§ Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]
Perhaps the House will forgive me if I occupy valuable time for one moment. I should be grateful if the House would assist me in this debate in performing my duty.
Perhaps I might just remind the House that Standing Order No. 14A at the moment says:Notwithstanding the practice of the House which prohibits in a debate on a motion for the adjournment of the House any reference to matters requiring legislative remedy …I may permit incidental reference to such matters, and so on.
I just hope that this debate will not begin to become a Second Reading debate upon a certain Bill about which we all know.
§ 10.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)
We are all grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the warning which you have just given us. The form of an Adjournment debate does, indeed, preclude proposals for new legislation. So I propose to urge on the Minister of Housing and Local Government something which is entirely within his administration capacities. I shall ask him to introduce a full-scale inquiry into the position in the Metropolitan area and elsewhere arising from the high rents and consequent high prices of house property and land. It will be entirely within his administrative capacity to do that.
But the right hon. Gentleman must not assume that, because in this debate we have to follow that course, we have in any way changed our view that new legislation and repeal of the vital sections of the Rent Act are necessary. I wish to make that quite clear at the outset.
It seems to me that the need for an inquiry has been underlined by some of the Minister's own statements on several occasions since last August and by his Answers to Questions yesterday, because those statements and Answers have brought out the fact that he very gravely underestimates the nature and the seriousness of this problem.
2498 I shall put it to him that the present situation has four aspects, none of which we can neglect. First, it involves hardship and oppression of the poor and those with moderate incomes. Secondly, it allows outrageous opportunities for wealthy people to become wealthier by activities which not only add nothing to the nation's wealth but are socially undesirable. Thirdly, so far from producing any result likely to alleviate the housing shortage, it has bad effects on the distribution of house property, on the maintenance of house property and on housing policy generally. Fourthly, the present situation illustrates most strikingly how fallacious were several of the assumptions on which the Minister and Her Majesty's Government proceeded when they introduced the Rent Act in 1957.
I might perhaps be permitted, in view of what was said from the Chair earlier, this incidental reference to rent legislation. The Minister told us yesterday that a pledge had already been given that there would be no further decontrol of rents in this Parliament. We heard that with interest. We heard with similar interest a pledge to which the whole party opposite was bound in the 1955 General Election—that there would be no general increase of rents in that Parliament. That pledge was broken. Since the right hon. Gentleman, in what he says tonight, cannot make a promise on behalf of his party—for he has no means of ensuring that it will be kept any more than the last one—perhaps he will give his personal pledge that if his party goes hack on its promise again, he will not consent to be the instrument of that betrayal this time as he was last time.
I spoke of hardship and oppression. What I have to say will be largely composed of particular examples. I want to look first at the hardship that arises in the case of houses with a rateable value of over £40 in the Metropolis and over £30 elsewhere, those decontrolled directly by the operation of the 1957 Act. It might be thought that people dwelling in these houses could not be described as poor people, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that if somebody is nominally the tenant of a house of that kind but can himself afford to live in only part of it and sub-lets the rest, the whole burden of decontrol falls upon him.
2499 Let us take, for example, a case arising in Stoke Newington. There, an old-age pensioner occupied premises the total rent of which was, before decontrol, 37s. Id. She could only afford herself to live in part of it and she sublet the rest, so the rent she was paying was 14s. 6d. At the present time the total rent is not 37s. Id. but £4 a week. That has faced her with a situation of having to meet rent for her own quarters not of 14s. 6d. but of £2 17s. 5d. It is a matter of interest that she has lived in these premises for 19 years and that the landlord has done nothing whatever to them either before or since the Rent Act.
I am glad to see the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) in her place. She is much concerned with the subject of people living on small fixed incomes. My next example concerns someone whose income came partly from an old-age pension and partly from a pension for naval service. He was not, therefore, as badly off as some people; he had a small fixed income. When their Lordships at the Admiralty increased his naval pension by 8s., his landlord took the opportunity to increase his rent by 12s. a week. Thus, when this House arranged a pension increase, thinking that it was assisting a man who had served his country well, it was, instead, putting more money into the pocket of his landlord.
The hon. Lady must realise that unless she gives us help in securing an alteration in this situation, a good deal of anything that she is able to secure in the way of pensions increases for the people in whom she is widely interested will be drained off into the pockets of their landlords. That was a case from Maidstone which I mentioned particularly to show that this is not only a Metropolitan problem. If I were making a long speech on this matter I could quote examples from every county in the Kingdom. Let us take one or two more from the Metropolitan area.
There is a dwelling in Hampstead—people not so poorly off as those I was describing just now—for which the rent before decontrol was £150 a year. The three-year agreement made immediately after the Rent Act put the rent up to only £200 a year, but now it stands at £435 a year. There is a house in Holloway, rather humbler circumstances, 2500 which is a hundred years old and the rent of which before decontrol was 36s. 6d. The agreement the tenant was obliged to make after the Rent Act was passed put it at 70s., but it now stands at £7.
§ Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)
Will the hon. Member be kind enough when giving these figures of rents to say whether they are net or inclusive of rates, so that the House can get a better comparison?
§ Mr. Stewart
That in Holloway contained three rooms.
The interesting thing about that is that a rent of £288 is five times the gross value of the property. The Minister ought to be particularly interested in that, because he may remember that on 26th March, 1957, he resisted a new Clause, proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins), having the purpose of restricting rent increases of decontrolled properties, imposing a kind of higher level of control, as it were, to a figure of two and a half times the gross value.
The right hon. Gentleman resisted that new Clause, his reason being that he thought that it might actually damage the tenant's case because, he said, if a maximum figure of two and a half times the gross value was specified, landlords would be encouraged always to go up to that figure. He said that he did not expect it to be anything like that. I ask him to make this clear: does he think that something like two and a half times the gross value is a fair rent, or not?
What does he think is an extortionate rent? Is he prepared to say that rents at five times the gross value are reasonable rents? I can tell him that it is by no means uncommon for those rents to be demanded and secured.
The history of the Minister's opinion of what is an extortionate rent is interesting. Some months ago, he always took 2501 the view in answering questions that if a landlord asked an extortionate rent, it was obvious that he would not get anyone to go into the house and would have to bring the rent down. He was then evidently taking the view that any rent the landlord could get was, by definition, not extortionate. Perhaps he has modified that view a little since then.
I believe that he was recently asked by the United Tenants Association if he would say what an extortionate rent was. He advised the association that that was a matter which local authorities could judge and some of those who saw him, following his advice, went to a prominent member of their local authority. It was, perhaps. their misfortune that that particular gentleman was Councillor Prior, whose contribution to humanity in this subject is so well known. Councillor Prior was as unforthcoming as the Minister, so that the Minister's advice that they should go to their local authority for advice on what was an extortionate rent led them nowhere.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us tonight what he thinks it should be. I do not ask him to state it to the last penny. but to give us some idea of what he thinks is fair. I think that the reason that he has hesitated to answer this so far is that he knows that the answer would convict a very considerable number of landlords of asking what are, by any standards, unfair rents.
I move on briskly because many hon. Members wish to speak. I have spoken of hardship caused in the case of the rather more highly rated houses immediately decontrolled, but steadily affecting a larger and larger number of people is what has now come to be called "creeping decontrol," the fact that whenever a new tenancy is created, it is an uncontrolled tenancy. The House has been very strikingly informed in earlier debates of what that means in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) and others of my hon. Friends have left the Minister in no doubt. It is liable particularly to occur when there is a change not only of tenant but of landlord.
Let me illustrate that by quoting a case in my constituency. After some time on the London County Council housing register a lady is able, with the 2502 help of the L.C.C., to get accommodated by means of an exchange. She finds herself the tenant of a landlord who assures her that he has no intention of acting unreasonably, and that pledge is honourably kept until, because of circumstances beyond the control of the landlord, he has to sell the property. The property passes into the hands of somebody who feels not the slightest obligation to the tenant and who wants the use of the house, and out goes the tenant.
That sort of thing is happening all over London. It is blocking exchanges of tenancies. When local authorities try to approach landlords and say, "Will you agree, if we rehouse your existing tenant, to accept someone off the council list in exchange?," the answer the landlord can now give, with the help of the right hon. Gentleman's Act is, "Yes, but the new tenant will come in under a new and uncontrolled tenancy," and he will name a rent which few people on housing lists can pay. Or, even if they can pay, they enter into a tenancy agreement knowing that it may be all right for a few years but that they will have no security after that time has gone by.
That was one reason why I said that the present situation has a bad effect on housing policy generally. It has the effect of slowing down the process of exchanges.
Another result of the creeping decontrol is the insecurity it means to young couples trying to set up a home for the first time. They may succeed in finding somewhere reasonably within their means. They may get an agreement running for perhaps three years, but they have to start the task of bringing up a family knowing that they have not the least idea what their position will be in three years' time, and knowing, from what their neighbours tell them, the situation of other people when their leases run out.
