HC Deb 01 February 1961 vol 633 cc995-1005

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Rent Act, 1957; to provide stability of rents and security of tenure for tenants holding residential premises which by virtue of the same Act became released from rent control; to extend the jurisdiction of rent tribunals to unfurnished tenancies; to provide for the giving of information by landlords to tenants; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.

It cannot be seriously disputed by anyone that the Rent Act, 1957, has caused very serious hardship to tens of thousands of tenants, not only in the London area, but in most of the large provincial cities. This is a problem which is not confined to London, although it may be most acute in London, as is shown by the very large number of signatories to the petitions which have been presented to the House every day of this week, and which are likely to continue to be presented on subsequent occasions. Those petitions are an indication of the mounting indignation at the operation of the Rent Act and are wholesale protests against the injustices and iniquities that so many tenants have suffered from extortionate landlords.

I need not elaborate the point that these grievances have resulted from the decontrol legislation of 1957. as a result of which about 400,000 dwellings were decontrolled by reason of their rateable value and, what has proved even more serious, nearly half a million dwellings have become decontrolled as a result of creeping decontrol, an effect which was not foreseen when the legislation of 1957 was introduced.

As a result of decontrol, whenever there has been a change of occupier—and the landlord has often brought about a change of occupier by very dubious mean—experience has shown that intolerable hardship has been caused to numerous tenants, particularly to old-age pensioners and others living on small fixed incomes.

There is no dispute about the evils which have resulted from the Rent Act. The Minister himself has admitted them. In his circular of 18th August last, he drew attention to the fact that some landlords were imposing terms on their tenants which he himself said were quite unreasonable. He reminded the public that he had drawn the attention of the House to the fact that there were some swindlers among landlords in the market and he also drew attention to the fact that reports had come into his possession to show that new landlords were exploiting local shortages of accommodation by demanding rents grossly out of keeping with the age and condition of the property offered.

There is thus no dispute about the situation which calls for a remedy, and the object of the Bill is to suggest that the only way in which these evils can be cured is by amending legislation. The Minister has tried three other methods, all of which have failed.

In his circular, he appealed to the good will of landlords, asking them to be more reasonable and less harsh in their treatment of tenants. Experience has shown that that appeal has failed. He then suggested that people might escape the perils of the Rent Act by moving out of the Central London area. But experience has shown that in the districts on the periphery of London high rents are being demanded and obtained from tenants of whom many can ill afford to pay. In Ealing, landlords are charging four or five times the gross value of the property and in Putney they are charging seven times as much. Yesterday, we heard of a case in which a tenant was being charged thirteen times the gross value. Tenants, therefore, cannot escape from the perils of the Rent Act by moving from one district to another.

The Minister finally suggested that the evil could be cured by persuading local authorities to make use of compulsory purchase orders, which he said he would confirm. Experience has shown that that hope was completely fallacious, for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because of the delay and cumbrous machinery required for obtaining a compulsory purchase order and because of the difficulty of giving the tenant protection in the meantime, quite apart from the inordinate burden which such a process would have placed on local authorities.

I therefore suggest that the only way in which this admitted evil can be cured is by legislation to amend the Rent Act. I seek leave to introduce a Bill which would achieve seven objectives. First, it would give tenants in three-year tenancies a right of renewal for a further period of years at existing rents. I make that suggestion because the Minister originally hoped that three years would be sufficient to provide a free market at stable prices, but that hope has proved entirely fallacious and the period of three years has been found to be inadequate.

Secondly, the Bill would provide an upper ceiling on the rent of all tenancies decontrolled under the 1957 Act. That ceiling would be a fixed multiple of the gross value.

Thirdly, the Bill would abolish creeping decontrol, which has proved thoroughly pernicious and far more extensive than was ever contemplated. The Minister's own report has shown that the percentage increase of rents charged to new tenants has been twice that charged to existing tenants, the result of creeping decontrol.

Fourthly, the Bill will extend the jurisdiction of rent tribunals so as to give them power to fix rents in the case of furnished lettings as well as unfurnished lettings, and also to fix conditions of the tenancy.

Fifthly, the Bill would prohibit landlords from charging premiums in respect of any tenancies controlled before 1957, or their renewal. I am not sure whether hon. Members realise that in many instances landlords are not content with making a quite savage increase of rent, but, as a condition of granting a new tenancy, also demand a large premium, sometimes running into hundreds of pounds.

