§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 7 and 8.
Lines 7 and 8 of the Schedule refer to Section 1 of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act, 1919. I appreciate that the Committee is not concerned this afternoon with the wisdom or humanity of the Home Secretary's exercise of the powers which the House has for many years entrusted to him, but with whether he ought to have those powers and whether the Act of 1919 is such an Act that we ought to continue it even for one more year. This is the sort of debate which we have had year by year aver many years. The major fundamental criticism which we have ail made is that it leaves the Home Secretary with too many arbitrary powers over the liberties and, as we have always realised potentially and as now we know actually, the lives, of human beings.
The right hon. Gentleman is able to decide matters of the utmost importance in the lives of individuals and families without appeal, without reference to any 406 kind of third party judgment and—I confess that this was new to me—without being under any obligation whatever even to listen to the representations from the people whose lives he is, as it were, dominating or controlling. To see whether these powers ought to be continued it is necessary to see what the powers are as recently defined in the Court of Appeal. It is also necessary to see for illaustration purposes how they apply in a particular case.
I therefore propose to illustrate my argument that these powers ought now to come to an end by one single recent and now world-famous, or world-notorious, case. Although I must refer to detail, I am not doing so by way of criticising the Home Secretary. We cannot do that on this occasion. The occasion for critising how he administered any particular case arises at another time, but we cannot illustrate the argument on which my proposition that the powers should come to an end is based unless we are prepared, frankly and without fear and without favour, to see how, in fact, the powers work.
It is not a question whether the result achieved was fair or just or humane; it is a question whether any one man in any country in any Government is fit to exercise powers of this kind. The case I want to refer to is the case of Robert Soblen, deceased. Who was Robert Soblen? I have here a letter from him addressed to me from Brixton Prison on 6th August. He died a few days later.
§ "Dear Sir,
§ I am very thankful to you for your intervention on my behalf. I felt isolated, alone, and your action gave me hope. I was never a spy. I am an innocent man and paying for 'political sins' of 18 years ago. Your humane interest in my case has strengthened my belief that there are many who would not want to see a stain on the conscience of mankind if I am sent to prison for the rest of my days.
§ Sincerely thankful,
§ Dr. Robert A. Soblen."
§ Dr. Soblen had reason to be more grateful to others, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones). I hope that it is not out of order or improper to refer to him, although he was acting in a professional capacity. But Dr. Soblen had no reason whatever to be grateful to the Home Secretary, and as 407 for the stain on the conscience of mankind, it is now, unfortunately, indelible.
Who was he? What about him? How did all this arise? I should like to read to the House another, very short, letter. I will not quote the name, but the Home Secretary will recognise the letter because I sent it to him at the time. It is addressed to me:
You will be aware of the case of Dr. Robert Soblen, the psychiatrist who is in Brixton prison awaiting court action on Tuesday next. As I knew him well, 30 years ago, as a fellow student in pre-Hitler Germany, I am writing to you to take interest in this man. As a Jew from Lithuania, he came, as so many then, from Poland, Rumania, Hungary under a 'numerus clausus' and was forced to study abroad. Of course these men and women were naturally rebellious and Soblen was quite outstanding in his fight against the encroaching Fascist peril. We, the young German students, looked up to him, a personality inspiring respect and admiration. Then Hitler came and the few who survived went into the 'diaspora'. When I read two weeks ago the incredible reports in the Press I tried to get in touch with him after a gap of almost 30 years and was able to see him on two occasions in the hospital prison, a man deeply depressed and without hope. He assured me repeatedly that he had never been a spy and never given away defence secrets, and I believe this. The most dreadful blow was the treatment dealt out to him in Israel, where he was sure to find refuge—a point that surely needs urgent clarification. Counting on your interest and help.
It is signed, but I do not propose to disclose the signature.
I sent the letter to the Home Secretary on 31st July, and he replied:
Thank you for sending me the letter you received from…about the case of Dr. Robert Soblen. I can give you my assurance that this will be taken into account.
I accept his assurance. I have no doubt that he took it into account. With what result? On 3rd August, he wrote to me as follows:
As I promised, I took into account the representations made about Dr. Robert Soblen in the letter which you forwarded. I do not think there is anything further I can add, but you will probably wish to have this letter back.
§ What he decided, as we shall see in a moment, having taken this letter and all other representations into account, was that it was in the public interest of this country that he should exercise his arbitrary powers and hand him back to his gaolers of the United States of America.408
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ How does America come into it? He had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on a charge arising out of America's espionage laws. It is important to bear in mind that three grand juries in the United States threw out the bill before they found a grand jury which would return a true bill. Moreover, he was not charged at any time with giving any information to anybody. He was charged with conspiring to give information, but not with the accomplished fact. A very large number—I have forgotten how many, but it went into double figures or more—of fellow conspirators were named, but no one else was charged. The offence with which he was charged—conspiring to give information—happened, if it happened at all, eighteen years ago, and there was no charge of anything thereafter. He was convicted on what in our courts would be regarded as the flimsiest of evidence, and I have no doubt that in any English court he would have been triumphantly acquitted.
§ It may be asked what all this has to do with the House of Commons and what all this has to do with the Home Secretary. It has a great deal to do with it, because if this man had been or could have been arrested here under our extradition Acts, there was to begin with an insuperable difficulty in that our extradition treaty with the United States of America does not make this charge an extraditable offence. Probably that is why our authorities did not proceed against him under the extradition Acts.
§ But assuming that it had been an extraditable offence there is still a duty on any court before whom anyone is brought in this country and a request for extradition made; for it has to be established that the evidence offered affords a reasonable and probable presumption of guilt. That is why what evidence there was against him on the original charge, although he was domiciled in another country, is relevant to what we have to consider today.
§ When he was convicted, he appealed. When it became clear that his appeal would not be successful—it must be borne in mind that his appeal was purely on legal points and not a retrial—he escaped. He went in an aeroplane to Israel. What happened in Israel 409 has nothing to do with this Committee, but one may as well tell the story properly, and I am bound to say that I feel personally humiliated by what the Israeli authorities did to him.
§ It is a part of the story and part of what the Home Secretary had a duty to consider when he denied this dying man refuge in our country. What did Israel do? A country whose great glory was that no one claiming to be a Jew would go to its shores and be turned away turned him away, hustled him away overnight, into the custody of a United States marshal, and the pitiful excuse given afterwards was that he had landed with a false passport and had committed an offence against the immigration laws of Israel. I do not want to say too much, but if the present citizens or inhabitants of Israel who arrived there in contravention of the immigration laws were to be hustled out overnight, the country would lose 65 per cent. of its population overnight.
§ I am glad to know that public opinion in Israel is censorious, and rightly censorious, of what was done, and I say no more about it than that he was put on a plane which went to Athens, there transferred to another plane going to America, which came down in this country, but he had done a physical act to himself that made it necessary, for purely humanitarian reasons, that he should be given treatment.
§ There is a lot of argument, and there was a lot of argument in the courts, as to whether in the end, in practice or in law, he was given leave to land, but I am content to assume that the Home Office and Court of Appeal decision that he was not given leave to land was correct. But why was it not given? Who decided it? On what evidence? What representations were made, including what representations were made by the Government of the United States of America? He was a dying man, although many efforts were made to cover up on this and to pretend that he was not. I have a long letter describing what took place at the inquest. It was a long inquest, which did not seem to be concerned at all with his health, or how he died, or what he died from. Almost all of it was devoted to a painstaking inquiry into how he came to be in possession of certain drugs.410
I have here a doctor's letter, from which I will quote:
May I add that in 30 years of medical experience, involving work in many hospitals in four countries, I have never experienced such inhumanity.
At the inquest, his family had arranged to have a Home Office specialist present. The name of Dr. Keith Simpson is well known. Why was he not called? His evidence was in the hands of the coroner. Why was he never called to give evidence? It is important.
I have been informed"—
says my informant—
by the widow that according to this evidence leukaemia was present in acute form, and that the life expectancy was judged to be one to two months.
§ Did the Home Secretary know that? Was it really so overwhelmingly necessary to our country that a man with one to two months to live should not be allowed to land, should be handed back to be transported for imprisonment for life on a charge on which we would never have convicted him, and on a charge for which he was not extraditable from this country?
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Has it ever been suggested by anybody that this man was in any way concerned with the security of this country?
§ Mr. Silverman
Certainly not. I do not know what representations may have been made by the United States Government to the Home Secretary or to the British Government. The reason why I do not know is not that the right hon. Gentleman does not know, but that he will not tell. The knowledge is in his possession. He admits that some representations were made. That has never been denied, but he will not say what the information was. All I am concerned with for the moment is whether he knew this man to be dying when he refused him leave to land, and, subsequently, having refused him leave to land, made a deportation order against a man who, according to his own adjudication, was not here at all.
What did he take into consideration? What was the overwhelming reason why this man should be hunted, hounded and persecuted, and ultimately driven to death because we could not afford him living space in our territory for the one or two months that he still had? What 411 is the law which enables our Home Secretary to do that? I should like to state it very shortly in the words of the Court of Appeal, and I am not going to read any of the judgments. As hon. Members know, there is always a head note before the actual judgments are printed, and the head note gives a short summary of the facts and sets out shortly what the court held to be the law. What did it hold to be the law? It is because they held this to be the law that I say that this Committee ought today to say that after today this ought no longer to be the law of the land.
First—and this I do not deal with, because it is a separate and very technical point, which was advanced on behalf of Dr. Soblen by his legal representative—the Aliens Order of 1953 is invalid, anyhow. I should have thought, reading the arguments, that there was much to be said for that view, but, whether there was or not no longer matters, because the Court of Appeal —and we know that there has been no appeal from it—held that the Order is valid under the Aliens Act, which the Government are proposing to continue for another twelve months this afternoon. What else did it hold? It held thatThe provisions of Article 8 (4) and Article 20 of the Order of 1953 were cumulative and supplementary, not mutually exclusive.I will not read the rest of it, because hon. Members may wonder what in the world all that means. I propose to tell them.
Article 8 of the Aliens Order, 1953, whose validity depends on the Act which the Government now propose to continue, deals with the Home Secretary's power to remove aliens who have been refused leave to land. Dr. Soblen was an alien who had been refused leave to land. That is the contention of the Home Office. That is what the Home Secretary fought for in the lower court; that is what he fought for in the Court of Appeal, and that is what he satisfied to his own satisfaction. Therefore, we can no longer contend that Article 8 did not apply to him. He was, indeed, an alien who had been refused leave to land.
What can be done to such a man? He can be deported. He can be sent 412 away. Article 8 defines how and when he can be sent away. For one thing, if he is not sent away for two months, he cannot be sent away at all, not under Article 8. For another thing, directions can be given to place him on board the ship or aircraft which brought him here. Or, if that is not possible, directions can be given to the owners or agents—not to anybody else—of the aircraft or ship that brought him here to take him back. In the meantime, things can be done to enable those things to be done. That is all.
It was not possible to do that in Soblen's case, because the airline which brought him here no longer had the aircraft here which brought him and refused the directions to put him on another one. Therefore, the Home Secretary was unable to apply to Dr. Soblen, he being a man who had been refused leave to land, the powers under the Aliens Order which the Home Secretary had to deal with persons refused leave to land.
Does anybody think that the Home Secretary will be defeated by that? This is where Article 20 comes in. The Home Secretary has more powers under Article 20. The Court of Appeal decided—it is not for me to question it, though I confess that I am puzzled by the reasoning which led the court to the conclusion —that the Home Secretary still had powers under Article 20, even though the specific powers which the Order gives him for persons refused leave to land under Article 8 do not apply or cannot be applied.
Article 20 has no time limit. It can be applied at any time. Article 20 does not require that directions shall be given to the company that brought the alien here, because he may have been here many years and nobody may know who brought him here. But for the decision of the Court of Appeal, one might ask: if Article 20 can be applied to aliens refused leave to land, what is Article 8 doing in the Order at all? It is not needed.
I cannot understand what the Court of Appeal meant by saying that the two powers are not mutually exclusive and that one is supplementary to the other. The Court of Appeal did not say which is supplementary to which. Obviously, the one dealing with people refused 413 leave to land cannot be supplementary to the one dealing with those who are normally resident here. There are obvious things in Article 20 which are not fitting to conditions of people who have been refused leave to land.
That is why the two Articles are there. But the Court of Appeal has said that all the protections, such as there are, under Article 8 are of no avail at all if the Home Secretary chooses to apply the other Article. If that really is the law of the land, even on this one comparatively minor point, it is time we did something to change it.
What else did the Court of Appeal decide? The headnote continues:(iii) an alien had no right that, before a deportation order was made against him, representations from him should be heard, directed to the requirement under Article 20 (2, b) of the Aliens Order, 1953, that the Secretary of State should deem it conducive to the public good that the order should be made.Therefore, although Article 20 applies to him when it is a question of using it to send him out, it does not apply to him when it is a question of giving him any safeguards against the deportation order made.
It is a monstrous state of the law, if it is the state of the law, which the Court of Appeal has declared. Why should not he have a right to make representations? Can the Home Secretary tell us whether he defends at this time of day the proposition that a man can be deported in these circumstances—a dying man who has committed no offence against our laws and very likely no offence against anybody's—and handed back to be imprisoned for the rest of his life without having the right to make any representation on his own behalf to the right hon. Gentleman?
Moreover, when the Home Secretary has made the Order, when he decides whether to make the Order or not, without having any duty to hear representations on the man's behalf, there is no appeal of any kind to any third party judgment. How can this be justified at any time, and still more at a time like this when all over the world there are people caught up in the flotsam and jetsam of world conditions for which they are not responsible but of which they are the inevitable victims? There is no representation. There is the absolute power of the Home Secretary.
414 He need not listen to anybody. He need not tell us what representations he has listened to. He need not give us any reasons. He can apply Article 20, which, on the face of it, has no application.
That is not the end of it. The head-note goes on to say this; this is the last reason:on the evidence there was no ground tending to show that the deportation order had not been made in the honest belief that the deportation order would be conducive to the public good …I pause there. Surely in any sane, sensible or civilised state of the law the onus ought to be on the Home Secretary, if he asserts that it is conducive to the public good, to say what it is and prove that it is. How can we place on a man here for a few days, with no knowledge of our law, the onus of adducing evidence that the Home Secretary was wrong in holding that it was conducive to the public good? It is an astounding state of the law which no man of integrity, I dare to assert, can possibly defend in this Committee or, for that matter, anywhere else.
I will read the second half of the last reason:or that it was a sham or device for bringing about an unlawful extradition.Soblen had to prove that it was a device for bringing about an unlawful extradition.
There is no doubt that that was the result. An unlawful extradition was, in fact, effected, and when I say an unlawful extradition I mean an extradition that would have been unlawful under the Extradition Act. The whole object of the operation was to place the United States Government in the same position as they would have been if an application for extradition had been made, and had succeeded. That was the object of the operation, and that would have been the operation but for the man's death.
Why unlawful? Unlawful, because everyone knows that extradition proceedings could not have succeeded. It was not an extraditable offence, but what the court has held must now be taken as the law of the land if we continue this Act.
What is the law on this point if we continue this Act? If the Home Secretary desires to get rid of an alien, desires to hand him over for punishment to another 415 country or to carry out punishment in another country that has already been awarded, and if the man is an alien, and if he is not extraditable, the Home Secretary can use his general powers under the Order to produce a result that could not have been produced under the law of the land.
Does the Home Secretary really want this power—does he? Where it is conceded that the offence is not extraditable, does he want to use his general powers on a vague phrase about it being conducive to the public good in order to produce an extradition that he could get in no other way—in the case of a man who had suffered enough, who was dying, who had committed no offence at all against us, and who was a man, be it said, apart from the offence with which he was charged, of the highest possible professional and human repute?
That cannot be right, can it? It cannot be right, according to any conception of the laws of natural justice that I have ever heard of, that the Home Secretary should be bolted and barred at the front door and at every window in the house, but allowed to escape through an unnoticed crevice at the back that no one else had ever heard of, and had never thought was available—and then not to say why.
I know why the Home Secretary thought it conducive to the public good. It was because the United States Government asked him to do it, and because he believes that it is not conducive to the public good for this country ever to refuse any request by the United States Government, no matter how unreasonable, at any time. That is not my view of what is conducive to the public good of the country.
I am not making any narrow technical plea about sovereignty. I know that the Government no longer believe in the independence or sovereignty of this country, but there are people who do not agree with me about that. They think that the Government do so believe. But this is surely a very strange abdication of it, is it not, that, merely because a foreign country asks one to do it, one does an act that is unjust, that is unhumane, and that has no foundation or 416 justification in the laws of one's own country?
I have spoken long enough. There are other hon. Members that want to speak—indeed, there are other things I may like to say. I hope that I have said enough to induce the Committee to believe that it is too late to treat this debate as a sort of annual circus that we can have year after year, to which the Home Secretary listens and, if he makes a conciliatory speech at the end of the debate, we give him the powers, and everyone goes home and forgets about it for another twelve months.
We have reached a pitch—displayed by this disgraceful action in the case of Soblen; an action that brought us into contempt all over the world—enough, surely, to persuade the Committee to take a long and serious look at whether it should continue this Act for another day.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Dingle Foot (Ipswich)
The Committee has just listened to a very moving speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). I do not propose to follow him into the details of the Soblen case, but I should like to address the Committee for a few minutes on the issue which that case has raised. It is perfectly true, as my hon. Friend has said, that we have an annual debate on the aliens laws, and for year after year my hon. Friends have asked for in inquiry into those laws and their operation. It seems to me that the case that my hon. Friend has so movingly described tremendously strengthens the argument that there should be a full inquiry.
There has been no such inquiry since 1903. In that year, there was a Royal Commission. At that time, there was a good deal of public concern because of the influx of Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia. They were congregating in certain districts of the East End of London, and there was agitation that was extremely similar to the agitation we have had in this country as a result of coloured immigration from the West Indies, India and Pakistan.
The Royal Commission was followed by the Act of 1905, an Act that was passed in spite of the most vigorous protests by the Opposition of that day. They said that it was a new and extremely 417 undesirable departure that we should give to officials the right to bar anyone from coming to this country. None the less, that Act compares extremely favourably with the state of the law that exists under the Order in Council of 1953, with which we are concerned.
There was in that Act, as there is not in the Order of 1953, an express recognition of the right of political or religious asylum. Section 1 (3) lays down the conditions on which an expulsion order may be made against the alien, and there then follow these words:… but, in the case of an immigrant who proves that he is seeking admission to this country solely to avoid prosecution or punishment on religious or political grounds or for an offence of a political character, or persecution, involving danger of imprisonment or danger to life or limb, on account of religious belief, leave to land shall not be refused on the ground merely of want of means, or the probability of his becoming a charge on the rates …In those days, that is to say, an immigrant who landed here had an opportunity of proving that he was a refugee from political or religious persecution.
Secondly, and this is more significant still, although the Home Secretary was given, for the first time in our legislation, the right to make an expulsion order—which we now call a deportation order—he could, under that Act, make it only on the recommendation of the court. The position is quite different today. The Home Secretary can deport any alien if, in the words of the order, he deems it to beconducive to the public goodto make the order.
Apart from the Extradition Acts there is no recognition in the law governing aliens of the right of political asylum. There is, of course, an administrative procedure which was set up by the Government in 1956 as a result of the European Convention on Establishment. It is perfectly true that in certain cases the alien against whom a deportation order is sought to be made has the opportunity of a hearing before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate or one of the magistrate's colleagues. But that is a strictly limited right. It does not apply to cases where a deportation order has been made on ground of public security, or on the ground of the alien landing in the United Kingdom without permission, or on the ground that during his stay in 418 the United Kingdom he has within two years failed to observe the conditions attaching to his stay.
In all these cases—and we are particularly concerned here with the second, the alien landing without permission—the alien gets no hearing at all. In these matters we are a long way behind some other countries, and it might be worth while for the Committee to consider the position in the United States and indeed in some parts of the British Commonwealth.
In the United States there is a particular provision which is made under their Act of 1952 with reference to aliens who arrive on their shores. The alien may be kept out on a variety of grounds, but before he can be sent back he is entitled to a hearing by someone who is designated for that purpose and whose title is special inquiry officer. Although it is not a court of law, nevertheless it is quite clearly intended to be a judicial proceeding in all essentials, because it is provided that the special inquiry officer shall not himself take any part in the investigation of this man's case and he shall not in any sense be a prosecutor. He has to sit there and hear what the alien has to say. Then there is this provision:The determination of such special inquiry officer shall he based only on the evidence produced at the inquiry.That means, of course, that there has to be evidence, and if it is adverse the alien himself has an opportunity of meeting it. He has We right to be represented, and if the special inquiry officer decides against him there is specific provision for an appeal to the Attorney-General of the United States.
The position is very much the same in Canada, where there is a board of inquiry. It is to consider whether the alien may be allowed to remain or whether he must leave Canada. There again, it is specifically provided that the immigrant may be represented by counsel before the, board—of three in this case—which is empowered to receive evidence, and there is an appeal from the board to the Minister concerned.
In Australia, there is a board of three members. An alien who is ordered to be deported on a particular ground, that 419 is to say, on the ground that he advocates the overthrow by force or violence of the established Government of the Commonwealth, may be ordered to appear before the board and show cause why he should not be deported. There again, he has the opportunity of a hearing. I do not know what the position is at the moment, but even in South Africa, when she was a member of the Commonwealth, the law, by an Act of 1933. provided for the, setting up of a board to which the excluded alien could appeal.
I have taken these few examples, and I think that it would not be difficult to find others, to show how far in this matter we are lagging behind other countries. In all these countries the alien ordered to be deported has the right to be heard. He has the right to present his case or to have it presented for him. All we are asking is that we should try to observe in this country a very elementary principle of justice, Audi alterem partem—"Hear the other party" We are asking that there should be no such case as that of Dr. Soblen in this country again and that every alien against whom a deportation order is sought to be made should have the right to be heard. This is not an unreasonable request, but it can only be met by a change of the law. I hope, therefore, that we shall have from the Minister a much more sympathetic answer than we have had in recent years.
§ Dr. Jeremy Bray (Middlesbrough, West)
I rise to speak in the debate because the case which I wish to put is one where, as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) so movingly said, the stain is not indelible. In this case, there is hope. The individuals concerned are alive, some in this country and some behind the Iron Curtain.
