HC Deb 05 February 1959 vol 599 cc700-20
Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, in page 4, line 37, to leave out "and (3)" and to insert "(3) and (4)".

We now come to a series of Amendments all directed to what under Clause 5, a local authority can treat as a ground for refusing a standard grant. They all seem to me to raise matters of considerable importance. I can deal with the first one very shortly in view of what has been said in earlier debates.

The right hon. Gentleman explained to us at one stage that there were many houses into which it was physically impossible to introduce a bathroom. There is no need for me to develop this point. Nobody will force the local authorities to do that which is impossible. Suppose a man asks for a grant and produces a specification of the works required. He believes that a bath can be put in. What power has the local authority to refuse his application, provided he can bring a specification and he says that at the end of the time the amenities will be provided? I see no power for a local authority to do what it ought to do—decide for itself that it is not practicable to put in the standard amenities.

There may be cases where the introduction of amenities, although desirable on the face of things, would not improve the dwelling. One of these cases would be the rather small house occupied by a rather large family. It would be physically possible to introduce a bathroom but only at the cost of ruining the sleeping accommodation. Somebody has to decide what is reasonably practicable and likely to improve the dwelling. Unless this decision is to be left entirely within the discretion of the applicant, the only person who can do it is the local authority.

The Amendment I have moved is related to another Amendment standing in my name, in page 4, line 38, at the end to insert: (2) The local authority must be satisfied that it is reasonably practicable to carry out the works specified in the application and thereby to improve the dwelling.

Mr. Bevins

The Amendment proposed to the Clause is to insert that the local authority has to be satisfied that it is reasonably practicable to carry out the works specified in the application and thereby to improve the dwelling. Clause 4 (1) says that the application has to be approved by the local authority before the works are begun and that the works are to be executed to the satisfaction of the authority. It would be impossible to carry out the works to the satisfaction of the local authority if it were not reasonably practicable to do them at all.

There is the further consideration implicit in all this that if the Government were to accept the Amendment it would open ground for argument between the applicant and the local authority. There could be different views as to what is reasonably practicable in any set of circumstances. That might lead a local authority which did not want to give grants to avoid doing so in certain cases. If there were a dispute, the local authority would have the last word.

The view of my right hon. Friend is that the words in the first subsection are sufficient to ensure that the work is carried out to the satisfaction of the local authority.

Mr. Mitchison

If ordinary words in this Bill have their ordinary meanings, the provision about work being executed to the satisfaction of the authority clearly refer to the way in which the work is done by the builder and that is wholly and obviously inappropriate to the purpose we have in mind. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. If he wants to define a kitchen sink, he may find it a little difficult to understand plain English—but that is as may be.

The second point is very short. We have just noticed that the hon. Gentleman has said, on behalf of the Government, that if there is to be a dispute between the applicant and the local authority as to what is reasonably practicable, the applicant, and the applicant alone, must decide it. I have never heard such nonsense, if I may use the word, from a Ministry which is supposed to be the Ministry of Local Government as well as the Ministry of Housing. Apparently, the Government desire to force local authorities to do what is not reasonably practicable, and to do things that will not really improve the house at all. I would advise my hon. Friends to divide on this Amendment.

Question put, That "and (3)" stand part of the Clause:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 158. Noes 107.