I draw to the Minister's attention a sentence from the Prime Minister's book "Middle Way", published a number of years ago:Insecurity has an adverse effect on health almost equal to the actual endurance of poverty.There are many people whom we should not normally call poor people hut who, 2503 because of the housing position, would endorse what the Prime Minister then wrote.
I spoke not only of hardship, but of profiteering. Let us turn, as a welcome change, to a landlord who, when the three years' lease runs out, does not ask for a higher rent, but offers to renew the existing lease at the existing rent, though not specifying, to begin with, the terms or the number of years for which it will be renewed, but saying that he will be gracious enough to do this for the payment of £300. That is the position, for example, in Streatleigh Court, Streatham. It aroused a good deal of interest in the Streatham News. The solicitors to the landlady who owned this block of flats refused to comment about any sum of money that may have been demanded from the tenants with expiring leases. I do not know why he should have been so coy, because I have here one of the letters from a tenant stating explicitly that in his case it will amount to a payment of £300. This is a block of about sixty flats and that sort of thing will bring £20,000 into the hands of the property owner for nothing, tax-free. Why is not that kind of thing inflationary?
I asked the Minister yesterday to contrast his answers with what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said about the need for wage and salary earners to preserve restraint. He did not answer that question. The Prime Minister was sitting next to him, and he laughed merrily because the Prime Minister realised that this was exactly the situation which his Government desired to create, in which property owners have it easy and others are required to exercise restraint.
In Streatleigh Court the tenants were advised, when they looked everywhere for advice, to try to deal with this through their tenants' association. They used to have a tenants' association but, oddly enough, when the three-year leases ran out, those people who had been particularly active in organising the tenants' association were required to quit without the option of paying anything; and as both the landlady and her solicitor live in the block of flats and can keep a watch on tenants' activities, the prospects of getting the tenants' association going again are not very bright. This is the kind of situation, ugly enough in terms of human relationships, apart from the 2504 money involved, which is created by the present law in respect of rents.
I mentioned, too, the effects on housing policy. I have already commented on the adverse effect which this has on what otherwise would be desirable changes of tenancy. There is also the undesirable effect on repairs. A very common feature of the new leases is that they place a greater responsibility on the tenant for repairs. First, indoor decorations are interpreted to mean anything from the water system inside the house to repairing dry rot. In some cases the whole onus is thrown on the tenant for internal repairs or even of complying with sanitary notices served on the property. As the Minister has admitted, sometimes the tenant will have to do all that with absolutely no security after he has lived there a mere three years. On any analysis, that cannot be sound housing policy.
It is not even adding to the total of accommodation of the kind which is really needed. The tenants of Dolphin Square have drawn attention to the fact that one by one the flats there are being converted into furnished service suites. In my constituency, the widow of a man who was killed at Dunkirk was turned out of her house because the landlord wanted to turn it into furnished rooms. Yet there is a desperate demand for unfurnished accommodation where people can build up a stable family life.
I want to quote from what the Minister said in the debate of 26th March, 1957:I am certain that an enormous amount of property which is at present under-occupied will be let almost as soon as the market is freed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1957; Vol. 567, c. 1001.]"An enormous amount of property will be let." In heaven's name, where is it? All of us could supply the Minister with names of any number of people who would be glad to go wherever this enormous amount of property is. It is not there. The Act has not fulfilled the claims which the Minister made for it.
That is why I said that the assumptions on which the present policy is based are fallacious. It has not produced a flow of accommodation for letting. It has not had the result that rents have settled at about a reasonable figure, such as two and a half times the gross value, which the right hon Gentleman thought was perhaps too much.
2505 In the end, when we appeal to the Minister, what is the only crumb of comfort which he gives? That the local authorities may be able to repair the defects of his policy by exercising their powers of compulsory purchase. Faced with the damage done by his own policy, the Minister is obliged to pick up the policy of municipal ownership of house property which has been urged by the Opposition. That is a ridiculous position for the Minister to be in. He ought to be prepared to accept that things have gone badly wrong and to order the inquiry for which we ask.
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)
Now that the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) has had his say, I wish to put this problem into the right perspective. There is a problem here, a problem almost entirely confined to the London area. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If it is not, then hon. Members representing constituencies outside London are being strangely quiet, because in the last three months hardly a single complaint has reached my Ministry from anywhere outside London and Greater London.
§ Mr. Allaun rose—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)
Order. If the Minister does not give way, the hon. Gentleman must sit down.
§ Mr. Brooke
All I am saying is that, during the Recess, during this time when the situation has been said to be so difficult, hardly a single complaint has come from anywhere outside the Greater London area. It is a problem almost entirely—I say almost entirely—confined to London. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] It is a little late for hon. Members to say "Nonsense" now. They have had three months in which to send in information.
§ Mr. Brooke
Nor have we been receiving any substantial complaints from 2506 local authorities outside the Greater London area that there is trouble in their districts. In the London and Greater London area there are at present, I estimate, about 250,000 houses and flats which have been decontrolled as a result of the Rent Act, 1957, and it is only in a tiny minority of that quarter of a million that serious trouble has arisen. The great majority of landlords of this decontrolled property have behaved very reasonably. They have shown particular sympathy to sitting tenants. When I publish the report of the sample survey to which I referred yesterday in the House, that will be proved by the figures. I have no reason to believe that, since 1959, landlords have changed their policy and have suddenly become extortionate even though they were behaving wholly reasonably until then.
Of course, I could match what the hon. Member for Fulham has said with individual cases which I could quote. From the very beginning of the time when I have been handling this Rent Act situation, I have been absolutely frank with the House and said that one cannot undo a situation which has been frozen for eighteen years and, at the same time, guarantee that there will be no hardship for any single individual. Whatever party was in power, sooner or later somebody had to tackle this situation of rent control which has done immeasurable harm to housing conditions in this country by not enabling landlords to keep up their properties, by forcing the properties to become run down. Sooner or later, it had to. be tackled, and I say quite frankly that my purpose all the time has been to reduce hardship to the very minimum, but never to guarantee that not a single individual could suffer hardship.
§ Mr. G. W. Reynolds (Islington, North)
The Minister has referred to a quarter of a million premises becoming decontrolled in the London area, and, of course, he has had the advantage of a report which we have not yet had the opportunity of seeing. Will he say what he means by "decontrolled". Is he including in the quarter of a million premises above £40 rateable value, where the three-year leases have not yet expired? That is an important point. Only about 10 per cent. of the three-year leases have so far expired. Are they included in the quarter of a million?
§ Mr. Brooke
That is important. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Every house or flat which is subject to a three-year agreement has, of course, been out of rent control since the beginning of the agreement. That is a point which some people have not appreciated. In the figure of a quarter of a million, I was referring to all those houses and flats above £40 rateable value which have come out of control, whether or not three-year agreements have been arrived at, plus those under £40 which have become decontrolled through vacant possession.
I was about to say that a quite considerable number of difficult cases have had nothing to do with grasping landlords. For instance, some tenants do not yet realise that rents must keep up with other costs. Other costs generally have risen three to four times since 1939. The figures of house maintenance costs, which never have been challenged in the House, have risen at least three and a half times. One of the difficulties here is that whereas other costs and prices have been rising steadily over the whole period since 1939, in the case of rents they were stabilised, frozen, at the 1939 level for eighteen years. Therefore, the process of adjustment has been more difficult than if it had been a gradual rise.
I was talking the other day to a tenant who had been living for many years in Central London in what was a very convenient position in relation to his work. He is now retired and is living on a pension. It was quite clear to me that he feels that he has a moral right to continue to live in this very convenient flat in Central London for the rest of his life, if he so chooses.
§ Mr. Brooke
It is a perfectly normal case.
The truth is that that man was asking that someone or other should subsidise him and should ensure that he should not have to pay what was a reasonable rent for that property in Central London. Of course, the effect of the demand which he was making—I know that he felt it was his moral right—was to keep someone else out of that flat, to ensure that someone else who was working in Central 2508 London and who would have found it very convenient indeed to be near his work was not able to get it. In other words, the feeling of people like that man—and I think it is also the policy of the Opposition—is that everyone should be entitled to go on living where he is at present without any thought for those who have not had the benefit of rent control over the years. It is all the other people who have been the unlucky ones.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I thank the Minister for giving way, but can we deal with this point of the pensioner to whom he refers? Where does he go? Assuming that he has no moral right to stay in the house and that there is a need for the house to become vacant so that someone else may occupy it, where does the pensioner go?
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Member is suggesting that there is no movement at all and yet, at the very same time, hon. Members opposite are complaining about creeping decontrol which occurs when there is movement. In fact, there is constant movement going on.
