HC Deb 27 June 1961 vol 643 cc394-407
Mr. Brooke

I beg to move, in page 28, line 30, to leave out "principal".

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that with this Amendment it would be convenient to discuss the Government Amendments in page 28, lines 31, 32, 33, 37, and page 29, line 20.

Mr. Brooke

I indicated during the Committee stage proceedings that the Government wished to look further at the drafting of Clause 29. I think that it would be the desire of us all that there should be as little dubiety and uncertainty as possible in drawing the line between landlords' responsibilities and tenants' responsibilities. A further examination by the Government revealed that the Bill, as introduced, left various uncertainties. But I must give notice to the House that I am not proposing to ask that we proceed too far tonight. This group of Amendments alters the immediate dividing line which is the essence of Clause 29 and the Government consider that the date at which the Clause should operate should be altered. However, that is a matter which we shall come to tomorrow.

I will give an example of the kind of uncertainty which might arise under the Bill as it stands and which in the view of the Government justifies these Amendments. It is not clear, for example, whether the phrase "sanitary fixtures", to be found in line 22, on page 29, includes baths and wash basins. Undoubtedly it is intended to include water closets, but no one would normally describe a bath as a sanitary fixture, yet it is quite clear that the Bill ought not to leave anyone in doubt about whether a bath is covered by Clause 29 as part of the landlord's responsibility or not.

1.30 a.m.

To give another illustration of these uncertainties, what about boilers and hot water tanks? Are they to be regarded as installations for heating or installations for the supply of water? If they are installations for the supply of water, it is by no means clear whether or not they "make use of" the supply. It seems to the Government essential that we should make certain Amendments in this case to reduce to a minimum the risk of uncertainty and litigation about these matters.

What the Amendments do is, first, to drop the reference to "principal installations". If we speak of "principal installations" in a Bill it suggests that there might be some secondary installations for which the landlord is not necessarily responsible. It might be argued that although a hot water tank is a primary installation the hot water pipes leading from the tank to the central heat. ting radiators are secondary installations. That, of course, would make nonsense because. if the landlord is to maintain the tanks of the central heating apparatus, obviously he ought to be under an obligation to maintain the central heating apparatus as a whole.

Secondly, the effect of the Amendments is to make the landlord specifically responsible for all the major bathroom and washing equipment. Perhaps I should mention that water closets are described as sanitary conveniences—we had some reference to this in Committee—purely and simply to conform with the provisions of Sections 33 to 47 of the Public Health Act, 1936.

Thirdly, under the Amendments the landlord is made specifically responsible for all installations used for heating either rooms or water. The landlord will be responsible for domestic boilers, for geysers and other fixed—I emphasise the word "fixed"—gas or electric water heaters, radiators and built-in electric fires. On the other hand, other gas or electric appliances, for example, cookers and refrigerators, remain excluded from the landlord's responsibility as appliances which make use of the supply of water, gas or electricity.

We have examined the Clause under a microscope. We believe that by these Amendments we have removed dubieties and uncertainties which might otherwise exist, but there is no doubt that they draw the line in a somewhat different place from where it might have appeared to be under the Bill as originally introduced. As I shall explain tomorrow, that is the reason why, in the light of what was said in Committee it seemed to the Government essential to change the date of operation of this Clause.

Mr. M. Stewart

It seems to me that, viewed as a whole, these Amendments are desirable, but I take the view that they are much more defining Amendments than Amendments substantially altering what most people would have thought the Clause meant in its original form. To that extent I think they are desirable.

The wording of Clause 29 as it stands is, I would agree, open to dispute and discussion, but I am bound to say that when I saw the words "principal installations" I took them to mean very substantially what the Government are now inserting in the place of those words. I stress this point because the Minister has argued that because of these changes in the wording of Clause 29 it would be justifiable to alter the date on which it comes into force. We shall be discussing that tomorrow—

Mr. Brooke


Mr. Stewart

Perhaps I should say "this afternoon." I will not pursue the point now, but I want to make it clear that we on this side of the House cannot be regarded as accepting that view at all.

