HC Deb 23 October 1961 vol 646 cc581-600

Lords Amendment:In page 24, line 41, at end insert new Clause A:

(1) At any time not less than three years from the commencement of this Act a local authority may make and submit to the Minister for confirmation by him a scheme authorising the local authority to compile and maintain a register for their area—

  1. (a) of houses which, or a part of which, are let in lodgings, or which are occupied by members of more than one family, and
  2. (b) of buildings which comprise separate dwellings, two or more of which do not have a sanitary convenience and personal washing facilities accessible only to those living in the dwelling,
and the Minister may if he thinks fit confirm the scheme with or without modifications.

(2) A scheme under this section shall not come into force until it has been confirmed and, subject to that. shall come into force on such date as may be fixed by the scheme, or if no date is so fixed, at the expiration of one month after it is confirmed.

(3) A scheme under this section need not be for the whole of the local authority's area and need not be for every description of house or building falling within paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1) of this section, and

  1. (a) may prescribe the particulars to be inserted in the register, and
  2. (b) may, as regards houses and buildings first becoming registrable after the compilation of the register, make it the duty of persons prescribed by the scheme to notify the local authority of the fact that the house or building appears to be registrable, and to give the local authority all or any of the prescribed particulars as regards the house or building, and
  3. (c) may make it the duty of persons prescribed by the scheme to notify the local authority of any change which makes it necessary to alter the particulars inserted in the register as regards any house or building.

(4) Without prejudice to the provisions of section one hundred and seventy of the principal Act (under which a local authority may require information as to the ownership of premises), a local authority may, for the purpose of ascertaining whether a house or building is registrable, and of ascertaining the particulars to be entered in the register as regards the house or building, require any person who has an estate or interest in, or who lives in, the house or building to state in writing any information in his possession which the local authority may reasonably require for that purpose, and any person who, having been required by a local authority in pursuance of this subsection to give to them any information, fails to give that information, or knowingly makes any misstatement in respect thereof, shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding ten pounds.

(5) A scheme under this section may make a contravention or failure to comply with any provision in the scheme an offence under the scheme, and a person guilty of an offence under the scheme shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding ten pounds.

(6) At least one month before a scheme is submitted to the Minister for confirmation by him, notice of intention to submit the scheme shall be given in one or more newspapers circulating in the district of the local authority.

(7) As soon as a scheme under this section is confirmed by the Minister, the local authority shall publish in one or more newspapers circulating in their district a notice stating the fact of such a scheme having been confirmed, and describing any steps which will have to be taken under the scheme by those concerned with registrable houses and buildings (other than steps which have only to be taken after a notice from the local authority), and naming a place where a copy of the scheme may be seen at all reasonable hours.

(8) A copy of a scheme confirmed by the Minister shall be printed and deposited at the offices of the local authority by whom it was made, and shall at all reasonable hours be open to public inspection without payment, and a copy thereof shall, on application, be furnished to any person on payment of such sum, not exceeding one shilling for every copy, as the local authority may determine.

(9) A scheme under this section may vary or revoke a previous scheme thereunder; and a local authority may at any time with the consent of the Minister revoke a scheme by an order, notice of which shall be published by them in one or more newspapers circulating in their district.

(10) The production of a printed copy of a scheme purporting to be made by a local authority, upon which is indorsed a certificate purporting to be signed by the clerk to the authority stating—

  1. (a) that the scheme was made by the local authority,
  2. (b) that the copy is a true copy of the scheme,
  3. (c) that on a specified date the scheme was confirmed by the Minister,
shall be prima facie evidence of the facts stated in the certificate, and without proof of the handwriting or official position of any person purporting to sign the certificate in pursuance of this section.

4.15 p.m.

Dr. Hill

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

This is a most important addition which was made to the Bill in another place. A great deal of discussion, in which, in the nature of things, I did not participate, has taken placec on the subject of registration. Many hon. Members, notably the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), have urged that compulsory registration is an essential feature of the effective administration of this part of the Bill.

A good deal of difficulty was seen in that by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who believed that registration would bring in a large number of properties about which there is no complaint, and that it would involve a great deal of work by local authority officers—work that might better be directed towards the early stages of bringing the Clauses of the Bill to bear on properties in multi-occupation needing the attention of local authorities.