The case is one which the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. (Mr. Kitson) and myself have been pressing with the Home Office. We make no complaint whatsoever about the humanity or the efficiency of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in dealing with it. Indeed, our impression has been that he has been extremely restive under the 420 administrative framework within which he has had to operate. This is the case of a young man. He comes from a country behind the Iron Curtain and he was able to visit this country as a tourist earlier this year. His two elder brothers live in this country, having served with the allied forces during the war.
The young man himself and many members of his family have served for various periods in Siberia. The aged mother, behind the Iron Curtain, is fatally ill and she may by now be dead. The whole family agreed that every effort should be made to reunite the brothers on this side of the Iron Curtain—in this country. The brothers are married to English girls. They have families. They are well paid and there is no question of the young man himself, a productive and efficient worker, being a charge on the rates. Yet we were told by the Joint Under-Secretary that the rules were perfectly clear and that this man could not be allowed to stay in this country. We were further told that by comparison with other cases which had been rejected the case was not a bad one.
This raises the question of what these rules are. I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) what his knowledge of the rules was from his period of office. He told me that there were no such rules, but only general understandings or general practices. Are there rules or are there not? If there are, why cannot we know them and at least know the framework within which these decisions are taken?
We are fortunate in this country in that we have not suffered the breaking up of most families in the way in which they have been broken up in such countries as the one from which this young man comes. We have a great reputation for making it possible for many of these flotsam and jetsam, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne has said, to find peace and a creative life within our society. Why can we not make it possible for these families to come together over here? There is no question of a tremendous flood of people coming in. If we set up rules which can be generally approved, there is surely no question that the numbers coming in would add appreciably to those who 421 are already here; and if that is the case, why can we not be told how many have sought to come or how many have been refused?
The powers of the Home Secretary in this matter are absolute and unquestionable. No one can call him to account. He has other grievous personal responsibilities in deciding the personal fate of many human beings. In the case, for example, of the death penalty there have at least been judicial proceedings in which the case has been discussed with proper pleading and proper legal representation in the courts. There is none of this in the case of aliens seeking permission to remain.
We are told that there is a security risk attached, but is there really any question of aliens coming to this country, getting jobs in which security would be an important consideration? What about the abuses which arise from allegations which are made without proper foundation, in which the person against whom they are made is never even told, let alone given a chance to reply to them? There will undoubtedly be an increasing volume of such cases in the future, especially if the plans of the Government to join the European Economic Community bear fruit.
Surely at this time, considering the immense changes which the Government are contemplating in the movement of aliens in and out of the country, there is an excellent case for reviewing the machinery. I therefore ask specifically: why cannot the rules under which the Home Secretary operates be published? Why cannot there be a tribunal to which individuals can put their case? I accept that secrecy may be necessary in such cases as the one that I have described, but at least it should be possible both for the rules under which such a tribunal works to he known and for any person appearing before such a tribunal to be properly represented.
As I say, there is still hope in the case I have put to the House. The hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. and I advised this young man to return to his country in the hope that a change would be possible this year, and this man, who is now engaged to an English girl, hopes to return. There may be others like him. Can the Home Secretary not hold 422 out some hope not only for these families, but for the great reputation which this country has had in the past and which, we trust, will grow in the future?
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
I think that it might be convenient if I intervene at this stage, because I want to deal principally with the Soblen case. I understand that the Home Secretary is anxious to reply to that matter personally, although that, of course, will not conclude the debate on this part of the Bill. Other hon. Members concerned with the administration of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act would be enabled to make their contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Come (Mr. S. Silverman) has done a service, on this occasion in our annual review of the administration of the Aliens Order, by concentrating the attention of the Committee on what happened in the case of Dr. Soblen. As he said, or, at any rate, implied, this is a laboratory test of how the Aliens Order works, what are the powers of the Home Secretary, how they are exercised and how they ought to be exercised, and it is particularly by analysing what happened in this case that we can best see what is wrong with the present state of the law. I agree entirely with what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. D. Foot) has said, that the time has arrived when, as the Guardian said this morning, a review of the whole administration of the powers of the Government over the lives of aliens is long overdue. It is overdue for revision and reform.
There is only one observation which my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne made with which I disagree, and that was in his opening statement, when he rather suggested that this was not the occasion to criticise the Home Secretary for his actions in this case. In my opinion, this is not only the occasion to criticise the Home Secretary for his conduct, but it is inevitable in discussing the case of Dr. Soblen that we should do so; and I think that we on these benches should be failing in our duty if we did not do so, and that for a variety of reasons.
There is no doubt that the whole of the tragic circumstances surrounding the 423 case of Dr. Soblen have caused throughout the length and breadth of the country not only very great concern but a very deep sense of humiliation and shame at what has occurred. Therefore, I make no apology for supplementing in some degree what my hon. Friend has said. I want, in particular, to deal with the extent to which the Home Secretary was motivated by pressure from the United States of America. After the decision had been taken, The Times, in a leading article on 1st September, said—and I agree with this:… the decisions taken by Mr. Brooke have been very strongly guided by international considerations. Nobody wanted Dr. Soblen except the Americans. The question is, has the British Government in any way yielded to external pressure to the extent of bending the law? The answer as given by the High Court yesterday is no. But that is not the end of the business. The Government must, sooner or later"—and I think that today is the occasion—clear the air by explaining, from beginning to end, to Parliament and to the public, what exactly did happen.If further confirmation of the necessity of that were required, I could read from a large volume of letters which I have received on this subject, but I will pick out only one, and I will not disclose the name of my correspondent except to say that he is a reader in divinity at one of our leading universities. He writes:I write, with some competence as a moral theologian, to express a conviction of shame and alarm at this instance of thoroughly bad government which to my mind has left this nation polluted with guilt equivalent to that which attaches to politico-judicial murder. The fabric of law and justice notoriously suffers more damage from the exploitation of justice for inhuman ends than from gross violations of justice or law. A nation whose Home Secretary cannot, or dare not, act with some regard for grace, is on the way to being a pretty foul community in which to live.One thing I find obvious from reading the law report is this. It seems clear from the judgment of Mr. Justice Stephenson, whose judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeal, that Dr. Soblen would probably have succeeded in his application for a writ of habeas corpus if the Home Secretary had produced the correspondence which had passed between Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government. In The Times of 8th August there apeared this paragraph: 424An official of the American Embassy in London said last night that the political counsellor at the Embassy had made representations to the British Government about Dr. Robert Soblen, the convicted spy. The official said it had been represented 'that the United States would very much like to have Dr. Soblen returned to the United States'. The British Government had been requested to do everything possible to facilitate his speedy return.The report concluded with these words:In Washington, the State Department said it had emphatically reiterated to both Britain and Israel that the United States wanted Dr. Soblen returned to America.The significance of that is that, if Dr. Soblen could have proved those facts, or even given prima facie proof of them, there might well have been a different outcome in the courts. It looks as though, if those facts had been before the court, Dr. Soblen would have succeeded in his contention that the deportation order was a sham, not bona fide, and that it was unlawful. For this reason, Dr. Soblen's advisers asked, first, the Treasury Solicitor to produce the correspondence. They then attempted to serve a subpoena on the Home Secretary to produce any correspondence he had had with the United States Government. The Crown, as it was, as a matter of strict law, perfectly entitled to do, claimed privilege.
I want the Home Secretary today to justify, if he can, that claim of privilege against the production of those documents. It seems quite evident from all one knows from both American sources and British sources that there was pressure by the United States Government on the Home Secretary to return Dr. Soblen to the United States. In fact, the American Press at the time was full of comments in that sense.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I interrupt my hon. Friend only to say that, whatever the reasons, good or bad, for claiming privilege before the Court of Appeal, the question remains: is there any reason why the Home Secretary should claim privilege for that correspondence before this Committee?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I agree with my hon. Friend.
What has happened in the courts of law is one thing. The courts were concerned with a pure matter of law but, as the Press and public opinion know, that is not the end of the matter. We 425 have a duty to ventilate the question here and find out the full facts. There can be no justification for the Home Secretary refusing to tell us what representations were made to him. He may, of course, go on to say that any representations from the United States did not inflừence his mind and that his only reason for sending Dr. Soblen back was that he thought that it was essential for the health or security of this country. If he wants to do so, he may say that, and the House can make up its mind whether to believe him or not. But at this stage, we must, surely, know what representations were made by the United States.
Mr. Justice Stephenson said in his judgment:What I should find if the veil imposed by the claim for Crown privilege were removed. I know not".The whole basis of the decision both in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal was based upon the absence before the court of certain relevant facts, and that absence was due to the wilful refusal of the Crown to produce the documents.
Since then, of course, Dr. Soblen has died. Nobody now can say that there is any danger in this matter. Unfortunately, whatever was in the Home Secretary's mind at the time has become academic. We are now having an inquest not into the death of Dr. Soblen, but into the conduct of the Home Secretary. In his own interests, in justice to himself and the Government, the right hon. Gentleman should give us the full facts and tell us what pressure was exercised by the United States.
Only a few days ago, the Foreign Secretary protested in the strongest possible terms both to the Hungarian and the Russian Government that a British subject had been sent by Hungary to Russia. Hungary may well be a satellite of the Soviet Union. Are we to be told by the Home Secretary that this country has now sunk into such shame and humiliation that we have become a satellite of the United States, as Hungary is a satellite of the Soviet Union, that we have to submit to the dictates of the United States in matters involving human freedom and liberty and some of the most cherished traditions of our country? If 426 there were no representations from the United States Government, or if they were innocuous, let us be told. Let us hear what was said and how cogent it was.
It may or may not be right, if there were representations, to take some notice of them. I contend that it would not be. I assert that in these matters, involving human liberty, it is far more important to be scrupulously fair to the individual than to placate, or to appear to placate, an ally, however powerful that ally might be. In matters of international law of this kind we should apply the same rules about asylum and about the strict observance of what is and what is not an extraditable offence to all persons regardless of their nationality.
The point can be tested in this way. Is it conceivable that, if an American spy had been convicted in Russia, had escaped and had landed in this country, we should have sent him back to Russia? Is it even conceivable that, if Dr. Soblen had been a Cuban, he would have been sent back to Havana? There must be absolute impartiality of treatment in these matters.
There is something else which worries me. Even though the Home Secretary may have thought—I cannot conceive how he could—that the security of this country or order and good government in this country were in some way jeopardised by the continued presence of Dr. Soblen here, why was it necessary to send him to the United States? The Czechoslovak Government had promised him a visa.
With my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) I had been to see the Home Secretary. We urged the Home Secretary, on grounds of common decency and humanity, to come to the conclusion that, if he must ultimately deport Dr. Soblen, instead of sending him back to the United States where he would have been pilloried, imprisoned—nobody knows what might have happened to him—the proper course consistent with all our obligations of national security, and certainly consistent with humanity, would be to send him to Czechoslovakia, which was willing to receive him. But that advice was ignored. I am very doubtful whether, as a matter of law, the right to deport 427 under Article 20 carries with it the right to deport to a particular place.
It is for these reasons that so many of us on this side feel that the Home Secretary's conduct in this case cannot pass without the deepest possible censure. I do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne and say that the state of the law, unfortunate though it has been proved to be, is such that we ought at this stage, to withhold the renewal of this Act for a further period, because that would produce a situation in which there were no aliens regulations at all.
In my opinion, the Home Secretary's conduct has given rise to a deep sense of shame and humiliation throughout the country. There has been widespread protest, regardless of party. I think that the right hon. Gentleman stands convicted before the tribunal of humanity for unnecessary, unjust, callous and inhuman 'administration of the aliens legislation which he is asking us to renew. It may be necessary that the House should renew the Act. I only regret that we cannot have a more sensitive and more humane Home Secretary to administer it.
§ Mr. Niall MacDermot (Derby, North)
Anyone concerned with the administration of the law and anyone who cares for civil liberties in this country must be profoundly disturbed by the state of our aliens legislation. That disturbance has been increased recently by the facts of the Soblen case, which have been so movingly and eloquently stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). The crux of that case, as disclosed by the Court of Appeal, was that Soblen was unable to adduce any evidence—it is difficult to see how he could have done—to rebut the evidence, contained in the Home Secretary's affidavit, that when he made his decision to deport he did so in the bona fide belief that it was conducive to the public good.
We live in an age when, I suppose, more inhumanity has been done by man to man in the exercise of arbitrary power in the bona fide belief that it was conducive to the public good than at any other time in human history. I do not suggest that those who administer our 428 laws here do so with the inhumanity displayed in our lifetime in other countries. What I do say is that, if we care about our civil liberties, we should so frame our laws that every possible safeguard is made available in order to ensure that those powers are not wrongly administered. In a case like the Soblen case, to put the onus on one man, on a Minister to make a decision without there being any right of appeal or any procedure for formal representations by the person concerned cannot be considered to be a procedure which has adequate safeguards.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. D. Foot) drew attention to provisions in the laws of other countries in operation today. I merely wish to call attention to a provision in another branch of our law in similar circumstances. In addition to the power of deportation, the Home Secretary has power to cancel the certificate of naturalisation of a person naturalised as a British subject. I do not know whether the present Home Secretary has ever had to exercise or consider that power. I imagine that he has not. But he can refer the question whether he should exercise that power to a tribunal presided over by a person holding, or having held, high judicial office—in practice, a judge of the High Court.
What is more important is the fact that in every such case the person concerned has the right to demand that the Home Secretary shall refer the matter for inquiry to such a tribunal. After the war, I was concerned in one of the rare cases referred to this tribunal. This procedure has great advantages. In these cases, as in the cases we are considering now, one of the main reasons which may lead the Home Secretary to wish to cancel the certificate is security. This is not a matter which can be easily litigated, as it were, in open court.
This tribunal sits in camera. The Crown is able to present, and does present, within the privacy of that tribunal the evidence and state the reasons why it considers that the person concerned is no longer fit to be a British subject and should once again become an alien. That person knows the case which he has to meet and is able to call evidence before the tribunal in order to rebut the Crown's evidence if he can. The tribunal itself 429 has all the powers of the High Court to compel the attendance of witnesses, subpoena documents, and so forth.
It seems to me that a tribunal such as this would be eminently suitable in assisting a Home Secretary to make a decision in a case of this kind and in ensuring that the person concerned had all the rights and powers which he should have of being able to represent his case and to bring forward all the evidence which might assist his case.
Once again, we are being asked to extend the powers under our aliens legislation for another year. I suppose that it is inevitable that the Home Secretary will again get those powers. But, in view of the great increase in public concern on this subject as it has developed this year, I hope that we shall at last have an undertaking from the Home Secretary that if the powers are extended he will agree to a comprehensive review of our aliens laws.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)
Before I reply in some detail to the unique but tragic case of Dr. Soblen, I should like to say a word or two in reply to what was said by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray), whose speeches I have learned to listen to with interest and respect, even when I do not agree with his views.
The criteria governing the grant of political asylum, which was the issue in the case which he raised, have been fully explained to the House more than once. I should like to summarise them. Political asylum is granted only when there are strong grounds for believing that the life or liberty of the applicant would be in serious danger if he returned to his country, or that he would be subjected to persecution of such a nature as to render life insupportable.
In the case to which I feel fairly sure the hon. Gentleman was referring, there was no evidence that the young man in question had any claim to political asylum. He was given every opportunity to make his case fully, but his history disclosed no sign of persecution in his own country. Indeed, it seemed clear that by Polish standards he was tolerably well off in that country. His earnings were a good deal better than 430 the local average. He had secured without difficulty, a passport to come to England. He had never taken part in any political activity. The simple fact was that he would have liked to join his brothers here because he did not particularly care for conditions in Poland and he thought that he would have better prospects here.
§ Mr. Brooke
That is a perfectly reasonable view to hold; but these are not grounds for political asylum. If permission were allowed for these reasons, a large number of aliens would qualify to come here.
§ Dr. Bray
I believe that although the words "political asylum" were mentioned initially, the application to the Home Office was put in quite general terms, that here was a human problem of a young man wanting to stay and asking what the Home Office could do about it. For the right hon. Gentleman simply to answer on grounds of technicality concerning political asylum is inadequate. Secondly, is not a spell in Siberia at least some indication of political pressure on this young man and his family?
§ Mr. Brooke
I respect all this and I know that, as the hon. Member said, the case has not had the same end as the Soblen case. With the best will in the world, however, it is not practicable or possible to admit to this country all the aliens who would wish to come here because they think that life would be more pleasant here than in their own country, a view which is probably reasonable for them to hold. Exceptions are made where there are strong compassionate reasons, in a case, for example, of young children or elderly parents, but there can be no question of admitting all who would like to come.
I am sorry to have to say this, and I trust that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) will not condemn me as inhumane for saying it, because it has been said by many Home Secretaries in the past and it would be for the House of Commons to declare itself if it wished a complete change to take place and for there to be an open door for everybody. We have to be guided 431 by certain principles and we do our best, as our predecessors have done.
§ Mr. Paget
I always find this difficult to understand. Obviously, we cannot admit all aliens, but when there is a young man who has relations here and who has somewhere here to live, and remembering, to put it in the crudest terms, that every young man we have costs us eighteen or twenty years of maintaining, feeding and educating—. when we have a ready-made article which somebody else has fed and educated and is here and ready to work here for his productive life, why should we throw away a bargain of that sort for no reason at all?
§ Mr. Brooke
I appreciate what the hon. and learned Member said and it sounds persuasive. The Home Secretary must, however, bear in mind, not that there is one case, but that there are thousands of cases. If one accepts the new principle which the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has outlined, it is not simply an addition of one to the entry of aliens. It would be, literally, an addition of thousands. One must take into consideration whether it is right from the country's point of view to open the doors as widely as that would involve. I accept at once from the hon. and learned Member that we ought not to close our minds about these things.
§ Mr. Brooke
These are matters of judgment. I accept that we may be entering the Common Market, about which I shall say a word presently, but I am bound to advise the Committee that if we were to open the doors as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) has just suggested, it is not simply a matter of admitting one or two cases in which there are strong compassionate grounds. It would run into thousands, and tens of thousands, immediately.
§ Mr. Paget
I am a Huguenot myself. We have had thousands of people coming at various times from regimes where they were not in danger, but were oppressed and unhappy. The arrival of these skilled people generation after generation has been one of the greatest assets of our 432 nation. The weavers of the West Country, the East Anglians and the wool trade all come from these oppressed people who came here and enormously added to our community. If we can get thousands of such good bargains, what good luck it is.
§ Dr. Bray
Can the Home Secretary say how many thousands of people would be involved and what evidence he has for such a figure? What degrees of closeness and kinship are involved and how many would there be in each degree of closeness or kinship? Why cannot we know the rules under which these compassionate cases are judged—or are there any rules?
§ Mr. Brooke
Yes. About 16,000 people come to this country and stay for permanent residence each year. Obviously, I cannot answer the hypothetical question of how many more people would take advantage of the facility if we announced new rules on the lines suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton that every young man with education and qualifications should be free to come.
If we were to do that, I very much doubt whether it would assist the kind of person that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West has in mind. If I remember rightly, that individual obtained permission from the Polish authorities to come here for a holiday visit. If it were known that anybody who came for that reason into this country were to be allowed to remain here permanently by the British authorities, I expect that a very different view would be taken by the authorities of Poland and certain other countries about enabling people to leave and come here for a visit.
I should like the hon. Member and the Committee to know that I do my very best to judge these cases, especially borderline cases, on their merits. My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State and I look at these cases. We seek to reach a right decision and one that will be defensible to the House of Commons. It would, however, be a wholly different policy if we were to go so far as to adopt what the hon. and learned Member for Northampton has suggested.
433 As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West will discover one day, thirty or forty years' hence, if he becomes a member of a Government, one has to consider the individual case bearing in mind what may flow from it in the sense of generalisation, because a set of criteria cannot be applied to one case if one is not prepared to treat other possible applicants on the same basis.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile the defence of the principle which he has just enunciated with the defiance of that principle which the Government propose to undertake under the Common Market?
§ Mr. Brooke
If I might proceed to the next part of my speech, I will deal with some of these matters.
The hon. and learned Member for Ipswich (Mr. D. Foot), who asked about our deportation arrangements, courteously informed me that he had to leave and would not be in his place when I replied. The hon. and learned Member did less than justice to the safeguards which at present exist against unreasonable deportation. Deportation is hedged about with a number of these safeguards and they are none the less effective for being non-statutory. It was in 1956, I believe, that my then predecessor informed the House of Commons of the arrangement whereby aliens who had been in this country for more than two years, and whom it was proposed to deport, might make representations to the Chief Magistrate against the proposal to deport, with certain exceptions that, I would have judged, the Committee would regard as reasonable.
The exceptions are, those whom it is proposed to deport on security grounds; those whom it is proposed to deport because the court itself has so recommended; and, thirdly, those whom it is proposed to deport because they have got into this country illegally. But all other aliens, when they have been here for more than two years, are enabled to make representations to the Chief Magistrate.
The Committee may care to know what the experience has been. Since these arrangements have been the practice, 96 aliens could have made representations. Only 50 of them availed 434 themselves of the opportunity. In 37 of those 50 cases the Chief Magistrate concurred in the proposal to deport. In not one case has the Home Secretary proceeded with deportation where the Chief Magistrate did not concur. Of course, it is common knowledge also that a deportation may be stayed by habeas corpus proceedings, but I do want to say, in the light of what the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich put before the Committee, that those arrangements with regard to the opportunity for deportees to make representations are most meticulously adhered to. I have never heard any complaint that anybody who was entitled under the arrangements announced to the House to make representations and state his case to the Chief Magistrate has been debarred from doing so.
I know that it is argued that the power of deportation is not needed—the power of deportation in the hands of the Home Secretary. It is so argued because it is contended that if an alien has done anything worthy of deportation it should be possible to bring him before a court and obtain a recommendation on a conviction, but, in fact, that argument does not take account of a number of classes where the Home Secretary—any Home Secretary—has to consider whether it would be right to deport an individual on the ground that his presence here is not conducive to the public good.
Perhaps the most obvious case is the foreign intelligence agent. If an alien in this country is discovered to be an intelligence agent of a foreign Power or to be engaged in subversive activities of some sort, expulsion is the proper and, sensible course. Court proceedings would be quite inappropriate in a case like that. Then there is the case where an alien has been refused leave to land and the company which brought him here, whether a shipping company or an airline, refuses or neglects to comply with a direction to remove him. In that case he can be got rid of only by deportation. There is no question at all that he is here illegally.
