HC Deb 09 November 1966 vol 735 cc1325-63

(1) The provisions of section (Notification of unoccupied dwelling-houses) of this Act shall come into operation or cease to be in operation in the area of a rating authority if the authority resolves that those provisions shall apply or cease to apply to their area, and shall come into operation or cease to be in operation in that area on such a day as may be specified in the resolution. (2) The day to be specified by a resolution under subsection (1) above shall be—

  1. (a) in the case of a resolution providing that the said provisions shall apply to the area in question, a day not being earlier, if those provisions have previously applied to the area, than the expiration of the period of seven years beginning with the day when those provisions ceased or last ceased to apply to the area or of such shorter period as the Secretary of State authorises in any particular case;
  2. (b) in the case of a resolution providing that the said provisions shall cease to apply to the area in question, a day not being earlier than the expiration of the period of seven years beginning with the day when those provisions came or last came into operation in the area or of such shorter 1326 period as the Secretary of State authorises in any particular case.
(3) As soon as may be after a resolution under subsection (1) above is passed by a rating authority the authority shall cause a copy of the resolution to be published in two successive weeks in one or more newspapers circulating in their area, and while a resolution providing that the said provisions shall apply to their area is in operation shall cause a copy thereof—
  1. (a) to be published annually in one or more such newspapers; and
  2. (b) to be kept prominently exhibited at their offices in a place to which the public have access.
(4) A documents purporting to be a copy of the minutes of a resolution passed by a rating authority under this section and to be certified under the hand of the clerk of the authority as a true copy of the minutes of the resolution shall be sufficient evidence that the resolution was passed by the authority.—[Dr. Dickson Mabon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

I think that it would be for the convenience of the House to discuss at the same time new Clause 4—Notification of unoccupied dwelling-houses. Does this suggestion commend itself to the Government?

Dr. Mabon

Yes, Mr. Speaker; that is very convenient. There are later Amendments which impinge on this subject, but we can discuss them in the proper sequence. These two new Clauses arise from our discussions concerning those later Amendments.

New Clauses 3 and 4 stem from the Government's conviction that local authorities will not be able to take effective steps to get empty houses re-occupied unless they have power to make owners notify them when the property is empty. We discussed this matter considerably in Committee, when I promised to discuss it at length with the local authorities, and I have done so on behalf of my right hon. Friend.

New Clause 3 provides that the notification system takes effect only when the local authority resolves accordingly. The system has been made adoptive rather than mandatory because there may well be many areas in Scotland where the pressure for housing is not so great and where houses are only left empty for good reason, for example, because of the difficulty of getting tenants of farm cottages or because of the slowness of the market. It will, therefore, be up to each local authority to decide whether to adopt a notification system in the light of the local circumstances.

Subsection (2) of new Clause 3 provides that once adopted, the notification system must last for seven years, and if abandoned it may not be readopted for another seven years. This is to avoid swift changes which would leave house-owners uncertain of their position, which would be onerous, particularly as there is a penalty for failing to notify in any area where the system has been adopted. There may, of course, be occasions when either of these seven-year periods is too long, and the Clause gives the Secretary of State power to authorise a shorter period whenever he thinks it justifiable.

So that it shall be clearly known when owners have a duty to notify empty houses, subsection (3) of new Clause 3 provides for the adoption of the system to be advertised in two successive weeks, and every year thereafter, and a copy of the resolution is to be posted up in the public offices of the local authority, for example, in the rating department or the housing factor's department. A prudent local authority would also take steps to circularise the associations of property owners in its area or the solicitors and house factors.

New Clause 4, which naturally follows from new Clause 3, requires the owner of any dwellinghouse which is unoccupied for two months to notify the rating authority when a resolution has been adopted under new Clause 3. The two months' period of grace is enough to exempt the ordinary house-letting or house-selling transaction, where the new occupant normally comes in a short time after the premises become vacant. Local authorities for their part will not be impeded by the two months' period, since another month must elapse before they can levy rates on the owner.

Owner-occupiers are exempted under subsection (3) because, for the most part, it is not owner-occupiers' houses which remain unused for long periods, but houses which are kept empty in the expectation of an exorbitant rent or exorbitant sale price. There must necessarily be a penalty attached for failure to notify an empty house, and subsection (2) provides for a fine not exceeding £20. In addition, the local authority would be able to levy 75 per cent. rates once the house had been unoccupied for more than three months. That, however, is a matter which we shall be discussing later.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

As the Under-Secretary of State has said, we discussed this question in Committee. No indication was given at that time, however, that a whole system would be introduced in this way. No indication was given to us of the possibility of two new Clauses. New Clause 3 is to apply the system which is contained in new Clause 4. We have, therefore, looked at the position carefully and we have been somewhat surprised at what we have found.

The Under-Secretary has explained the seven-year gap and I followed his explanation. Subsection (3) of new Clause 3 aims, as the hon. Gentleman has said, at circulating information about the system. There will, however, be a great many ordinary people in Scotland who may be affected if their local authorities adopt this system and who may well never discover until too late that they are under an obligation to register a house after it has been empty for two months.

Simply to lay down as a method of keeping the public informed that the information about the system is to be published annually in one or more newspapers and is to be kept prominently exhibited in an office in a place to which the public have access, is not sufficient for a great many persons who are not in the property business. The Under-Secretary accepted this to a certain extent by advising that, in addition, local authorities which adopt this system should notify property associations and factors in their areas.

The people about whom I am thinking are home owners who, for one reason or another, will have had to leave their houses. [Interruption.] I know that there is another provision. When the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) has heard the examples which I am giving, he will find that I have read it. There is a provision concerning home owners whose houses were last occupied by the owners, but that is not the case that I am considering.

There are small property owners who may not hear about these requirements and who, if we pass the two new Clauses, will later find that they have committed an offence. My first example is of Service men and others who own homes in Scotland, who are abroad or elsewhere on duty and have either to leave their homes empty or to let them. There is very often a combination of these circumstances. They let their homes for perhaps six months, the tenants leave and the homes then stand empty. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, I would point out that the Service man in such a case would not have been the last occupier of his home, because there would have been a subsequent tenant who had since departed.

It is no good anyone from the Government Front Bench telling me that these are infrequent cases, because a great many Service men who have homes in my constituency are in that position. Some of them are men from Morayshire and Nairnshire. Others are men who, wisely, after having served in stations in my constituency, have decided to live there and have bought homes in the area on the basis that they will return when they are posted back and will eventually, I hope, settle there on retirement. These are one category of person who will certainly be affected.

Then I would suggest another category of person, particularly, again, living in the North of Scotland, or other areas not immediately close to the industrial areas—a person such as the export salesman, or businessman of some other kind, who has to move because, in his firm's business, it is necessary for him to live for a time, say, near Glasgow. He may be in the same position; he does not want to give up his home; he lets it; the tenant departs; and he then has to leave the home empty. He may be perfectly willing, as probably will the Service man, to pay the rates, in full, or 75 per cent. of them, or whatever is required of him; but what he obviously will not know about, particularly if he is in Singapore or Hong Kong, is that he is required to register with the local authority two months after the house has become unoccupied by the tenant.