Sixthly, the Bill would give every tenant the right to require the name and address of his landlord and to withhold his rent until that information was given. That suggestion is made because experience shows that some of the worst landlords tend to conceal their identity under a cloak of anonymity. This provision would have a very salutary effect and it would be only common justice if every tenant had the legal right to know the identity and address of his landlord.

Finally, the Bill that I have in mind would stop the growing practice whereby a number of landlords, as a condition of granting a new tenancy, are requiring tenants to undertake responsibility for all repairs, external as well as internal repairs, something which is contrary to what the Minister has always contemplated was the object of the Rent Act.

I recognise that the Minister has given some assurance that he will introduce a Bill to deal with the limited matter. That promise was given before Christmas, but it has not yet been fulfilled, and I do not know when it will be. The reason why I ask leave to introduce my Bill is that I do not consider that this important matter and the injustice suffered by tenants under the Rent Act are matters that can be safely left to the Minister or to the Government.

This is a matter which affects all hon. Members, and the Bill would give us a wider opportunity of correcting the manifold abuses that now exist. I am sorry to say this, but I consider that this matter is so serious that it cannot be left in the hands of the present Minister. I regret that he has shown himself to be callous in his disregard of the undoubted hardship that is being suffered by tenants all over the country.

4.2 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

The object of the Bill which the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) seeks leave to introduce is simply to reimpose control on all those houses that have been released by the operation of the 1957 Act. The hon. Gentleman described his proposed Bill as an amending Measure, but in many respects it would really amount to the repeal of that Act.

The persistence of the hon. Gentleman is remarkable. He reminds me of one of those ageing warriors who returns again and again to the theme of the old battles that we had in the last Parliament in order to refight them, but I think that we should spend very little more time on this Measure. I therefore rise to oppose his Motion for leave to introduce the Bill.

The 1957 Act, and the policy that lay behind it, has been accepted by a Majority of the electorate. It was endorsed at the last General Election.

Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

They had no alternative.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I would like to remind the House that the Rent Act had three main objects. First, we wanted landlords to keep their houses available for letting instead of selling them whenever they could obtain vacant possession. which had become the invariable practice before the passage of the Act. In that, the Measure has largely succeeded, otherwise the present agitation about these high rents could hardly have arisen.

Secondly, we wanted to make the rents yield a sufficient return for proper repairs and maintenance. That, too, has been achieved to a large extent, though I agree that it is disturbing to read in the Rent Act inquiry that so many tenants are not insisting on repairs being carried out. There has been no lack of publicity about how to go about it, and it is rather extraordinary to find that three-quarters of the people who say that they have asked for repairs to be carried out have never bothered to fill in Form G. This is not a ground for changing the law. It is a case for local councillors, welfare visitors, and so on, to educate tenants both as to their rights and how to secure them.

Thirdly, and perhaps most important, it was hoped that by permitting a fair return we would encourage the private building of houses to let and the modernisation of old property. Judging from my constituency, a good deal of modernisation is in progress, and, in the main, to let. However, I concede that building for letting has not materialised. This is a considerable disappointment, because there is a large number of people who are able and even anxious to pay higher rents for new houses, but who, for one reason or another, cannot buy. If their needs could be fulfilled, they would move and make more room for people lower on the income scale.

The Opposition bear a heavy share of the responsibility for deterring the private developer. Who, after all, will invest money in property which is liable to be municipalised on terms verging on confiscation if, in a moment of folly, the electorate were to return another Socialist Government?

It is no part of my case to pretend that the housing situation is everywhere satisfactory, although it has improved out of all recognition since 1951. There are some bad landlords, many of them men who came into the business recently. That, too, I am afraid, is the inevitable aftermath of twenty years' stagnation on the market. The principal sanction against them is the threat of compulsory purchase, and the hon. Gentleman has no ground at the moment for saying that that has failed.

However, suppose that it did prove insufficient. That would be no sufficient ground for repealing the Rent Act, though it might be ground for harsher sanctions and for bringing these evil men within the arm of the criminal law. I would not shrink from that, but cases of exploitation are happily rare. None the less, I recognise that there is a certain amount of unrest among tenants who are in no way being exploited. That is because too many people still find it hard to accept the facts about rising prices and higher indices as applied to rental values. Twenty years of frozen rents have frozen their outlook.

