§ Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.
§ Clause 1.—(PUNISHMENT OF ATTEMPTS TO OBTAIN FROM PROSPECTIVE TENANTS EXCESSIVE PRICES FOR FURNITURE, FITTINGS, ETC.)
§ 11.17 a.m.
§ Mr. Speaker
The first Amendment selected is that in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major W. Hicks Beach) and the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), in line 17.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
I beg to move, in page 1, line 17, to leave out "item" and to insert:article or collection of articles for which a price of more than two pounds is demanded".During the passage of the Bill, certainly on Second Reading, although I cannot recall whether I did so in Committee, I made it clear that in principle I support the Bill, but that I think that as it is drawn it is quite impracticable and will be unenforceable. We must, however, use our best endeavours to put it into some kind of operative shape.
In Committee, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. John Hobson) moved an Amendment to delete subsection 768 (1, b). The Amendment was fully discussed. I will not deal with his objections in detail, because I think that I can put them briefly. The objection to this paragraph is the reference to the written inventory. It would be necessary to specify against each item exactly the price being put on it. To take an absurd case, if one has an inventory for a contemplated sale which includes all kinds of furniture and there is also a bag of nails, one must state, for example,One bag of nails, price 6d.This is an altogether absurd Bill, but this is carrying it to the limits of absurdity.
As I have said, in Committee, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington moved an Amendment to delete subsection (1, b). I though that the promoters would accept it. On that occasion we had the assistance of the Attorney-General, and I am sorry that he is not in his place, because I Should have liked a further explanation. When the point whether each specific item had to be priced in an inventory was raised by my hon. and learned Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), in an intervention, also raised a similar point. We then had a reply from the Attorney-General Which makes it clear that my contention that each specific item in an inventory has to be priced is correct.
I do not want to delay the House unduly, but I should like to read what the Attorney-General said in Committee. In reply to the Amendment of my hon. and learned Friend and the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, he said:My hon. Friend has again misinterpreted the Bill. It does not say that.Now comes the important point:An inventory must contain particulars of, and the price sought for, each item. That is the first step."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C; 4th February, 1959, c. 33.]That is a specific statement by the Attorney-General that my contention that the Bill as drawn means that one has to price a bag of nails, a packet of safety pins or any other item, is correct.
The Amendment seeks to clarify the position by providing that one has only to put prices against items worth over £2. I would have liked to see the subsection deleted altogether, but, to try to meet the 769 wishes of the promoters of the Bill in some measure, it seems to me that if we say that only items above £2 should be priced we should get over what otherwise seems to be a complete absurdity. It is true that the stating of a price may raise difficulties because the person preparing the inventory may, if he likes, say, "I did not put it in because the price was under £2". I presume that he would be committing an offence under the Bill.
I am a practising solicitor and, therefore, I have to deal with matters like this. My view is that there will not ever be a prosecution under the Bill. The Amendment raises a very small point, and it may not even be necessary, but the principle in my view is right. I hope that the promoters, even at this late stage, will make a commonsense approach to the matter and accept this small Amendment, which I commend to the House.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I beg to second the Amendment.
I agree with everything that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) said. I hope that the Bill will reach the Statute Book. Like all Bills which reach the Statute Book, we hope that it will reach it in the best possible form. If we are able to make the Bill more practicable and sensible, we should all join together in doing so.
I should like to point out the effect of the provision and how it would work out in practice. Paragraph (b) reads:… any person seeking to obtain or retain accommodation whom he provides with particulars of the tenancy, a written inventory of the furniture, specifying the price sought for each item.The furniture would naturally include the fittings under the Bill.
I take the view that the whole paragraph goes too far, but we discussed that in Committee and the matter is now at an end. The effect of the paragraph is that if a prospective tenant goes to a house agent or to solicitors, who sometimes deal with these matters, and says, "Have you a furnished flat or house which I can take?", and the house agent or solicitor says, "Yes, there is a house available, but we want £500 for the furniture and fittings", a criminal offence is committed and the house agent or 770 solicitor would be liable to a fine not exceeding £100.
On Second Reading, I think it was the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) who produced a house agent's list, which was very properly sent out, containing details of furnished lettings, the price asked and the price asked for the furniture and fittings. It appeared to us that that list was certainly three or four pages in length. It may well have been more. I would not have been surprised if it had been more, because house agents in large residential districts in London have a large number of houses on their books.
What will happen in future? Under the Bill, the list which the hon. Member produced will be illegal, and the house agent can be prosecuted and a fine of up to £100 inflicted upon him unless there is set out in that list, in cases where money for fixtures and fittings is demanded, every item which will be included in the transaction. It will be impossible and impracticable to include in a list, which must contain the address, the length of the lease and the price asked, the last teaspoon and last tablecloth. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham said, it is ridiculous to include every packet of nails and put against it the price of 6d., or whatever the price may be.
While accepting the principle of the paragraph, that a list which includes everything should be handed to a prospective tenant, the Amendment provides that it must be limited to items which are over £2 in value. This avoids the necessity of having to take an enormous and complete inventory and having to include trifling items below £2. It dispenses with the necessity of having it printed and copied upon every list sent out to a prospective tenant or upon every notice which is displayed, possibly in a shop window, or whatever the premises may be in which it is advertised.
In my view, the Amendment will improve the Bill and make it more sensible and practicable without in any way detracting from its force and usefulness.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)
I support the Amendment, which I think is eminently sound and sensible. I cannot go quite as far as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) or my hon. and 771 learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), because I do not even hope that the Bill will reach the Statute Book. I have no doubt that it will, but that is one of the unfortunate things that occur from time to time. The Bill is not only absurd; it is unnecessary. On the other hand, if this completely unnecessary Bill, which is an absolute menace, has to go forward, it should go forward in a reasonable and sensible shape. At present it is absurd.
Although I did not serve on the Committee, I have read the proceedings fairly thoroughly. Although the Attorney-General tried to blind the Committee with legal science—which is a characteristic of his—it does not alter the fact that the early part of his remarks is quite categorical. It is a perfectly straight answer. The question is, does the paragraph include all items I suggest that it does include all items.
One of the things which I have learnt since I came to the House—and I hope that I have learned many things—is the positive and absolute danger of so-called assurances from the Dispatch Box. I absolutely loathe and hate them. I have seen them go wrong so often. We pass laws but do not interpret them. When we are told, "I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not the intention" to do a certain thing, I am surprised at the gullibility of some much more capable and senior hon. Members than I who, possibly out of a form of politeness in which I do not indulge, accept those assurances. I do not accept them because I have had experience of their going wrong. They would seem to come out of Government Departments.
It is astonishing that, considering the danger there is in accepting a statement of that nature, that sort of assurance is accepted here at all, because afterwards the matter goes out into the world and some proceedings take place—though I would say that I rather share the view of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham that this is an absolutely unworkable Measure in any case—and then the assurance given here does not count twopence, because what matters is the interpretation of the Measure in the courts of law.