As I said at the beginning, it seems to me that what we are really engaged in on these Amendments is to give a greater precision to Clause 29. I doubt very much whether anyone could really say with his hand on his heart when he sees the Clause 29 which we shall now create out of these Amendments, "Well, really, I had no idea it meant anything like that." It means for all practical purposes what most of us expected and wanted it to mean, and what any reasonable person who had been in on this matter from the moment that it was mentioned in the Queen's Speech debate could reasonably have expected it to mean.

That seems all that it is necessary to say on this issue at the moment. I should have thought that the Minister is now getting the definition about right, and it will be useful in the future for other purposes as laying down a broad general guide to what a landlord ought to be regarded as responsible for, and what can be put on the tenant.

I rather rejoice that we are beginning to say "a basin", "a sink", or "a bath" when we mean to say "a basin", "a sink", or "a bath", instead of talking about "fixtures for making use of the supply of water other than sanitary fixtures" when there is some doubt even what "sanitary fixtures" mean. I heartily commend this practice of calling things by the names we use in ordinary speech, and I hope it will be widely copied in other Statutes.

Mr. Graham Page

There is only one query that I want to put to my right hon. Friend. It is on the question of space heating and the heating of water. He stressed just now that this referred only to fixed installations. In fact, the word "installations" applies to both the proposed new paragraphs, and I presume that it is from that word "installations" that he implies that any fires for space heating, if they are to be included in this, must be fixed fires. But I am wondering how he gets that interpretation of "installation". Would it not just as well refer to moveable electric and gas fires which one can plug in? They are installations for space heating, and might well be included, even though they are not fixtures.

Mr. Brooke

I shall examine that point, but I very much doubt that a moveable electric fire could be described as an installation.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In line 31, after "dwelling-house", insert "(i)".

In line 32, after "sanitation", insert: (including basins, sinks, baths and sanitary conveniences but not, except as aforesaid, fixtures, fittings and appliances for making use of the supply of water, gas or electricity)

In line 33, leave out "heating" and insert: (ii) for space heating or heating water".[Mr. Brooke.]

Mr. Brooke

I beg to move, in page 28, line 37, to leave out from "lessor" to "shall" in line 39.

Mr. Speaker

I think it would be convenient to discuss with this Amendment the Amendment in page 29, line 9, after "and", to insert: subsection (1) of this section shall not avoid any covenant by the lessee so far as it imposes on the lessee any of the requirements mentioned in paragraph (a) or paragraph (c) of this subsection. (3)".

Mr. Brooke

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

These are really drafting Amendments. I shall briefly explain them, but I assure the House that they are not intended to do anything fundamental.

Taking first the words it is proposed to leave out, the difficulty about the present drafting is that covenants of this sort may be expressed in several different ways. The words in Clause 29 (1) are rather inflexible they adopt that single formula and they might be held not to apply to covenants which have the same effect but which are worded differently. The Amendment in page29, line 9 writes the same provision into subsection (2) in a more flexible form.

The House will have observed that, under the Amendments, the tenant can be made liable for the maintenance of anything which he adds to the house and is entitled to take with him when he goes. That is linked with another Amendment which we have not yet reached, and that will be the effect if that further Amendment is agreed to.

Further, the words in line 39, at the end of subsection (1)— or to make good damage done by the lessee"— are dropped because they are really too restricted. They do not cover, for example, damage done by the lessee's family, and they are in any case unnecessary because the point is already covered in the expression to use the premises in a tenant-like manner". These are really nothing but tidying-up Amendments, and I assure the House that they raise no major point.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move, in page 29, line 5, after "accident" to insert: or by dry rot, wet rot, woodworm or other similar decay unknown to the landlord". I have regarded this as an extremely important matter. Hon. Members may remember that I got a little worked up about it in Committee on an Amendment similar to this. This Amendment seems to me to be one of the greatest importance in the Clause. Perhaps it might not be out of order if I were to say that I hoped to address the House at some length and ask whether my right hon. Friend would wish to interrupt me to give any indication as to his intention of continuing with this Clause tonight. He gave an indication just now that we should be talking about some other parts of the Clause, as I understood it, this afternoon. I had hoped that I should not, perhaps, have to detain the House on an important Amendment like this at this stage. However, since my right hon. Friend does not rise to his feet to interrupt me, I must continue to detain the House at this early hour of the morning.

