HC Deb 24 February 1966 vol 725 cc749-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

9.49 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

The Minister of Housing, with the assistance of his officials, has been good enough to let me see a summary of all the rent cases which have so far been submitted to the rent officers, and this summary shows that 4,422 applications, all in Greater London, have been made up to 19th February. Of these, 363 have already been determined; 262 have resulted in rent reductions—62 in rent increases and 39 in no change.

So far so good. But of even greater interest and importance are the amounts by which the rents have been reduced. I have been doing my own survey and have spent several days recently on the telephone with rent officers in many boroughs throughout the area. This survey shows quite exciting results of the application of the Rent Act, 1965. These early figures are significant, since they have been fixed with particular care, and will probably set the pattern for hundreds of thousands of cases in the near future. Just as the declarations of the first results in a General Election are watched with particular interest, because they indicate what will follow, I think that the declaration of these first results of the Rent Act should be watched with equal interest.

Outside London the rent officers have not yet reached any decisions. In some areas, indeed, they have still to be appointed. Since existing rents are so much lower in the Provinces—and rightly so—than in the Metropolis, it is reasonable to expect that when they do get to work the new rents fixed in the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends outside London will similarly be far less than the new rents fixed in London.

Here are some typical rent reductions agreed to by the landlord and tenant concerned, and registered by the rent officer, which means that they hold good for the next three years. I understand that only a handful—possibly the Minister will be able to give the figure—have been sent to the rent assessment committees owing to the failure of the landlord and tenant to agree. I am told by rent officers that many landlords are proving co-operative. Sometimes the landlord concedes right away and amicable agreements are being reached. All of this suggests that the landlords themselves do not think that the reductions are unreasonable, or, otherwise, a much higher proportion would have been taken to the rent assessment committees.

In area A, a famous East End borough I do not want to mention names, because that would involve the rent officers concerned—a typical dwelling is the half house. This is one in a long row of terrace houses, mostly shared by two families, with three rooms and a kitchen downstairs and three rooms and a kitchen upstairs, but with no bath and with a shared W.C. at the bottom of the yard. I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister knows the cases very well. In these cases some tenants who were paying 5 guineas a week, including 9s. rates, have had the rents cut to £2 3s. a week, inclusive of rates. That is a decrease of £3 2s. a week. These are actual figures; I am not speaking off the cuff.

Whilst these families will, I am sure, welcome these cuts and indeed bless the name of the Minister of Housing and the Rent Act, 1965, I think we should pause before throwing our hats too high in the air. For the controlled rent of such dwellings, which is still being paid by thousands of families, and, indeed, was being paid in these very dwellings till the Tory 1957 Rent Act hit them with "creeping decontrol", because of a change of tenant, is only £1 3s. inclusive.

This, I think, is all that they are intrinsically worth. It is mainly the great demand for housing which has enhanced their value, even though the rent officers, in accordance with the Act, have tried to ignore this factor. As a result, a rent far above the previous controlled rent has been registered. In this same borough, one house has been reduced from £5 14s. a week inclusive to £2 3s. inclusive, a reduction of £3 11s.—something certainly not to be sneezed at.

In area B, in Inner London, where about 30 cases have so far been registered—that is to say, settled—the rent officer has summarised the reductions. The average rent reduction is 33 per cent. of the previous rent. Here there are two predominant types of house. First, there are the tenement blocks, 100 years or more old, with draughty, exposed staircases, two rooms, a shared sink and a W.C. on the landing serving four flats. The rent of one of these typical dwellings has just been reduced from £2 13s. 10d., including 8s. rates, to £1 13s. inclusive. Once again, however, it should be stressed that the controlled rent was only £1 0s. 3d. inclusive.

The second predominant type in this great working-class area is that of terrace houses, which are, again, anything up to 100 years old, with a basement and one, two or three floors. The houses today are nearly all multi-family, let off in four separate homes. In one case, the rent for four rooms—two of them unusually small—with a water heater in the kitchen and a shared w.c, has been reduced from £4 10s. plus rates, to £3 plus rates. The controlled rent was £1 5s.

In another dwelling of three rooms, kitchen, a shared w.c., and bath in the kitchen, agreement has been reached on a rent reduced from £4 4s. 10d. plus rates, to £1 17s. 6d. plus rates—a pretty valuable reduction. However, the former controlled rent was only 17s. 3d. plus rates. In area C, in which it happens that I have digs, and again in Inner London, the flats are more recently built. One built in 1930, with three rooms and toilet has been reduced from £6 plus rates to £4 5s. plus rates.