If my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General was right—I am no 772 judge of that—in what he said in the Standing Committee, there is a danger of a lot of footling nonsense arising over a lot of nicknacks. Obviously, if the value is under £2 it is so small it could not matter less, and if the promoters of the Bill have in mind nothing of more value than that, they are more irresponsible than I consider them at present.
The Amendment would save unnecessary trouble. There really ought not to be need for a lot of talk upon a thing of this nature, for what is proposed by the Amendment is a very reasonable thing to do and would help a little tiny bit to make a thoroughly bad Bill a little less bad.
§ Mr. Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) will look kindly upon this Amendment which has been proposed in such reasonable terms by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) and supported by other hon. Members on this side. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are willing to assist in the promotion of legislation which will deal with rapacious landlords seeking to extract more than they should from worthy tenants, but that is no justification whatever for this House placing upon perfectly good landlords—and some do exist—the onerous burden of having to itemise all kinds of inconsequential items in order to satisfy the terms of the legislation which has been brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham, in moving the Amendment, said that certainly one should take note of items of some value and that they might be listed in the inventory, but that anything below the nominal value of £2 is surely not worth itemising as being part of the furniture and fittings. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes really suggest that every toilet roll in the premises ought to be itemised as an important item of the furniture and fittings? Or will he accept the perfectly reasonable proposal of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham that what is necessary is to list items which are of substantial value? Even the figure of £2 is extremely low, and I think that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham has 773 been very modest about this, and I think that if my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes were to attempt—I am not threatening him at all—to resist the Amendment he would undoubtedly incur the displeasure of some of us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes represents a constituency which attracts a very large number of people who go clown there for periods of time, and in their retirement and so on, and who may be looking for accommodation of this character. There may be constituents of his who are offering accommodation of this character for rental, with a modest charge for furniture and fittings. Certainly, that happens in my own constituency. That is not surprising because it is one of the premier seaside resorts of the country. No doubt, it also happens in Totnes.
Surely my hon. Friend does not want to place upon his constituents who are offering properties for rental and those who are seeking to rent them an almost ridiculous burden, and I would urge him to accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)
I have a great deal of sympathy with the points which have been put forward, but I think it essential that we should understand the conditions upon which these things are being offered. If there were articles for sale on the normal willing buyer, willing seller basis, I think that all of us, no matter in what part of the House we sit, would be prepared to say that the parties would arrive at a reasonable figure fair to both the buyer and the seller. However, I would draw attention to the operative words, which indicate that all these articles are being offeredin connection with the proposed grant, renewal, continuance or assignment, on terms which require the purchase of furniture…Therefore, whatever we may say about it, these items of furniture and fittings are being offered under a certain amount of duress, and, therefore, I believe that one must look at the situation in those terms.
If a person is buying furniture and fittings as a condition of taking on the tenancy of a flat he should at least be able, when he takes occupation, to check on a list so that he may see whether the things he has purchased are in the flat 774 or premises when he takes occupation. Certainly, there would be no satisfaction to the person concerned if the bag of nails he had purchased was not in the flat when he took occupation, or if the packet of safety-pins was not there. Therefore, I think that the list must be as comprehensive as possible to make certain that the person who has bought the things, under whatever conditions he bought them, should at least be able to check, when he takes occupancy, that those articles are there.
I do not think that my hon. Friends meant to give this impression, but, nevertheless, they have given it, that these are furnished premises. In fact, they are not. They are unfurnished premises, which are being let or offered for letting as unfurnished premises, and the condition is laid down that certain articles of furniture and fittings shall be part of the bargain.
Of course, there are fitted carpets and curtains which, if they were to be removed from the premises to other premises, would probably have to be cut about to be made to fit the new premises, and so would lose their value. Those are the sorts of things I am thinking of, and it is in the interests of both the landlord and the tenant that there should be between them, on a monetary basis, a change of owner of those things.
Surely it would be only in very rare circumstances indeed that the landlord or the outgoing tenant would want to sell to the incoming tenant tablecloths and teaspoons. In any case, those are articles which would tend to have the same value no matter where they were, and whether in the premises or in an auction mart. There can be a certain amount of difference of opinion over the value of a fitted carpet, and there is room for negotiation, for while the carpet is fitted in the flat it will have a higher value than when it is ripped off the floor and offered in the auction mart, because it may have to be cut about by the purchaser to be fitted into his premises.
The small items which my hon. Friends mentioned are items which would have the same value whether they remained in the premises to be let or whether they were in the auction room.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden) reminded 775 the House of the delightful constituency which I represent, and he said that there may be people who go down to my constituency wanting to take a short-term lease there and that they would find that this Bill would upset them. I cannot quite agree with that point of view, because those people who come to my constituency should be given a fair deal, and I believe that this Bill will certainly help to preserve Devon's good name and its high reputation for being able to look after its visitors or temporary dwellers.
My part of the country is packed with people in August, for instance, and it is far more difficult then for a person to obtain unfurnished premises for a period than it is at any other time of the year, We must make certain, therefore, that a situation is not created in which a person, just because it happens to be August, can fortuitously obtain a bigger capital sum by putting higher prices on these smaller articles when he offers them for sale. I see the point made by my hon. Friends, but the bag of nails, the packet of safety pins and the toilet-roll holders, need not necessarily be part of the articles offered for sale.
In making out his list, a landlord stipulates only what he wants to sell. There is nothing to prevent him or an outgoing tenant taking away the bag of nails and the packet of safety pins and offering them in an auction mart. On the other hand, naturally, I would not want to create a situation in which the incoming tenant had the benefit of goods left on the premises by somebody else.
§ Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)
Has the hon. Member not seen an inventory in which the items he is now describing have appeared?
§ Mr. Mawby
It is quite true that they appear in inventories. If a person is bankrupt, or going into liquidation, one sees little items like that listed. One sees them even at a normal sale, but this is an entirely different situation in which a person is making it a condition of renewing or issuing a lease that the incoming tenant shall purchase certain items. It is not feasible to list all items priced at below £2.
Major Hicks Beach
Do I take it that my hon. Friend disagrees with the Attorney-General's observation, when he said that every item must be detailed and priced?
§ Mr. Mawby
I am not a lawyer and I bow to my hon. and gallant Friend's greater knowledge. It all depends on what is meant by "every item" That is the major point that must be considered As I am not a lawyer, I would tend to say that if the matter came to court the meaning of "item" would be decided by the court.
§ Mr. Doughty
Clause 1 (5) states that furnitureincludes fittings and other articles".One could not have a wider definition. It goes right down to the tin-tacks which hold the carpet.
