§ Mr. H. Brooke
I beg to move, in page 7, line 32, at the end to insert:premium" includes any fine or like sum or any other pecuniary consideration in addition to rent.This Amendment is consequential to the Government Amendment in page 4, line 28, which has been accepted, and some reference was made to it when we discussed that Amendment.
§ Question proposed, That those words be there inserted in the Bill.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, after "consideration" to insert:(whether payable to the owner or to any person acting or purporting to act on behalf of the owner)".The object of our Amendment is to deal with a trouble which has arisen in a good many parts of London and upon which some of my hon. Friends have some very forcible words to say. It is to deal with the case of agents, very often the only people whom the tenants or occupiers know and meat, who take the occasion of these transactions, the lease which is intended to allow the man to stay in his home instead of being turned out on to the streets, to make a pretty good rake-off out of them—and make it, although they have been acting as the agents of the owners or landlords, by taking it directly out of the tenant.
It is not a very easy problem to deal with by a short Amendment, and I recognise at once that, as has been said before today, the Minister's Amendment simply copies the former definition in the 1949 Act and in other Acts of the word "premiums". But we are here dealing with one premium which occurs only once in the whole of the Bill, and 166 that given in very special circumstances. It seems to me reasonable that in relation to the three-year lease it ought not to be allowed to count, if I may put the matter in that way, where the occupier is being forced to make a substantial payment, or even any payment, to a person who ought not to ask from the occupier any payment at all, for in these cases he is acting as the agent of the owner.
The Amendment goes beyond that and includes the case of someone who purports to act as the agent of the occupier. If the Minister can think of a better way of putting the case, the substance of which I am about to mention, I should be only too glad if he would undertake to insert it in another place.
The type of case is that in which these agents often play this kind of game of their own. Although they are taken as, and are known by everybody to be, the agents of the owners or landlords, it is very difficult to bring home to the landlord what they have done. They may say, "For general purposes, such as collecting rents, we are his agents, but in this particular matter we were not and did not hold out to be the agents of the landlord."
These cases present a considerable number of possibilities of complication, and it is a pity that the tenant who stands to be fleeced in this sort of way should have to depend on rather fine distinctions of the exact scope of the agency of the person whom he knows is the landlord's agent. Therefore, I think that the Amendment should be widely worded. The substance of it is to cover not merely cases of payment to landlords, which are quite obviously premiums of the form that we are considering now, but payments to landlords' agents, whether or not those payments ultimately go to the landlord.
It is particularly intended to deal with agents of various kinds who are making rake-offs in these transactions and who are fleecing—I do not hesitate to use the word—occupiers or tenants who stand in need of protection, and to whom the Bill in its very limited form is intended to offer some protection. If no extension beyond the narrow meaning of premium 167 which the right hon. Gentleman has chosen on another occasion be allowed, we find the occupier protected to a more limited extent than any of us would wish. I hope. therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will see his way to accept the Amendment or, if he prefers, to say that he recognises the extent of the evil and has some other and better way of dealing with it which will give effect to what I have indicated.
§ Mr. H. Butler
I beg to second the Amendment.
I want to make it quite clear that in constituencies like mine the tenant very often does not know the landlord at all. This situation has existed in my constituency since October, 1957. I have here a letter, a copy of which was sent to an hon. Member opposite. It is addressed by agents to a tenant who had a tenancy of £2 a week and who was offered a tenancy at £4 a week plus rates, and so on. The agents' letter concludes:We consider the above offer is a very reasonable one, and we shall be glad if you will please let us know as soon as possible whether or not you wish to take advantage of it. If you do, you will be liable for the cost of preparing the Agreement and Counterpart Agreement and Stamp duties thereon, plus our Commission, which in this case will be 7½ per cent. on the amount of one year's rent.It means that the agents in this case would get £15, which is 7½ per cent. on a rental of £200 a year, and the tenant would be paying something other than the rent which is allowed.
It is illegal for the landlord to secure or accept a premium, but we suggest that it should also be illegal for the agent to secure from their tenant, who does not wish to be put to all this trouble and have his rent increased, an additional sum of £15.
This matter was raised in Committee and discussed from the point of view of asking the Minister whether, if an occupier refused to pay this, it would be deemed that he was acting in an unreasonable manner. We also asked the Minister, although we never had an answer, whether it was in fact unreasonable for a tenant or occupier to say, "I am refusing to pay £5 or £10 for a legal agreement", which can be drawn up on a form which has been advertised by the Property Owners' Protection Association. 168 I have seen some of these forms, to which a few lines of typewriting have been added and for which these people have been asked £5 to £10.
The Minister has defined "premium" as includingany fine or like sum or any other pecuniary consideration in addition to rent.In my area there are a considerable number of tenancies which are affected. It is not fair to ask these people to pay this additional sum of money to estate agents. It is not my practice to secure the immunity of this House to draw attention to particular firms. I have written to a firm of estate agents pointing out that in my view it is extremely unfair for people enjoying tenancies, through no fault of their own, to get involved in the repercussions of the 1957 Act and unfair that the additional burden should fall on them to give an estate agent money for which the agent renders no service at all. The firm in question, which has had considerable correspondence with me—Messrs. Donaldson, 17–19, Dalston Lane—still persists in this action. My constituents, in writing to me and seeing me, have asked me whether they can refuse to pay these charges, both the legal charges and the 7½ per cent. on the first year's rent, and, if they do refuse, whether they will be deemed to have been unreasonable in regard to their attitude towards the landlord?
On behalf of my constituents, I would like an undertaking from the Minister whether they are acting in a reasonable or unreasonable way. I venture to suggest that any fair-minded person looking at this problem, whether we agree that landlords should have more money or not, would say it is unfair that this imposition should be made in addition to the others.
§ Mr. H. Brooke
In reply to the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler), I would say that an estate agent cannot properly claim a fee or commission for himself unless he has been instructed by a client, and he cannot be instructed by both sides to a transaction.
Clearly, without greater knowledge than I have of the case the hon. Member has mentioned, I cannot pronounce on it, but if I had a case arising in my constituency where I felt an estate agent had 169 been acting against the precept I have just mentioned, and if that agent were a member of a professional body, I would take the line that the matter should be reported to the professional body for any disciplinary action the body might think fit. In saying that, I trust the hon. Member will recognise that I have no more detailed knowledge of this particular transaction than he has mentioned, and my words may or may not be applicable to that particular case.
In general, it seems quite proper and reasonable for the court to decide whether the occupier's action in refusing a new tenancy because the agent has tried to obtain a fee for himself from the occupier as distinct from any payment that is going to the landlord, is unreasonable or not.
If it is a case where the owner is demanding a premium for himself through an agent, it seems unnecessary to accept any such Amendment, because in interpreting the premium provisions of the 1949 Act the courts have already held that a payment of a premium to a landlord includes payment to an agent who has ostensible authority to conduct the full business of letting the property. If, therefore, that is the case which is envisaged here, I can advise the House that the Amendment is unnecessary. If it is the other type of case, the agent may or may not be guilty of unprofessional conduct. In any event, I suggest that in such a case it should be at the discretion of the court to decide whether the action of the occupier in refusing an offer in such circumstances was reasonable or unreasonable.
§ Mr. Weitzman
It is not good enough on the part of the Minister to put us off on an important matter of this nature. He is leaving the occupier in the dilemma of ascertaining whether the agent has ostensible authority to act on behalf of the principal. How on earth can an occupier, possibly an ignorant person with little knowledge of these matters, decide?
