HC Deb 30 June 1965 vol 715 cc647-52

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Allason

I beg to move Amendment No. 16, in page 9, line 20, to leave out "fourteen" and to insert "twenty-eight".

This refers to the terrible offence of a landlord without excuse failing to supply within 14 days particulars of rent of the last regulated tenancy. The most appalling penalties are imposed for this dreadful offence. I agree that in certain circumstances the offence could be dreadful, but a requirement that the particulars must be supplied within 14 days can be a very stiff requirement for the innocent landlord.

In Committee, I gave at least one example of a case where the tenant would be entitled to demand information on this and where the information that he received would be entirely irrelevant. The landlord would be forced to give it, but probably at the same time would point out that it did not make any difference to the situation, as it was irrelevant. Nevertheless, only 14 days are allowed. This seems to be a very short time. However, it is in line with the way the Bill was originally drafted, because all the periods were set extremely tight.

In Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary was good enough to give me the first breach of the very rigid timing by allowing an increase from 14 days to 28 days on an Amendment I moved. In consequence, the Government are considering further amendment to the timetable. I therefore hope that the Government will agree that 14 days is rather tight timing for the landlord, especially when he may well have to carry out considerable investigations before he can give the answer.

The Attorney-General

Our object in prescribing 14 days was to ensure that the landlord replied quickly to any request from the tenant for information about the rent ceiling when no rent for the dwelling had been registered. The House might care to know that the offence which is created by the Clause has a counterpart in Section 11 of the Rent Act, 1920. That provided that the landlord, on being requested by the tenant, should on pain of penalty supply him within 14 days with a statement of the standard rent of the dwelling-house.

We felt that it seemed reasonable to follow in this respect a provision which had been on the Statute Book for about 37 years. In the meantime, there has been the widespread extension and use of the telephone service and one would have thought that the landlord's difficulties in getting information would be likely to be rather less than they were in 1920.

I confess that I am not very impressed with the reasons which have been advanced in support of the proposition that the landlord is in difficulty in obtaining the necessary information in 14 days. However, let the spirit of compromise reign. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would be disposed to split the difference and say 21 days. If so, I will undertake to ensure that that compromise is put into effect in another place.

Mr. Allason

In view of that very reasonable spirit of compromise, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. MacColl

I beg to move Amendment No. 17, in page 9, line 22, to leave out from "exceeding" to the end of line 24 and to insert: fifty pounds and, on a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds". The short point here is that the Amendment will remove the penalty of imprisonment which the Clause at the moment attaches to this offence. This point was discussed in Committee. We recognised that there was a considerable difference between the kind of offence which arises out of harassment and this kind of offence, which is concerned merely with failure to supply information. We agreed to consider the point.

The Amendment deletes the penalty of a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months but increases the fine for a first offence to £50, which is a recognition of the increased cost of living. For a second offence we propose a fine not exceeding £100, because we want to make it clear that the habitual forestaller should be subject to severe penalties, because he can use that to frustrate the finding out of information.

I hope that the Amendment will commend itself to the House as being an improvement to the Clause.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

With this Amendment I would remind the House that we are taking the not dissimilar Amendment No. 18, in line 23, leave out from "bounds" to end of line 24.

Mr. Costain

I beg to move Amendment No. 18—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We sometimes consider one Amendment with another, but only one Amendment is ever before the House formally. The hon. Gentleman may speak to his Amendment, but he cannot move it.

Mr. Costain

When I spoke yesterday, when the atmosphere was not quite as cool as it is today and when the same spirit of compromise did not reign, I made some reference to the good work which my colleagues had done in taming the Bill in Committee. I had in mind this Clause, because it seems intolerable that there should be a term of imprisonment for a simple offence. When the Minister had this in mind in his early days in the Ministry, I am sure that he had taken account of the Rachman type of landlord and, when the Parliamentary draftsman asked, "What sort of penalty should be imposed upon the landlord?", the Minister immediately said, "Put him in gaol."

We have the extraordinary position that a person in this country should be sent to goal for three months simply because he has not produced the necessary forms. We know the Government are very fond of forms, and I congratulate them that they have now relented and brought this provision back to reasonable proportions.