§ Mr. Mawby
It would be for the court to decide. I take it that the small things would not have to be listed, and I am not thinking of the bag of nails. I do not believe that that item is even a starter. I am thinking of the price asked for fitted curtains which would lose their value if they had to be taken away and shortened to fit windows of a differensize. I do not think that the court would say that the rails holding up a pair of curtains or the right and left-hand clip on the pelmet should be itemised.
I should say that "lounge window fittings", perhaps at 10s., would be recognised by the court as an item, but the court would not expect the vendor to itemise the clips or the screws and to specify their length. That would be taking the matter to ludicrous lengths. It all depends on what is meant by "item". My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) would probably say that my view on this is completely wrong.
§ Mr. Mawby
I appreciate that the Amendment is put forward in good faith and I see the point that is being made, but I believe that if it were accepted it would put the landlord or the outgoing tenant in a completely impossible position in having to itemise every tiny thing. For those reasons, I ask the House to reject the Amendment.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)
I am not a suspicious-minded person, but I am suspicious of the Amendment. I believe that the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) is a very lukewarm supporter of the Bill.
§ Mr. Hunter
The view of the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) that the Bill is unnecessary shows that he has a complete lack of knowledge of housing conditions in our great towns and cities. The Bill would not interfere with the good landlords, or estate agents. It aims to clip the wings of unscrupulous landlords who are charging tenants who are seeking accommodation extortionate prices for furniture and fittings of no value. The "bag of nails" argument is completely unnecessary. Why leave that item in the flat at all? The outgoing tenant would take away items of that sort.
I see no good reason for moving the Amendment. I am sure that the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) had legal advice from the Attorney-General's office when the Bill was being prepared. The Bill has been through Standing Committee and the hon. Member has also had help from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I hope that the House will reject the Amendment.
§ Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)
The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) is quite right in refusing to accept the Amendment. I had the impression from the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) and the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) that they were thinking of the rather more expensive flats where the items offered for sale to an incoming tenant would be expensive and of a great variety.
As the Bill would apply to my constituency, it would be found that the items offered for sale would be very different from those in the minds of those two hon. Members. A person who is desperately in need of rooms to shelter himself and his family will be and is induced to buy items of furniture. I have a list of typical examples a carpet, value 4s., sold at 35s., a chair, value 6s., sold at 30s., a basin and jug, value 6s., sold at £1. The people in my constituency who are subject to these extortionate demands are offered that type of furniture and fittings. If the Amendment were accepted, people in the poorer areas who have to buy sticks of furniture and worn-out carpets would be outside the provisions of the Bill. Every item, 778 according to the Amendment, under £2 in value need not be listed. The bed would be listed and priced, but that would probably be the only item in the room which would be listed if the Amendment were accepted.
The Bill as drafted will protect my people, the poorest people, who may be under pressure to buy these items because they need accommodation. If the Amendment were accepted the cases I have in mind, and which all too frequently have been brought to my notice, would be outside the protection of the Bill. Therefore, I think that the hon. Member for Totnes is right in refusing to accept the Amendment.
Major Hicks Beach
I still feel that this Amendment would improve the Bill, but as there is important business before us today, and as this is a comparatively small matter, I do not propose to ask my hon. Friends to press it to a Division. May I say to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby), however, that it is a dangerous principle to introduce Bills into the House in the belief that the courts will interpret them as he believes they should. Courts have to interpret an Act as it is drawn, and that is why faulty and impracticable legislation is so dangerous.
For the reasons I have given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)
I beg to move, in page 1, line 20, to leave out subsection (2) and to insert:(2) (a) If it appears to a justice of the peace on information on oath laid by any person that there is reasonable cause to suspect that an offence has been committed under this Act and that any furniture the subject of the offence is on any premises the justice may issue a warrant authorising any constable to search for the furniture and to inspect the same;(b)any constable authorised by warrant under this section to search for any furniture on any premises may enter (if need be by force) any house, building or other place specified in the warrant;(c)every warrant issued under this section shall be addressed to and executed by a constable who shall be accompanied by the person laying the information if that person so desires unless the justice by whom the warrant is issued otherwise directs and may also, if the justice by whom the warrant is issued so directs, be accompanied by a duly qualified valuer, the person to whom the furniture was offered and a representative of the local authority.779 This Amendment seeks to leave out subsection (2) and to insert the provisions on the Notice Paper. The effect of it would be that instead of the local authority being responsible for enforcing the machinery for searching houses for evidence, the ordinary provisions of a searoh warrant would have to be gone through before any house could be entered.
I know that there are other matters which the House wants to reach so I will be as brief as possible, but I regard this as a matter of principle and of some importance. I spoke to it during the Second Reading debate, I put down a similar Amendment in Committee which was not discussed, and, therefore, I will deal with the point now.
This Amendment has nothing to do with the offence which the Bill creates. It deals only with the machinery for proving the criminal offence and for obtaining evidence as to what offence has been committed. The problem is that when such an offence is suspected to have been committed, all the evidence of it will almost certainly be upon private premises, in the possession either of the person who is alleged to have committed the offence or of some other person.
So that evidence may be obtained before a prosecution is launched, it is obviously essential that someone should go to the premises and, if necessary, force his way in. The power to search people's private homes for evidence of a criminal offence should, in my respectful submission to the House, be strictly considered and controlled, because under the provisions of the Bill as drafted it will be possible, without proper or sufficient safeguards, for representatives of local authorities to force their way into private houses and possibly to bring about a situation which might result in a breach of the peace.
I would remind the House that even a furnished houses rent tribunal has no power of entering private houses for the purpose of inspecting furniture which is the subject of any litigation before it. Therefore, we are putting strong powers into the hands of whoever might be thought proper in this case.
My objection to the Bill is that it gives far too wide powers to local authorities for this purpose. The Bill provides only 780 that a local authority—which, of course, must mean its properly appointed delegate for the purpose, who might be any of its servants—must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence has been committed. That is not easy, because in this case the local authority must have reasonable grounds for believing that a person has offered furniture at a price which he should have known was unreasonably high.
That is a complicated piece of evidential proof and the ordinary officers of the local authority, however admirable, do not normally have the duty of considering whether they have sufficient evidence that reasonable grounds exist upon which a court might convict somebody of such an offence.
Moreover, the authority, or its official, if it should come to the conclusion that there are such reasonable grounds on information which has been passed to it, has no means of checking whether the information given is accurate or not. There is no provision that anybody has to set down the information in writing, far less on oath. It does not have to be formalised in any way, so that when a prosecution ultimately takes place the defendant cannot see whether there were proper, reasonable grounds upon which the local authority might have acted.