The Minister seems to recognise that an evil exists here. In the same way as my hon. Friend, in my constituency, in the case of the same estate agent, I have come across repeated cases where offers have been made to occupiers to take up three-year agreements on condition that 170 they pay sums of £7 or £8 to the agent for the preparation of a lease and the stamp and a percentage commission of the rental in respect of fees. It is an evil which exists. Surely, it should be the duty of the Minister, if he can, to cure it. It can be cured in a simple manner by accepting the Amendment.
The Amendment proposes, after "consideration," to insert:(whether payable to the owner or to any person acting or purporting to act on behalf of the owner)".Those words cover exactly the sort of case with which we are dealing. The Minister recognises the evil. Surely, he will not leave the position that the occupier may choose to take whatever course he likes and may, possibly, have to take legal proceedings to deal with the matter. If the Minister recognises the justice of the case, the proper thing to do is to accept my hon. and learned Friend's Amendment.
§ Mr. Janner
I do not think that the Minister understands the position. What he has not understood is that the fee charged by an agent is a fee which might legitimately be payable by the owner. Instead of the owner paying it, he tries to put the fee on to the tenant. Not getting it from the owner, the agent asks the tenant to pay the agency fee, which, in effect, is relieving the landlord of an obligation. It may well be that even the owner would not be entitled to be charged a fee by the agent, but probably the position is that as the owner has asked the agent to negotiate a new tenancy agreement or lease, the owner would have to pay a certain commission in accordance with the rules of the estate agent's organisation. I cannot understand why the Minister does not recognise that and why he does not realise that if that is the case, the tenant is being charged a premium.
The Minister says that it is not necessary for tenants to worry, everything is simple and all that they have to do is to go into court and say what they have to say, that they will find themselves in a proper atmosphere and all the rest. Of course, it is not as simple as that. The fact is that the tenant, before he is given the tenancy, which may be a very reasonable tenancy, will have had a charge 171 made upon him which would not be a premium in the sense that the Minister defines it, but would be a premium in commonsense. All we are asking the Minister to do is to admit into the definition this particular payment, which does not go directly to the landlord but indirectly affects the landlord. Why the Minister should refuse that, I do not know, and I am sure he will concede the point that is being sought in this Amendment.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington North)
I should like to support the Amendment, and I am sorry that the Minister has not shown any inclination to accept it immediately, but I hope he will have second thoughts and will yet do something in another place. But may I at once say how much pleasure his words gave me, when he was suggesting that the issue of professional rectitude might well be dealt with by the professional associations concerned. I should like briefly to ask whether he would follow that through, because his words from that Box have considerable weight. He had the courage some time ago to issue a warning to bad landlords, and if he will now emphatically issue a warning to the minority of bad estate agents, I am sure that both the property associations concerned might well look at it.
§ Mr. Parkin
I am asking the Minister, because he has just told the House that he thinks it is sufficient that the professional associations join in. What causes a great deal of trouble in my constituency is that a tenant does not know his landlord, and if by any chance he finds out the landlord's name, it is a limited company.
Not once, but on several occasions, I have gone down to Bush House to find out something about this company, and I have found almost invariably a one hundred pound limited company, with two pounds paid up, and the subscribers are either the estate agent in question or are clerks in his office. This is a common practice and a serious social evil in some areas, where ends of leases come into the hands of agencies who see that it is not worth while their attempting to sell them 172 in the proper professional manner as agents but that they can do much better by getting a nominal purchaser and then proceeding to manage the property themselves, charging their company as management fee exactly the amount of the rents, leaving the company with no resources with which to do any repairs and therefore able to have it both ways.
In present conditions, therefore, if the legal landlord is limited in the amount of rent he can extort, the benefical owner, who is in fact the estate agent himself, can add a bit by putting on these commissions and extra charges. I ask the Minister to believe that the world is not as uniformly innocent as he sometimes seems to think, and that there are some very bad patches in the property world in London. If he would undertake to look at this again, to have consultations with the professional associations that he mentioned, to consider whether it is worth while to have second thoughts, and to let this Amendment go through in another place, he would encourage most reputable estate agents to chase out from their profession the sort of people who infest my constituency and make the tenants' lives more miserable than they need be.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I am disappointed in the right hon. Gentleman. He leads me on. From time to time I think he has a better side and I try to appeal to it, and then it disappears into thin air. This is an occasion tonight. No doubt there is no very large sum involved here. No doubt there is a good deal to be said one way and another about it, but, at the end of the day, it is quite clearly a wrong practice, and quite sufficiently prevalent to be dealt with. To leave it to the occupier to draw the line between what is and what is not the ostensible authority of the agent is so legal an answer that I should hesitate to give it myself and must leave it to the right hon. Gentleman.
If he looks at the page in Megarry, where the case to which he referred came from, he will find another case where the director of a property-owning company went round "on the spree"—I think those are the words—and collected a bit of commission on his own. That was held not to be a premium, because he had no authority to collect it. How is 173 the poor tenant, or occupier, or whatever we call him, to distinguish between one case and another?
If it is the intention of the House really to stop premiums, we ought to stop not only the case where the premium goes through the agent's hands to the landlord but the very closely parallel case where the agent makes a small, but most disreputable and discreditable rake-off on his own account out of the very people whom it is the object of this Bill to protect; that is to say, the hardship case.
I still hope against hope that the right hon. Gentleman may get up at the last moment and let a little human warmth and feeling come into these proceedings before we close them, and tell us that he will look at the matter on the merits and deal with this minor but wrong abuse.
§ Amendment to the proposed Amendment negatived.
§ Proposed words there inserted in the Bill.
§ 11.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Bevins
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am sure it will meet the wishes of the House if, following our debates on Report, I speak with exemplary brevity, which, I venture to hope, will be emulated. First of all, may I say that this Bill is not an amendment to the Rent Act, 1957. The main provisions in that Act—in fact, all the provisions in that Act, including Section 11—remain on the Statute Book.
My right hon. Friend has always been confident that the majority of tenants of decontrolled dwellings would be able to reach agreements for new leases with their landlords by October of this year, and we are equally sure that the publication of this Bill, and the prospect of its becoming law, have induced many landlords and tenants to take a more reasonable and accommodating attitude and come to terms. While tenants have come to realise that the Government are standing fast on the principle of decontrol, I think it is true that landlords also have come to realise that this Government and this House are not insensitive to hardship where it occurs.
Nevertheless, there may remain a relatively small fringe of decontrolled tenants who, for one reason or another, 174 have not yet entered into new leases, and may suffer hardship unless given a reasonable time in which to make other arrangements. The Bill, therefore, is limited in scope, because it affects only those decontrolled tenants who have received notice to quit under the Rent Act and who, in the absence of this Bill, would be liable to lose possession of their homes towards the end of this year.
Although the Bill is limited in scope, its purpose is very important. It is important because it will help those who really need the help of Parliament—the elderly and those with limited means. Right hon. and hon. Members opposite have repeatedly made it clear that in their view this Bill does not go far enough, but I remind the House that it passed its Second Reading without a Division. In Standing Committee—and my right hon. Friend the Minister is most grateful to all hon. Members who served on that Committee and helped to improve this Measure—criticisms were levelled against several detailed provisions. A number of improvements were suggested, and I think that I can fairly say tonight that my right hon. Friend has gone a long way towards meeting the criticisms voiced both during Committee and Report stages. Indeed, some hon. Members opposite have been sufficiently generous to say so.