Our reason for putting down the Amendment is to leave the penalty as it was in the past. There has been some hint that the penalty has been increased because of the fear of inflation under this Socialist Government. We on this side are greatly concerned about this, but I I hope that they have more faith in their own administration than to feel that the penalty should be increased to cover the cost of inflation.

I cannot move our Amendment, but I suggest that if the Minister in his compromising manner would accept it instead of his own, it would abolish the gaol sentence but put the penalties back to what they were, because the existing penalties are quite adequate for what is generally regarded as being a technical offence.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

At present, those who are concerned, with the Home Secretary, with the question of sentencing and keeping our prisons free from a mass of civil debtors, alcoholics and other people of that kind who are from time to time sentenced to terms of imprisonment, will find it most unwelcome if elderly landladies who have failed to supply statements of what are appropriate rents are to join the other throng and inhabit Her Majesty's prisons. At present, the whole move is to get away from short sentences of imprisonment of any kind; and, certainly, they should not be used for what are purely civil matters.

One can only get an effective deterrent by hitting the landlord in the pocket, rather than seeking to deprive him of his livelihood and sending him to prison. I hope that these additional words will underline the fact that we should not consider at all applying sentences of imprisonment for this class of offence, if offence it is, or any other similar class of offence. One will not deal with the really evil cases of what has been called Rachmanism by sending such a person to prison. The type of person who engages in a practice of this kind is he who seeks to make a profit. The thing to do is to remove his profit and see that he stands to make a loss.

If that is followed as a general principle, I believe it will be a wise principle to follow, and I hope that the Attorney-General, who I am glad to see in his place, would agree with that as a general principle and would share the view that it is by way of a fine and not by way of imprisonment, that not only this offence but all other offences under the provisions of the Bill should be dealt with.

I must say that I share the view expressed by hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) because this provision would be putting the pimp, the importuner and the person who lives on immoral earnings in exactly the same bracket as the elderly landlady who, through muddle and confusion, fails to provide an accurate statement of rent. When one sees that, one realises how preposterous the Bill was in its original state. I am glad that on this matter it is my hon. Friends who have been guardians of the liberty of the subject.

The Attorney-General

I doubt whether I would be in order in following the interesting observations of the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) on penal policy and the problem of the short term of imprisonment. If it was in order for me to do so, I would be inclined to agree with what he said about the latter, but he will be aware that the Government Amendment achieves, in this instance at any rate, the purpose he finds so laudable. It eliminates imprisonment as the punishment and substitutes a maximum fine of £50 for the first offence and £100 for the second.

I can certainly give no assurance that throughout the whole range of the Bill the penalties of imprisonment will be excluded. Before very long we shall come to Clauses 25 and 26, and it may be that when we come to true Rachmanism and harassment and unlawful eviction I shall have the hon. Gentleman with me in saying that the deprivation of liberty is certainly the appropriate penalty for scoundrels who engage in practices of that kind.

We on this side feel that a maximum fine of £20 would be unlikely to deter the type of bad landlord whom we are getting at in this part of the Bill. His purpose would be to recover from the tenant more than the maximum rent permitted under the Bill, and he could achieve a considerable financial advantage. Accordingly, we feel that a maximum fine of £50 for the first offence and £100 for the second offence is not excessive.

As for the absent-minded lady who commits an offence of this kind, there is no doubt whatever that if she came before a court and, verily was merely absentminded and not an exploiting woman who was seeking to bleed her tenants, the magistrates, in their mercy, would deal with the matter either by an unconditional discharge or a minimal penalty.

Accordingly, I submit that the Government's proposals are, in the circumstances, reasonable.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It is agreeable that both sides of the House now take the view that imprisonment is an inappropriate penalty for this offence, and we concur, as the two Amendments on the Notice Paper do, in the main purpose of taking that sanction out of the Bill. The only difference that arises between us is on the quantum of the fine. I do not think that is a matter which need detain us very long, because it is a maximum fine and magistrates will no doubt exercise sense and discretion in the amount they impose.

I was intrigued by what the Parliamentary Secretary said when he referred to the increase in the provisions of the fine being connected with the development of inflation. It is rather interesting to note that when the Bill was introduced, towards the end of March, £20 was thought to be a sufficient fine whereas, for a first offence, at the end of June, £50 is regarded as the appropriate figure. Even for a Government whose economic policy is guided by the First Secretary of State, that is indeed galloping inflation.

Amendment agreed to.