In area D—this is East London again—for a typical two-roomed flat, plus own bath and w.c., for which the tenant was paying £3 10s. 3d. plus 12s. 4d. rates, the rent has been registered by agreement at £2 7s. 8d. plus rates. The controlled rent was £1 3s. plus rates.

In another part of the borough where the houses are mostly occupied by three families, each living in two rooms, the rent officer gave me examples of £1 15s. on one flat and 19s. 5d. on another. He said that the average was a decrease of about £1 a week. He had just recently registered a rent for each of ten identical homes—each of two rooms of very poor type, without bathroom, and lavatory shared. The landlord charged £4 5s. a week, including 5s. a week rates. The new rent registered for each of these ten houses in £2 5s. including rates. The controlled rent was £1 11s. inclusive.

There is so much I want to say that I will forbear from giving examples of typical rents fixed in other boroughs, but from the figures so far given—and the others bear them out—a general picture begins to emerge. It is a picture of ex-horbitant rents of £4 10s. for old and unsatisfactory homes being roughly halved to £2 5s., and this in turn, being about twice the original controlled rent of £1 5s. Of course I am not suggesting that this formula is the one on which rent officers—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, the Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[The Attorney-General.]

Mr. Allaun

I was not suggesting that this formula is the one on which rent officers work. I shall come to their methods in a moment. I merely say that this is how things are tending to work out. Naturally there are many exceptions depending on the character, condition and locality of the dwelling. In one two-bed-roomed house of 700 sq. ft.—quite a large one—the landlord had spent £900 on a complete conversion, removing an interior wall, putting in a bath, heater and so on. Here the reduction was only 5s., to a registered rent of £4 5s. In another conversion job where the landlord showed that he had spent £370, a two bedroom flat with a rateable value of £90, the former rent of £2 12s. 11d. plus rates, became £2 4s. plus rates.

The interesting point is that, so far, tenants have been slow in taking their cases to rent officers. As the Minister told me, only 4,422 in the whole of London have done so. As one rent officer put it, "I am surprised that we have not had a great many more. We have had about 200 in this area up to date and they are keeping us busy. But it is only a small part of the potential number."

I asked him why this was so and he replied, "The same thing happened with the furnished rent tribunals years ago. People are reluctant to come to officials or to do anything that smells of the courts." I repeat this with due respect to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

Perhaps they may not realise how sweet the smell can be.

Mr. Allaun

It seems to me that they are getting the sweet results in these cases without going to the courts. Secondly," the rent officer said, "the public have not got round to it yet. They do not know of their right to get a fair rent. While there has been some national publicity about the Act, most people know little about it." He added, "I think many landlords are forestalling rent officers, going privately to their tenants and offering them rent reductions. I suspect that many tenants who are being offered reductions say to themselves, ' Well maybe, I could get a bit more if I went to the rent officer, but let us accept what is being offered and avoid any trouble.' Another rent officer stated that he thought that what was holding tenants back was fear of losing security of tenure. I do not need to say that they cannot be evicted without a court order. That is the virtue of the Rent Act, and the court certainly will not evict just because they have referred their case to the rent officer. For others there is the fear of heavy legal costs which is retarding applications. This too is a completely unfounded fear.

My own view is that tenants have been holding back to see what happened. There may be little doubt that in the next few weeks the news of these rent reductions will spread like wildfire. I am expecting, indeed, hoping, that thousands of families who are paying through the nose for rotten accommodation will bung in their applications right away. My advice to them is to do precisely that. Indeed, this is the main aim of my speech tonight.

The Rent Act is a serious attempt to right some of the injustices created by the Conservative Rent Act, and I hope that full advantage will be taken of the later legislation. However, it seems that a far higher proportion of landlords with a case for a rise have so far applied than have tenants with a case for a cut.

I pay tribute to the rent officers who are carrying out a most difficult job. They are doing it very well. They inspect and measure every house before they fix a rent for it, and I am informed from many sources that they are working assiduously, conscientiously and with great sympathy and understanding.

How are they fixing a fair rent? I gather that several methods are being applied. It is interesting to note that they are being tried simultaneously by the same officers for the same house, and approximately the same figure is being arrived at.