The criticisms, however, which were really criticisms of the principle of decontrol, we have not felt able to meet because this is not a Measure to modify, still less to vitiate, the idea of decontrol. It is a Measure to alleviate hardship where it ought to be avoided.
I should like now to refer to the two most important changes made to the Bill during its passage through the House. First in importance by far is that change which recasts Clause 3 (1, a)—the matter of the first of the four tests which the occupier has to pass if the court is to grant a suspension of the order applied for by the owner. This will help tenants. Furthermore, the consequence of this is that it is the owner and not the occupier who now has to take the initiative and offer a new tenancy. If the owner fails to make an offer, then the occupier is no longer required to take any steps to secure a new tenancy of the premises.
The next important change is in Clause 3 (5), and this arises from doubts 175 as to whether the occupier might inadvertently or for some other reason have failed to pay the rent and thereby have failed to have the protection of this Bill. The court can now grant a suspension, despite this, providing that the outstanding rent is paid within 28 days.
It remains only for me to commend the Bill to hon. Members and to express the hope that the House will feel able to give it general support as an indication of the importance which we all attach to this Measure, the laudable purpose of which is to prevent hardship of a kind which neither side of the House would wish to see.
§ 11.14 p.m.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)
This little Bill attempts to alleviate some of the hardships imposed upon decent British people by the worst landlords who have availed themselves of the opportunity given by the Minister in his notorious Rent Act. I say "the worst landlords," because this Bill does not concern the better landlords who have behaved quite fairly with tenants, as all hon. Members know. This Bill is a last minute concession to decency and humanity—and a minor concession at that. The Minister who has guided this Bill and the previous Measure through the House may be regarded as the chief grave digger of the Conservative Party at the next General Election. The misery caused by the Rent Act would have been much greater if the Minister had had his own way and people had been evicted last Christmas, as was proposed in the first draft.
§ Dr. King
I apologise, Mr. Speaker, but I wanted to connect what I have just said with what I am about to say.
Parliament and public opinion compelled the Minister to delay the evictions for nine months, and now exactly the same forces have compelled him to give at least to some of the tenants who face eviction this October further protection for some weeks or some months. If a tenant can satisfy a judge that he has tried hard to come to some agreement with the landlord, or has not refused one under the Amendment which we have just adopted on Report, that he has tried 176 hard to find another place in which to live, that he has paid his rent regularly or has offered to do so even if the landlord would not take it, and that greater hardship would be caused to him than to the landlord if he were evicted, the judge may postpone the tenant's being thrown into the street from three to nine months. At the end of that time he may return to the county court judge and, if he is lucky, he may be protected a little longer.
At first sight, this ought to shield at least those whose landlords said "Buy or get out", as the worst ones in Southampton said to my constituents. There were no negotiations, no offers, no consideration of the fact that the tenant had been living in the accommodation from fourteen to twenty years—simply "Buy or get out." But since the Bill had its Second Reading the worst landlords have tried to evade the first criterion which the county court judge will have to consider, by making offers to let at a rental which they know the tenant cannot or ought not to pay, rentals well beyond those which the Minister thought were fair for houses which are still controlled.
The Minister has resisted in Committee all attempts to fix in this Bill a reasonable rent for decontrolled houses. He is the last ditch defender of the right of property owners to get as much as they can out of the tenants. He, at any rate, is logical. He says—and there was an echo of this in the Parliamentary Secretary's speech just now—"What is the good of decontrolling houses, handing millions in the increased value of property to the property owners, if you have a ceiling on the rent which the landlord can charge on decontrolled houses?"
He says—to quote his own words in Committee—The appropriate rent of a de-controlled dwelling is what it will fetch in the open market, but there is no dispute between the two sides of this Committee that what it will fetch in the open market may, in certain circumstances, be beyond the means of the occupier … If, on the other hand, the landlord is asking a very high rent and the occupier can perfectly well afford that, I can see no reason why he should not pay it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D: 20th May, 1958; c. 223.]No matter how extortionate the worst landlords are in using the powers which the Minister has given them in decontrolling 750,000 houses, the Minister 177 approves. This is what the law of supply and demand means. This is the law of Capitalist economy.
It was therefore useless for my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) to tell the Minister in Committee, when seeking to improve this Bill, that there were greedy landlords raising the rent from £3 to £8 a week, nearly five times the gross value, or from £2 a week, inclusive, to £6 a week, exclusive—five times the gross value—and that in her constituency an old man aged 69, earning £8 10s. a week, was faced with an increase of his rent from £3 a week inclusive to £6 a week exclusive. After all, that was what the parent Act was passed for. That is why the Minister so endeared himself to the property owners of the country.
What the judge has to decide under this Bill is not whether the rent is exorbitant. No rent is exorbitant, says the Minister, if one can get it. The judge has got to decide whether the tenant has enough to pay the rent demanded and still have enough left to keep alive. The tenant who can find the money to go to court has to prove that he is too poor to pay the rent demanded. This is the latest means test in a long line of Tory means tests. I do not think it is the meanest one, but at any rate it is a means test.
I sincerely hope that all poor tenants who are faced with demands for savage increases will be able to raise enough money to go to the county courts. Although, as was pointed out earlier by the hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward), most people in this country do not like going to court. I hope that the county court judges will at any rate be able to protect the poorest people by means of this Bill. But the protection is only temporary. After all, the aim of the parent Act is to get them out of the houses, especially if they are old folk.
In what I think was the shabbiest speech made in the long progress of the two Bills, last year's and this, through this House, the Parliamentary Secretary—I am sorry he is not here at the moment—told the Standing Committee that old people are living in houses too big for them and that the ultimate aim 178 of the Rent Act operations is to get them out. He said:This brings us to the real point at issue, whether it is desirable in the interests of the community that elderly people should continue to occupy accommodation which is manifestly too big for them and which could be put to better use.
§ Dr. King
The noble Lord may cheer this passage, too:I know of cases where men who have retired at 62 or 65 have continued to live in a three or four-bedroom house until they are 80. One can always see these cases by the telltale curtains which have not been washed for ten years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 20th May, 1958; c. 195–6.]The purpose of the major Act is to get them out so that clean curtains can go up in the windows, not, in spite of the Parliamentary Secretary's remarks, because they are old but because they are old and poor. If they are rich enough they can live in an 80-bedroom house. If they are too poor, whether they are old, or whether they are young with many children, a four-bedroom house is too expensive for them. This Bill will delay the agony of eviction of some such poor people, and it is for that reason that I welcome it.
I am more angry about the hardships which have been suffered by some of my constituents who have been to see me week after week for the last 12 months than I can express in Parliamentary language. I am glad that some of them are going to get some benefit from this Bill. But what are they going to get? A handful of them, those who satisfy the means test and the other qualifications, may get deferment for some months, but eventually they have got to get out. The Minister says, "Let them find cheaper accommodation. Let them go to small flats or rooms." A single friend of mine in Southampton has had to move within the last week. He has got one single unfurnished room for £2 a week. Three flatlets were let in Southampton two months ago at £3 a week, and the owner of them proudly advertised in the local newspaper that he had over 250 applications for the three flatlets. How can an old evicted couple find £2 or £3 a week for a room or flatlet, even if there were enough of them?
