HC Deb 30 July 1958 vol 592 cc1506-18

10.45 p.m.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

I am glad that the procedure today permits back benchers to raise subjects of limited local interest which are, none the less, of vital importance to our constituents. In view of some anxieties which have been expressed earlier today about the arrangements of subjects tonight, I should like to say that, although you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and Mr. Speaker—

Mr. W. Edwards

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I understand that we were discussing the National Health Service. You called one of my hon. Friends to discuss another subject. Could we go back to the National Health Service after my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) has finished?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Most certainly; hon. Members can talk about anything on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

Mr. Parkin

I was saying, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that while I have very frequently been called by you and by Mr. Speaker in debates in the House, I have never been called as a result of any letter which I have written or representations I have made about my interest in any particular debate. All I did on this occasion was to ring your office, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and confirm that this was exempted business, and that back benchers would have an opportunity of raising any subjects they desired.

I am very grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for coming along to answer tonight, because, although I could have raised the matter and perhaps got a reply from another Minister, he himself would have been most easily placed to avoid Ministerial "answerability" although Ministerial interest in the subject is greatest with him among all those concerned. The hon. Gentleman's courtesy and common sense have prevailed, and I hope that, after a very short discussion, we shall be able to have some really useful assurances. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's attention has been drawn to two Motions on the Order Paper in my name, Nos. 100 and 101. No doubt HANSARD will help me in saving the time of the House by setting out those Motions, so that I need not read them in full now.

[That this House notes with concern the continuing loss of unfurnished dwelling accommodation available in London to families with low incomes through the exploitation by speculators of leaseholds with short unexpired terms; calls upon Her Majesty's Government to undertake an inquiry into this problem, co-ordinating information available to different departments and to local authorities; asks the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make available to local authorities information already in the hands of the police as to the use of such premises for prostitution, even although there is no breach of the existing law; invites the Minister of Housing and Local Government to intimate that this is one of the types of case where he would be prepared to consider favourably the granting of a compulsory purchase order for the acquisition of the premises; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to treat this problem as one of urgency, and to announce a co-ordinated administrative policy and proposals for any necessary legislation early in the next session of Parliament.]

[That this House calls the Government's attention to the situation in Wymering Road, Paddington, where premises next door to a girls' high school held on lease by the Public Trustee, have been sub-let to a property company which has given notice to quit to tenants decontrolled under the Rent Act and, as these leave, is re-letting the flats furnished for purposes of prostitution; calls upon Mr. Attorney General to make available to the Public Trustee information as to the liability to forfeiture of lease, and to advise him if requested as to the desirability of his surrendering the lease to the freeholders; and requests Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer to inquire what income from the property may be paid into the Treasury as part of liabilities due to the Exchequer, and to decline to receive any further such income until the premises are properly managed.]

The first Motion sets out, as I see it, the general nature of the problem, with some steps which I suggest for its solution. The second Motion sets out some of the details of a particular case which has recently arisen in my constituency, which has led me to feel that there is a certain urgency about the matter and that we could well do with some Ministerial help before the House rises.

The terms of the second Motion indicate one facet of a problem which we have already discussed in the House and with which the Parliamentary Secretary is familiar. It was raised last autumn in relation to the exploitation of ends of leases by speculators who overcrowded furnished lettings. The examples I gave were of the use of decontrolled premises for purposes of prostitution, but I am not interested tonight in starting a debate along the lines of a supposed rediscovery of the wickedness of London.

I do not think that that theory is true, or that the social problems are as great as they have been at almost any previous period of London's history. Personally, I am exasperated with the often sniggering assumption that this particular problem is inevitably associated with my own Borough of Paddington. It is not largely true, and in so far as it is true it is because of an historical accident that makes premises available.

I do not want to discuss the use of luxurious accommodation for this purpose. What I am concerned with is the eating away of dwelling accommodation available to people of the lower and middle income groups who have lived in London for a long time and who need to continue to live and work there. It is an ironical thing that if anyone were to start any other business in a private dwelling in Paddington, if a gentleman had the temerity to start running a mail order business from a flat in one of the streets I am concerned about, the authorities would be in a position to rebuke him very quickly and say that this was a change of use and against the plan for preserving a residential area.

The historical accident, to which I referred, lies in the fact that the leasehold system was applied 100 years ago at the time of a great expansion of the number of people in certain parts of London, particularly around Paddington station. Ninety-nine year leases were granted without precautions being taken about the subsequent sale of these leases.

We are now faced with this situation: no man of substance would purchase, with a short term to run, a lease of a house in a dilapidated condition because he would find himself, at the end of the period of the lease, involved in very serious repairs. Indeed, he might immediately be required by the local authority to undertake repairs. So ends of leases with short terms to run are only held either by men of straw, in the sense that they are able to leave at the end of the lease and not be pursued to do the repairs, or they are owned by limited companies, usually with £100 registered capital of which £2 is paid up. The companies are owned by gentlemen who charge as management fee the exact amount of the lease extracted from the house.