I entirely agree that it is becoming expensive to live in the most attractive parts of Central London, and we must recognise that fact. I believe that those parts of Central London should not necessarily always be occupied by the people who have always lived there but that there should be a chance for some of those who work in Central London to obtain a flat in the area in the future.
The second kind of difficulty arises in this way. Quite a number of people have obviously lodged a complaint with their Member of Parliament, with the Minister or with the Press simply on the receipt of one letter from their landlord. They have presumed that that is the rent which they will inevitably have to pay, that these are the final terms, that the landlord has set the ball rolling by asking a figure from which he will not depart. In plenty of cases it has been found that when the tenant has been encouraged to start negotiations with his landlord he has been able to agree more favourable terms.
§ Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that if a privately-owned flat becomes 2509 vacant and if a young couple make application for it and the landlord says, "I want £2 10s. per week for a one-bedroom flat," the prospective tenant has the power of negotiation.
§ Mr. Brooke
I am quite ready to give way to interruptions, but I am sure the House will realise that this is a fairly short debate and that the more I give way the fewer will be the hon. Members who will he able to take part in it. I was not referring to a case where the flat was vacant. I was referring to the case where the sitting tenant, who at present has a three-year agreement or whatever it may be, is coming to the end of his tenancy agreement and has received a letter from his landlord as to the terms on which the landlord says he will be willing to renew the agreement.
What I have pointed out is that, in case after case, it has been proved well worth while for the tenant to open negotiations. I have constantly given the advice that if it is a block of flats, the tenants would be well advised to join together and collectively to employ some professional man to act for them, because, whatever the Opposition say, there is a virtue in collective bargaining. It is much more likely that a professional man acting for a group of tenants will be able to secure reductions and improvements in the terms offered than if each individual tenant negotiates by himself.
§ Mr. M. Stewart
The Minister must know that the experience of the United Tenants' Association has been that, in the great majority of cases, landlords are not prepared to do this by collective bargaining.
§ Mr. Brooke
Let me say quite plainly that I do not recognise the United Tenants' Association as representative of all the tenants of London who are affected.
There is a third type of case and this is the very real difficulty which all of us want to help. It is the case of the tenant whose landlord is not asking more than what is a reasonable market rent for the property but, undeniably, the tenant cannot afford that rent. These are the cases in which I have invited local authorities and voluntary bodies and all concerned to try to find a solution. There is not a great number of 2510 these cases and I should like to thank hon. Members, on both sides, who, I know, have taken special trouble about cases like these to find a solution.
I have not yet come across any one of these cases which did not yield to thorough examination when all the possible agencies, official and voluntary, were enlisted to try to find a solution to the problem. These, however, are the people who deserve the utmost sympathy—the people who live on fixed incomes, who have for many years been accustomed to live in a particular street or block of flats. The reasonable rent of their accommodation has now gone beyond their means. It is not the landlord's fault, it is not their fault, but those are the cases—[HON. MEMBERS: "Whose fault is it?"] It is nobody's fault. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is the Government's fault."] The rents that the landlord may be asking may be substantially less than he could get from a new tenant. Nevertheless, these are the people who deserve special help and these are the people to whose problem I do not believe it is beyond the powers of the local authorities, the voluntary agencies and all those people like hon. Members to help to find a solution.
§ Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
This is an important group of the community. When my right hon. Friend makes a statement like that, can he please explain who has to pay? If he believes in all these voluntary agencies and local authorities helping them, I am sure that they would try. Can my right hon. Friend explain why, for instance, the Government will not allow the Transport Commission to pay the railway super-annuitants more money in order that they might, perhaps, meet their increased rents?
§ Mr. Brooke
As we have only another seventy minutes, I do not think I will try to answer for the Transport Commission. In some of those cases, however, I think that the local authorities can find a flat for them.
§ Mr. Brooke
Oh, yes, they can. Local authorities have shown that they have been able to do so in certain cases. [Interruption.] In certain cases, friends or relations can suggest somewhere where they can go, or voluntary agencies 2511 can do so. In some cases, it is found that the person can move to a cheaper flat elsewhere, perhaps in the possession of the same landlord—[Interruption.]—and that has been going on on a considerable scale. In some cases there may be a solution by sub-letting, but I have not yet found a single case where it was not possible to discover some solution.
§ Mr. Brooke
I know that we have to be careful not to discuss legislation, but I think I am entitled to say that any form of reimposition of control to deal with this problem would only put the clock back. All it would do would be to freeze the London housing situation, which everybody agrees to be an unsatisfactory situation. If we were to reimpose control that would be the end of any hope of ending the housing shortage and of producing enough accommodation to let. It would also, of course, ensure that those who have had the benefit of rent control over the years would continue to gain that benefit whereas others, the unprivileged half or three-quarters of the population, would be deprived of the same chance which they ought to have. Moreover, any action of that sort would ruin once and for all the chance of getting building to let restarted
The Government all the way through have been actuated by the hope that we can get private house building to let started again There has been virtually none of it since 1939.
§ Mr. Brooke
Our hopes that with the Act of 1957 it might be restarted were frustrated by the threats of the Opposition to municipalise housing. Now that it seems clear that the Opposition will have to wait many years before they will have the chance to force their false policies on the country that deterrent to the private developer has been removed, but if any Government were now to go back on the policy of rent decontrol then there would be the absolute certainty that we should never get back to private enterprise building to let.
2512 Various advice has been given to me in the columns of The Times and elsewhere that we should find some way to ease the transition. It has been suggested that we should extend the 1958 Landlord and Tenant (Temporary Provisions) Act to cover the end of the three-year tenancies. That, of course, means nothing but reimposing control. The 1958 Act was passed so that it would affect houses which had not yet come out of control, but those which have been subject to three-year tenancies have been out of control for the best part of these three years, so that any demand that we should extend the 1958 Act to them is simply in another form a demand for reimposition of control, and reimposition of control means, as I said, renewal of all the evils of rent control to which we have become so accustomed—all the effects in freezing the movement of population, depriving those who are not fortunate of their chance of rented houses, and driving down the condition of the properties, and, as I say, finally killing all hope of building new buildings to let.
The Government are not intending to reimpose control. What the Government did seek was a selective weapon, a selective weapon which would deal with the bad landlord without penalising the good, and that was why I issued the circular two and a half months ago telling local authorities in the Greater London area that if they came across cases where tenants were liable to be made homeless through the threat of extortionate rents I should be prepared to entertain compulsory purchase orders. It is, I think, of interest that up to the present moment only five local authorities in Greater London have submitted orders.
Five local authorities have submitted six compulsory purchase orders. That does not look as though local authorities throughout London agree with the Opposition that extortion is rife and widespread. Two of these six compulsory purchase orders have already been withdrawn through the landlord, wisely I think, having second thoughts when he saw what the effects of a compulsory purchase might be. The issue of that circular, undoubtedly in those two cases and in a great many other cases, has induced landlords to think again and to 2513 be ready to negotiate terms much more reasonably than their first demands on their tenants.
If a bad case is proved and comes within the terms of that circular I shall have no hesitation in confirming the compulsory purchase order. It is up to local authorities themselves to make sure that the terms really are extortionate. The mere fact that they are higher than the old rent, the mere fact that a particular tenant finds difficulty in paying, does not prove that the rent asked is extortionate. It is up to the local authority to investigate the case.
I know that some local authorities have apparently feared that if they compulsorily purchased they would have to pay whatever price the landlord demanded. That, of course, is a fallacy. They would have to pay the open market price. If the open market price is as high as the Opposition suggest it is, it proves that the rents asked are not extortionate. In fact, in most of the cases which have come to my notice where, prima facie, an extortionate rent is being asked, the property has fairly recently changed hands. The figure at which it changed hands in the open market would be, of course, a pretty good guide to the district valuer as to what was the proper figure for compensation on a compulsory purchase, which would be likely to be considerably lower than the figure which the owner had hoped to get.
§ Mr. Percy Holman (Bethnal Green) rose—
§ Mr. Holman
Would the Minister give us some indication of what he considers an extortionate demand by a landlord? I represent the area where one of the two compulsory purchase orders was withdrawn. The landlord demanded about eight times the gross rateable value and, when the demand was reduced to three and three-quarter times, the compulsory purchase order was withdrawn. Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that in the case of rather old property that figure, or somewhere in that neighbourhood, is fair, or does he put it higher or lower?
§ Mr. Brooke
If I saw a case where eight times the gross value was being 2514 demanded I would certainly say that it was prima facie evidence of an extortionate rent. But one can judge what is extortionate rent only in relation to the market value in that neighbourhood. There is no common multiplier applicable everywhere because of the character of the neighbourhood and changes that may have taken place.
