HC Deb 21 April 1959 vol 604 cc351-60

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

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I desire to draw the attention of the House to the various methods adopted by local authorities in dealing with applications for tenancies of council houses and with the selection of tenants for available houses. I want to condemn the present accepted practice and to propose something which, I think, would be more fair and just to those who apply for houses available for letting by local authorities.

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government has from time to time issued on this subject very useful reports of the Housing Management Sub-committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee within the conception of the present function of local authorities in letting their houses. In my view, that conception is wholly wrong under modern conditions. To hundreds of thousands of families, the allocation of a council house is the most important and vital thing in their lives, but the decision on it is made, as it were, behind locked doors without the applicant being heard in his own cause, without his hearing the case against his application if it is refused, and, indeed, without being given the reasons for the decision which is reached.

The selection of applicants to whom an offer of accommodation is to be made should be not merely an administrative function of the local authority, but something in the nature of a quasi-judicial function. This is not such an extraordinary plea as it may at first sound, because it does not involve a very great change of the mental attitude of many councils towards this particular function of local government. Many councils have unconsciously thought of it as a form of judicial function by declaring that they will decide the applications for local authority houses upon a points system. Indeed, many local authorities apply such a system. But they stop short of deciding the matter on anything other than a purely administrative and secret basis—secret from the applicant's point of view.

This function of selection of tenants is distinct from the normal functions of local government. Normal local government decisions affect the whole body of ratepayers or citizens of the district, but in allocating a house local authorities decide for or against an individual. In other matters in which the local authority has to make a decision relating to an individual, such as in town planning or compulsory purchase, there is always provided a process of appeal to something in the nature of a judicial body, but that is not so in housing or in the allocation of local authority houses.

What normally happens, first, is that, a person applies for a council house. He goes to the housing department of the council and sees a junior clerk behind the counter. In very many cases, the applicant may be living in hopeless conditions —perhaps a husband, wife and several children in one room. His means may be quite insufficient to enable him to obtain accommodation other than that which is subsidised by the central and local government. The hardship of his existing conditions and the possibility of relief from them by his being granted local authority accommodation looms as the great and primary thought in the mind of himself and his family.

The applicant therefore goes to the housing department, where he is handed a form and told to fill in the answers. He may or may not be told what sort of circumstances will score points for him under the points system which the council may operate. When he has completed the form, he may or may not be told how many points he has been allocated. He may or may not be told whether that places him on the waiting list and what prospects there are of his ever obtaining accommodation. He may or may not be told if he has been placed on the list at all.

I recollect a case which came before me in which a man and woman with five children, living in overcrowded conditions, were not placed on the waiting list merely because they were not married. There were already five children of the union and they were living in overcrowded conditions, but they were never told that they were not even put on the waiting list. Perhaps an applicant makes an ambiguous statement on the form. He may or may not be told that that statement has been construed against him and he has lost some points as a result. He may or may not be given a chance to explain what he meant by the statement.

The applicant may receive a visit some time later from a representative of the housing department. The visitor, who is seldom welfare-trained, may observe something in the house, such as that the applicant is sharing the house or living in the same house as relatives, and thus knocks a few points off the application. I recollect a case in which a visitor, noticing that the other occupants of the house were relatives, adopted the course of knocking several points off without finding out that there had been an assault case between the relatives and that there was no chance of them sharing the house. The applicant was confined to one room. Because that member of the housing department had taken that action without any mention of it to the applicant, the applicant was unable to put his case in answer.

If the applicant ever reaches the top of the list for houses he will probably have an equal number of points with several other applicants. Those selected may depend upon the decision of the housing manager, or a committee or sub-committee of the council. The rejected applicants will not know why they have been rejected. I recollect a case in which a married couple with two young children were rejected merely because both were under 21 years of age and, according to the committee which decided it, could not legally be granted a tenancy. Had they been told, I know that the parents would have guaranteed the tenancy so that there was no question that it could have been granted to those young people, but they were not told that they had not been selected and, therefore, could not put a case in answer.