However much we try to publicise this, by discussion today, and by the rather meagre provisions set out in new Clause 3, there will be a great many such persons who simply will not know they are under an obligation to do this. If they fail to do so, then, according to new Clause 4, they shall be guilty of an offence and they may be subject to a fine of £20. Well, that may not be very much, but the Service men of whom I am particularly thinking—and their wives—who are very law-abiding people, will be very upset to be informed they have been guilty of an offence simply because, being in Singapore or some other place, they have not been able to keep in touch with these events and do not know that, two months after letting them, their homes have become vacant because the tenants have gone, and they have not been able to relet them, and they should have notified that on the appropriate form from the local authorities.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that it is essential nowadays that we in Scotland should combine home ownership, which the Government themselves are endorsing as something to be encouraged, with mobility. It is necessary that people, be they Service men or businessmen or others who have to move because of their work, or to find work, should be able to leave their homes let, and not thereafter be worried if the tenants depart, perhaps through no fault of the owners, or find that they are committing an offence, as this new Clause would have them do.

Particularly in the North of Scotland it has always been true that people of special aptitudes and abilities have gone out into the world, into England or abroad, but have kept their connection with those localities, kept their homes, perhaps empty for periods, so that they can go back to them for holidays, or eventually move back to them and settle there. We must allow a connection of this kind to continue.

A later Amendment affects this. It provides that occupation of a house for less than six weeks within the three-months period shall not count as part of that period, and I can see that this is to remove a possibility of abuse—of a one-day occupation interrupting the three months. But this is just the kind of thing which would disqualify a person of the kind I have described coming back to live in his house, or for a holiday, if for not more than six weeks. This, therefore, is likely to concern a large number of businessmen in the sort of position I have described, a position which, I submit, we in the House of Commons, and particularly Scottish Members, wish to encourage.

The system proposed in these two new Clauses seems to me to be much too cumbersome and penalising for the purposes which they set out to implement. I believe that the Government should have been able to find a much simpler method of registration, not involving persons being guilty of an offence if they have not heard about this provision, and not involving a fine, and unless the Government produce a far better explanation than we have heard from the hon. Gentleman so far, I, and, I am sure, a number of my hon. Friends will find these two Clauses unacceptable.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. W. Baxter

I am concerned about these two new Clauses being introduced at this stage of our deliberations on the Bill. They are very important Clauses which require much more serious consideration, if need be by Amendment in Committee on the Bill, rather than at this stage. I do not think that this should be treated lightly from either side of the House, because here is a very important principle being enumerated, a principle which, in more than 30 years' experience of county administration in Scotland, I do not consider is necessary. I have never seen this problem arise, in all the years I was associated with a local authority, and why we should try to make criminals out of people I am at a loss to know.

In these new Clauses we give power to a local authority either to apply or not to apply the Clauses. Again, I would say that if this is to be a more or less criminal offence it is wrong in principle that the application of the Clauses should be permissive. If this is to be a criminal offence in one area it must be a criminal offence in another area, and that should, therefore, apply or not apply to all local government areas in Scotland. This permission as to whether one is to be a criminal or not is, in my opinion, not a proper step in the right direction.

New Clause 3(3) says that the local authority shall publish in one or more local newspapers its decision to apply the Clause, but in certain outlandish areas—in Stirlingshire, for example, in Argyle, in the Highlands—many people do not get these so-called local newspapers, and they may be at a considerable disadvantage, as I see it. This, again, is not at all good practice and I do not think it should be accepted by the House. The Clause talks about keeping prominently exhibited, in the local authority's offices, notices of these things. Again, I say that is a place where very few people from the outlandish areas go.

I am thinking primarily of the persons in many country areas who, over the years, have got little cottages, or double cottages. Somebody goes away from his cottage for some very good reason, and he keeps it empty for a fairly long period, perhaps hoping that his daughter or son will come back from another part of the country or from abroad and take up occupation of the cottage.

Then there are cottages which have been condemned by the local authorities. It is not clearly and explicitly stated here that even those cottages should not be notified to the town council or county council. If people have to notify them, notwithstanding the procedure gone through by local authorities in condemnation of the premises, it means duplication of effort, duplication of time, duplication of energy—all of which I deprecate in this busy and go-ahead age in which we are supposed to live.

But it is even worse, because there is the stipulation of the time in which the notification must be done, a period of two months: … the owner of every dwelling-house which has remained unoccupied for a period of two months shall, within 14 days thereafter, give to the rating authority for the area … notice in writing. …

The penalty if one does not do this is £20.

So innocent people, who have committed no crime, good, law-abiding people, God-fearing people throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, become almost criminal—because they possess a little property and leave it empty for a period, only a few months. But if they do, if they leave it empty for a year, what business is it of ours?

Who are we to take upon ourselves the responsibility for saying, "If you leave the house unoccupied by someone else, if you leave it empty, we shall put upon you the stigma of criminal and fine you £20"? This is far too important a Clause to have introduced at this stage of our deliberations. If it goes to a Division today, I shall definitely be voting against it.

Over the years, we have put into operation too much legislation with the main purpose in view of designating many of our law-abiding citizens criminals. Later, we shall be discussing a Bill appertaining to the Scottish police. I ask all hon. Members to think twice before they add more problems to the burden of the Scottish police by designating another group of innocent people criminals.

Mr. James Davidson (Aberdeenshire, West)

I want to say only a few words on this new Clause and, in doing so, I endorse everything said by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter). He put it far better than I could have done.

In Committee, I opposed the whole conception of the derating of unoccupied houses, for the very good reason that we on the Liberal Bench support the idea of rating by site valuation, which would of itself lead to an incentive to occupy empty houses. In that event, all the details outlined in the two Clauses would become unnecessary. If properties were rated on the basis of site valuation, the result would be to force unoccupied dwellings into occupation and to force unimproved sites into improvement.

New Clauses 3 and 4 introduce an unnecessary element of compulsion and complication. They will result in the proliferation of regulations and interfere considerably with the individual. In addition, there would be extra costs thrown on to the ratepayer of the various newspaper advertisements. Finally, as has already been pointed out by the hon. Gentleman, after a mere matter of two months an individual would become liable to a fine. That seems to be quite monstrous.

Anyone who has had experience of getting farm cottages or any other type of dwelling renewed, modernised or redecorated knows that by the time he has waited weeks for someone to do the necessary work and then the work has been completed, the buildings have remained unoccupied for three, four and sometimes five months, in any case.

Even if the Clauses are forced through, I ask the Government Front Bench seriously to reconsider the minimum period of two months. However, I would much prefer to see them withdrawn.

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson) about site values, but, frankly, it is no use discussing that subject because we are dealing with the law of rating as it is. That sort of discussion does not take us very much further forward.

I was surprised by the vehemence of my very good Friend the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter). It is surprising these days, to see him jumping in with both feet without thinking too much about what he intends to say.

Mr. W. Baxter rose——

Mr. Manuel

I will give way presently to my hon. Friend, when I have rounded off my argument. It is not very often that my hon. Friend jumps in to the rescue of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. In the very nature of things, new Clauses 3 and 4 are against all the principles—or lack of them—held on the benches opposite.

The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) indicated that the provisions of the Clauses did not apply to the type of person indicated by my hon. Friend. Owner-occupiers vacating a house for a while, waiting for a son or daughter to come into it are outwith the scope of the new Clauses altogether.

Mr. W. Baxter

If my interpretation of new Clause 4 is correct the owner of a cottage cheek by jowl with the cottage which he occupies is caught by the new Clause. If that cottage is empty for the period stipulated in the Clause, and the owner does not notify the local authority, he is liable to a fine. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) says that is not so. If it proves to be so, will be join me in my protest?

