HC Deb 27 June 1961 vol 643 cc378-85

Amendment made: In page 21, line 2, leave out "twenty-eight" and insert "thirty-five".—[Mr. Brooke.]

Mr. Brooke

I beg to move, in page 21, line 8, at the end to insert: (9) The local authority may from time to time serve on the occupier of a house or part of a house in respect of which a direction under this section is in force a notice requiring him to furnish them within seven days with a statement in writing giving all or any of the following particulars, that is to say—

  1. (a) the number of individuals who are, on a date specified in the notice, living in the house or part of the house, as the case may be;
  2. (b) the number of families or households to which those individuals belong;
  3. (c) the names of those individuals and of the heads of each of those families or households; and
  4. (d) the rooms used by those individuals and families or households;
and if the occupier makes default in complying with the requirements or furnishes a statement which to his knowledge is false in any material particular, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds. We had some discussion in Standing Committee on Clause 18 about the difficulties which might arise in enforcing a direction which places a limit on the number of individuals who could live in a house. I think it was the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) who put forward a suggestion that the local authority should be empowered to require that a list of the people living in a house should be provided. The Government have considered that suggestion, as we have considered everything else that was said in Committee, and it seems to us that this would be a useful addition to local authorities' powers. There are some drafting Amendments that will necessarily follow, and perhaps we can discuss at the same time the whole remaining group of Amendments to page 21, which are all consequential on the Amendment I am moving.

This Amendment would enable a local authority to require an occupier—if a direction under Clause 18 has been made in respect of that house, but not otherwise—to furnish a statement in writing giving particulars of the numbers of individuals and households and the rooms they occupy. I think it will be clear to the House that this information should help the local authority in checking whether a Clause 18 direction is being complied with. I think that in Committee there was a fairly widespread acceptance of the belief that otherwise difficulty might arise. Under the proposed Amendment an occupier who knowingly makes a false statement will be liable to a fine not exceeding £20.

While stressing that the obligation to furnish a list will apply only to the occupiers of houses on which a Clause 18 direction has already been made and does not apply to other houses in multiple occupation, I hope that the way in which the Government have thought this out and presented the Amendment will commend itself to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. A. Evans

There is one point which the House should consider. It is a point which runs through the whole of Clause 18. The onus is placed on the occupier to supply the local authority with information about the numbers of persons living in a house, or part of a house. There is a £20 fine involved for failure to supply that information. I am not clear how the right hon. Gentleman would expect this information to be supplied if he were to place the responsibility for supplying it on the occupier. In Part II of the Bill responsibility is placed upon the person managing or having control of the house. When we come to Clause 18 and to this Amendment the responsibility for furnishing the information as to numbers is placed upon the occupier. If by "occupier" is meant the person occupying part of the house and not the owner, I am doubtful if the occupier would be competent to supply the information.

I should have thought that the number of people occupying one of these houses would be a matter for the owner or the person in charge of the house, and that such a person should be made responsible not only for furnishing a return as to numbers but also for complying with any direction that the local authority might give under Clause 18 not to increase the numbers and not to replace any person who vacated the house.

The Minister may have an adequate reason for placing responsibility on the occupier, but I cannot see how he can expect the occupier to be responsible for supplying this information. I should have thought that the manager, who has been so frequently mentioned, would be the responsible person.

Mr. MacColl

I warmly welcome this Amendment. It may well turn out to be the thin end of registration, and I certainly hope it will. The power given to the local authority here is very valuable and is a strengthening of its authority in the matter, and I certainly welcome it.

I should, however, like to comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans). This has had a rather curious drafting history, because in the original Bill Clause 18 did not refer to the occupier at all. It provided for the local authority to issue a notice dealing with the maximum number of persons who may occupy the house. Therefore, apparently, "persons who may occupy the house" is not the same as the occupier of the house.

In Committee the Government, in order to introduce what was known as the run-down Amendment, removed subsection (1) from the Clause and replaced it with what is now subsection (1), introducing for the first time the "occupier". In order to get out of the obvious ambiguity—at least, I take it that this is the reason for it—of referring to the "occupier" in one line and "persons occupying" in the next line, it became …the highest number of individuals who shouldֵlive". My impression is that the reason why "occupier" is used here instead of "owner" is that it refers to the person who in some sense is occupying parts of the house—a series of rooms or something of that sort—and knows the family trees of the persons who are living as his lodgers or his family. I suppose that is the reason why responsibility is placed on the "occupier" instead of the "person managing". But it still leaves me very confused about who the occupier is and how he is defined. As far as I know, in the Housing Act, 1957, "owner" is defined but "occupier" is not. Does it mean the rateable occupier? If it does, it will be a very narrow definition indeed, because in a great many of these houses the person who knows the family tree is not the rateable occupier. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West so wisely says, we are placing a penalty on somebody, we should know on whom we are placing it.

12.45 a.m.

In its present form, the Bill refers to the occupier of the house and places a responsibility on him for permitting numbers of people to live in the house and so on. In the Amendment, we bring in the expression occupier of a house or part of a house". Why is there a distinction drawn between placing duties on the occupier of a house, on the one hand, and on the occupier of a house or part of a house, on the other? What is the difference? Are there no duties under subsection (2) on the occupier of part of the house?

Why are there now to be two penalty provisions in the Clause? We have a penalty in subsection (10). We are now introducing a new penalty attached only to subsection (9). It will be confusing to have the two. As far as I can see, they are more or less the same in regard to first offences, although the Amend- ment has no higher penalties for second offences. That seems to make life rather difficult.

