HC Deb 18 February 1959 vol 600 cc491-500

(1) During a period of fifteen years after the making of a standard grant under this Part of this Act to a person in respect of a dwelling, section six of the Housing Act, 1957, (which prescribes conditions to be implied on the letting of small houses), shall apply to any contract for letting that dwelling or any part thereof, being a letting by that person, his successor in title or a person deriving title from the first-named person or his successor, as that section applies to the contracts mentioned in its subsection (1).

(2) Where under a contract of employment of a workman employed in agriculture the provision of a dwelling for his occupation forms part of his remuneration, and the provisions of the last foregoing subsection are inapplicable by reason only of the dwelling not being let to him, section seven of the Housing Act, 1957, (which applies section six of the said Act to houses occupied by agricultural workers otherwise than as tenants) shall have effect in relation to that dwelling and to the provisions of the last foregoing subsection as it has effect in relation to such a house as is mentioned in that section and to the provisions of the said section six of that Act.— [Mr. Mitchison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman

As the first two proposed Clauses deal with the same point, I suggest that this and the next Clause, which relates to Scotland should be discussed together, and we can have two Divisions if necessary.

Mr. Mitchison

I respectfully agree, Sir Charles, that these two proposed Clauses raise the same point. It is an important one and we regret that it should not have been possible to bring this within the framework of the Bill to allow for an earlier discussion, and possibly a more combative decision.

The object of the proposed Clause is to give to any house which receives a standard grant the same conditions as regards repair as apply already to what are commonly called small houses. Those conditions impose on the landlord, notwithstanding any agreement, an obligation to do certain elementary repairs to the house and to keep it up to what, on the strength of a series of decisions, is not really a very high standard. It is now the condition of fitness in Section 4 of the Housing Act, 1957.

I trust that the Committee will bear in mind that the applicant for these grants, standard or improvement, has to be a person who has either a freehold of the house or, at any rate, a leasehold interest of fifteen years or more. Therefore, no casual tenant, be is a weekly tenant or one on short lease, can get the benefit of these grants. It is the landlord who gets the benefit of them. The landlord is under an obligation, in terms of the Bill, to have the house up to a standard of fitness. That is the standard of fitness in this case. As between him and the tenant, so far as I have been able to discover, there is no obligation that the landlord should pay for the maintenance of that house in that condition. Unless some provision of this sort is put into the Bill, the maintenance of the house may very well be cast entirely upon the tenant. I mean no elaborate maintenance, but maintenance to an elementary standard of fitness.

The Committee will be well aware of what is happening at present in many parts of London and elsewhere, particularly in the large towns. Landlords, being now able to evict the tenants who are no longer rent controlled, are able to impose stringent conditions and liabilities as to repair on the tenants. It is becoming more and more true that the somewhat scant protection afforded in England by Section 6 of the Housing Act, 1957, and by corresponding legal provisions in Scotland, is the tenant's last and only resort against having to pay for all repairs himself. That applies only to small houses and to rather complicated provisions in relation to the date of the contract of letting.

Leaving out the time of the contract of letting for the moment, roughly speaking the houses concerned are those let at a rent of not more than £40 in London, £26 in the larger boroughs and urban districts and £16 in other parts of the country. Those are small houses, and more so nowadays than at the time when this provision was first imposed, though with different figures, or even at the time when the Housing Act, 1957, was passed, which was roughly the same time as the Rent Act, and before the Rent Act had its full effect in raising rent and imposing harsher conditions on tenants throughout all the larger towns. Consequently, there will be very many houses, probably most of the houses in respect of which application will be made for standard grants, which will not be within these provisions.

Moreover, they suffer from one other defect, which is common to all provisions of this kind. They draw a hard and sharp line at one particular rent, with the result that a person paying a rent of £39 10s. will be protected by them, but a person paying a rent of £40 10s.—I am giving the London figures—will not. Surely it is right that any landlord or other owner who gets the benefit of these improvement grants or standard grants should, after that, have to take on the obligation of keeping the improved house in a reasonable condition.

