HC Deb 23 October 1961 vol 646 cc571-6

Lords Amendments:In page 14, line 42, leave out "or who live in".

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Dr. Charles Hill)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

I suggest that it will be for the convenience of the House if with this Amendment we take the Amendment in line 43, to leave out from "apply" to end of line 44 and to insert: as to the giving of information to the local authority, and in particular may make it the duty of any person who acquires or ceases to hold an estate or interest in the house to notify the local authority, (d) may impose duties on persons who live in the house for the purpose of ensuring that the person managing the house can effectively carry out the duties imposed on him by the regulations, and that in page 15, line 3, to leave out from "house" to the end of line 6. The three Amendments are all associated with the same point.

Mr. Speaker

If the House so pleases.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion. I hope that he will do more useful work in his present incumbency than he has done in the past. If the first three Amendments are being taken together, I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about the second two Amendments.

Mr. Speaker

All that is happening at present is that, subject to the House consenting, the first three Amendments are to be discussed together. I do not know what explanation the Minister will give. Perhaps we had better hear his explanation before any questions are asked about it.

Dr. Hill

The object of the three Amendments is to allay some anxieties which were expressed in Committee by a number of hon. Members about the nature and extent of the duties which would be imposed under subsection (3, c), particularly on persons having an estate and interest in the house to which the management regulations apply, and also on the tenants or lodgers in such a house.

Some hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), expressed concern that among the wide range of persons on whom duties could be imposed there might be some whose interest in the property was slight and remote and who had no power to discharge obligations imposed upon them. My right hon. Friend, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster-General, and Lord Jellicoe, in another place, made clear that nothing sinister was intended under paragraph (c) and that the duties imposed would be minor matters ancillary to the general object of ensuring decent standards of management.

Nevertheless, to remove any shadow of doubt, these Amendments are put forward. The effect of them, taken together, is to make clear that there is imposed on the person simply in his capacity as the holder of an estate or interest in the house the obligation of giving information to the local authority necessary to the proper discharge of the function, such as information as to who has effective control of the house.

In regard to persons living in the house, the Amendments make clear that the obligations are confined to ensuring that the person managing the house can effectively discharge the duties without frustrating any action on their part. The purpose of the Amendments is to dispel doubts which have arisen about subsection (3, c), and I recommend their acceptance to the House.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Lipton

I welcome the Amendment, which has been explained to some extent by the right hon. Gentleman. The general effect will be that the Minister may, by regulations contained in a Statutory Instrument, require certain information to be given to the local authority, a particular obligation being placed on a person who acquires or ceases to hold an estate or interest in a house to notify the local authority.

My interest in this matter arises from the fact that Brixton, which I have the honour to represent, has been troubled for many years past with mystery landlords whom it has not been possible to identify. I hope that the Clause will impose a statutory obligation requiring these mystery landlords to come out into the open. In many cases, when the local authority has sought to exercise whatever rights may be vested in it under the health Act, and so on, it has proved to be quite impossible to find who is the real owner of the property. I hope that the Amendments will stop that particular abuse.

In Brixton, we had "Mystery Landlord Brady", who, after many years, has not been identified although he owns, or has owned in the past, many properties which have now been transferred to mushroom companies or men of straw against whom it has proved extremely difficult for the local authority to take action.

My only doubt about this Amendment is that it says that the Minister may, by regulations contained in the Statutory Instrument, require this information. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give an assurance that he will, in fact, introduce regulations requiring this information to be provided to the local authority.

The other little gap in the Amendment that has not yet been filled is that where one has frequent transfers of property—and these dubious people do very frequently find it convenient to switch the ownership from one undesirable person to another—there is no time limit within which the owner has to notify the local authority. Some considerable time may, therefore, elapse, and many changes of ownership may take place between the time when the local authority decides to require or ask for the information and the time when it finally gets it.

I hope that it will not be possible for unscrupulous landlords to play around within the terms of this Clause for a lengthy period during which the unfortunate tenants may suffer all kinds of disabilities, and that, in some form or other, the regulations which I hope the Minister will undertake to introduce will stipulate a time limit within which, following that request, the owner has to disclose to the local authority who lie is, so that if legal action is necessary the local authority is not put to considerable delay and expense in tracking that person down.

Subject to those qualifications, on which I hope that the Minister may find it possible to give some assurance, I welcome this improvement in the Bill.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

May I, first, from this side of the House, offer a warm welcome to my right hon. Friend in his new appointment. I am extremely grateful to him for this Amendment having been introduced in another place to tidy up this Clause, but I should be grateful for a further explanation of what he intends in the regulations to be made under it.

The Clause gives power for regulations to be made. This Amendment deals with information to be given under those regulations. I would have no objection if the regulation imposed a duty on a person to give information if asked, nor would I have any objection to the regulation imposing a duty on the person to give information if that person is doing something in connection with the property, such as becoming a manager of the property, of selling the property, or leasing it or disposing of it. As the regulation now stands, however, it could impose a duty to give information on any person who has an estate or interest in the property.

Perhaps I may give an example of what I have in mind. There might be a tenant in an attic, with a tenancy. He has an estate or interest in the house. One of the things that the local authority will want to know is who is managing the house; who is the agent collecting the rent. Under the Clause, the local authority could oblige a tenant of one room in the house to give information it he became aware of any change in the circumstances.

I do not think that it is right that a person who merely becomes aware of information should be forced to take the initiative and inform the local authority about it. Would my right hon. Friend be careful, when drawing the regulations, to avoid imposing that sort of obligation on people who are really not responsible for the conduct of the house or for its management? Will he avoid imposing on such people some rather vague and wide duty to tell the local authority of any changes of which they become aware?

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

It falls to me to answer the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page). I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned to cure the mischief of mystery landlords and others of that ilk, and my right hon. Friend will certainly note what has been said on the matter. We cannot on this occasion anticipate the regulations, but I certainly give an undertaking that regulations will be introduced and that the point raised by my hon. Friend will be borne in mind. It is the intention to limit these powers; subsection 3 (c) is limited to the giving of information by those people who can properly be expected to supply it.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendment agreed to.

Lords Amendment:In page 15, line 13, after "or" insert "without reasonable excuse".

Dr. Hill

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This Amendment is in response to a good deal of discussion of the Bill in the earlier stages. Its object is to ensure that the penalty provisions in Clause 13 (4) contain a sufficient safeguard for a person who has failed to comply with the requirements of the management regulations because of circumstances outside his control. In the original draft, any person knowingly contravening or knowingly failing to comply would have been liable to penalties.

A number of hon. Members and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), stressed that this might result in the inability of the authority, however sympathetic it might be in the particular circumstances, not to prosecute someone who had contravened or failed to comply even though there were strong extenuating or excusing circumstances.

My hon. Friend went so far as to stress that the word "wilful" or "wil- fully" should govern the offence. Concerned as my right hon. Friend was with the risk of creating a loophole for the type of landlord who is adept at evasion, he felt unable to recommend acceptance of that Amendment. He felt, too, that the onus placed on the local authority to prove that in every case the offence had been wilfully committed was too heavy Nevertheless, he recognised that it would be reasonable to provide a means of protection for the innocent offender provided that it could be done without materially weakening the Clause.

After further discussion in another place, this Amendment was put forward as a compromise which, I hope, substantially meets the anxieties that have been expressed. It will ensure that the person who has been accused of failing to comply with the regulations can plead reasonable excuse. I recommend acceptance by the House.

Question put and agreed to.