I will not rehearse the arguments for and against, but this new Clause, though it does not go all the way to satisfy the points of view that have been put forward, does give the local authority, after three years' experience—three years which I have no doubt will be spent in tackling those premises which they know to be in urgent need of their attention—power to introduce, subject to the Minister's approval, a system of registration which may be selective in that it is applied to a particular kind of property, and which may be selective in that it is applied to a particular part of the area. It is believed that the first task is to tackle the worst houses in multi-occupation. The local authorities will be better able to decide, when they have got to grips with the problem, whether they need a form of registration, and, if so, what character it should take, whether it should be comprehensive as far as their area is concerned, or selective. Bearing in mind that most local authorities know the premises that they wish immediately to tackle, I suggest that it would be better for them to get on with that task and subsequently to decide, in the light of their experience, whether they want registration and, if so, what form the registration should take.

I recommend this Clause to the House, not as meeting completely the views that have been expressed but as affording local authorities in due course, in the light of their experience, and at their option, subject to the Minister's consent, the right to decide whether they want registration and, if so, in what form it is appropriate to the circumstances of their area.

Mr. M. Stewart

I remember being warned when I was little that it is rude to say "I told you so", and memories of that warning inhibit me a little in commenting on this new Clause.

At the fourteenth sitting of the Standing Committee, on the morning of 16th May, we began a prolonged discussion on this topic in which a formidable part was taken, as the Minister said, by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) and others of my hon. Friends, and by the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux), who, I am glad to see, is with us at the death, as it were, on this occasion.

The hon. Baronet who was then the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government gave us three reasons why, in the Government's opinion, this registration was not a good thing. The first was that the local authorities would not have the staff for it. We should have thought that the local authorities were the best judges of that, and that that position could have been met simply by making the power to register permissive for local authorities without forbidding them, as the new Clause in this form does, to embark upon it until three years have elapsed.

I still do not see why a local authority, if it considered that it would be a prudent use of its staff and would get the best results if it compiled a register before three years were out, should not be allowed to do so. I think that the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central had a new Clause which simply gave the local authority the permissive power to compile a register when it liked, and I think that would have been better than the new Clause which is now offered to us.

The second reason that the then Parliamentary Secretary offered to us was that a register was quite unnecessary because local authorities would know the houses in question and the areas with which they have to deal. If that is true at the beginning of the process, one would have thought that it was almost a good deal more true three years later, and that if there was any validity in that reason against registration it would be an even more valid reason against registration three years after the process has begun. So I take it that we may assume that under the pressure of argument the Government have dropped that reason.

The third reason that the Parliamentary Secretary gave against registration was that if it imposed heavy penalties on persons who failed to register, it might catch innocent people who had erred through ignorance, as well as maliciously bad landlords. I must say that I never thought much of that argument, because I do not consider that people who make their livings by owning houses in multiple occupation ought to be allowed to say that they are all that innocent. It ought to be regarded as part of their business to know what the law is with regard to the management of such houses.

I am, therefore, rather sorry that the new Clause, which owes much to the proposal put forward by the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central, has modified very greatly the penalties which he originally put forward. The only penalty proposed in this new Clause is a fine not exceeding £10, no matter how often a person commits the offence and no matter how obvious it is to the court that he is prepared to go on breaking the law as long as he thinks that he will be able to get away with it Even if the fairly heavy penalties suggested by the hon. and gallant Member, and which some of my hon. Friends would have liked, were not adopted, provision should have been made for a heavies penalty for a repetition of the offence.

None the less, we must admit that the Government realise that a good deal of their case against registration is not sound. They have agreed, in this very modified and timid form, to allow registration not less than three years after the coming into force of the Measure, with the active wish of the local authority and the consent of the Minister. That is hedging the matter round with far too many safeguards, and I am still of the opinion expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North, that the Government's approach to the question of houses in multiple occupation is altogether too piecemeal and that they ought to accept the case for registration as a whole.

However, we have not a third Chamber in our Constitution, and, if we accept the new Clause, we should not get registration even in this extremely modified form. We have now reached the very last stage of the Bill where it is a case of take it or leave it. I therefore advise my hon. Friends—I think that many of them will wish to voice their criticisms of this new Clause—to say at this stage that it would be best to have it added to the Bill.

Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)

First, I should like to join with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government on his new appointment and to say that I welcome the new Clause. However, as my right hon. Friend has not had an active part in preparing it, I am sure that he will not mind my saying that I am certain that the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), who I am sorry to see is not in his place, and other hon. Members, including myself, who advocated the system of registration, feel bitterly disappointed at the nature of the new Clause. I feel that it is so half-hearted that, in practice, it will probably prove to be entirely ineffective.

The first point that I should like to make is this. Why should this new Clause not come into force until a period of three years has elapsed? I can think of only one reason for this, namely, that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury felt that the local authorities would at first be so busy in getting on with the more urgent provisions of Part II of the Bill that they would not have time for the compilation of the register.

There is probably some evidence to support that in what was said by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the Committee stage. When he was giving the Government's arguments against the new Clauses dealing with registration that I put forward he said: If I resist this Amendment and the new Clauses it is not because I want to weaken the powers, but because I want to make them more effective, more selective, and swifter-acting. Later my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade, when explaining further the Government's objections, said: They"— that is, the local authorities— have many powers to exercise, and if they divert hundreds of man-hours of effort to complete a registration system which, by hypothesis, will contain many houses which are not causing social trouble, they will divert staff from getting on with the essential job of clearing up the houses which are causing degradation and social tragedy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D.16th May, 1961;c. 638–42.] It would, apparently, seem to be my right hon. Friends' idea that not until the back of the job was broken should local authorities be allowed to start compiling the register. But surely it is for local authorities themselves to decide whether and when the compilation of such a register will be helpful to them in their task. That was very much my idea in the new Clauses which I put forward. I gave local authorities the option of deciding whether they should compile such a register.

My right hon. Friend agrees with me because, as has been said, he makes it optional for local authorities in this new Clause. Indeed, he goes further than I did, because he also makes it optional for them to decide which areas under their jurisdiction should be included for registration purposes and, if necessary, which specific types of house. That matter is dealt with in subsection (3) of the new Clause. In addition, in paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (3) he allows them to make it obligatory on the managers of the houses to provide the information required for the register.

In other words, by this new Clause, local authorities can either keep a register or not and can do just as much or as little work as they like in keeping it. Why, then, in the name of reason, should not they be allowed to decide when they wish a register to be kept? I admit that I cannot understand why they should be ordered not to compile a register until 1965.

I should like to ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance which I feel sure will be given. Can we be assured that the register, when kept, will be public and open to inspection by anybody? I think that that is a very important point. One of the most important considerations about the register is that it should be open to inspection by the Inland Revenue authorities. In Nottingham, the loathsome creatures who operate this horrible racket are guilty of the grossest form of tax evasion. I know that I surprised the House and the Committee during earlier stages of the Bill by referring to someone in Nottingham who was taking in—I will not say earning—by this means over £500 a week, with practically no outgoings. We sometimes hear people complaining that prostitutes' earnings are not taxed, but they are earning their money in a far more decent and honourable manner than the people who operate this racket. I believe that it would be one of the greatest deterrents to these "sharks" if they knew that the tax collectors had access to the details of their business.

If, as I hope, the register will be open, when it is kept, to the tax collectors, then there is not much doubt from the figures that I have given of what these people are making that the landlords will take very great risks in order to avoid supplying the information which they are required to supply. Similarly, they will be only too anxious to avoid giving that information because it will come to the knowledge of the local authorities, since once an order has been made against a house the local authority will be extremely interested in the condition of the other houses owned by the landlord concerned.

From that point of view, I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) that the penalties provided in subsection (4) of the new Clause are hopelessly inadequate—I would even say, derisory. The hon. Member for Fulham referred to the penalties which I suggested, and I think be seemed to consider that they were, perhaps, a little severe. The maximum penalty I suggested for a second conviction of failure to register or of supplying false information was a fine of £100, with three months' imprisonment as an alternative or in addition. Perhaps that is fairly severe, but it is no more severe than that which already applies under the Bill in respect of other offences by landlords in the management of these houses.