Therefore, it is with some confidence that we put forward the English Clause. I have also mentioned the Scottish Clause about which I am sure my Scottish hon. Friends will wish to say something. We trust that it is only through one of those inadvertencies to which the most watchful Governments are occasionally prone that no provision of this sort has been made in the Bill.

If by any chance the Government were so misguided as to reject our new Clause, we should feel that this was conclusive and convincing proof that whatever else the Bill was intended to do it was certainly intended to bring good in every respect to the landlord and never to impose any obligation on him, however necessary it might be in the public interest that he should assume it.

Mr. McInnes

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has adequately covered the position, even in respect of Scotland although he concentrated largely on the position in England and Wales. There is a slight difference in respect of rental. but the main purpose of the new Clause, as he indicated, is that the landlord shall take steps to ensure that the house will be kept in a reasonably fit condition and fit for human habitation. I do not anticipate for a moment that the Joint Under-Secretary will have any objections to a condition of that kind being incorporated in the Bill. It is a condition which existed prior to the introduction of the Bill and one which we should like to have incorporated in the Measure.

Mr. H. Brooke

Whatever the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) says, the primary purpose of the Bill is to benefit houses and the people who live in them.

I have to correct him. He spoke of post-Rent Act lettings and then quoted the wrong figures. In respect of any lettings made after the Rent Act came into operation the limits are now not those which he quoted but £80 in the County of London and £52 elsewhere.

The hon. and learned Member will realise, I am sure, that under the terms of other Clauses of the Bill a house which is unfit for human habitation does not get a grant. Indeed, the local authority needs to be satisfied that it is likely to remain not unfit for human habitation during a period of not less than fifteen years. Therefore, this is not a question of whether the house will be unfit for human habitation or not. It is a question of whether we shall shift the responsibility for keeping it so fit.

As things are, Section 6 and to some extent Section 7 of the 1957 Act determined that the liability lies on the landlord for houses below certain limits which differ in England and in Scotland, and differ according to the date of the contract. It is hard for the Government to see why, if one is going to remove those limits at all, one should remove them solely for houses which have been improved with the benefit of an improvement grant. The limits were reconsidered by the Government in respect of England and Wales—it is not for me to speak of Scotland—as recently as 1957 and new limits were laid down.

That being so, I think one can accept that the limits have fairly recently been determined by Parliament and there has been no particular event since then to suggest that they need to be altered in general. If they do not need to be altered in general, there is no ground for altering them in particular cases where a standard grant has been received.

10.0 p.m.

The hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends argue that where the landlord has had the benefit of a grant, the responsibility for seeing that the house is not unfit for human habitation should rest exclusively on the landlord, regardless of the amount of the rent, and yet this was not a condition which they sought to impose when they were in power when the 1949 legislation was passed. There was no condition of this sort attached to the receiving of improvement grants under that legislation, and I suggest that there is no more case for doing that now than there was in 1949.

Mr. Mitchison

I accept at once the right hon. Gentleman's correction of my inadvertent error about the figures. It makes no difference whatever to the point I was putting, as he will be the first to recognise.

The fog outside seems to be paralleled by a deep and intense fog in the minds of the Government. I have rarely heard a less convincing defence of a piece of reactionary legislation. The difference between the present position and that of 1949 is that we have now had seven years of Tory Government. During that time the Rent Act has been passed and in our large towns and in some other places, too, as is well known to all hon. Members, tenants are being obliged to assume obligations about repairs which they are in no position to carry out because, unless they assume that responsibility, the landlords of this country will not allow them to live anywhere.

That is the fundamental difference between what has happened after seven years of Tory Government and what was happening even four years after the war, four years after the Labour Government had assumed office. The cogent and convincing reason for the Clause is the housing position which has been created by the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessors. That is the difference between now and 1949.

I turn to the provision itself. The right hon. Gentleman said that there was no reason why we should impose the existing provisions relating to small houses particularly on the class of houses which will get the benefits of standard grants. He himself quoted Clause 5 (2), which says that the local authority has to be satisfied that after the execution of the works in aid of which the standard grant is made, the house is not unfit for human habitation and is likely to remain in that condition and available for use as a dwelling for a period of not less than fifteen years.