Then, if it thinks, either correctly or incorrectly, that it has such reasonable grounds, all it does is to give a piece of paper, with, presumably, the heading of the local authority at the top, to a person who goes to the house and presents it at the door. Anybody who challenges that is at risk of having himself committed a criminal offence, because it is a criminal offence to obstruct anyone who is lawfully authorised, whereas he might not be lawfully authorised because the local authority may have no reasonable grounds for making the order. No doubt some malicious person, who wanted for dishonest purposes to enter the premises, might have armed himself with a piece of paper from the local authority and have forged an authority which requires no particular form. but only a signature.
It is for these reasons that I think the existing provisions are dangerous and objectionable. There is an even stronger objection to them. I think that the person responsible for launching the prosecution is the last person who ought to 781 decide whether private premises should be forcibly entered for the purpose of obtaining evidence in support of his own case, and that we are putting the local authority, which is the prosecutor, in the position of being a judge in his own case in what is a very important step in a prosecution.
Moreover, of course, the provisions as drafted provide that 24 hours' previous notice must be given. It need only be given by post, and in the case of anybody who has committed an offence, the first thing he will do is to remove the evidence, so the entry will be fruitless and, therefore, the machinery is not very effective to effect the purpose which it is intended to procure.
I submit respectfully that the House has for many years, in cases like this, provided in a vast variety of Bills that a person who desires to force his way into private residential premises to obtain evidence of a criminal offence should get a search warrant from a Justice of the Peace, and that is all my Amendment proposes. It insists that the prosecutor, either the local authority or the person to whom the furniture has been offered, should lay an information upon oath. That would formalise the information and show whether or not there are reasonable grounds for believing that at that stage an offence may have been committed.
Then a justice of the peace, advised by a clerk who is legally qualified, can consider that evidence so formalised and can say whether in his view the circumstances are such that it is right that he should go to the length of issuing a search warrant. The search warrant is a very effective piece of machinery. That is why I recommend it. We must have provisions which bite and which are sensible and capable of being properly enforced.
The most important aspect of the matter is that the search warrant is given to a constable. Therefore, where entry is made, the occupier of the premises—who may know nothing whatever about the circumstances of the offence, because he may have nothing to do with it—knows that an officer is present to authorise the entry and to see that the people entering are properly there and that they will behave themselves while they are there. In addition, it is likely to prevent 782 argument or trouble, such as sometimes occurs when a person tries to force his way into premises.
Under the Amendment a little gang of people may accompany the police constable. There is the person who has laid the information, the representative of the local authority, and a duly qualified valuer. Very often the person laying the information will be the representative of the local authority, which reduces the number by one. It is quite useless to make an entry unless the person to whom the furniture has been offered is there in order to identify it, and a qualified valuer is there to value it.
When drafting this part of the Amendment I followed the principle of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933. which provided that when it was necessary for people to enter premises the party should consist of somebody who knew the child, a representative of the local authority, a constable, and a medical practitioner to see what was the condition of the child. It may be that on some occasions fewer people will he required, but the Bill should be drawn in a form which enables all those who have to go to do so under the authority of a warrant, accompanied by a police constable in uniform, who will have possession of the warrant.
I do not want to detain the House, but I would point out that there are other Measures in which similar provisions for search warrants have been made. They include Measures dealing with dangerous drugs, illicit stills and spirits, and similar Customs offences, obscene publications, children and young persons, and wild birds. When hon. Members opposite were in power they passed the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act of 1951, which contained similar provisions, making it necessary to obtain a search warrant to enter upon private premises. Even the Deer (Scotland) Bill, recently introduced, provides that a search warrant shall be applied for.
I am sorry to have detained the House for so long, but I regard it as a matter of principle that private premises should not be forced open merely upon the authority of a piece of paper with writing on it, in the possession of a single official of a local authority, who may think that an offence has been committed.
§ Mr. Doughty
I beg to second the Amendment.
Before we consider the details of the Amendment we must consider the effect of the whole Bill. This is a criminal Bill; it has nothing to do with civil rights as between a purchaser and a seller of a lease or premises. Those are covered by other Acts. The Bill provides that if a person enters into a bargain which is already illegal in the civil sense he commits a criminal offence, and in dealing with criminal offences we must be extremely careful what powers we give to those whose duty it is to enforce them.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have always been very jealous of the rights given to other people to enter upon property occupied by a third party. I go so far as to say that, with two exceptions, the House has never given a right to local authorities, as such, to enter upon the properties of other people. It is true that when health or safety is concerned—when premises are in imminent danger of collapsing, or when somebody who is suffering from an infectious disease is living in certain premises it may be necessary for people to be given leave to enter premises to save people's lives, or preserve their health. I should be prepared to support any proposal for that sort of entry.
But we are not dealing here with the question of health or safety. We are dealing with the case of a person who has entered, unwisely, or through duress —because he is short of accommodation —into an illegal bargain concerning the price of furniture. In an attempt to enforce the provisions of the Bill it is provided that a representative of a local authority can force his way into somebody's premises. I wonder whether the Clause slipped in accidentally through somebody not being careful enough when drafting the Bill. That is one reason why the Bill has experienced difficulties in its passage. A question of principle is involved.
The Bill also provides that the person who shall have power to institute a prosecution shall be the local authority, and that is the same person who is given power to enter premises by force, if necessary. That, in itself, is an objectionable provision. For those reasons the subsection should be looked at most carefully. I beg the House to realise what 784 it will be doing if it allows the Bill to pass in its present form. Just as in all walks of life it is no good merely to criticise, having pointed out the danger of passing the Clause in its present form it is necessary to say what should be done to ensure that the Bill should work properly, and what should be the method of enforcing a provision which makes it an offence to enter into an unconscionable bargain about furniture.
The Amendment covers the point fully. If we are to apply the criminal law, and to provide that a person may enter upon somebody else's premises in order to obtain evidence, we must be extremely careful what powers are given, and we must ensure the intervention of a justice of the peace to authorise entry. That has been done in many other Measures, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. John Hobson) pointed out. I therefore ask that the Amendment in its present form, or something similar to it, should be accepted, so that the owners of private property may be protected from this invasion of their property.
I pass to a more practical point of view. No one likes to have his house broken into. Some people are more irascible than others. Clerks of local authorities are not policemen or ex-policemen, and the Bill at present directly encourages disorder. A person who lives in a house and opens the front door to find somebody standing there who, without the greatest of tact, says, "I am coming in," is likely to give him an answer which, to put it mildly, is a flat contradiction, and when that happens one thing follows upon another.
Therefore, from a sensible and practical point of view, I beg the House to examine the Clause most carefully and agree that it cannot be allowed to pass in its present form. Something on the lines of the Amendment, or even on the lines of my own Amendment, should be substituted. The Bill should not make an entirely new law, as it attempts to do in its present form. This is a very important question of principle and not a mere detail which we are seeking to insert into a Bill.