It is perfectly legitimate practice, in many cases, to put a particular house in the ownership of a limited company created for that purpose. It is often convenient, for accountancy and tax purposes, to sell the company which owns the house. There are a limited number of cases where this device is adopted in a cold and calculated manner with near fraudulent intent to avoid the responsibility of ownership.

In many discussions of this problem, I have met with no disagreement with the analysis of it that I have just set out. I certainly know of no opposition to any proposals for a concerted attempt to find a short-term solution and draw up a short-term plan to cope with this creeping paralysis which spreads over certain areas of the dwelling space of London. What we now want is action, and encouragement for this action can come from the Minister's words tonight.

I ask the Government to offer their help in co-ordinating all the powers that exist, in all the Departments, to draw up a plan. In particular, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say whether his right hon. Friend would view with sympathy an approach by a local authority for permission to acquire by compulsory purchase properties of this kind where, through the sale of the ends of leases, the normal dwelling accommodation available in the area is eaten into.

Many local authorities could have shown much more drive in a counter-attack against this development. They could have done more in enabling the statutory tenants in some of these houses to use the appropriate Section of the Housing Act, 1949, to acquire them. Some local authorities—I am sorry to say that Paddington is one of them—have not operated that Act at all. Many Paddington people who have lived for years in the area could, with considerable encouragement, have acquired the houses in which they dwell and, at the same time, could have got the advice and help of the borough authorities in carrying out repairs and improvements and maintaining the houses.

When we consider the total amount that is paid in rents for this accommodation, there is ample margin to carry out first-aid repairs and to establish reasonable sanitary amenities for the life of the lease. I have not yet met anyone who objects to paying an increased rent if the property in which he lives is generally improved. The Minister might even invite reports from local authorities in whose areas this problem is prevalent indicating their plans.

I have tried not to treat this problem tonight either sensationally or controversially, because I think that all those concerned with it are very near agreement on what might, and could, be done. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies in a few minutes' time, will give us all some encouragement. Although this is a problem to which we must find a technical solution, to those concerned it is one which can suddenly and unexpectedly face ordinary, simple people who have expected to continue for the rest of their lives living in the houses in which they have lived for a generation. Suddenly, they may be faced with the appalling situation that they lose their home over their heads. At that point, it becomes a very urgent and human problem. All of us should be, not talking sentimentally about it, but thinking and working energetically to find a practical solution.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

I intend to be a little more blunt than my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), who appeared more or less to be excusing himself for raising this subject. So far as it concerns my constituency, however, it is possibly of even greater importance than in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend.

What is taking place in the Stepney constituency is not a question of people taking over short leases and misusing the houses to which those leases relate, but of people purchasing the property and misusing it. I know of many houses which were, at any rate before the war, occupied by people bred and born in Stepney, but which have now been taken over by colonial owners. One may find an old person of perhaps 70 or 80 living in a house, the remainder of which is occupied by people from Colonial Territories. I am not complaining about those who come from the Colonial Territories, but I am saying that this situation is causing serious disquiet among the people who live in such conditions.

The reason why this takes place is that the law of house ownership enables anybody to buy any property and use it as he sees fit. I could give the House dozens of examples of property in the Borough of Stepney which has been bought by coloured people, and which, within a very short time, has been occupied entirely by coloured people. They have to live somewhere, it is true, but the plain fact of the matter is that the white people in Stepney are finding it very difficult indeed to get the accommodation they require.

It is extremely difficult to deal with the problem under the law as it stands, but in constituencies like mine, in the East End of London, and my hon. Friend's, because of the bad state of the property British landlords do not want to undertake extensive repairs and are quite prepared to sell the property to any Tom, Dick and Harry, regardless of the use to which it is to be put, and we have to put up with the consequences. Unfortunately, this tendency is rapidly increasing.

In my own constituency there are hundreds, if not thousands, of properties which ought to be in slum clearance areas but which cannot be included in them. Naturally, the landlord does not want to be burdened with such a property in future, and he will sell it to anybody willing to purchase. As a result of Government Departments neither taking, nor giving any thought to taking, action, quite a large proportion of houses in the East London boroughs are coming to be owned not by what we might call ordinary property owners, but, perhaps, by a widow, or anybody else who has saved some money. The houses are being used for the purpose of letting to large numbers of people contrary to public health regulations, and the public health authorities can do nothing except put them out on the street. That is happening even in my own borough. There are, I know, very, very many cases of British subjects from outside this country who have bought property in which 16 or 17 people are sleeping in a room.