1.45 a.m.

This Clause imposes an absolute covenant on the landlord to carry out repairs provided that the lease is less than seven years. One can imagine a lease of some six years, and during the last few months of that lease the house collapses for one of the reasons indicated in my Amendment, such as dry rot, which may have been quite unknown to the land- lord. The tenant in those circumstances would have the right to call upon the landlord to rebuild the premises.

We have recognised in this subsection that there are certain occasions on which it would be quite unfair to call upon the landlord to rebuild or reinstate the premises under this statutory, absolute covenant which the Clause imposes on him. In subsection (2,b) it is recognised that the landlord should not be called upon, to rebuild or reinstate the premises in the case of destruction or damage by fire, or by tempest, flood, or other inevitable accident What is meant by "other inevitable accident" I should not like to endeavour to explain.

What I hope to insert is a sort of case in which the landlord may find that he has to expend large sums of money even at the fag-end of a lease in order to reinstate the premises. In the case of dry rot it is very possible that neither the occupier of the house nor the owner of the house knows anything about it until it is at a very advanced stage. I did explain my own experience in this. The whole of one side of my house had to be removed and rebuilt at very considerable expense. Had that house been let to a tenant and this Bill had been an Act the expense would have been entirely crippling. It might have happened at the end of a lease when perhaps a difficult or perverse tenant could have forced the landlord to expend all that money without any real benefit to the tenant from it.

Paragraph (b) as it stands excuses the landlord from reinstating in the case of destruction or damage by flood. I wonder to what extent that is going to be construed by the courts in two or three years' time in the areas which were flooded last year, when the dry rot starts, as undoubtedly, I am advised, it will in those houses where very careful precautions have not been taken, the precautions of lifting the floorboards, letting a draught go through to dry them out for a week or two on end, and then treating them with a special substance to prevent dry rot. In those flooded areas I am quite certain we are going to have serious dry rot, and I wonder if the courts are going to say, "This is due to flood and the landlords are excused in these cases from rebuilding or reinstating." That is not clear from the Clause. If my Amendment were made it would be perfectly clear.

If we are recognising in these cases of inevitable accident, in cases of fire, in cases of tempest, that the landlord is excused from this covenant, then he certainly ought to be excused from other cases which unknown to him cause such destruction and damage to the house that the expense of reinstating is quite out of proportion to the benefit which would be obtained.

I realise that my wording of the Amendment may not be technically correct. Dry rot, wet rot and woodworm may have some technical definition but those are the three which I know as a layman to cause extreme and unknown danger. They can arise without the owner or occupier or anyone else knowing anything about them, until they are in an advanced stage and require a great deal of expenditure. One should, of course, relieve the tenant of any covenant to reinstate or rebuild in such cases. That must follow. It would be quite improper to accept the principle without realising that we are relieving the tenant of any covenant to reinstate. But that is no reason for imposing on the landlord this very severe liability which if it occurs at the end of a lease might confer no benefit on the tenant.

Mr. A. Evans

The hon. Member will be aware of the following words in the Clause: .ֵand in determining the standard of repair required by the lessor's repairing covenant, regard shall be had to the age, character and prospective life of the dwelling house These seem to me to apply where the extent of work required is such as to be unwarrantable in view of the general state of the house.

Mr. Page

I would not rely on those words at all to relieve the landlord of reinstating. If those words had any real force, what is the necessity for paragraph (b) which spells out the cases in which the landlord is not called upon to rebuild or reinstate? I read the words to which the hon. Member draws my attention as meaning the age and character of the house. If it is an old house one would not expect it to be brought up to modern standards by repairs. One would retain the character of the house and its prospective life. I do not think that those words would relieve the landlord in the sort of case which I have endeavoured to describe.