Then there is the third type of case. I do not think that the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich had taken this kind of case into account, the sort of case like that of the man Rockwell, a Fascist, who 435 got into this country because he succeeded in slipping through the net. He arrived here before we had any reason whatever to imagine that he was proposing to come. Being what he was, and what he avowedly was, and his purposes being what they avowedly were, I cannot think that anybody in this country would take the view that his presence here was other than objectionable, and yet, if we had to go through court proceedings, it would not have been possible for me to deal with Rockwell as I was able to deal with him—
§ Mr. Brooke
—with, so far as I could judge, virtually the unanimous assent of the whole country. Because he would have had to be brought before the court; he could not be charged with any offence: he had not done anything for which he could be convicted here. But it simply was not conducive to the public good that a man of the character he was, with the objects that he declared he had, should stay in this country.
§ Mr. Brooke
I do not see how a court could have decided whether a man had committed an offence because this man had not committed an offence, and it is extremely difficult to bring the court in. Either a court is a judicial body or it is not a judicial body. All I am seeking to explain to the hon. and learned Member is that there is a number of classes of case where the court procedure is not appropriate, or, at any rate, not easy, because the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich had been seeking to argue that all these difficulties could be cleared away if every person whose presence here the Home Secretary adjudged prima facie to be not conducive to the public good could be brought before the court.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
The right hon. Gentleman has cited the case of Rockwell. What would have been the harm if this gentleman had been allowed to make any case that he thought he had before the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street under the other part of the regulations? If he had no case, he could not have made one. The Home Secretary has power to detain him till the application 436 has been heard, so that he could have done no harm. Was he afraid that the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street might perhaps not agree with him?
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Brooke
Of course, this case did not come within the arrangements which had been announced to the House. I think that the issue is quite clear between us. The hon. Member is arguing that these powers ought not to be in the sole discretion of the Home Secretary. He is arguing—the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich was arguing before—that all these matters should go to the court, and I have been giving a series of cases where the solution offered by the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich would not work as easily and as straightforwardly as he was seeking to persuade the Committee that it would.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I think that the Home Secretary has misunderstood the argument of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. D. Foot). I did not understand him to be arguing that there should be appeal to an ordinary court of the land, but that there should be some appellate procedure. He instanced examples in other countries, which were of tribunals comparable to the one which I referred to in the case of denaturalisation.
§ Mr. Brooke
I am quite prepared to answer that case. I quite appreciate that there could be various kinds of tribunals, but I think that the Committee must decide in the end whether it really thinks that when somebody has landed in this country unlawfully he should not be removable till he has been through some form of tribunal. The Committee must decide, in the end, whether it thinks that somebody who is a security risk here, who has been picked up as a foreign intelligence agent, should not be removable on the ipse dixit of the Home Secretary, but should go before some tribunal—it certainly could not sit in public—and he should be detained here till that tribunal has pronounced.
This is a tenable view. I am not seeking to exclude it from all consideration. I do not think that it is a sound way of doing things. I think that we do better to stick to what we have been doing in the past. I must say that, looking over the records, considering a 437 number of different cases which have come up, the number on Which my predecessors have been challenged has been remarkably few.
But may I come to the next point I wanted to make? I myself dislike the idea of this Act being prolonged by the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill from year to year. It is quite true that on this occasion it has afforded an apt opportunity for a debate about Dr. Soblen and other related matters. Nevertheless, I accept that it would be more desirable if we could get rid of this year-by-year procedure and if Parliament could put on the Statute Book permanent legislation.
I hope that the Committee will agree with me that the time to do that would be when it is known whether or not we are going into the European Economic Community. Quite clearly, any legislation which we pass now might be proved to be inappropriate within a year or two when we saw all the obligations and conditions into which our legislation would have to be fitted under the Treaty of Rome.
Neither hon. Members opposite nor I can say if, or when, we shall be entering the European Economic Community, but my view is that the right time for the Government to bring forward proposals and for Parliament to examine them in detail is when we know whether or not we are entering the Community, and, if we are entering it, When we know what the Community's regulations on this matter of the entry of aliens will be.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Am I right in thinking that the Home Secretary is now saying that we may not know for another two years or so whether we shall be going into the European Community?
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman cannot catch me that way. If he knows what date a decision on this may be taken, this is secret information which I think that he should disclose to the Committee, because I certainly have not got it.
All that I am seeking to say now is that having continued for a considerable number of years to prolong this Act year by year through the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, the appropriate time to alter the system and to give the House 438 the opportunity to examine permanent legislation through all detailed stages should be when we know whether or not Britain is to be part of the European Economic Community.
I wanted an opportunity to say this to the Committee, because I think that it is important, and I am not seeking to use it as a special argument for continuance for this year—I should argue on those grounds, in any case—but I would not like the Committee to believe that I, as Home Secretary, would be content for this procedure to go on indefinitely. I accept all that has been said about its being desirable at a reasonably early date for Parliament to have an opportunity to examine the provisions of new legislation in detail in the way that the House normally does.
§ Dr. Bray
Will the Home Secretary offer the House the prospect of a review of the administrative procedures within the Home Office affording in practice the kind of procedure for which we have been asking, namely, a tribunal to which he could himself refer cases and where aliens could be properly represented in pleading their case?
§ Mr. Brooke
I do not think that it would be right at this time to make new departures of that kind and, frankly, I am not very impressed by the various proposals to take responsibility off the shoulders of the Home Secretary answerable to Parliament and transfer them to some outside body. I know that it is awkward for the Home Secretary to have to decide these things, but my own judgment is that the will of this House is more likely to be done if the Home Secretary, answerable to this House, has direct power and direct responsibility for reaching decisions. But the principles on which he reaches those decisions should be debatable at any time, and so long as I am Home Secretary I should be very pleased indeed to seek to explain and defend them.
I now want to reach the important case of Dr. Soblen—a unique case I believe and trust it will prove to be. I hope that the House will allow me to run over some of the facts of the case because it is desirable, I think, that they should be collected and on the record. Dr. Soblen was an American citizen. He had been naturalised in 1947. A charge was made 439 against him in the United States alleging that he had conspired to deliver certain information to the Russians. He was convicted in July, 1961, of this conspiracy and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released on bail pending appeal. The final decision of the courts in his case was the decision on 25th June, 1962, by the Supreme Court of the United States, which finally rejected the Motion on his behalf.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will not object to my reminding him that what he has just said might be regarded as a little ambiguous outside this House. He said that Dr. Soblen was convicted by the court in 1957. I know what the right hon. Gentleman means and that that is right, but people outside might think that the charge against him was on something done in 1957. That is not true. The conviction was in 1957 but the offence with which he was charged was in 1942.
§ Mr. Brooke
If I may get these dates quite right, the conviction was not in 1957 but in 1961, and the acts with which he was charged were committed in 1944 and 1945. Those are the facts.
On the day that the Supreme Court rejected the motion on his behalf, he broke his bail and, later in the day, after the Supreme Court judgment, he flew off to Israel, using his brother's passport. On 1st July, the Israeli authorities sent him back by air to the United States. The aircraft was due to stop for a short while at London Airport. Before reaching London Airport, he cut his wrists and stabbed himself in the stomach and, on compassionate grounds, to save his life which otherwise would have been in grave danger, he was taken off the aircraft and taken to hospital. He had no leave to land. He was refused permission to land. But I trust that the whole Committee will think that it is entirely right that he should have been taken off the aircraft in those circumstances and taken to hospital. In my view, that saved his life. As soon as he was fit to traved directions were given to the airline to remove him in the aircraft in which he arrived. It did not do it, and, in consequence, being fit to travel, he was detained as an alien to whom leave to land was refused. He applied for a writ of habeus corpus on the ground that he had been given leave to land.
440 The court rejected that application, holding that he had never been given leave to land. He applied to me for political asylum, and I refused that request because his case did not fulfil the normal criteria for political asylum. I remember answering questions in the House on the Thursday before the Recess on that very matter. I took the view from the very start, and quite independently of any views that the American authorities might hold or express, that my right course in the circumstances was to seek to restore the situation to what it had been while he was on the aircraft and before he managed to land illegally in this country through self-inflicted wounds. He applied to the Czech authorities for leave to go to Czechoslovakia and he obtained a visa to go to that country. But throughout I took the view—and I am responsible to the House for this—that the right course in the circumstances was, as I said, for me to seek to restore the situation as it existed before Dr. Soblen was taken off the aircraft, and every one of my actions was actuated by that single purpose from which I never deviated.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he thought it was vitally necessary not merely that the man should not remain in this country, but to restore the position as it was before Dr. Soblen stabbed himself, bearing in mind that he could not restore that position anyhow, that he never did restore it and that even on his own showing the only interest which this country had in the matter was that Dr. Soblen should not stay here?
§ Mr. Brooke
I will certainly deal with that point before I sit down, because it is important.
I was seeking to give the sequence of events. With my authority, an immigration officer gave directions to the El Al Airline to take him to the United States of America. I do not know what El Al would have done, but it became perfectly clear that the Israeli Government had laid it down that their airline was not to take him to the United States.
On 11th August, as my efforts to restore the situation through that original direction had failed, with my authority the immigration officers gave a new 441 direction to the Israeli airline to take Dr. Soblen to the United States by a particular flight. These powers are all given to me under Article 8 of the Order. That particular flight to which the direction applied was cancelled. I had tried time after time to use my powers under Article 8 to the utmost in order to get the airline to take him to the United States, thus restoring the position. I had failed in that respect, and only after these repeated efforts did I fall back on the only other course open to me and made a deportation order.
I quite appreciate that during this debate a criticism has been expressed of the state of the law and of my conduct, and I quite accept that there are two different issues here. But as regards my conduct, I think I am entitled to bring to the notice of the Committee what was said by the Court of Appeal when Dr. Soblen, having gone to the court against my deportation order and having failed, went to the Court of Appeal. That was the last occasion when his case was heard in court. I trust that the Committee will forgive me if I read one or two passages here; I am on my defence and I think that I am entitled to do so.
The Master of the Rolls, giving judgment in the Court of Appeal, said:And it seems to me that all that the Home Secretary has done by the deportation order is to see that his original refusal of leave was implemented.… He might well think it not conducive to the public good that a person should be able to enter this country in such a way and to stay here.He went on:I see no ground for attributing to the Home Secretary anything in the nature of a sham or want of bona fides or any unlawful or ulterior purpose.That was the point raised by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot). He questioned whether it was really conducive to the public good that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to stay here. If it is not conducive to the public good that we should enforce the law in that respect, then I say that it will be very difficult that anything can be judged to be conducive to the public good, because that is as clear a case as there could be. I want to read one or two further quotations.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to say why he deemed it to be conducive to the public good to send Dr. Soblen back to the United States of America and not to let him go to Czechoslovakia? Would he not agree that in not considering that alternative he completely disregarded the medical and humanitarian grounds?
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Before the right hon. Gentleman resumes his speech, and on the same point, may I put this to him? He said just now that he had exhausted without success all his powers under Article 8. But if he had allowed the man to be taken to Czechoslovakia, would not that have been an adequate exercise of his powers under Article 8?
§ Mr. Brooke
I had exhausted my powers under Article 8 to restore the status quo. That is what I was seeking to do. I will come to the hon. Gentleman's question later.
Lord Justice Pearson, in his judgment, said:The intended deportation appears to be in every way a genuine deportation, not a sham, and not a device for bringing about an unlawful extradition.I should like to read a longer passage from Lord Justice Donovan, whom some of us remember as a colleague in the House. He said:What evidence is there for the allegation that the Home Secretary never genuinely came to the conclusion that it was conducive to the public good to deport the applicant? Here the applicant relies again on the facts I have already narrated. But the evidence the other way is indeed formidable. In the first place he gained admittance by a stratagem which relied for its success on the humanity of our immigration officials. The reliance was justified in the event and the success of the stratagem has produced for the home authorities an extremely troublesome problem, and, as it now transpires, substantial expense for the taxpayer. I venture to think it would be the duty of the Home Secretary in the interests of the public to do whatever he could to prevent such a stratagem from achieving its ultimate end, lest its success should set a precedent for others to copy. Next, if country A is an ally of country B, each of them may well think it conducive to the public good of their citizens that they should co-operate to see that a national of one of them who gives defence informaton to a common potential enemy should not escape the consequences inflicted upon him by due process of the law. Finally, if the real object of the Home Secretary were simply surrender, his actions have been strangely at variance with that purpose, for such purpose could have been effected weeks 443 ago immediately upon the making of the deportation order. Instead the Home Secretary stayed his hand in order that the applicant should have the opportunity of challenging his action in court, just as he stayed the operation of the previous order of expulsion under Article 8 when he learned that the applicant wished to contest it by means of an application for a writ of habeas corpus. I reach the conclusion, therefore, that there is no evidence which would justify the court forming even a provisional opinion that the Home Secretary has not genuinely deemed it to be conducive to the public good that the applicant should be deported. I have gone into the matter in this detail because I think that when such an allegation of bad faith is made and the liberty of the subject is involved, the court should examine the grounds of the allegation with the help of such material as is before it, and drawing any reasonable inferences of fact therefrom. The alternative would be to say that the claim for privilege made by the Crown precludes a really satisfactory inquiry and therefore none should be attempted. This, I think, would be wrong, but since this allegation has been made, I think it is proper to say not merely that it fails, but that there appears to be no valid ground of criticism of anything the Home Secretary or his officers have done in this case.I am content to rest my personal defence on what has been said in the Court of Appeal, but I have been asked why I was not willing to make some other kind of directional order that would have enabled Dr. Soblen to go to Czechoslovakia or to Israel.
I came to the conclusion—and I take the full responsibility for this on myself —that the right thing to do and the thing which the country would wish me to do was not to seek to change the course of events through the chance of Dr. Soblen having gained unlawful entry into this country through self-inflicted wounds. It appeared to me that the one course which I could defend against all criticism was to restore the position as it existed before that. I considered that my proper course was to see that he resumed the journey which his act of self-mutilation had interrupted.
The United States was the country of which he was a national. It was the only country obliged by international law to receive him. He had already been on his way there. It seemed to me to be the natural course for a British Home Secretary to restore the position as it had existed. I am not entitled to use the deportation power solely to return a fugitive criminal to his country's justice, but equally I would say to the Committee 444 that I know of no obligation on me so to use it as to enable a fugitive criminal to escape justice.
Hon. Members have asked whether the law is satisfactory. In my view, it is right and unavoidable that the Home Secretary should have these powers, invidious and unpleasant powers as they are to have to exercise. I do not see any suitable alternative to putting this directly on the shoulders of the Home Secretary.
I must frankly say that I never had any reason to think of Dr. Soblen as a dangerous man. I never believed it when I read in the papers that he had precious information which he wanted to take behind the Iron Curtain or that it was most important for information reasons that he should get back into the hands of the Americans. I never believed anything of that kind. It might have happened that way, but I do not believe it did in this case.
My action was perfectly simple. It was—I can only say this to the Committee in all sincerity—actuated by a sheer and unqualified desire to restore the position to what it was before Dr. Soblen gained unlawful entry into this country by self-inflicted wounds.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what representation was made to him by the United States Government? This is the one salient fact, and it seems to be the all-important fact that nobody knows and that the right hon. Gentleman has never told. He has not dealt with it in his speech now. Will he tell us what the United States Government said to him? If the Court of Appeal had known that, it might have come to a different conclusion. Let us know.
§ Mr. Brooke
No suggestion whatever was made by the United States Government that they had any right to demand Dr. Soblen's return.
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman and I may quite often be debating these Home Office matters. I have not done it before. However, he will find that I am anxious to give complete answers if he will not interrupt me.
§ Mr. Paget rose—445
§ Mr. Brooke
Might I just answer the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne first? There was never any suggestion whatever by the United States Government that this was an extraditable offence or that they had the right to demand Dr. Soblen's return. It is quite true that through diplomatic channels they let us know that they would like to have him back. But that did not weigh with me. That did not determine my actions. From the very beginning when I spoke in this House on 2nd August, by which date, if I remember rightly, no communications whatever had been received from the United States Government, I indicated to the House the course which I thought right to follow and which I pursued without deviation.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Does the Home Secretary really not now realise that what he has, in fact, done has been to extradite a fugitive criminal for something which is a non-extraditable offence? Does he really think that that is something a Home Secretary ought to have done in the light of the condition of that man's health?
§ Mr. Brooke
If the hon. Gentleman will again read the judgments in the Court of Appeal he will find that this allegation was explicitly dealt with in them and refuted.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Paget
I feel that none of us who have heard the Minister's answer has had any impression other than that it was a profoundly unsatisfactory answer. When the right hon. Gentleman said that his defence was what had been said by the Court of Appeal, it would have been more convincing if he himself had not suppressed the evidence on which the Court of Appeal came to its decision. It was deciding as to whether this action was bona fide. It could not, as Mr. Justice Stephenson observed, decide that without knowing what the American correspondence was, and that American correspondence was suppressed. The right hon. Gentleman is not in a very good position to rely upon the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
The right hon. Gentleman has totally failed to tell us what British interest would have been harmed by sending this man, who was no danger to us, to of their strength and productivity and 446 Czechoslovakia instead of America. What British interest was served by this ignoring of the extradition law, because Dr. Soblen could not be extradited according to our law, this twisting of the Executive's right in order to serve the Americans as the Hungarians have just served the Russians?
Indeed, I am bound to say that at the time that this brave man was undergoing his agony—a man who, even if he were guilty, was guilty only of conveying information to an ally in wartime eighteen years previously, in a great struggle in which his race was so intensely involved; that is all he was ever charged with—I could not help feeling that the right hon. Gentleman was lucky that he was the man he is, for anybody else in his shoes would have felt bitterly ashamed of himself. I do not even really blame the Home Secretary for having behaved in this way, in which I think that probably most of us expected that he would. I blame mostly the Prime Minister for having appointed such a man to such an office.
I now turn to wider questions on this Act First, what is our attitude to he with regard to foreigners who want to come into this country? In all conscience, we are the great mongrels of the world. We have been the freest country in Europe for generation after generation, and we have profited by the oppression of Europe. Generation after generation, the ancestors of many of those now sitting here—the Huguenots were my ancestors—came here to enrich our nation and to enrich our breed. We have got that benefit because we were the most liberal nation in Europe, the nation which those who preferred freedom to oppression came to join, and we were the beneficiaries.
Why should we depart from that noble tradition? I am not saying that one can accept every alien who comes. Maybe that is a result of the Welfare State. Once people are provided with such valuable rights in a community as we have provided by our Welfare State, one cannot have one's doors fully open for everybody to come and take those benefits. But it is beyond imagination to understand why we should refuse those who come here to contribute, as did the young man referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough. West (Dr. Bray), at the height 447 who are people whom it would have cost us so many years, so much money, so much food and clothing in their unproductive ages, to train and keep.
I believe that our whole attitude towards this problem needs rethinking. There are three aspects we should consider. The first is the right to enter, and that includes what we have already referred to—political asylum. Why should that not be a right in law instead of a discretion? Why should not the courts decide this? It is a matter which they are perfectly capable of deciding. They decide the issue under the Extradition Act. If a man has the good fortune to be an absconding criminal, his claim to be a refugee can be judged by a court. But if no crime is alleged against him, then he is only at the mercy of the Home Secretary, who need give no kind of a reason. Why should there not be access to the courts for the man who makes this claim for asylum even though no extradition proceedings have been brought against him?
Secondly, what are the rights of the alien while he is here, while he is lawfully amongst us in our community? Why should he not enjoy the rights of everybody else? Registration has gone. There may possibly be a condition of employment, but that is a matter which operates through the Ministry of Labour. None the less, that man, while he is here, is subject to arbitrary arrest on a charge which need not be given to him. He is not allowed to know why he is arrested. He can be held indefinitely in prison if there is no country prepared to accept him. He can be arbitrarily detained. He is, in fact, completely rightless.
I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the relevant paragraph in the Declaration of Human Rights to which this country has now subscribed. Article 7 says:All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.But the alien resident here is entitled to no protection from this—not even to know why he is arrested. Everyone should have the right to trial by the competent national tribunals, and we ask for that to extend to aliens in this country as well.
448 Article 9 of the Declaration says:No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest detention or exile.Why do we have to maintain a situation in such flagrant contradiction of our obligations?
I refer now to a law even more ancient than the Declaration of Human Rights—the Law of Exodus, which says:One law shall be to him that is home-born, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.I am not a fundamentalist. Many of these ancient laws refer to health conditions of that time. But when we come to moral precepts I would say that such precepts that have so marvellously stood the test of time as have the Commandments of God at least deserve some respect.
The next and possibly the most vital question is the case of the man who has come and has the right to stay. There are two classes here. First, there is the visitor. If he is to be ejected, why should not he be told why? There may be conceivable cases—such as the need to protect sources in security matters—in which he cannot be told, but they must be very very rare. Why should a man be denied a chance to answer what may be just a backstair report or, as happened on one occasion, know enough to point out that the case really concerns someone with a similar name?
Since we are only concerned in disembarrassing ourselves—that is the only thing we have no right to be concerned with—we have no right to punish people who have not been accused or tried. What right have we to deny them the right to go where they choose, provided that they are acceptable there and that they have the passage money. How have we the right to deny them that?
Secondly, there is the case of the permanent resident. He may be an alien who has come here as a baby. He may have seen no other land, have spoken no other language. His children are British and his wife is British. But arbitrarily, without explanation, that man can be arrested, removed from his family and most effectively exiled, having no other land that is his own. Is this just? Is it right that there should be this sort of lawless, arbitrary discretion?
449 Finally, I come to the question of naturalisation. Here again, I refer to the Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15 of which says:
Here I want to refer to a particular case. I will not name the gentleman. I will simply refer to him as Dr. A. He is Jewish and his wife is English.
- "(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
- (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality."
§ The Temporary Chairman (Dr. Horace King)
Order. I hope that the hon. and learned Member will not pursue the question of naturalisation, Which is not covered by the Act with which we are dealing.
§ Mr. Paget
With great respect, Dr. King, the Act deals with aliens. I am considering What ought to be the law. We are saying, "We will not give you the law you ask for, because we believe that there ought to be another law". With respect, Dr. King, I am fully entitled to say what I believe the law ought to be.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ The Temporary Chairman
With equal respect to the hon. and learned Member, there are other Acts which we will have an opportunity to discuss and which deal with the specific issue of naturalisation. What we are deciding is whether we give the Government the emergency power which they seek under the Act which we are now discussing.
§ The Temporary Chairman
I hope that the hon. and learned Member does not wish to instruct me about what debate we are on.
§ The Temporary Chairman
I must insist. The hon. and learned Gentleman is attempting to show reasons why we should or should not extend the law, when we are discussing whether the law should be continued for a year. He is not permitted to review the whole of our legislation for aliens.