The most common method in some boroughs is to seek the guidance of reputable, old-established firms of professional estate agents in the area. These are sharply to be distinguished from many of the get-rick-quick merchants who rushed into business from the time the earlier Rent Act was passed in 1957. I asked one rent officer if this reliance on estate agents did not mean acceptance of market values, which reflect the tremendous demand for housing compared with the limited supply—whereas the Act lays down that this imbalance is to be ignored in arriving at a fair rent. The officer replied that they were fortunate in his area in having some exceptionally good landlords whose demands were modest and who actually charged rents which were below the market level; in other words, below what they could demand. Although interesting, I would not put too much reliance on that.

Another guide is to look at gross values, increasing them by anything from between 33 per cent. and 100 per cent. to take account of inflation since 1961, when the preparatory work for the 1963 valuation was done. Another by-product of the operation of the Act is that as well as reducing exorbitant rents it is also, I am glad to say, inducing some landlords to do repairs. For it is now in their interests that they should do them.

I turn briefly to one unfortunate way in which the 1965 Rent Act is working. The second vital objective of the Act was to restore security of tenure. It closed the loophole discovered a year ago in the interim housing Measure, the Protection from Eviction Act, 1964. But I regret to say that some landlords and their lawyers have now discovered two further loopholes, and I wish to propose measures to close both of them.

In a recent London case the police "stood idly by"—to quote a phrase used recently in another connection—while a tenant was evicted, even though this was illegal since the landlord had not secured a court order. I understand that this was based on the advice of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. This must happen, he holds, unless a breach of the peace is likely. The argument for this inaction is that it would be difficult for a policeman to know the rights and wrongs of the case, which is more a matter for the local authority, which should be the enforcing authority.

There is, however, a simple solution to this problem. All that is required is that the policeman should ask to see the court order. If this is not produced immediately and on the spot the eviction should be stopped. It may be felt that this is more a matter for the Home Secretary than the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I am not so sure about that, since the Rent Act could be invalidated unless this action is taken. In any case, I ask the Minister of Housing and Local Government to press the Home Secretary to act on this vital issue without delay.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. The hon. Gentleman may not propose legislation on the Adjournment.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is my hon. Friend asking for fresh legislation? I understood him to say that the position as it now stands enables authorities to stop this process, but he is not saying that it requires fresh legislation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I heard the hon. Gentleman say that he had two suggestions which would need legislation, and it seemed to me that he was proceeding to ask for them to be met by legislation.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps it would help if I say that I recall the hon. Gentleman saying that he had discovered two loopholes, and he appeared to be about to suggest ways of stopping them.

Mr. Allaun

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) for his intervention. I was suggesting administrative ways of dealing with this matter without legislative action, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The second case is a very serious one arising in Tower Hamlets. I have told my three hon. Friends, the Labour Members of Parliament for this borough, that I intended to mention this case tonight. After an illegal eviction by a private landlord, the borough council took the landlord to court and he was fined the trivial sum of £20. But this is not the worst feature of the case. The council discovered that there is no power for it to reinstate illegally evicted families, so that these tenants have to look for another home. Surely, this is wrong and quite contrary to the intentions of the Act. Until it is put right, the security of tenure provided for tenants under the Act is in jeopardy. Moreover, unscrupulous property owners could soon make up the cost of the fine by selling the now empty property at the current high market value.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It does not seem to me that what the hon. Gentleman is now proposing can be done by administrative action. He seems to be proposing a change in the law.

Mr. Allaun

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am asking my right hon. Friend to find some administrative means of correcting this evil and to do it immediately. I want him to find a way of ensuring that a tenant illegally evicted can be reinstated in his home. If this is done, landlords will not attempt this trick and the Minister will not have to worry about evicting any newly settled tenants who might innocently go into vacated premises.

At present, there is one recourse open to an evicted tenant, that is, to start a civil action quickly in the county court for breach of contract. He could possibly secure an injunction on the ground that the landlord was a trespasser. But the general public cannot be expected to have great legal knowledge—neither have I, for that matter—so some town clerks feel that the local authority should have the right to take proceedings as a friend of the tenant.

As a not altogether uncritical Member of Parliament who has not always seen eye to eye with the Minister, I conclude by congratulating him on the early operation of this Act, and also on a number of his other Measures which may result in these years being looked on in the future as the golden era of housing reform.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Brentford and Chiswick)

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) made clear in his interesting speech that there are several loopholes in the Act and that it is not all sweetness and light. I direct the Minister's attention to the fact that the harassment provisions are not being operated properly in certain areas. I have several cases in my constituency in which I have reported to the local council that action ought to be taken. I have in mind one particular case which I raised during the Committee proceedings on the Bill in which stamping goes on upstairs during the night in an attempt to evict the tenants. So far, the council has been unable to take appropriate action.

