 per cent. of the people threatened with eviction in October of this year will not qualify for protection under the Bill.
Let us examine the classes of people threatened with eviction. First, there are tenants who have been given notice to quit and have received no offer of new tenancies from their landlords; secondly, tenants—and their sub-tenants—who have been offered tenancies but have been unable to accept their terms, or have offered terms which, in the present state of the market, have been considered reasonable; and, thirdly, a very large class of people who have not yet been 1259 referred to in the debate, namely, subtenants who are unprotected. There is a very much too common assumption that anyone who is a sub-tenant will be protected and will be able to claim that he has a protected tenancy against the head landlord. That is not so, because, in order to obtain protection, the sub-tenant must be able to establish that he is a lawful sub-tenant within the meaning of the law of landlord and tenant.
What has been happening on a very large scale is that landlords have let properties to tenants and have then never gone near their properties for years. All they have done is to send round rent collectors each week. There are hundreds and thousands of properties of that nature. The tenants have sub-let part of the property, often keeping only one or two rooms for themselves. They may have made several sub-lettings of their properties. The rent collectors know all about it but, under our law, the knowledge of the rent collector is not considered to be the knowledge of the landlord, and when, as frequently happens, the original tenancy contains a covenant against sub-letting the landlord, who has ignored the whole situation, can say, "I knew nothing of this at all."
In some cases, it is possible for the tenant to satisfy the judge that the landlord must have known of this sub-letting and consequently have waived the breach of covenant, and in that case the subtenant can claim protection. But there are many cases where the sub-tenant cannot prove that. Very often the tenant has gone out of the picture, and the sub-tenant cannot advance his evidence, in which case he is unprotected. Perhaps I might give a few figures to show what has happened.
§ Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)
Surely the unlawful subtenant in the controlled property is unprotected. The Bill does not touch him, one way or the other.
§ Mr. MacDermot
Before, he had no legal protection against the head landlord, but he had legal protection against 1260 the tenant unless and until the tenancy came to an end. He was protected, but the determination of the head tenancy rendered him liable to eviction.
To show that this is a serious problem, let me give the figures of an analysis carried out of more than 200 cases of people who applied to the Lewisham Borough Council to be re-housed, as the result of notices to quit or threatened notices of eviction in October of this year. I think 210 of these cases have already been investigated; 36 of them we can put to one side. They were cases where, since the original threatened eviction, landlord and tenant had come to a new agreement, which happened in 18 cases, or the tenant had managed to find accommodation elsewhere, either by buying a house or by renting other accommodation. In eleven cases, the tenants are still negotiating with their landlords, and in seven cases the tenants have not yet received the notice to quit that was expected.
That left 166 cases out of 210. They comprised 92 families where the tenants had been served with notice to quit without any offer of a new tenancy. Forty families were sub-tenants of those tenants, and may he required to vacate as a result of the head tenancy going, and thirty-four of the cases were tenants and their sub-tenants who were unable to accept the terms which had been offered. Of the total of 166 families who were completely threatened with eviction, no fewer than forty were cases of subtenants in this position.
None of them will have any rights under the Bill, and some of the remainder will not have any rights either. There are several classes of people who are not able to get protection under the Bill. People who are unable to pay twice the gross value plus the rates are unprotected. This will affect very many people, particularly tenants who have sub-let part of the property to other tenants. Twice the gross value plus rates will, in London, mean a rental almost always of more than £120 per year, plus rates. That is the minimum amount which they will have to pay.
Old-age pensioners and people of that kind will be quite unable to claim protection under the Bill. All the people who signed agreements with their landlords will be unable to claim protection, 1261 however extortionate the agreements are. Another relatively small class of people who have no protection are tenants of two years or more, where the tenancy expires after 6th October, 1958. They will not get protection because they do not fall within paragraph 2 of the Fourth Schedule of the Rent Act.
Even the people who on the face of it are entitled to claim some protection will still find the dice loaded the whole time in favour of the landlords. When they go to the county court to resist the landlord's application for possession, they first have to satisfy the court that they have:… made all reasonable efforts to secure agreement with the owner for a tenancy of the Premises for a term of not less than three years;If these are temporary and transitional provisions, why should the tenant have to offer to take on the burden of a three year tenancy? Why not a lesser period? Why should he have to offer such a long period?
How is the tenant to feel confident that at that moment when he feels he cannot go further to meet the landlord's demand the court is going to be satisfied that it was reasonable for him to stop then? The burden of proof is on the tenant to show that he has made "all reasonable efforts". If the landlord can satisfy the county court judge that the tenant did not go as far as he reasonably should to meet the landlord's demands, the court has no power to make an order
§ Mr. Weitzman
Suppose a tenant has contracted to purchase a house and possession of it will be given to him in twelve months' time, obviously he cannot agree to a three-year tenancy because he has no security.