Mr. Brooke

These matters were raised, I think, by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Erring-ton), in Standing Committee and the Government have given further consideration to them. In particular I have thought about what my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has said about the house which might collapse shortly before the end of the lease owing to undiscovered dryrot. The trouble about my hon. Friend's proposals, however, is that they are inconsistent with the view which the Government have consistently taken that landlords should be under a duty to look after the property they let for people to live in.

I know that dry rot is both inconvenient and expensive. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby has had dry rot in his house. I have had dry rot in mine. The owner-occupier has no escape from the obligation to put it right, in some cases, I am afraid, at the cost of having to dig deeply into his pocket. But there really is a difference between flood, fire and storm on the one hand and damage by dry rot or wet rot or structural decay on the other. In the Government's view people who decide to go into the business of letting house property must take very seriously their responsibilities for keeping the property in proper condition, unless they are absolutely prevented from doing so by flood or storm.

I should have thought that there was an obvious obligation on both the landlord who is letting a house and on the owner-occupier of a house. In his own interests, each should keep his eye on the house and, if need be, have a survey made from time to time to see that these latent troubles have not started. Once they start, we all know only too well how rapidly they may spread.

The crux of my hon Friend's argument is that unless his Amendment is adopted, a situation may arise in which the landlord has virtually to rebuild the house because, through one of these causes, it will have fallen down before the lease ends. In such a case the house would almost certainly have been deemed by the local authority to be unfit for habitation. The obvious course which would be followed in a case like that would be that the local authority would proceed to make a demolition order or a closing order under the 1957 legislation, and that would end the matter. If the house has been put in such an impossible state, almost certainly it would be unfit for habitation and could not be made so.

The argument may be advanced that, even so, the risk should not be left with the landlord to bear; but where else is it to lie? It cannot be fair for it to lie with the tenant. If the landlord is not in a position to make good damage caused by dry rot, a fortiori the tenant will not be in a position to do it and will have the smallest possible incentive to do it, because he has no continuing interest in the house. The practical result of making the Amendment would be that neither party would do anything, neither the landlord nor the tenant, and the house would just decay.

Mr. Graham Page

I put to my right hon. Friend the situation in which a landlord may be willing to carry out the work, but it might take a considerable time. While he is under this covenant, he will have to pay the tenant to find accommodation elsewhere and he will suffer the damage of what I would call the almost inevitable accident of dry rot. That is where the difficulty arises.

Mr. Brooke

I see that there are difficulties and that from one point of view one could treat dry rot as an inevitable accident, but in fact it is not an inevitable accident and each of us who owns and lives in a house is to blame if he allows dry rot to get a hold on it. Surely one is no less to blame if one is letting the house to someone else.

There is an essential difference between damage by fire and flood and storm, which is excepted from the Clause, and damage by dry rot or decay which a landlord who has taken proper care of his property ought to be able to spot and deal with at an early stage. If, as I say, the house has gone too far before it is discovered, then almost certainly the outcome will be that the local authority will make a demolition or closing order.

Amendment negatived.

2.0 a.m.

Mr. Brooke

I beg to move, in page 29, line 6, to leave out from "anything" to end of line 8 and to insert: which the lessee is entitled to remove from the dwelling-house", This is a small Amendment which I think will improve the meaning of the Clause. The Bill, as it stands, absolves the landlord from the duty to repair or maintain anything not included in the premises when the lease began. The intention here was to exclude anything put in by the tenant during the tenancy, but the Bill goes too far because we really need to cover that case where the landlord himself provides fittings during the tenancy which are of a character which he ought to maintain. It must be remembered that work might be carried out with the help of an improvement grant, and that the landlord is then entitled to charge a higher rent in consequence and he should be under an obligation to maintain these improvements as he is for the rest of the house.

The Amendment excuses the landlord from responsibility only for those items which a tenant has installed, and is entitled to remove when he goes. The point is a relatively straightforward one, and I hope that the House will accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In line 9, after "and", insert: subsection (1) of this section shall not avoid any covenant by the lessee so far as it imposes on the lessee any of the requirements mentioned in paragraph (a) or paragraph (c) of this subsection. (3)".