I would say that the Opposition are doing a very bad service to London and Londoners in arguing that everyone who has gained benefits in the past from artificially low controlled rents has a right to stay on where he is as long as he likes at a rent which must be subsidised by somebody. The rest of the population has rights too—those who have not been living in rent-controlled properties and have not been favoured by rent control. I want everything possible to be done to help those who suffer genuine hardship, and in that circular I have indicated the various ways in which that can be done. But the real task is to solve London's housing problem, and the Opposition's policy would make sure that it never was solved.
§ 11.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)
Few people listening to the somewhat unrealistic and dangerously complacent speech of the Minister would guess that he himself is the architect, the creator, of the disastrous situation in London which we are discussing—
§ Mr. Robinson
—and, indeed, elsewhere, though I am particularly concerned about the situation in London.
It was in every respect a disappointing speech, with one crumb of comfort, that at last a figure has been extracted from the Minister as to what he considers to be an extortionate rent demand. So far he has resisted all attempts to extract from him any figure at all, but now he tells us that eight times the gross annual value of a house is, in his view, prima facie evidence of an extortionate demand.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he cannot use gross value as a yardstick. But it is the yardstick which was used in his own Rent Act in deciding the appropriate rent for houses which are still under control. I think that the House is entitled to a little more information 2515 about what the Minister considers an extortionate rent. For example, what does he consider is an extortionate rent in relation to another consideration, the rent that was payable before the Rent Act came into being? He knows perfectly well—he must by now know most of the facts about this problem, although he refuses to face them—that rents are being asked which are four and five times the rents payable before his Rent Act came into operation.
The Minister also told us, on the question of compulsory purchase, that if the value of the property had gone up as much as some of us had said, this meant that a high rent demand made by the landlord could not be held to be unreasonable. But he completely ignores the fact that the Rent Act itself has created in Greater London, where the supply of houses does not nearly meet the demand, a property speculators' paradise which the sharks that he professes to be against are able to exploit every day of the week. Property values are grossly inflated in the London area, they are totally unrealistic, and the only people who are suffering are, of course, the tenants.
If there were more time for this debate, I should have given a number of specific examples. We have all had some extremely tragic examples brought before us during the Recess. I will content myself by merely quoting one, because it is the most recent one that I have had, coming to me in the form of a telegram which reached me a few hours ago. It says:Good luck to you in rent debate.I do not know whether it means good luck in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, or in inducing the Minister to mend his ways.Mr. Brooke's complacency incredible. Am faced with £6 rent demand for one-roomed flat. Present rent £3.It is signed "A Conservative".
The Minister knows by now that many of the worst cases of which we have been complaining are those in which blocks of property have been sold during the three years following the Rent Act. These properties, thanks to decontrol, can now provide the new owners with the opportunity to evict and to re-let at any rent that the market will bear. The property 2516 market is still soaring, and these rents will go on increasing.
What advice does the Minister give us? In the circular to local authorities he said, "People must move out of London. People who do not have to live in London must move out. People must go into cheaper accommodation." But where are we to find this accommodation?
The other suggestion that the Minister made was the idea that local authorities should be encouraged to put compulsory purchase orders on properties where they are satisfied that the rent demands by landlords are exorbitant. But the Conservatives' planning policy now provides for compulsory purchase at market values, which is exactly what a number of these speculators would like. This is no deterrent to a man who is prepared to sell his property. It is no good saying that if he purchased it a year or two ago the price he paid would be regarded as current market value by the district valuer. It could not be, for in the speculative property market values are soaring all the time. It is as easy as falling off a log today for any fool in the property market to make a tax-free profit any time he likes. Look at Clore and Cotton and a number of others. I should like to know what the Minister has done about the four applications which have come before him which have not been withdrawn.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned two people by name. In fairness it should be pointed out that these two gentlemen are in business and their profits are taxable. They are not tax-free.
§ Mr. Robinson
I know that their profits are properly taxable, but people who are not in the property business but are casual speculators get tax-free gains.
It is clear that the Conservative Government's policy is, as always, a high rents policy. They believe in high rents as a matter of principle. Any idea of a rent which is a modest one, or which carries any element of subsidy, is anathema to them. They carry this policy beyond the field of private landlords. Last time we debated the subject of London housing, on 27th July, I made a passing reference to the situation in St. Pancras, a situation involving council tenants.
2517 In the months that have elapsed since then, as the right hon. Gentleman must know, the situation there has deteriorated to the point at which there has been bloodshed. We have had what have been probably the most serious civil disorders seen in the London area since the war. This is the result of a Conservative council's housing policy, which has been publicly and specifically commended by the Minister. This is the result of a council introducing a vicious differential rents policy—[HON. MEMBERS "Oh."]—in a highly political manner, guaranteed to cause the maximum disturbance, creating a genuine grievance among honest, decent people of such a degree that it enabled other, unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends.
I am not in any way trying to condone the use of violence, but I say that this situation was absolutely a gift for anybody who wanted to exploit a grievance. It is the responsibility of the Conservative housing policy, both at borough council mid at Governmental level. This is what happens when the Conservative Government get their policy into operation on housing and rents.
The Minister has given us no comfort at all. He obviously thinks that he can ride the wind in this matter. This situation will get steadily worse over the months to come as more and more three-year agreements expire, and he will find that the wind will rise and rise. He may find himself soon trying to ride a gale. If that gale blows him out of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, he has only himself to blame.
§ 11.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I shall refer to only two remarks of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson). I shall be delighted to see the telegram which he mentioned. If he will take the advice of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and, on behalf of his constituent, will approach the landlord, there is not the slightest doubt that a reasonable rent will be reached.
I propose to say little about the St. Pancras troubles, except that it must be obvious to the hon. Member and other hon. Members that any local council, whatever its political colour, ought to charge a fair economic rent for its properties while, of course, having a differential rents scheme for those who 2518 genuinely cannot afford to pay the economic rent. There is nothing wrong in that and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support that policy. That others who belong to political parties not represented in the House should cause dissension and trouble and riots and should be, I regret to say, almost approved of by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North I can only—
§ Mr, K. Robinson
That is the grossest misrepresentation of what I said. I went out of my way to say that I did not in any way condone the use of violence and that, indeed, I condemn it. What I said was that the grievance which gave rise to the situation was the responsibility of the Conservative council.
§ Mr. Doughty
I say at once that I did not mean to say that the hon. Member condoned violence. I did not say that. What I said was that by what he has said tonight, the hon. Member will have seemed to approve the objections to the policy of the St. Pancras Borough Council, thereby giving encouragement to those who wish to distort and twist the facts, which, I am sure, the hon. Member does not do at all.
I start with a few facts. Let us not forget that since 1951, an important date in the political life of this country, no fewer than approximately 7 million people have been rehoused in new houses. That is a very big step forward in the solution of any housing problem. Under the present Minister, no fewer than I million new houses and flats have been built. It is thanks to his energy and his drive, taking over from previous Ministers of Housing and Local Government, that it has been possible for 3 million people to live in those houses today.
§ Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)
Is the hon. and learned Member suggesting that sufficient accommodation is available in this country for all those who need it? Is he saying that the Government have put the country in such a state that there are no waiting lists for houses?
§ Mr. Doughty
I must ask the hon. Member to listen to what I say. I did not say that or anything like it. I gave certain figures which are extremely important and which I will repeat for the 2519 benefit of the hon. Member. Since the present Minister of Housing and Local Government took office, no fewer than 1 million houses and flats have been built and approximately 3 million people are now living in completely new houses and flats throughout England and Wales. That is an important fact when considering the housing record of the present Minister and of the Government.
But that is not all. Slum houses are being swept away at the rate of 1,000 a week. A very big slum clearance programme is now taking place. We all ought to be thoroughly ashamed of some of the slum conditions which existed during and after the war and we can be very proud that this slum clearance scheme is taking place at such a rapid rate.
The House Purchase and Housing Act, 1959, quadrupled the rate of modernisation of the older houses which are not slum houses. In 1959, there were approximately 80,000 applications for grants under that Act and it is possible that there will be 100,000 this year.
Let us now consider the position which has resulted from the Rent Act, the very matter which we are discussing tonight. Before the Act was passed, controlled houses, that is to say, houses which were subject to the control of the Rent Acts, were literally falling to pieces, because landlords could not do the repairs because they could not get sufficient rents to enable them to do so. [Interruption.] I advise hon. Members to listen because there are certain facts which concern them very much.
In addition, there was gross under-occupation, and hon. Members know perfectly well what I mean by that. People who had brought up a family in a house or flat and had had their family grow up and leave, looking for houses and flats of their own, had remained in the original house or flat because they were paying a ridiculously small rent—and I use the word "ridiculously" advisedly—not moving out because anywhere else they would have to pay the open market rent which would be more expensive.
Younger people could not get a house in which to bring up a family. That was a scandalous state of affairs. It also prevented the movement of workers. Anybody who was offered a better job in 2520 another part of the country would not go because it would mean leaving a house which was controlled at a ridiculously low rent.