I assure my right hon. Friend that for the principal criminals who are running this racket there will be absolutely no deterrence whatever in a maximum penalty of a £10 fine. However, if we really must wait for three years before the new Clause comes into force, there will be ample time for my right hon. Friend to think again about it and, I hope, in future legislation at some time or other, increase the penalties.

We all know that half a loaf is better than no bread, and, by the same token, half a slice also, is better. I therefore welcome this crumb which my right hon. Friend has offered.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

I agree almost entirely with what the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) has said. The proposed new Clause is quite inadequate and almost completely unsatisfactory.

I take, first, the question of penalties. In the City of Birmingham, which has an acute problem created by houses in multiple occupation, there are cases of unscrupulous landlords collecting as much as £19 a week from a three- or four-bedroom house. In the circumstances, what possible deterrent will a fine of £10 be? As hon. Members have said, such penalties are derisory. They will be completely ineffective, and that objection applies to the whole Clause.

The Minister has not satisfactorily explained why there should be three years' delay. He says that he wants to give local authorities a chance to gain experience. The local authorities want the powers at once. My own local authority in Birmingham has expressed that view in the clearest possible terms, and I am sure that other local authorities with the same problem feel exactly the same, that there is no justification whatever for the three years' delay.

The problem is growing more and more acute. In three years, a great deal more damage will be done in the areas with which we are concerned and they will have deteriorated further. The problem is that, once they have deteriorated, it is very difficult to bring them back to decent conditions. The local authority faces the problem that, once a house is occupied as a lodging house, or is used in multiple occupation, and has been so for some time, it is not easy for the local authority to deal with it.

The authority usually has to find some way of dealing with the lodgers or tenants and providing them with other accommodation. It is very difficult just to turn people out into the street. Obviously, local authorities are inhibited in what they can do. As the problem grows, so it becomes more difficult to solve, and this is why local authorities want the powers at once.

Until 1954, under their own byelaws, local authorities had the power to arrange for registration of premises in multiple occupation. Birmingham had such a byelaw, but it was washed out by the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, 1954, as all similar byelaws were. Birmingham wants its powers to be restored. Nothing really effective is done by the new Clause, and, in any case, it may not be done for another three years, during w[...]n time the situation will go from bad to worse.

The situation is wholly unsatisfactory. As the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central said, it is not a matter of imposing a mandate on the local authorities. It is a matter of allowing the local authorities to ask for the power, if they wish to have it, to prepare a scheme. In the circumstances, what on earth is the use of the three years' delay?

During our discussions on the Part II of the Bill, my hon. Friends and I said that it was likely to be only partially effective because it had not sufficient teeth. Part II has not sufficient teeth—and I say this bluntly—because the Minister and the Government have been much too jealous about the rights of landlords in these matters, even to the point of protecting the rights of the most unscrupulous. Therefore, Part II will be but a half-measure in dealing with premises in multiple occupation.

I know that we cannot do anything at this stage. We must either accept or reject the new Clause. I do not regard it as half a loaf. At best, it is just a few crumbs. The Government have accepted the principle of registration. I hope that they will, at an early stage, before the end of the three years, introduce amending legislation to give local authorities the powers they want to deal with the very grave problem which confronts them.

Mr. Graham Page

I am sure that on both sides of the House we are enthusiastic in trying to do away with the mischief of houses let in multiple occupation by unscrupulous landlords. I ask my right hon. Friend not to allow that enthusiasm to impose too much of a burden on individuals as a result of regulations which may be made for registration under the new Clause.

The Clause provides that a local authority may by a scheme create a register and impose obligations on people to provide information. It is to be done by a scheme, not by a Statutory Instrument, so we shall never see such schemes in the House of Commons. It is not to be done by the usual procedure of bye-laws which would give the individual an opportunity to put his case if he thought that a scheme was too extensive. It is to be done by a rather novel procedure under the Clause.

A local authority prepares a scheme. It publishes a notice of it a month before it submits the scheme to the Minister. I am not quite sure what the purpose of the publication of the notice is, because there is no provision for inquiry into a proposed scheme. I suppose that the idea is that the individual, seeing the announcement in the newspaper, may make his representations to the local authority if he does not think that the scheme goes far enough, or if he thinks that it goes too far—if, for instance, it includes X Street when there are no houses in that street to which the register could reasonably apply.