In line 20, leave out subsection (4).—[Mr. Brooke.]

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move, in page 29, line 34, at the end to insert: so far as it is used as a private dwelling This is an addition to the definition of a dwelling-house and arises from this cause: namely, that the lease under this Section and the dwelling-house under this Section includes one which forms part of a building which also includes business premises. If there is mixed letting, the absolute coverage imposed on the landlord by the Clause applies not only to the dwelling-house part of the building, but to the business premises as well.

That arises from the fact that the definition in subsection (5) is a lease …whereby a building or part of a building is lei wholly or mainly as a private dwelling". The words in my Amendment add: so far as it is used as a private dwelling". In order to come within this Clause, the letting would have to be wholly or mainly as a private dwelling, but that does not exclude a small shop which forms part of a dwelling-house or is in premises where there are living quarters and business premises as well.

It seems unfair that the landlord of business premises should be bound by a statutory covenant of the kind set out in Clause 29. I should have thought that it would be fair to exclude that part of the premises which is being run by the tenant for his own profit.

The intention of Clauses 29 and 30 is surely to protect the tenant of the dwelling-house and, from a national and social point of view, to maintain the dwelling-house of the landlord. I should have thought that we ought to exclude from that any part of the premises which is used merely for the private profit of the tenant.

Mr. Brooke

I am not quite sure whether my hon. Friend realises how narrow is the range of cases at issue here. The only cases in which Clause 29 applies to lettings of mixed premises are first lettings where the residential use is the dominant one. All renewals of leases of mixed premises are outside the scope of this Clause. The reason is that they are all covered by the 1954 Act, and the House will see that in paragraph (i) of Clause 30 (3,b) reference is made to the 1954 Act. For that purpose it does not matter how small a proportion of the dwelling-house is used for business purposes. Even if only one room in a large house is used as a doctor's surgery, the 1954 Act will apply to all renewals of leases.

What we are concerned with here is solely the case of the first letting of mixed premises where the residential use is the main one. What my hon. Friend's Amendment seeks to do is to establish that the obligation on the landlord shall apply only to the dwelling part of the house and not to the rest. I ask him to consider whether this is really a practical solution.

Perhaps I can give the most obvious case, that of a house in which the ground floor, or a room on the ground floor, has been turned into a shop. The house is used mainly for residential purposes, but above the shop there would be rooms—bedrooms and living rooms. So that those bedrooms and living rooms may be properly habitable, not only their walls but the walls of the shop part of the house must be properly maintained.

In a case like that the structure of the premises is indivisible, and an obligation to keep the dwelling part in repair without an obligation to keep the business part in repair would land us in absurdity.

I hope therefore that my hon. Friend will not press the Amendment, especially in the light of what I have said, that all renewals of leases of these mixed premises are not affected by Clause 29.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Brooke

I beg to move, That further consideration of the Bill, as amended, be now adjourned. I should like to express my appreciation to the House for the progress that we have made. It might be asked why we do not finish the Bill tonight. There are only four more Amendments, and they fall into a single group. I hope that it might be possible to dispose of the group and also give the Bill a Third Reading by seven o'clock tonight, other-wise we shall be in the unfortunate position of having our Third Reading debate interrupted by Private Members' business, which is due to take place from seven o'clock to ten o'clock. I realise that at this hour of the morning nobody can say for certain what will happen later in the day, but if we can do that we shall certainly have a more satisfying Third Reading debate.

Meanwhile, I move the Motion to adjourn further consideration now because I do not think it would be right, at this hour in the morning, to take the final group of Amendments, which raise a substantial point.

Mr. M. Stewart

I share the Minister's hope as to what we may be able to do this evening, although we cannot say how it will work out. In any case, I feel certain that the Motion now moved is a wise one, and it is desirable to break off and start afresh on the rather important issue that awaits us with the few remaining Amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended (in Standing Committee and on recommittal), to be further considered this day.