§ Mr. Doughty
The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening to what I said. I said that if a man was offered a better job in another part of the country he was not prepared to move out of a house with a ridiculously low controlled rent.
§ Mr. Pargiter
The hon. and learned Gentleman misunderstood what I said. I asked why people who had brought up a family should be forced to move out of the house in which they had lived for a long time.
§ Mr. Doughty
I will explain why. They are occupying premises which are too big for their requirements, and they are forced to do so for the simple reason—[Interruption.]—if hon. Gentlemen do not want to listen to what I have to say I will not continue.
One of the causes of the failure of the policy of the party opposite is that when it was in power and the Rent Act was in force—and rightly so—at the end of the war, rents were paid at 1939 levels. The party opposite failed to do what was done after the First World War. It failed to make an increase in some degree adequately to keep up with the rising cost of living, or the fall in the value of money.
It is interesting to note what hon. Gentlemen propose to do now. I am aware, Mr. Speaker, that we cannot talk about legislation, and I will not do so, but I am not unaware that there are suggestions abroad that the Rent Act should be repealed, and that means that rents should be pegged at some level. But what level? At the 1939 level? Is that what hon. Gentlemen propose? I have not heard any contrary suggestions. Who is to pay the difference between the proper rent and the artificially low rent which hon. Gentlemen want to introduce? Will it be the landlord? Will it be the ratepayer? Or will it be the taxpayer? Those are questions which need to he answered and which will be asked if any legislation of this kind is introduced by means of a Private Bill or other means.
2521 When the 1957 Act was properly introduced to remedy some of the evils which I have mentioned, and others which I have not time to mention, what was the reaction of the party opposite? Hon. Gentlemen said that tens of thousands of people would be thrown on the streets. With some knowledge of the courts, I can tell hon. Members that the number of possession and eviction cases is a fraction of what it used to be when I used to go to the county courts.
§ Mr. Doughty
The hon. Gentleman is speaking while remaining seated. I assure the House that there are not many passession cases, and in fact relations between landlords and tenants are excellent.
§ Mr. Janner
That is not so. People are going out because they know very well that if they go to court they cannot get protection under the Act.
§ Mr. Doughty
Naturally no hon. Members support the action of a few greedy and rapacious landlords. It is right that the Minister's Circular No. 45 of 1960 should be brought into force. It is a powerful weapon. It is the big stick, and when one has the big stick it is not always necessary to use it, provided that those on whom it is to be used know of its existence and are aware that it will be used.
The Government can be proud of their housing record. They can be proud that they tackled what was undoubtedly a difficult problem caused in part, though not entirely, by the actions of the party opposite. The Minister can be proud of the number of new houses he has built. The Minister can be proud of the repairs which have been carried out to the old houses and of the slum clearance which is going on. We stand well upon our record. The Minister has been assailed, but this record will bear examination in houses for sale, houses to let and conversions of older houses into better housing units.
We see from the Herbert Report why London is such a magnet to so many people in this country and other countries, but the fact that people say, "I want to go to live in Central London" is no reason why every wish should be granted There are many districts near 2522 London, with excellent services, where people live who work in London. I represent one of them. Since the last election I have not had a single letter, a single personal complaint or a single approach by anybody complaining that they are being evicted from a decontrolled property or are being asked for an exorbitant rent by their landlord for a new tenancy. It does not seem that there is very much wrong with the working of the 1957 Act.
The fact is that people are better housed in Britain now than they have ever been. That is a fact. But a good housing policy must be a dynamic housing policy and must take account of the movement of the population, the introduction of new standards and fashions in living and the fact that neighbourhoods sometimes decay or, on the contrary, become fashionable and the rents vary according to the movements of the population and the popularity of the neighbourhood. It would be a retrograde and fatal step if, in the interests of some hard cases, we were to freeze the situation as it now is, which apparently hon. Members opposite want to do. Of course, hon. Members of all parties wish to seek to alleviate hard cases, [HON. MEMBERS: "How?"] Take an interest in constituency cases and find out. The remedy is to continue the programme of house building, slum clearance and house conversion and repair and to encourage and induce people to save to purchase their own houses.
§ 11.23 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
Listening to the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) one would think that the Government have done a wonderful job, that there was nothing to complain about and that there were no cases of hardship. I wish that he would come to my constituency or the adjoining constituencies and sit in the surgery there and listen to the scores of people who come to complain about what their landlords have done, about increases in rent and about dreadful profiteering. He must be a very fortunate man Ito have no complaints in his constituency.
Even the Minister admitted at the start of his speech that this is a problem, although he said that it is limited to 2523 London. I do not believe that it is limited to London, but, even if it is, what does he intend to do about it? Even the Minister admitted that there are many hard cases. What does he intend to do about them? Issue a circular to local authorities asking them to use some doubtful method of a compulsory purchase order which he knows perfectly well cannot be carried out effectively—certainly in many cases.
I have a great number of cases of hardship in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) quoted one from Stoke Newington. I will read a letter to the House which in my submission is typical of the sort of thing that is going on in North London. I hope that the House will bear with me, because it is an example of real hardship. It is a letter written to me by a lady. I will not disclose her name, although the Minister has seen this letter. She writes:I am bringing my plight to your notice in the hope that by this means my home will be saved from a profiteering landlord. I am in acute distress due to my landlord having increased my rent with a prospective new tenancy agreement from £90 to £200 per annum plus all rates and indoor repairs and decorations.When this flat which I now occupy became available in July, 1957, the landlord gave me a three years' agreement with the rent fixed at £90 p.a. plus rates.That was one of the three-year agreements that this lady was able to get in 1957.In March this year the house was sold to Indsont Investments Ltd., for £1,100. After purchase their agent came to view, and remarked, 'Anyone who sees this flat will know that you are a good tenant and would not want you to leave, but with a new agreement your rent will go up, probably to £150 p.a.' On his next visit he said the rent could be increased to £200 p.a. When I informed him that I was a pensioner and living alone and thus unable to pay such a high rent, he just shrugged his shoulders. In July, I received a notice to give up possession. I applied for a new agreement and was informed the rent would be £200 plus rates and indoor maintenance.I applied to the N.A.B. for assistance with this new rent but have been informed that they were not prepared to meet this rent but would help a little.The position is this:—I am a retired pensioner drawing a weekly pension of £2 6s. 0d., plus a supplementary pension of £2 7s. 0d. from the N.A.B., a total of £4 13s. 0d. To this I must add 1s. 2d. in order 2524 to meet the new rent. The rent of £200 plus the general rate of £21 5s. 0d., water rate of £1 15s. 0d., together with the apportioned share of stair lighting which is £3 1s. 0d., which is paid with the rent, amounts to a weekly payment of £4 14s. 2½d. On top of this they require £11 for costs of tenancy agreement.Until this happened I was able to carry on without charity, as I have a comfortable home. I have tried unsuccessfully to obtain other accommodation. I cannot afford the high cost of storage, and if I sell my furniture I will be homeless, resulting in mental and physical illness. Also I have made good broken walls and floors, painted and papered all through, and had Rado-Vecta gas fires installed in two rooms. I have not even enjoyed the benefit of all the expense and labour I have put into the flat, I have made it as perfect as it is possible to do. I have written to the owners asking for a lesser rent, but time is running out, and I am extremely anxious".She then adds this paragraph:With my children I have lived in this district since 1933. One son who was killed in the war was a messenger for Stoke Newington A.R.P. Another son was a Territorial in the City of London Fusiliers, and after being wounded in France served until the end of the war, another son, a Home Guard until his call-up in 1942 also served till the end of the war abroad. A daughter was in the A.T.S. I myself am ex-service from both world wars, was invalided home from France in 1919, and hold the Silver Badge for services rendered then.In 1927 I was left an invalid with five children under nine years of age destitute, and although this has no bearing on my rent problem, it does emphasise the fact that I have had a hard life rearing a family, and do not deserve to be threatened with eviction just to satisfy a greedy grasping landlord, at a time when I have more need of my home than ever before. I therefore appeal to you to refer this hardship to some responsible authority".In my innocence, I referred it to the Minister as the responsible authority. I received a very interesting reply from him. His letter is dated 22nd August, 1960, and it says:I assume that she took up the tenancy of Flat 5 on or after 6th July, 1957, when the Rent Act came into force, and that it is therefore outside control.The assumption is correct.It may be, of course, that this flat became available to let as a result of the Rent Act provisions, which were designed to encourage landlords to maintain and increase the amount of property to let"—not to profiteer, of course.However that may be, I hope that as a result of her approach to her landlords she will find some solution to her problem: if agreement cannot be reached on the rent for 2525 her present flat, they may have other cheaper accommodation under their control which they would be ready to let to her.How well the Minister knows landlords.But if it proves impossible to come to an understanding with them, she will have to turn to one of the other alternatives which are mentioned in our recent circular on the Rent Act, a copy of which I enclose. I recognise that if she has to move it will not be easy to find something suitable at a rent she can afford, and that it is not easy for someone who has lived for so long in one district to contemplate moving any substantial distance away; but nevertheless, it would be far less difficult for her to find something within her means further out from the centre of London, or even outside London altogether. Another possibility … would be to sublet or share her flat, and so divide the expenses.I sent that delightful reply to the lady. The lady got the assistance of the Mayor of Stoke Newington and the landlord reduced the increase to a small extent. I received another letter from her the contents of which she asked me to mention to the Minister of Housing. This will be a good opportunity to do so. She said:The rent is still far too high and is going to cause severe hardship, but I am too old to start looking for a new home. My landlord only purchased this house in March. We neither know his name nor address, and apart from our paying-in bank slips we have no rent book. He has not spent one penny on the property. I have only been able to contact him through his solicitors. I am not allowed to sublet. Please convey these facts to the Minister of Housing."Ah," says the Minister, "go to your local council and get a compulsory purchase order." For what? For a single flat? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that a practical suggestion? This case is typical of many similar cases in my constituency. The Minister says complacently, "There are hard cases, but you have got to have hard cases." What is he going to do about the hard cases? He talks about what the Government have done. They may have built houses, but, as hon. Members know from what they hear in their letters and their surgeries and from the borough councils, there are thousands of people on housing lists who cannot be accommodated even though the councils have built houses and done everything they can to help.