The Times, last September, calculated that the increased indices alone would support an increase of rents of about 200 per cent. above the 1956 level. In fact, the evidence of the inquiry shows that increases have been substantially below this, particularly in the case of sitting tenants. In the highest case, that of a small house in the London area, the average was 145 per cent. Again, years of security of tenure have led many people to think that the mere fact of having lived for a long time in a particular area entitles them to go on living there, if necessary at someone else's expense, all the days of their lives, and thereafter for the house to pass to their children.

We on this side believe that people who cannot afford an expensive area should, when they retire, endeavour to move somewhere cheaper. That is particularly important for those who live in the London area. Nevertheless, there still remain a minority of tenants who can afford neither to pay nor to move. We recognise that, but that is not a ground for restoring rent control. The remedy lies in the 3 million council houses that exist, a number which will suffice, and more than suffice, if only they are allocated to the people who really need them. Those local authorities who refuse either to apply some sort of needs tests to new applicants or to apply differential rent schemes to existing tenants are simply not using subsidised housing for the purpose for which it was intended.

Socialists believe that housing should be provided as a social service. We on this side believe that wherever possible—and I stress wherever possible—it should be paid for privately. That is the real issue between us. Yet, to the extent that the social service concept is applied, surely the cost must, in fairness. be borne by the community as a whole, as it is in the case of council housing. Surely it is the height of dishonesty to seek to charge it up to one section of the community, namely, the owners of houses.

Then again, to the extent that housing is treated as a social service this is surely inconsistent with extreme security of tenure. If tenants are to be paid and subsidised out of public funds it is not unreasonable to require them to live where the houses are available. It was the disregard of these two principles that made rent control as the years went by, ever more unjust and ever more inefficient.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)


Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

As a temporary expedient to meet an emergency it may have been justifiable. As a permanent institution it would be intolerable. To reimpose it now would be an act of reactionary folly without parallel even in the history of the party opposite.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

On a point of order. Before the House proceeds to a Division on this matter, could you, Mr. Speaker, inform us as to the position, in voting in such a Division, of hon. Members who are the owners of decontrolled property, or are shareholders in property-owning companies?

Mr. Speaker

That is a matter which is the responsibility of the individual Member. I cannot give guidance about it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 12 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 176, Noes 237.

Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.) Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E. Tomney, Frank
Parker, John (Dagenham) Short, Edward Wainwright, Edwin
Parkin, B. T. (Paddington, N.) Silverman, Julius (Aston) Warbey, William
Pavitt, Laurence Silverman, Sydney (Nelson) Watkins, Tudor
Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd) Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.) Weitzman, David
Peart, Frederick Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield) Wells, John (Maidstone)
Pentland, Norman Small, William Wells, Percy (Faversham)
Popplewell, Ernest Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.) White, Mrs. Eirene
Prentice, R. E Sorensen, R. W. Whitlock, William
Price, J. T. (Westhoughton) Spriggs, Leslie Wilkins, W. A.
Probert, Arthur Steele, Thomas Willey, Frederick
Proctor, W. T. Stewart, Michael (Fulham) Williams, D. J. (Neath)
Randall, Harry Stones, William Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)
Rankin, John Strauss, Rt. Hn. G. R. (Vauxhall) Willis, E. G. (Edinburgh, E.)
Redhead, E. C. Stross, Dr. Barnett (Stoke-on-Trent, C.) Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Reid, William Swingler, Stephen Woof, Robert
Reynolds, G. W. Sylvester, George Yates, Victor (Ladywood)
Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Symonds, J. B. Zilliacus, K.
Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon) Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Rogers, G. H. R. (Kensington, N.) Thomas, Iorwerth (Rhondda, W.) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Ross, William Thompson, Dr. Alan (Dunfermline) Mr. Mellish and Mr Albert Evans.
Royle, Charles (Salford, West) Thornton, Ernest
Division No. 35.] AYES [4.12 p.m.
Ainsley, William Diamond, John Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich)
Albu, Austen Driberg, Tom Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Ede, Rt. Hon. Chuter Jones, Rt. Hn. A. Creech (Wakefield)
Awbery, Stan Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham)
Bacon, Miss Alice Edwards, Walter (Stepney) Jones, T. W. (Merioneth)
Baxter, William (Stirlingshire, W.) Fernyhough, E. Kenyon, Clifford
Beaney, Alan Fitch, Alan Key, Rt. Hon. C. W.
Bence, Cyril (Dunbartonshire, E.) Fletcher, Eric Lawson, George
Blackburn, F. Foot, Dingle Ledger, Ron
Blyton, William Forman, J. C. Lee, Frederick (Newton)
Boardman, H. Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Lipton, Marcus
Bowden, Herbert W. (Leics, S.W.) Ginsburg, David Mahon, Dr. J. Dickson
Bowles, Frank Gordon Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C. McCann, John
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Gourlay, Harry MacColl, James
Brockway, A. Fenner Greenwood, Anthony Mclnnes, James
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Grey, Charles McKay, John (Wallsend)
Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Beiper) Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly) Mackie, John
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Griffiths, W. (Exchange) McLeavy, Frank
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Gunter, Ray Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)
Callaghan, James Hall, Rt. Hon. Glenvil (Colne Valley) Manuel, A. C.
Castle, Mrs. Barbara Hamilton, William (West Fife) Mapp, Charles
Chetwynd, George Hannan, William Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A.
Collick, Percy Hart, Mrs. Judith Marsh, Richard
Cordeaux, Lt.-Col. J. K. Hayman, F. H. Mayhew, Christopher
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Healey, Denis Millan, Bruce
Cronin, John Herbison, Miss Margaret Milne, Edward J.
Crosland, Anthony Hilton, A. V. Mitchison, G. R.
Crossman, R. H. S. Holman, Percy Monslow, Walter
Cullen, Mrs. Alice Houghton, Douglas Moody, A. S.
Darling, George Howell, Charles A. Morris, John
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhopdda, E.) Hoy, James H. Mort, D. L.
Davies, Harold (Leek) Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Moyle, Arthur
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Neal, Harold
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Hunter, A. E. Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip (Derby, S.)
Deer, George Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill) Oliver, G. H.
de Freitas, Geoffrey Irving, Sydney (Dartford) Oram, A. E.
Delargy, Hugh Janner, Sir Barnett Owen, Will
Dempsey, James Jay, Rt. Hon. Douglas Paget, R. T.
Agnew, Sir Peter Farr, John Joseph, Sir Keith
Allan, Robert (Paddington, S.) Fell, Anthony Kerans, Cdr. J. S.
Arbuthnot, John Finlay, Graeme Kerby, Capt. Henry
Ashton, Sir Hubert Fisher, Nigel Kerr, Sir Hamilton
Balniel, Lord Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Kershaw, Anthony
Barber, Anthony Fraser, Hn. Hugh (Stafford & Stone) Kimball, Marcus
Barlow, Sir John Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton) Kitson, Timothy
Baxter, Sir Beverley (Southgate) Freeth, Denzil Lagden, Godfrey
Bennett, F. M. (Torquay) Gammans, Lady Lambton, Viscount
Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Gos & Fhm) Gardner, Edward Lancaster, Col. C. G.
Berkeley, Humphry Gibson-Watt, David Langford-Holt, d.
Basins, Rt. Hon. Reginald (Toxteth) Glover, Sir Douglas Leaysy, J. A.
Bldgood, John C. Glyn, Dr. Alan (Clapham) Lindsay, Martin