I remind hon. Members, again, that once we allow such a Clause as this to co through it will be used as a precedent. and no one's house or premises will, as 785 of right, be safe from invasion by any official of a local authority. As I am sure that hon. Members do not wish that, I ask them to support the Amendment.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)
I have no wish to curtail this discussion, but were I now to intervene it might be helpful, as the House has other business. There is no doubt that this is rather a difficult question, and I believe that the House is anxious to make sure that the provisions of the Bill are enforceable, and also that they are enforceable without detracting from the legitimate rights of private citizens.
The amendment recognises the need for the power of entry, but in place of the Bill's present wording it proposes, in effect, that a search warrant shall be issued by the justices of the peace; and that it is to be executed by a constable, who would normally be accompanied by the person laying the information—who might be a private citizen or a representative of the local authority—possibly by a qualified valuer, and by a representative of the local authority, as well as by the person to whom the furniture had been offered. I think that that procedure is a hit heavy handed, and goes rather too far.
We ought to remember that in the overwhelming number of cases the person in charge of the premises concerned will be perfectly ready to admit interested parties to view the premises. In the nature of the case, the premises are on offer, and the visit of the representative of the local authority involves no more invasion of the other person's privacy than would the visit of any potential tenant.
What the police constable has to do with all this is just a little obscure. I listened very carefully to what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. John Hobson) said, but I am still not quite sure what function the police constable has to discharge in these circumstances. After all, he probably has no knowledge whatever of the value of the furniture, and his presence, like that of the person who lays the information, does not seem to serve any great purpose.
786 My own view is that a visit by what amounts to a deputation headed by a police constable would be far more resented than a visit, after notice being given, by a representative of the local authority. I would go a little further, and say that it seems to my right hon. Friend to be inappropriate here to involve the police at all. I also very much doubt whether the proposal in the Amendment would commend itself to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
Before turning to the substance of what I want to say, I should like to comment on the existing powers that local authorities have to enter premises. They have these powers under Section 159 of the Housing Act, 1957, for certain purposes, and, under Section 78 of the Act, in the case of overcrowding, inspection can be followed by prosecution of either the occupier or the landlord. Under Section 287 of the Public Health Act, 1936, there are similar powers of entry for certain defined purposes. Those purposes include the cleansing of filthy and verminous premises, and the abatement of nuisances —both of which offences, the House should bear in mind, are liable to lead to criminal proceedings.
As I said at the beginning, I recognise that the question of the power of entry into private premises probably excites strong feeling in all parts of the House. Some of my hon. Friends dislike the idea of conferring on local authorities power of entry, following the giving of notice, in circumstances that might lead to a criminal prosecution. I think that that is the heart of their view. They feel that my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby)—whose, Bill, of course, this is—are, perhaps, giving these powers rather too lightly in the circumstances.
There is on the Notice Paper, Mr. Speaker, an Amendment in page 2, to leave out lines 7 to 11 and to insert:(a) if the person entitled to possession of the premises does not agree in writing to granting the aforesaid facilities, then a local authority may apply to a magistrate for a search warrant to enter upon the said premises and inspect the said furniture.which I understand you are not intending to call. Mr. Speaker. I will not go into great detail, but it suggests one possible alternative to what has been proposed by 787 my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, and, at the other extreme, by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington.
The alternative is that instead of giving the local authority the power of entry —following the giving of notice, and so on—that is contained in the Bill, we might possibly provide that if the person who was in occupation or control of the premises did not agree to granting entry to the local authority, the authority ought to be obliged to apply to the magistrate for a warrant to enter the premises for the purpose of inspecting the furniture.
I think that that suggestion would go some way to allaying the apprehensions expressed in relation to the present provision while, at the same time, as I see it, not making enforcement of this Measure the more difficult. It would also have the virtue of being a good deal less heavy-handed and cumbersome than the procedure proposed in the Amendment—
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
In giving his provisional blessing to an Amendment that we are not discussing, the Parliamentary Secretary missed out the important words "in writing" Does he necessarily think that those words should be contained in any proposal for a compromise?
§ Mr. Bevins
Yes. I confirm what the hon. Gentleman says.
I am myself rather attracted by that proposal. Although the Amendment to which I have made reference was put on the Notice Paper only very recently, and I have not had an opportunity of full discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, I should have thought that it might be possible to satisfy hon. Members in all parts of the House if we were to invite my hon. Friend—perhaps in conjunction with my right hon. Friend—seriously to examine that proposal, with a view, perhaps, to importing a suitable provision of that kind at a later stage in another place. I would hope that that would be acceptable to both sides. I think that it is a reasonable way out of what is a very genuine difficulty.
§ Mr. MacColl
I hope that I will not be thought indelicate if I intervene in what is rather a domestic fracas on this 788 Amendment, but I agree with the first half of what the Parliamentary Secretary has said. Although, on principle, one can make out a good case against the proposal in this Bill, the Amendment is akin to taking a steam hammer to crack a nut. People are quite used to having officers of local authorities, with warrant cards and powers of entry, coming to see them. Most people regard these as visits from helpful or friendly people whom they are glad to see.
§ Mr. Doughty
The hon. Gentleman said that people are used to having local authority representatives coming to their premises, meaning, of course, as of right. Can he tell me of any case where a local authority has power to do so except where health or safety are involved?
§ Mr. MacColl
I think that in both cases the visit of a local authority officer would cause much less trouble than having a police officer coming along with a search warrant. I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary there. In most normal cases people faced with a posse, headed by the local policeman, coming to inspect their carpet to decide whether or not it is worth 10s., would be much more irritated because, for better or worse, people think of search warrants and the police rather in terms of stolen goods. They would be inclined to be more irritated at having a police officer coming in. Therefore, I think, like most people, including the Parliamentary Secretary, who are fairly used to local government officials and who take a kinder view of them, that the proposal in the Bill would work satisfactorily and that there would be no trouble.
I think it is true to say that this particular operation is not concerned directly with health. On the other hand, as I said on Second Reading, a public health inspector has power to enter a house and count the number of people sleeping in a bed, which, on the whole, is rather more irritating to one's sense of privacy than having someone to look at one's carpet. Therefore, from the point of view of the ordinary citizen, I would have thought that this arrangement would work fairly satisfactorily.
Further, what one has to consider is the odd person, such as the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), who does not like having officers from local authorities coming in 789 and who is anxious to stand on what he believes to be his legal rights. There might then be a risk of a certain amount of "this-ing and that-ing" ending in some kind of trouble, with the local authority officer retiring with ruffled feathers, and nobody quite knowing what the next step should be.
I must say that public health inspectors, to take one example, are very used to this kind of problem. Local authority officers are used to handling the public and getting their agreement. They have a great deal of experience of this sort of thing and of the right kind of attitude to adopt and so on. An experienced local authority officer can usually get over these difficulties.