§ Mr. Paget
One of my reasons for saying that the law ought not to be continued is that it fails to provide a right for a hearing in a court. That we have discussed. It fails to provide the right of appeal to a court and it fails to accord with the Declaration of Human Rights and to provide a right to claim naturalisation. That is an omission which, in my submission, is wrong.
If you hold that that submission is wrong, Dr. King, then everything which has taken place in the debate so far is wrong. What we have been saying at every point is that the law is not good enough because it does not include what it ought to include. I shall not mention the Extradition Act, but I am saying that there ought to be a right to the process which is described in another Act. I am talking only of the access to it.
§ The Temporary Chairman
I must rule that the hon. and learned Member cannot advance that argument. All that has taken place in the debate so far has been in order. He is not in order—and it has been so ruled in previous similar debates, as hon. Members will recollect—in pursuing the issue of naturalisation on this Act.
§ Mr. Paget
I return to the case of Dr. A. and I raise it as to the manner in which an alien has been treated here. Dr. A. is a Hungarian. Before the war, he asked for leave to come here. He was married to an English wife. Those were the days of appeasement and he was refused permission. The result was that he and his English wife and their children went through the horrors of being Jews in a Fascist country during the war. He was one of the very few who survived. I believe that that refusal gave us some obligation towards him.
It is true that he joined the Communist Party in 1945, but the enemies of my enemy are my friends. This was the war and, considering the people who were our allies at that time, it was not an unnatural thing to do. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1948 on the ground that he had an English wife and bourgeois connections. None the less, as a professional man, particularly as a lawyer, it was inevitable 451 that he should work with the Government and according to the laws of his country.
Before the revolution, he inquired of our consul whether, if he escaped, he would be welcome in this country. He was told that he would. The revolution brought his opportunity and he came to this country and he was duly accepted here as a permanent resident. Here he qualified as a solicitor, earning the highest reputation in his profession. He is known, among others, to the Attorney-General, who could not speak too highly of him. Now, contrary to the Declaration of Human Rights, he is denied the right to practise his profession and he is denied it because the Home Office refuses to give him any reasons for refusing his application for naturalisation.
§ The Temporary Chairman rose—
§ The Temporary Chairman
I must ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to take note of what I said. He is in order in dealing with acts of the Home Secretary in so far as they are acts under the emergency powers which he takes under the Act which we are now discussing, but the hon. and learned Gentleman is not in order in discussing an act of the Home Secretary under any other Act, and the issue which he is raising comes under another Act.
§ Mr. Paget
This is a discretionary matter under the control of the Home Office. What security could possibly be involved by denying information such as this? It seems to me to be the gravest conceivable injustice. What we need is an alteration of the law. We need a new aliens law and I cannot see that that need is made greater or less by whether we join the Common Market or not. Our decision to join the Common Market is not a condition as to whether we give people justice. It is not designed to take from our freedom in those terms.
I would say, as I have pressed before, that the right way to deal with this 452 matter is to appoint a Select Committee to consider this social legislation, which is not a party matter, and to have a technical committee sitting parallel to it and advising the Select Committee. That technical committee would consist of representatives of the police and the Aliens Department of the Home Office. That was the procedure which we adopted with the Army and Air Force Acts, because they were non-partisan matters with which every hon. Member was concerned. The two Committees worked together, in parallel, and we produced an Act which was accepted by this House and by the Government without a single amendment, and after five years' operation required only trivial amendments.
It seems to me that that is the ideal procedure to deal with this sort of Act; and there is something else here that can serve as a guide because the Americans have done that very thing. In 1952 they brought out their Public Law No. 414, which governs and controls their public law here. It deals with the whole range of alien law, and it will be observed that amongst the rights granted to aliens is the right of naturalisation, unless cause can be shown why it should not be granted.
If the Americans can do that, why cannot we? Here is our first guide. We can adjust it to our conditions and our law. After all, we have a Government who dare not go to the country and who have not much to legislate about. Why cannot they get down to doing this useful job here and now?
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
I wish to make a few brief comments on the right hon. Gentleman's speech. At the beginning of his speech he seemed to offer us one grain of comfort, but then he snatched it away almost a minute afterwards because he said that his inclination and desire was that we should not proceed according to the arrangements under this Measure that we are discussing today, and that if he had his way he would have regular legislation introduced, possibly along the lines which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has indicated, and that if it had not been for the awkward intervention of the fact that we might possibly be going into the Common Market we might have had the 453 necessary legislation brought forward on this occasion. That is what he appeared to suggest. At any rate, if he was not going to do it this year, he would be determined to do it next year.
Same of us who have attended previous debates on this Bill have a right to be a little sceptical about such an excuse, because there have been a number of Home Secretaries before the right hon. Gentleman who have suggested that they might like to see the law changed. Indeed, a year ago the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor said that he would like to have a change in the law, but he was waiting for the Common Market. I have no doubt that if we went back four or five years we should discover that previous Home Secretaries have said that they would look into the matter and would like to have general legislation instead of operating under these powers. I therefore do not think that it is excessively cynical to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman has shown his keenness to have a general overhaul of the legislation only because he knows that it is not immediately practicable.
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton. I do not see why we should not have an overhaul of the law, even though we may be going into the Common Market. This is an interesting development. All the defences which the Home Secretary makes for this kind of legislation will be pushed aside if we go into the Common Market, because under the Common Market all the necessary protections which the Home Secretary says he now needs and requires for removing people from the country and for guarding the nation's security will be abandoned.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to Fascists from America who came to this country and who were then removed under his power. Once we are in the Common Market, the right hon. Gentleman would not have the power to remove Fascists if they came from Germany and France—
§ Mr. Foot
—or Italy, and there are a few left there. This is one of the difficulties, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it perfectly well. As far as we can gather—I do not think that this 454 would come into operation immediately —the powers of the Home Office would be greatly reduced if we went into the Common Market. This is possibly a very good reason for going in, because I am in favour of reducing the powers of the Home Secretary.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. D. Foot) pleaded for some kind of appellant procedure, not necessarily an absolute court of law but some form of appellant procedure. In reply the right hon. Gentleman went through a number of cases, including the case to which I have referred, that of the removal of Rothwell, which he said would not be applicable, but, as has been said, I do not see why, even in the case of Rothwell, he should not have gone through the appellant procedure. It would not have done any harm. It might have illustrated the grounds on which people were being removed from this country. The Home Secretary's right to remove Rothwell would have been even better if we had a law against which Rothwell would have offended had he stayed here. If we had a law against racial discrimination, Rothwell would have offended against the law of this country. It would have done no harm if Rothwell shad gone before an appellant tribunal.
I am not prepared to trust any Home Secretary, and particularly not this one, to exercise powers in relation to whom he will remove from this country on political grounds. I dare say the right hon. Gentleman is against all people who regard Communists as the same as Fascists. If we went through the list of famous people who came to this country and who would be in danger of removal, it would be a long and notable list, because the right hon. Gentleman is inclined to accept the general orthodox view of the time, and therefore people who offend against it would be inclined to be removed under the arbitrary power which the right hon. Gentleman possesses. I do not think that he has made out a case at all on these grounds.
When we come to the Soblen case, the right hon. Gentleman has gone further than fail to make a case in defence of his position. He has proved the case 455 against him, because what does he say? This is the kernel of his claim. He says that his sole ground of action in the Soblen case was to restore the situation that would have prevailed if Soblen had not cut his wrists and attempted to commit suicide and come into the country. That was the whole of his case. That is what he wanted to achieve, to resume the process that would have operated if Soblen had not entered the country because he had mutilated himself just before he came in. That was the right hon. Gentleman's case, and I do not think that he would deny it.
If we accept that that was the sole ground on which he acted, the Home Office was acting with even more fantastic pedantry than it does normally, because how great is the danger of people coming to this country after mutilating themselves to the point of actually risking death? It will not happen very often. It is not a great risk against which one has to guard. I suppose the right hon. Gentleman sat up all night during the Soblen case wondering whether, if he allowed Soblen to stay here, he would encourage a number of other people to cut their wrists and get themselves into a state in which they were gasping their last breath of life just to get into this country. Does the right hon. Gentleman really think there is a danger of that happening? That is what he was saying. When one examines what he meant by acting in accordance with what was conducive to the public good, that was the consideration in his mind. That is what he claims was in his mind.
If the right hon. Gentleman makes that his defence for his actions throughout the Soblen case, he must not be surprised if many people in the House of Commons, in the country and in the world do not believe him. He must not be surprised, because it is such a feeble claim.
§ Mr. Foot
My hon. Friend says that nobody believes the right hon. Gentleman, but I think that that might be a slight exaggeration. It is, however, very difficult for anybody to believe it.
The right hon. Gentleman attempted to finish his speech without answering 456 the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). He did, however, eventually answer it, and the question was, what was the nature of the pressures and representations made by the United States Government to the British Government and to the Home Secretary? The right. hon. Gentleman's reply was that representations were made through diplomatic channels but that he did not take any notice of them. I wonder what reply he gave to the representations through diplomatic channels.
§ Mr. Foot
Did he say that? Who made the representations? Was it the Ambassador? Did he see the right hon. Gentleman. or did he send one of his emissaries? If it was none of their business, did the right hon. Gentleman tell them so in such forthright terms? Did he say "It is no business of yours. The less you say about it the better"? Would it not have been wise, in such circumstances, to advise the United States authorities that this is what was said, because what has been told to the world, and has been read out by my hon. Friend from the newspapers, is to the effect that they were told that formal representations had been made by the United States Government?
The right hon. Gentleman's answer was not given until the fag-end of his speech this afternoon. Why did he not issue a statement at the time? He had plenty of public relations officers. Why did he not issue a statement saying that this was no business of the United States Government, that they had been making representations but had no right to make representations and that he was not taking any notice of them? Why did he allow information about this formal demand by the American Government to go all round the world unanswered? Did he think that it would do no damage to this country? Did he not think that it would damage our reputation in almost every country in the world, when people would think that we were twisting the operation of our law to satisfy American demands? That was what was said in all the newspapers here—The Times, the Guardian and all the respectable newspapers—and what 457 appeared in the newspapers on the other side of the Atlantic. Did not the right hon. Gentleman think it part of his duty to kill such rumours when he could?
Instead of slipping it in in answer to my hon. Friend in this debate, if he had said this at the time, some people might have repudiated him. The American Government might have come back with further renresentations. We should like to know how many representations they made. We have not been told. How did they make their representations? What was the nature of them? What did they say?
The right hon. Gentleman's defence of this procedure was to say that he much preferred that the Home Secretary should explain all these matters in the House of Commons, and be answerable to it. He takes the view that that provides a better protection for the individual than do tribunals and courts of appeal. That is the main part of his case. But we know that in almost every case of a crucial nature—as in the Soblen case—the Home Secretary never gives the House the full story. The right hon. Gentleman has not given us the full story today. He would not claim that himself. If it had been left to him he would not have referred to the question. Does he not think that it is very dangerous for this country that suspicion should be spread abroad—and not denied at the time—that we have manipulated the law to suit a foreign Power?
Suppose that this had happened the other way round and that we had manipulated the law in order to satisfy the Soviet Government. Suppose that allegation was spread around. It could be very dangerous. But this danger is bound to recur so long as we retain this procedure, and especially this Home Secretary. The only way in which this kind of matter can be dealt with now is for the Minister, once a year, to give his answers, as he attempted to do today. If we had an appellate procedure, with a court, the Minister could have gone to the court and put the case for the Home Office. He could have said, "We cannot allow Soblen to stay in this country because that might encourage other people to do the same thing". That statement would have been laughed out of court, hut at least the right hon. 458 Gentleman would have been able to kill the rumour that pressure had been brought to bear by the United States Government.
Therefore, even after the debate is all over, and hon. Members have read what was said in the Court of Appeal, if we are not in full possession of the facts it is at least the duty of the right hon. Gentleman to tell the Committee how many representations were made by the Americans, what were their nature, how extensive they were and whether they were repeated. If he will not give us those facts, how can we judge whether any pressure was exerted upon him, especially when his own excuse for his action does not bear investigation. The right hon. Gentleman says that this is a unique case.
§ Mr. Foot
We hope that it is a unique case. But if the right hon. Gentleman will look back to previous debates of this kind he will see that although there may not be a case with exactly the same particulars as this one, nevertheless in almost every awkward case the Home Office has been unable to make a defence and has fallen back upon the claim that it must be expected that it will exercise its powers properly.
The Committee should not tolerate giving such powers to one Minister. We should have the complete change in the law which has already been demanded by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, and one of the best ways of ensuring that we get that change is to vote against the continuance of the powers. If there is such a powerful case against what the right hon. Gentleman has done—and there has been no speech in defence of the Government except from the Minister himself—the Committee should vote against the Government in order to register its feelings. It is no good saying that the whole law will be in appalling difficulties if we do that. The Government can bring along a new law very quickly if the House votes against them today.
If the Committee does vote against the Government the whole world will know that what we have been debating was the case of a dead man who had been treated unjustly and that the Committee registered its protest against what was 459 done in this case. That would be doing something to remove the stain on British justice to which my hon. Friend has referred.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I feel that the right hon. Gentleman ought to intervene again, taking advantage of the fact that we are in Committee. He has not done himself justice—and that is a very meagre task. The debate has been thoroughly unsatisfactory in two respects. This is a traditional occasion on which the radicalism of the House of Commons expresses itself. Throughout the debate, however, we have not had any representatives of the Liberal Party with us. That is a very sad thing.
The other melancholy thing about the debate is the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did intervene. I find this thoroughly melancholy. It is some time since I have taken part in these annual debates, but the tone and spirit of the contribution from the Government have been far worse than I have ever heard before. I thought that the reference to the Common Market was maladroit humour—but I know that the right hon. Gentleman has no sense of humour, so it must have been just maladroit.
Two cases have been raised, to which we could not have had more reactionary and unsympathetic replies. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) raised a personal case concerning a family that he suggested should be brought together. In reply, the right hon. Gentleman said, "Life will not be insupportable to this young man if he remains in Poland. If I allow him to come here, how many more thousands of people will want to come here?" We were considering a family, and whether it was better to bring a family together. I have never heard a Home Secretary speak in such a callous and indifferent way. He says that we can bring these cases to the Floor of the House, and also discuss them in Committee, but that is the one thing that we cannot do. I am not questioning the right hon. Gentleman's judgment, because I do not know enough about the case, but I do criticise his attitude. He ought to consider whether three brothers should be brought together or not.
460 6.30 p.m.
Then there is the case of Dr. Soblen. The Minister has told the Committee that he was not under pressure, that it was his own responsible decision. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who opened the debate, speak about inhumanity, shame, and humiliation. That still rests with me. The right hon. Gentleman has not discharged the responsibility which is on his shoulders. This was a case which demanded openly, overtly, patently sympathetic and humane consideration for someone whom the right hon. Gentleman regarded as unimportant. The right hon. Gentleman did not do that—
§ Mr. H. Brooke
Would the hon. Gentleman help the Committee by explaining exactly what he would have done, had he been Home Secretary?
§ Mr. Willey
I should have dealt with this matter overtly, patently sympathetically. I should have said, "Here is a man who is within sight of death, a man who has mutilated himself." Those are factors which would have called for asylum. The right hon. Gentleman—although I always accepted until today that he did—did not do this on grounds of public policy. He has denied that responsibility. He said that this man was of no importance, that he was not a security risk. But he refused the man the opportunity to go to Czechoslovakia.
This is upsetting. I think that the Home Secretary would concede that it is upsetting because, whatever the Administration, the Home Secretary should appear to be radical and liberal. That is what the right hon. Gentleman does not appear to be. His background is not that of a radical, or one who is sympathetic. The last time I debated with the right hon. Gentleman it was on the question of the universities. He can smile, as he was smiling on that occasion. But he was thoroughly unsympathetic. He has upset the universities. And now he smiles because he is thoroughly unsympathetic about these personal cases.
461 I am experienced in this difficulty. It is as though we were praying to annul an Order. We cannot vote against the Government and present them with chaos. What we can do—I think that my hon. Friends have done it—is to expose the lack of sympathy and humanity on the part of the right hon. Gentleman and hope that the Prime Minister will acknowledge that the person charged with the responsibility of the right hon. Gentleman's high office ought to act sympathetically and humanely, as well as responsibly.
§ Mr. Loughlin
If we are not able to vote against the Government on this issue because of the chaos which might ensue, will my hon. Friend tell me how we can redress the injustice? Can he tell me what is his point of view about that?
§ Mr. Willey
This is a difficulty which frequently faces us. As my hon. Friend knows—we do not dispute this—the Government rely on some provisions made in the Order. We have asked them time after time to review it. We have had promises. Perhaps if we go in or stay out of the Common Market, when that question is settled, the Government will do something. But we have our responsibility to see that we provide for orderly government. That is one of the functions of this Committee and of the House of Commons. But we can express, as we have done today, our criticism of the action of the Government.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I have no desire to make another speech; perhaps I was rather too long at the beginning. But I think that I ought to say one more word before the Committee parts with the Amendment.
I am extremely grateful at having had the powerful and eloquent support of the official Opposition Front Bench. It is a long time since I had the Opposition Front Bench speakers supporting an Amendment of mine. I hope that they will have persuaded themselves to do something mare than speak, although I hope that I may, without appearing to be patronising, say how much I enjoyed and appreciated the speeches that were made.
At the beginning of the debate I was in some doubt whether it would be right—for reasons advanced from the Front 462 Bench—to carry my Amendment to a Division. I have no doubt now. Any deficiency in my argument was amply made up by the Home Secretary. I cannot understand the right hon. Gentleman. I understand him less at the end of his speech than I understood him at the beginning. Has he no bowels of compassion at all?
Throughout his speech the right hon. Gentleman made not one single reference to the medical condition of Dr. Soblen. I challenged him whether he knew. Professor Keith Simpson, the Home Office forensic expert, testified that the man's expectation of life was one month or two. I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he knew. He did not even bother to answer; from which I cart only infer that this was not one of the considerations which he took into account in making up his mind whether to restore the status quo ante bellum which is his defence for what he did.
Did not it matter? Does not it make any difference whether the man with whom he is dealing is a young, strong healthy man with all his life before him; or otherwise he has a couple of months of acute pain or misery in a prison hospital? Was not that a matter to take into account? By the right hon. Gentleman's own confession, it never entered his head.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the legality of the matter and everything he could do under Article 8. I asked what prevented him, under Article 8, from allowing the man to go to Czechoslovakia, where he was willing to go, and where the Government were willing to receive him. I thought that the answer of the right hon. Gentleman would be that Soblen had deadly secrets which he was carrying about all over the world and which he was going to betray behind the Iron Curtain. But the right hon. Gentleman was frank enough to say that he did not believe anything of the kind. I hope that the newspapers which pilloried this man, with headlines about spies, agents, saboteurs and all the rest, will give equal publicity to the admission which the right hon. Gentleman has made at least on that point.
I know the difficulties. I know that there would be a difficult transitional period. I know, too, that a new law, a 463 different law, a better law, would have to be speedily passed if we got rid of this one. But even though the difficulties were infinitely greater than they are, I should not be content to allow these powers to continue in existence for a single day longer, when they can be exercised by a man like the present
§ Home Secretary, who has no common sense, no sense of justice and no compassion at all.
§ Question put, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Schedule:—
§ The Committee divided: Ayes 152, Noes 15.463
|Division No. 9.]||AYES||[6.39 p.m.|
|Agnew, Sir Peter||Gilmour, lan (Norfolk Central)||Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.|
|Aitken, W. T.||Goodhart, Philip||Mills, Stratton|
|Allason, James||Goodhew, Victor||Neave, Alrey|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Gower, Raymond||Nlcholls, Sir Harmar|
|Awdry, Daniel (Chlppenham)||Grant-Ferris, R.||Osborn, John (Hallam)|
|Barber, Anthony||Grosvenor, Lt.-Col. R. G.||Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth)|
|Batsford, Brian||Gurden, Harold||Page, Graham (Crosby)|
|Bell, Ronald||Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough)||Page, John (Harrow, West)|
|Bevins, Bt. Hon. Reginald||Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)||Pearson, Frank (Clitheroe)|
|Biffen, John||Harvie Anderson, Miss||Peel, John|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Hastings, Stephen||Perclval, lan|
|Bishop, F. P.||Hay, John||Prior, J. M. L.|
|Bourne-Arton, A.||Henderson, John (Cathcart)||Proudfoot, Wilfred|
|Box, Donald||Hendry, Forbes||Pym, Francis|
|Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry||Hiley, Joseph||Rawlinson, Sir Peter|
|Brown, Alan (Tottenham)||Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk)||Redmayne, Rt. Hon. Martin|
|Bryan, Paul||Hirst, Geoffrey||Rees, Hugh|
|Buck, Anthony||Hobson, Sir John||Renton, Rt. Hon. David|
|Billiard, Denys||Hocking, Philip N.||Robinson, Rt. Hn. Sir R. (B'pool,S.)|
|Bullus, Wing Commander Eric||Holland, Philip||Rodgers, John (Sevenoaks)|
|Butler, Rt.Hn.R.A. (Saffron Walden)||Hollingworth, John||Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard|
|Campbell, Sir David (Belfast, S.)||Hopkins, Alan||Russell, Ronald|
|Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn)||Howard, Hon. G. R. (St. Ives)||Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)|
|Carr, Robert (Mitcham)||Hughes-Young, Michael||Smyth, Rt. Hon. Brig. Sir John|
|Cary, Sir Robert||Hutchison, Michael Clark||Spearman, Sir Alexander|
|Channon, H. P. G.||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Stodart, J. A.|
|Clark, William (Nottingham, S.)||James, David||Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir Malcolm|
|Clarke, Brig. Terence(Portsmth, W.)||Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich)||Studholme, Sir Henry|
|Cleaver, Leonard||Johnson, Erlc (Blackley)||Summers, Sir Spencer|
|Cooke, Robert||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey||Taylor, Frank (M'ch'st'r, Moss Side)|
|Cordle, John||Jones, Arthur (Northants, S)|
|Corfield, F. V.||Kaberry, Sir Donald||Teeling, Sir William|
|Costain, A. P.||Kerans, Cdr. J. S.||Temple, John M.|
|Coulson, Michael||Kimball, Marcus||Thompson, Kenneth (Walton)|
|Craddock, Sir Beresford||Leburn, Gilmour||Thornton-Kemsley, Sir Colin|
|Cunningham, Knox||Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry||Touche, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon|
|Curran, Charles||Lilley, F. J. P.||Turner, Colin|
|Lindsay, Sir Martin||Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.|
|Currie, G. B. H.||Litchfield, Capt. John||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Dalkeith, Earl of||Loveys, Walter H.||Vane, W. M. F.|
|Deedes, Rt. Hon. W. F.||Lucas, Sir Jocelyn||Vickers, Miss Joan|
|Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. M.||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Walder, David|
|Drayson, G. B.||McArthur, lan||Walker, Peter|
|Duncan, Sir James|
|Eden, John||McLaren, Martin||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton)||McLaughlin, Mrs. Patricia||Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)|
|Elliott, R.W.(Nwcastte-upon-Tyne,N.)||Maclean, SirFitzroy(Bute&N.Ayrs)||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Emery, Peter||Macleod, Rt. Hn. lain (Enfield, W.)||Woodhouse, C. M.|
|Errington, Sir Eric||McMaster, Stanley R.||Woollam, John|
|Farr, John||Maddan, Martin|
|Fell, Anthony||Maginnis, John E.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Finlay, Graeme||Mathew, Robert (Honiton)||Mr. Chichester-Clark and|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Matthews, Gordon (Meriden)||Mr. Tan Fraser.|
|Gammans, Lady||Mawby, Ray|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Kelly, Richard||Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)|
|Baxter, William (Stirlingshire, W.)||Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannock)||Wade, Donald|
|Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan)||Lubbock, Eric||Warbey, William|
|Brockway, A. Fenner||Parkin, B. T.|
|Holt, Arthur||Pavitt, Laurence||TELLERS FOR THE NOES|
|Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)||Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.)||Mr. Sydney Silverman and|
|Mr. Michael Foot.|
§ Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 9 and 10.