It may be the late hour of the night, but I have the impression that the Government have gone out of their way to make this matter as confusing as they could. There are ambiguities and confusions in it. However, as I have said, I warmly welcome the Amendment, in spite of the comments I have made about it.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful for the welcome the House has given to the Amendment, although several searching questions have been asked. Whether I can answer them all I do not know. I shall try. If there are any doubts left, I shall see that the matters are carefully looked at when the Bill reaches another place.

It did not seem to the Government that knowingly to make a false statement in response to a request for this information was the type of case where the penalty ought to be stepped up for a second or subsequent offence. There is no particular likelihood of the person being a kind of cumulative offender here who thought he would gain something by committing the offence repeatedly. There is a very stiff penalty for a second offence in relation to this Part of the Bill, and it seemed to the Government that, despite the complication it would cause, there should simply be the one offence with a fine not exceeding £20 for an occupier who knowingly makes a false statement.

With respect, I think some of the questions about the use of the word "occupier" related rather to the Clause as a whole than to this Amendment. As it stands now, the Clause refers to the occupier, and it clearly would have been inapposite for the new subsection (9) which I seek to introduce to refer to anybody but the occupier. It is the occupier who has the duties under this Clause.

However, the main reason why the word "occupier" is used here and not "manager" is that the house which is in question under Clause 18 may not be a house which is subject to a management order. It would, therefore, be inappropriate to place responsibility on the manager. There will, however, always be an occupier; there will be no doubt or impossibility about fixing the responsibility upon somebody. The owner may be an absentee; his whereabouts may be unknown; but the occupier is bound to be there if the house is in occupation.

Then the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) asked me about this phrase occupier of a house or part of a house and inquired why that did not appear elsewhere in the Clause, in particular in subsection (2). If he looks at the wording of subsection (3) he will see it stated that References in the foregoing subsections to a house include references to part of a house and, of course, this is coming in subsection (9), so we must be quite sure we cover the part of a house in subsection (9). This is a house which may be in the occupation of a number of families or may be let in lodgings. There may be different occupiers of different parts of the house, as is recognised in subsection (3), and it is in order that sub- section (9) shall be fully integrated with the rest of the Clause as it will read that this perhaps somewhat complex wording is used in the Amendment.

Mr. MacColl

Has it ever occurred to the right hon. Gentleman that it might be possible to put the present subsection (3) lower down in the Bill? I do not think that that would be a very difficult operation.

Mr. Brooke

It had occurred to me, but it does not arise on this Amendment, and I have little doubt that if I were to suggest it to the draftsman he would find cogent if not compelling reasons why that should not be done.

Mr. Graham Page

I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at the wording of this Clause again before it gets through another place, particularly these words "occupier of part of a house". The occupier of part of a house may be served by the local authority with a notice or direction under this Clause to give all these particulars, and if he does not, then he is liable to a penalty of £20. The occupier of part of the house may be merely a lodger or he may happen to be the person whose name some- body at the local authority's offices happens to know and so he is served with a direction. Then he is dragged to the court. When he gets to the court he says, "I am only the lodger there. I am not the person responsible." The court must say, "That is no concern of ours. Parliament in its wisdom has laid down that the occupier of part of the house can be directed by the local authority to give these particulars. If he does not give them he is liable to a fine of £20."

It is no good my right hon. Friend saying that the local authority would not be so foolish as to do this. We must not create offences in this way so that a court must give stupid convictions of this sort. The court cannot do anything else when faced with circumstances like this, when responsibility is imposed on an occupier of the premises, if he defaults. Even though he may be a lodger there, or a person staying there only for one night and occupying a room for a night, the court has to convict him.

Mr. Loughlin

I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman would explain to me, in the light of his previous explanation, how this squares up with the wording of the Clause. Subsection (2) says: A direction under the foregoing subsection shall have effect so as to make it the duty of the occupier for the time being of the house not to permit any individual to take up residence in the house and so on. This question of the occupier as it relates both to the Clause and the Amendment places an enormous responsibility possibly upon a sub-tenant.

Mr. A. Evans

Has it not occurred to my hon. Friend that it would not be within the power of the occupier to prevent people coming into the house? Only the landlord or the manager has the power.

Mr. Loughlin

Certainly. That is precisely the point that I am making. The occupier would not have the power not to permit. The Minister might correct me, because there is no point in making a mistake at this stage if these things have already come out in discussion.

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Member is now asking me questions not about the Amendment but about the rest of the Clause which has already been approved in Standing Committee. I will look at all these matters, because obviously it is desirable that the Clause shall be a unity and as clear as can be. The Government have sought to insert in the Clause a new subsection which by common consent will be of value, and those people much wiser than myself in the drafting of Bills have advised me that this subsection in the Amendment is rightly drafted to achieve the purpose.

My answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), at any rate off the cuff and I may be wrong, is that in subsection (9, a) of the Amendment there is a reference, and that is the first information that the occupier can be asked to give, to the number of individuals living in the house or in part of the house, as the case may be. The occupier of the whole house may be asked to give a list of the people living in the whole house and the occupier of part of the house may be asked to give a list of the people living in that part of the house. I think that it is the answer but I will willingly look into it because we are extremely anxious to get the drafting right. I am encouraged by the fact that the general purpose of the Amendment seems to be acceptable.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 21, line 11, leave out "section" and insert "subsection".

In line 12, after "under" insert "the last foregoing subsection of".

In line 15, leave out "this section" and insert "that subsection".

In line 18, leave out "either of those sections" and insert: that subsection or the said section ninety".—[Mr. Brooke.]