HC Deb 26 July 1960 vol 627 cc1607-14

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

7.11 a.m.

Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)

Now, at this hour when hon. Members opposite are departing and some of the dormitories are being left to the beds instead of their occupants, I want to draw attention to a matter which concerns many hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in London, who are affected by the iniquities perpetrated by the present Minister of Housing and Local Government. I remind the Minister of the title of his office and that we are now reaching the point when some of the effects of the Government's Rent Act will be felt.

After listening to the right hon. Gentleman earlier today and to the guidance that he has to offer to thousands of people who will be affected shortly by the Rent Act, I would remind the House that, if he is reported correctly, the right hon. Gentleman said at a Press conference in Cardiff that the last vestiges of protection to 'the tenant are disappearing and that he added: I do not think that this will create any serious problem outside London and Greater London He continued: I have advised people to employ a solicitor or agent to negotiate for them with the landlord who cannot necessarily get the rent he asked for. That is a bad statement for the Minister to make. We are trying to get from him some indication of what steps the tenant could take if he found himself facing the effects of the Rent Act. He has told us that the tenants could organise themselves and go to the owners and say, "We want a reduction in the rent that you propose to charge us."

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that there was a free market whereby bands of tenants could get together and held a pistol at the heads of property owners. We know that that is impossible. There is no free market. The property owner is in possession of a scarce commodity which is a necessity to the lives of the people.

In the half hour that we have for this debate I particularly want to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that whatever the effect of the Rent Act throughout the country, it is now accepted that private enterprise cannot fill the bill in the provision of rented property. Local authorities are facing the opprobium of citizens who can look only to them for the provision of housing accommodation. Other acts by the Government since 1951 have made it mare and more difficult for the local authorities to carry out this public responsibility.

In spite of the difficulties which have existed prior to and since the Rent Act, there are additional matters to which the Minister should turn his attention. I have been making inquiries in my constituency. Leaving aside the awful problems of more than 6,000 families still on the waiting list, I understand that in the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney there are 8,000 houses with basements, about 1,600 basement rooms and, on the basis of 2.5 persons to a unit, about 20,000 people living in basements. Twenty per cent. of the basements are unfit for human habitation. Tie medical officer of health should condemn them and close them. If he decides that an order has to be served and they have to be closed, there is absolutely no place to which the people who are turned out can go.

There is another factor about London housing which has not been mentioned. In spite of all the new London County Council and other local authority development, 54 per cent. of the population in my area have no baths. In one survey of 72 houses we found that only six had baths. Forty per cent. of the people in my constituency have to share a lavatory. My hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) dealt earlier with the question of coloured immigrants. So far as we can ascertain, in my constituency we have about 5,000 of them, and in many of the properties which are bought by them there are three families in one house using the same lavatory. The use of a common lavatory from day to day is one of the most awful things that one could experience. The very thing to which my hon. Friend referred happens, and attempts are made to get out the old lady and gentleman who have probably lived in the house for 20 or 25 years.

I cannot suggest legislation, but I put it to the Minister that we are, after all, in a situation where it is accepted by everyone who knows about it that the housing problem in London is a very grave one. If the Minister cannot do anything about it, what is the use of his telling us that he is going to look at sites and new planning ideas? We in the localities are trying to find sites. If the Minister really feels that the people of London can be given no hope, why does he not say so and get out of the Ministry?

7.19 a.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

I am sure that the Minister will not mind my also referring to the effects of the Rent Act. I want to take him up on a point he mentioned during the latter part of his speech on the Consolidated Fund Bill when he said that he would like hon. Members to give him some information of what is taking place in their constituencies and that he would be quite ready to look into those cases.

Mr. H. Brooke

One or two hon. Members opposite had asked me whether I would examine information which they sent me. I said that I would, willingly.

Mr. Edwards

I was about to say that I am proposing in the short time at our disposal to give the right hon. Gentleman one or two facts of which I am sure he is not aware and of which I am certain he will take notice. I do not believe that the Minister wants to see working-class, or middle-class or any other tenants being mulcted by some of these property owners, but I wish to deal with the decontrol aspect of the Rent Act.

In my constituency of Stepney there are quite a lot of old, privately-owned blocks of flats. Many of them are about a hundred years old; certainly most of them date back to the last century. Obviously, they have been occupied by working-class tenants since they were built. They still were until such time as the Rent Act was passed.

There is one block of flats, about a hundred years old, where there is now a dispute, and when the Minister suggests that the remedy for tenants when landlords put up the rents is to see a specialist, I say to him that one can see all the specialists in the country but these landlords will not take any notice whatsoever.