If this Amendment were accepted, we should be ending the Tenancy of Shops (Scotland) Act. The Under-Secretary of State will have realised, even before I moved the Amendment, that we on this side of the Committee have no intention of ending that Act and do not want it to end, but we felt it might be a good thing to find how the Act was working and how many cases, if any, had been taken to the sheriff in the last year. The Labour Government passed this Act in 1949. It was put on the Statute Book because for some years after the war a great deal of hardship had been experienced by small shopkeepers, particularly in cities in Scotland and especially in the City of Glasgow. After a great deal of evidence had been gathered, it was decided that we must have legislation to protect these small shopkeepers in the tenancy of the premises in which they carried on business, and as a result this Act was put on the Statute Book.
The first question which I should like to ask the Secretary of State is this: how many, if any, cases have been taken to the sheriff? How many applications have been made to the sheriff during the last year? Even if his answer is "None", this does not mean that the Act is no longer serving a useful purpose. It is like so much legislation—the very fact that it exists gives protection, without people having to resort to its provisions.
I listened to most of the debate on the aliens legislation. When the Home Secretary spoke he seemed to suggest that it was time that the provisions of that Act—perhaps not all of them but some of them—became permanent, and that it was no longer the kind of legislation which ought to come up for renewal year after year.
From a talk which I have had with the hon Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry), it seems that he is of an opinion which I have held for some time, that rather than bring this Scottish Act up year after year on the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill it ought to become part of our permanent legislation, if legislation in this country is ever permanent.
§ Mr. Forbes Hendry (Aberdeenshire, West)
I must declare that I have had an interest in the Act which it is proposed to continue, as a solicitor sometimes for the landlord and sometimes for the tenant, and that I am likely to have an interest in the future if it is continued.
When the Bill was being passed in 1949 it was the subject of heated political controversy, but the view was expressed on both sides of the House that it was undesirable that the State should interfere in a branch of the law in which it had not previously interfered. It was generally thought, however, that it was necessary for the State to interfere for the limited period of one year. The view was expressed on Third Reading that what was then described as a ramp might be at an end by 1950.
That took place, but since then this little Act has turned out to be extremely useful. Very few Scottish lawyers have realised that it is a temporary Act, renewed from year to year. In my own practice as a solicitor I made use of the Act this year. It is a very good Act, even though it was passed by a Socialist Government, because it provides very useful machinery and it provides safeguards. There is little likelihood of any abuse of the Act by either tenant or landlord, because safeguards are built into it, and it is largely left to the discretion of the sheriff substitute, who in Scotland is a paid professional judge who can weigh up the pros and cons of each application.
The procedure for an application to the court is very simple. It can be carried out speedily, and in every case which has come to my professional knowledge the Act has succeeded even in easing the difficult position where a landlord and tenant cannot agree; for machinery provided by the Act enables the sheriff, or an arbiter appointed by him, easily to dispose of the difficulties between them. It is an excellent piece of legislation which is still serving a useful purpose, though possibly a different purpose from that for which it was designed. I think that my hon. Friend should seriously consider introducing a Bill to make this legislation permanent and to avoid the necessity for it arising from year to year.
§ Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)
I mainly want to reinforce some of the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) and by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry). This legislation, or the need for it, originated principally in the City of Glasgow, and the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West is justified in classifying what happened then as a real ramp. It is the biggest ramp which I have ever seen operating in any city.
We were most grateful for the introduction of the Act in 1949, and if we were to repeal the Act tomorrow the ramp would start all over again. To that extent I must support my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West in their request that the Joint Under-Secretary of State should give very serious consideration to introducing a Bill to make this a permanent piece of legislation. It would be welcome throughout Scotland. I think that such a step is justified, and I hope that the hon. Member will concede our request.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
I should like to support the observations made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) and Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes). This is a very useful Act and should be made permanent, but as it stands it is not complete. It requires certain amendments to strengthen it in its application to its purpose.
I therefore take this opportunity not only of supporting what my hon. Friends said but of putting forward my plea to the Government to reconsider the Act with a view to applying it to the circumstances of the day and to making the system more effective.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Gilmour Leburn)
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) for explaining, when introducing the Amendment, that the purpose of the discussion was to show how this Act has been working.
I do not think it necessary for me to go over all the background to show how the Act was originally brought in after the war, but hon. Members will recollect that some years ago, I think 468 in 1958, the Secretary of State for Scotland set up the Shearer Committee to look into the whole question. While I do not want to cover all the points made by that Committee, it did not think it altogether desirable that an Act passed as a temporary measure to deal with a post-war shortage of accommodation should have the effect, in the Committee's words, ofradically altering the legal position of owner and tenant in relation to shop premises.The Committee therefore thought that the Act should not be made permanent in its present form. It recommended that it should be retained for a period not exceeding five years. The Committee appeared to have had in mind that by the end of that period there might have been changes in the Scottish practice in respect of the letting of shops which would render unnecessary even the secondary purpose for which the Committee found the Act being used in 1958.
Hon. Members will wish to know what use has been made of this Act and whether there has been any marked change since the Shearer Committee reported in 1958. The figures which the Shearer Committee had before it were for the six years 1952–57. During that period the number of applications for renewal of tenancies under the Act was remarkably steady. It varied only between 308 and 343 in a year, and there was no suggestion that these figures were either increasing or decreasing.
Since 1957, the picture has been somewhat different. In each successive year the number of applications has declined, and in 1961 it was as low as 118. Complete figures for 1962 are not, of course, yet available, but a further small decline seems to me to be likely. I think it fair to say, therefore, that only about one-third as many applications are being brought under the Act as were being brought when the Shearer Committee found that the Act was serving a useful purpose.
I suppose that it was far consideration whether the Act should be included in the Schedule to the present Bill. It could, I think, possibly have been argued that a drop of two-thirds in the not very large number of applications that were being made in 1958 and the preceding 469 years suggested that the Act had served its purpose and could safely be discontinued. On the other hand, a five-year period had been mentioned by the Shearer Committee, and, as no representations against the continuance of the Act had been received, we thought that the best course was to keep it in force during 1963 thus taking up the five-year period which had been recommended from the end of 1958.
The hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North and other hon. Members want to know what our intentions are now. Is the Act to be allowed to lapse? Is it to be continued for a further period as a temporary measure, or is it to be replaced by permanent legislation? Much as it may disappoint the Committee, I really must reserve my right hon. Friend's position on all three questions. It was implicit the Report of the Shearer Committee that the working of the Act should be reviewed before the end of the five-year period, during which the Committee thought that it might be continued in operation, and a start on this review will be undertaken very shortly. Until we know the results of that review, I would not like to commit my right hon. Friend as to what action we might take.
On the other hand, I would not like the Committee to get the impression in any way that we have made up our minds that the Act should be terminated and not replaced by any other form of legislation. We should look at this matter objectively. The interesting point is that the hon. Lady herself made what I think was a good point, that even if there had been no use made of the facilities of ibis Act the very fact of its existence probably does good.
Interesting points have been made by the bon. Members for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes), the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) and the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North, as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry), and I want to assure all hon. Members that all the views that they have expressed tonight will be taken fully into account.
§ Mr.E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)
I am interested in the Under-Secretary's remarks. This is an occasion on which we miss the services of the Law Officers. 470 Assuming that they are necessary, it is unfortunate that the Government's prestige is so low that they cannot risk a by-election to return a Law Officer to the House.
§ Mr. Leburn
On this occasion I should have thought it would have been difficult for the Lord Advocate to speak, as he would obviously be an interested party.
§ Mr. Willis
Nevertheless, even if he were an interested party, he could sit beside the Under-Secretary to give him the value of his advice, although, judging from past advice that we have received from the Law Officers, it might not be worth very much.
I am interested to learn that there is to be a review of this matter. It is rather strange that there are all sorts of reasons for reviews into whether we should continue to protect tenants of shops. We had a fight to get the protection in the first place. In fact, we had to have two committees, and it was only because we rejected the advice and the evidence of the first committee and insisted on a second committee being appointed that we got the legislation. I could never understand why this should be so.
Now we are continually having difficulty in continuing this legislation, which, after all, simply seeks to protect shop tenants. That is all it does. I cannot see what is wrong with it and I do not understand why we should require all these reviews. It might be true that the number of cases coming up under the Act have been falling since 1957. Last year there were 118, but still, 118 is quite a good number of people to have protected.
§ Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)
Would not my hon. Friend agree that one of the main reasons why the numbers are falling in Scotland is the ever-increasing unemployment and fear about the future, so that people are not making the applications?
§ Mr. Willis
I would not like to accept that as a reason. In my view, this is happening because of the exploitation of proportion, particularly in the cities where this problem has now taken a rather different form. The tenant is not 471 always placed in a position in which he suffers greatly. The purpose of the Act, when it was introduced after the war, was to increase the rents of shops, and that was all. Tenants were being exploited because shop leases in Scotland are short leases. By and large, shop premises in Scotland are on yearly leases. When this legislation was introduced, the intention was to cash in as quickly as possible on the demand for shops and to push up the rents of shops as quickly as possible.
The position with regard to shops in the cities is changing somewhat. We now have a bunch of property speculators buying up whole areas for the purpose of office and central development. This is a big problem. But it seems to me that the shop tenant continues to require protection, and I cannot see why we have got to have a lot of committees to decide whether he should require protection or not, unless the inquiry by the committee is to be more than simply an inquiry into whether we should continue this legislation or not. It might, in fact, be necessary for the committee to consider whether or not the legislation should be strengthened, or whether it should not be rather different in character.
Before we leave this point, I should like some assurance from the Under-Secretary that the purpose of the committee of inquiry is not simply to say, "The numbers of people applying for protection under this legislation are falling steadily. We think that it might come to an end in a year's time", or that it might not come to an end, but rather that the committee should be in a position to carry out a much wider reform and, if necessary, to recommend that the legislation might be extended.
I should like the terms of reference of the committee to be of such a character that they would enable us to say, not simply whether the legislation should or should not be continued, or that it should be continued for five or two years, but whether this is the right kind of legislation in the light of the new circumstances which are arising. There are very large redevelopment areas today. Property is being bought up right, left and centre, at least in Edinburgh, and, I understand, in Glasgow, 472 too, and I can visualise that this will occur in every burgh in Scotland. The menace to the shopkeeper today is rather different.
It seems to me that the committee should be empowered by its terms of reference to review the legislation in the light of the changing threats to shopkeepers and be able to make recommendations which would enable the Government, if need be, to extend the legislation.
One last question. Will the report of the committee be published?
§ Mr. Ross
I endorse the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) that we should not be hasty in dropping this legislation. The Under-Secretary of State said that there was the possibility of permanent legislation, but he could give no pledge about it. I am concerned about the possibility of the Government dropping the present Act and not replacing it with another. If we could have a pledge about it, that would help us considerably.
This is still a real problem. It arises in every town in Scotland, not just in the cities. It may have started in the cities, but it quickly spread and affected small shopkeepers all over the place who, after having been in business for, perhaps, twenty years, suddenly found themselves faced with the option of buying the property or quitting, the alternative to buying, of course, being, the payment of a very inflated rent. It is amazing that we have had so many cases, and, as the Under-Secretary of State said, the fact that the legislation is there is itself a barrier so that there may well be others who would have taken advantage of the position if this limited protection were not there. I hope that he will not be hasty in dropping it.
I should like to know what was the nature of the 118 cases and where they came from. My hon. Friend is quite right. We have seen a strange departure in property ownership and development in Scotland, and some gentlemen, whose names are fairly well known in the South, have moved into very unexpected places in Scotland.
§ Mr. Ross
Their names are not Scottish, but we find that they do travel North and, with the Prime Minister, attend Tory lunches, mixing their political pleasures, no doubt, with a little astute business. We have every reason to be alarmed at what might happen.
In most Scottish towns today, as one goes up the main street it is difficult to find a lingering old-fashioned firm, a family business. One way or another, a man needs protection against being squeezed out. He can be squeezed out in another way. We took every step to ensure that he was not racked by rent or demands for purchase, but I fear that many of them will be squeezed out by valuation. Once the property speculators get going, their activities do not pass unnoticed by the county assessor. Inevitably, the valuations and assessments go up and it may well be that a man can be forced out of business in that way.
Is there any possibility of protection against the speculators for anyone who refuses their tempting offers of compensation, who prefers to stay in business rather than be generously compensated and who then finds himself in the position of having to resort to whatever help we can provide?
We are seeing a complete change not only in the development and letting of property but in the ownership of property. In fact, the leasehold system is developing in Scotland. I realise, Sir Robert, that you may find this a little difficult to relate to the Amendment, but it may well be that present developments in Scotland require that we must afford protection to the tenant. I have no desire to embark on a long explanation of land and property tenure in Scotland. I suggest that it would be well worth the Committee studying it. [Interruption.] The Liberal Party, for all its talk about the problems of leasehold tenure, may not realise that it was not so long ago that we got rid of the leasehold system in Scotland. We found a way and a formula, under the guidance of one who later became a Lord Advocate, but who was at that time, I think, only a member of His Majesty's Opposition, not of my party. We did afford protection to people in these circumstances. However, that is not the subject we are discussing, much as I should like to be lured by the ignorance or innocence of the hon. Member 474 for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), the English representative of the Liberal Party present.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
I have had a very comprehensive explanation of the system of tenure in Scotland from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis).
§ The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Robert Grimston)
Order. This is getting rather out of hand, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises.
§ Mr. Ross
I was only thinking that one Englishman could, perhaps, explain it a little better to another Englishman, [...]ough not quite so fully as could a [...]sman.
[...]e want a pledge that the legislation w[...] not be dropped without something to [...]place it. At the very least, we sho[...]d have an intimation from the Governn[...]nt beforehand of what they propose [...]o do. This is one of the dangers of the expiring laws procedure. All the Government need to do in next year's Bill is to leave out this line. As you know, Sir Robert, if they leave it out we cannot talk about it. We can only talk about what is in the Bill. I should regard it as a breach of faith, after what the Under-Secretary has said—he has been quite forthcoming about the Government's problems here—if they did that.
Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how the new developments in property ownership in Scotland have affected the cases so far? He must be well aware that local authorities, having spent years waiting patiently to clear central areas, are discovering now, in this eleventh or twelfth year of Tory Government, that they are not able to develop the areas themselves. Many of them are being persuaded by the friends of hon. Members opposite to give up to property speculators the right to develop important areas. Has that had any effect on the cases of which the hon. Gentleman has had notification during the past twelve months?
§ Mr. Leburn
On the very last point raised by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), I have no 475 indication that the developments to which he refers have been concerned in the cases here under review.
I take the point made by the hon. Member in regard to what might happen in a future year under the Bill. He, in turn, will realise that I am answering an Amendment which is put down to achieve that very purpose.
§ Mr. Ross
This is the only way we can discuss it. It is the only opportunity we have. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that it is a technical Amendment. He will recall that, in regard to the Education (Exemption) (Scotland) Act which is being discontinued this year, a promise was given as to future action in the previous discussion of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.
§ Mr. Leburn
I was trying to help the hon. Gentleman. I was about to say that I welcome what I call the probing Amendment in order that we can discuss this very important matter.
I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) did not get the impression that there is any question of setting up an official committee. What I said, or intended to say—we can see in the morning what I did say—was that, since the five years, as recommended by the Shearer Committee, was coming to an end, we should review the workings of the Act.
The hon. Gentleman then asked why we should bring the Act to an end at all. I tried to explain that. The Shearer Committee did not think that the Act should be made permanent in its present form. Instead, it recommended that it should be retained for a period not exceeding five years. For that reason, now that we are coming to the end of the five-year period—the five years will be up next year—I tried to say that we should review this matter in the light of what had happened since the Shearer Committee reported.
§ Mr. Leburn
My right hon. Friend's Department, which is responsible for this matter, is going to go into the whole question. I think that that is a perfectly reasonable way to do it. But, if the hon. Gentleman likes to probe further when we have the results of that review, I shall be as forthcoming as possible.
§ Mr. Willis
What is the purpose of the review? Is it simply to decide whether the Act should come to an end or not, or has it a wider purpose—to decide what legislation should replace it? I do not accept what the Shearer Committee says, that this should go on for five years. The lawyers have always been on the side of the property owners.
§ Mr. Leburn
I cannot accept that from the hon. Gentleman. He knows perfectly well that that is not so when a Queen's Counsel is appointed to preside over a committee of this sort. I am sure that, on reflection, he will realise that what he has just said was quite improper.
As I said in my original remarks, the review will look at the way in which the Act has been working, the number of cases which have arisen and the reasons for those cases, and then, as I tried to explain to the hon. Lady, my right hon. Friend will have to decide whether the Act should lapse, should be continued Or replaced by permanent legislation. I tried to show that I could not at this stage commit my right hon. Friend.
I cannot give the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) all the figures for which he asked, but I can give him one figure which perhaps will help him. Of the 118 cases last year, 63 were in Glasgow, Airdrie, Lanark and Hamilton, and the others were spread over Scotland. That is the best information that I can give him.
I have said before that I believe that it is implicit in the Shearer Committee's Report that the working of the Act Should be reviewed before the end of the five years, and that will take place. After that, my right hon. Friend will have to consider what action he should take.
§ Miss Herbison
I wish to make a few points in the light of the two replies of the Under-Secretary of State.
The hon. Gentleman said that there will be a Departmental review of the 477 working of the Act and that once that review has been carried out it will be for the Secretary of State to decide which course shall be followed. As a result of that review, he may decide that such legislation is no longer necessary, or that some form of legislation is necessary but not necessarily that which is contained in the Act that we are considering.
We on this side are in a difficulty. As one of my hon. Friends said, if this review is completed between now and this time next year and in sufficient time for the Secretary of State to examine the results of the review, and if he decides to take the first course, namely, that legislation is no longer needed, there will be no reference to this matter in the Bill.
I do not ask for a further answer from the Under-Secretary of State, but I do ask him to publish the review as a White Paper. This matter was of very great concern previously. Shopkeepers in Scotland and hon. Members on both sides have the right, if by any miserable chance the Secretary of State decides to drop the legislation altogether, to ask that the review be published as a White Paper so that the strongest representations may be made for continuation of the protection.
Supposing this review is carried out and the Departmental committee, in its wisdom, being as fair as it possibly can, advises the Secretary of State that no further legislation is necessary, we on this side could not accept that. This legislation was the result of the work of a committee which was not set up in the Departmental form. The Secretary of State should not reach such an important decision as the dropping of the legislation. If he were inclined that way, another committee, but not a Departmental committee, should go into the matter.
I leave these points with the Under-Secretary of State. First, we should like a White Paper to be published, setting out the review. Secondly, if, as a result of that review, the Secretary of State felt that he should drop the legislation, he should not do so until he has had the advice of an outside independent committee.
478 However, in view of the explanations which we have been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 11 and 12.
The lines that we wish to leave out refer to the Accommodation Agencies Act, 1953. The purpose of the Amendment, like the one which has just been considered, is to find out a little about how the Act has been working and the Government's future intentions for it. It has not been tabled with any idea that the time has come when the Act should be abandoned.
The Act is closely connected with the name of Lord Ilford. It was through his initiative, by using the Ten-Minute Rule procedure, that he got it passed and it is designed to protect the house hunter. It does two main things. First, it makes it illegal for any house agent to charge a registration fee to somebody who is looking for a house. Secondly, it makes it illegal for an agent to charge a premium or fee as a consideration for giving somebody particulars of a house. In other words, it stops a house agent from extracting money from a house hunter for the mere operation of looking for a house rather than the operation of getting the house and completing the sale or letting of the house. That is designed to deal with what were undoubtedly considerable abuses in 1953.
The simplest case of abuse was when somebody took advantage of the housing shortage and of people's desperate struggle to get accommodation. When a person got into a house agent's office, before anything else was done and before any question arose about whether the agent had suitable accommodation on his books, he might extract a registration fee for which there might be no recompense, nothing offered and no service performed.
That was the simplest type of abuse, but rogues soon develop ingenious variations of a simple operation and before long people found that they need not have any houses on their books and need have no connection with a house or any right to act on behalf of an 479 owner. All that had to be done was to say: "Before I give you a list of houses for you to look at, I will charge you a premium for doing it". Thus there was room for considerable exploitation of people on what was then, and still is, a seller's market for accommodation.
When the Act was passed in 1953, it was originally intended to last until, I believe, 1957, when it was continued in operation. It was discussed in the House in about 1958, when the then Parliamentary Secretary, who is now Postmaster-General, gave particulars about the number of prosecutions which had taken place under the Act. The numbers were very small. In one year there was one, in another year two and in the then current year there were nil. It would be useful for those of us with statistical interests if we could have this information brought up to date. We should like to know from the Parliamentary Secretary whether there have been any prosecutions under the Act.