Mr. Manuel

The Clause is quite clear. Subsection (3) of new Clause 4 says: This section does not apply to a dwelling-house owned by a rating authority or to a dwelling-house which was last occupied by the owner thereof. In other words, unless an owner-occupier is out to make money by reletting his house, he is excluded.

Mr. W. Baxter

I should be the last to want anything to go on record that was wrong. If I am wrong, I hope that I shall be corrected. I will bow to anyone who tells me that what I have read into the new Clause is incorrect.

I have said nothing about an owner-occupied house. What I said was that in my constituency there are a number of owner-occupiers who, in addition, own the cottages next to them. Sometimes, they are little double cottages. If the house which one of them does not occupy is empty, although he owns it, and he does not notify the local authority after it has been empty for two months, he is liable to a fine of £20.

Mr. Manuel

But he would not be the owner-occupier of that house. That is the point that I am making.

Neither my hon. Friend nor I had the privilege of being a member of the Committee upstairs. I understand that there was a definite demand from hon. Members on the Government side to bring in a provision of this character. Why was that done? All of us are aware of the companies up and down Scotland who own vast tenement properties. Quite deliberately, they are escaping the onus of paying rates by keeping properties empty over the years hoping to sell them.

The situation is not, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson), that it will cost the ratepayers money to advertise and make these provisions known. In many areas, it is already costing the ratepayers large sums of money. They are losing rates on property which is deliberately kept empty by companies who want to sell their tenement property. That has been the position for years about which many of us have asked for action.

If some of the provisions apply unfairly to innocent people, I should be the first to say that that is something which should be rectified. Knowing my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am sure that it is something which will be rectified if it is borne out in today's debate. But I am all for our dealing with speculators in house property, much of it old, who are putting families out well knowing that the local authority will rehouse them into better types of property, so that they can leave their properties empty for years if necessary until they sell them. They want them to be sold; they do not want to let them again because they wish to get rid of the onus of repairing them.

There is not an hon. Member who does not know that this goes on. There can be no one who has not had complaints from constituents about it. We have all met it in our work in our constituencies—the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) shakes his head. Are we to take it that all these complaints are manufactured, and that he never gets them from his constituents?

Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith (Glasgow, Hillhead) rose——

Mr. Manuel

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) has such a deplorable record in connection with Scottish housing that I do not feel inclined to give way to him.

Mr. G. Campbell

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) referred to the examples which I gave. Every single one of them was a case where the owner had not been the last person to occupy his house, because he had gone away as a result of his Service career or his employment. He let his house, and then his tenant departed and he had to leave his house empty. By this new Clause he would be penalised. It is not a question of wanting to avoid paying rates. I am not arguing with the hon. Gentleman about that. But such an owner is penalised because he does not know about the system.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Manuel

I am on record as saying that if there is inequity or injustice of that kind to the Servicemen, something will have to be done to help him. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that these houses are deliberately kept empty by property companies while others pay the rates. The main reason for bringing in the Clause is to right that state of affairs.

Mr. Galbraith

Can the hon. Gentleman tell me how many instances of this occur in his constituency, and how many houses there are in his constituency? This will give us some idea of the size of the problem, which I think he has enlarged considerably by his own imagination.

Mr. Manuel

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find enough in Glasgow, if he does not know his constituency sufficiently well to know the answer. I could not give the number for which the hon. Gentleman asks, but when I was a member of the little Burgh of Ardrossan, which had a population of 8,000——

Mr. Galbraith

How many?

Mr. Manuel

—there may have been 100 or 200, I would not know. Taking my constituency as a whole, the problem is quite considerable. Many people want houses, and would occupy them if they were given the chance, but, because they are in the lower income groups, they cannot afford to buy, and they cannot get into rented houses. If injustices occur, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will put them right. We are trying to get justice for all the ratepayers.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) is the standard bearer for the property owners of Scotland. He has been brought on to the Opposition Front Bench to hold the torch aloft so that property owners will be safeguarded with regard to the nonpayment of rates. I am here to see that these people whom I am castigating for keeping their houses empty pay their rates.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

There are a large number of empty houses in my constituency, but the only property company concerned is the Corporation of Glasgow, which is not affected by this provision.

Mr. Manuel

I am aware of that, and no doubt this will be dealt with by my Glasgow colleagues, but is the hon. Gentleman saying on his soul and honour —I understand that he is a bit of a Bible puncher—that there is not one private rented house in Cathcart which is being kept empty so that the owner can sell it? Is that what the hon. Gentleman is saying?

I think that I have spoken for too long. I have made my point. I support the Clause, feeling sure that if there is any injustice it will be remedied as soon as possible.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

I think that we ought to come down to earth. In these two Clauses we are proposing to bring in a new offence which can be committed by the ordinary citizen. To justify doing this—and it is something that we do reasonably often—we have to show that there is an over-riding need for this type of measure. It seems to me that what the Under-Secretary of State did not make clear is the reason which has given rise to the necessity for these provisions.

As I see it, the hon. Gentleman has to show that there are a large number of properties lying empty on which rates are being paid—and I ask the hon. Gentleman to note my words carefully—and therefore the local authority does not officially know are empty. I think that I am correct in saying that. After all, if rates are not being paid, the only way to avoid paying them is to inform the local authority that the house is empty and thereby be exempted from paying them. Rates have to be paid in respect of every dwelling-house in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, unless the owner or occupier informs the local authority that the property is empty, and applies to be exempted from paying rates.

Mr. Manuel

Property which could be rented is deliberately being kept empty. Whether the local authority knows about it is beside the point. I know that rates are not being paid, and this is being done deliberately to enable the owner to sell the house.

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman has again missed my point. Nobody—not the hon. Gentleman, nor I, nor anyone else—can avoid paying rates without telling the local authority. If the local authority is not informed, rates have to be paid. An owner has to notify the local authority if he wants to avoid paying rates, and it follows, therefore, that if someone is paying rates, and his house is empty, he is under a disadvantage in that he is paying rates for a house which he is not occupying. This is, of course, a deterrent to him leaving his house unoccupied.

These Clauses are obviously aimed at ensuring that a large number of houses are not left empty. We all applaud that object, because it will enable a local authority to know which houses are empty and to try to make better use of them, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to justify the necessity for getting this information, which I suggest the Minister already has in 95 per cent. of the cases. I say that because very few people will leave a house empty for long and continue to pay full rates on it. These are the only people who will have to give additional information as a result of these two Clauses.

I think that we should hesitate before putting this burden of an offence on the ordinary shareholder. Let us get this quite clear. It may be that property companies in some parts of Scotland are abusing the law. If there are, let us, on both sides of the House, do what we can to close any loopholes, but in doing so let us make sure that we do not put an unreasonable burden on ordinary people. I suggest that the burden proposed here is unreasonable, and I ask the House to bear with me while I reinforce what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell).

My hon. Friend referred to people in the Services. A man who lets his house often does so through an agent or lawyer. In many cases an agent or a lawyer will be involved, but Service people are subject to the most unpredictable moves, and have a most difficult job in keeping their homes going in this country when they are serving abroad. They frequently let their houses to a friend or to a friend of a friend, because it is easier to do it this way, and because they know who will move into the House. It simplifies what for them is a difficult administrative problem.

If a man is serving in Brunei, and is separated from his wife and family, it is unreasonable to expect him, within two months of it happening, to learn that the friend to whom he let the house—or in some cases the friend of a friend—has left the house and it is unoccupied.