This is not a recalcitrant council refusing to take an interest. It is Socialist controlled, and one would have imagined that it would have taken action in this case. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members may cheer, but something is lacking somewhere, for action has not come about.

In another case, the gas and electricity were cut off in an attempt to evict the tenant. After great representations by me something was done, and eventually the electricity was restored. But the gas has not yet been put back again, despite every application by the council. The council took the case to court, but it was thrown out by the magistrates and the tenants are still living in beleaguered circumstances.

These are important matters—in some respects more important—than the cases the hon. Member referred to which are going through the rent officers. I am glad to hear that in certain cases very good adjustments are being made in rents. I am sure that the Minister will agree with the fact that not many applications have arisen so far shows that the problem was not quite as great as the party opposite made it out to be. I supported the Act and would speak in its favour again. But it is not entirely a good Act. It needs certain amendments to improve it, and when we are returned to office at the coming election we shall, I am sure, make them.

10.16 p.m.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I want to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) concerning the question of how the Rent Act is being brought to the notice of the public. The public do not know in the main that the Act gives security and provides for rents to be reasonably adjusted. People do not realise that the shocking conditions created by the Tory Rent Act of 1957 are now to some extent being put right.

Strong measures should be taken to get the local authorities to publicise the provisions of the new Act as speedily as possible. This is at the root of the complaint made by my hon. Friend. The people themselves must get to know what is available to them—that the insecurity which threatened their lives and homes because of the inability of the previous Government to understand that they were wrecking them—has now been remedied not entirely but to some extent by this very intelligent and very understanding Government.

10.18 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Grossman)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) for choosing this subject and for the extremely interesting information that he has given me about my Department. Although we have made an initial survey of the cases, he has done a piece of individual detective work in getting on to the rent officers, and this also shows that they are approachable and only too anxious to let people know what is going on.

I want to say something first about the difficulty raised by harassment. In dealing with this part of the Act when it was going through the House, we were all aware of the importance of trying to create a deterrent and certainly the creation of the deterrent was a great deal easier than the creation of a means of getting people back into homes from which they had already been thrown out.

Hon. Members will recall that we discussed this at some length and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will agree that the problem of restitution after the action had been brought partially defeated us on this as on many other crimes. This is not the only crime where it is more difficult to get restitution than to get the criminal prosecuted.

We had a careful analysis made of the cases in Tower Hamlets. The borough is to be commended for its activity. In one case—the one advertised at the beginning—there was no success and the tenant, having been thrown out, did not attempt to return, and he is still away.

But there are two other cases in which, with the active assistance of the local authority, the tenant was successfully put back despite the landlord. I am glad to say that there is another case in which the local authority is already proceeding against the landlord. Apparently, it has the power to do so—at least, I think that it has—and the hearing has not yet taken place. Thus, in those five cases, although one has been a complete failure, in no other is there complete failure yet.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

Is it not a fact that if a regulated tenant is evicted, he has a complete right to restitution?

Mr. Crossman

I was coming to that very point. As we all know, there is a sharp distinction between the position of a tenant and that of a licensee who is not a tenant and whom we were giving basic rights for the first time. The licensee is in a far weaker position than the tenant. That was one of the mistakes my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East made when he spoke about the weak position of the tenant. The tenant has a relatively decent position. The problem is to get the licensee protection once he has been thrown out. This is something we have to consider.

The second thing I did immediately I saw the cutting about the problem of the police was to have a long talk with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his staff about collaboration between my Ministry and his. This is now going on and we have agreed that the police on the beat must have clearly explained to them the nature of the new crime of harassment and exactly what they must do. They are now being given careful instructions. By the way, this is not an easy crime to detect, because the police have to have some sense about whether, when a gramophone is being played, it is being played for the purpose of harassment or the purpose of genuine entertainment. The policeman has to take a certain judicious view about these things, because we do not want our policemen to be busybodies and to interrupt our entertainment. It is not all that easy to give precise instructions to the policeman on the beat.

But what is clear—and I think that my right hon. Friend would agree—is that the policeman must certainly be prepared when he hears an accusation that the crime is being committed, when the tenant complaints, to show himself ready to take a full note of the circumstances, to report them and to be there. It is already a major deterrent if he takes that kind of action. We have not yet got quite clear the exact form of collaboration, but it will no doubt come out of the process of trial and error.