Division No. 36.] AYES [10.12 p.m.
Agnew, Sir Peter Browne, J. Nixon (Craigton) Fisher, Nigel
Aitken, W. T. Bryan, P. Gammans, Lady
Alport, C. J. M. Burden, F. F. A. Garner-Evans, E. H.
Amory, Rt. Hn. Heathcoat (Tiverton) Carr, Robert Glover, D.
Atbuthnot, John Channon, P. Glyn, Col. Richard H.
Armstrong, C. W. Chlchester-Clark, R. Goodhart, Philip
Ashton, H. Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.) Graham, Sir Fergus
Baldwin, Sir Archer Cole, Norman Green, A.
Barber, Anthony Conant, Maj. Sir Roger Gresham Cooke, R.
Barter, John Cooper, A. E. Grimond, J.
Baxter, Sir Beverley Cooper-Key, E. M. Grimston, Hon. John (St. Albans)
Bell, Philip (Bolton, C.) Craddock, Beresford (Spelthorne) Harris, Reader (Heston)
Bevins, J. R (Toxteth) Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E. Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye)
Bidgood, J. C. Dance, J. C. G. Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel
Biggs-Davison, J. A. Davidson, Viscountess Henderson, John (Cathcart)
Bingham, R. M. Deedes, W. F. Hill, Rt. Hon. Charles (Luton)
Black, Sir Cyril Digby, Simon Wingfield Hill, Mrs. E. (Wythenshawe)
Body, R. F. Dodds-Parker, A. D. Hill, John (S. Norfolk)
Bossom, Sir Alfred Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. McA. Hirst, Geoffrey
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. J. A. du Cann, E. D. L. Hobson, John (Warwick & Leam'gt'n)
Boyle, Sir Edward Elliott, R. W. (Ne' castle upon Tyne, N.) Holland-Martin, C. J.
Braine, B. R. Errington, Sir Eric Hope, Lord John
Braithwaite, Sir Albert (Harrow, W.) Farey-Jones, F. W. Hornby, R. P.
Bromley-Davenport, Lt.-Col. W. H. Fell, A. Howard, Gerald (Cambridgeshire)
Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry Finlay, Graeme Hughes-Young, M. H. C.
Hutchison, Michael Clark(E'b'gh, S.) Markham, Major Sir Frank Speir, R. M.
Hutchison, Sir Ian Clark (E 'b' gh, W.) Marlowe, A. A. H. Steward, Harold (Stockport, S.)
Hutchison, Sir James (Scotstoun) Marshall, Douglas Storey, S.
Iremonger, T. L. Mathew, R. Summers, Sir Spencer
Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Mawby, R. L. Sumner, W. D. M- (Orpington)
Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich) Maydon, Lt.-Comdr, S. L. C. Temple, John M.
Jennings, J. C. (Burton) Medlicott, Sir Frank Thomas, P. J. M. (Conway)
Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle) Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles Thompson, R. (Croydon, S.)
Johnson, Eric (Blackley) Nabarro, G. D. N. Tilney, John (Wavertree)
Joseph, Sir Keith Nairn, D. L. S. Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.
Kerr, Sir Hamilton Noble, Michael (Argyll) Vickers, Miss Joan
Kershaw, J. A, Nugent, G. R. H. Vosper, Rt. Hon. D. F.
Kirk, P. M. Page, R. G. Wade, D. W.
Lambton, Viscount Panned, N. A. (Kirkdale) Wakefield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.)
Leavey, J. A. Partridge, E. Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. M'lebone)
Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H. Peel, W. J. Wall, Patrick
Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield) Pickthorn, Sir Kenneth Ward, Rt. Hon. G. R. (Worcester)
Lindsay, Hon. James (Devon, N.) Pitt, Miss E. M. Ward, Dame Irene (Tynemouth)
Linstead, Sir H. N. Pott, H. P. Webster, David
Lloyd, Maj. Sir Guy (Renfrew, E.) Powell, J. Enoch Whitelaw, W. S. I.
Longden, Gilbert Price, David (Eastleigh) Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)
Loveys, Walter H. Rawlinson, Peter Williams, R. Dudley (Exeter)
Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Redmayne, M. Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Macdonald, Sir Peter Roberts, Sir Peter (Heeley) Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Maclean, Sir Fitzroy (Landcaster) Robinson, Sir Roland (Blackpool, S.) Woollam, John Victor
Macmillan, Rt. Hn. Harold (Bromley) Roper, Sir Harold
Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax) Sharpies, R. C. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries) Shepherd, William Mr. Brooman-Wbite and
Maddan, Martin Spearman, Sir Alexander Mr. Gibson-Watt.
Abse, Leo Grey, C. F. Paget, R. T.
Ainsley, J. W. Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly) Parker, J.
Allen, Arthur (Bosworth) Hannan, W. Pentland, N.
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Hayman, F. H. Price, J. T. (Westhoughton,)
Awbery, S. S. Henderson, Rt. Hon. A. (Rwly Regis) Probert, A. R.
Benn, Hn. Wedgwood (Bristol, S. E.) Herbison, Miss M. Pursey, Cmdr, H.
Benson, Sir George Hoy, J. H. Reynolds, G. W.
Blackburn, F. Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey) Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)
Blyton, W. R. Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Rogers, George (Kensington, N.)
Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A. G. Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Ross, William
Bowden, H. W. (Leicester, S.W.) Hunter, A. E. Short, E. W.
Brockway, A. F. Hynd, H. (Accrington) Silverman, Julius (Aston)
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Hynd, J. B. (Attercliffe) Silverman, Sydney (Nelson)
Brown, Thomas (Ince) Janner, B. Skeffington, A. M.
Champion, A. J. Jay, Rt. Hon. D. P. T. Slater, J. (Sedgefield)
Chetwynd, G. R. Jeger, Mrs. Lena (Holbn & St. Pncs, S.) Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)
Cliffe, Michael Johnson, James (Rugby) Sorensen, R. W.
Collick, P. H. (Birkenhead) Jones, Jack (Rotherham) Sparks, J. A.
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Spriggs, Leslie
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Jones, T. W. (Merioneth) Stonehouse, John
Grossman, R. H. S. Lindgren, G. S. Stones, W. (Consett)
Davies, Harold (Leek) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Swingler, S. T.
Davies, Stephen (Merthyr) McAlister, Mrs. Mary Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Dear, G. McCann, J. Taylor, John (West Lothian)
de Freitas, Geoffrey MacColl, J. E. Thomson, George (Dundee, E.)
Delargy, H. J. McKay, John (Wallsend) Thornton, E.
Dugdale, Rt. Hn. John (W. Brmwch) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Ungoed-Thomas, Sir Lynn
Ede, Rt. Hon. J. C. Mann, Mrs. Jean White, Mrs. Eirene (E. Flint)
Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Mikardo, Ian Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)
Evans, Albert (Islington, S.W.) Mitchison, G. R. Winterbottom, Richard
Fitch, A. E. (Wigan) Moody, A. S. Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Fletcher, Eric Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon) Woof, R. E.
Foot, D. M. Noel-Baker, Rt. Hon. P. (Derby, S.) Zilliacus, K.
Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Oliver, G. H.
George, Lady Megan Lloyd (Car'then) Oswald, T. TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gibson, C. W. Owen, W. J. Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Simmons.
Grenfell, Rt. Hon. D. R. Padley, W. E.
Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, in page 4, line 38, at the end to insert: (2) The local authority must be satisfied that the occupier of the dwelling, if he is not the applicant, has given his consent in writing to the application. The applicant must be either the owner of the freehold of the house or, at any rate, a long lease holder. It does not follow that he is the occupant of the house. He may be a tenant, or there may be a letting under an arrangement that does not amount to a full lease. The Amendment simply provides that the man in the house must give his consent to the application for improvements, and the intention of it is that a tenant shall not have a bath forced on him if he does not want it.