Mr. G. Campbell

It is even more unreasonable to expect a Service man to know that he has to register in this way.

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am not saying that the object behind these Clauses is necessarily bad. I can see what the Government are trying to do, but I suggest to the Minister that he has to some extent been overridden by the wishes of the Executive. I can see the object behind these Clauses, but it will make things very difficult for ordinary people who are not necessarily very efficient, nor necessarily well-equipped with advice and technical assistance. They will make themselves liable to an offence without there being reasonable need to put them in this position.

I am not trying to be controversial, or to make a party point, but I think that this proposal is unreasonable. The hon. Gentleman should look at it again with a view to trying in another place to produce something better and more watertight so as to get a better result.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

I have found it very difficult to form conclusions about the arguments which have been taking place on both sides of the House, because in the process a welter of emotion has been shown on both sides. For example, the word "criminal" has been used in this debate. I say frankly that I regard it as criminal that a house should remain empty while people are homeless. The purpose and motive of this part of the Bill is that that should not happen.

I concede arguments that have been advanced in relation to certain anomalies. The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) conceded the point about vast blocks of tenement properties remaining empty. He probably would associate himself with me in believing that to be criminal. The hon. Member and I have had long associations. We opposed one another in a General Election. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen) reminds me that he beat me in that election. He did defeat me, and that must be due to the qualities of the hon. Member.

The hon. Member expressed concern about the fact that property should remain empty. When I was campaigning in Ayr in the 1964 General Election I came across many anomalies in relation to housing in Ayr some of which if it had been in operation then this Bill would have redressed. One very important point has not been made in this debate. I read somewhere that some local authorities have been calling for this kind of provision. We have to realise that there is nothing mandatory written into it. It is purely permissive for the local authority to use as it wishes.

If we talk about persecution and making criminals of people we should remember that local authorities would not seek by resolution to put forward a proposition which would mean, in essence, that they would make criminals of their ratepayers and persecute individuals.

We have had discussion in the House about the great need for local democracy and for consultation with people who are at the very fountain head of affairs. Members of local authorities know the minds of local people because they are nearer to them. To argue that there would be irresponsibility and persecution as a result of this proposal would be a gross slander on members of local authorities. Before a local authority decided to pass such a resolution putting into effect the terms of these Clauses it would have to give very careful consideration to the matter.

We should not indulge in a welter of emotion but should look at the proposition sensibly and sanely. We should see that there is a problem here and address ourselves to alleviating it. Then, I am convinced, we should be able to go some way towards housing people who are at present homeless.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (Aberdeenshire, East)

I agree with much that has been said in this debate, but there is a point which I do not feel has been answered satisfactorily. As the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) pointed out, this is a permissive Clause. It is left to the discretion of local authorities. Presumably, they would bring in this provision if they believed that there was impropriety and abuse, that there was accommodation available and unused which could be used and needs to be used because of the demands of the homeless or badly housed people in the area.

If that is true I imagine we would all support the proposition, but why should it not be carried a stage further? Why should the local authority not investigate and ask the circumstances of the property and the property owners in cases where it is thought that an abuse exists? Why should it be left to a private individual who, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, may have no chance of knowing what is happening to his property within two months, or no chance of dealing with it satisfactorily? Why should it not be left to the responsibility of the local authority to deal with the property in that condition instead of to a person who may not be able to deal with it?

Mr. Peter Doig (Dundee, West)

At this stage the Government should seriously consider the proposition put forward in these two new Clauses. I do not know whether it is possible now to amend them, or whether they have to be accepted or rejected as they stand. If they must be either accepted or rejected as they stand, I think that it would be better to withdraw them.

Certain property owners and property companies have exploited a serious shortage of housing at various times in my constituency. It is impossible to put a figure on this, because the position changes from day to day. This has been a serious problem in my area. While families could not get homes houses were standing empty for considerable periods, solely because their owners could make bigger profits by withholding them from the market for a period and then getting higher rents or selling them for a higher price after holding them back. This should be stopped.

It would be quite wrong for those owners not to pay rates and, in a sense, to rob local authorities of legitimate rates so that they could make increased profits. It is even worse that they should cause people to be homeless while homes are available and could be occupied. But I do not think that these two Clauses, as at present worded, are the right means of rectifying this genuine grievance.

As the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) said, the numbers of houses on which rates are paid are not known, and they are the only ones which are not known. As this is the position, I am certain that property owners and property companies do not pay rates on houses which are not occupied in order to keep them empty. If they keep them empty for any time they are defeating their own purpose.

Therefore, I can see no valid reason for dealing with those people who are paying rates. I am concerned with those who keep houses empty and do not pay rates. I should like to see these new Clauses worded in such a way that we could take care of this. I imagine that local authorities know which owners are not paying rates and it should not be administratively difficult for the authorities to find them out and sort them out, provided that they are given the legal power to do so.

I should like the Clauses altered or, if necessary, withdrawn and new ones produced to take care of this point. It would be wrong to pass them as they stand, knowing their weaknesses and knowing that it might—I put it no higher than that—penalise and turn into criminals some people who have done this quite innocently.

If it were possible to alter them, such an alteration might be, after the words "… last occupied by the owner thereof" to add "or was his sole permanent address in this country". This would at least take care of some of these anomalies. I would, however, prefer the Government to alter or withdraw the Clauses altogether at this stage.

Mr. Galbraith

I cannot help feeling that we are making a mountain out of a molehill. Do the Government know the extent of the problem and how many houses there are in this condition? We recognise that we do not want houses to remain empty, but how big is the problem? In solving the problem by bringing pressure to bear on people, we do not wish to damage innocent people. This is the trouble, and, as the Clauses are drafted, it is likely to happen.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) thought that it was disgraceful for houses to be kept empty when there was a need for housing. I agree, but I do not think that the private landlord—this is the trouble with hon. Members opposite—is nearly as guilty as local authorities. I should like some figures. The hon. Gentleman must have these figures: he cannot legislate without knowing. If he does not have the figures, he ought not to be legislating——

Mr. Manuel

Does the hon. Member include all local authorities in this criticism? This would be exceptional in small burgh areas. We know that there is a problem in Glasgow and the hon. Member knows the reason for it—he ought possibly to give it—but he should not include all local authorities or he would get an even worse Press than he had yesterday.

Mr. Galbraith

I am not making any allegations, but only asking the Government for the figures. They ought not to legislate without knowing. If they know the figures, they should tell the House, so that we can make up our mind.

I have the figures for Glasgow. For many years, between 4,000 and 5,000 houses have been empty. The figure has not increased, but has been fairly steady. Then, in the last couple of years, the figures suddenly shot up to about 7,000. I asked the Secretary of State whether he could give any explanation. He was a little uncertain in his reply, but gave the impression that one of the reasons was that so many houses were being closed for demolition. These houses are empty and are included in the figures as being empty, but people cannot live in them.

This problem of empty houses not being lived in and being kept empty by wicked landlords has been exaggerated by hon. Members like the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) without any real thought about it. The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter), in that part which I heard—I came in, unfortunately, only halfway through—made an absolutely first-class speech. I hope that that will not be the kiss of death to him. The hon. Member put his finger on the matter when he said that there are many people living in one half of a small cottage and owning the other half, who will simply not be aware of this obligation. It is all wrong that, in trying to catch a few scoundrels—I do not think that there are many of them—we will do damage to many innocent people——

Mr. W. Baxter

I was speaking with some experience, having been a member of Stirling County Council for over 30 years, serving as vice-convener of the county and convener of the health department, dealing with all these sort of matters from time to time. I did not see the problem there. As I said in an intervention, the truth will come out. I appreciate the complement which the hon. Gentleman paid me.