179 The simple fact is that the Minister is expecting this Bill to delay evictions a short time, not to enable private enterprise to house people who ultimately must be evicted, but in order that local authorities can do so in time. But the local authorities themselves have long housing waiting lists. They will have to provide temporary accommodation of some kind, but it will be of a temporary nature only and not very suitable, as anyone who knows local authority temporary accommodation will know. They will have to take over some houses and then let rooms to those, who come along on the eviction lists.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman is now dealing with the general housing question and not with the Bill. This is the Third Reading.
§ Dr. King
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, if I went beyond what was in order.
As I was saying, the Bill will stagger the cases of eviction to which I referred and give the worst cases a breathing space. I ask the House to consider just why it has been brought in. There is no change of circumstance. Every hardship that the Bill has been brought in to relieve the Minister was told about long ago, when we began the long battle over the major Act. From my experience of the Minister during the Report stage, I do not think he has had any change of heart. I believe that the real reason for the Bill is that the Government are not prepared to face a mass of evictions in October, and they hope that, if they stagger or spread them over a period, public opinion will not be so outraged because there will not be so much of the misery caused at one moment.
I was interested in a mention in the report of the Committee stage that one holder of the Victoria Cross, threatened, apparently, with eviction or sympathising with those threatened by eviction, is proposing to return his medal to the Queen as a protest against what has been done. I am certain that many ex-Servicemen who face eviction will be disappointed that, at the end of a year's appealing to the Minister, all we have is a Bill which merely delays what is inevitable under the major Act, giving them the benefit of only two or three months, and which merely alleviates a hardship for which 180 the Government themselves are responsible.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
I am afraid that the situation of at least some of my constituents and, I am sure, many others also is not even as good as that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King). Unfortunately, there are some who, by the Bill, are being cheated even of the limited protection now being offered under it. I refer to the type of case spoken of in Committee, which the Minister has taken no step at all to try to meet.
It seems to me extraordinary that, simply because a property may have been sold before 2nd April this year, a fact with which the tenant has nothing whatever to do, he is denied even the slight protection afforded by the Bill to some others living, perhaps in a similar area. What fault is it of the tenant that, in these cases, the property has been sold over his head?
I have in mind a particular case in my constituency, a case which must be closely comparable with many others in almost every constituency. A couple has been living in a property since the early days of the war. The husband, the tenant, is now retired. He now understands that the property has been sold over his head. He has been given notice of eviction. He has been given no opportunity at all to make any new arrangement about renting, which he is quite prepared to do. Although he is quite prepared to come to a new agreement to rent the property, he has been given no such opportunity at all. The agent for the property had told him that he would have an opportunity of making an offer to purchase it, which he was prepared to do, but he has not been given any such opportunity and the house has been sold over his head without his having any chance of doing anything about it. He has to leave in October.
Because the house was sold late last year, he is unable even to get the protection of the slight delay and the stay of execution which otherwise he might have enjoyed. But for this he would be able to make exactly the claim which the Bill says must be made by tenants generally if they wish a stay of execution. He could claim that the hardship upon him 181 is greater than that on the person about to occupy the house, the new owner. His position is perfectly clear; there is no doubt about his difficulty. Because in a few months he is to retire, he is unable to raise a large sum and he is unable to get the advantage of a mortgage for a new property which he might otherwise have. He is in a difficult situation, and yet he is not allowed even a stay of execution.
I cannot understand why the Minister is incapable of being prepared even to look at such a case. It is another sign of the way in which he shows his obduracy or, to use a phrase used recently by one of his hon. Friends, his utter obstinacy. He shows a lack of knowledge, an obstinacy and a refusal to meet cases put to him. That is why the Bill has had to be presented. Any normal Minister would have seen the need for this provision in the original Act, but not this Minister. He is apparently incapable of understanding these points. Not until he was bludgeoned by his own supporters, and perhaps by fellow members of the Cabinet, was he prepared to bring forward even this miserable offering.
Undoubtedly it will give some relief to a very limited number of people, and for that reason we cannot oppose it. Half-a-loaf is better than no bread.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
I agree that it is only a few crumbs. On Report we had another exhibition from the Minister. For political reasons, I should feel sorry if he were to leave his office, because he has done our party a great deal of good, and if we were to think of the needs of the country purely in terms of our own party advantage nothing could satisfy us more than his continuing in office right up to the moment of the next election. But for the sake of the country we must not think purely in terms of party advantage, and it is an evil thing that the Minister should stay in office one moment longer after his demonstration in the House tonight and his utter incapability to understand even simple points put by his hon. Friends. If those who trooped into the Lobby in his support had known what the Division was about, precious few would have supported him in that Division.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
Enough did to give the Minister some sort of imitation victory in that Division. But here is one example out of many cases of a constituent who is denied even the small relief offered by the Bill through no fault of his but simply because of the Minister's obstinacy and ill-will. It is high time that this was made clear to the country, as it has become evident not only to Members on this side of the House but to many hon. Members opposite.
§ 11.36 p.m.
§ Mr. J. C. George (Glasgow, Pollok)
As one who opposed the Rent Act as it applied to Scotland when it was passed by the House, I should like to give a warm welcome to this Bill, which will undoubtedly relieve a great deal of worry and anxiety in my constituency and throughout Scotland. When the Rent Act was passed, it seemed obvious that there would be a fair amount of difficulty, and that difficulty arose, as many had expected. We saw many good landlords entering quickly into good agreements and giving the Bill a good start, but since then many harassed tenants have signed leases which were manifestly unfair in finance and in other terms relating to repairs. We have seen many people who could ill-afford it buying houses and landing themselves in debt, but I frankly confess now that over the whole aspect of the Rent Act there has been a diminishing amount of anxiety, and less than I had expected.
The real anxiety came as October approached and worry about evictions grew. This Bill has been brought forward at the proper time, after the position has been clarified. It will undoubtedly have a good effect on the present situation. After listening today to talk that the Bill had been brought in to prevent mass evictions, I am tempted to give the exact position in my constituency. I have kept careful record of 490 cases in the last two months since the Bill went to Committee as it approached its Third Reading. The facts are surprising.
On 1st April, out of the 490 cases 79 per cent. of tenants had signed agreements. Those who had not signed seemed to be determined to get out as soon as possible after the lease had expired, but 183 by 20th June 91 per cent. had signed. On 1st April 15 per cent. were negotiating and by 20th June that percentage had been reduced to 6. On 1st April, 6 per cent. had notice to quit, and by 20th June that percentage was 3. It is evident, and I have facts and figures in my correspondence to prove it, that because of the Bill landlords are becoming more reasonable. Substantial reductions in proposed increases of rent have been made in my constituency. In the case of 13 houses where negotiations were in progress, with which I was helping, the increased rents were reduced by 25 per cent. two weeks ago. Prices of houses up for sale have been reduced from £600 to £400.
It is apparent from the evidence in my constituency, and I believe this is true of others, that as a result of the Bill the courts will not be deluged by appeals in October or as that month approaches. The Bill is working already. Landlords feel that they do not wish to face court cases in October. They want to have matters settled now. They are becoming infinitely more reasonable. Less and less anxiety is being experienced now, and fewer and fewer cases are outstanding. I welcome the Bill. It is doing and will do a great deal of good. There will not be many evictions in Scotland in October.
§ 11.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I think it very unfortunate that the Third Reading of what is an extremely important Bill should be discussed at twenty minutes to midnight, an hour when very few hon. Members can remain to take part in the discussion.
This is an extremely important Measure, a Measure which will affect the lives of many thousands of people. It is something which should be discussed in great detail and not at this late hour. I suppose, having regard to the work done in Committee, we ought to say this Bill is a very much better Bill than when it was presented for Second Reading. I suppose that is something to be grateful for, and the best comment one can make in regard to the Bill is that we ought to be thankful for small mercies.