I do not think there will be many cases where a tenant will object, but there may be a considerable disturbance of his arrangements for the time being at a time when he does not want them disturbed, or, on the other hand, a change in the other accommodation in the house to which he does not agree, may be necessary.

I am very interested in the fate of the Amendment. We have heard a lot about Tory freedom. We now want to see how much Tory freedom the tenant will have. If the landlord, the local authority and the Government between them can foist on him a bath, wash-basin, or kitchen sink which he does not want, there may be an improvement in the house, but what will have happened to Tory freedom? Probably it will have gone down the water closet.

I am a little tired of the refusal that we have had time after time to make the tenant's consent necessary in these cases. I repeat that I cannot believe that there will often be any trouble about it. In 999 cases out of 1,000 the tenant will be only too glad to have such conveniences put in his house, but it is right that in the thousandth case where his opinion differs from that of the landlord and he does not want the improvements he should be allowed to refuse.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I support the Amendment, although I am not entirely in agreement with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) in one respect. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. Members opposite need not rejoice too soon. My hon. and learned Friend said that there would be only one tenant in a thousand who would not want the improvements. I do not agree with him. I believe that his case is stronger than that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) referred to the unhappy experience about the Brady incidents. All sorts of subterfuges are practised by landlords of that type to make it difficult for the tenant, or to get the tenant out, and I am concerned that no loophole should be left in any fresh legislation which will add to the possibilities that exist already.

The Amendment proposes that the local authority shall do something when an improvement is applied for, irrespective of whether the local authority considers that that improvement will be helpful to the tenant. It is a mandatory injunction upon the local authority. Obviously, on the face of it, the making of an improvement of this nature would be useful, but, on the other hand, as my hon. and learned Friend said, it may very well be that a tenant may object to his home being upset for a considerable period, or the landlord may utilise the possibility of the improvement to make it so uncomfortable for the tenant as possibly even to drive him out of the dwelling in which he is living.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

As has happened.

Mr. Janner

As has happened. It happened with regard to the improvements. The place was ripped up when the tenants were being provided with fresh facilities under previous Acts. This is well known, possibly, to hon. Members on both sides.