Mr. Galbraith

The hon. Member and I could perhaps form one of those groups which we have been hearing so much about.

I now see why the onus should be put upon the individual. This is something which the local authority ought to find out for itself——

Mr. Younger

It knows.

Mr. Galbraith

To a large extent, it knows. It could send people round to inspect houses and revalue them and could easily find out what it wants to know. The numbers which would slip through the net must be very small.

There has been a little emotionalism—but also some reasonable speeches from both sides of the House—from the hon. Friends of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire, who usually support him to the hilt, and who are very concerned about this sign of unnecessary—I almost said "dictatorial"—government. I would urge the Under-Secretary to take this away and reconsider it. If the does not remove it altogether, it should be amended and reintroduced in another place. He should not try to force it through the House tonight. That would be utterly wrong and I hope that he will not do it.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter). The hon. Member for Aberdeen, West, (Mr. James Davidson) gave the impression that he thought that the proposals before us were wrong and reactionary. Yet he said in Committee that the Amendment moved by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands, (Mr. Wylie) was reactionary and said that he would not have a house rented at 25 per cent., 50 per cent., or 75 per cent., but at 200 per cent.

What has happened between Committee and now? I do not know, unless the Liberal Party has had a new conference or consultation and the hon. Member wants to withdraw now from the earlier position which he took——

Mr. James Davidson

I said at the beginning of my speech that I spoke in Committee against the whole principle of derating unoccupied houses. I then went on logically to explain why I was opposed to the two new Clauses. There was nothing illogical in what I said and if the hon. Member had followed my argument, he would know this.

Mr. Hannan

With respect, that is not what the hon. Gentleman said in Committee. He spoke then of property and said: The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) said that the Clause represented a radical change of policy. To me it is an incredibly Conservative Clause. With that, he was criticising the Government's proposal.

The hon. Gentleman went on: With the possible exception of that of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Tom McMillan), all the speeches have been extremely conservative. I would have liked the Clause to be washed out."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 14th July, 1966; c. 310.] The hon. Gentleman then went on to describe it and say that it did not go far enough.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. James Davidson

The Clause under discussion was that which proposed the derating of unoccupied buildings. This was the matter which I was opposing in my speech in Committee.

Mr. Hannan

I have given the hon. Member an opportunity to clear it up. It was no surprise to me to find a typically Conservative speech coming from my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter), because this is nothing unusual, whether on building or agriculture, or the interests in which he has a personal interest.

Mr. W. Baxter

I have no personal interest in this at all. At any time that I speak in the House I declare my interest in the subject on which I am speaking. By virtue of having an interest, I try to bring my experience to bear on the problem that confronts the House. I think that my hon. Friend's remarks are very unworthy of him, to say the least. As for this Clause, I have no interest whatever in property. I have an interest in justice and fairness, and that is what I raise my voice upon. Members of the Labour Party in the past were prone to do this. If they do not do it now, that is their responsibility.

Mr. Hannan

My hon. Friend is entitled to his opinion. It is a matter of opinion.

Mr. W. Baxter

On a point of order. There was an imputation in the remarks made by my hon. Friend and I ask that he be asked to withdraw that statement. I have no personal interest in the subject matter under discussion other than the interest of an ordinary Member of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I understood the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) to impute some improper motive to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter). If he did so, he should withdraw it.

Mr. Hannan

I used the word "interest". If there is an emphasis put on that word which was not my intention, then, of course, I withdraw it. I withdraw any imputation which could be construed from the use of the word "interest".

One point which has been missed in new Clause 3 is that it is for each local authority to decide whether it passes the resolution requiring that this information should be provided by the people concerned. I have no doubt whatever that in Glasgow and some other cities such procedure is necessary if we are to obtain more information about the houses and the property which should be available for letting.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hill-head (Mr. Galbraith) is right in saying that there are over 7,000 empty houses, although it is true that some of them are not habitable. It is difficult to put a definite figure on the number which are habitable. In my constituency I know of no fewer than 10 houses in one block of building which, as far as I could ascertain, were being deliberately kept vacant so that the trust which owned the building could at some future date develop a commercial interest on the ground floor right round that building.

It seemed to me and to my friends on the local authority that this was an abuse of the property. I described the circumstances in Committee.

Mr. G. Campbell

This is dealt with in a later Clause about the rating of empty property. We are dealing with the question of supplying information. If the hon. Member knows about these cases, presumably the local authority knows about them, and it is not necessary to supply the information.

Mr. Hannan

I have here correspondence between the local authority and the Department. The local authority, for reasons which some of us understand, was faced with difficulties in acquiring the property.

Mr. G. Campbell

All this is dealt with later in the Bill, where it is proposed that empty property should be rated at a certain percentage instead of being derated. We are dealing here with the supply of information. What the hon. Member is saying, I submit, does not apply to this argument.

Mr. Hannan

It is part of the background—part of the reason why this information is required. I take the view that, irrespective of whether rates are being paid on the property, there is a great social need for accommodation in which people can live. If the ultimate purpose here is what I and some of my friends suspected, then derating would make no difference to the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell). It seems to me that if there are 7,000 houses empty—and in this instance it was good property—which are available to let, then the requirement is on the people concerned to furnish the information.

We have heard a great deal about the individual. I would answer the argument by pointing out that the local authority for the area must first pass a resolution. If they feel that they do not require the information or that the people for whom they cater would make certain difficulties about it, then they need take no action.

The second point is that the action takes place and the matter is brought to the surface. I agree in large part with the reasonable argument of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), and I recognise that there are some of these houses on which rates will be paid. But the case is always argued of the owner of a single house, the owner-occupier or the widow. There was a tacit admission in his speech that it is the trusts and the big property owners which are the chief culprits in these matters. It is unfortunate but true that much of our legislation is calculated to catch only some people but that in the process the individual, the owner-occupier, is suffering.

No one will pretend to me that an owner-occupier who has a solicitor or lawyer is not made aware of the legislation which is being passed. The responsibility is placed on the lawyer to keep his client informed about the demands being made by the local authority.

In view of the long and protracted discussion in Committee, I hope that my hon. Friend will now say that he sees no need to change his mind and that he will insist on these Clauses.

Mr. N. R. Wylie (Edinburgh, Pentlands)

We have had a long discussion on two very important Clauses. First, we must be clear what exactly the Clauses will do and, secondly, we must ask whether these provisions are necessary in the circumstances.

I agree that we must approach the problem unemotionally. On the other hand, we must remember that we are creating a new statutory offence and that we are dealing with people's lives. I am not so much concerned about the big property owner, for I agree that he has his lawyer, accountants and factors and that he will not be caught by this kind of legislation.

The only people who will be caught out by this kind of legislation are the small people who do this on a small scale, usually each with one house which they own but do not occupy. In my submission, Parliament should be very careful before it adds to the 13,000 or 14,000 statutory offences which are already on the Statute Book.

I should like to draw attention to the provisions of subsection (2) of new Clause 3. Subsection (2) provides that the day to be specified will in the case of a resolution providing that the said provisions shall apply to the area in question, a day not being earlier, if those provisions have previously applied to the area, than the expiration of the period of seven years … We know what it means. But it does not mean that there is no provision about when the appointed day will come into play for the first time. The appointed day can be brought in as a result of the resolution; and within 14 days of that day an offence will be committed if the owner of any property affected does not give the necessary information. We are not here concerned with the question of rating or derating of unoccupied property.