When the Bill was introduced on Second Reading, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said that the Minister was eating his words. This Bill is some recognition by the Minister of the fallacy upon 184 which the Rent Act was based. It was said to be based on the idea that supply and demand of housing was being equated. That clearly proved untrue. If that was untrue when the Rent Act was passed, it is certainly untrue today. There can be no question whatever that supply anywhere meets demand in regard to housing.
This Bill, as has been said, is extremely limited in nature. It deals with a limited number of people; only with those who have not yet come to an agreement with their landlords. It has to be remembered that it has no application to those who have come to an agreement with their landlords. I would be out of order in referring to those people, as they are not dealt with in the Bill, but it is important to point out in passing that in Committee the Minister said those people were at fault in not having sought professional advice. They would have been advised of the danger of being evicted and have been reminded of the fact that the Minister was persistently saying, "There is the Act; I shall do nothing further about it." Only at the last minute did the Minister come forward with this Bill, and if anyone is to blame for the fact that thousands of tenants have entered into agreements with their landlords which they ought not to have entered into, the Minister is primarily to blame.
I want to refer to one or two matters which directly appear in the Clauses of the Bill. Reference was made in Committee to subsection (2) of Clause 3, the subsection which deals with the rent which can be demanded when there has been a suspension and the county court judge has allowed the tenant to remain. I reiterate that it seems monstrous to insert a provision in this Bill that the landlord can demand whatever rent he likes subject to the tenant proving lack of means. Because I think this is extremely important, I want to read some words from a letter which appeared in the Financial Times on 16th June from the secretary of the Tenants Protection Council. I hope I am doing no injustice to the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) when I say that I believe he is president of that Council. The letter said:But the full effect of Clause 3 has hardly yet been appreciated. This enables the owner to take his occupier to court, when a formal possession order will be made; but then, 185 assuming the occupier can satisfy the judge of the propriety of granting a suspension order, the rent payable thereafter is to be at …—and these words are in italics—"the rate demanded by the owner."Unless this …—and again there are italics—is 'beyond the means of the occupier,' when it is to be at such lower rate as appears to the court to be within his means.In practice, by reason of the existing court rules of disclosure of documents and of cross-examination generally, this will enable an owner lawfully to institute the most searching inquiry into all the occupier's income, assets and investments, and in fact to have the most complete roving commission into all his financial affairs (and, incidentally, into those of every member of his family living with him). The owner, having examined at his leisure the occupier's bank statements, list of investments and other papers, could then challenge the necessity, say, of his son or daughter continuing with their educational programme or the continued expenditure of any particular personal or domestic item; even weekly food bills could be examined and criticised in detail.The writer adds:Nothing quite like this proposed ordeal has been know before. I hope that public opinion cannot, and will not, allow such an unprecedented and objectionable provision to be enacted; if it is, the public outcry will be greater even than that which led to the introduction of the Bill itself.Those words are strong. They are hardly strong enough. They are words not uttered by any Member on this side of the House. They are written by the secretary of a tenants' council, of which the hon. Member for Dulwich is the president. I do not think there is anywhere in our law anything that can be pointed to as providing the ordeal that is referred to in that letter. The Minister has chosen to insert that ordeal in one of the provisions of the Bill. I hope that public opinion will be raised in a great outcry against this sort of thing.
Another dreadful thing is enacted in the Bill. An occupier desiring to get an extension of nine months, or any period after the first nine months, must come to the court. Again and again, during that period of years he has to come to the court. He must incur the possibility of being mulcted in costs or, at least, having to pay his own costs. The Minister dismissed this question of costs in the most airy fashion earlier during a discussion on Report. He said something about the Lord Chancellor providing 186 rules that costs would be on the lower scale and he gave a figure of £4 to £7.
I have not the slightest doubt that that scale allows for the county court judge, in proper cases, to exercise his discretion and increase the scale; and when counsel and solicitors are employed, I have no doubt that the costs will be increased. I suggest to the Minister that if he knew anything about the procedure in court, he would know that every time a tenant appears in court making an application, he is running the risk of having to pay costs, or being personally responsible for his own costs, to a considerably larger sum than the £4 or £7 that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Even if it were a sum of only £4 to £7 on each occasion, he is putting a very hard task upon the tenant.
The Bill is an attempt to mitigate the evil remedies of the Rent Act. To that extent, I recognise its good. Because of that, we on this side will not oppose it. The only remedy for the Minister was to recognise the terrible consequences that his Rent Act brought in and his only real remedy was to repeal that Act.
§ 11.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Janner
The Bill has been thrashed out fairly considerably, and practically every point relating to it has been dealt with in the course either of Committee or of Report. I would not like its Third Reading to pass, however, without making it clear to the Minister again that many of us consider this Measure to be a very flimsy thing indeed, a tantalising Measure that does not really give security to anyone, but merely suspends for a short period the unhappy results which are bound to flow from the Minister's intention to terminate protection for tenants. He has made it perfectly clear in the Bill that he does not intend to make it easy for the tenant even to get this nine months' protection—nine months' protection after forty years.
This is not a Measure which has been brought into effect to remedy the 1957 Act alone. This is supposed to be something to temper the wind after men and women have had the security of a home. And what are we to be given by this Bill? First of all, a person will be compelled to go to court, possibly time after time. Hon. Members opposite may say, "Yes, but there will be very few cases 187 coming to the court". But that is not because the bad landlords are being reasonable. It is because the unhappy tenant does not want to expose himself to the possibility of losing his case in the first instance, or he may be so unhappy about exposing his family finances in open court that he is prepared to affect his whole future by agreeing to something which otherwise he would not accept.
Having to go to court is not an easy matter for the average individual. He is frightened of it. He does not like it, and even if he goes to a lawyer who says, "You must give me all this information to prove your means," he begins to ask himself, "Am I going to be subjected to a means test in open court?" It has been said that this is a type of means test which has never been exercised before. But not only that; it is being exercised in a place where it has never been exercised before. At least when the means test was applied before, bad though it was, and unhappy though people felt about it, it was in the privacy of a room and not exposed to public. But here a man has to go into open court where the landlord will do all he can to prove the means of the tenant are such that he should not be given protection.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins
The hon. Member has great experience of the courts in this kind of case. Is it not a fact that when the county court judge inquires into the means of the applicant it is perfectly possible, and, in fact, is a normal procedure, to allow the applicant to write down his means for the benefit of the judge and not to disclose them in open court?
§ Mr. Janner
I do not think that that would be practicable. What would happen? An individual could not be cross-examined by written question and answer. The judge might possibly take the matter in chambers, but I doubt that. I do not think he would have the time, and objection might be taken to it. It would mean that the whole of his work would be in chambers. No, the judge would have to get these particulars in open court. That is a terrible thing, because I am quite certain that many people of the so-called middle classes would rather deprive themselves of the other necessities of life and enter into 188 what would, for them, be unconscionable agreements rather than face doing that in open court.
I do not know what the Minister is thinking about. I cannot understand his position. He spoke on Report of the matter being easy. He spoke as if there had never been any litigation in respect of the Rent Acts at all. People will have to go into court under a very intricate Act and deal with matters they do not really understand and on which they must be helped. Does the Minister think that the judge will have enough time to spend on each of these cases?