There is therefore imposed as a condition of the grant the likelihood that the house will remain in that condition. The question is, if repairs are required to maintain that condition during those years, who is to pay for them? It occurs to the minds of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite that it is utterly unreasonable to say that the man who receives the grant, a grant conditional on the house being in that condition and likely to remain so, is the person who ought to pay for keeping it in that condition.

That is what we are asking by the new Clause. It is not a new provision. It was made for small houses, and it is still there for small houses. I have little doubt that the total amount involved will not be large, because the sort of house we are considering has to be likely to remain in a fit condition for fifteen years, and some of the houses, at any rate, will be small houses and as such will attract the repair conditions applicable to small houses.

The question remains whether it is right that in the case of other houses the owners who receive a grant which is available only on condition that the houses are fit for human habitation, and are likely to remain so, should then be able to relieve themselves, in the middle of the present housing shortage, of any obligation to do repairs. The right hon. Gentleman says that we are concerned primarily with the condition of the houses. I agree that that factor is of importance, but I ask him who is more likely to be able to afford the expense of these repairs—the gentleman or the property company who has received money from the Government for improving a house, and has at least that substantial asset, or some tenant who has been obliged to take the house because the housing legislation of the Government has left him nowhere else to live, and who has been obliged to assume an obligation for repairs which, if he had had any choice in the matter, he would never have dreamt of accepting?

I hope that the Government will wake up and realise that there is a housing shortage in this country and that some people are desperate for houses and have had to take on these repair obligations because of the Government's legislation. It is to give those people some measure of protection that we ask merely that the man who has received the benefit of a grant from public funds should at least pay for keeping his house in repair. It seems nothing short of scandalous that a Government should refuse a provision of that kind in favour of the tenant. What is the use of talking about hardship and hard cases if, whenever a real case of hardship arises, an Amendment to put it right, even upon a limited scale such as this, is contemptuously refused?

Mr. McInnes

I do not want to be fobbed off by the allegation of irrelevancy which the right hon. Gentleman tried to make against me. I am compelled to ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State to rise to his feet on this issue, because the position in Scotland is the same as that which has been described by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). The Minister of Housing and Local Government said that the Labour Government did not include these provisions in the 1949 Act, and he asked why. He should not ask that question, because he knows the answer, which is that since 1951 all Tory legislation relating to the question of housing has, peculiarly enough, furthered the interests of landlordism.

In the Clause we are simply asking that, as provided in Section 3 of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1950, the house will be kept by the landlord in all respects reasonably fit for human habitation. What objection can the Joint Under-Secretary advance against a demand of that kind? It is a simple and reasonable one, and this work is the responsibility of the landlord. For far too long in our legislation—and we can mention the Housing (Repairs and Rents) Act, the Rent Act and the Rating and Valuation Act—provisions have been introduced to put money into the pockets of the landlords. Surely there is some justification for our asking that landlordism shall face its responsibilities and shall maintain houses in a decent and fit condition so that people may live in them.

Mr. J. N. Browne

I do not agree with the hon. Member that nothing that we have done has done other than put money into the pockets of the landlords. He will bear in mind the fact that we have enabled landlords to repair their houses for the first time for far too long. I will try briefly to give the Scottish angle on this new Clause—I am glad of the opportunity to say something about it—and I will also attempt to give my version of the cogent argument advanced by my right hon. Friend.

Under Section 3 of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1950, any house of a rent not exceeding £26 had to be kept by the landlord in a reasonably fit state for human habitation. When owners' rates were done away with, it brought more houses with the scope of that Section and we shall have to look at the figure of £26 again in the light of the 1961 revaluation figures. We were not able to do what was done in England about raising the figure and there may be a case for extending the provision to more houses as part of the general law; even though, as in the case of England, hon. Gentlemen opposite did not extend Section 3 to houses improved by improvement grants under the 1949 Act.