§ Mr. MacDermot
None whatever, and however inviting the offer he may make to the landlord, it is only an offer for one year.
He has to show that he has taken "all reasonable steps" to obtain other appropriate accommodation. What is to be considered as "all reasonable steps"? Why should it not be left at "reasonable steps"? This is a detailed point which can be taken up in Committee, but I stress these factors at this stage to show how the whole Bill is weighted in the favour of the landlord, and, above all, how these provisions mean that there is 1262 no really free bargaining position as between landlord and tenant.
All day we have heard speeches from hon. Members opposite saying that the effect of the Bill will be to enable agreement to be brought about between landlords and tenants. That may be so, but it will only be because additional pressure is brought to bear upon the tenants to accept landlords' demands for fear that if they do not they will find themselves deprived of any protection under the Bill.
The tenant has to show that he hastendered all rent due from him from the dateof the expiry of the notice to quit down to the date of the hearing at the court. Take the case of a tenant who has subtenants. His sub-tenants may have defaulted on the rent. He may have been out of work. Circumstances may have arisen which have made him get into arrears with his rent through no fault of his own. This is a situation which can frequently happen. If it happens, the landlord has a complete answer to any application that may be made. All the landlord has to say is that the tenant is in arrears and there is no jurisdiction given the court to give the tenant any protection.
Then there is the provision about greater hardship, and the burden of proof is not to be on the landlord, as it used to be, but on the tenant. When the protection, such as it is, is given to the tenant, all he is given is a suspension period. He has the sword of eviction hanging over his head the whole time. It is suspended for between three and nine months, but he has to pay a rent which cannot be less than twice the gross value plus the rates, and which, if he has got means, is going to be whatever is the maximum sum he is able to pay.
The tenant has to pay the landlord's demand. Whatever the landlord demands, he has to pay it if he himself is able to pay it or if he is, with the help of his family, able to pay it. We should remember that the Bill is supposed to be aimed at protecting people against extortionate sharks. Direct legislative protection is given to that extortionate attitude by saying that the county court judge must order the tenant to pay whatever the landlord demands if he is able to pay it, and if the man claims that 1263 he is not able to pay it, he must subject himself and his whole family to a means test in order that the county court judge shall determine, not what is a fair or reasonable rent, but what is the maximum that the man is able to pay. That then becomes the amount that the man has to pay.
These are totally unfair provisions. If the real object of this legislation is to encourage more property being made available for letting, surely the simple measure which could be proposed is to give to the county court judge the same kind of power with respect to these properties as he has under the 1954 Act with respect to business properties, namely, the power to order a new tenancy at a reasonable rental. If that is what the object is, if the Government's intention, as they declare it to be, is to use their legislative powers to help bring about agreement between landlords and tenants over new tenancies, why do they not do that? Nothing could be simpler.
They should say, "We encourage you to reach agreement. If you cannot, we will give power to the county court judge to determine whether it is reasonable in the circumstances to grant a new tenancy; if so, for how long; and if so, on what terms. Then he will be able to have regard to all the relevant factors, such as the age and condition of the property and the relative responsibilities for internal and external repairs, and at the end of all that fix a fair rental." That would be a perfectly simple measure.
Instead of that, all that is happening is that the Government are delaying the effect of the harshness of the 1957 Act provisions and making it clear once again that they expect local authorities to do their dirty work for them. They expect the local authorities to carry out "Operation Rescue" in relation to the Rent Act. That is clear, because there is no one else who will be able to deal with the people who are evicted either because they do not qualify under the provisions of the Bill or because such relief as the Bill offers them is exhausted.
How will local authorities deal with it unless the Government give them some additional emergency powers for the purpose? I have referred to the analysis carried out in the borough of Lewisham of over 200 families who have sought 1264 help, of which it is clear that a total of 166 are already threatened with eviction. Lewisham Borough Council—Lewisham is one of the largest boroughs in London—was able to rehouse last year only thirteen families from its ordinary general list. A great many more than that will have been housed but the others consisted of people who were evicted from slum properties, people who had to be rehoused as a result of derequisitioning or people who were urgent priority cases at the top of the housing list. The result of all that was that of the families which had been waiting for years—there are thousands of them—only thirteen were rehoused. There are, in fact, more than 7,500 families on the Lewisham Borough Council housing list.
In that situation, for the Government to expect, as they do, local authorities to solve the problem for them by rehousing evicted persons means that, if that is to be done without special powers being given to the local authorities, more families from the general list who would have been rehoused will have to wait years more before they achieve their object.
The Lewisham Borough Council has passed a special resolution asking the Minister of Housing for either special emergency requisitioning powers such as they had during the war, or special emergency acquisition powers. To suggest, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon), that their existing powers of compulsory purchase are adequate to meet this situation displays a complete lack of knowledge of the way in which those powers work, or of what they consist. The procedure is altogether too slow and too delayed.