I wish to mention one further thing in connection with this case, which is typical of what is happening today. The matter was referred to the chairman of the National Assistance Board personally be- 2526 cause it was a very bad case of hardship. He wrote to me saying:She is in receipt of a retirement pension of 46s., reapplied to the Board for a supplement in June, 1960, when she lost her part-time job as a theatre cloakroom attendant. The weekly grant of 47s. which was put into payment included 43s. to cover in full the out goings on her three-roomed flat. As you know, the rent was more than doubled at the end of July and the total outgoings rose to more than 85s. a week. This is much more than the Board can reasonably provide out of public funds for a person living alone …The local officer got in touch with the lady and, as a result, the supplementary grant has been increased from 43s. to 59s.—16s. a week. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise what that means? He is reluctant to give subsidies to local councils in order that they may build houses, but here he gives a subsidy to a private landlord. Here is a typical example of how the Rent Act operates. The right hon. Gentleman recognises that there are hard cases. What is he going to do about them?
§ 11.34 p.m.
Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)
I thought that the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) rather spoilt his case by repeating the old argument which we have heard so often that the fact that the National Assistance Board helps people with their rents is equivalent to public money being paid out to help landlords. One might equally say that where money received from the Board is spent in the local co-operative shop for food the Board is subsidising the Co-operative movement.
When the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) opened the debate he said, among other things, that the Minister had gravely under-estimated the gravity of the position, or words to that effect. On the other hand, I would say that the Opposition are guilty of the most immense exaggeration of this problem. I agree most strongly with my right hon. Friend that the problem is a highly local one. I do not deny for a moment that there are difficulties in certain parts of the Central London area. That is to be expected, and however many houses are built in England as a whole there will always be a shortage at the centre of one of the greatest cities in the world. That is something which is quite inevitable. That is quite unavoidable.
§ Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)
What about the East End of London, as well as Central London?
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
It is fairly close to the centre. Let me make this point, which may not have occurred to the hon. Member. If there were not this pressure on accommodation in London, it could only be because we were in a tremendous slump and there would be much graver complaints of unemployment and hardship.
I should like to give some facts and evidence in support of my right hon. Friend's contention as to the local nature of the problem from the constituency in the county borough which I represent. Croydon—
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I should have said that it was a quite typical county borough in the Greater London area. Admittedly, it is a good deal larger than the other ones, but in other respects it is quite typical. It has accommodation of all types. If the hon. Member thinks that my constituency is one where wealthy people live, I should like him to disabuse himself of that idea.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I should have thought that this problem might have been expected to be more serious in Croydon than in some of the London boroughs, because the proportion of privately-owned property is much higher than in the country as a whole.
Speaking from memory, there are 58,000 or 59,000 privately-owned houses in the county borough. It is a matter of interest that for a long time after this campaign was started by the Opposition, I received no letters of any kind, neither did my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. R. Thompson), with whom I compared notes. Then, some weeks ago—it may surprise hon. Members opposite that we did this—my association advertised a public meeting to discuss the problem. It was well advertised and, considering 2528 the comparative unimportance of the Member who went to speak, it was well attended. The curious thing was that although there was serious consideration and we had an interesting, constructive discussion of the remarks I had to make, there were no protests. I was surprised, but there were none. Since then, I have received only one letter from a tenant, and that was anonymous.
Contrary to what was asserted in the House yesterday, the Croydon Council made it clear, although it is not a Labour-controlled council, that it wished to help people who were the victims of exorbitant demands. The council encouraged such persons to communicate with the town hall. I was informed a week ago that, up till then, only one complaint had been submitted for investigation. On investigation, it appeared that it was not so much a case of an exorbitant rent—indeed, the housing committee did not consider that the rent asked was unreasonable—but, as my right hon. Friend said is the nub of the problem, it was none the less beyond the means of the tenant to pay. That is the real difficulty in this problem.
This is a difficulty that applies Chiefly to the older generation. Anybody can see that for people who are living on a 1939 pension—I am speaking not of people who depend on the National Insurance pension, but of people who are living on private occupational pensions or the investment of private savings—the fall in the value of money, whether reflected in rent or anything else, presents a terrible problem. We all know that.
I am much less sympathetic with the people who are earning 1960 salaries or wages, except in so far as they may be being kept out of accommodation that would be suitable for them by the operation of rent control, which was the other point made by my right hon. Friend. I will say quite frankly at the risk of sticking my neck out that, though I recognise that we are absolutely bound by the pledge which was given not to vary rent control during the life of the present Parliament, I am not at all convinced that it is necessarily a wise policy. Not at all.
I think the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) made 2529 a very interesting point—unintentionally, I think—when he rather twitted my right hon. Friend on discounting the gross rateable value as a useful yardstick for arriving at whether the rent was extortionate or not and none the less depending on it for a property which remains under control; but the point is that my right hon. Friend has no other choice at present.
The moment we have got to wait for, before we form a true idea of what rent is extortionate in particular cases and what not, is surely that when we get the revaluation for rates—I think in 1963—on current values. Till then I think it is very difficult indeed to make an arbitrary statement that a particular rent is either exorbitant or reasonable as the case may be.
§ Mr. Marsh
The hon. and gallant Member suggests that one cannot establish what is an exorbitant rent, at this stage. Assuming that one can at some time in the future establish what is an exorbitant rent, would he agree that when one can establish that the rent is exorbitant the tenant ought to be protected against an excessive rent? Does he agree that there should be some revision of the Rent Act to protect tenants against exorbitant rents?
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I do not myself agree with the Opposition in so discounting the action which has been taken already. I think that the threat of compulsory purchase in such cases is an effective one. I cannot see why it should not be, because it is possible for a local authority's valuation department to form a very good idea of what it will have to pay if the order goes through, and the housing authority can tell very accurately what the property is going to cost to maintain, and a reasonable rent can be calculated and compared with what is being asked. I know the hon. Member is going to say, "How do we apply that to the one-room flat?" That, taken in isolation, I concede at once, is a difficulty, but one can at least compare the rent with the rent being charged for other flats: presumably a one-room flat is part of a larger building.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North) rose—
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I have given way on a number of occasions, but 2530 I cannot give way now, because there are other Members who wish to speak.
All I want to say is that I think that part of the difficulty we are in today has come from a habit of mind which has been engendered by forty years of rent control, the idea that a widow, shall we say, has a natural right to stay on in the same property after her husband has died. When I was a boy, when he heard that "Poor Dr. So-and-so is dead" the first thing one heard the grown-ups saying was, "Wonder where Mrs. So-and-so will live now." It never occurred to anybody that she would try to go on living in the doctor's house. The freezing effect of rent control has engendered the habit of mind that people must say where they are.
The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North asked where they could go. If they are retired, surely he will agree that they can go some distance from London without necessarily incurring any hardship.
§ Mr. W. Edwards
The hon. and gallant Member talks glibly as though they can go some distance from London. If somebody is on a retirement pension, what place can he go to, and how far from London? Can the hon. and gallant Member tell me that?
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I can give a practical example. I was about to do so. In my own case, I had a small house—not large compared with some of the houses being considered tonight. It was in the country about an hour and three quarters' drive from London by car.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
When I got into Parliament I tried to let it furnished. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that for two or three months it remained empty. Eventually it fetched four guineas a week; though it had five bedrooms, that was all. In my part of the world, in the vicinity of Bognor Regis, which I am talking about. there has been no pressure of housing accommodation.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
The hon. Member talks of Bognor Regis as though it were as far as Tomsk or Omsk. I do recognise—as has been recognised throughout the debate—that there must be hard cases in a change of this nature. There is no easy or quick solution, but I am certain, as are my hon. Friends, that the worst possible solution would be to go back again to rent control.