We are concerned with the notification of unoccupied property and I am merely pointing out—and it is obvious that hon. Members on both sides of the House feel the same—that the Government should be careful before adding new statutory offences, especially when we are adding a new offence in a Clause about which we have heard nothing before and which we are now reading for the first time. Is it necessary for this step to be taken? We are aware that Parliament must frequently pass legislation embodying statutory offences, but is this one necessary?

Mr. Manuel

While I would not accuse the hon. and learned Gentleman of being over-emotional about this, I suggest that he is rather over-stating the case when he says that the resolution of the local authority will take effect in 14 days, because new Clause 3 states: As soon as may be after a resolution … is passed … the authority shall cause a copy of the resolution to be published in two successive weeks in one or more newspapers circulating in their area …". Surely this would mean that the matter would remain open for more than 14 days?

Mr. Wylie

I agree that there must be a statutory notice. That is in contrast with subsection (2,a) of new Clause 3, which refers to … the expiration of the period of seven years beginning with the day when those provisions ceased or last ceased to apply …". I am obliged to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) for raising the question of the newspaper advertisement. Is it right that people should be capable of contravening a statutory offence on the basis of a newspaper advertisement? If the Government intend to incorporate this sort of thing, I should have thought that the only fair way of doing so would be for them to make sure that the matter is brought to the notice of the person who is liable to commit the offence, and the best way to do that would be in the valuation notice. If a notification of this kind were incorporated in the valuation notice the objection on the newspaper advertisement point would fall and there would be no doubt that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the local authority had brought the present state of affairs to the notice of the ratepayer.

5.15 p.m.

We return to the question: is this all really necessary? I do not know the ratio of unoccupied houses throughout the country, but I imagine that it is very small. I believe that in Glasgow, for example, one house in every 55 is unoccupied—and there may be a variety of reasons for many houses being unoccupied, remembering that many of them must be local authority houses.

From my experience in Edinburgh, I assure the House—and these cases are brought to my attention when I meet my constituents to hear their problems each Friday night—that I am often told, "There are a couple of local authority houses up the road and they have been empty for weeks." I have never been able to understand why local authority administrators cannot evolve a system which prevents local authority houses from lying unoccupied for weeks, even months, when housing is urgently needed. Part of the problem is a local authority problem to which the new Clauses do not apply.

Is it necessary to have the provisions of Clause 20, remembering that that Clause provides that one will get 50 per cent. derating if one has unoccupied property? As hon. Members have pointed out, it is often in the interests of the owner to notify his local authority to get the derating. However, one wonders whether it is justified to impose a statutory obligation of this nature on the whole community of people who happen to own unoccupied houses. I do not wish to elaborate this point now. I hope that the Minister will take both Clauses away and think about them again because, as drafted, they are iniquitous.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I will do nothing of the kind, and I will explain why. It is clear from the proceedings in Committee that the Government took this problem very seriously. I regret, indeed I am surprised at, the division of opinion which there seems to be among hon. Gentlemen opposite on this issue. The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) stated the position as I understood it to apply, but now I begin to wonder if hon. Gentlemen opposite are agreed about this problem.

The Government agree that there is a problem. Do hon. Gentlemen opposite suggest that we should do little or nothing particularly effective about it because we cannot measure it? I have explained why we did not have the figures to quantify the problem in any part of Scotland or in Scotland as a whole. Some people might make projections or guesses, but I am not content to give the House of Commons simply that sort of information. I prefer to give more accurate information and when we get the processing done from the housing survey, to which I referred the other day, we will get more precise figures.

Much play has been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite of the penalty aspect of this provision. We discussed this with the local authorities, and I was under an obligation to discuss it with them. Not all my hon. Friends who spoke on this issue in Committee have spoken today. They made determined speeches in Committee and, while they may have sat silent today, they are keenly aware of this problem. It was in response to the speeches made in Committee that I felt obliged to consult the Secretary of State and the local authorities about this matter.

It is true that the arguments were different, first about the onus of proof, on which I thought we had persuaded hon. Gentlemen opposite that we were right and they were wrong. They had the onus of proof on the local authorities in the 1956 Act and that did not work. That is not merely my opinion but the view of the local authorities. If the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands. (Mr. Wylie) will read our Committee proceedings he will see that at our Sixth Sitting he said: I understand that difficulty, but it could be overcome in a moment by shifting the onus from the local authorities to prove absence of reasonable cause on to the owner to prove reasonable cause. I responded: That is exactly what we are seeking to do. We are leaving it to the local authority permissively to decide whether the owner concerned has conducted his affairs in a reasonable way."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 14th July, 1966; c. 316.] The important thing is that we must make a change. Local authorities complained that the Act passed 10 years ago was ineffective and unworkable and that, therefore, a change must be made, Hence, the Government moulded their later Clause on this switch from one onus of proof to another. I thought that that argument was all over and that we had convinced hon. Gentlemen opposite of the necessity for this change. If the argument is not all over, it is news to me.

Mr. G. Campbell

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when we were arguing at that time, we were discussing Clause 20, which is concerned with the whole question of whether or not empty houses should be rated at a certain percentage. We talked about the onus of proof and the reasons why houses may remain empty, perhaps because they are being modernised or improved or because they are being kept empty for an agricultural worker. The two new Clauses, however, place on the individual the responsibility of supplying information—to give notification—and it is the heavy penalty attaching to that to which we are objecting.

Dr. Mabon

The hon. Gentleman has not described the Committee proceedings accurately. Clause 20, to which we all will come later, is not concerned merely with that percentage. That was argued out in Committee. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) felt strongly that it should not be 50 per cent. but much less. I insist, and the local authorities back me to a man, that Clause 20 has a more important aspect; that by switching the onus of proof we have made the provision live and sustainable in the courts, and workable, which is more than can be said about the 1956 Act.

Mr. Wylie

What has that to do with new Clauses 3 and 4, which are the machinery for obtaining information?

Dr. Mabon

If hon. Gentlemen opposite will stop interrupting me I will get on with my explanation. I apologise for being rather irritable about this. I have been disappointed by hon. Gentlemen opposite and by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter) and the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson). I thought that a great deal of this had been agreed in Committee. I am disappointed at this response to the Government's reasonable attempt to complement what they propose to do in Clause 20, to which we will come later. I regret this sequence of events. It might have been better had we discussed the Clause 20 argument first and taken these new Clauses later, but that could not be done because of the procedure of the House. We must take the two Clauses now, and they are complementary to what is proposed in Clause 20.

A number of points were made about Clause 20. Some of my hon. Friends—the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West cannot run away from this; he supported them—wanted the figure of commitment to be 100 per cent. and did not want a time limit of three months. They wanted it to take effect immediately.

Mr. James Davidson

I have been accused of inconsistency once or twice already. This is quite unjustified. I opposed the whole principle of derating of unoccupied houses. I pointed out that rating on site valuation would force unoccupied houses into occupation and force the development of undeveloped sites. If rating were on site valuation, the whole question of forcing individuals to report that their houses were unoccupied would disappear. Rating on site valuation would continue right through. I cannot support Clauses which impose penalties on those who fail to report that their houses are unoccupied, particularly as I have said that I disagree with the whole principle of derating of unoccupied houses.

