HC Deb 09 February 1960 vol 617 cc422-30

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

12.54 a.m.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)

I regret very much, Mr. Speaker, that through circumstances which are quite outside our control, you and I and the hon. Lady the Assistant Postmaster-General who is to reply to this debate, have been kept here rather later than I expected, I cannot see my way, however, not to pursue this matter because I regard it as a rather serious one, and perhaps an urgent one.

The matter I wish to raise tonight concerns action on the part of a property owner who owns a considerable amount of property in the Clayton division of Manchester. This action, in the opinion of many constituents of mine, appears to be rather mean, unjust and anti-social.

These are the facts, quite briefly, as they have been presented to me. On 18th December, 1958, Mr. J. Smith, of 26, Stokes Street, Clayton, was notified by the telephone manager, Manchester, that at the end of one month from the receipt of the notification his telephone service would be withdrawn wholly, or in part, as from early in January, 1959. The telephone manager was good enough to inform Mr. Smith that this decision arose directly from the request by the landlord, or to be more precise, the landlady, of the house in which he resides and of which he has been the established tenant for very many years.

Mr. Smith has been a continuous telephone subscriber since May, 1948. His work necessitates frequent and regular use of the telephone. As a result of the removal of the telephone and the fittings, he was very anxious about the continuity of his job. He was amazed and distressed at the decision, which arose from the request of this landlady.

It is only fair to say that the Post Office officials in Manchester were equally staggered by the landlady's request, because they sent a superintendent to see the landlady to discover whether they had misunderstood her request. It became quite obvious to the superintendent that the lady knew exactly what she wanted to do and that her decision was firm and unchangeable, and the Post Office, as I understand the position, had no option, under certain Telegraph Acts, but to act in accordance with the landlady's wishes.

Mr. Smith wrote immediately to his landlady to ask for formal permission. He received no reply. He wrote again on 7th January, 1959, and enclosed his letter in a registered cover. In this letter he appealed on human grounds to the landlady to reconsider her decision. He said, You will have no desire, I am sure, to cause my job to be in jeopardy". I think that hon. Members will agree that this very human appeal from this man might have elicited a more favourable response. At least one would think that comon courtesy would demand that the letter would be acknowledged. Mr. Smith received no reply to either of these letters. As far as I know, he has not yet received any reply from the landlady. He has been put to great inconvenience, because his work necessitates frequent use of the telephone. He has been put to the inconvenience of having to make regular use of telephone kiosks in the street outside.

The reason given by the landlady to the Post Office for her request was that Mr. Smith had not asked her permission to install the telephone in her house. I should like hon. Members to note that he had had a telephone for over ten years. In fact, he could not recall whether he had been given permission, perhaps orally, ten years before. He seemed to think that he had been given permission but he had no written proof of that. In any case, this lady had resided for quite a while—many years, in fact—in this district of Manchester and I think it is reasonable to assume that she knew very well that a telephone had been installed in this house for quite a number of years.

I should perhaps say at this stage that Mr. Smith was not the only tenant of this landlady to have a telephone removed from the premises. I have been informed of at least two others who have complained and wish to be associated with Mr. Smith's complaint. None of these people believe that the reason given by the landlady is the real one. Frankly, I do not either. They all say that they have been good tenants, that they have done nothing to cause damage to the property, that they have paid their rent regularly, that they have not been guilty of misdemeanour and have not been nuisances to the neighbours. They seem to think that there is only one reason for the landlady taking this course of action, and they have drawn my attention to a letter which the landlady sent to Mr. Smith on 13th September, 1957. That letter reads: It has been decided to give our tenants the opportunity of purchasing the premises they occupy. Would you therefore communicate with the undersigned and intimate whether you are interested ill purchasing No. 26 Stokes Street. In the opinion of my constituents—and I think I share that opinion—this is a significant date. It was about the same time as the Rent Act, 1957, became operative. The house in which Mr. Smith lived was not decontrolled under that Act and Mr. Smith had no desire to purchase the house. He had informed the landlady accordingly. I understand that the other two tenants had informed the landlady in similar terms. It looks to them, therefore, as if the removal of their telephones may be directly attributed to their refusal to purchase.