There are 160 flats in this block. They have no amenities—no bathroom, no scullery. The kitchen, with a sink in it, is the scullery. Fifty of these flats, since the passing of the Rent Act, have become decontrolled for one reason or another, such as death or transfers to larger or smaller accommodation. The block was owned by what one could describe as a decent sort of property owner until after the Rent Act was passed. Even When that Act was passed, the flats, which were under £40 rateable value were controlled, but the tenants still had to pay an increased rent to bring it up to the new controlled one. In most cases, the old landlord, knowing his East End tenants, never charged much more than the old controlled rent when a flat fell vacant. He felt that he was getting fair due compared with what had been the case previously, and he would not go too high.

A situation has now been existing in Stepney for about twelve months in which somebody—I do not know who it is, but it makes no difference—is offering the owners of blocks of flats good sums of money for them, and as soon as they are taken over the decontrolled tenants get notices 'terminating their tenancies and a fresh offer at about £1 a week more than before.

An illustration of this is in the example of a one-roomed flat. The old controlled rent, without rates, was 6s. 6d. a week, and the old landlord was satisfied under the new Act with 8s. 6d. The new landlords who have recently bought the property are not satisfied with that—they are demanding 17s. 6d. a week.

That is over twice the rent the tenants were paying to the previous owners. The sky is the limit, because if someone else buys the property at an even higher price, then they will put up the rents again. This is creating extreme hardship for many families. They do not know what to do when their rents go up as much as that, and the money has to come from something else—from the children, from food, or from clothes. The difficulty is to prevent those people getting into trouble by taking the law into their own hands.

I would like the Minister to go very carefully into this question of new ownership, particularly in London. I can give him plenty of facts if he wants them, and when he sees the facts he must come to the conclusion that these landlords ought to be restricted in some way. One way might be to keep the rent at the same level for a certain period after a change in ownership. I can assure the Minister that what has happened in the last twelve months is something that will 'happen continually in places like Stepney until these sharks have got hold of all this pre-war property, particularly blocks of flats. I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words on this subject, and I hope I have not taken up too much time.

7.26 a.m.

Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)

During the course of the night the Minister has come under a great deal of fire which, in my judgment, was entirely justified. But I am sure that those hon. Members who still remain appreciate the fact that he has stayed for this debate and does not, I understand, intend to speak again.

For the closing minutes of this sitting it is perhaps a bit too much to ask hon. Members to recall something that occurred at Question Time, now some seventeen hours ago, which seemed to typify the difference of attitude on housing matters between the two sides of the House. My hon. Friend, the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) and the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) asked Questions about the effect of interest rates on local authority housing programmes, and another of my hon. Friends went so far as to say that the Minister's policies would force councils to stop council house building altogether. In reply, the Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to justify the high interest rates by saying that, after all, there is such a great number of competing demands on available capital, and, therefore, he implied that interest rates have to be high.

If one thing more than another has been made clear from the debate which has just concluded it is that the housing situation in London is so tragically serious that the country cannot afford not to make money available to solve it. Housing should be at the top of the nation's needs and we say that it should be the national interest and not the rate of interest which should determine the housing programme.

Hon. Members have been giving examples of cases from their own constituencies and as I have listened I have been able to picture parallel cases in my own constituency. All the major difficulties which have been explained—finding sites in already overcrowded areas, finance and the problems arising out of the Rent Act—are to be found in East Ham. However, I want to speak of one additional difficulty. It is not a major problem at this stage, but there is every sign, judging by the experience of the housing officer and borough surveyor of East Ham, that it may become a serious problem. It is the problem of the shortage of bricks.

I know that there have been Questions on the subject, but I urge the Minister to give increased attention to the matter, because housing should be the top priority if there is any danger of a shortage of bricks. Only yesterday morning, I received a letter from my borough council to say that schemes for rehousing old people and slum clearance schemes are in danger of being held up because of a threatening shortage of bricks. In North Woolwich, which, despite its name, is part of East Ham, I saw a slum clearance scheme for which the footings for a big block of flats had already been prepared and I was told that there were considerable doubts about proceeding because of the pros- pect of the bricks not being forthcoming. I mention that merely as a factor which is particularly applicable in my area. But that does not mean that I could not parallel instances which have been given by hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) caught the attention of the House when he gave those examples of people who had come to his "bureau" but whose troubles he had not been able to solve. Every hon. Member present has a "bureau" and comes across tragic cases. Yesterday and the day before I had letters about such cases. It is very difficult to respond to all the cases, because we all know the problems but the individual cannot appreciate that his own case is only one out of 3,000 or 4,000. We get examples of cripples needing ground floor accommodation; of young married couples who have to start their married life living apart; young teen-age growing children of both sexes having to share the same bedroom, and accidents to young children because of the tragic overcrowding.

Similar examples could be quoted by all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. A community, which in other aspects of its life can be termed affluent, ought not to allow these tragic housing conditions to remain a day longer than necessary.

I started with a compliment to the right hon. Gentleman and I am sorry that I have to end on a distinctly different note. I have not hitherto taken part in housing debates, but I have listened to them. The right hon. Gentleman's attitude to this problem seems to be one of cold statistical indifference, and the time has come when that attitude ought to be changed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Eight o'clock a.m.