If proper legal assistance is not given, the courts will be spending days and days dealing with them. It is true that if a litigant is not represented the judge does his best to help him, but that all takes time. It will be literally impossible. In any case, the poor litigant is really frightened by the very fact that he has had to come to court. The judge tries to put him at his ease, but that often makes it more difficult for the man.
We are dealing here with a very serious matter. This Measure does not in any sense adequately deal with the unhappy position that exists for so many thousands and thousands of people. I think that they will enter into agreements in spite of, not because of, their anxiety to get matters settled. It is a monstrous thing. The Minister must know, as everyone in this House knows, that the Act had to be amended because of the situation that it created, and it is scandalous that this pettifogging Bill has been introduced. It relieves the tension to some extent, but the extent is so minute as to be almost negligible.
We cannot, of course, oppose anything that attempts to remedy the present situation—we would be misunderstood if we did. Nevertheless, this Bill gives very little help, and the Government have nothing to pride themselves on. I am not so sure that the Minister is responsible for this—I hope that he is not, for his sake. If he has any influence with the Government, I do not think that he has exerted it in the right direction. However, the fact remains that it is the policy of this Government which unhappily has been placed in his hands and he has not made the best use of the opportunity to assuage the anxiety which is felt. The Bill is a flimsy and 189 tantalising one, and I hope that as soon as he can the Minister will modify it so that it will be more in keeping with the needs of today.
§ 12.5 a.m.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I shall not keep the House for long at this hour, one reason being that many of the points that I thought of making have already been made more eloquently than I could have made them. That applies especially to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler).
I say at the outset that this Bill is miscast and misconceived. We do not think that it is one which provides at all the remedy needed as a result of the provisions for decontrol under the 1957 Rent Act; but, accepting the kind of Bill which the Government have introduced, it is right to say we welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to a number of Amendments during the passage of the Bill and that this has quite substantially improved its character. As the Parliamentary Secretary stressed when moving the Third Reading a short time ago, the Bill now puts upon the landlord the burden of showing that he has offered a reasonable new tenancy before a tenant can be deprived of any protection. At the same time, let us not forget that there is still an enormous pressure on the tenant to accept the terms of a tenancy, even where those terms are unreasonable.
I will give my reason for saying that. If the tenant is confronted with the choice of accepting a burdensome or even over-burdensome tenancy for three years, and he has either that, or he exercises his right to refuse and go cap in hand to the courts and take all the risks of litigation in order to get a temporary suspension of the execution of an order for possession against him, I think it is clear what he would normally do. He might get a suspension for three, six, or nine months, with the prospect of going back to the court and getting a further three months; and I say that, confronted with such a choice, he would stretch every inch of what he was able to afford in order to accept the terms of the tenancy, however onerous.
The tenant is not a free agent and not in a free position to bargain; and all this talk of the freedom of the market 190 and free negotiation solving these problems of under-occupation and so forth as a result of decontrol is so much hypocrisy at a time when there is a tremendous housing shortage and a tremendous burden on the tenant to accept harsh and unfair tenancy terms. This should be borne in mind when the Minister considers the provisions of this Bill and I say this only in order to make a last minute—an eleventh hour—plea to the Minister to reconsider two of the matters which were discussed during the Report stage.
Both, incidentally, were supported from his own side of the House. The first was in the speech of the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies), who urged the Minister to look again at this extraordinary provision whereby, when a suspension is to be granted by the court, that court is compelled to order the tenant to pay the rent demanded by the landlord, however high, however exorbitant, provided it is within the means of the tenant to pay. Surely that is a provision which by its nature and its terms is obviously unfair and unjust. Surely even the Minister can see that it is a matter which he can and should reconsider. The only alternative is that the tenant has to submit himself and his whole family to a means test—something which is utterly harsh and oppressive, when one considers that the object of the Bill is to bring relief to tenants in a position of great hardship and when they are having to contend with an unreasonable landlord.
The second point is the point which was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe) on the question of costs. In his answer the Minister betrayed an ignorance, for which no one can blame him, but a manifest ignorance of the process of judicial procedure and the practice in the matter of costs. I ask him, as he was asked by lawyers on both sides of the House, to look again at this matter and take advice on it.
When one bears in mind what pressure there is upon the tenant to accept even unfair and over-harsh tenancy terms, one does not want to add to that pressure by leaving the tenant in the position in which he may find that even if he resists the landlord's offer, even if he relies on his temporary relief given under the Bill, even if he succeeds in persuading the court of all the things of which he has 191 to persuade the county court judge—that he has not refused an offer, that greater hardship would be caused to him, that he has paid his rent and that there is no alternative accommodation available—if he proves all those things and gets an order for temporary suspension, he may be in doubt at the end whether he may or may not have to pay certainly his own costs and possibly the landlord's costs as well. That cannot be fair.
The Minister has already given way on a number of points, and I ask him to look again at these two points and see whether in another place Amendments can be introduced to deal with them.
§ 12.8 a.m.
§ Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)
I am one of the large majority of Members in the House who have followed this Bill through its various stages without taking part in the debate on any of them. Before a decision is taken on the Third Reading I should like to say a few words.
We are here obviously taking part in an attempt to deal satisfactorily with one of the greatest social evils of our time. There is legitimate room for difference between the two sides of the House as to the methods which we might adopt in dealing with that evil, but, in view of some of the speeches that have been made tonight, it is imperative that someone should say from this side of the House that there ought to be no room whatsoever for any difference of opinion as to the genuineness of the Government's attempt to deal with the problem. It wearies me to hear it said at this stage by some Members opposite that this Bill, and indeed the whole process of rent law reform, is an attempt to legislate for the benefit of landlords. I had really hoped that by now we might on both sides of the House have been able to give one another the credit for endeavouring to apply remedies in a spirit of genuine anxiety to benefit the whole community. Such, I am sure, is the Minister's intention.
The second reason why I should like to say a few words is that many people read HANSARD who do not know this House and do not know the people in it, and some of them will read the vituperative attacks upon my right hon. Friend, some of them from this side of the House, and, in particular, the speech 192 of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) opposite. It is, I think, an indication that there is not much real force behind an argument when it is necessary to direct the greater part of a speech into personal attacks upon the character and qualities of a Minister. I think it is right that somebody who happens to know my right hon. Friend fairly well should also say a word about the Minister and his conduct of these affairs.
It has been said repeatedly in this debate, that the Minister is unable to understand this or that issue. I must say that if my right hon. Friend is unable to understand these issues, then there is no hope whatsoever for his critics. It has been said repeatedly that he is ignorant. He has been reproached with not having been chairman of a bench of magistrates. I wonder how many qualifications are required before somebody may hold Ministerial office and how many hon. Gentlemen criticising the Minister from either side of the House would themselves hold enough qualifications and experience to be in office by that criterion? Personally, I think that the House and country are fortunate in having in this office at this time a Minister whose experience and knowledge of these matters must, I should think, be quite unrivalled.
It has been said on both sides of the House that the Minister is obstinate. I notice that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), leading the Opposition, finds that funny. That somebody should say a word in support of a colleague he finds humorous.
§ Mr. Mitchison rose—
§ Mr. Smithers
Obstinacy is a different thing from having the courage to stand by one's convictions when one happens to disagree with somebody.
§ Mr. Mitchison
The hon. Gentleman is making personal references to me. I think I am entitled to answer them. I thought he was pitching his faithful and 193 diligent praise of the right hon. Gentleman too high. That, and nothing else, amused me.