I am now, of course, dealing with the question of overcrowding and the insanitary conditions, but my hon. Friend dealt with a number of such properties which are bought on short leases for the purpose of enabling prostitution to take place. In my own borough, my own division, that is very common. These slums are being bought by people who are making a tremendous amount of money, after completing purchase of them, by avoiding the law as far as they possibly can and enabling prostitutes to carry on their function in the most prosperous way in which, as we know, it is being carried on.

I say to the House that in my division people are very disturbed by this situation. It is one which the Government have got to look into. I have already sent a letter to the Home Secretary, asking him to receive a deputation from the people who are being affected by the consequences of this purchase of property on short leases by those who sometimes purchase the freehold as well. We cannot go on allowing our own people to be subjugated by these awful conditions which prevail, not only for a few hours in the evening, when, in the ordinary way, prostitutes stand at street corners, but which prevail 24 hours a day, causing a grave nuisance, apart altogether from the effect they have on the children in the locality. I beg the Home Secretary, even before he receives, as I hope he will, the deputation from my constituency, to give careful thought to this matter and to do something about it.

I have one further thing to say in conclusion upon this matter, and then I have another matter I want to raise. The Government set up the Wolfenden Committee. I think that it was a very responsible Committee which did its work very well. The Report of that Committee has been before this House and the Government for, I think, about twelve months. It appears that the Government will not give time for the consideration by the House of the Report of that Committee. I feel that if the Government, whether Conservative or Labour, set up a committee to give them advice, whatever the subiect may be, they ought to provide the House with opportunity for discussion of the committee's recommendations, when they are presented. That opportunity, in this case, has been denied to the House.

Whether the Wolfenden Committee's Report will help to resolve this situation or not, I do not know. It may or it may not, but at least there is an obligation on the Government to see that we are given an opportunity to consider it, because in some places, in my division, in the division of my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North, and in many other big cities, this problem has become a very serious one and the House ought to consider it at the earliest possible time.

I was denied an opportunity of talking on the National Health Service, Mr. Speaker, because my right hon. Friend was called upon to wind up before the debate was quite at an end, so I hope that it may be possible for me to have the chance to say a word or two about that now.

Mr. Speaker

It would not be out of order to do so.

Mr. Edwards

Here again, in my constituency we have a problem. Before the Health Service was set up we had a certain number of hospitals in Stepney, and it is striking to relate that since the Service was set up one has been closed and there is consideration about important alterations to another. I gathered, when the Service was introduced, that its purpose was to make conditions for people requiring it much easier, and not harder, as appears to be the case in Stepney. I attribute the trouble to the part of the Health Service which deals with the regional boards.

On the North East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board, which deals with my constituency, there is hardly anyone serving from my part of London; in fact, most people on this board come from the country or seaside and do not know the first thing about London. They do not realise, when they close a hospital—and we had the London Hospital, in Wapping—that it causes great inconvenience and expense to people who have to get out-patient treatment elsewhere, as well as to relatives who visit them in hospital.

I fear that the hospital service is being run now by mathematicians or financial statisticians, who say, "This hospital is costing too much, therefore we should close it", without paying the slightest regard to those who have to use the hospital and who have used it for fifty or sixty years. The board must stop thinking about closing hospitals in Stepney, because someone will complain about it. If it wants trouble in Stepney, it will certainly get it if it goes on with these ideas.

I do not blame the Health Service. I blame the fact that it permits people who know nothing about local conditions to serve on regional boards. The sooner the Health Service gets down to a situation where there can be some local representation to point out to the boards the effect of their closing hospitals in a certain area the better it will be for the people in the area.

11.15 p.m.

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

I have no wish to detain the House, because I realise many hon. Members wish to raise various subjects and because I am myself interested in the Adjournment debate which is to follow later.

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) for letting me know that he was raising this subject and for the temperate way in which he spoke. My right hon. Friend and myself have enough in which to interest ourselves without taking an excessive interest in the problems posed by the Wolfenden Report. I content myself on that subject by saying that it is not an offence for premises to be used by a woman tenant for the trade to which the hon. Member referred. I undertake that my right hon. Friend will carefully examine what hon. Members have said. Meanwhile, I might make one or two comments. On the general theme, it is no doubt true that there are many circumstances—

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I do not know whether I have followed what the hon. Gentleman has been saying, but surely, where there is a leaseholder, there is usually a covenant against immoral use of the house in respect of prostitution in the ordinary sense or its use by one individual for immoral purposes. Cannot the hon. Gentleman do something from that point of view?

Mr. Bevins

I was not talking about that, and even if I had been it is not the concern of my right hon. Friend or myself.

As to the general theme of the remarks of the hon. Member for Paddington, North, many circumstances can lead to the deterioration of property. Without going into detail, I would say that my right hon. Friend is always ready to look at proposals designed to prevent such deterioration and to encourage the beneficial use of property. That is one reason why the Rent Act was introduced.