In the circumstances, we must be careful about closing up these loopholes. There is no real reason why a tenant should not be consulted. It is important that he should be consulted. Perhaps other wording might be used—for example, that he shall not unreasonably withhold his consent or something of that nature. I certainly think, however, that the principle that the tenant should be consulted and brought in in the first instance so that it is not an ex parte matter for the landlord, is something which the Minister should take into account.

It is not a severe penalty to impose upon anybody, because if my hon. and learned Friend is right, it will apply in only one case out of 1,000. If I am right, obviously it is necessary to have the tenant protected. It does not matter which way one looks at it. This is a reasonable request. I hope that, in view of the tragic circumstances which have arisen in consequence of the removal of the restrictions, in view of the protection to tenants and in view of the fact that for many years, although the law imposed upon the landlord an obligation to do repairs which would have meant that some of these improvements might not have been necessary, the law was not complied with, the Minister will realise that there is no reason to believe that landlords of that type will not seek some kind of loophole to allow them further to pester the tenant and possibly even make it so uncomfortable for the tenant to remain that he will want to leave, or will leave, if this provision far which we ask is not inserted. This is not a party matter. It is a matter in which we all should realise that, if only as a precaution, this step should be taken and the concession should be made.

Mr. Bevins

I want to help the Committee by saying at once that my right hon. Friend would like to consider the import of the Amendment and we shall, of course, have regard to what has been said from the other side of 'the Committee. In theory, the Amendment seems to be unnecessary, because standard grant is not paid until the work of improvement has been done. Ordinarily—I stress "ordinarily"—the work cannot be done if the tenant—

Mr. Janner

I appreciate the manner in which the hon. Gentleman is dealing with the matter, but I want him to realise that an additional rental can be imposed upon the tenant when this is done in accordance with Clause 12.

Mr. Bevins

I quite agree. All I was saying was that in theory the Amendment is not necessary, because the work cannot be done without the tenant's consent in the sense that there must be access to the house, with the tenant's consent, before the work can be started. Having said that, however, I agree that experience with the improvement grant scheme has shown that tenants are not always clearly aware of their rights and sometimes allow work to be done without making specific protest.

Local authorities have been asked by circular from my Department to ensure that, before an improvement grant for a tenanted house is given, the tenant's agreement to the work has first been received.

10.30 p.m.

The only comment I should like to make to the hon. and learned Gentleman on the form of his Amendment is that it seems to us to be perhaps a little too rigid, because the local authority may conceivably give the grant and then find that there is a liability to surcharge because the tenant has not given his consent in writing. The local authority might, in very exceptional circumstances, be under the impression through an oversight that that consent had been given. That is a technical difficulty, but, as I say, my right hon. Friend would like to have an opportunity of considering the principle of the Amendment and, perhaps, producing a suitable form of words at the next stage of the Bill.

Mr. Mitchison

I would make two comments, both of them short. The first is this. The reason we put "consent in writing" in the draft was that, of course, if we do get that it removes any dispute as to what happened. It appeared to us that the form of consent could very easily be put on the application form and so simplify the whole matter which the hon. Gentleman will be considering.

The second is a general observation I make to the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend in the hope of persuading them that if anything of this sort is refused, then, subject, of course, to regulations—but they have no force in themselves—or advice, the only person who will have any freedom whatever to act in the matter will the applicant who is the owner—the landlord in the case we are considering. I put it to the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend that would confirm all our worst suspicions.

In view of the undertaking which has been given to us, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, in page 4, line 40, at the end to insert: not be overcrowded (within the meaning of section seventy-seven of the Housing Act, 1957, which defines overcrowding) and will". I shall move the Amendment shortly and I hope successfully. This is an Amendment to ensure that the immediate result of carrying out the works is not overcrowding. It is so worded—I hope, correctly—as not to import any more than that; not to carry any obligation in the matter into the future.

There are, of course, general provisions and general duties against overcrowding, but the local authority may find itself in the position that it is practicable to carry out the works, that an application has been made for them, that the conditions already in the Clause are fulfilled, and yet that the result is bound to be and would be actual overcrowding in the statutory sense. It will have no power to deal with the overcrowding because the overcrowding has not yet happened. I cannot believe that it is the intention of the Government that that contingency and that result should be allowed, and I hope, therefore, that the Amendment will be accepted.