Local authorities are very alive to the real distress and hardship which these Government measures will cause, and are only too anxious to do all they can to alleviate them. They can do so only if they are given the powers. They should be given special emergency powers of acquisition. They should also be given special financial assistance, because it is not right that the local authority should be expected, at a rate of interest of 6½ per 64 per cent., to rehouse people who are being evicted in order to enable landlords to make very substantial capital gains on properties which they ought to let, but do not let.
§ 9.0 p.m.
Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)
The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) talked a great deal about shark landlords and, as I understood him, referred particularly to those who had recently entered the property market. He rather gave the impression that most of the tenants likely to be affected by this Bill are those who are the tenants of that sort of landlord.
That really cannot be the case. The percentage of landlords who have only entered the market in time to make a profit, as has been suggested, out of the Rent Act, must be very small. I do not deny that there may be some—and I am sure that there are. Nevertheless, the percentage must be small. When we recall that the percentage of the houses in which the tenants are threatened at the moment by eviction under the Act is also a very small percentage—perhaps 1 per cent. of all the houses in the country—it will be seen that we are really dealing with a very small percentage of a very small percentage. In order to get this matter into proportion we should bear that in mind.
I was rather amused when the hon. Gentleman went on to suggest that a high proportion of those at present threatened with eviction would not be covered by the Bill because they are unlawful subtenants. If he is right, I can only say that his statement is in direct contradiction to the earlier assertion of one of his hon. Friends who denied, when intervening in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden), that such people existed in very large numbers.
I do not know the facts, but I am inclined to think that there is a fairly large number of unlawful sub-tenants—certainly in the London area—and, without wishing to be particularly hard hearted, I must say that I do not think that they are a category of tenant that we wish to encourage or protect for too long. I would have thought that one of the biggest single factors which sometimes reduces a decent housing area to a semi-slum condition is the presence of very large numbers of unauthorised sub-tenants over whom very little control is exercised either by the principal tenant or by the landlord himself.
1266 The hon. Gentleman also said, as others of his hon. Friends have, that the Bill proves the failure of the Rent Act. Of course, it does nothing of the kind, although I concede that the Opposition would have been rather more than human had they not made that point and, in effect, said "I told you so." No one will ever now know the extent to which this Bill is really necessary, because no one will ever now know how many evictions there would have been had it not been introduced. The only thing we do know is that throughout the country, for political purposes, the numbers have been very greatly exaggerated.
A year ago, in my own county borough of Croydon, Labour speakers were talking of the thousands and thousands of evictions with which the council were to be faced. I noticed a couple of months ago that the figure had come down to something between 200 and 300. I have no doubt that, as October drew near, the figure would have shrunk still further. Nonetheless, so long as there was any prospect of unjust evictions taking place, I have not the slightest doubt that my right hon. Friend was right to bring in this Measure and give this degree of safeguard to tenants, some of whom undoubtedly have been labouring under a feeling of very great anxiety and strain.
I have myself had very many fewer letters from tenants threatened with eviction than I expected. In common with other hon. Members, I suppose that the cases one has had fall into three clearly defined categories. There are those who are under notice to go because the owner of the house wishes to return to it and live in it himself or herself. I cannot find it in my heart to think that that is something which really can be opposed. I hope that the courts, when they consider the greater-hardship Clause of the Bill, will exercise the greatest possible leniency and tenderness towards people who wish to go back to live in their own houses.
§ Mr. D. Johnston
Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman appreciate that the owner of a house who desired to take occupation by himself could always do so by proving greater hardship? There is nothing new in that. It was not the 1957 Act which allowed that.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
That has not been my experience in all cases.
1267 They must prove a greater measure of hardship in this respect, which cannot always be done. However, that is one category.
There is then the second category of case in which the rent being asked is too high for the tenant to pay. In that case, I am sure that the Bill is perfectly fair because it sets a standard by which the courts can go, that standard being the same ratio of the gross rateable value as for a house remaining in control.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I know that that may be so if he can afford it; but if he cannot afford it, he pays twice the gross rateable value.
§ Mr. Weitzman
It does not set any standard. It merely gives a temporary right to a certain amount of security. It sets no standard whatever in regard to rent.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
It does for a period. That is my reading of the Bill, at any rate. If I am wrong, no doubt I shall be corrected.
Thirdly, there is the category, the much more numerous category, I think, of tenants faced with eviction because the owner of the house is determined to sell regardless. For that state of affairs, I entirely agree with my hon. Friends, the Opposition must bear a very heavy load of responsibility. There is absolutely no question about that. The Opposition do not realise that there are people who take some of their policy pamphlets seriously. There are people who, very foolishly, perhaps, believe that they will attempt to carry them out. If one works out approximately the compensation terms suggested in the Opposition's pamphlet on this subject, all one can say is that it amounts to virtual confiscation. As an instance, I tried to work it out in the case of a friend of mine.