Dr. Mabon

The hon. Gentleman cannot skate away on an argument about site value rating. We discussed this topic on Second Reading. It was then recognised that we could not make this change in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman may regret that; but, the decision having been taken not to include it in the Bill, he cannot use it as an alibi for failing to measure up to the demands made by different Clauses. I did not make the hon. Gentleman say that. He said in Committee, to my surprise and delight, that he believed that unoccupied property should carry its full share of the rates and that the landlord ought to pay what the occupier previously paid.

Mr. James Davidson rose——

Dr. Mabon

I am constantly being interrupted.

Mr. Davidson

I am sorry. This is an important point. I am being accused of inconsistency. I deny this. If unoccupied property should continue to bear the full rating value, the whole point of reporting if it is unoccupied does not arise. I most strongly oppose the Clause which compels information to be given if a property is unoccupied and imposes penalties if the information is not given. If rating continued whether property was unoccupied or not, this would not arise.

Dr. Mabon

If the hon. Gentleman wanted that to be the case, he could easily have moved a new Clause to make it mandatory, not permissive, on the local authority to secure that all landlords should pay for empty property where these circumstances are applicable. The hon. Gentleman was free to do that but chose not to do so, presumably because he thought that the half-baked compromise, as I think he called it, which the Government proposed here was acceptable. He even said that it was a conservative Clause and was not adequate for him. If it is not adequate for the hon. Gentleman, why did he not seek to improve it?

I come to the purpose of new Clause 3 and 4 in relation to the hon. Gentleman's own argument and to show the inconsistency of it. Ex-occupiers do not tell the local authority that they have left their houses until they receive a demand. This is done from October to December, so there are only three months or so in the year when a local authority knows from its rating accounts whether property is empty. We took the view that this is just not good enough. Local authorities with a severe housing shortage should have a right to know as soon as possible so that they can take steps to get empty houses tenanted. This was argued out in Committee and accepted.

Mr. Galbraith rose——

Dr. Mabon

I have been interrupted so often. I must be given a chance to make a consistent statement, comprehensive in its nature, because it all hangs together.

It has been argued that somehow or other local authorities get this information. They do not. In my discussions with the local authorities they protested that they lacked information and lacked the ability or the statutory right to get it. They can get it in retrospect, admittedly, but we are not talking about getting it in retrospect. We are talking about the moment of action. The purpose of the Clause is not financial. The local authorities recognise that. They are not primarily concerned with getting money out of landlords.

An Hon. Member

What do they want it for?

Dr. Mabon

They want it to ensure that the social crime does not occur through criminal negligence, as some people have described it—call it what you will—of houses being unreasonably kept empty.

Mr. Galbraith

Will the Under-Secretary explain how local authorities, having got the information, will proceed to prevent the social crime? What are they to do?

Dr. Mabon

The fact is that they will proceed under new Clauses 3 and 4 and then they will be able to decide, as they have a right to decide, whether the landlord concerned has behaved reasonably or otherwise. If they take the view that he has behaved otherwise than reasonably, they can charge him rates, or a percentage which we shall no doubt later agree, for the time that they think that the property has been kept vacant unreasonably.

The onus of proof now lies on the landlord. This is a major shift. I am disappointed that we are not getting an endorsement of this from the Opposition. I thought that this had been agreed. If it is not agreed—the Opposition, by voting against these Clauses, as they intend to, will make it clear that it is not agreed—the Tory Party is once again back into its old posture of defending landlords and not giving a damn for tenants or anybody else, for that matter.

Mr. G. Campbell

I should like to respond to that. As I said before, it was on the question of why the house was empty that we talked about the onus of proof, not simply notification that a house has been empty after three months. The Under-Secretary has raised a new point, which is that local authorities wish to have this information so that they can help to get a house re-tenanted. In the case of the Service man I mentioned, will the local authority help him to re-let his house? If so, this is a new concept.

Dr. Mabon

I cannot remember if the hon. Gentleman was present through all the stages of the Rent Bill. I sat through them all. I remember the argument about Service men being raised many times unreasonably to weaken the provisions of the Bill. A Service man is no different from other owners of property. A Service man letting his house must ensure that someone is left in charge to look after the house, quite apart from the person coming in in a contractual relationship with him as a tenant. There must be someone, perhaps a bank manager who is responsible for the payment of various charges on the house, perhaps running payments of different kinds. There must be a friend, if not a bank manager, who is responsible in case the house is damaged or in case the tenant behaves unreasonably while the service man is serving his country out in Brunei, or wherever it may be. One would expect that the local authority would try to ensure that these owners were properly notified.

One of the few constructive points which have been made was that made by the hon. and learned Member for Pentlands about valuation notices. I take this point. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman is right. He usually is. I will certainly look into it and see if it is a fair point. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig), if there are defects in the procedure we should naturally want to look into that aspect. If some of my hon. Friends who have not spoken care to write to me about any points of doubt they have, we shall certainly consider the points they raise. We shall improve the Clause, if it is possible.

In our discussions with the local authority associations it was made clear to us that, if we were to have any change in Clause 20, but not the full change demanded by my hon. Friends and with no change in the time interval, we had to have some system of retrospection.

As for the penalty, about which several points were made, may I ask this question? If it is reasonable for us to have this procedure or some modified form of this procedure on which to hang new Clauses 3 and 4 and make Clause 20 sensible, is it suggested that we should strike out the penalty? Perhaps I may repeat a question put to me by one of the treasurers. He said, "If that is the case, is there to be a penalty? If there is not to be a penalty, it will not work". The treasurer was impeccable in his logic. If there is no penalty it is conceivable that this will not work.

5.30 p.m.

The Government make this provision with great reluctance. We do not want to introduce penalties if they can be avoided. The impression must not get about that the Government have been indolent about this. I have worked very hard on it and my right hon. Friend has been most concerned to get the right answer. These two new Clauses, with Clause 20, are essential parts of the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends may have reservations as to procedure in one or two cases, but I ask them to stand with the Government on this issue for the sake of the local authorities and of those desperate for houses.

Mr. Wylie

Does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that, in the example he gave of the bank manager administering property in the absence of the owner, if the bank manager fails to notify the vacancy of the property then the owner is automatically guilty of a statutory offence, and not the bank manager? My understanding of the Summary Jurisdiction Act is that if there is failure to pay a fine of £20, imprisonment will follow. Is that right?

Dr. Mabon

I have a list here of all the people who might be involved-solicitors and others—in charge of property. It would be an imprudent owner who decided that he would not leave anyone in charge of his property. That would be a remarkable situation. There are other Acts which impose penalties for various things which landlords fail to carry out but I will not go into that list now, for it is so long.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands is usually very good on these matters but I do not understand him on this. Does he say that there is a defect in the penalty and that there should be some other form of procedure? There is no other way than simply to adopt a procedure of this kind. This is the best that the Government and the local authorities have been able to devise and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

We have listened with no small annoyance to the hon. Gentleman. Throughout his reply he referred to the basic problem contained in Clause 20 later on and not to the detailed questions we put to him about the way in which the notification procedure will be administered. He has failed to answer many specific points.

The tragedy is that, while we are going forward with a procedure which could drive some innocent people unknowingly into a situation of committing an offence, the hon. Gentleman has little if any idea of the nature and extent of that procedure. We have been told that the

local authorities and others have been complaining about the extent of the problem but he has given no indication as to how many of the houses involved were municipal houses, how many were in redevelopment areas where it would not be appropriate to have new tenants, and how many were properties of such low assessments that the Clause would not be a deterrent.