If a man is sued or sues for a debt of a few shillings, all the elaborate machinery of British justice is set in motion. Justice is not only done, but it is seen to be done. If a man parks a car and obstructs the highway, all the elaborate process of British justice is set in motion for the sake perhaps of a 20s. fine. If a tenant of furnished premises thinks he is paying too much, he can go to a tribunal for a proper hearing of his claim and impartial judgment. There are many instances of ex- treme triviality as compared with the provision of a house where every effort is made to provide an independent tribunal or court and a fair and just hearing. I ask that the same should be done for the applicant for a council house. This needs no legislation. Local authorities can provide the tribunals to take over the making of decisions and the selection of tenants.

Let me tabulate what I think ought to be done. First, every local authority should have, and should publish, a points system. Secondly, to avoid some of the local whims which occur in some local authorities' points systems, it should be a requirement that every such system should be approved by the Minister. Thirdly, when an application is made to the housing manager or the other appropriate official, the allocation of the number of points to the applicant should be notified to the applicant so that he knows exactly where he stands. The applicant should have a right of appeal from that decision to the sort of tribunal which I will mention in a minute.

Then the council should have exhibited, or made available for inspection, a list of applicants set out in order of priority in accordance with the points allotted to each. If at any time the number of council houses available for letting is less than the number of applicants with the highest points, the tribunal should make the selection of applicants who are to be offered accommodation. For that purpose each applicant should be permitted to state his case to the tribunal in person or in writing, as he may choose.

I can see no reason why any such hearing should be in secret. It is said sometimes that applicants do not wish to disclose their circumstances in public. Frankly, I do not believe that anyone seeking a council house minds anybody knowing why he is making that application. The present secrecy in decisions upon the allocation of council houses leads to allegations of favouritism and worse against housing managers and housing committees.

As to the composition of such a tribunal, I see no reason why councillors themselves should not undertake the work, provided that they are not members of any housing or estate management committee of the council. I have in mind the sort of appeal committees which are set up, for example, in hospital management, to which an employee can appeal against the grade of employment in which he is placed. Such appeal committees consist of a few governors or members of the management committee of the hospital and they decide in an impartial manner the application which comes before them.

It may be argued as against this sort of system of decision by a tribunal that the local authority must have the right to reject applications from tenants whom they consider to be unsuitable; that local authorities, unless they are given freedom of administrative action, will find themselves saddled with the problem families of the district. I can only reject that sort of argument. I think that it is entirely wrong for local authorities to make their selection of tenants upon anything other than housing needs. If, on that basis, they find that they are landed with problem families, the answer is that there should be more trained welfare officers among the personnel of the housing department. I do not think that nearly enough local authorities appreciate the welfare problems concerned in housing, in the selection of tenants and in their estate management functions. However, perhaps that is rather a wider point.

There are two reasons why I think that the selection on the basis of personal suitability of a tenant is wholly unfair and unsatisfactory. The first reason is that suitability is now decided simply upon the word of the council's official, sometimes based on a report from a junior employee who has visited the applicant and who has no welfare knowledge, and the applicant is given no chance to hear the sort of case which is made against him on the ground that he is personally unsuitable.

Secondly, a very great part of the future allocation of council houses is to be for those moving from slum-clearance areas, and the local authorities cannot be allowed to pick and choose between them. I know of local authorities which now do so. If those who are being removed from the slums need accommodation, and if accommodation is available, it should be allocated to them.

To sum up my proposal, it is that the allocation of council houses should be done, and should be seen to be done, as openly and as impartially as any action in the courts, and that at every stage the applicant should know the case against him and have the opportunity of answering it fully.

10.36 p.m.

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

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) that it is of great importance that the selection of council tenants should be as fair as it can possibly be made. I think, and so does my right hon. Friend, that, on the whole, it is a fair system. But, of course, it is not altogether unnatural that people who are badly housed should regard the system of selection as rather less than fair if they themselves are not selected for a council house.

A great deal of guidance, as my hon. Friend knows, has been given to local authorities about the selection of tenants, and, in the main, this is based on two principles. The first is that local authorities should work towards the removal of qualifications which prevent people getting their names on the lists. The second is that the all-important consideration should be to see that houses are allocated to those families who possess the greatest housing need.

In the view of my right hon. Friend it would be quite wrong if Whitehall were to dictate a rigid pattern of administration to the local authorities. That would run completely contrary to the whole spirit and, indeed, the tradition of housing administration by local authorities. The responsibility for managing these houses rests, and should continue to rest, firmly on the shoulders of the local authorities. After all, they are financialy responsible for the houses and for their upkeep.