I now turn from the subject of Tower Hamlets and eviction to the other matter which my hon. Friend raised, which was the progress of the rent officers and the rent assessment committees. As he said, the initial figures are quite interesting. There have been 363 cases decided by rent officers, 262 putting the rent down, 62 putting the rent up and 39 leaving the rent unchanged. My hon. Friend gave us some very interesting and encouraging examples of rent and, as he said and as I know, they are notable because we all knew perfectly well that some outrageous rents were being charged.

But it is most important that we should not draw a general picture of what is happening in London from 363 cases. I am not sure that we should talk about general pictures at all. The great thing which our rent officers are getting into their minds is that every case is an individual case and they are judging each absolutely strictly on its merits. The whole point of how they have been taught to do their job is that they should not make generalisations, but should in each case study the facts in detail.

I have received from Sir Sidney Little-wood, the President of the London Rent Assessment Committee, some specimens which he obtained from the rent officers of the actual files which they are using and which show the work which they are doing. They are still confidential, but I am immensely impressed—and I have been showing them to the Attorney-General—by the extraordinary thoroughness and the way in which each individual has been studied in detail in terms of its locality and the measurement and structure of the rooms. For the first time, landlord and tenant must know that there are men whose sole interest is to judge the truth in each case.

I believe that confidence is being established that the rent officers are taking their job very seriously. Before they started I had the privilege of talking to them and discussing things with them. I know that Sir Sidney Littlewood and the rent assessment committees have discussed the problems of the Act. They have had the passages from the Committee stage discussions, because we gave no kind of instructions. We always said that the only instructions we would give would be what we said in our speeches. When they have read them they will have the general picture. They have to fill in that picture themselves and work out their definition of scarcity, each man trying on his own at first.

This is another reason why we should be careful of talking about a general picture. Although there are encouraging results in a large number of cases, there are 28 cases in which there has been appeal against the decision, and the critical moment for the definition will come when precedents are set by the rent assessment committees.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

Can the right hon. Gentleman give any indication of when those are likely to come through?

Mr. Crossman

I was going to do so. The first thing that I would emphasise is that the rent officers are taking longer at first with each individual case than we anticipated. My hon. Friends have spoken of publicity. We have cinema vans going around, but we have about 4,000 cases and they are being dealt with at the rate of about 80 a week. The cases are, therefore, coming in from the public much faster than they are being processed. This is because in the early stages the rent officer is taking much longer over a case than he will do when matters have become more clearly established and when the rent assessment committees have made their definitive judgments.

The first hearings will take place in London. There are 19 hearings which will start in mid-March. The reason for this is because of the very careful consideration which the rent assessment committees are giving to cases. The hearing will be at least a month after the papers have passed from the rent officer to the committee. The two sides have to be informed and time allowed to bring them together.

We hope that in mid-March the first rent assessment committee cases will be heard in London. In the Midlands we have had our first week in Birmingham and Coventry and have had a much smaller response, as we knew we would, compared to London. There were only 91 cases in the whole of the West Midlands. This figure is expected to increase a great deal.

The last thing I want to say is that I cannot help reflecting with a certain pride about the doubts cast from the other side in committee after committee on the possibility of ever getting rent officers who could do this job. I was told that unless they were professional valuers they could not sit down and tackle this job. The striking figure, from which we can draw our own conclusions, is that of 360 cases decided only 28 have been appealed. That means that the rent officer has achieved a genuine decision in all of those cases remaining. Both sides have thought him an honest man who had done a job well.

That is enormously encouraging. Imagine that we had not had the rent officers and there were 4,000 cases in London to go before tribunals, each to be fought, without any rent officer. The whole thing would be blocked up. It was only by creating the conciliation officer at a lower level, to process the job, that the position of the appeal tribunal is practical at all. On this side of the House we can say with great pride that here was the most original thing in the Act—that we could get the right people, that town clerks would have the sense to appoint the right kind of people to do the job. No doubt we shall have failures, and in some regions people will be better than others. But at least in the first part of its life in London with 300,000 potential cases to deal with, we now know that we have the right kind of men, with integrity, which is an enormous hope for the future, and for enabling us to end the cold war and to take rents out of politics so that they can be settled in a matter of fact, business-like way which would end this miserable business.

Let us not think only of those rents which have been put down. There were some sensational examples also of rents going up. It is, of course, possible to have cases where landlords have not been given a fair rent. The most important thing which is now happening is that landlords and tenants are being convinced that they will get justice from rent officers, even although the justice may not always commend itself to one side.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.