I suggest to the hon. Lady that if this view is correct—and there are very strong grounds for suspecting that it is, although, in fairness to the landlady, I should add that she denies it—then the action of this lady becomes rather mean, petty and revengeful. When the House, for good or ill, passed the Rent Act, 1957, some hon. Members anticipated that there would be some kind of action of this character by some unscrupulous landlords. I think most people thought there might be some cases of this kind, but I doubt whether anybody on either side of the House ever anticipated that a mean, petty little action like this would be the instrument of torture to be adopted by any reasonable person.

Strangely enough, this evening when I went to the post office to see if there were any letters for me there was one from a person in Timperley, Cheshire. I know nothing of him. I have never seen him and have never heard from him before. Apparently he had heard about the Adjournment debate tonight and he has written to me on the subject.

I have not the time to quote extensively from the letter, but I would quote at any rate this part while I am on the point about the Rent Act. My correspondent says: Since the Rent Act came into force recently, I think my relations have deteriorated with my landlady, with the above result. The result to which he refers is that she also has refused to give him permission to have a telephone installed at his house in Timperley. In fact, she waited until the Post Office engineers had installed the telephone, and then when they were going away she said, "You must take this down. I have not given my permission." Very shortly afterwards she gave permission to another person in an adjacent house to have a party line, and to rub it in to this particular man the wires between the two houses went practically right in front of his bedroom windows.

I have quoted this letter—the hon. Lady will not know about it; I did not have it until today—as a further indication that, in my opinion, possibly the Rent Act has, after all, something to do with the stubbornness on the part of some owners of property in refusing to give the necessary permission. I leave that. I can only surmise that that is the motive, but it seems to me, personally, to be a clear one and I think other people agree.

The seriousness of the position, to my mind, lies in the fact that any person or persons can act so arbitrarily and unreasonably in these days. Surely it must be regarded by the House as reprehensible, to say the least of it, that amenities and facilities which are now in common usage are denied to citizens just by the whims and fancies of individuals. I am not sufficiently versed in the law to know whether the landlady could have prevented water pipes, electricity wires or any other modern facilities being laid in the house. I doubt it. Therefore, I ask myself why she should be in a position to do this in relation to the telephone.

I wish to make it clear that I make no complaint whatsoever in this debate against the Post Office either in Manchester or at Post Office headquarters. Those at the Post Office have made it clear to me in correspondence and in interviews that their sympathy lies completely with the subscribers whose cases I have brought to their notice. I believe that the action taken by the landlady to whom I have referred was the first in the recollection of one of the longest serving officers in the telephone manaber's office in Manchester. He had never heard of anything of the kind in the thirty-five years of his experience.

The only failing that I can attribute to the Post Office, if it is a failing which can be attributed to it, is that it has so long allowed itself to be enslaved by out-dated regulations. I should have thought that by now somebody would have had a spark of an idea that this sort of thing should not happen in the year of grace 1960. I must say that the present Postmaster-General's predecessor did his utmost, through quite unusual ways which are characteristic of him, to try to get the lady to see sense.

Quite certainly she has been acting quite insensibly, and I had to come to the conclusion, after all the correspondence and after all the talks and everything else, that I must ventilate on behalf of these three constituents of mine in Manchester and now on behalf of the fourth person from the constituency, I believe, of the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport) what is becoming quite a serious matter.

I had hoped that as a result of the debate yesterday I might have been able to suggest some remedies as well as voice complaints, but on the Ruling which you gave this afternoon, Mr. Speaker, I cannot do that just yet. However, I think that the hon Lady and her right hon. Friend have a fair idea of what remedial measures can be taken, and I hope that she and her right hon. Friend will take the earliest possible opportunity of putting the matter right, because I feel quite certain that if something is not done pretty soon there will be a public outcry against these little Hitlers who do these mean and petty things in such a revengeful way.

I would finally ask the hon. Lady to bring to the notice of the Minister of Housing and Local Government my references to the possibility of the influence of the Rent Act, 1957, on people of this mentality, and perhaps he also will keep in mind some of these things when he is reconsidering his legislation.