Mr. H. Brooke

There is nothing in the Bill which impairs in any way existing powers to deal with overcrowding. Of course, as I am sure the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) realises, overcrowding is no part of the physical condition of the house which we are otherwise dealing with here. The local authority has got to be satisfied, for example, that the house will have a life of fifteen years. That is concerned with its physical condition. The improvements are concerned with its physical condition. Overcrowding can be remedied at any time by the excess number of people in the house, whether one or more, moving out of it and—

Mr. A. Evans

Where are they to go?

Mr. Brooke

Yes, by moving out. Under existing powers of the local authority—

Mr. Reynolds

Where are they to go? The local authorities are completely unable to use those powers, because there is nowhere to put people. A large number of families are living in grossly overcrowded conditions at the moment, and the local authorities would like to use their powers to move them, but have nowhere to put them. The Amendment is to stop overcrowding from occurring.

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Member will, of course, grant that many local authorities are able to use these powers now that two million houses have been built in the last seven years. It must not be thought that there is any diminution here in the powers of the local authorities to deal with overcrowding. But it would be quite wrong to make it a condition of a standard grant that the house shall not be overcrowded when the work is done. Nobody can tell that. The hon. and learned Member for Kettering himself said that this was a contingent element and that we must leave it to local authorities, under their existing powers, to deal with overcrowding. Nothing in the Bill will make for worse overcrowding. All these standard improvements are bound to make conditions better, but we cannot establish by means of the Amendment a link between the Bill and existing powers of local authorities to remedy overcrowding.

Mr. MacColl

I should like to explore with the right hon. Gentleman the point which he is making. If the landlord does one of these particular works, which means that a room which has been used for habitation ceases to be available for that purpose and the local authority, without the Amendment, cannot stop it and it causes overcrowding, who has committed the offence? The tenant, clearly, has not committed the offence, because he has not caused or permitted the house to be overcrowded. He has just sat there and watched the change being made. Has the landlord caused or permitted the house to be overcrowded if he has simply acted at the behest of the Minister and has improved the property by adding an amenity to it?

This is not a frill. It goes to the root of the whole question as to whether or not, in doing the operation, one causes the overcrowding. Suppose that there is overcrowding. Under the terms of Section 78 of the Housing Act, the landlord shall be deemed to have caused it if, after notice in writing that a house is overcrowded, he has not taken steps to get rid of the tenant. In other words, he must get rid of the tenant, otherwise he is liable to prosecution.

To say that the local authorities can easily be left to deal with overcrowding may be true in Hampstead, but I do not know how it can be true in any other part of the country. It chills me to the marrow to think that the Minister lives in this cloud-cuckoo-land. Local authorities have ceased to build for general needs. They cannot obtain subsidies for that purpose and the position now is that a local authority can find a house for somebody who is overcrowded only if it happens to have a vacancy. It cannot build a new house, because it cannot obtain a subsidy.

It is shocking to think that at this time of night we are faced with a Minister who honestly believes—and the right hon. Gentleman's honesty is beyond question —that it is quite easy and that all the local authority has to do is to find a house for somebody whose place is overcrowded because a bedroom has been turned into a bathroom. That is the environment in which the right hon. Gentleman lives. It is frightening that somebody like that is responsible for the lives of millions of people who have to live under modern conditions in our cities. It is terrifying. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to look at this matter again before the Report stage and to get the facts right.

Mr. Mitchison

The right hon. Gentleman is putting forward the most monstrous suggestions. Overcrowding is a public ill. There is provision in the Housing Acts to abate it and to oblige local authorities to take all possible action towards that end, and that is because it is a public ill. What the right hon. Gentleman is solemnly proposing is that public money should be paid to a landlord to assist him to do something which he, the local authority and everybody knows will result in overcrowding. What is the logic or sense in the Government?

I look at this piece of Tory legislation having regard to one thing and one thing only—who will benefit in the long run? The answer in this respect is as clear as daylight. The landlord is equipped with the means of promoting overcrowding if he so wishes. Because the tenant's consent is not required, the landlord is enabled to use the provisions of the Bill to procure overcrowding and get the tenant evicted by the local authority.

It is absolutely monstrous that if the right hon. Gentleman and his supporters have any regard whatever to the abatement of overcrowding they should suppose that the Amendment is unnecessary. If there is no overcrowding at the moment and the application comes in, there is nothing about which the local authority can take action. It is compelled to accept an application to promote the very thing which it is its social and stautory duty to abate as soon as it happens. Of all monstrous antisocial absurdities, the refusal of the Amendment is the very worst that I have yet met.