There are, of course, cases where there might be difficulties and trouble. Therefore, it seems to me that there might be something to be said for having a sort of residual power, where some kind of forcible entry is necessary, for requiring that a warrant be obtained from a justice of the peace. I was, therefore, happy to hear the Parliamentary Secretary suggest that that might be a solution.
What I am not happy about is the use of the words:… does not agree in writing to granting the aforesaid facilities…That seems to me to be a hit formal and complicated. If what happens is that, in vulgar parlance, the public health inspector gets a "flea in the ear", he does riot get a "flea in the ear" in writing; the argument takes place over the threshold. I am not clear what happens then. If there has not been a refusal in writing, does he then try to put his foot in the door? I should have thought that if he were wise he would not do so. He might do one of two things. He might go away, leaving the gentlemen to cool down, and return the next day to discuss the matter; or he might want to go straight away and obtain a warrant from a justice of the peace.
Therefore, I am a little perturbed about the use of the words "in writing". That implies that this sort of situation is taking place by means of an exchange of letters. I have no doubt that if the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham received a letter saying that the local authority was going to send an inspector to see his carpet he would send a letter back, 790 because he is the sort of person who is used to writing, and would reply, "You are not coming round to inspect my carpet. I will shoot you."
Major Hicks Beach
I should say, "If you think a criminal offence has been committed you should apply for a search warrant"—and quite properly so.
§ Mr. MacColl
I do not think the average person involved in this kind of argument would be likely to write a letter —unless he were employing the services of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, which he would be wise to do, to write it for him. Therefore, I think this is a bit formal. I would welcome some kind of compromise on the lines suggested by the Parliamentary Secretary, but I do not think it should be in the form of the Amendment which we are not discussing.
§ Mr. Hirst
I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) found some favour in subsection (2), parts of which are very good Socialism which would naturally appeal to him.
I am glad that we have had an opportunity of discussing this important Amendment which has enabled us to discuss a very important matter of principle and, if I may say so, which is not applicable only to this Bill; it applies to all the legislation which conies before this House where enforcement is involved. What I am a little worried about are some comments of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. I found his Second Reading speech absolutely shattering, and I am not yet happy about it. If that is the sort of guidance which the House is to get, I shall need a good deal more assistance on this Clause than I have so far had. The Parliamentary Secretary has, to some extent, indicated a little more flexibility in connection with Socialist principles which he applauded so much on Second Reading.
§ Mr. Bevins
There was no hint of any such principles in my speech on Second Reading. If my hon. Friend will do me the favour of reading what I said. he will find that my attitude to the whole business of power of entry was indeed very flexible. I made that clear.
§ Mr. Hirst
As I have not time to read the whole of my hon. Friend's speech now, I will accept his assurance, but I must say I did not get that impression 791 when he dealt with this Clause. It hardly fits in with his statement today. However, if he did not mean to give the House that impression, in spite of what I remember reading, I will accept his assurance.
Today my hon. Friend has certainly not made it very clear where we stand now. He suggested that people do not really mind further inroads into what used to be called the Englishman's castle —a phrase which I am afraid is getting rather worn and tattered as the years go by. I feel that we should watch this point carefully. There was a time when it was said that an Englishman's home is his castle. It is, of course, only a phrase and must not be taken too literally, but it has an important context in this matter in connection with which we are considering further methods of invasion of people's houses. It is a very different story compared with business premises, where the Food and Drugs Act and similar Acts are involved.
I hope that I shall get some help on this matter, because I am not sure that the sort of Amendment, to which I gather it is not in order to refer, will stand on its own—
§ Mr. Speaker
It is quite in order to refer to it. It is merely another meth 3d of achieving the purpose which the Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. John Hobson) seeks to achieve. It is in order to refer to it, but it may not be moved.
§ Mr. Hirst
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am not very knowledgeable on these matters, but it does not appear to me that the Amendment stands on its own. We must not leave this very important matter of principle without some assurance.
The earlier part of the Amendment standing in the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) is an essential part of any adjustment or amendment which might arise out of our discussions. It is important because we must maintain as far as we can the idea of having a warrant to prevent any Tom, Dick and Harry walking into people's houses. The idea of that being done is repugnant and I do not trust local authorities in this 792 degree. Some local authorities good. Some are not so good. Some are them rather like what we call Gestapo tactics, and others do not.
I would like to keep the procedure on the level of a justice of the peace issuing a warrant. He is a responsible citizen vouched for by many people long before he receives his office. There must be some statement on oath to a justice of the peace before any action of this nature is taken, whoever carries it out.
§ Mr. D. Griffiths
There are two types of representatives. Some representatives like going into people's houses, whether the local authority be Conservative-ruled or Labour-ruled.
§ Mr. Hirst
This has nothing to do with a local authority or a political party. It is the principle. I do not consider local authorities fit people to exercise responsibilities laid down in Clause 1 (2) of the Bill. No arguments that I have heard lead me to believe that they are. I am not making a political point of this. If I am assured that some form of amendment can get over this difficulty I shall be extremely happy, as it will make this bad Bill a little less bad. This is an important, fundamental matter. Whether one calls the Bill good, bad or indifferent, there is a principle at stake which transcends anything which is attempted to be enacted in it.
Major Hicks Beach
The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) was kind enough to refer to me as a man of action and to what I would do if anyone tried to enter my premises.
Where a criminal offence was suspected of having been committed, one would have to apply for a search warrant. I should have thought that that would have universal support from all sides of the House, unless we believe in a Gestapo State. Where matters of health are involved, it is right that local authorities should have the right of entry to make whatever inquiries are possible. The matter is as simple as that.
An important principle is involved. It is virtually a new principle, in a Bill which is likely to be of considerable importance, but if one were allowed to do any wagering in this House I doubt whether there would be a single prosecution in the course of the next two years, because the Bill is so badly worded and 793 drawn. Be that as it may, we have here a question of principle. Do we think that where a criminal offence is suspected the ordinary search warrant procedure should apply or not, or do we believe that the power of entry into a person's horne should be handed over to the local authority?
The Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby), but during the course of the proceedings I sometimes wondered whose Bill it was. I feel strongly on this point of principle and I hope that we shall have a satisfactory reply on this fundamental point.
§ Mr. Mawby
I can understand my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), who is very learned in the law, wondering why, at times, I bow to legal minds. It is because I know my own shortcomings and believe that the principle of the Bill is right. Naturally, I have to take a great deal of guidance and advice on the legal points raised. I join with every hon. Member in the House in regard to the importance of this matter of the right of entry into private premises. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) said that the Englishman's home was his castle and that in everything we do we should try and make certain that we do not extend the right of entry unless we feel that it is essential to do so.