I fully realise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) said just now, that the fact that there are no prosecutions under an Act does not mean that it is unnecessary. It may well mean that the Act is being effective and has been a warning to unscrupulous agents that the practice which I have described would get them into trouble if they were to try it. It would be interesting to know whether that is the view of the Government or whether they consider that there has been widespread evasion of the Act.
The kind of practice to which I have referred is difficult to check. Obviously, if the Parliamentary Secretary went into an agent's office and asked to be registered as looking for accommodation, he would not be charged a registration fee. If I went into the agent's office and asked, I do not think that I would be charged an agent's fee. The people would smell us a mile away. They would realise that we knew something about the game and that we were not the sort of persons with whom to run risks. To that extent, such an Act performs a useful purpose.
Recently, however, I heard of a social worker who happened to be a West Indian and who went into an agent's 480 office to ask for particulars of accommodation. Because she was from overseas, it was assumed, wrongly, that she did not know what it was all about and, therefore, a fee was asked for providing a list of addresses. That kind of thing Roes on, I believe, among people who do not know their way around and it requires careful watching. None of us should be complacent about what is happening.
In asking what the Government feel about the working of the Act, I should like also to ask whether they have considered the possibility of the consolidation of enactments dealing with this subject. We get quite a lot of different Acts, many of them starting as Private Members' Bills, dealing with different aspects of the landlord and tenant relationship. The Act in question is one of them. We had one only last Session dealing with questions of rent books. We had one not long ago dealing with the value of furniture sold to an incoming tenant and, no doubt, there are many more. All these are beginning to collect together and I suggest that it is about time that they were brought into some kind of consolidating Measure.
Although I am the last person to be unduly sympathetic towards property agents, it is difficult for anybody to know what the law is. It is to be found in a number of odd little places. The Parliamentary Secretary gets a certain professional ecstasy from spotting an obscure Act which nobody else has found in the Statute Book. The layman, however, who has to use legislation, not as part of his profession, but as part of his day-to-day job, does not have that same kind of intellectual pleasure and wants to be able quickly to turn to the correct legal position. It would make for enforcement of the law and also for observation of the law by people who want to observe it if such legislation could be consolidated. That is not a reason for not continuing the Act in operation, because it would be disastrous not to continue it.
We are reaching an interesting stage in the development of the estate agency profession. There is a lot of talk about legislation dealing with questions of status, registration and so on. The attitude of hon. Members to proposed legislation of that nature and their sympathy with the profession would be very 481 much influenced if they had ground for believing that there was a determination among reputable estate agents to stamp out the kind of abuse at which the Act is directed.
There cannot be any more pitiful collection of people than those who are homeless, who, perhaps, have been evicted from somewhere or have come to a large town to try to get work and who have family responsibilities and are desperately in need of accommodation. These people are sitting birds for exploitation. That is the pity of it. Very often they will not co-operate in the enforcement of the law because there is a possibility that if they can get accommodation they may be happy to pay £20, or whatever it may be, to an agent on the chance that he will get them something, so desperate is their need. That is a pitiful social situation which we may have other opportunities of discussing. I do not raise it now except to say that it is a terrible exploitation and something which, I am sure, the whole House would wish to stop. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have something to say about his assessment of the effectiveness of stopping it.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)
The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) has explained the purposes and the provisions of the Act with which we are concerned and the Committee will not wish me to do so again. He asked particularly for what information I could give him with regard to the working of the Act. He is quite right in saying that prosecutions are not very startling. In the first year there were 11—that is, 1954; in 1955 there was one; in 1956, two; in 1957, one; and since then the total score has been nil. However, I do fully agree with him that this does not mean that it does not provide a valuable sanction despite the fact that it has been invoked so seldom.
I was a little disturbed by the story he told of an obvious contravention, and no doubt he will bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friend should he hear of any more.
One of the difficulties here, as the hon. Member was saying, is to get it across to the public that this series of enactments exist. In that respect our little 482 debate tonight may help. At any rate, I am glad he agrees that there is no case for allowing the Act to lapse while there are still areas of shortages of housing, which, of course, are the conditions in which this sort of rather shady practices and so-called agencies flourish.
I cannot give him any very firm information with regard to the possibilities of consolidation. He mentioned a number of these small Bills, but I think all the ones he mentioned would fall under the general heading of landlord and tenant. I rather doubt whether this would. I cannot think offhand of anything in which this sort of thing could be usefully consolidated.
But he will be aware, as will the Committee, that the four chartered bodies which are concerned with estate agency have been studying the whole question of codes of conduct, enforcement, and so on, and that they announced at the beginning of this month that they would be sponsoring proposals for the statutory registration of estate agents. The proposal, as I understand it, is that there would be a registration council, registration being compulsory, which would draw up a code of conduct prohibiting, amongst probably many other things, the actual practices to which we are referring tonight.
The Committee will also know that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) is introducing a Bill which, I imagine, is based upon these proposals, but it is not printed yet and till it is we cannot really comment usefully on it. The only thing I would say is that if it follows the lines of the chartered bodies, when we have looked at it carefully, and if it becomes law, and if it covers precisely the same point which the present Act covers, then it may be sensible to let the Act lapse, but I am sure the Committee agrees that it would be wholly premature to do it now. But if this other Bill does become an Act I hope it will meet some of the hon. Gentleman's demand for consolidation.
§ Mr. Willey
I am sure the Committee will be greatly obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his reply. I hope the undertaking he has given us is a firm one and that this is being seriously considered by his Department. Whether this 483 comes in the form of a Bill for the registration of estate agents or in some other form, I hope that action will be taken.
I think this is a good illustration of the legislation for which the hon. Gentleman himself is sometimes responsible. It has been restricted legislation because of the nature of Private Members' Bills. It demands that there should be the good will of the House for their purposes, and so they are very narrowly defined.
This Act has been operated now for a considerable time. I think that both my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) and the Parliamentary Secretary recognise that this is a useful sanction, but I always feel after this experience that probably much more could be done. It is possible—I do not know—that it is out of this experience that a wider proposal has been made, and that the more sensible thing would be to provide for the registration of estate agents; but, whatever may be the form it takes—and I agree that it is difficult to consolidate into landlord and tenant legislation, because this is estate agent legislation—I hope that out of this we can be assured that something constructive will come.
§ Mr. MacColl
To discuss in Committee on the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill the Second Reading of a Private Member's Bill which has not yet been introduced is something which even your tolerance, Sir Robert. would rather boggle at, and therefore I shall not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) or the Parliamentary Secretary in what they said about it, excent to enter this caveat, that I do not think one can leave this kind of thing to good opinion in the profession, particularly a profession which is not yet very well organised. It may be different when we have functioning such a body as the Law Society or Bar Council, and if people who do things which reputable estate agents would repudiate are put beyond the pale. But we cannot do anything about that now. At least it is an unequivocal statement of good practice with penal sanction behind it, and so I am glad, personally, this this useful Act is being allowed to remain on the Statute Book, and so I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.484
§ Mr. McInnes
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 17 to 27.
We have been discussing this matter for many years and it is rather difficult to say something different about it. Indeed, it appears to be a form of tedious repetition year after year. Nevertheless, we have here a soul-destroying problem, and it is more so in Scotland It is almost peculiar to Scotland. It is a problem which, at our present rate of tackling it, I cannot see being solved this century.
The Amendment I move is simply a probing Amendment. I want to put one or two questions to the Under-Secretary of State. I want to elicit from him information about the effect and impact this Act has on this question of furnished and unfurnished accommodation, particularly in the City of Glasgow, but also throughout Scotland as a whole.
The first point I want to be satisfied on is the number of rent tribunals which are in existence today. Speaking from memory, I think that when we appointed them in 1943 there were 29 covering the whole of Scotland, and I am assuming that that number still exists today, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will confirm that.
The next question which I want to put to the hon. Gentleman is: what are the prospects of consideration being given to giving the tribunals power to deal with unfurnished tenancies as well as furnished accommodation, because the problem is just—
§ The Deputy-Chairman
I do not think that the hon. Member can go very far into that question, because the Act we are renewing deals only with furnished accommodation. He can, in passing, say something about unfurnished tenancies, but I do not think that he can go very far into that question.
§ Mr. McInnes
I did not ask the hon. Gentleman to deal with it beyond a certain extent. I merely put one simple question to him: what are the prospects of allowing the existing tribunals to deal with unfurnished tenancies? I do not want to say any more on that issue, because I realise that what we are discussing is the question of furnished tenancies—although I must put this point to the hon. Gentleman, and he will correct me if I am wrong.
485 I think that the tribunals today have the power to deal with unfurnished accommodation where the tenancies have a rateable value of under £40. I am almost certain that that is the situation, and that although the Act relates to furnished houses the tribunals established have power to deal with unfurnished accommodation where the rateable value of such accommodation is under £40. The figure of £40 is mentioned simply because such houses are decontrolled and, therefore, they do not come within the Rent Restriction Acts. There is the additional factor that such houses provide certain services such as heating and lighting and in some cases even attendance. The hon. Gentleman can clarify the position if I am wrong.
I think that I am right in indicating that over the last few years the number of applications to the tribunals has fallen considerably. I certainly do not attribute this to the fact that the tenants who occupy such accommodation are altogether satisfied with the conditions of the tenancies. I do not accept that as being the explanation of the fall or decline in the number of people who go before the tribunals. I prefer to say that the real reason is that the existence of these tribunals is not so widely known as it should be.
I have raised this issue during the last two or three years. I have begged the Under-Secretary to engage in a widespread publicity campaign to make known to the people of Scotland the existence of these tribunals and the right of the individual to go to them. I am not conscious that any large-scale publicity campaign has ever taken place, although last year I had an assurance that something would be done extensively to advertise their existence.
Unfortunately, the racket, if I can call it such, still exists in Glasgow. I think that it exists more prominently in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen), who is faced with a tremendous housing problem. Gorbals is known almost worldwide and in that area we find today Indians and Pakistanis acquiring such property and letting it out as furnished accommodation or unfurnished accommodation at exorbitant rentals which 486 people cannot possibly afford to pay. One reason for that is that in Glasgow, although 120,000 municipal houses have been provided, there is still a waiting list of over 80,000 people. That compels people to acquire furnished accommodation or even unfurnished accommodation if they can get it.
Therefore, I hope that the Under-Secretary will pay particular attention to the question of publicity or advertising and making known to people throughout the length and breadth of Scotland that these tribunals exist and that people can go to them and have their cases examined. I know that the tribunals genuinely examine the cases that come before them, and almost every time—I pay them this tribute—come to a very fair decision.
I wonder whether the Under-Secretary will tell us what is the extent of the publicity campaign which the Government have embarked upon. The promise was given to me last year that they would take steps to make known the tribunals, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me the extent to which they are being used. I was given figures a year or two ago, but I have no up-to-date figures and no means of getting to know them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will provide me with that information.
§ Mrs. Alice Cullen (Glasgow, Gorbals)
I am pleased to have the opportunity of bringing to the notice of the Under-Secretary the plight of families living in furnished apartments in the constituency which I have the honour to represent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) has said, the position in the Gorbals is worse than in almost any other part of the city of Glasgow.
I want particularly to draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the hon. Gentleman to the way in which people are being treated in the Gorbals. Pakistanis, Indians, and others are coming to the Gorbals and buying property, some of which is not in very good condition. They do not live in it themselves. They let it out in rooms, and in some cases a six-apartment house is let out to six families. One house may be occupied by about 40 people. The conditions laid down by the owner of the property are 487 appalling and the rents are extortionate. In some cases the owner puts a gas stove hi the hall of the house and all six families have to take their turn in using it to cook a meal. There are no washing facilities of any kind. If the people are not back by 10 p.m. or 10.30 p.m., the doors are locked. Gas and electricity are turned off at a certain time.
The reason why the tribunals are not very popular is that if a person goes to a tribunal and makes a complaint about the house in which he is living he is either turned out or his life there becomes a hell and a torment. Some of these people will tell you that they would rather live in a Glasgow Green. If people come to one and complain about the conditions and one asks them why they do not go to the tribunal, they say, "If I go to the tribunal I shall be thrown out on the street with my children, and if I am allowed to remain in the house my life there will not be worth living".
Those are the conditions prevailing in the Gorbals. Neither the Secretary of State nor the Joint Under-Secretary knows anything about it. I do not know anything that one can do about it except get on with the provision of housing and give these people decent accommodation in which to live.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I pay tribute to the Act which we are discussing, and am sure that it ought to be continued. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen), in pointing out some of the conditions there, showed the impossibility of a limited Act such as this handling these cases. Indeed, even at the very beginning it was recognised that the success of the Act would be limited in such a way. The very fact that people are paying exorbitant rents means that they are suffering a form of blackmail and have no alternative but to go on to the street. Although the tribunal insists on a fair rent being paid, that does not altogether protect these people from eviction, so they are still faced with the choice, "Pay up or get out".
It would be difficult to make a successful attack on this problem under the Act. I agree that the cure is to provide 488 more accommodation so that the monopoly of the owners of these furnished houses is not so great and the power of extortion does not exist.
Nevertheless, the Act has been a success in many ways. The fact that it exists is a deterrent. Like another famous deterrent that we hear about, the last thing people want is to have it used against them. If the existence of the tribunal is known, it will prevent a great many people imposing extortionate rents. Therefore, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) in pleading for something to be done to remind people that the Act exists and that the tribunals can intervene in such cases.
I am told that in Edinburgh more use has been made of the tribunal during the past year than for a considerable time. I may be misinformed, but I understand that there are occasional meetings. I hope that the Minister will not be discouraged by the fact that tribunals may not often be called upon. If the existence of the tribunals and the powers is known, people will be more careful about how they treat tenants than if there were no powers of redress.
Whatever we may say about the tribunals and their powers, the only real solution is not to have people forced to take accommodation in other people's houses. If we could build the necessary homes, these people would have to pay far less for them than they do to live in somebody else's room. It has always astonished me that, in Scotland at least, some people are willing to pay far more to live in somebody else's home than they would have to pay for a good, new home of their own. This is a queer contradiction in human nature.
I am sure that the Minister will continue the Act. I hope that the debate will bring to the notice of intending exploiting landlords that they must deal reasonably and fairly with tenants who are at their mercy during periods of scarce housing.
§ Miss Herbison
It will already be evident that the Opposition wish to keep the Act on the Statute Book. The three speeches from this side of the Committee have shown how very important it is that the provisions of the Act should remain in being. But they have also revealed something else.
489 My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) have urged that greater publicity should be given to the Act, and I support them. But my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen) has found from experience in her constituency that many of these simple, decent people are afraid of What might be the result of their going to the tribunal.
The conditions which my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals has described are appalling. I know that her constituency is the worst for housing in the City of Glasgow, so I take it that it is the worst in Scotland.
The Under-Secretary must be impressed by the intolerable conditions under which families are living in our big cities, in particular, and our other cities, and also, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the county areas. I hope that he will also realise from the debate not only the necessity for continuing, and giving greater publicity to, the provisions of the Act, but the urgency of doing something out-with the Act to ensure that those who are living in the almost indescribable conditions will be given a decent home.
I want to leave that last point with the Under-Secretary. In preparation for the debate, and knowing that Glasgow was the worst affected place, I looked at some of the figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central says that the Glasgow waiting list is over 80,000. So long as such a waiting list exists, the provisions of the Act are of the greatest importance, and while such a list remains we must not only deplore the conditions which have been described, but try to do something to improve them.
If I were the Secretary of State, or the Under-Secretary, I could only hang my head in shame at the housing programme that we have in Glasgow and other parts In Glasgow, there are 80,000 on the waiting list, but, although we have heard a great deal of talk about overspill and new towns, since the beginning of 1958. until this year, only 5,750 Glasgow families have been housed outwith Glasgow. According to the latest figure, on 30th September, 1962, the number of houses under construction in Glasgow— 490 including those being built by the local authorities, the Scottish Special Housing Association and private owners—is 4,303.
These figures are terrifying when we compare them with what is happening in Glasgow, and when we realise that there is a waiting list in the city of 80,000. I know that I cannot develop this, and I have no intention of saying any more on the matter. But I felt that we could not leave this debate without urging the Secretary of State to consider this as a problem of the greatest importance—one of providing good homes for our Scottish children to be reared in, where they can be happy and become good citizens—and thus wipe away this terrible blight on Scotland.
Unless the Secretary of State is willing to do much more than he is doing at present, this stain on Scotland will be there almost for generations to come. The only real hope—indeed, I put it higher and call it a certainty—is that at the next General Election there will not only be a majority for this side of the House in Scotland, but a majority in Britain as a whole so that we can deal with the shocking problems of Glasgow and other areas in Scotland.
§ Mr. Leburn
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) for explaining that he wishes to elicit information and has no intention of pressing the Amendment. I agree very largely with the comments made by the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison)—at least to the extent that we are dealing there with a very human and difficult problem, which was also the point made by the hon. Lady the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen). But I do not think that the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North will expect me now to attempt to follow her into a housing debate. But, as I say in dealing with this particular matter I realise that we are concerned with a very human and difficult problem.
The 1943 Act divided Scotland into some 29 districts, each with a rent tribunal consisting of a chairman and two other members appointed by the Secretary of State. Most of them include a solicitor and valuator and a woman member. The main function is to fix 491 reasonable rents for furnished accommodation, and most of the cases dealt with concern furnished premises. But the tribunals are also empowered to fix rents for unfurnished accommodation in which services such as heating, lighting and hot water are provided, and for unfurnished accommodation in which the tenant has the exclusive use of some accommodation and in addition the use of other living accommodation, such as a kitchen, in common with the landlord.
Since the Rent Act, 1957, applications under the 1943 Act have been restricted to apartments or parts of apartments for which the rateable value in November, 1956, was no more than £40. When a case comes before it, a tribunal can either approve the rent or reduce it. The rent is reduced in about three out of every four cases decided by the tribunal.
In the cases decided in the last five years where rents have been reduced, the average rent was 40s. 10d. a week—which brings out the point made by the right hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) that people sometimes pay more for this accommodation than they will pay for a house—and the reduced average rent fixed has been 29s. 1d., representing an average percentage reduction of about 29 per cent. But, of course, it will be appreciated that these are only average figures.
In assessing a reasonable rent for any particular accommodation, there have to be taken into account the varying conditions in different parts of the country, the age, character and locality of the houses and the quality and quantity of the furniture and services which may be provided by the landlord. In all cases, therefore, the tribunal inspects the accommodation—and this is very important—before fixing a rent. Since 1949, the tribunals have also had the power to grant temporary security of tenure to applicants.
A notice to quit served on a tenant after he has applied to a tribunal cannot take effect before the tribunal has given its decision, or within three months after the decision, unless a shorter period is expressly fixed by the tribunal. The tribunal can grant extensions to a tenant who has been given the full three-months initial security and there is no 492 statutory limit to the number of extensions, each of up to three months' duration, which may be given.
§ Mr. Leburn
The tribunals can only give a statutory limit of three months at a time, but there is no limit to the number of times an applicant can apply for an extension. In the 1,542 original applications to fix rents decided by the tribunals since 1949, all but 77 of the tenants have been given security of tenure for at least the full three months. This shows that the tribunals exercise their powers to protect applicants in a reasonable way.
During the latter part of 1961, a campaign publicising tribunals was undertaken, covering the whole of Scotland. Posters and explanatory leaflets were distributed to all local authorities, citizens advice bureaux and ail rent tribunal offices. If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central or any other right hon. or hon. Member would like to see copies of the posters and leaflets which have been sent round, I shall be happy to show them.
§ Mr. McInnes
Does not the hon. Member consider that the best form of publicity is to have a Press notice, for in that way one would be almost certain to reach every household? I do not think that it is very effective to have leaflets in local information offices.
§ Mr. Leburn
Perhaps the hon. Member will let me finish; I shall be delighted to try to expand on what I have said. The work of tribunals has also been the subject of broadcast talks and newspaper articles during the past year.
Probably as a result of that publicity—but I cannot be certain—the number of original applications to the Scottish tribunals during the year to 30th September has risen from 61 in 1961 to 97 in 1962. I do not know how we should view this figure. Percentage-wise it looks great, but comparatively I am bound to admit that it is not a very big rise, although one can claim it as a 60 per cent. increase. Nevertheless, I feel that it is better to view the figures comparatively.
It is worth noting that the increases occurred wholly in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the only areas in Scotland which 493 have had a regular flow of applications over the last two years. In all the other areas, the number of applications has been quite negligible. Indeed, in the past year, notwithstanding this recent publicity, only ten applications were received from the whole of Scotland out-with Edinburgh and Glasgow. Therefore, it would seem that the complaints of overcharging for furnished accommodation are largely confined to those two cities.
Application to a rent tribunal to fix a reasonable rent may be made by a landlord, a tenant, or by a local authority. Of the 6.766 cases referred to the tribunals since their inception, 5,314 have been referred by tenants, 1.073 by landlords, and the remaining 379 by local authorities. Most of the applications from local authorities were made by Glasgow Corporation, but no application has been made by the Corporation since 1951.
In the explanatory leaflets sent to all local authorities about a year ago, it was mentioned that the authorities themselves could bring cases before the tribunals, but so far no further applications have been received direct from local authorities, although we should remember that local authorities are inclined to put tenants on to the tribunals when complaints come to them.
The number of complaints at present coming before the Scottish tribunals is very much less than it was in the war and in the immediate post-war period, but notwithstanding that, I think that this machinery is serving a useful purpose. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that the more we can do to give publicity and, more important, the more we can do to see that people, whom the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North described as simple and decent folk, are not afraid to go to tribunals, the better.
If I thought that I could achieve more by publicity, hon. Members opposite would find that they were talking to a very sympathetic recipient. I will study putting advertisements in the newspapers —I am not concerned with whether it should be done by the Government or by the local authorities—but the advertisement posters which were sent out when my predecessor was in office were 494 very good, and I should be happy to show them to hon. Members. However, if I can do anything further to publicise the tribunals, I shall be very sympathetic towards it and I will go into the matter to see whether something further can be done through the newspapers either by my Department or by the local authorities.
§ Miss Herbison
The hon. Member has referred to publicity in newspapers being undertaken either by his Department or by the local authorities. He will be aware that space in newspapers is very expensive and that local authorities already have a big enough financial headache providing alternative and better housing. This should not be a matter of either his Department or the local authorities, but definitely a responsibility of his Department.