§ 11.45 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
This is the second occasion on which I have had the pleasure of winding up a debate today, but this time I have a little more support than I had earlier, and that is a great consolation. I am grateful that time was found for us to debate this very important matter.
If the question had been put to me last June whether there was a great deal of hardship because of the Rent Act, I would have agreed with the Minister that to the best of my knowledge the answer was "No." I can speak for every London and Middlesex Member in that. But since then some of us have been engaged in a campaign. I can produce a folder of about ten thousand letters which any hon. Member can read and check.
The right hon. Gentleman asked for information, and so we wrote to the local Press throughout London and Middlesex to get that information. We then sent it to the Minister giving details similar to those given tonight by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, South (Mr. Weitzman). The Minister said that he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do, and his advice was that these people should get out of London. That is the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) was trying to get in on.
The Minister claims to be a Londoner. I am thoroughly ashamed of him as a fellow-Londoner. I do not know how he can say such a thing to his own people of his own great City. It means a great deal to those who do live there to be able to live in South London, and it is the same with other parts of London. I live in South London and I 2532 would not want to live in the East End. Their own districts mean a lot to Londoners. For the Minister to say that they should get out is something one simply cannot do to people.
We on this side of the House, and a few Tories, regard it as very insulting to say to people that because they have rent hardship they should get out. I must say that some London Conservative Members might have risen to express their point of view. There has been some humbug spoken by Members opposite outside the House about how sympathetic they are. But the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) says that he has not had any letters. Let him ask London Tories. If they told the truth they would tell him that they have had a great number of letters. But one of the troubles is that some people living in these conditions are a little afraid to write.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I have not found any great fear about writing so far from my constituents. My point was to try to emphasise the extremely local nature of the problem. I am well aware that it is present in other districts.
§ Mr. Mellish
This is not confined to London and Middlesex. It is in all the big cities, and it is giving great concern there as well. I sincerely believe that in the coming months the problem will grow. It will grow whether we like it or not. We have to keep coming back to this problem and the Minister will have to give way. The Minister is really a humbug. He says that he is opposed to rent control. If that is so, why did he not decontrol rents of property of under £40 rateable value? If his logic is that control is bad then he should have been a good honest Tory and thrown control away altogether. The hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East says that that is what he should do. But the Minister has not the courage to do that, because he knows that he would have a revolution round his neck that might even unite this Labour Party. That is something that I have been wanting to say for a long time, both in this House and outside.
I would tell the Minister now that the tragedy today is that through their legislation the Government are causing hardship to thousands upon thousands of 2533 decent people, and these people look to us, to this great movement, to get them out of their trouble—they demand it of us—and we are not in a position, at least many of us are not, to fight the case against the people who are causing it.
The only satisfaction that we have is that our ideals are great and honourable, but in the meantime the ordinary people are suffering. It is shameful that Londoners should be told what they have been told by the Minister and shameful that we of the Labour Party are not in a better position to argue the case before us.
§ 11.51 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir K. Joseph)
The whole House will acknowledge the deeply-felt words which we have just heard from the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish).
I want to acknowledge, as my right hon. Friend has throughout, that transitions are always awkward for all concerned and in many cases are deeply disturbing and verging on tragic. But, having said that, I think that every sensible person in the country recognises that the rent freeze just cannot continue with justice to those on the waiting lists and with justice to those who are frozen in steadily dilapidating property so long as rents are below the current level.
The fact is that most landlords have been and are being reasonable. That does not mean that there is not a legitimate subject for debate, because some landlords have not been and are not being reasonable, and that is acknowledged.
Most tenants have had income rises commensurate with, or more than, the rent rises which are being asked from them where decontrol has occurred. What these tenants have to do is to tot up their incomes and recognise that the rent that they are asked to pay now is no more than is justified by the changed value of money, the changed costs of other commodities and the changed costs of building the houses which they occupy.
§ Mr. W. Edwards rose—
§ Sir K. Joseph
I have no time to give way.
2534 But in some cases, as my right hon. Friend has acknowledged, even where the rent is reasonable and the landlord is reasonable, the tenant just cannot afford it. There are some answers to these people—not complete answers.
First of all, I hope that the House will recognise that movement is practicable. Tens of thousands of families are moving out of the main urban centres and moving in each year. The recent review by the L.C.C. gives the figures very plainly. These people move voluntarily. Not every move makes a vacancy, but most moves do make one directly or indirectly at one remove.
But for those who cannot move—and, of course, it is recognised that many have to stay in London—the real tragedy is that all local authorities are not encouraging the movement of their more prosperous tenants out of council accommodation so as to make room for those people for whom that accommodation is specially needed.
§ Mr. W. Edwards rose—
§ Sir K. Joseph
I will not give way. If anybody presumes to suggest that that is a party point, I would remind them of a letter in "The Times" in which the London Labour Party acknowledged that a differential rent scheme was Labour policy.
The third point that I want to make in aid of those who cannot afford a reasonable rent and who cannot move is that my right hon. Friend and I have evidence that in many cases the efforts of M.P.s and others to negotiate with the landlord or to find other accommodation with or without the help of the local authority, have been effective. I am sure that all M.P.s will wish to continue these efforts.
But there are still cases where the rent is extortionate, and here I think that the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) and his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) have done the very greatest disservice to those whom they seek to look after by underestimating the compulsory purchase order weapon.
Market value for a compulsory purchase order is based not on the maximum rent which an unscrupulous landlord can screw out of an ignorant and often 2535 frightened tenant, but what the market would pay. We must remember that in this case "market" means somebody moving into vacant accommodation, whereas the extortionate landlord is generally operating with a sitting tenant frightened of losing his security.
The House will recognise that, with the very best will in the world, local authorities cannot possibly do everything in housing. Already they are receiving more than £60 million a year in subsidy from the taxpayer. But even local authorities need an income to enable them to deal with housing, an income that must come partly from subsidy and partly from rents.
But if local authorities need an income to provide housing then of course, equally, private enterprise needs an income to provide housing. Every time that people stress that rents should remain at an artificial level, or, as the hon. Member for Bermondsey has said, that if people cannot afford to pay the current rent they should not be put in a position where they might have to move, because they are Londoners, or because members of one particular area are entitled to live there whatever the economic change—every time that happens and there is political abuse of landlords and a refusal to allow them the current rate for the job, landlords and private enterprise are obliged to go on concentrating on new houses for sale and to build outside the problem areas. This sort of abuse means that the rescue operation for those on the waiting lists and those in bad property is every day longer deferred.
My right hon. Friend and the whole House have listened to speeches in the debate and I should like to congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) on a very realistic speech in which he alone stressed that the economic environment has changed and that people are wrong in expecting that they can be permanently protected from that change. If local authorities will play
§ their part and tenants will continue to negotiate where possible, and if the whole country will recognise that most landlords are behaving reasonably, and that for those few who do not, a compulsory purchase order is an extremely effective and powerful weapon, as has been proved by experience in the last two and a half months, we shall be part of the way towards the first step in solving the problem. The first step needed to solve it is that economic rents should be once again accepted.
§ Movement towards an economic rent, however distressing it may be—and after all economic rents are in no case going beyond the movement of income since 1939—and changes of tenancies, which in the local authorities' case have often been far too frozen, with all the jolts involved and in many cases deeply disturbing insecurity, are only steps on the way to what all hon. Members desire, which is housing accommodation and space for those people who in tonight's debate have far too often been ignored by hon. Members opposite, namely those on the waiting list.
§ 11.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)
I am sure that the House will think that what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has just said is absolute nonsense and no reply to the point which has been made in the debate. The hon. Gentleman has said nothing whatever to show that the Rent Act is not inflicting hardship upon certain people, particularly in my constituency. All the hon. Gentleman has talked about has been the circular which the Minister issued two and a half months ago. Whereas that circular may have benefited some people who were having extortionate demands made upon them at that time, it has not helped those who had had demands made upon them before it was issued.