1.13 a.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) for the manner in which he has presented this problem and for the generous way in which he has recognised the attempts made by the Post Office to bring about an amicable solution to the difficulty. The hon. Gentleman has very fully described the events which led up to this dispute between landlord and tenant and the background against which it is taking place. He has done everything possible to find a reasonable solution to the problem and we are grateful to him for raising the matter.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am no lawyer, but I would like to attempt to give, clearly and as briefly as possible, some description of the legal position. The legal position is that the Post Office has a statutory obligation under the Telegraph Act, 1863, to obtain the consent of the landlord before a telephone is supplied to a tenant. In practice, however, we act on the assumption that the landlord has no objection and we do not formally obtain the landlord's written consent in the very large number of cases where telephones are provided for tenants. Indeed, when a householder asks us for telephone service, we do not usually know whether he is a tenant or the owner of the house. Of course, if we had to put a pole or wires on any property which was not in the tenant's own occupation, we should ask the owner for his consent.

So, in the ordinary case, the tenant gets his telephone and he continues to have a telephone service unless and until the landlord takes positive action to require us to remove it—an action which he is entitled to take under Section 4 of the Telegraph Act, 1892. In this connection, perhaps I should explain that even if the Post Office sought the landlord's written consent before installing the telephone on the tenant's property it would not be reasonable for us to expect him to give us consent in perpetuity and he could terminate the consent on notice at any time.

The Post Office provides a telephone service for a tenant and puts in all the necessary apparatus. Then the landlord requires the Post Office to remove the telephone—it may be many years afterwards, as in the present case. Section 4 of the Telegraph Act, 1892, and Section 1 of the Telegraph (Construction) Act, 1916, have provided for these circumstances and under the former Section the landlord, if he is aggrieved, is entitled to require the removal of the apparatus. That causes a "difference" to arise between him and the Postmaster-General, and there is a procedure for settling the difference by an application to the county court. I shall return to this procedure in a moment, but the point I want to make now is that unless the Postmaster-General makes a successful application to the county court he has no legal alternative but to remove the telephone, if the landlord insists.

In instances of this kind, which, fortunately, are rare, the Post Office does everything possible to dissuade the landlord from insisting that the tenant's telephone should be taken away, and I am glad to say that its efforts usually meet with success. In the last resort, however, if the landlord insists, the Postmaster-General, as I have said, has the right to go to the county court under the Acts of 1892 and 1916 to settle the difference.

The county court judge can, if he thinks fit, give his consent to the tenant's telephone being kept on the premises or, if it has been removed, being replaced. But the judge cannot give this consent unless he is satisfied that the landlord's requirement was contrary to the public interest. The last time that the Post Office took proceedings of this kind against a private landlord was in 1922. In those days, these cases went to the Railway and Canal Commission, not to the county court as at present.

The Commission at that time decided that the refusal of consent was not contrary to the public interest unless it would have meant that a considerable body of persons would be deprived of telephone service. The Department appealed to the Court of Appeal, but lost there, too. The Court of Appeal said that the public interest was purely a matter of fact for the Railway and Canal Commission and it would not upset the Commission's finding. The result of that case was to convince the Post Office that its right to make an application under the 1892 and 1916 Acts was not one which could safely be relied on. In fact, there has never been an application under these Acts in a landlord and tenant case since the decisions in 1922.

As I have said, these disputes are very rare, and, in the majority of cases which do arise, the landlord sees reason when the Post Office approaches him and offers to do everything it can to meet his objections. Sometimes, the landlord objects to the way in which the Post Office has fixed the telephone wires—by a bracket on the side of the house, for instance. Objections of this kind can often he overcome by our rearranging the wiring.

The present case is not like that because, as far as we have been able to find out, the landlord is not objecting to the telephone plant as such and really has no quarrel with the Post Office. We have done everything we can to persuade her to agree to the telephone remaining, and, indeed, as the hon. Member has said, the former Postmaster-General tried, without success, to have a personal talk with her, in Liverpool, I believe.

We are, however, anxious to do everything possible to reach a just settlement, and my right hon. Friend is prepared to look at the case again, and, if the three tenants still want to have their telephone back if they can, my right hon. Friend will seek legal advice on the prospect of an application to the county court for the necessary consent in place of that of the landlord.

On the situation in general, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have already given considerable thought to the suggestions he has made. These are very complex problems, and there are various technical difficulties. We have to bear in mind the need to preserve the proper rights of owners. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive approach to the whole question, and I assure him that we shall continue to keep these points in mind.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past One o'clock.