§ Mr. Leburn
I take the point. I thought that it might be more appropriate for local authorities to do the advertising. All I am saying is that I would like to consider it. I am not at all unsympathetic. It seems to me that there are two problems: one to persuade people that the tribunals are there to do a job and to encourage people to go to them if they feel that they are being done down, and the other, which is just as important, to make sure that people know of the existence of the tribunals, because whether they think that they are being done down or not they cannot go to the tribunals if they do not know of their existence and purpose. I take the point of the importance of publicity, and on that assurance I hope that we may continue this Measure for a further year.
§ Mr. McInnes
Candidly, I appreciate the Under-Secretary's exhaustive and informative reply, for which I am greatly indebted. Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. MacColl
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 28 to 36.
I move this Amendment to draw attention to the working of the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act, 1946, and to ask some questions rather than with any idea that the time has come to dispense with the Act. I doubt whether that time will ever come. It has certainly not come 495 yet, and the Government ought to consider whether they should not recognise this legislation as inevitable and regard it as permanent.
When the Act was passed in 1946 there was considerable uncertainty about the future. It was new and adventurous legislation to try to apply some of the ideas of the old-established rent control in unfurnished houses to furnished houses, with all the difficulties involved when people have to share furniture, and so on. The Act was an experiment. On the whole, it has been successful, but sixteen years after it was passed it is time to recognise that we shall not get rid of it unless there is a fundamental change in the housing position. A fundamental change in the housing position means a fundamental change in the Government. If the Government believe that they will survive, the first thing they had better do is to make this permanent legislation, for it will last as long as right hon. Gentlemen opposite are in power.
We are in the curious position of expecting two speeches in this debate from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. When we had this debate last year we had a very long and exhaustive, and indeed exhausting, discussion of the Act, and a large number of questions were put to the present Minister of Building and Works who was then the Parliamentary Secretary. To be fair, the Minister showed no desire to shirk the issues. He had a well prepared brief for a long speech which he was carefully keeping up to date as the hours wore on, and we were all expecting a masterly exposition of Government policy to reassure us about the Act, to explain what the Government's ideas were about its future and to give us information for which the Committee had asked. All this was suddenly cut short by the Patronage Secretary moving the Closure. We have therefore been waiting a year for answers to some of our questions.
I do not know whether it would be in order for me to read from HANSARD the whole of the debate which took place on 15th November last year to refresh the hon. Gentleman's memory on the main points. That debate covered 496 a tremendous amount of useful and important information and contained many questions, and the Committee was treated in a most insulting and offensive way. Indeed, the people in the country, and particularly those in London, because so much of this refers to London, were treated in a very insulting way by the Patronage Secretary. I therefore think that if the Parliamentary Secretary is to do himself justice he ought either to take the opportunity of refreshing his memory of what took place during the previous debate, or I ought to take the opportunity of refreshing it for him by reading last year's debate.
Even as recently as last year we were being told that this was a dying thing. As we know, it has long been Government policy to wind up rent tribunals. Several of them have been closed over the years. Their areas of reference have been increased, and the general atmosphere has been that this is something which is passing out and therefore we do not need to do more than just keep it going.
I do not think that the Government can say that now, because the 1961 Report issued by the Ministry shows that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases brought before these tribunals. Last year when my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) was discussing this point he quoted the Ministry's figures of the position at that time. There had been an increase of 700 cases over the previous year. The 1961 Report shows an increase of over 1,000 cases over the previous year which, as I have said, itself showed an increase of 700 over the year before.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I am trying to ascertain the fullness of my hon. Friend's information. Do these figures relate to the whole of England and Wales? If so, how many tribunals are still operating in England and Wales?
§ Mr. MacColl
My answer to that is that they reflect the fullness of my information in so far as it is possible for me to have it. As this document is the Report for 1961, presented to Parliament in 1962, and it is now November, one hopes that the Parliamentary Secretary has a little more information than we have. We are in the rather anomalous 497 position of having to discuss this Act on the basis of information which is obsolete and out of date before we get it.
The answer to the other part of my hon. Friend's question is that Ministry of Housing and Local Government deals with England and Wales. My hon. Friend is more of a "Marcher" than I am and he probably knows better than I do the finer points of separation between English and Welsh legislation. I think that this covers England and Wales. It does not cover Scotland, which we have already discussed. The figures which I quoted deal with the whole of the country. I do not at the moment know the number of tribunals still in existence, but no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us the figure.
It is fairly clear that the work of these tribunals is rising dramatically. This is not surprising because, as we said when we discussed the Act dealing with accommodation, we are faced with an increasingly seller's market in housing.
As long as there is a shortage of houses in great cities, as long as there is no difficulty in getting all the applicants that a landlord wants, and as long as there is virtually no security of tenure for tenants of furnished property, the demand for unfurnished property will increase—and the more it increases the mare cases there will be of exploitation. That such things are happening there can be no doubt.
The function of the tribunals is to fix rents. In most cases they fix the rents fairly, efficiently and quickly. They do their best. But they are now being very much overworked, and once a tribunal becomes overworked, because of its list becoming greater, the more difficult it is for it to do its job in a thoughtful and reflective way, and the more difficult it is to make those visits to properties which are an essential part of the this kind of valuation.
Furthermore, when rents are eventually fixed, does the hon. Member have any evidence of those rents being evaded? Does he know that there is a good deal of charging of excess rents? I am sure that there are many cases in which the rent of furnished property has been fixed by a tribunal and has been noted in the rent book, but where the rent paid by the tenant is not that 498 which is shown in the rent book. The tenant is so much at the mercy of the landlord that he will pay an excess rent beyond what is fixed by the tribunal. He has little alternative.
Another thing that a landlord can do is to include in the rent a charge for services, such as gas and electricity. In some cases, after the landlord has collected the charge for gas and electricity he nevertheless fails to pay the gas and electricity bill. This means that the tenant ultimately finds his supplies cut off. That is precisely what the landlord wants. If he can get another tenant in and let his property unfurnished he can get a much bigger rent than he can when the tenant is protected by the tribunal.
I am told that another thing that is done in order to get out a tenant who has applied to the court is to put a lock on the letter box, so that the tenant cannot take out the letters which are put into the box by the postman. Still another thing that the landlord may do, if he lives in the property, is to lock the front door from the inside so that the tenant is locked out. If the landlord lives outside the property he may pay one of the other tenants, who may be an agent of his, to lock the door in this way.
The hon. Member is looking very Surprised, and even incredulous. These things do not happen in the world in which he lives. He was a very distinguished member of the Bar, and an expert on landlord and tenant, and he murmurs things about covenants of quiet enjoyment. What he must realise is that we are now dealing with jungle warfare of the most appalling kind, in which the tenant has very little protection under the law. He is often afraid to obtain professional advice, and when he does so he is often afraid to take advantage of it. This means that there is a need for a thorough and comprehensive review of the working of this Act.
The time has come when the Government ought to set up a great Royal Commission like that of the 1890s, with real power and authority to send for evidence, to administer oaths and really to find out what is happening. The scandals of today, which are not perhaps on a large scale, do not apply to everyone. I should be the last to suggest that what 499 I have said applies to all landlords, or that some tenants are not extremely aggravating. But the cases are sufficiently numerous to be very important in creating a situation which, if properly inquired into, would cause the Government to change their attitude of good-humoured tolerance towards these problems.
I must not talk about rent restriction. But I wish to make the point that things have been made worse by the creeping decontrol of unfurnished property. This offers an alternative source of exploitation to the letting of furnished houses. Tenants who come to the tribunals to obtain protection are exposed to the kind of treatment to which I have been referring. It is sometimes worse than a war of attrition. In some cases the tenant is exposed to downright violence.
I will not say that there are a number of instances because I do not wish to overstate the case, but there have been instances in which "plug-uglies" have been employed by landlords to remove tenants by brute force or by terrorising them. These things are happening today in a community in which it is the job of no one to see that the law is enforced. No one is in a position to discover the facts or to have the necessary power to protect people. Some kind of official inquiry might provide this protection.
Local authorities are responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Act. When a tenant has enough initiative to come to the local authority and complain most local authorities will take up the complaint and authorise a prosecution. But such cases are often the less serious ones. The really bad cases involve tenants who are terrified to come to the local authority because they know that they will be marked and removed from their premises by hook or by crook.
There is a further complication which prevents some tenants from appealing to the local authority. The tenant is aware that the public health authority, which is normally the enforcing authority, is also the authority concerned with overcrowding. The tenant is afraid that if he complains to a tribunal he will find himself evicted by the local authority because of overcrowding. It may be argued that people should not 500 live in overcrowded conditions. But these tenants have no choice in present circumstances with the shortage of housing accommodation. The dice is loaded against the tenant. I am not suggesting that the tenant is always perfect. But he has no security of tenure worth speaking of after his three months are up and he is exposed to so much victimisation and bullying. We ought not to accept a situation in which the law is being widely disregarded. Everyone is aware of the situation and it is time that the Government did something to see that the provisions of the Act are enforced.
The Parliamentary Secretary may say that the only thing to do is to provide more houses and that there is no short way out of this problem. If he says that, Sir Samuel, I hope he will have your tolerance so as to be able to tell us how he is to provide more houses. I do not want to get into difficulties with you by debating housing on this Schedule, but it is the responsibility of the Government to see that there is adequate provision of houses. They have no alibi. After eleven years the Government cannot fall back on an alibi and say this is not their fault. They have been able to do everything they wanted to do. They have been able to carry out their policy on housing and their policy on rent protection. They have been able to institute creeping decontrol to get a free market for housing. Everything that they said was an essential part of their policy they have had ample time to carry out.
Yet we are faced with a position which is getting increasingly worse on the question of furnished houses, which is all that I am allowed to discuss on this Amendment. I have quoted figures of the increase in the number of cases going to court. I have given illustrations of the kind of thing which anyone who has contacts in London and other great cities knows about. Social workers, probation officers and others in daily contact with the life of people in towns know very vividly that this kind of thing is a matter of everyday conversation. The Government cannot afford to be complacent about it and, as last year, not even trouble to reply to the debate.
501 I hope that before the debate ends the Parliamentary Secretary will make quite certain that he is to get a chance of making a full statement about the position. As I said, he has two speeches to make. He has to make the speech of the Minister of Public Building and Works, which no doubt is in his pocket, and which we should all like to hear—the speech to which we were all looking forward and were bitterly disappointed because we did not have it last year. I am sure that he is also most anxious to make his own speech. By the time he has delivered those two speeches, we should be able to resume the discussion with a little more information than we have now about what is happening.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl). This Act is, of course, not new. We debated it at almost the same time last year.
§ Mr. Loughlin
On a point of order. Just what does one have to do in these circumstances, Sir Samuel? I have been in the Chamber for a considerable time. Can you tell me why there is this discrimination in the choice of speakers?
§ The Temporary Chairman (Sir Samuel Storey)
It is entirely a matter of whoever catches the Chair's eye. I am not prepared to discuss the selection of speakers.
§ Mr. Mellish
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) will be called to speak in due course.
We discussed a similar Amendment last year and the arguments which we advanced then are as relevant today. I do not propose to go over the speech I made a year ago, but it is a sad story, when a Government are in power, with absolute control, and the problems raised a year ago are still the same today. It is a sad thought that, in spite of all the pressure put on by hon. Members, not only from London constituencies but from all over the country, the problem is still with us. It is deplorable. I recognise your difficulties, Sir Samuel, because we are restricted to debating only the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act, 1946.
I want to put a problem to the Minister which is symptomatic of the problem from which we suffer today, particuslarly 502 in London. In my constituency furnished accommodation is not very common. It is hardly used at all. There is a very simple reason, and I leave this as a thought for a Conservative Minister. We have what I think is a very progressive local authority. It is 100 per cent. Labour-controlled. We own two-thirds of our own borough, and nearly a half of the other one-third is owned by the London Council Council, which means that there is not very much left for private enterprise to exploit.
But in other areas, not far from where I live, this problem of furnished accommodation arises. We have heard about coloured people coming to this country and creating a housing problem. But if we make laws which encourage people to be exploited in housing, we deserve all the trouble we get in this respect.
There can be no doubt—everybody knows it—that in the question of furnished housing a monstrous racket is going on. To make a charge for furniture and fittings in so-called furnished accommodation is illegal. One is not supposed to charge extra money, say, for the curtains and other furniture and fittings in the accommodation. People are advised that if anybody asks them for money for this purpose they should report it. But because of the shortage of accommodation people are willing to pay the most fantastic amounts of money to get accommodation. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not say that he knows nothing about it. He knows, and his Department knows; or, if it does not know, he ought to sack the lot.
In the evening papers on can read advertisements stating a charge for furniture and fittings. It is illegal, but because the housing shortage is so acute and because people are in such a plight in their search for accommodation, they will pay almost anything for almost any rubbish. I do not want to be melodramatic or to overstate the case, but I know of instances in which, for curtains in the window and a couple of old battered chairs which one would not recognise as furniture, people have had to pay what is called key money of up to nearly £50. This is common.
We come back to the oldest argument we have in the House in housing debates—and I have taken part in many of 503 them: the tragedy is that hon. Members on the Government side do not see it in the way in which we see it. We do not suggest that we are much better as individuals because we approach the problem differently, or that all Tories are evil men, but will they try to look at the problem in this sense, that it is immoral for people to exploit others on the basis of rooms to let? We should not allow it in the hospital service, and yet housing is as much a social need as is the hospital service. People must have a roof over their heads.
I could refer to the homeless families, and, with respect, Sir Samuel, you would find it difficult to rule me out of order, because many of the homeless families are victims of the furnished rent accommodation problem. A survey of those who are homeless in London was conducted by an independent body established by the London County Council. Coincidental with the last debate on this subject we had an announcement from the Minister, "We cannot believe the figures for the homeless until this independent survey has reported". Since then it has reported, and the figures are alarming.
When considering the homeless families in London, one has to bear in mind that there is a percentage which is represented by problem families. No matter what the type of society in which we live—Communist-controlled, or Fascist-controlled, or any other form of control—there will always be problem families. That accounts for about 30 per cent. But there is also the percentage of people who are victims of the Rent Act. I know that it would be out of order for me to develop this point, but they are direct victims of the Government's policy of removing from rent control premises of over £40 rateable value and increasing the amount of decontrol.
In addition, we have the iniquitous position of the poor wretches who have occupied furnished accommodation and have gone to tribunals and objected to the rent which they were paying. As a consequence of their visit, the tribunal has been able to give them extra security of tenure of only three months. Lawyers will say, "They can go back and ask for more", but the ordinary person is not a lawyer, and he does not know all 504 these tricky parts of the Act. All he knows is that a very important tribunal has said, "The rent of £4 or £5 which you are paying is scandalous and monstrous for these two filthy, dingy, stinking little rooms. We therefore reduce it to 30s. a week, and we think that even that is too much. But we can give you only three months' security of tenure".
When the three months are ended they move out. Where do they go in this great capital city of ours? It is near Christmas again, and there is no room at the inn. That can be said to over 4,000 people today. The Government have been in power, with absolute control, and have been able to do what they want. This question of furnished accommodation links up with the Government's general attitude to housing, I say again that it is immoral for people to own property and to let it at exorbitant and inhuman rents and under conditions which are a menace to public health.
It is against that background that we say that this Act is not good enough. I certainly believe that the Act ought to be removed, for that is the whole purpose of discussing this Bill. But with what should it be replaced? We have to consider this problem in the light of the future. This Act does not attempt to deal with the situation. The Parliamentary Secretary knows that it is possible to drive a horse and cart through this Act day after day and that the so-called security of tenure is a myth, certainly in the great cities.
This is the irony of the situation, and here I speak as a born-and-bred Londoner. Every week 40 or 50 people come to see me to discuss housing, many of them in furnished accommodation, and they are not all my constituents. I was told by one of my hon. Friends who represents a constituency in the North that he has not had a housing case brought to his notice during the last three years. In his part of the country there is plenty of accommodation. The people have moved to cities like London. If people are compelled to come South because of Government policy, what can we do to meet the problem?
This silly little Act does not give security of tenure. It still allows the furniture and fittings racket. Let the Minister get his civil servants to supply 505 him with newspapers advertising accommodation. Let him go out and buy any of the popular papers which cater for the provision of accommodation. They actually use the phrase "F. & F. £25" and "F. & F. 50 guineas". It is all illegal, but under the Government's policy it is all right.
The bigger the profit one makes, the better Britisher one is. That is the basis of the argument. Housing has got into such a situation that it makes one ashamed to be British, and at times I feel thoroughly ashamed of being a Londoner. This is the wickedness of it. These people are the victims of a social policy—in this case, the furnished accommodation policy—and they are sent to hostels.
Those who come to the Lobby of this House, such as those who came here last night, protesting about homes and criticising the facilities provided by the local authorities, should remember this: where do these problems start? They should not only complain about the conditions in which they live. They should consider who put them into those conditions. Every county council has the task of trying to sort out the genuine problem of bringing up a family and who is the real victim of the legislation which we are discussing tonight.
I cannot talk about housing without a tremendous feeling of emotion. I know, Sir Samuel, that if I were to develop this argument much further, you would rule me out of order. But the great contribution of the Government to salving the problem is to bring in a Bill to smash up local authorities and to introduce an omnipotent Greater London Council which will be so remote that it will not even know where it is based.
The Tory Party always deals with these problems on the basis that somehow or other private enterprise knows best. If we accept that housing is a social need, and that it is the right of every man and his family to have a decent roof over their heads, we ought to introduce legislation to enable them to get it. It cannot be done by asking ordinary people to let property privately for rent on the basis of profit alone. It it as simple as that. Until this is dealt with, there will be nothing we can do. The real answer for the homeless and for everybody else in London and 506 throughout all our towns and cities is that, if they want a change of policy, they must get a change of Government. There must be a Government who will say that there are certain priorities in this Great Britain of ours, and housing is the first of them all.
It is my belief that the best landlord is the municipal housing authority, a landlord one can control and get at through the elected representatives. Whatever the difficulties, we must seek to implement that sort of policy, and I ask my party to go forward with it.
As for the Government's policy on furnished accommodation, it is all stuff and nonsense. One chair and one curtain up at the window are sufficient for a place to be called furnished. No respectable person would ever go into such places with such furniture unless he was compelled to do so because there was no room elsewhere.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I cannot quite understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said that we cannot discuss the proposed alteration in London Government. How will the new local authority in London apply the Act? The Act is applied by local authorities. One can ask that question straight away.
I was very glad that the direction of my hon. Friend's argument was different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) in his appraisal of the Act and what should be done about it. In moving the Amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes said that the Government ought to consider the Act as a piece of permanent legislation, adding that the Amendment was put down largely in order to find out how the Act was working and whether it was doing the job intended for it.
Whether we are considering the situation in London where the problem is acute or we are considering it in many other cities and towns, it is plain that the Act is utterly useless. It is hardly worth the paper it is written on. What we want is not an Act designed for the immediate post-war period, as this was, but an Act to protect tenants in furnished accommodation more in keeping with present-day conditions.
507 In reply to the previous Amendment which dealt with similar legislation in Scotland, the Under-Secretary of State told us how the rents fixed by the rent tribunals were arrived at. He said that various local conditions and the general level of rents for other accommodation in the area were taken into account. Let us consider for a moment the second of those criteria and relate it to London where, in recent years, the protection of the rent restriction Acts has been eliminated and rents for unfurnished properties have risen tremendously. In this way we put into clear focus the rents which are being charged for furnished accommodation.
Someone goes to the rent tribunal in London and says that he is occupying two or three rooms, with a shared bath—sometimes without a shared bath—for which he is being charged £2 or £3 a week. What is the position of the rent tribunal in such a case? When the tribunal goes to that accommodation and sees the two or three sparsely furnished rooms, as long as the furniture comes within the minimum requirement specified in the Act, then all is well. Landlords in London are charging fabulous prices for similar accommodation in which there is no furniture. Consequently, the tribunal is controlled to a large extent in fixing the rent of furnished accommodation by the charges made for unfurnished accommodation. It is no good talking about landlords charging excess rents for furnished accommodation when the rent tribunals are fixing the rents of furnished accommodation on the basis of the rents charged for unfurnished accommodation.
I want the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with this, because it is the kennel of the argument about the uselessness of this Act. If the tribunal fixes rents by comparison with similar furnished or unfurnished accommodation and there is freedom in the market for unfurnished accommodation, the tenant is bound to pay what the Government refer to as the market price, and the tribunal is compelled to fix grossly distorted rents for the most miserable hovels solely because it is controlled by the provisions of this Act to fix rents in accordance with local conditions.
508 The tribunal may have the greatest sympathy with the tenant who pleads with it and says that he is paying £2 or £3 for accommodation that is not worth 15s. If the tribunal knows that if the accommodation were unfurnished the landlord would be free to get any amount of money in rent for it, how can the tribunal fix a fair rent? In practice, the absence of rent restriction, particularly in London, has destroyed the validity of this Act.
The Parliamentary Secretary may claim that the Government desire to protect tenants, which no doubt is true, but I had to smile at the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, a very nice hon. Member, when he was speaking earlier. When he poses as one of the guardians of tenants and yet remains a member of this Government, it seems a little near the line to me.
Once the tribunal has fixed what it considers to be a fair rent, certain restrictions in Section 5 of the Act on the landlord giving notice to quit come into play. In the present housing situation, the obligatory notice on the landlord is quite insufficient. If there is a buyers' market in furnished accommodation and a tenant has the courage, which many tenants do not have, to go to the tribunal and the tribunal fixes a rent which it regards as being fair, bearing in mind what I have said about the limitations upon the tribunal in fixing the rent, because of the Section in the Act the landlord has the possibility of securing the accommodation after three months from the notice to quit. Even if the landlord waits for his three months, in a high percentage of cases tenants know on the day they return from the tribunal that they have three months in which to get out.
That is what the Act means. It means that anyone who wishes to challenge the landlord by going to the tribunal faces the three months' notice as the longest period. It means that by going to the tribunal, tenants serve upon themselves notice to quit of three months' duration. The Parliamentary Secretary nods his head. If the hon. Gentleman who, is a near neighbour of mine, wishes to correct this, it would be as well to do so now so that we do not go on debating it.
§ Mr. Loughlin
My hon. Friend asks, "Where are the Tories?" They are not interested in tenants of furnished lettings or tenants of any kind. I have no complaint with the Tories. I cannot understand my hon. Friends on this side who castigate the Government, because they are there to look after the landlords, in the context of this discussion at least.
Even when they impose upon themselves the three months' notice to quit, does anybody who knows anything about the relationship between landlords and tenants in this type of property not know the hell on earth that those tenants have to endure during that period?