§ Question put, That this House do now adjourn:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 124, Noes 199.2539
|Division No. 156.]||AYES||[12 m.|
|Abse, Leo||Blackburn, F.||Brown, Alan (Tottenham)|
|Albu, Austen||Blyton, William||Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Belper)|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Bowden, Herbert W. (Leics, S.W.)||Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.)|
|Awbery, Stan||Bowles, Frank||Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)|
|Bacon, Miss Alice||Braddock, Mrs. E. M.||Callaghan, James|
|Beaney, Alan||Brockway, A. Fenner||Castle, Mrs. Barbara|
|Cliffe, Michael||Janner, Barnett||Reynolds, G. W.|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda||Jay, Rt. Hon. Douglas||Rhodes, H.|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Jeger, George||Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)|
|Crosland, Anthony||Jenkins, Roy (Stechford)||Rogers, G. H. R. (Kensington, N.)|
|Crossman, R. H. S.||Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)||Short, Edward|
|Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Silverman, Julius (Aston)|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||Jones, Elwyn (West Ham, S.)||Silverman, Sydney (Nelson)|
|Delargy, Hugh||King, Dr. Horace||Skeffington, Arthur|
|Dodds, Norman||Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannook)||Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)|
|Donnelly, Desmond||Lever, Harold (Cheetham)||Snow, Julian|
|Driberg, Tom||Lever, L. M. (Ardwick)||Sorensen, R. W.|
|Dugdale, Rt. Hon. John||Lewis, Arthur (West Ham, N.)||Soskice, Rt. Hon. Sir Frank|
|Edelman, Maurice||Loughlin, Charles||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Edwards, Walter (Stepney)||Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson||Stewart, Michael (Fulham)|
|Evans, Albert||MaoColl, James||Stonehouse, John|
|Fernyhough, E.||Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)||Summerskill, Dr. Rt. Hon. Edith|
|Fletcher, Eric||Marsh, Richard||Swain, Thomas|
|Foot, Dingle||Mellish, R. J.||Sylvester, George|
|Gaitskell, Rt. Hon. Hugh||Mendelson, J. J.||Symonds, J. B.|
|George, Lady Megan Lloyd||Millan, Bruce||Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)|
|Ginsburg, David||Mitchison, G. R.||Thornton, Ernest|
|Gourlay, Harry||Morris, John||Tomney, Frank|
|Greenwood, Anthony||Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)||Wainwright, Edwin|
|Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly)||Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Phllip (Derby, S.)||Watkins, Tudor|
|Gunter, Ray||Oram, A. E.||Weitzman, David|
|Hale, Leslie (Oldham, W.)||Pargiter, G. A.||White, Mrs. Eirene|
|Hall, Rt. Hon. Glenvil (Colne Valley)||Parker, John (Dagenham)||Wigg, George|
|Hannan, William||Parkin, B. T. (Paddington, N.)||Wilkins, W. A.|
|Hart, Mrs. Judith||Pavitt, Laurence||Willey, Frederick|
|Hayman, F. H.||Peart, Frederick||Williams, Rev. LI. (Abertillery)|
|Healey, Denis||Plummer, Sir Leslie||Wilson, Rt. Hon. Harold (Huyton)|
|Herbison, Miss Margaret||Prentice, R. E.||Winterbottom, R. E.|
|Holman, Percy||Price, J. T. (Westhoughton)||Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.|
|Howell, Charles A.||Probert, Arthur||Yates, Victor (Ladywood)|
|Hoy, James H.||Randall, Harry|
|Hynd, John (Atteroliffe)||Redhead, E. C.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Mr. Sydney Irving and Mr. Cronin.|
|Agnew, Sir Peter||Digby, Simon Wingfield||Jackson, John|
|Aitken, W. T.||Doughty, Charles||Johnson, Eric (Blackley)|
|Allan, Robert (Paddington, S.)||Drayson, G. B.||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey|
|Allason, James||Eccles, Rt. Hon. Sir David||Jones, Rt. Hn. Aubrey (Hall Green)|
|Arbuthnot, John||Errington, Sir Eric||Joseph, Sir Keith|
|Ashton, Sir Hubert||Farr, John||Kerens, Cdr. J. S.|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Fell, Anthony||Kerr, Sir Hamilton|
|Barter, John||Finlay, Graeme||Kirk, Peter|
|Batsford, Brian||Fisher, Nigel||Lancaster, Col. C. G.|
|Baxter, Sir Beverley (Southgate)||Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton)||Langford-Hott, J.|
|Bennett, F. M. (Torquay)||Gardner, Edward||Leather, E. H. C.|
|Berkeley, Humphry||George, J. C. (Pollok)||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)|
|Bidgood, John C.||Gibson-Watt, David||Lilley, F. J. P.|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Glover, Sir Douglas||Lindsay, Martin|
|Bingham, R. M.||Glyn, Sir Richard (Dorset, N.)||Linstead, Sir Hugh|
|Bishop, F. P.||Godber, J. B.||Litchfield, Capt. John|
|Black, Sir Cyril||Goodhew, Victor||Lloyd, Rt. Hon. Selwyn (Wirral)|
|Bossom, Clive||Gower, Raymond||Longbottom, Charles|
|Bourne-Arton, A.||Grant-Ferris, Wg Cdr. R. (Nantwich)||Longden, Gilbert|
|Box, Donald||Green, Alan||Loveys, Walter H.|
|Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry||Gresham Cooke, R.||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh|
|Brooman-White, R.||Grosvenor, Lt.-Col. R. G.||MacArthur, Ian|
|Browne, Percy (Torrington)||Gurden, Harold||MoLaren, Martin|
|Bryan, Paul||Hare, Rt. Hon. John||MoLoughlin, Mrs. Patricia|
|Bullus, Wing Commander Eric||Harris, Reader (Heston)||Maclay, Rt. Hon. John|
|Butler, Rt.Hn.R.A.(Saffron Walden)||Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.)||McMaster, Stanley R.|
|Carr, Compton (Barons Court)||Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel||Macmillan, Rt. Hn. Harold (Bromley)|
|Carr, Robert (Mitcham)||Heath, Rt. Hon. Edward||Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax)|
|Channon, H. P. G.||Hendry, Forbes||Maddan, Martin|
|Chichester-Clark, R.||Hiley, Joseph||Maginnis, John E.|
|Clark, William (Nottingham, S.)||Hill, Mrs. Eveline (Wythenshawe)||Maitland, Sir John|
|Cleaver, Leonard||Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk)||Manningham-Buller, Rt. Hn. Sir R.|
|Cooke, Robert||Hirst, Geoffrey||Markham, Major Sir Frank|
|Cooper, A. E.||Hobson, John||Marten, Neil|
|Cooper-Key, Sir Neill||Holland, Philip||Mathew, Robert (Honiton)|
|Cordle, John||Hopkins, Alan||Matthews, Gordon (Merlden)|
|Coulson, J. M.||Hornby, R. P.||Mawby, Ray|
|Courtney, Cdr. Anthony||Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Patricia||Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C.|
|Critchley, Julian||Howard, Hon. G. R. (St. Ives)||Mills, Stratton|
|Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E.||Howard, John (Southampton, Test)||Montgomery, Fergus|
|Cunningham, Knox||Hughes Hallett, Vice Admiral John||Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles|
|Curran, Charles||Hughes-Young, Michael||Nabarro, Gerald|
|Currie, G. B. H.||Hulbert, Sir Norman||Neave, Airey|
|Dalkeith, Earl of||Hurd, Sir Anthony||Noble, Michael|
|Dance, James||Iremonger, T. L.||Orr, Capt. L. P. S.|
|Deedes, W. F.||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Osborn, John (Hallam)|
|Page, Graham||Scott-Hopkins, James||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Partridge, E.||Sharpies, Richard||Vickers, Miss Joan|
|Pearson, Frank (Clitheroe)||Shaw, M.||Vosper, Rt. Hon. Dennis|
|Peel, John||Shepherd, William||Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. M'lebone)|
|Percival, Ian||Simon, Sir Jocelyn||Wall, Patrick|
|Pike, Miss Mervyn||Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)||Watts, James|
|Pilkington, Capt. Richard||Spearman, Sir Alexander||Webster, David|
|Pitman, I. J.||Steward, Harold (Stockport, S.)||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Pitt, Miss Edith||Stodart, J. A.||Whitelaw, William|
|Pott, Percivall||Studholme, Sir Henry||Williams, Dudley (Exeter)|
|Price, David (Eastleigh)||Summers, Sir Spencer (Aylesbury)||Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)|
|Price, H. A. (Lewisham, W.)||Sumner, Donald (Orpington)||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Prior, J. M. L.||Talbot, John E.||Wood, Rt. Hon. Richard|
|Ramsden, James||Tapsell, Peter||Woodhouse, C. M.|
|Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin||Taylor, W. J. (Bradford, N.)||Woodnutt, Mark|
|Rees-Davies, W. R.||Teeling, William||Worsley, Marcus|
|Ronton, David||Temple, John M.||Yates, William (The Wrekin)|
|Ridley, Hon. Nicholas||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|Roberts, Sir Peter (Heeley)||Thomas, Leslie (Canterbury)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Roots, William||Thompson, Richard (Croydon, S.)||Mr. Edward Wakefield and Colonel|
|Royle, Anthony (Richmond, Surrey)||Turner, Colin||J. H. Harrison.|
|Russell, Ronald||Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.|