There is no point in applying Section 3 to owners of houses improved by standard grants. If there were, surely it ought to be extended to all houses. Of course improved houses have to be kept fit for human habitation. That is now the law under Section 114 (1, e) of the 1950 Act, which is extended to standard grants by Clause 22 of this Bill. We think it right —I am sure hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree—to leave it to the conditions of the tenancy in individual cases to determine who is responsible for keeping the property fit, rather than put the responsibility in every case on the owner, as that may prove most unwise.

Mr. MacColl

I must join issue with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) on one matter. He said he had never heard, or did not recollect hearing, a lamer explanation than that offered by the right hon. Gentleman. He gave the impression to those hon. Members who do not know of the assidious way in which he applies himself to his duties, that he must have been asleep during the proceedings in the Standing Committee, where we wallowed in the gruesome cesspools of sophistry. I do not claim to be a connoisseur in these matters, but I doubt whether the explanation of the Minister today compares with any which we had the advantage of hearing during the Committee stage discussions.

It is clear that the one person who comes out of this badly, and who has no kind of safeguard, is the tenant. He cannot apply for a grant; he cannot compel the landlord to do so. The local authority cannot compel a landlord to apply for a grant, but if he chooses to apply, the local authority can resist the application. Is it unreasonable, therefore, to ask that the landlord—who gets all these advantages, and in ten years' time has an improved house from which he can evict a tenant who has no security of tenure and can sell the house—should undertake the obligation of keeping the house fit to live in? That is all that this amounts to.

It is not a question of making a house fit for human habitation as a condition of making a grant, but of keeping it fit for human habitation. We do not say that this shall apply to all houses. I would not mind if it did, but we are not discussing that at the moment, and it would not be in order to do so.

10.15 p.m.

What is in order is to say that if we are to compel local authorities to spend ratepayers' and taxpayers' money for the benefit of the landlord, to whom the ultimate capital appreciation will accrue, the least we can expect of him is that he shall take upon himself responsibility of keeping the house in a condition fit to live in.

That is a fairly humble standard—no one pretends Chat it is a very (high one—but it is the standard that has been thought worth While to keep in the Housing Acts for many years. I should have thought that to seek to apply that standard to these houses was the absolute rock bottom of requirement that one could ask of the landlord—and it is a responsibility which they may use their bargaining power to place on the tenant. This is the only effective way, inadequate though it may be, to give some kind of safeguard to the tenant, who its seeing knocked down, one by one, all the safeguards he has for the protection of his home.

Mr. A. Evans

I am surprised that the Minister has not looked at this from a more businesslike point of view, though we cannot expect him to shed his bias in favour of property owners all at once. We all wish to see these houses improved, and we are all agreed that on each of them there should be spent up to £300. Before making the grant, local authorities have to satisfy themselves that the house is structurally sound and will last for fifteen years. But though so much may be spent on each house, the Minister is content to take the risk that it shall fall into disrepair. To spend £150 of public money and a similar amount of the owner's money on a house and then to fail to make provision that it shall be maintained in a fit condition for fifteen years is a most unbusinesslike attitude to adopt.

We know from experience that unless this new Clause is added to the Bill, some—probably many—of the improved houses will deteriorate as the result of the landlord's neglect. AH we ask the Minister to do is to look at these assets, these improved houses, and to agree that it is a simple business precaution to require, in the circumstances I have mentioned, that the owners shall maintain them in a fit condition. Any businessman would agree that property upon which capital has been spent should not be allowed to fall into disrepair, but apparently the Minister is reluctant, once again, to put this obligation on landlords.

In our large towns we can see that the owners of private dwellings have, over the generations, consistently allowed their property to deteriorate into slums. Our housing history shows that clearly. Now, as a result of the expenditure of public money we have a chance, at any rate with some houses, to see that deterioration does not take place, but the Minister refuses to require the landlord to maintain his own property. It is a most amazing refusal. I must say that it seems to me to be a most unbusinesslike and wasteful proceeding.

Question put and negatived.

First Schedule agreed to.