§ Mr. H. Butler
How is it worked out? The hon. and gallant Gentleman should work it out and tell us.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
It is worked out on the original controlled rent, with a rate of depreciation which assumes that a house ought not to exist 1268 at all if it is more than eighty years old. The figures are very small indeed, and, in the case of the older houses, they amount virtually to confiscation. Of course, many owners are anxious to sell their houses.
I should like to have replied at greater length to some of the points which have been made, but I have undertaken to sit down in a minute's time. I will merely repeat that I have no doubt myself that the Bill is justified, and I support it, but only as a temporary resting place, as it were, on the road to a free market in houses. I have no doubt that that is not only the correct goal, but the only stable goal. Hon. Members opposite speak a great deal about municipalising houses. I do not know whether it has occurred to them that, of all the forms of public ownership, that is the easiest to reverse and the one most likely to appeal to the electorate should such a sorry state of affairs ever come about.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Johnston (Paisley)
Despite the controversial nature of the subject with which we are dealing, this has been a very good-tempered debate. Perhaps the reason for that is that everyone agrees that the Bill is necessary, although many have regretted, not least of all myself, that the Bill does not go a great deal further than it does and was not brought in much earlier. It is noteworthy that the hon. Members for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden) and Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) and, on an earlier occasion, the hon. Member for Pollok (Mr. George) and all hon. Members opposite have spoken of the necessity of such a Bill as this.
I have never been able to make up my mind whether the refusal of the Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland to incorporate in the original Bill such provisions as are now in the Bill before the House was due to ignorance of what was likely to occur, or a too great and too touching faith in the good will and kindness of landlords. But it is clear from the facts that have been narrated by hon. Members on both sides tonight, and from the introduction of the Bill, that some landlords—and I do not by any means say all landlords—have behaved in a manner which is wholly unreasonable.
1269 I say "some" because I do know of one or two landlords who have behaved most reasonably towards their tenants. I also know, unfortunately, of a very much larger number of landlords who have behaved most unreasonably towards their tenants. What the proportion of good landlords to bad landlords is I cannot, of course, tell, because the number of which I know of both categories is too small to give a fair sample and comparison. However, I am doubtful whether many landlords in Scotland have behaved very well.
I note from a recent Answer given by the Secretary of State for Scotland that the number of rent-controlled houses sold last year was about 5,000, which would seem to indicate that the practice of selling houses as soon as vacant possession is obtained, which has been going on for a number of years, has continued. We now have this Bill. It is regrettable that it did not come earlier—indeed, that it was not incorporated in the original Bill—because it does nothing whatever for those who have been coerced and frightened, as many people were, into entering into agreements which were, to put it mildly, most foolish in the circumstances.
I know of an elderly couple just outside my constituency who have been induced to buy their house under threat of eviction at a price which the solicitors, the bankers, myself, from what little I know of the value of property, and everybody agrees is staggeringly disproportionate to the value of the house in the open market. I know of an elderly sister and brother in my constituency who have been asked to pay a rent which is approximately five times the rent they paid previously. In other words, five times the amount of the rent is being conferred upon the landlord.
These are by no means isolated cases. I know from my own information that many hon. Members have sent examples of similar cases to the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Dulwich was well justified in saying that many landlords have been behaving disgracefully. The hon. Member used, I believe, the expression "sharks".
It is such examples as have been given today which make me rather doubt the reliability of the Minister's information. He gave the impression that the number of cases of which he had knowledge in 1270 which exorbitant rents were being asked or impossible conditions were being imposed or where no option was being given, were only few. If I am right in interpreting the Minister's remarks on that score, I can only say that they seem to be contrary to the information in the hands of so many other Members of the House.
I have said that it is regrettable that the Minister did not anticipate that this would occur. I do not want to take advantage of him by saying, "We told you so", because little advantage is to be gained in politics, or, indeed, in any other path of life, by saying, "We told you so." I hope, however, that on future occasions he might think it proper to pay rather more attention not only to the Opposition, but to other Members of the House who have experience of these matters.
1 hope that when we consider the details of the Bill in Committee, the right hon. Gentleman will approach the matters on which we will have to ask for amendment to the Bill with a rather more open mind than he approached the Rent Bill itself and with a willingness to gain from the experience of Members, on both sides, who have some experience of this matter. I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland, or whoever represents him in Committee, will approach the Committee stage in the same way.
Recently, I suggested that the Secretary of State was somewhat complacent in relation to landlord and tenant affairs. I hope that his complacency has been shocked by what has occurred recently. Indeed, to be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, I have no doubt that he would not have put his name to today's Bill had he not been satisfied that there was an absolute necessity for it.