The scheme will then come before the Minister, who, as I read the Clause, can confirm it with modifications. So the individual concerned will never know exactly what the scheme is; it will, perhaps, be modified by the Minister when it comes before him.

These things are important to the individual. Subsection (3) of the Clause covers a great number of people beyond those directly responsible for letting houses in multiple occupation. At the end of subsection (4) it is provided that any person who, having been required by a local authority in pursuance of this subsection to give to them any information, fails to give that information will be liable to a penalty of £10. I call attention again to the words "any person". It is not merely the upscrupulous person we are trying to catch under the Bill.

Whereas, elsewhere in the Bill, we have inserted the words "without reasonable excuse" before the word "fails", those words are not inserted here, and the courts will be bound to draw a distinction between the Clauses in which they find those words and the present proposed new Clause.

If a person fails to give the information which the local authority requires of him, a court will not be able to let him off even though he may have a very reasonable excuse, because in other Clauses we have specifically said that it is a defence to have a reasonable excuse and in this one we have deliberately left those words out. I am sorry that the words are not included here.

My right hon. Friend can put that sort of thing right when he sees the schemes which come before him I am asking him, because the House and the public will never see the schemes, to look at them with great care. I say that the public will never see them because a local authority will be under no obligation, tinder this Clause, to publish its scheme. All that the local authority has to do is to put it in a newspaper that the scheme can be seen at the town hall. One knows that the general public do not see such notices, and it is only when they find that they are unwittingly committing an offence that they realise what the scheme may be.

I hope that my right hon. Friend, when local authorities put schemes before him, will act as a sort of watchdog for the individual or, to use another metaphor, to see that the net is not spread too widely so that it will place a burden on innocent people who are not directly responsible for the letting of houses in multiple occupation.

Mr. Lipton

I greet this new Clause with even less rapture than that shown by any of the hon. Members who have already spoken. It has struck me that when it comes to dealing with upscrupulous landlords, property racketeers, many of them masquerading under noms de plume,and mushroom companies some registered in Dublin for reasons of their own, the Government always approach the problem with the softest of kid gloves, and it is most unfortunate that when the House or the Government have an opportunity of dealing with what is a really disgusting abuse we should be fobbed off with a half-measure of this kind and be delayed for a period of three years.

I thought that in my constituency I had some of the shadiest landlords in the country but, in view of what the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) has said, it appears that there are some people in his constituency who have learned very much from some of the landlords who have been operating in my constituency for rather longer than some of the other doubtful people who are literally making a gold mine out of this racket.

I have felt for a very long time, since I first put forward the suggestion, which was frowned upon, that a local authority must know who is the legal owner of any property or rateable hereditament in its area. In my own division, cases have frequently arisen in which the somewhat limited powers that the local authorities have at the moment have been frustrated because this information is not available. I hope that when the register is compiled it will be open to inspection not merely by the Inland Revenue, but by any citizen who wants to see the register and know who is the real owner of any eyesore there may he in his area.

It has been pointed out that the penalties provided for in three years' time will be quite inadequate. I shall not prophesy what the £ will be worth in three years' time if the present Administration continues in power, but. in any event, the fine under this Clause will not be more than £10. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, with all the legal delays that may be involved, it will pay many of these landlords to pay the fine of £10 from time to time, if, in the meantime, they are getting away with this racket out of which they are earning very much more than the miserable sum of £10 which they may be called upon to pay if and when they are charged under this Clause.

For these people £10 is not a deterrent at all, because they can recover that amount in a matter of two or three days from the occupiers of the properties that may be subject to proceedings. In any event, it is worth their while to go on paying a fine of £10 if they know that it will never be increased. There will be a gap of weeks or months between each conviction under this Clause and in that period far more money can be earned by an unscrupulous landlord than he is likely to have to pay in fines because of this very undesirable feature that no matter how many times a landlord contravenes the Clause he will never have to pay more than a £10 fine.

I draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to a further discrepancy. If he will look at Clause 13 (4, a) he will find that contravention of that Clause, which lays down regulations prescribing management code, entails a fine of £20 for the first offence for a breach of the regulations prescribed in the management code. If he continues to contravene the Clause setting out the regulations, he is liable on summary conviction to go to prison for a term not exceeding three months or to a fine not exceeding £100, or to both.

So we have two kinds of penalties in the same Bill. One penalty is £20 for the first offence and three months' imprisonment or a fine of £100 for any subsequent offence, and the other, under this new Clause, is the miserably inadequate penalty of £10 imposed for the first and as many subsequent offences as an unscrupulous landlord or owner of property is willing to commit.

I feel so strongly about identifying the landlords who have been exploiting the hardships of the community for so many years past that I would be quite willing to reject this Clause out of hand in the hope that perhaps in the next Session of Parliament, or at least long before three years has elapsed, the House, with a proper opportunity of considering all the implications of the problem, will authorise the Government to take very much stronger action than the present half-hearted, kid-gloved methods which they are now adopting in dealing with an admitted abuse. I am quite willing if other hon. Members feel so disposed, because I feel so strongly about the miserable inadequacy of this Clause and the miserable protection that it will afford to the general public, to reject it out of hand without further delay.

4.45 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

I support what the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) had to say, and I do so because I represent a constituency where multiple occupancy is a very serious problem. We have not really, I would say to the Minister, got three years in which to neglect this problem. It is a problem which is already acute and causing a great deal of tension in areas such as mine.

I listened to what the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) said about putting too much of a strain on the landlord. But it is about time that we began to put some strain on the thoroughly bad landlord.

Mr. Graham Page

I deliberately did not say "too much strain on the landlord." I was talking about the individual. I meant the individual tenant as well as the landlord.

Sir L. Plummer

I apologise, and withdraw my remark. I misunderstood what the hon. Gentleman said. But my point is still germane. The bad landlord has been getting away, literally, with murder in constituencies like mine. I could give examples of multiple occupancy which would appal the House if I described them in detail.

What are the difficulties? If the sanitary inspector goes round to find out what the measure of the occupancy is, he simply cannot find out because the landlords, and in some cases, the tenants, lie to him about who is in the House. Yet in some of these cases the beds are never cold; as soon as one lot gets out another lot gets in. This is the situation which is causing tension in boroughs in my area and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton). To delay any further with a problem which has been acute in certain London boroughs and also, clearly, in the Midlands for so long seems to me a neglect of our duty.

I would further tell the right hon. Gentleman that the penalties prescribed are not adequate. They are old-fashioned. If we are to treat the girls on the streets as we do and the bad landlords as we propose to do, it amounts to putting a premium on being a bad landlord. In some of the houses £30, £40 or £50 a week is being taken from people who are forced by necessity to occupy these houses, many of them slum properties which ought to be pulled down but the local authorities cannot deal with them because they have not got sufficient information. It is not facing the situation merely to impose minor fines on the bad landlords.

The Government must do something immediately. I am afraid of the consequences of letting the present situation continue. All sorts of elements in our population are taking advantage of it. Hon. Members who are not associated with London are probably unaware of the subversive elements which are trying to increase the tensions which already exist. If the Government take the opportunity now to ensure that immediate and adequate action is taken, I am certain that there will be an improvement in the situation.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is not only London constituencies, but Birmingham constituencies as well. I suggest that if the Government are not able to give him an adequate answer we should try to bring in a Private Member's Bill to amend this Measure as soon as possible.

Sir L. Plummer

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but I represent a London constituency. I would point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. J. Silverman) has already spoken. I am not in favour of bringing in a Private Member's Bill to deal with the situation. I am more in favour of bringing the Government down over this point, and I threaten the Government with that action unless they do something.

Mr. Rippon

I very much hope that neither the public nor the wretched slum landlord with whom we all want to deal as speedily as possible will in any way be misled by the somewhat mischievous speeches of the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) and the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer). They have talked about the miserable inadequacy of the Bill, about waiting three years and the penalties being inadequate.

I would point out, not merely to the House, but to the public and to the bad landlords with whom we want to deal—this has nothing to do with registration —that the Act itself, which is what we shall really be concerned with, bites at once and, we trust, bites hard. The Act will come into force on the expiration of a period of one month beginning with the day on which it is passed; and I think that we would all agree that the sooner it is passed the better.