Mr. A. Evans

I cannot persuade myself that the Minister is really seized of what will happen. He has been told by one of my hon. Friends that cases are likely to occur where improvements are made and one living room is taken to house a bath. This may result in a family being deprived of one of its two rooms.

Mr. Brooke

The Parliamentary Secretary said that the Government wished to consider the matter with a view to introducing into the Bill at the next stage an Amendment which would meet the point raised in the last Amendment, namely that the consent of the tenant should have to be obtained before the work was done. The hon. Gentleman cannot now say that this will damage the position of the tenant.

Mr. Evans

That seems to be irrelevant to the point that we are on. My experience is that the tenant, who may be a woman with several children, when asked whether she would like a water closet, a hot water supply and a bath to be provided, will give her signature not realising that as a result, under the Bill as it is now drawn, the local authority must give its consent to one of the family's two rooms being taken to be turned into a bathroom. Surely the right hon. Gentleman cannot contemplate that kind of thing happening. What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that local authorities must hand out public money so that overcrowding in same of the worst areas of London shall be made even worse—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] If hon. Members wish to object, they should rise to their feet.

10.45 p.m.

This is a very important matter which involves the happiness and comfort of many families in my constituency. I can visualise a woman signing her consent to such improvements, the builders arriving to undertake the work, the local authority being obliged to agree to the work going ahead, and one of the living rooms being taken over to accommodate the new amenities. As a result of his coercion of local authorities, the Minister will be obliging local authorities to make overcrowding even worse.

I cannot believe that he fully appreciates what will happen, but I can assure him from my experience that the sort of thing I have described will happen unless he alters this provision. He has had the hardihood to make the retort that after the damage is done the local authority must enforce the Housing Acts and remove these people from their overcrowded conditions. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise the extent of overcrowding within two miles of his own home? Does he realise what will happen if he allows this sort of thing to occur? It is past belief that he should say that London's overcrowding can be dealt with by having the people go somewhere else. He must know that there is nowhere else for them to go. Unless he changes the Bill, he will be responsible for people being put on the street and for families being divided.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Skeffington

I beg to move, in page 4, line 41, after first "be", to insert: in good and tenantable repair and".

The Chairman

I think that it will be convenient if with this we also take the Amendment in page 4, line 42, after the second "that", to insert "repair and".

Mr. Skeffington

The purpose of the Amendment is to require a higher standard in the condition of a house before it can qualify for the grant and any other provisions of this part of the Bill. As the Clause stands, the lowest possible legal definition of a house is the one adopted. Even this definition is put in the most negative way. It is put in the form that the house has "not to be unfit for human habitation." It does not even say that it must "be fit for human habitation." It is difficult to see how one could adopt a much lower standard for a home than that.

This is a very important matter affecting millions of people and their homes. We are often told that the home is the basis of our society, yet it is curious that when the Government legislate on the subject, they take the lowest, the minimal standard of what a home can be. It seems to us, and I hope that it will to some hon. Members opposite, that the greatest care should be taken to ensure that the standard of old houses is such that money spent on them will not be wasted and that for a few years, at any rate, they will have the ordinary amenities and reasonable standards.

Many of the houses which can qualify for grant under the terms of the Bill will be very old. There are 2½ million houses over sixty-five years old, and nearly 1 million which are 100 years old. Many were built from shoddy materials. I do not want to trespass on the time of the Committee, but it is worth remembering that 2½ million of our existing houses were being lived in sixty-five years ago, some of these were accurately and aptly described by the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, in 1884. This was the Commission presided over by Sir Charles Dilke, and which had a most distinguished membership, including Cardinal Manning and the then Prince of Wales. After having made personal investigations in many large cities—which is something we are not always sure Ministers are doing—the Commission said this about houses being built in 1884, many of which are still being lived in: It is perhaps needless to give a detailed description of the way in which many modern houses are run up for the working classes. What is called ferry building' is too well known to need evidence to prove its characteristics. There can be no doubt but that the houses are often built of the commonest materials, and with the worst workmanship, and are altogether unfit for the people to live in, especially if they are a little rough in their ways. The old houses are rotten from age and neglect. The new houses often commence where the old ones leave off, and are rotten from the first. It is quite certain that the working classes are largely housed in dwellings which would be unsuitable even if they were not overcrowded. That language is vigorous and vivid, and comes from a very distinguished and perceptive Commission. I mention it only to remind the Committee that a large number of houses so described are still being lived in. When one hears about the difficulties of landlords not being able to afford repairs, it is interesting to remember how many times the cost of construction of those houses must have been paid for in rent. Now, in 1959, we are giving public money to make a further grant to the owners of property of this kind.