As I have said, the past is past and it is regrettable that many people have been induced to enter into harsh and unconscionable agreements. Whether we will be able to do anything for them in Committee is a matter which I shall leave until then, but those who are undoubtedly protected, and protected in only a limited way by the Bill, require a good deal more protection than they now get.
As I understand, the persons whom the Minister and the Secretary of State desire to benefit are largely elderly. One must recollect that elderly persons of 1271 the group we are trying to protect are probably not always advised by good solicitors; they do not always have land agents or bankers or other persons to advise them. Having that in mind, I suggest that the procedure set out in Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill is far too complicated. We should try to cast the onus not on these elderly people, but on the landlords. In nine cases out of ten the landlords will act through the property associations.
I suggest that we should ask the landlord in his application to obtain possession to take the onus of showing that he has made all reasonable efforts to secure agreement with his tenant, that the appropriate other accommodation is available, that the rent which is due has not been tendered by the tenant, and that the landlord will be under hardship if occupation is denied him. That could be done easily, and it is much more appropriately done by the landlord. It is much more appropriate to place the onus upon him than to place it upon the tenant, as is done in Clause 3. It would be an enormous advantage to the tenant and, I believe, an enormous advantage in the administration of the Bill.
First, there is the notice to quit and then there is the application for possession. Then, in effect, there will be the replies of the tenant setting forth the circumstances of Clause 3. It would be very much better if the landlord made all the statements of fact, when the application for possession was made, stating that he had satisfied points A, B, C and D as I have set them out. Unless this is done, I suggest that we shall get into very great difficulties with these elderly tenants, all of whom dislike appearing in court and most of whom cannot afford the necessary skilled advice.
The skilled advice will be particularly expensive if the tenant or occupier is required to return every six months, as appears likely to be necessary, to obtain an extension. I suggest that that part of the Bill which says that the county court judge is limited in the first instance to make an extension of three to nine months, and thereafter to make extensions by six months, is wholly wrong. We should leave the matter entirely to the discretion of the county court judge, and if he is satisfied that three years is the proper time, as he may be satisfied 1272 in some circumstances, he should make an order for three years with a right for the landlord, if he can show some change of circumstances, to return to the court. Is there anything very objectionable about that? I think that there are some great advantages in it.
Consider the case in my constituency which I mentioned, of two elderly sisters and a brother. They are in poor health and they will never be able to obtain another house in Paisley or West Renfrewshire. Their only hope is to be housed by the local authority. The local authority will let them know as soon as possible when there is a house for them. Why should people in those circumstances have to go back every six months, bearing the anxiety and still having to pay for the necessary legal and skilled advice? The matter of the time and the extent of the protective powers given by the county court judge should be left entirely to his discretion.
I repeat what a number of hon. Members, from both sides of the House, have said in taking objection to the rent which the county court judge may specify in the order under Clause 3 (2). As hon. Members will recollect, the provision is that the rent cannot be less than the rent payable under Clause 2 (2). That provision will have one certain result. It will undoubtedly result in a number of landlords defending applications for suspension of the notice to quit, not because they might have any hope of succeeding, but because they may possibly have the advantage of getting a rent greater than that to which they would be entitled under Clause 2 (2). They cannot lose, so there is every encouragement to them to have a try to see what they can get. That is a thoroughly bad principle.
The other objection is why it should be decided that a tenant shall pay not according to the merits of the house, but entirely according to his means and the means of those relatives living with him. That is the effect of subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 3. Only the means of the tenant and those residing with him are to be considered. There is nothing about the value of the house and nothing about how unreasonable the rent may be, although it may be ten, twenty or thirty times the market value of the house.
In certain circumstances, it will be greatly to the advantage of the landlord 1273 to ask for an exorbitant rent, because what the landlord may have in mind is ultimately to get rid of the tenant and sell the property. Something like that is happening. What we want to do is to adopt a standard rent. The standard rent in Clause 2 has many objections to it, although it is fairly easy, at least in England, to ascertain what it is.
The Secretary of State for Scotland had some difficulty explaining the rents to be provided for in Scotland. There was some little misunderstanding about it, not only among those to whom he was explaining it, but possibly in his mind, too. Possibly he understands it now. This is a difficult and complex Clause to apply, and when the Bill goes to Committee we should try to obtain a very much more simple formula.
The application of this Clause and what might be termed the standard rent would, if it ever came to litigation, require a great deal of inquiry as to what was the rent in 1954, what was the rent in 1957, what were the proper deductions, and so on, and I think that all that is undesirable. However, that is a Committee point.