Mr. Parkin

I did not mention the Rent Act. I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should do so.

Mr. Bevins

Several of these things concern my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government as distinct from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. One of the Motions in the name of the hon. Member for Paddington, North suggested that the Rent Act had made matters worse in the exploitation by speculators of leaseholds with short, unexpired leases. As the hon. Member knows, what are known as fag-end leaseholds are affected by decontrol under the Rent Act only if the lease is for a period of twenty-one years or less. The position is that when a lease for more than twenty-one years comes to an end the occupying lessee can claim protection under Part I of the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1954. That is to say, if he cannot agree on terms for a new lease with the ground landlord he can get a statutory tenancy at a rent fixed by the county court.

This applies to all premises in London with a rateable value not in excess of £100 in 1939. There remain premises in London of a rateable value of £40 or more which, because of decontrol under the Rent Act, became decontrolled because they were subject to either a statutory tenancy or a short lease.

As the House knows, no notice to quit can take effect until 6th October this year and after that date the owner must apply to the court if he wants possession. I stress, I think rightly, that no tenant has yet been compelled, because of the Rent Act, to leave premises. If any tenants have gone out, as suggested on one of the hon. Member's Motions, at Wymering Road, Paddington, or elsewhere, they must have left the premises voluntarily. That can happen, Rent Act or no Rent Act.

Mr. Parkin

Will the hon. Gentleman accept my assurance that in the case he mentions the people began to look for alternative accommodation when given notice to quit under the terms of the Rent Act? I have no wish to dispute the Rent Act tonight with the hon. Gentleman. He has brought it up himself. The House may very well know what the terms of legislation are, but ordinary people frequently do not know. In many cases they have decided that it may be more difficult to find alternative accommodation later, so they have found it now and gone. That is a fact, I do not want to argue about the Rent Act. What I am complaining about is the subsequent use of the houses or flats.

Mr. Bevins

I appreciate that and I will not quarrel with the hon. Member tonight about it, but he will realise that his Motion ties up this question with the consequences of the Rent Act. All I was saying is that a tenant of decontrolled property is not compelled to leave the property, whether a house or a flat, prior to 6th October, this year and, indeed, might not need to do so at that time, because of the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant (Temporary Provisions) Bill.

The hon. Member referred to the more general problem which sometimes arises in the big cities and which is connected with the fag ends of leases. As he knows, we had a debate on this subject last year, with special reference to the occupation of these houses by coloured immigrants. One has to keep the matter in some sort of perspective, because, as the hon. Member knows, there are many properties, not all of them leasehold, which may be used for, shall I say, unusual purposes of one kind or another.

There may be a great deal to be said for freeholders seeking, for example, to stipulate against assignment of leases which are near the end of their lives, except to approved lessees. Some local authorities have tried to do that to maintain the condition of the property and to regulate the use to which it is put. In those cases, there may be an argument for examination of the matter, although hon. Members will appreciate that that is not a matter primarily for my right hon. Friend.

I now turn to the suggestion of the hon Member that my right hon. Friend should encourage the making of compulsory purchase orders for the acquisition of premises which are used for immoral purposes. I should like to emphasise that I have no wish whatever to be unhelpful, but my right hon. Friend is under a duty to consider compulsory purchase orders, as is a local authority, with a scrupulous regard for the powers which are conferred upon him and the local authorities by Parliament.

Housing authorities have power to acquire houses in certain well-defined circumstances, broadly speaking, to acquire fit houses to meet housing needs, and to acquire obsolescent houses to secure redevelopment. It is only where the properties of which the hon. Member spoke are included in categories like those that local authorities can legitimately acquire them, or that my right hon. Friend can validly confirm the order. It would not be right for either the Minister or the local authorities to smile upon the acquisition of properties by ostensibly buying them for some valid statutory purpose when, in fact, the houses were being acquired primarily to prevent their use for some purposes which the hon. Member or other hon. Members might dislike.

Having said that, it may well be that some of the properties which the hon. Member has in mind come within the categories which I have mentioned. In those cases, my right hon. Friend would, very rightly and naturally, consider any order on its merits. I shall be sorry if what I have said is thought not to be helpful. As I said earlier, we shall carefully examine what has been said.

Mr. Parkin

I did not wish to suggest that the Minister should encourage compulsory acquisition of the flats because they were being used for specific purposes. I was trying to press for an assurance that the Minister would look favourably upon a comprehensive plan to preserve areas which would otherwise fall into disrepair during the remaining years of their lifetime and I was suggesting that this was only one of the ways in which the legitimate use of the premises was being denied to the local inhabitants.

Mr. Bevins

On that particular point, I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that, consistent with my right hon. Friend's powers, he would certainly be prepared to look sympathetically at any ideas of that sort.