I am sure that it would be generally resented if my right hon. Friend were to attempt to lay down a hard and fast system and then seek to fasten it upon local government. If I may say so with respect to my hon. Friend, I think that there are a number of rather wide considerations to which he may not, perhaps, have given quite sufficient cognisance. For one thing, the size of the problem varies enormously from one area to another, and so, too, of course, do local conditions.

In some small localities, for example, it may be possible for the housing committee or its chairman to deal with all the selections, but in our big cities that would be quite impracticable and there may well need to be some measure of delegation by the council and the housing committee to the permanent officials; delegation, of course, within the framework of principles defined by the housing committee, leaving marginal cases or cases of exceptional difficulty to go before the housing committee or one of its sub-committees.

Again, in the case of, say, a large expanding industrial area, where pressure for housing is greater than it is throughout the rest of the country, any system is bound, in the nature of things, to be more selective than in a country town where the population is static and the supply of houses is more or less in balance with demand.

But I should like to say a few words about the specific suggestions mentioned by my hon. Friend. First, there was the idea that all authorities should operate a points system. I believe that it is true that the majority do so at present. But the weighting which they give for the various factors that determine the applicant's need is bound to be influenced by their knowledge of local conditions. I see nothing inherently wrong in this. I take leave to doubt whether any Minister of Housing and Local Government would ever care to assume the responsibility of approving or disapproving the points system of any local authority, because he lacks the local knowledge that would enable him to come to a sensible decision.

Next, my hon. Friend suggests that applicants should be told about their pointing. As he knows, the practice varies. Many local authorities are anxious that there should be complete public confidence in their administration and they go to considerable lengths to tell applicants how they stand. I believe that this is right, and so, I think, does my hon. Friend, but there are other local authorities who are very chary about giving exact information to their applicants. This is sometimes due to a desire to avoid comparison with the situation of other applicants, whose personal circumstances the local authority is anxious not to disclose, and a local authority must be careful to respect the confidence of people on its list in the matter of such things as their health and financial circumstances. This, my right hon. Friend thinks, is best dealt with at the discretion of the local council.

Then there is the suggestion that a list of applicants in order of priority ought to be made public. I agree that in some localities this might well be feasible, though my hon. Friend will realise that priorities vary from time to time and applicants are liable to be displeased if they see that their position on the list has gone down whereas that of a neighbouring family has gone up. In the case of large towns and cities I am sure that this would not be a practical exercise. In large cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, with waiting lists of 20,000 or more applicants, the pointings and priorities vary from time to time according to the birth of a child, or the marriage of a daughter which might affect the question of overcrowding or the splitting of a family because of domestic circumstances. It is difficult enough to maintain this internal information with accuracy in the case of the larger authorities, without having to make it public into the bargain.

Finally, my hon. Friend suggested that all applicants, except those in the higher reaches of the list, who cannot hope to be satisfied over a period of time, should be heard by a local tribunal. I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's desire to see that we achieve the greatest possible measure of impartiality by the local councils, but my right hon. Friend has no reason to doubt that generally the local authorities are discharging this difficult task with responsibility and impartiality. I think that there is general confidence that they are doing so. In any case, I am afraid that a system such as my hon. Friend suggests would tend to detract from the objectivity and impartiality of the present system of allocation, because some applicants might appeal to the tribunal's compassion while others, whose intrinsic need might be greater, might fail to impress the tribunal. I am far from suggesting that cases do not arise which call for consideration owing to special circumstances. However, most local authorities, in my experience, have special machinery to deal speedily with cases of this kind.

What I do think is most important, of course, is that local housing authorities should make absolutely clear to the general public and to people who are in search of council houses just what their policy of selection is by means of public announcements, Press announcements, leaflets, and that kind of thing. It is only if the general public understands the basis of selection that it can have real confidence that the system is being operated fairly.

I would repeat that by tradition and custom it has always been a matter for local authorities themselves to decide how they shall best work their system of selection, and in the view of my right hon. Friend, although we shall, of course, study what has been said by my hon. Friend, it would not be right at this stage to adopt a different system.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Eleven o'clock.