We are glad that the Bill is here. We recognise that it has not been easy for the Minister and Secretary of State to bring it in, and to that extent we are grateful, as, also, are many who would otherwise have had to leave their homes in October. But it does not meet many of the problems, some of which were touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. McDermot) and others. We hope that we shall be able to improve the Bill in Committee, although we recognise that the Long Title is so closely drawn that everything we desire may not be possible.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)
When we consider the intensity of feeling which this subject has excited during the last two years, and the unending interest in the Act, as evidenced by the spate of Ten Minutes Rule Bills and the rest, it is not altogether surprising that some little heat was engendered during the early part of our proceedings today, but I was rather taken aback by all the heat and fury generated by the hon. And 1274 learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). If the Bill is quite so puny and inadequate as he pretended, I am rather surprised that he does not take his hon. Friends into the Lobby against the Government. When he rose to speak I believe that there were exactly 31 hon. Members on the benches opposite——
§ Mr. Bevins
—and when he sat down there were exactly 21. I agree that the attendance on the Government side was also thin, but that is because we have implicit confidence in my right hon. Friend.
We have had some interesting speeches on this topic. We have had the rather unusual experience of listening to a speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) in which he expressed his unqualified support for my right hon. Friend and the Government. That in itself makes this a very felicitous occasion.
We also had a very sincere but fiery piece of eloquence from the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons). Indeed, at 6.5 p.m. his flight of eloquence was so striking that I thought that he would take off at any moment.
§ Mr. Bevins
The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) made several specific points, to which I hope to reply as I go along, but he also made many others which are essentially Committee points. I hope that we may have the benefit of his advice when the Bill reaches the Committee stage.
I do not think that any hon. Member who knows me in the least would ever accuse me of any tendency to sycophancy or flattery. I hope, therefore, that in what I am about to say the House will be a little indulgent.
My right hon. Friend was appointed Minister of Housing and Local Government in January, 1957, and he has, in the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends, handled this difficult business of the Rent Act and its consequences with an admirable sense of judgment. That is certainly the unanimous view of hon. 1275 Members on this side of the House. I ask the House to recall that, with the support of his colleagues in the Government, my right hon. Friend extended the original six months' standstill period to fifteen months to give landlords and tenants more time to make new arrangements; and when, following the effect of certain influences about which I should like to speak in a moment, my right hon. Friend made his well-known speech at Hampstead in February, he used these words:I say plainly to them"—that was a minority of landlords—that landlords and tenants both have duties and they are failing in their duty as landlords to treat good tenants with the fairness and the consideration they are entitled to expect.My right hon. Friend went on:There is still plenty of time for my words to have effect and those who do not heed them may regret it.The House will agree that the implications of that speech were quite clear and I believe my right hon. Friend was right to say what he did then. I believe equally that his judgment now is right in introducing this Bill which, though in no sense compromising on the principle of decontrol, offers help to those tenants who face particular difficulties and deserve the help of Parliament.
I should like to refer to some of the criticisms levelled against this Bill—other than those which are purely Committee points—and then to deal with some of the general considerations. It has been said today that decontrol is not working out. I do not know what evidence there is to support that view, because the mass of the evidence available to my right hon. Friend goes to show that the majority of landlords and tenants have already come to new agreements for three-year leases. The House is certainly not going to be misled by wild and misleading estimates of evictions tossed into the air to add to the gaiety of electioneering either in London, Lancashire or anywhere else.
For example, the estimate which I believe was quoted by the leader of the London County Council that there would be 30,000 evictions in the County of London is utter nonsense, and everybody knows it. Of course the position in London and certain other areas is difficult; nobody denies that. Indeed, that is the 1276 reason for the presentation of this Bill. But as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) said earlier, it will not do to pretend that these difficulties are universal. Let me give an experience——
§ Mr. Mitchison
I gather that the hon. Gentleman is going to tell us how many evictions there will be. He has told us that the leader of the London County Council has made wild statements. I can assure him that the Financial Times was not electioneering—certainly not on the Labour side—when it stated that in London there were 64,000 people who had received notices to quit or had not heard from their landlords, and 60,000 more who knew definitely that the landlord was coming back, and only 90,000 with agreed new leases.
§ Mr. Bevins
That is a totally different proposition from the picture of evictions.
I represent a Liverpool constituency, and during the last twelve months I have had one case of a threatened eviction in my division. My party organisation which has publicly offered to help and advise decontrolled tenants in difficulties has had notice of less than a dozen cases throughout the whole city—
§ Mr. Mitchisonrose——
§ Mr. Bevins
What is more, this is confirmed by the local authority at official level. I have been told officially that there is no special problem in Liverpool at all regarding decontrolled tenants. The hon. and learned Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) and the hon. and learned Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) expressed certain criticisms——
§ Mr. Mitchison
The hon. Gentleman has told us that Mr. Hayward's figure is wrong and he has added a number of abusive phrases. Will he tell us the right figure if he knows it?