It seems to us that the least the Committee is entitled to do is to ensure that, if public money is used for the amenities, we have not the lowest possible minimal standard conditions, which will just prevent a house from being classified as a slum. The phrase in the Amendment, "good and tenantable repair" is frequently inserted in covenants. It is well known in the courts. Judges and local authorities have no difficulty in understanding what is meant by it, and it carries the matter a little further than the very poor standard which the Government have included in the Bill. It does not carry it much further, but it does go a little way. In view of the age and condition of many of these houses, I hope that the Government will feel able to accept a slight improvement in the low definition of these houses that they have included in the Bill.

Mr. Janner

I make no apology for rising at this late hour to speak for a few moments on the Amendment, which is a vital one. I see a colleague in my profession on the opposite benches smiling. I will ask him whether he can still smile when he remembers what he has said on numerous occasions about the conditions of the houses which were sold by such people at the person to whom I referred a little earlier, Mr. Brady, and whether he still thinks there should not be some protection of public funds when houses of that sort are being dealt with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) is perfectly right. All that is being asked in the Bill is that the House shall be considered unfit for human habitation. I do not know what that means. It certainly means that Mr. Brady's houses are not at present considered unfit for human habitation; and a large number of them are in such a condition that no hon. Member of this Committee would want to live in them. Nor, indeed, is the tenant responsible for that condition, because for many years the moneys demanded from tenants for repairs have not been spent for that purpose.

I ask the Minister to consider carefully what he is doing. Does he intend to encourage the type of landlord who has neglected to do necessary repairs and has merely kept the house in a state in which it is just possible to say that they are fit for human habitation? Is he proposing to give an advantage to that landlord, who will receive a grant for purposes for which it will not be possible to refuse a grant? I know that the Minister will say that the house has to be up to certain standards, and he will refer me to other parts of the Bill—I am helping him Out about this—but, even so, the question of what is the standard will depend on the outlook of a particular local authority.

This is not "beating the air". This is the position which obtains in the country. There are hundreds of thousands of houses in the condition which I have described, and which cannot be and are not considered to be unfit for human habitation. If they were, they would be condemned. Now we are proposing to use public money to make improvements to those houses which will enhance the value of a property to an extent quite out of proportion to the amount being spent on it. When these improvements are made, the property will be an invaluable asset to those bad landlords who have purchased rotten property. It will give them an opportunity to get a higher market value for the property because of the improvements which have been subsidised from public funds.

That is not an exaggerated statement, and in those circumstances I ask the Minister, if he has not already done so, to consider it from that point of view. I am sure that he cannot have given the matter that consideration, if he is proposing to oppose this Amendment. I ask him to assure the Committee that he will make certain that that type of advantage cannot be taken by people who will utilise it unscrupulously for their own purposes. They have made use of other Acts for this purpose and they will have no scruples about using this legislation in order to make money. This is an extremely important matter and I hope that the Minister will consider it in that light.

Mr. Bevins

My right hon. Friend and the Government are anxious that the new system of improvement grants provided for in the Bill shall be extensively used. We are, therefore, making arrangements for the payment of standard grants to be as simple and speedy as is administratively possible. I do not think there is any doubt that to put into the Bill a requirement that a house must be in good and tenantable repair would certainly introduce some scope for argument.

11.0 p.m.

Let us look at this matter practically. There are, as I see it, three categories of house which might be involved in an application for these grants. First, there are the controlled houses under the Rent Acts. Under those Acts there are provisions which penalise the landlord if he fails to keep the house in repair. If, on the other hand, the house is decontrolled, the question of the repair and maintenance of the house is a matter which rests between the landlord and the tenant. In the case of houses which are owner-occupied, that is a matter which, generally speaking, can safely be left to the owner of the property. If any owner has sufficient interest in his house to wish to improve it, that is to say, to put in these standard amenities, with financial help of course, it is most likely that he will already be keeping the house in reasonable repair as well.

It would be most unwise to complicate a system of standard grants to provide for the isolated owner who is prepared to improve, but who, at the same time, is not prepared to get on with the job of repairing and maintaining his property. The view of my right hon. Friend, who has given this matter a great deal of thought, is that this would introduce a refinement which would lead to uncertainty and argument and would frustrate one of the major objectives of this Bill.