There is more than one way of pushing a tenant out. If the tenant who has a wife and children finds when getting close to the point of leaving the accommodation that he must secure a method of retaining it if he possibly can, the landlord and tenant then get together and agree upon the market rent. Very often, the tenant is in a worse position than before he went to the tribunal.
I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) who opened this debate how many tribunals there were.
§ Mr. Loughlin
I take it that figure relates both to towns and, possibly, to a number in the City of London.
§ Mr. Loughlin
So that there are thirty-three outside London and seven in London. They do well to survive. This is an indication, perhaps, that in many parts of the country there has been a realisation of the futility of the tribunals.
I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with this question in a comparative sense. How many tribunals have existed over a period of time? How many exist today? Why, in the main, have the other tribunals ceased to exist? How many cases are heard before the respective tribunals? And, although I know this is imposing a good deal upon him, would he break down the figures between London and elsewhere?
I believe that this piece of legislation has outlived its usefulness. It is about time that we got down to the job of 510 framing legislation which meets the needs of the present time, but we shall not be able to do that unless the Government are themselves prepared to look at the whole question of tenancy agreements whether for furnished or unfurnished accommodation.
§ Mr. Richard Marsh (Greenwich)
I hope that the Act will not be continued without some argument, because this is an extremely important issue, the major problem which faces people all over the country, though particularly acutely in London. The Act and the regulations relating to furnished accommodation comprise the pivotal point of the whole problem, because it is precisely the failure to control the exorbitant rents which are being demanded for furnished accommodation, and the existing housing situation which leaves people with no alternative but to accept the accommodation, which are responsible for much of the difficulty which exists in this country at present.
I understand from the latest figures which I have been able to get this evening that the homeless in London number 4,085 at the present time, and the only reason why there are not more is that the London County Council's welfare service's are full up. The rest are sleeping on the Embankment or anywhere else they can find, and there is a waiting list of others to get inside the welfare services.
How does this arise? It arises primarily from the fact that over a period of years there has been an enormous shortage of living accommodation at reasonable rents, and people are forced into furnished accommodation, that being the only accommodation available because the letting of furnished accommodation is a highly profitable undertaking. So we have in a free economy a situation in which a number of people are forced to live in deplorable conditions, and a number of other people find that they can profit as a result of the plight of others. This is not true of every landlord, obviously. There are many landlords who are not subject to the Act anyhow because their rents are nominal because they have sympathy with people.
Mention was made of a report which was published a short time ago, the report of an independent inquiry into the 511 position in London. It deals with the homeless evicted from ordinary accommodation, and they fall into two groups. I want to deal with only one, the group of those evicted from private and usually furnished accommodation. That is the main group. The other group is of those evicted from borough council or London County Council property.
We have this situation under legislation which has allowed these circumstances although it was enacted presumably because it was thought unnecessary to give the tenants of furnished accommodation some protection. It is certainly the case, as some of us on this side of the Committee know, that the Act has failed to give that protection in any way at all. It does not give protection, as I shall attempt to show in a moment, because there cannot be protection if rents for furnished accommodation are not controlled. Everyone knows the position. A tenant may go to the landlord of furnished accommodation and demand a decreased rent, and if the tenant gets into difficulties with the rent he may go to a tribunal, and the tribunal may think the tenant is fully justified and that the rent is outrageous, but we all know that the tenant is removed in due course when the period of protection runs out. This report states that in the case of one of the people evicted from furnished accommodation attempts were made to intervene with the landlord to exert influence on relatives if there was time before the family was evicted. Following these measures which are not often successful, the procedure is described for families not evicted. The report shows quite clearly that not only are these people a major and pressing problem within the housing problem but that it is not possible to provide any real protection for them within the terms of the Act.
The report on page 60 goes on to describe the accommodation of the homeless families in London—4,085 of them at the present time—families broken up, children in children's homes, fathers sleeping in doss-houses or anywhere else where they can get in. There are 4,085 people even in this Christian country and we have not the guts to solve this problem of leaving people to sleep on the Embankment.
The report describes that the majority of the families come from furnished 512 accommodation. Quite clearly and without any qualification it states thatThe majority of the families came from furnished accommodation, and a high proportion of them had been living in one room."—and this is the Act which we are asked to continue for a further period.Several did not have access to a kitchen, and 50 per cent. had not the use of a bathroom.This is in London in 1962, and they are charged exorbitant rents.
§ Mr. Corfield
The hon. Gentleman is quoting figures to show that these persons came from furnished accommodation and that some had no baths. He has not related the rents to the accommodation to show that in fact they were exorbitant.
§ Mr. Marsh
I was assuming that any Minister responsible for the housing of the people of this country would regard bathing facilities as something which one would normally have and that one did not pay an exorbitant rent to get a bathroom in 1962. In the greatest metropolis of the world, people are entitled to expect to have living accommodation with use of bathrooms. There are children living in this accommodation. I think that the hon. Gentleman would regard accommodation without a bathroom for his family as not reasonable accommodation, and so would I.
§ Mr. Marsh
And so was I. But both of us got out of it as soon as we could. I am sure that when the hon. Gentleman sits back with nostalgic memories of the past he does not think about the lack of a bathroom, but surely we would agree that in modern accommodation we ought not to regard a bathroom as something that is exceptional, except hon. Members opposite who have the responsibility of the housing of these people, God help them. Here, despite this Act which we are asked to continue, 50 per cent. of these homeless families do not have the use of a bathroom, let alone a bathroom of their own. The report states:Many describe their old homes as damp, ill-furnished, shabby and overcrowded, and a considerable number compared their present welfare accommodation favourably with their old addresses.513 These are the people who are subject to this legislation and who have been living in furnished accommodation. They are the people whom this legislation could not protect from eviction. They found themselves in the converted workhouses with which the London County Council is saddled, because it has not the facilities to build new ones, and these people, when interviewed by welfare workers, said that the accommodation that they had there in Newington Lodge, Lux-borough Lodge and other places that we have seen—if the hon. Gentleman has not seen them, he should pay them a visit—was superior to the accommodation which they had previously, and which was perfectly acceptable to the House of Commons. We cannot dodge our responsibility. We passed the Act, and are responsible for the accommodation which will escape through it.
Let us look a little further. Some of the people in this appalling accommodation felt that the rent was exorbitant. We can argue whether or not it was, but they thought it was. So, as they had a perfect right to do, they took action under the procedure which Parliament had laid down for them. Some of the more rabidly revolutionary of them thought that they ought at least to be able to borrow somebody's bathroom occasionally. Some of them thought that £4, £5 or £6 a week was a bit much to pay for bug-infested rooms with paint peeling off the walls. They thought that Parliament must protect them as it had laid down the legislation. The report says:In several cases families had been to the rent tribunals and won a reduction in rent, only to be given immediate notice".That is the farcical situation, and we have continued it too long. This procedure gives these people no protection at all. We ought to face up not to varying points of view about whether legislation is good or bad, not to party points about whether one party built more houses one year and another more houses another year, but to what the effect of this legislation is on our people now.
The case is quoted of a Mrs. B., aged 27, who had been married four years and had three children. Her husband earned about £10 a week assembling radio parts in a factory. The couple lived first in furnished rooms, and they 514 were forced to leave them because the public health inspector declared that the property was over-crowded. They then moved—it was all they could obtain—to a single furnished room, which they occupied for three years—this is for a married couple with three children: it is not a matter of opinion; this is a statement from an independent report—until they were given a month's notice when the owner decided to sell the property. They paid £2 15s. a week for the room and a small kitchen, and they had the use of a bathroom. Thus, they were doing better than the hon. Gentleman in his halcyon past. The gas and electricity bills had also to be paid. The room was described as, "… not very nice, and they suspected that it was infested." This is a description of the sort of accommodation which people occupy under this legislation which we are asked to continue so that it may go on permitting conditions like these.
There was very little furniture, and so these people had bought some of their own. After receiving notice, the couple attempted to find another place. They registered with several agents, and offered £50 which they had saved as a premium. This is the problem. It is a completely vicious circle, and it cannot be dealt with in isolation from the general position.
I am very glad to notice that the Minister of Public Building and Works has just arrived to give us his moral support.
§ Mr. Marsh
The right hon. Gentleman has always been violently opposed to sin and in favour of more accommodation. That has not affected the housing figures particularly; his heart is in the right place, but nothing has come of it.
The problem is that these people, flaying got into furnished accommodation, cannot get out of it, and because of that, they must have real protection against having to live in deplorable conditions. We are told that it is up to the local authorities to rehouse these people. Indeed, for many of them council accommodation is the only possible escape. Local authorities do what they 515 can. But in Greenwich, for instance, we have very fashionable, expensive areas. In Blackheath, for instance, there are plenty of flats available, but it is very difficult for the people we are talking about to live there. Indeed, it would be difficult for many hon. Members to live there, although we hope that the Prime Minister may soon enable us to afford better accommodation.
The Greenwich Borough Council owns 4,225 properties. Before the war the total was 1,470. It has virtually trebled its building rate and has a good record for municipal housing. But on 23rd November there were 1,647 people on the housing list, a very large number of whom are living in furnished accommodation, while 36 per cent. of those on the list are in housing which is so poor that they are listed as having a basic need. In the last six months we have seen 294 more applications added to the housing list.
This position is duplicated throughout the country, certainly in London. The local authorities cannot meet these problems now and cannot provide the outlets, so that these people are the prisoners of furnished accommodation. The problem exists for a variety of reasons. It is said that we should charge economic rents for our properties.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Mellish
One of the problems in London is that if a local authority gives priority to a very bad case of homelessness, there is a tremendous storm from those who are on the housing list and have been perhaps for eight, nine or ten years. They feel that preference has been given to those whom they call "outside" people. This is a big heartache to solve.
§ Mr. Marsh
I am glad my hon. Friend raised that point. One of the heartrending experiences which we all have is that of a family evicted and having nowhere to go. We go to the London County Council or the local council and say, "You must give this family a house." They reply, "How can we when we have between 1,500 and 2,000 people on our waiting list already?"
§ Mr. Marsh
In Greenwich the position is quite bad enough for us. The fact is that if the local authority does provide a home for an evicted family it makes a loophole in its housing system.
Why is it that, try as they may, the local authorities cannot meet the needs of the people covered by this Act? It is because the present system does not allow them to do so. For example, in Greenwich there is a group of bed-sitting rooms in Gloucester Circus, a very attractive part of the town. The cost per acre of the land to the council was £17,977. The cost per bed-sitting room which the council built was £1,960.
§ Mr. Marsh
My hon. Friend asks what the cost will be when we finish paying it. I took the trouble to get an estimate. Taking the unit costs with loan charges, the ultimate cost of these single bed-sitting rooms will be £7,262—£7,262 for a single room. Clearly, no local authority can provide alternative accommodation at prices at that level. It is not feasible for bed-sitters costing ratepayers £7,262 a room to be provided. Does the Parliamentary Secretary seriously believe that the sort of people who take bed-sitters from local authorities are the sort of people who can pay an economic rent based on more than £7,000 a room?
§ The Chairman
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), but we are discussing whether to continue the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act, 1946, and they are houses owned by private landlords.
§ Mr. Marsh
It is my submission that the continuance of this legislation is both unnecessary and farcical because it does not fulfil its function. One of the reasons it does not do so and one of the reasons why there is a need for different legislation is precisely that alternatives to the present position with furnished accommodation do not and cannot exist.
I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will accept that at lower income levels there is virtually no unfurnished accommodation available. There is the odd "mum" who lets a couple of rooms, but virtually there is no unfurnished 517 accommodation at this financial level. Therefore, people in furnished accommodation are faced with only two alternatives. One is municipal accommodation, which I suggest cannot be provided in existing circumstances. The second is private home ownership. I will leave it there, because I do not want to trespass too far.
Furnished accommodation cannot be considered in isolation from the factors which surround housing and which produce the worst excesses of furnished accommodation. In some parts of the Commonwealth there are people who live in furnished accommodation from choice, for a whole variety of reasons. They do not need the same degree of protective legislation, because the free flow of the market controls the situation. But there is no free flow of the market in this country and unless our people get the protection of Parliament they are subject to whatever iniquities bad landlords want to visit upon them, and I do not suggest that all landlords are bad.
One of the things which makes it so serious is the fact that we must now accept that it is no good telling these people that they must wait for local authority accommodation, because in my view—and I express a personal opinion—some of them in London have no hope of ever getting local authority accommodation, and some of them are living in squalid conditions and with young families.
There is another side to this. The Act cannot give real control of rents precisely because it cannot give real security of tenure. It is impossible for these people to purchase their accommodation. If these people were able to get out of furnished accommodation in any way, for any reason, the problem would not be as serious, and this legislation would not be as essential as it is, but this is not the case. This independent report which was provided for the London County Council at its request provides ample evidence of the fact that if a tenant takes up his rights against a bad landlord—and it is the bad landlord against whom a tenant normally wishes to appeal—the landlord can eventually remove him from the accommodation. He can do this in a variety of ways.
518 There are many examples of how this can be done. The report says:Far too many families had accepted notice of a week or less without dispute …Of course, many of these people do not read contracts. Many of them do not know what is in this Act which we are proposing to continue. In fact, I venture to suggest that there are a number of hon. Members who do not know what is in this Act, and many hon. Gentlemen opposite have not even turned up to find out. The people about whom we are talking cannot be expected to know exactly what their entitlements are under an Act of Parliament, and so many of them are got out of their accommodation by sheer fraud.
The report says:Far too many families had accepted notice of a week or less without dispute, and some who attempted to keep their landlord to his agreement about rent or repairs claimed to have been subjected to virtual terrorism.This is an academic report produced by an independent body of university graduates. This is the situation which these people face when they try to get some control on the rents they are charged.
If, as I believe is the case, these people are charged exorbitant rents and there is nothing that they can do about it in terms of going to rent tribunals, and if rent tribunals really are a monument to good intentions and a sop to our consciences rather than something which fulfils a useful purpose, what is the alternative?
Some of these people are paying rents of between £3 10s. and £5 a week. It is possible to pay more for furnished accommodation, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said, everyone knows that every day of the week furniture and fittings are sold with furnished accommodation. We all know of the tenant Who says that when she took over the property she paid £50 to the landlord but did not get a receipt because he said, "Surely we can be friends together, and in any case, love, it is illegal, but if you do not pay £50 you will not get the flat". We know that this is happening all the time and that these people have to pay these high rents.
It may be asked why they do not buy houses. Again, if they were able to do 519 so it would solve the problem and would give them a way out. It is suggested that they can do this, and that they are not prisoners of furnished accommodation, because if they were thrifty they could buy their own houses and become part of the property-owning democracy. I do not want to develop this point, if for no other reason, Sir William, than that you would not allow me to do so, but I think that economically the concept of private owner occupation is accepted rather too quickly. It is not the best way of dealing with a housing problem, nor is it the ideal way of housing the population, for a variety of reasons.
My local authority gives people loans to buy private accommodation to help them get out of furnished accommodation. That is the only thing we can do. When a person comes to my "surgery" on Friday night and says, "I have three children and I am being evicted by my landlord", I ask whether it is furnished or unfurnished. When he tells me that it is furnished I say. "There is nothing much you can do about it". He then asks "What am I going to do?" and I reply that the only thing he can really do is to buy a house, and I send him to the Greenwich Borough Council to get a loan so that he can buy one.
If we take a house at £3,000—and we will not get much in Greenwich for £3,000—and at its 100 per cent. valuation, which would amount to about £2,600, and grant a mortgage advance of 100 per cent., it amounts to £2,600 over twenty-five years, at 6⅜ per cent., making the annual repayment £209, or about £4 a week. That is not so bad, because many people pay that much in rent and would only be transferring one high weekly payment for another. For a nation in which the average wage at present is about £16 a week a man with a couple of children would not find £4 too easy to find each week.
But this is not the crux of the problem. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the difference between the purchase price and the advance is about £400. The legal fees and expenses will be £120, so that the total outlay in cash which the man will have to put down is £520. Can a young couple with two children, earning an average wage, and paying £4 a week in furnished accommodation, 520 save £520, without allowing for curtains, floor coverings or any of the other necessary factors? The moneylenders do not do too badly. Working on the same basis over a period of twenty-five years the couple will eventually own their £3,000 house, if they are lucky enough to get the money for the initial payment first, except that they will have paid for that house a total of £5,745.
I would have liked to talk widely on the subject of housing because it is an important subject, and it is a great pity that we do not have an opportunity of dealing with it more widely on these occasions. But we have to face the situation which now exists. This Act does not fulfil its function. Leaving aside all the arguments that go backwards and forwards between the two sides of the Committee, for whatever reason it may be—and I believe that it is because of the total incompetence of hon. Members opposite, although I would not expect unanimous agreement from them on that—it is not possible for any Government to solve the present housing problem within a period of two, three, four or even five years. We must accept that fact.
There are many things that might be done. The most important factor of accommodation that these people want—and that is why they sometimes live in hug-infested places, and pay these exorbitantly high rents, and are prepared to live in one room—is a front door of their own. I cannot help wondering whether we have not reached the stage where we cannot continue the standards of housing accommodation which we have set down in recent years. This is a purely personal point of view. To many of these people a prefab would be a palace, but we are pulling them down all over London. Ideally it would be nice to have three bedrooms, a kitchenette, a bathroom, fifty feet of garden and a cat to put out at night, but as an alternative anything with four walls, some privacy and a reasonable rent, which gives some prospect for the future, is an advance on the present situation. I cannot develop that argument now.
Because the situation has become so serious—and I think that the fault lies with hon. Members opposite—this legislation has become that much more important. Furnished accommodation now 521 is not something that affects merely a small group of people. I do not know how many people are now living in furnished accommodation—I doubt whether figures are available—but it has become part of the weary and horrible road that ordinary, decent people have to travel for two or three years before they can get decent accommodation. No matter what else we try to do, the House has a responsibility to give those people some protection while they are in that property.
The protection they need is quite clear. They must have virtually absolute protection of tenancy, unless the landlord can find a very good reason for removing them. They must have a controlled rent which must be reasonable.
Above all, there must be alternatives for these people in order that they do not have to stay in furnished accommodation, or so that the pressure on furnished accommodation is lessened to some extent. In Greenwich we bought a patch of land in Shooters Hill Road. It is a well-known area, Dick Turpin used to ride there, but now it is occupied by private landowners. We had to pay £33,071 an acre for it. One cannot build on land at that price. Unless the Government are prepared to do something about land prices in London and in the country—by public ownership of urban land, I should have thought, or the control of it—
§ The Chairman
Order. The hon. Member is going further than he is entitled to in this quite restricted debate.
§ Mr. Marsh
I was merely trying to make the point, I will not pursue it, that the Government have to do certain things in addition to just calmly continuing this legislation for another year. They have to give these people some hope.
As we are having this chat about whether we shall continue this legislation for another twelve months, in this Metropolis there are over 4,000 people living in converted workhouses; and an unknown number sitting in furnished accommodation quite terrified because of a lack of security and miserable because of the break-up of their families 522 and homes. They are fully aware that this Committee by the legislation it seeks to continue can offer them neither hope nor protection.
§ Mrs. Slater
After the speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) and Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), the Committee ought to be convinced of the need to reconsider how far this sort of legislation protects the people it was designed to protect. Both my hon. Friends have related the problem mainly to London and everyone knows about the shocking situation in which thousands of people have to live in London. Terrible furnished accommodation is available for them. But when they become homeless they have to go to rest centres and the old workhouse type of accommodation. As the problem grows in an area like London even that kind of accommodation is less available.
But the problem does not relate only to London. A similar situation is arising in other cities. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) spoke of tribunals trying to fix reasonable rents for furnished accommodation. The basis on which the tribunals attempt to do this is the type of rents available in the areas concerned. In London, because of the rent legislation, rents are high by reason of the valuations. Next year every city in the country will be affected by the rating and revaluation measures which will come into operation and immediately the value of rents will rise. That is inevitable and tribunals will be forced to fix rents according to average rents based on the new valuation.
The terrible problem which exists in London will be faced by people in all parts of the country. As a woman I may be able to understand more easily than some men the situation of many people living in furnished accommodation with no bathrooms. I thought it a rather heartless intervention by the Parliamentary Secretary when he said that he had been brought up as a child in a house where there was no bath. Large numbers of us were, but surely values have changed since we were children. We have been educated to desire something better. We ought to expect to give it to everyone else.
523 I find the Government very heartless on the question of the provision of bathrooms, not only in furnished accommodation, but in ordinary houses owned by landlords. Just imagine the position of a woman with two or three children living in furnished rooms, or perhaps only one room. This happens not only in London. In my constituency a woman with three children is living in one room and there are other families in the same house. She not only has no bathroom, but shares a lavatory with the rest of the people in the house. Because of the narrowness of the room in which she lives, the bed has to be tucked away behind a curtain and she has to do all her cooking on a little grill. The children have to sleep in the same bed with her.
What chance has she of providing decent conditions in which to rear her family? Absolutely none. The children are growing and this is a family comprising members of both sexes. Surely that woman should be able to expect better conditions. In an area where rents, compared with those in London and elsewhere, are low, she is paying £2 10s. a week for that room, and she is a working widow. What hope would she have even if she went to a tribunal? The tribunal might say that the room is worth £2 a week and fix it at that. In three months' time she would be out and before that three months were up her life would be made full of misery.
It is already miserable because she is living in rotten conditions and cannot wash and bath her children properly, or even cook a decent meal. What would it be like for her until the tribunal dealt with the case? It would be almost completely unbearable. Every Monday they would be on her track and little notes would be pushed under the door saying, "When are you going to get out?" The time would come when, if she did not go of her own accord, the bailiffs would arrive and put her out. What is she to do then, unless the local authority can provide her with a house?
We have hundreds and thousands of people on the waiting list. What would happen on the Saturday when she was given a house? Many people who had been on the list for a long time would come to me and say, "Mrs. So-and-so 524 has got a house and she has not been on the list as long as I have." In such a case those people are disgruntled and the local authority is put in an invidious position. What is the alternative if she does not get a house? It is the workhouse. We do not call it a workhouse now, because our sense of values has changed a little since the days of Dickens. We call it a welfare home, but it is the same place and has the same taint as it had in the days of Dickens.
Her children might be taken from her and put into care. What does it cost to get them put into care? The local authority is caught on every side, because it costs so much to build alternative accommodation. Children and others have to be cared for and a terrific price has to be paid to show them some kindliness and give them cleanliness and decent accommodation in which children can be reared. Many of the people who live in furnished accommodation dare not go to the tribunal.
§ It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.
§ Committee report Progress.