§ Mr. Bevins
I am not as clairvoyant as Mr. Hayward. However inaccurate Mr. Hayward's figure of 30,000 was, I know that, following the passage of the Bill, the number of evictions in London and elsewhere will be negligible.
§ Mr. Weitzmanrose——
§ Mr. Bevins
I was referring to criticisms of Clause 3 (2), which says in effect that the rent shall be the rent asked for by the landlord unless the court considers that it should be rather lower. Some hon. Members suggested that the rent should be a multiplier of the gross value and should be fixed as that by the county court judge. The basic objection to the multiplier in this connection is that these houses are decontrolled. We are not suggesting that they are other than decontrolled. Therefore, to fix the rent by some multiplier of the gross value, would be to bring back the controlled rent for a particular house. Some means of adjusting the rent to be paid to the tenant's ability to pay is necessary, to avoid hardship in the case of people who are not well off. That, of course, is precisely what the Bill tries to do.
The hon. and learned Member for Kettering, was a little unfair to my right hon. Friend when he alleged that although my right hon. Friend had now put forward this Measure to Parliament he had stubbornly refused to accept a similar idea sponsored by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) when the Rent Bill was in Standing Committee.
§ Mr. Bevins
The hon. and learned Member moved it in the name of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West.
§ Mr. Bevins
The two propositions, that is to say, the idea put forward by the hon. and learned Member in Committee and the idea embodied in the Bill, are entirely different. The proposition in Standing Committee was designed to enable tenants threatened with eviction to go to the county court, but there was no limit to the length of deferment, there was to be no increase in rent and there was no requirement that the tenant should have tried to agree to a new tenancy.
The Bill works on the principle that a tenant ought to try to help himself to 1278 find alternative accommodation and that only if he fails to find it does the Bill come to his help. The Opposition Amendment in Standing Committee was based on exactly the opposite idea, of encouraging tenants to stay put at uneconomic rents—in other words, to drive a coach and horses through the principle of decontrol.
There have been references to the fact that the Bill puts the onus upon the tenant of satisfying the court about certain conditions. The hon. and learned Gentleman, and a considerable number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, expressed disquiet about it. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that it imposed—I think these were his words—a heavy burden upon the tenant. My right hon. Friend has given a great deal of careful thought to the matter and he decided to construct Clause 3 in the way it is in the Bill because it is upon the circumstances of the tenant rather than upon those of the landlord that the case for postponement rests. We feel that it is right that the tenant should make out that case, though it is the landlord who initially brings the matter to court.
I will say a word or two about the conditions themselves. If the landlord has refused point blank to negotiate, that is that; the tenant is able to satisfy the first condition. If, on the other hand, he has made an offer which the tenant could not meet, only the tenant could establish that, because the tenant is the person who knows what his means are. If the rent was within his means but he rejected the offer, it was up to him to show that he acted reasonably in turning it down. In the very nature of the case, under the second condition it is the tenant who can show that he has not been able to find other accommodation. My right hon. Friend has noted the particular detailed point made on that condition, which I think is a Committee point. The tenant himself ought to have no difficulty in showing that he is not in arrears with his rent. Finally, the tenant's case for remaining in possession is based upon the principle of hardship. The responsibility should be upon the tenant to establish that case.
No doubt some landlords will urge on the courts that hardship will ensue to them if a stay of possession is granted. In such circumstances, it would be for 1279 the tenant to show that his hardship would be greater than the landlord's in case of eviction. The hon. and learned Member raised the question of balancing hardship as between tenant and landlord where the landlord happened to be a property-owning company. It is quite true that even a property-owning company could plead hardship, but I am advised that it would find it very difficult to do so effectively. Although there might be special circumstances in a small minority of cases, the most likely plea would be that it would suffer loss of profit. I think the House will see that that element, measured against severe personal hardship to the tenant which very likely would exist, is hardly likely to prevail in a court of law.
I wish to say a word or two about the background to this Bill and the reasons which motivated the Government in introducing it. Housing and rents go together; we cannot divorce them. The Rent Act of 1957, although the House disagreed about it, was certainly seen by my right hon. and hon. Friends as part of a continuing programme to meet the country's housing difficulties. I am certainly not going to apologise at this Box tonight, either for my right hon. Friend, or hon. Friends on this side of the House, nor do I want to rekindle any old fires by referring to the record before 1951. We have heard it all too often. I have never doubted the lofty motives of the post-war Labour Government; it was only their performance which made me wonder.