Biggs-Davison, John Glyn, Sir Richard (Dorset, N.) Linstead, Sir Hugh
Birch, Rt. Hon. Nigel Goodhart, Philip Litchfield, Capt. John
Bishop, F. P. Gower, Raymond Lloyd, Rt. Hon. Selwyn (Wirral)
Black, Sir Cyril Gram, Rt. Hon. William Longden, Gilbert
Bossom, Clive Grant-Ferris, Wg Cdr. R. Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh
Bourne-Arton, A. Green, Alan MacArthur, tan
Box, Donald Gresham Cooke, R. McLaren, Martin
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. John Grosvenor, Lt.-Col. R. G. Maclay, Rt. Hon. John
Brewis, John Gurden, Harold Maclean, Sir Fitzroy (Bute & N. Ayrs.)
Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry Hall, John (Wycombe) McMaster, Stanley R.
Bryan, Paul Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough) Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries)
Bullus, Wing Commander Eric Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.) Maddan, Martin
Campbell, Sir David (Belfast, S.) Harrison, Brian (Maldon) Maitland, Sir John
Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn) Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye) Markham, Major Sir Frank
Carr, Compton (Barons Court) Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere (Macolesf'd) Marples, Rt. Hon. Ernest
Carr, Robert (Mitcham) Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.) Marshall, Douglas
Channon, H. P. G. Harvie Anderson, Miss Marten, Nell
Chataway, Christopher Hastings. S. Matthews, Gordon (Meriden)
Chichester-Clark, R. Hay, John Maudling, Rt. Hon. Reginald
Clark, Henry (Antrim, N.) Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel Mawby, Ray
Clark, William (Nottingham, S.) Heath, Rt. Hon. Edward Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.
Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.) Henderson, John (Cathcart) Mayrion, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C.
Cleaver, Leonard Henderson-Stewart, Sir James Mills, Stratton
Cole, Norman Hendry, Forbes Montgomery, Fergus
Cooper, A. E. Hicks Beach, Maj. W. More, Jasper (Ludlow)
Corfield, F. V. Hill, Dr. Rt. Hon. Charles (Luton) Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles
Costain, A. P. Hill, Mrs. Evellne (Wythenshawe) Nabarro, Gerald
Coulson, J. M. Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk) Nicholson, Sir Godfrey
Craddock, Sir Beresford Hinchingbrooke, Viscount Noble, Michael
Crosthwalte-Eyre, Col. O. E. Hirst, Geoffrey Nugent, Sir Richard
Crowder, F. P. Hobson, John Oakshott, Sir Hendrie
Cunningham, Knox Hocking, Philip N. Osborn, John (Hallam)
Curran, Charles Holland, Philip Osborne, Cyril (Louth)
Dance, James Hollingworth, John Page. John (Harrow, West)
d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry Hope, Rt. Hon. Lord John Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale)
Deedes, W. F. Hopkins, Alan Partridge, E.
de Ferranti, Basil Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Patricia Pearson, Frank (Clitheroe)
Digby, Simon Wingfield Howard, John (Southampton, Test) Peel, John
Doughty, Charles Hughes-Young, Michael Percival, Ian
du Cann, Edward Hutchison, Michael Clark Peyton, John
Duncan, Sir James Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Pitt, Miss Edith
Eden, John Jackson, John Pott, Percivall
Elliot, Capt. W. (Carshalton) James, David Price, David (Eastleigh)
Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Jennings, J. C. Prior, J. M. L.
Errington, Sir Eric Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle) Prior-Palmer, Brig. Sir Otho
Erroll, Rt. Hon. F. J. Johnson, Erie (Blackley) Profumo, Rt. Hon. John
Johnson Smith, Geoffrey Proudfoot, Wilfred
Quinnell, Miss J. Tapsell, Peter Walker-Smith, Rt. Hon. Sir Derek
Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne) Wall, Patrick
Renton, David Taylor, W. J. (Bradford, N.) Ward, Dame Irene
Ridley, Hon. Nicholas Teeling, William Watkinson, Rt. Hon. Harold
Ridsdale, Julian Temple, John M. Watts, James
Roberts, Sir Peter (Heeley) Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret Wells, John (Maidstone)
Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard Thomas, Leslie (Canterbury) Whitelaw, William
Royle, Anthony (Richmond, Surrey) Thomas, Peter (Conway) Williams, Dudley (Exeter)
Scott-Hopkins, James Thompson, Richard (Croydon S.) Wills, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Seymour, Leslie Thomton-Kemsley, Sir Colin Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Sharples, Richard They, Arthur (Bradford, W.) Wise, A. R.
Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir Jocelyn Tilney, John (Wavertree) Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Skeet, T. H. H. Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H. Woodhouse, C. M.
Soames, Rt. Hon. Christopher Tweedsmulr, Lady Woodnutt, Mark
Spearman, Sir Alexander van Straubenzee, W. R. Woollam, John
Speir, Rupert Vane, W. M. F. Worsley, Marcus
Stanley, Hon. Richard Vaughan-Morgan, Sir John
Stodart, J. A. Vickers, Miss Joan TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir Malcolm Vosper, Rt. Hon. Dennis Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett and
Studholme, Sir Henry Wakefield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.) Mr. Goodhew.
Summers, Sir Spencer (Aylesbury) Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. M'lebone)