Mr. Mitchison

That really will not do. The Minister has given the matter a great deal of thought, we are told. He seems to have given a great many matters a great deal of thought in con- nection with this Bill. Really, what the Parliamentary Secretary has just said is simply unaccountable. The Bill already provides that the house has to be, and is likely to remain, in such condition as not to be unfit for human habitation.

In a later Clause we are referred to what that means. It means what it is said to mean in Section 4 of the Housing Act, 1957. Section 4 of that Act was prepared by the "office of circumlocution," before the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and it says: In determining for any of the purposes of this Act whether a house is unfit for human habitation, regard shall be had to its condition in respect of the following matters … It then refers to the matter of repair. The Section goes on to say: … the house shall be deemed to be unfit for human habitation if … it is so far defective in one or more of the said matters that it is not reasonably suitable for occupation in that condition. That cat really has caught its own tail.

Let me put it into plain English. In deciding whether a house is unfit for human habitation, one must look at the state of repair and must consider it unfit for human habitation if it is so far unfit for repair that it is unfit for human habitation. There never was a more nonsensical bit of drafting than Section 4 of the Housing Act. What the local authority has got to do under the Bill is to look at the question of repair, and not only that, but seven other matters, too, and apply that mysterious criterion to all of them. Yet the hon. Gentleman thinks it is beyond their capacity to consider whether or not the house is in good or tenantable repair.

I have never heard such nonsense in my life. It is because it was only the "office of circumlocution" which produced this provision—one, by the way, which local authorities are accustomed to administering in the course of their duties —that we thought it necessary to put in the very minimum provision in excess of that. "Good and tenantable repair" is a very mild provision indeed.

We are now told that it is to be a necessary condition that the landlord must have the house not unfit for human habitation, but that it is quite impossible to ask him to have it in good and tenantable repair. How very tender are the Government to the landlords. They are the only people who have got the power to do anything under this Bill, and when we ask them to keep their houses in good and tenantable repair as a condition of getting public money to improve those houses we are told that that is altogether too much to put on them, and that what they must do is to see that the houses are fit for human habitation in the sense that as regards repair they shall be deemed to be fit for human habitation if they are fit for human habitation.

Mr. Skeffington

May I make a further appeal to the Minister? It is not correct to say that the use of this phrase would give rise to arguable propositions. This is a well-known phrase, incorporated in hundreds of thousands of cases—well understood, and well acted upon by local authorities. If the hon. Gentleman will not concede this, will he say whether a standard above the very minimal now in the Clause will be adopted? Otherwise, it appears that the Government will be satisfied even if the house is about to fall down.

Mr. Mitchison

May I correct my hon. Friend about the house being about to fall down. That is the one thing that the landlord has to see to. Under the Housing Act, he must have regard to stability. The Section says that the house will be unfit to live in if, in regard to stability, it is unfit to live in because it is unfit to live in.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Janner

I am upset about this matter, and so are many of my hon. Friends. I hope that in spite of the treatment we have received in respect of some of our Amendments, the Minister will realise that he will create an extremely serious position unless, between now and the Report stage of the Bill, he takes heed of some of our warnings.

I remember that some time ago it was suggested that a certain house was not fit for a dog to live in. The answer was that that was quite wrong—it was fit for a dog to live in. That is the kind of think the Minister will perpetuate if he does not very carefully re-examine this Clause.

It is a little late in the evening and, perhaps, the right hon. Gentleman is not able to think clearly, but between now and the Report stage he should realise that much of what has been said this evening should have its effect on his mind, and alter his view of the purport of this Clause.

Mr. H. Brooke

We have already shown the care with which we examine the Opposition's Amendments by agreeing to consider sympathetically the principle behind one of them. We have not turned a blind eye to all of them. The one about which the hon. Gentleman is most concerned is one that, in the view of the Government, would make this system of standard grants unnecessarily complicated. It does not seem to us to be necessary to make statutory provision to stop a man doing what he would be most unlikely to do.

What we want is a smooth-working, simple arrangement to speed up the improvement of the houses, and I think that the Committee would be well advised to accept the Clauses in its present state, subject to the undertaking I have given that we will consider further whether we can meet the point about the tenant agreeing to the work being done.

Mr. Mitchison

My only conclusion on this Clause can be stated in one sentence. The only thing with which the Government is concerned here is the convenience and wishes of their sacred cow—the English landlord.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 6 and 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.