§ Mr. Smithers
The hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly entitled to his opinion.
Finally, it has been suggested that my right hon. Friend lacks ordinary humanity in his approach to these matters. I really cannot think of anything more ridiculous. When it comes to a question of ordinary humanity in these great matters which so deeply affect mankind, I must be forgiven for pointing out that at the end of this debate only three back benchers on the other side of the House are present to support their Front Bench leader. I do not think that that is a very good demonstration of humanity. It seems to me that few men, by their patient, diligent work over many years, have done more to help the majority of mankind than has my right hon. Friend.
Sir, it is understandable if, in this complicated process of legislation, to meet a great and complicated social evil, some adjustments are required as we go along. This is a Bill brought in to make some of those adjustments. It is a valuable Bill, and I welcome it.
§ 12.15 a.m.
§ Mr. Mitchison
To the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) I would say that the line between judicious compliments and excessive flattery must always be a matter of personal taste.
The Bill, as I see it, is nothing but an amendment of the Rent Act. It deals entirely with a limited class of people whose existence as a class derives from the Rent Act. If there were no Rent Act, this Bill could not be in existence. If the Bill were not in existence, the Rent Act would work differently. If that is not to amend one Act by another, then I do not know what amendment is. I feel bound to repeat that this Bill, being an amendment in that sense, clearly and necessarily represents a change of mind on the part of the Minister.
The Minister's change of mind, as I see it, is due to a delayed recognition of what he was told again and again about his original Act, that it would, in its normal operation, be too harsh on a certain class of people in certain parts of the country, that is, the occupiers of decontrolled 194 houses in the large cities. There is not the least doubt that that has been so. We may argue as to the extent of the harshness. That it exists to a considerable extent is undeniable. That it derives from landlords who are not all bad landlords I should be the first to admit. I am not prepared to say that it is only the action of bad landlords which has made this Bill necessary. It has resulted also from landlords acting with the normal motives which move those who own income yielding property in this country. I say nothing good or ill about that at this late hour, but the suggestion that there is anything abnormal or unforeseeable in the consequences which the Bill now attempts to mitigate is, in my view, quite untrue.
I still feel that far the worst feature of the Bill is that it came too late. The result was that many tenants—how many no one can say, but there was certainly a large number of them—have been driven into bargains with landlords which were not only unfair but which may well involve them in an amount of hardship and trouble in the future which should be regretted by all of us. That is the worst feature, and I do not accept the excuse, for excuse it is, that time was needed to weigh the full effects of the Rent Act. The general tendencies were quite clear, and the right hon. Gentleman did not make sufficient use of the information given to him by my hon. Friends, whose experience in this sort of matter is not negligible and should have been listened to more than it was.
Taking the Bill as it is, after the comment that it is late, in my view to begin with it had three major objections. The first was the character of the proceedings which would face the occupier when he sought to take advantage of what is offered him in the Bill. He had to meet a burden of proof far too much for the circumstances, to meet it against a landlord who, bringing him to court in this way, was at least likely to be a person determined to sell the house if he possibly could, to meet it wholly so that if he failed on one point he failed on all, and to meet it having at risk what he had come to regard at his own home, and facing the possibility of eviction with nowhere to go if he could prove that and yet failed on other things which he had to prove.
195 I would say at once that the right hon. Gentleman listened in this respect to what was said in Committee, said mainly by my right hon. and hon. Friends but also to some extent by hon. Members who have taken part in our debates from the Tory benches. Undoubtedly on Report he has introduced Amendments which have mitigated that hardship to an appreciable, even a considerable, extent.
There remain two others which in my view constitute the worst features of the Bill as we have now to consider it. The first is the provision to which my hon. Friends have alluded with considerable eloquence and complete unanimity—the provision that when we are dealing with hardship cases, when we are dealing with cases in which an agreement with the landlord has proved impossible, when we are dealing with cases where obviously a determination to sell at all costs on the part of the landlord is at least possible, it is scandalously unjust to leave the fixing of the rent during the period of suspension to the landlord himself and not to allow the court to have any voice as to what is reasonable, introducing as the only safeguard on behalf of the occupier the one provision that the rent may be reduced if he cannot possibly afford to pay what the landlord asks.
For that is how I read the Bill. We may compel him to sacrifice things which on any ordinary standard of living and any ordinary daily requirement he certainly ought not to be compelled to sacrifice. We investigate publicly, as between one litigant and another in a county court, not on any public matter, the full extent of his resources and those of all his family who might be expected to contribute. I have heard of means tests before for public purposes and I have heard of means tests to deal with defaulting debtors, but never before have I heard of a Bill which, in an issue between one citizen and another, weights so heavily the balance and allows only the one safeguard to be given on a public family means test, there being no public reason for it.
The second objection which I take to the Bill is the extraordinary provision about the man who has bought the house before the Bill comes into operation. A person having bought in that way with 196 a right to possession on a given date is no doubt entitled to the same rights and remedies against the occupier as is the original landlord. Nobody would dispute that, whatever those rights and remedies may be. He must stand in the shoes of the man who sold to him, but no more.
Yet in the Bill, though the landlord himself has to deal with the question of greater hardship and with the question of whether the occupier can go anywhere else, this purchaser has nothing of that sort to show. If the landlord requires the dwelling for himself or a member of his family he will got it on contract and will get it whatever the hardship for the occupier, however long that occupier may have been there, however old or however ill he may be, and however impossible it may be for him and his family to find anywhere else to go. Such is the appalling sanctity which the Tory Party attaches to a monetary bargain in comparison with human considerations. It frightens me that there are people who really believe that to be right.
At the end of the day, what do we intend to do with the Bill? There is not the least doubt that these are the crumbs from the rich man's table. The Rent Act gave the landlords of England an extra £100 million a year or thereabouts, for the same houses in the same conditions. The Bill will not cost them anything like that. It is very nice to know that they and the party which has so warmly and cordially supported their interests throw even a crumb to the cases of hardship which alone the Bill is intended to protect. We, on this side of the House, shall not take the crumb from the cases of hardship or attempt to do so. Ever since the Bill came before us we have said so quite definitely.
We may tease the Minister with eating his own words, as of course he has, and we may tease him about the total inadequacy and even the brutality of some of the Bill's provisions, but we shall not reject them. Nor have we, in any way whatever, obstructed or delayed the Bill. I say with confidence that my hon. and right hon. Friends, in the course of debating the Bill, have made numbers of valuable, experienced, wise criticisms of it, line by line. I am glad that in some respects the right hon. Gentleman has heeded them. The Bill itself is too late. 197 It is still too little. It is still in cases too harsh. The right hon. Gentleman can carry it off as a political concession to the indignation roused by the consequences of the Rent Act and be proud of it, if he wishes. We shall not oppose it.
§ 12.29 a.m.
§ Mr. H. Brooke
Teased or not teased by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), I will not be deflected from taking this the first general opportunity of expressing my appreciation to hon. Members on both sides of the Standing Committee who worked strenuously and expeditiously on the detail of the Bill. I acknowledge at once that the services performed by hon. Members on both sides of the House have assisted the Government in shaping this into a better Bill in Committee and on Report. Whether or not I deserve the personal vituperation that some hon. Members have directed against me is not for me to say. I am quite sure that I do not deserve the kind words of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), pleasant as it was to listen to them. My one concern, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, is to see that this Bill reaches the Statute Book in a form that will be as practical as possible, so that there shall arise as little litigation out of it as may be and also so that the general object of avoiding hardship shall be secured.