The Amendment we are discussing is rather heavy-handed, because in these cases it is purely because of the local authority checking whether, in the view of a valuer, the list of items is correctly priced. There is nothing to prevent a local authority, without looking at the furniture and fittings, from instituting proceedings under Clause 1 (2, a). This makes certain that a local authority, before instituting proceedings, would take a competent valuer who would go in and check the articles and find out whether the prices listed were reasonable and not extortionate. In the majority of cases a local authority would send a person who would be recognised by a court of law as being competent to put a value on furniture and fittings.
When the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) said that if a public health officer went along and had an argument on the doorstep, I feel that it would not be the fault of the official. The local 794 authority would do its utmost to send a man who could appear before a court, if there were proceedings, as an expert witness who was competent to value furniture.
§ Mr. MacColl
My point is that the public health inspector is a person who is particularly expert in dealing with the public. He has more experience than any other local official in handling the public on the doorstep. Secondly, he is a person who is constantly giving evidence in court and is used to doing so. These officials are very resourceful people and if their emoluments were raised by upgrading I have no doubt they would take courses in valuation.
§ Mr. Mawby
I do not dissent from the point that public health officers perform a very valuable function, but I feel that the local authority would send someone who could be recognised as being competent. In the majority of cases no objection would be made to the person looking at the furniture and fittings. In most cases the premises would be empty.
Having said that, there may be occasions where the person concerned takes our point of view and says that the Englishman's home is his castle and objects to the local authority, in the words used by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. John Hobson), being judges in their own court. That point made a great impression on me. The organisation bringing the proceedings will also be the authority who will he allowed to do it.
I am very much taken with the points that have been made and I would tend to feel that the Amendment in the name of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) is not completely right. Not being a legal expert, I could not say that it was right. particularly where it rather puts the negative point of "does not agree". I would be inclined to put "disagree" and make it more positive.
These are small points and I accept them, and assure my hon. and learned Friend that if he were prepared to withdraw his Amendment I would do everything possible, before the Bill is complete, to make certain that this point is covered.
§ Mr. A. Evans
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, will he be good enough to confirm that he is prepared to accept a form of words similar to those in the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) and the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Body) at the top of page 1923 of the Notice Paper? Does he agree that the words "in writing" should be in there, or would he not rather think that they were superfluous and might hamper the purpose we have in view?
§ Mr. Mawby
That was the real reason why I said that purely as a layman I felt that the words "does not agree" ought to be changed to "disagree". That would make the position positive rather than negative, because it is only if a person disagrees about it that we follow the next step and not the fact that the local authority has to wait until a person writes to say, "I agree to your coming."
§ Mr. Mawby
As I say, it all depends upon what appears before "in writing". I believe that we are now getting down to the matter of words and I would certainly tend to say that the general idea of the Amendment is a good one because it at least makes certain that in many cases there will be no objection raised to the man going into the premises. Even in a case where the person feels that he is not going to have his privacy invaded by anyone at all, I think that we must alter the Bill so that he can have the right to say, "I will not grant entry unless you go to the magistrate and apply for a search warrant."That is my basic attitude towards the matter, and on that assurance I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be prepared to withdraw his Amendment.
§ Mr. John Hobson
The problem with which we are dealing is not whether access can be obtained by agreement or not. If the agreement of the possessor of the premises is obtained, anyone can go in, whether he is a police officer or a representative of the local authority. What we have to provide for is when there is no agreement and when there is liable to be a dispute.
796 It is a difficult problem, but in view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) has said and the very helpful attitude which he has adopted, and knowing that he has the promise of co-operation from my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 12.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Mawby
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I should like to thank all those hon. Members who have assisted me so greatly in clearing this first hurdle which every hon. Member has to get over at some time or another when piloting through a Private Member's Bill. In thanking all those who have assisted me in all sorts of ways, I should not like to leave out those hon. Friends who, by the Amendments which they put down in Committee and on Report today, have been constructive and have tried to make certain that the Bill became a better Bill. The fact that they are also hon. and learned Gentlemen has, of course, been of considerable assistance. I only hope that after the discussions which we have had on the Bill it will finally reach the Statute Book.
As I said in my Second Reading speech, the Bill does not seek to make world-shattering changes. All it seeks to do is to close up a little loophole in order to prevent the unscrupulous person oharging a premium by way of the back door. I believe that if the Bill reaches the Statute Book it will play its part, along with all the other Statutes, in seeing that the whole question of the sale of furniture and fittings is carried out as nearly as possible on a market valuation as between a willing buyer and a willing seller and will prevent exorbitant prices being charged just because the buying of furniture and fittings is a condition of a lease or tenancy.
§ 12.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Hunter
Very briefly, I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) on reaching the Third Reading stage of his Bill and also to express thanks for the help which has been given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I was sorry to hear the attack made on the Parliamentary 797 Secretary by one of his hon. Friends. I was in the House when the Parliamentary Secretary spoke on Second Reading. I am sure that he knows the great difficulty which people experience in obtaining the tenancies of houses and fiats, and I think that the hon. Gentleman made a very fair speech in support of the Bill, a Bill which will stop unscrupulous landlords and agents asking unfair and exorbitant prices for furniture and fittings of no value.
§ Mr. Hunter
If the hon. Gentleman's speech helps in protecting the people of this country from being exploited by unscrupulous landlords and agents, then I should say that it is a very good Socialist policy.
The hon. Member for Totnes spoke of the Bill as a small Bill designed to close a small loophole. I believe that it is an important Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the very fact that it is known that Parliament is watching the operations of unscrupulous landlords and agents will clip their wings. I feel that the Bill will clip the wings of those who are exploiting the housing shortage in the country, and will not interfere with fair landlords or estate agents.
Everyone who takes an interest in the question of housing knows what a great social question it is. In big cities and towns people are searching for houses and flats, and often the price asked for furniture and fittings has no relation to their value. The Bill will do a good service to those seeking accommodation, and some of my hon. Friends and I have been very pleased to give our support to the Bill with a view to getting it to its Third Reading stage.
§ 12.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Doughty
I also should like to join in the congratulations extended by the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) on the success he is about to achieve in getting his Bill through all its stages in this House.
The hon. Member for Felt:ham (Mr. Hunter) referred to the Bill as a small Bill which clips tie wings of those who desire to obtain illegal sums of money. I want to see exactly what it does. The Bill introduces a large number of criminal 798 offences. Any Bill, whether a landlord and tenant Bill or a larceny Bill, which is introduced and which makes people liable to be brought before the criminal courts is a Measure which, I am sure, all hon. Members would want to examine with very great care. If they did not. they would be failing in their duty.
It is for that reason that when the Bill came before the House a number of hon. Members looked at it with considerable care and found certain details in it with which they were not at all pleased. I am sure that this is an example of the wisdom on the part of any hon. Member who brings a Private Member's Bill before the House of showing a certain amount of gratitude for its careful examination by the House. Anyone who tries to bulldoze a Private Member's Bill through the House is liable to get it wrecked on the rocks in one way or another.