That is the point in regard to the penalties to which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) referred. It is really wrong to try to equate the penalty for failing to register with the penalties in the Bill for failing to manage houses properly and put them into the sort of decent condition in which we all want to have them. In my view, the £10 penalty is a perfectly proper one for failing to register. What the bad landlord must understand is that the Bill has teeth, and if he fails to comply with its provisions and the schemes made there under there will be heavy penalties not just for the first offence, but for subsequent offences as well.

Mr. Lipton


Mr. Rippon

It is £20 for the first offence. That may not be of a very serious nature. However, if the landlord has had one chance and there is a second offence, then the penalty is, I think, as severe as one would wish, providing, if necessary, for fines up to £100 or even imprisonment.

What is important, in my view, is what my right hon. Friend who is now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said in the debate which took place in the Standing Committee on the fourteenth day. He then said that not a week ought to be allowed to pass after the Bill has become law before action is taken. That is the point to be made to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. J. Silverman). We all agree that in the bad areas of Birmingham and London—and there are others—this action should be taken at once.

It is not necessary to have a register before taking action. Any local authority which wants to do so can make a survey. Its officials ought to have a fairly good idea of what is going on, and, to the extent that they have not got the information, they should set about getting it. That is how we want to see them employed—not sitting in the office compiling a register, but making a survey, finding out the bad houses and getting them put into proper order.

Mr. J. Silverman

That is what they have been doing, but their powers in respect of making a survey, of obtaining entry and compiling figures are limited.

Mr. Rippon

Exactly; that is the point that I have been making. The local authorities have been trying to do this over the years and have been making surveys. In so far as they want more information, they can get it. That has nothing to do with the register. Before one has a register, one must have a survey. Then, after a period of time we can assess how much is left to be done.

There is no question of doing nothing for three years, as the hon. Member for Aston suggested. There is a very great deal which has to be done in the period, and if it is not done, we shall all want to know the reason why. After that period, with the advantage of the survey and a fairly complete coverage, one has, in effect, the first register, and then it can be kept up.

My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said in that debate in Committee that he agreed that it might be desirable one day, when we have more experience of these matters, to make statutory provision for a register. I thought that the welcome given to the new Clause by the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) was a little ungenerous since, in a sense, the Minister followed precisely his advice. At the end of the Committee proceedings the hon. Member for Fulham, in an effort to be helpful, suggested that a Clause might be introduced in another place to the effect that on a date to be appointed by the Minister—he said that it should not be less than two years after the passing of the Bill, or it could be longer if the Minister preferred—registration should be complete. That has been done.

Mr. M. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman should make it clear that I made that suggestion only after the Government had made it clear that they would not in any circumstances do what we really wanted, which was to have immediate registration. I was making that suggestion in desperation because of the obstinacy of the Government. Even now they have lagged one year behind my suggestion. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that my reception of the Clause was ungenerous, has he listened to what has been said by one of his hon. Friends?

Mr. Rippon

I think that it was put rather more felicitously in the Committee than it has been done this afternoon.

I do not think that it is right to argue on this point about registration that it holds up the operation of the Bill, which is what some hon. Members have been saying. I should have thought that the Government took a very reasonable view during the course of the Committee proceedings. Indeed, their views were a continuous, harmonious process. As one hon. Member of the Committee after another rose and put his point of view, so the possibilities emerged and regard was had to what was said.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)


Mr. Rippon

For example, the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp) said that there were precedents for having a selective power and that that might be the way to deal with it. Even now it is perfectly clear that the hon. Gentleman's original proposal for immediate registration in every case was not justified in all circumstances. It is a local, selective problem, and in my view this Clause will enable registers to be compiled in suitable areas at the proper time and in the proper way.

Mr. J. Silverman

The hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) raised a point which the hon. Gentleman should answer. Supposing a local authority feels now able and willing to prepare a scheme for the Minister, why should it not be allowed to do so forthwith?

Mr. Rippon

If it has all this information, then it should get on with the work. When it has completed its survey then it will be able to put forward a scheme for registration. But the immediate task is to do the work.

Question put and agreed to.[Special Entry.]