I should particularly like to express my thanks to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and to the Scottish Ministers, who have worked hard in Committee. I am certain that no Minister could have carried through the Bill without being able to rely on their unfailing assistance, as I have done. Their concern and mine has been to get the Bill properly shaped. The final test will not be what any of us, here or in another place, say for or against it. The final test will be in the working of the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. George) for his wise appreciation of the general situation in the country as it stands now in the light of the Rent Act and of this Bill. I am sure that he is correct in his summing-up of the situation and I believe that the forecasts that have been made by him and by others of my hon. Friends 198 as to the working out of these matters will be proved true in the event.
Some hon. Members have ranged rather widely in our earlier proceedings over the Rent Act. We must, of course, bear in mind that the provisions of the Bill apply only to cases where notice to quit has been served on the tenant of a decontrolled house or flat and has not been withdrawn. Even where a notice to quit has been served and no three-year agreement has been made, it is possible that the landlord may agree that the tenant shall stay on until the tenant has made other arrangements. He can do this by granting a monthly or quarterly tenancy. The Bill puts no obstacle whatever in the way of that. I say this because there has been some misconception on the matter in other quarters.
If in a case like that, however, the landlord after a time terminates the tenancy, the tenant will be able to claim the rights of an occupier under the Bill. The Government's belief is that a great many more landlords and tenants will make three-year agreements in the next few months before October and that the Bill is likely to give a strong incentive to landlords and tenants to make agreements of that kind on reasonable terms, unless for one or the other it is out of the question to do so. The House must recognise that there are circumstances of that kind.
The number of cases which, in the end, will actually come before the courts under this Bill is likely to be relatively small—tiny, indeed, in comparison with the 800,000 houses and flats that are decontrolled. The smaller the number of court cases, the greater the measure of the Bill's success. But however small the number of cases coming before the courts, that will not diminish the importance of the Bill, because its purpose is to avoid hardship.
The class of people most likely to get benefit from the Bill are those who genuinely need help, people of limited means, very often elderly people, and people who will have tried their best to help themselves The Bill will give no help to people who do not genuinely need help or people who have not made a proper effort to help themselves.
In the light of the Bill as it now stands, there are certain practical steps which a tenant ought to take if he thinks that he may need assistance from the Bill. First, 199 he must do what he can to find other accommodation appropriate to his needs. I know that in some areas that is very hard to find, but no one is asking the tenant to do the impossible. All he is required to do is what a person can reasonably be expected to do in the circumstances and, in deciding what that is, regard must be had to his means, his age and any disability.
Secondly, a tenant must pay the rent which the Bill says, once his notice to quit has expired and he becomes, not a tenant, but an occupier. If, therefore, when the date of the notice to quit draws near a tenant wants to try to stay on for a time with the benefit of this Bill, the practical step for him to take is to tell the owner that and to make sure that they agree what the new rent is from that date onwards. If services are provided and they cannot agree on the charge for those services, the Bill provides for settlement in the county court, but it is obviously best for them to reach agreement. Thirdly, the tenant or occupier should make sure he knows what the Bill says. That is one reason why the Government intend to publish a clear explanatory leaflet as soon as the Bill becomes law.
The four tests the occupier needs to satisfy are all matters within his personal knowledge and experience. For that reason he can—if he wants, but not otherwise—put his case to the court himself. He need not incur the expense of being legally represented, but of course he can be if he wishes. I stress that the Bill is drafted so as to avoid as far as possible any need for expert testimony of what a market rent is and other matters of complication and expense like that.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) is leaving the Chamber, because I am about to refer to a question he raised. He spoke of the embarrassment that might befall occupiers if in open court they were called upon to reveal personal and intimate details about their position. I would remind the hon. Member that under Clause 4 (1) the Lord Chancellor is given power to make rules providing that the court may sit in private where desirable. This matter has been brought to the attention of the Lord Chancellor and he intends sympathetically to consider making a rule to this effect.
200 The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) referred again to the question of costs. I repeat what I said on Report a few minutes ago, that the Government will study all that was said in the course of the proceedings this evening. I will bring it to the attention of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. The hon. Member was good enough to say that I was an ignoramus on these matters. I trust he will not bring a similar charge against my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, who has a special relationship to the county courts. I trust that he will accept as a material undertaking that the Lord Chancellor will be invited by me to examine all that was said so that he may judge whether in fact any further provision is required.
I have already expressed my view to the House that it would not have improved the Bill had an Amendment such as that which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe) moved been accepted. I spoke a moment ago about the explanatory leaflet the Government intend to publish. I am perfectly certain the Citizens Advice Bureaux—to whom, I am sure, we all owe thanks for the quite invaluable services given the public in explaining and advising on the Rent Act—will, with the help of that leaflet, do the same with this Bill when it becomes law.
If the landlord for his part does not want to have to go into court, his right course is to offer the tenant a new agreement for three years or more. It should be a genuine tenancy and not the sale of a lease; it should not provide for any back dating of rent and should not place an unfair repairing liability on the tenant. In other words, it should be an agreement which a reasonable tenant would not refuse. The only circumstances in which a reasonable tenant might have to refuse an agreement like that are where the rent is reasonable for the property and the terms are reasonable, but they are beyond the tenant's means. In that case the tenant requires a reasonable time in which to find other accommodation and an assurance against being turned out if, through no fault of his own, he has not been able to find it yet.
This is a Bill to make sure of time, during which solutions can be found for individual hard cases. In that time, not only the owners and occupiers, but local 201 authorities can do a great deal to help, and to help themselves at the same time. Most of the hard cases will be bound to concern old people. One reason it is more difficult for old people to find somewhere else to live is that the sort of accommodation they want is scarce. After the war, for obvious reasons, we concentrated as a nation on building family houses, and at first the proportion of new, one-bedroomed houses such as old people want, was quite small. Over the last year on two, I am glad to say, that proportion has risen steadily and I want it to go on rising. Local authorities can help, too, by building groups of flatlets specially suited for old people, on the lines recommended in a booklet which my Department has just published—flatlets designed to afford comfort and convenience at quite low cost, so as to provide elderly people with the sort of places they can live in, at the rent they can afford.
Having the provisions of this Bill in mind, I hope authorities will be vigorous in taking up and carrying out such schemes, particularly in areas where elderly people affected by the Rent Act may be faced with special difficulty in finding somewhere else to live. I am prepared to look again at their building programmes as sympathetically as I can, in order to help them do this.
Besides new building and conversions, local authorities can do much to help in the solving of individual problems by giving more thought to the possibility of exchanges. Often, the tenant of a decontrolled house to whom this Bill may apply is an elderly person who does not need and cannot really afford as many rooms as he or she has now. At the same time, there are good tenants in many council houses who might like a larger house and can afford to pay a fair rent for it, or there may be families on waiting lists in urgent need of bigger accommodation. In such cases, local authorities can help to get better use made of accommodation available in their area by undertaking to re-house the elderly person in return for the landlord granting a tenancy to one of their tenants or a family on the waiting list. I hope authorities will do all they can to try to arrange more exchanges of that sort.
In winding up this debate, I have indicated briefly the wise action that can be 202 taken in the light of this Bill by tenants, owners, and local authorities. I am glad to see, by the emptiness of the benches opposite, that it is unlikely that the Third Reading will be opposed. In the Government's view, this is a Bill which will be effective in guarding against undeserved hardship. At the same time it is a Bill which preserves the principles of the Rent Act intact. I commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.