I am glad that we have today achieved, on a most important principle of the Bill, a sensible concession which will strengthen the Bill very much indeed. I am speaking entirely for myself. I have always been in favour of the principle laid down in the Bill. It did not require the eloquent words of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, or even of the hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) on a previous occasion, to convince us of the extortions that were being asked. On that we all agree. What we are not agreed about are some of the matters written into this Bill, in particular the right of entry by a local authority when no question of health or safety is concerned.
Any Bill which comes before this House, whether it is a Private Member's Bill or a Government Bill, and has such words written into it will certainly secure my wholehearted opposition. I am sure that in this case there was an oversight, I know not where, but now that it has been put right the Bill has my full blessing. There are certainly matters which can be improved, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, purely on matters of detail, such as the question discussed this morning and not taken to a Division, whether he will look through the Bill again before it goes to another place. If I can be of assistance to him I shall be pleased to help in order to see whether, on points of detail and drafting, the Bill can 799 be made a better Bill to carry out the purpose we are all agreed we wish to carry out.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Hirst
I do not want to delay the House before we leave this important stage of the Bill, but I must say that I am not quite as happy about the Bill as some hon. Members. My reason is perhaps a little different from that of the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter). Having most carefully read the Official Report of the various stages of the Bill at which I could not be present, and refreshed my mind on them for an hour or so last night, I am still not satisfied that it will achieve anything like the objects which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) seeks to advance.
I do not think that anyone quarrels with the purpose the Bill seeks to advance, but with whether, in fact, certain types of legislation will promote it and whether it is a good thing to introduce legislation in this House which does not promote that purpose. I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), who has more knowledge of this subject than I have, that the Bill is not likely to achieve its object. After going through it carefully as a layman, and coming to the conclusion that it will not achieve that object, I am a little more critical of some of the things it will undeniably do, which are not necessarily so desirable.
Although I was not a member of the Committee, I appreciated the courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes in referring to the help that he had been given in Committee. That was a piece of graciousness which I know he meant absolutely sincerely, but I cannot see that a single Amendment was accepted. Let us face the faot. There was very severe rigidity in the Committee. I regret that the Bill introduces quite distinct criminal offences, some of which are of serious import. I am not convinced that it will achieve its object any more than existing legislation which was referred to at great length on Second Reading would do, if it were operated. By way of illustration, I refer to the discussion we had on the question of control of advertisements. On that matter, my hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of 800 Housing and Local Government has certain ideas. Because local authorities have not carried out many of the powers they already have there is an unsatisfactory position. The same applies in this matter.
I regret that the Bill has been introduced in this context, not as a matter of principle. I regret that it has gone through with only one promise being made, although I agree that that is a most important promise and a most important principle. That is something for which we thank the hon. Member who introduced the Bill, and we also thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the guidance that he has given. While I am grateful for that, I am afraid the Bill shows rigidity and will not achieve its object. I can only hope that some of these matters will be looked at when further opportunities are presented before the Bill becomes an Act.
This is only the chance of ensuring that we do not make faults in our social system and, at the same time, do not achieve the aims we seek. I cannot see those aims beng achieved. Therefore, I think it a fault to introduce legislation which brings in further offences and undesirable aspects to our legislation.
§ 12.55 p.m.
I am sure that no one on this side of the House shares the misgivings of the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst). Everyone on this side will warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) on having taken the opportunity which the Ballot gave him of introducing the Bill and getting it through to its final stage.
The hon. Member has demonstrated the very good Parliamentary rule that one is more likely to lose a Bill by saying too much than by saying too little. Very prudently, he has kept a curb on his tongue both here and in Committee. In mentioning the Committee, may I say that we are very sorry that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) is not here today to give the support to the Bill which he gave it upstairs. Had he been here he would have wanted to say that he gave it warm support on Third Reading.
We shall see the Bill again if changes are made in another place. We shall 801 have an opportunity of looking at them. We shall want to look at the Amendments very carefully. If there is any whittling down of the main principles, we on this side of the House will not be very happy about that. I therefore hope that the alterations made will be kept within very narrow limits so far as the hon. Member for Totnes has any influence.
I do not share the misgiving that the Bill will not lead to a whole crop of prosecutions. I do not think that the measure of good legislation is the number of prosecutions it provokes, but the degree to which it stops offences. The Bill will be useful as a warning to people, who, quite unnecessarily, try to pile up premiums on the sales of furniture, to think twice before they do so. The fact that that will be more difficult and complicated and that there is the risk of prosecution will make them less likely to do so.
The Bill will be useful in putting some restraint on that kind of action. Therefore, on behalf of my hon. Friends, I give warm support to the Third Reading of the Bill.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)
I am glad to say a few words about the Bill and to congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) on his tenacity and his fearlessness in facing some of his hon. Friends who wanted to destroy the Bill in Committee. As one who does not take a great part in the activities of the House, I was very interested in the activities of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty). In Committee, he took a very long time to tell us that he was in favour of the Bill, but did not think we ought to discuss it. I can understand that point of view. I imagine that it is the point of view of the Conservative Party, that, if there is a shortage of houses and accommodation, owners of property should get as much as they can.
§ Mr. Doughty
The hon. Member was not in the Chamber when I spoke on Third Reading, or he would recollect that I put exactly the same point of view in Committee. This Bill has my blessing and 802 I hope that it will go through, but not in its present form. I think that it could be made a better Bill.
§ Mr. Butler
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for his explanation, but I was in the Chamber when he made his speech on Third Reading. What he said in Committee was that he was in favour of the Bill, but he and his hon. Friends did as much as possible to obstruct the Bill. It was indicated to them that if they did not want to attend the meetings of the Committee we could go on quite efficiently in assisting the hon. Member for Totnes eventually to get the Bill on to the Statute Book.
I say quite definitely that the hon. Member for Totnes, who had the assistance of some of his hon. Friends, including the Parliamentary Secretary and the Attorney-General, has done something which is opposed to the principles of the Tory Party. If there is a shortage of anything at all, quite obviously, in the view of hon. Members opposite, the person who has it for sale is entitled to get whatever he can for it.
Although we are now considering whether the power that local authorities have in this matter shall be less, and whether there shall be restriction on the part of local authorities to decide whether an offer that is made is exorbitant, nevertheless we know that the local authorities have been hampered in their activity to protect people who cannot protect themselves. In so far as the Bill exists to protect people who are in the weakest position, those of us on this side of the House certainly welcome it.
We hope that the Bill will be effective and we assure the hon. Member for Totnes that, whatever the effect of the Conservative Party's pressure on him, we welcome his conversion to the point of view that there has to be some restriction imposed on people who exploit the interests and needs of ordinary people. We welcome his activities and the Bill itself.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill according read the Third time and passed.