HC Deb 25 February 1959 vol 600 cc1127-30

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide security of tenure for tenants of local authorities, authorities owning or managing new towns, housing associations, housing trusts, and other similar bodies. The object of my proposed Bill is to give to council tenants, as far as possible, the same legal protection against eviction as is enjoyed at present by tenants whose tenancies are still controlled under the Rent Restriction Acts. The intention is also to extend the same protection to tenants of development corporations, of housing trusts and associations and of any other bodies who, at present, are deprived of that protection under the 1954 Act.

The intention of the proposed Bill is, first, that these landlords, to obtain orders for possession, would have to establish before a county court judge that there were proper grounds for possession, such as arrears of rent, breach of terms of the tenancy, causing nuisance and annoyance, and other grounds that are familiar in possession cases under the Rent Restrictions Acts. Secondly, the intention is that councils should also have to satisfy the county court judge that, in all the circumstances, it was reasonable to make the order.

I hope that the proposed Measure may command support on both sides of the House. We know that Government supporters have, as their goal, total abolition of rent control for tenants of private landlords. We have that on the authority of the Minister of Defence, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, and was speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in 1956, in Llandudno. But I hope that, Government supporters will not allow themselves to be blinded by that to the merits of this proposal.

The two matters are in no way equal. Abolition of rent control, which the Conservative Party wants, is derived from its obsessional belief in the virtues of the law of supply and demand to provide the correct solution for social questions like housing shortage. We do not share that view, but that has no relevance whatever when we are dealing with council tenants.

I may be asked: what is the need for such a Measure? Although the vast majority of council tenants enjoy a security and a consideration from their landlords which they never enjoyed when they were the tenants of private landlords, we all know that in recent years there have been cases, which have been increasing in number, in which tenants have been evicted for reasons which seem to most of us merely capricious, erratic and even trivial. Some have resulted from councils acting upon what has seemed to most of us wrong principles. In some cases they have applied their principles too rigidly and inflexibly, and in other cases they have simply made, as all we humans are prone to do, errors of judgment.

In all such cases the tenant should have the right to demand that the council should prove its right to possession before an independent tribunal or the county court judge and to establish its right to a possession order. It may be said that there is no need for such protection because councils are elected authorities, and, as such, are open to approach and pressure through political channels, which does not apply to private landlords. This argument is unrealistic. We all remember how difficult it is, in many cases, to bring effective pressure to bear in this way.

Surely it is better, in a matter of this kind, that dissatisfied tenants should be able to refer their case to an impartial tribunal, where it can be fairly stated and proved. It should be in the interests of councils themselves that, where they have acted reasonably and fairly, that fact should be established publicly.

This matter has come into somewhat greater prominence recently because of the decision of the Croydon Corporation to evict tenants who are earning more than £20 a week. I think that it was the hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) who suggested that the House should wait and see how that ruling is to be applied. It would be interesting to do so, but I understand that forms have already gone out to all Croydon Corporation tenants asking them to make a return of what they are earning, how many there are in family, their occupation and how many empty rooms they have.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly) Snoopers.

Mr. MacDermot

The ruling is to be applied to the joint income of husband and wife. What is to happen if the wife is taken ill after notice to quit has been served? Will it be withdrawn? Suppose the husband, who is now earning high wages, goes on short time and ceases to earn money by overtime? If his family has been evicted, will he be reinstated by the corporation? One has only to ask these questions to see how extraordinarily capricious any ruling of this kind can be in its operation.

The most serious aspect of this decision by the Croydon Corporation is that it is the sharpest instance we have recently had of a completely outdated attitude of mind towards council tenants. There is an idea that in some way council tenants are recipients of charity and are persons of lesser status who should have lesser rights than other tenants. More than 3½ million dwellings are publicly owned, in other words, nearly one-quarter of all the homes in the country, such has been the increase in council property since the war.

We cannot continue to regard these people, one-quarter of the nation, as in some way inferior and not entitled to the same legal protection as other members of the community. Probably no greater upheaval can come about in the lives of these people than to know that they will be evicted from their homes. In areas where there is very serious housing shortage, that is a far greater disaster than the loss of a job, and protection should be given to them on the same basis as for other tenants.

I do not know what the attitude of Government supporters will be to the Bill, as I do not know where their party stands on this matter. I know where my party stands. It has been made plain in our housing policy statements published in recent years that when we return to power we shall give full legal protection to council tenants.

It is a matter of urgency. If Government supporters want the same thing, this is the way in which it can be done quickly, and even before the present Session is over the Bill can become law. If Government supporters are, in their hearts, in favour of this Motion, I hope that they will support it now. If they do not, it is better that they should say so now rather than to let it go through unopposed and block it at later stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. MacDermot, Mr. Foot, Mr. Gibson, Mr. Leslie Hale, Mr. James Johnson, Mr. MacColl, Mr. McInnes. Mr. Prentice, Mr. Reynolds, Mr. William Ross, and Mrs. Lena Jeger.