Perhaps I might be allowed to say that when in 1950 my party committed itself to cut adrift from certain post-war inhibitions in this matter we were rather ridiculed by certain right hon. and hon. Members opposite. For example, there was the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). [An HON. MEMBER: "Why quote him?"] Why not quote him? He is as good as anyone, especially for quotations. He declared in the House in 1950:… if the Conservatives adopt the policy of setting the builder free … it is not 300,000 houses that they will get—they will not get 200,000, they will not get 100,000. All they will get will be housing riots."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 641.]We did rather better than that and things remained fairly peaceful, at least for a 1280 time. Then the Government brought to an end the general needs subsidy and decided to direct subsidies towards the special needs of slum clearance and the housing of elderly people. The Rent Act was the next logical step to maintain older houses in better conditions and to bring about a more economical use of existing accommodation.
Many people, some of whom support the rest of the Rent Act and some of whom do not, take the view that Section 11 (1) of the Rent Act was a mistake. That is a point of view which I understand, but it does not happen to be the view of Her Majesty's Government. Let us be perfectly frank with each other about this. [Laughter.] I am sure, in spite of the smiles and jeers from the Opposition, that the House will agree that no one could foresee with anything approaching certainty or accuracy how a provision such as Section 11 (1) would work out. Undoubtedly, there would be some difficult cases. It is unreasonable to pretend that they were not foreseen, but nobody could honestly say in advance how many cases there would be.
In the event, as my right hon. Friend rightly said earlier, two factors have added to the difficulties of decontrol. The first, as my right hon. Friend said, was the credit squeeze, which, however much we may dislike it, was an economic necessity. Of course, it has made house purchase more difficult and more expensive, and it has made conversions and schemes for adaptation more difficult also. I was rather surprised to hear the hon. Member for Lewisham, North argue that higher interest rates in themselves had not affected decontrol. Of course, it is not entirely a question of higher interest rates. It is a question in very many circumstances of the sheer impossibility of borrowing money at all.
The second and, I think, most important factor, was the reaction of certain landlords to the policy of the Labour Party. I am most anxious to be scrupulously fair about this.
§ Mr. Bevins
I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering will, in his turn, also be scrupulously fair about it.
The Labour Party first announced in June, 1956, its intention to municipalise all rented houses. At that time a General Election was a long way off. Moreover, 1281 in 1956, Labour Party political pamphlets, especially the one entitled "Homes of the Future," were not exactly the breakfast reading of landlords. However, within three months of the Rent Act becoming law, the Labour Party went to Brighton, and, in a real blaze of publicity, advertised to the world its renewed intention, if returned to power, to take over all rented houses. Did hon. Gentlemen opposite ever pause and contemplate what the result of that would be? Did they think that their display at Brighton would help the tenants, as whose protectors they were posing, or hinder them in their negotiations?
§ Mr. A. Evans
Is the hon. Gentleman telling the House and the country that the Opposition and the Labour Party have no right to state their housing policy to the country?
§ Mr. Bevins
I am not saying anything of the sort. I am merely stating that, in my view, the behaviour of the Labour Party at the Brighton Conference was irresponsible in the circumstances at that time and that the effect upon many landlords and many tenants was immediate. Many landlords who until that point had been perfectly willing to negotiate with their tenants decided to get out of the property market, and in the months that followed my right hon. Friend and I and hon. Members on both sides of the House came across concrete evidence to that effect.
I will read extracts from two letters which I received shortly after the Brighton Conference. The first read:I would like to see it hammered home to all the electorate that the main cause of our deciding to sell is undoubtedly due to the threat of the Labour Party to nationalise if they come into power, which heaven forbid.
§ Mr. Bevins
Another letter read:I am sorry to tell you that at this rather late hour I have decided not to enter into a new tenancy. It is not that I am dissatisfied with the terms suggested, but the Labour Party have announced their intentions of repealing the Rent Act.I am not arguing for one moment that there would have been no threatened evictions if the party opposite had behaved with a greater sense of responsibility. What I do say, and I do not think that it can be contradicted, is that threatened evictions would have been 1282 much fewer had the behaviour of the party opposite been different.
Both in the House and in the country—and particularly in this House this afternoon, as expressed by the hon. Member for Brierley Hill—decontrol has been presented by the Opposition as an issue of landlord versus tenant, with, it is alleged, my right hon. Friend and the Conservative Party siding with the landlord, and the party opposite haloed as the saviour of the British tenant. Indeed, it seemed to dawn upon more than one hon. Member opposite some time ago that there, happened to be more tenants than landlords in this country.
The Government are on the side of neither landlords nor tenants. The duty of the Government is not to take sides, except the side of the nation. That is why we embarked on the Rent Act. That is why my right hon. Friend declared almost two months ago that we should not hesitate to take further steps to prevent hardship, in the same spirit as the Government showed when they introduced the Rent Bill for the benefit of the whole nation. That is why we are not afraid now, despite the many representations that have been made against us, to see that the objects of decontrol are brought about with firmness, with justice and with humanity.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).