What concerns us is that innocent people will be put in a position, if they are not aware of the provisions, of being guilty of an offence if their property remains empty and they do not inform the local authority. It is all very well to say that people can read items in the newspapers but there are many statutory notices already in the Press, particularly under this Government. This is another example of the Government's obsession with regimentation and proposals which will drive people into the position of being criminals.

The Government have not proved their case and as usual the hon. Gentleman, instead of paying attention to the case put by us and the reservations expressed by his hon. Friends, has blustered his way through without answering the questions put to him. In these circumstances, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends and all others who see the injustice of this Clause to vote against it.

Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 223, Noes 143.

Division No. 197.] AYES [5.33 p.m.
Abse, Leo Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Dobson, Ray
Albu, Austen Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Doig, Peter
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Cant, R. B. Donnelly, Desmond
Alldritt, Walter Carter-Jones, Lewis Driberg, Tom
Allen, Scholefield Chapman, Donald Dunn, James A.
Archer, Peter Coe, Dennis Dunnett, Jack
Armstrong, Ernest Coleman, Donald Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Exeter)
Ashley, Jack Concannon, J. D. Dunwoody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.) Conlan, Bernard Eadie, Alex
Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Edelman, Maurice
Barnett, Joel Crawshaw, Richard Edwards, Rt. Hn. Ness (Caerphilly)
Bence, Cyril Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony Edwards, Robert (Bilston)
Bennett, James (G'gow, Bridgeton) Cullen, Mrs. Alice Ellis, John
Binns, John Dalyell, Tam English, Michael
Bishop, E. S. Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Ensor, David
Blackburn, F. Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Evans, Albert (Islington, S. W.)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley)
Boardman, H. Davies, Ednyfed Hudson (Conway) Faulds, Andrew
Booth, Albert Davies, Ifor (Gower) Fernyhough, E.
Boston, Terence Davies, Robert (Cambridge) Finch, Harold
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. de Freitas, Sir Geoffrey Fitt, Gerard (Belfast, W.)
Bradley, Tom Dell, Edmund Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)
Brooks, Edwin Dempsey, James Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Dewar, Donald Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale)
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W) Diamond, Rt. Hn. John Ford, Ben
Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & F'bury) Dickens, James Forrester, John
Fowler, Gerry Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Pursey, Cmdr. Harry
Fraser, Rt. Hn. Tom (Hamilton) McBride, Neil Rankin, John
Galpern, Sir Myer McCann, John Redhead, Edward
Gardner, Tony MacColl, James Rees, Merlyn
Garrett, W. E. Macdonald, A. H. Rhodes, Geoffrey
Garrow, Alex McGuire, Michael Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon)
Ginsburg, David Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherghen) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Greenwood Rt. Hn. Anthony Mackie, John Robinson, W. O. J. (Walth'stow, E.)
Gregory, Arnold Mackintosh, John P. Rose, Paul
Grey, Charles (Durham) Maclennan, Robert Ross, Rt. Hn. William
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.) Rowlands, E. (Cardiff, N.)
Griffiths, Rt. Hn. James (Lianelly) McNamara, J. Kevin Sheldon, Robert
Hale, Leslie (Oldham, W.) MacPherson, Malcolm Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Mahon, Simon (Bootle) Silverman, Julius (Aston)
Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) Manuel, Archie Silverman, Sydney (Nelson)
Hamling, William Mapp, Charles Slater, Joseph
Hannan, William Marsh, Rt. Hn. Richard Small, William
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Maxwell, Robert Snow, Julian
Haseldine, Norman Mendelson, J. J. Spriggs, Leslie
Hazell, Bert Millan, Bruce Steele, Thomas (Dumbartonshire, W.)
Heffer, Eric S. Miller, Dr. M. S. Summerskill, Hn. Dr. Shirley
Henig, Stanley Milne, Edward (Blyth) Thomas, George (Cardiff, w.)
Herbison, Rt. Hn. Margaret Molloy, William Thomas, Iorwerth (Rhondda, W.)
Hooley, Frank Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Thornton, Ernest
Horner, John Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Tinn, James
Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Moyle, Roland Tomney, Frank
Howarth, Harry (Wellingborough) Newens, Stan Tuck, Raphael
Howie, W. Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon) Varley, Eric G.
Hughes, Emrys (Ayrshire, S.) Oakes, Gordon Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Ogden, Eric Wallace, George
Hughes, Roy (Newport) O'Malley, Brian Watkins, David (Consett)
Hunter, Adam Orme, Stanley Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor)
Hynd, John Oswald, Thomas Wellbeloved, James
Jackson, Peter M. (High Peak) Owen, Will (Morpeth) Whitlock, William
Janner, Sir Barnett Padley, Walter Wilkins, W. A.
Jeger, George (Goole) Page, Derek (King's Lynn) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Paget, R. T. Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.) Palmer, Arthur Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Park, Trevor Willis, George (Edinburgh, E.)
Judd, Frank Parker, John (Dagenham) Wilson, Rt. Hn. Harold (Huyton)
Kelley, Richard Parkin, Ben (Paddington, N.) Winterbottom, R. E.
Kenyon, Clifford Pavitt, Laurence Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.
Kerr, Dr. David (W'worth, Central) Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd) Woof, Robert
Lawton, George Pentland, Norman Yates, Victor
Lipton, Marcus Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.) Zilliacus, K.
Lomas, Kenneth Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
Loughlin, Charles Price, Thomas (Westhoughton) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Luard, Evan Price, William (Rugby) Mr. Alan Fitch and
Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Probert, Arthur Mr. Harry Gourlay
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Dodds-Parker, Douglas Holland, Philip
Astor, John Doughty, Charles Hooson, Emlyn
Atkins, Humphrey (M'tn & M'd'n) Eden, Sir John Howell, David (Guildford)
Baker, W. H. K. Elliot, Capt. Waller (Carshalton) Hunt, John
Batsford, Brian Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Hutchison, Michael Clark
Baxter, William Errington, Sir Eric Jennings, J. C. (Burton)
Bell, Ronald Eyre, Reginald Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay) Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Jopling, Michael
Black, Sir Cyril Fortescue, Tim Kaberry, Sir Donald
Blaker, Peter Galbraith, Hn. T. G. King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.)
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Gibson-Watt, David Kirk, Peter
Braine, Bernard Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Kitson, Timothy
Brinton, Sir Tatton Goodhew, Victor Knight, Mrs. Jill
Bromley-Davenport, Lt.-Col. Sir Walter Gower, Raymond Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone)
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Grant, Anthony Lubbock, Eric
Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N&M) Gresham Cooke, R. McAdden, Sir Stephen
Bullus, Sir Eric Griffiths, Eidon (Bury St. Edmunds) MacArthur, Ian
Burden, F. A. Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. Mackenzie, Alasdair (Ross&Crom'ty)
Campbell Gordon Gurden, Harold Maclean, Sir Fitzroy
Cary, Sir Robert Hall, John (Wycombe) Maginnis, John E.
Cooke, Robert Hall-Davis, A. G. P. Maude, Angus
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Mawby, Ray
Corfield, F. V. Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N. W.) Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.
Costain, A. P. Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C.
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere Mille, Peter (Torrington)
Crawley, Aidan Hawkins, Paul Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.)
Cunningham, Sir Knox Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Monro, Hector
Currie, G. B. H. Heath, Rt. Hn. Edward More, Jasper
Dalkeith, Earl of Heseltine, Michael Morrison, Charles (Devizes)
Dance, James Hiley, Joseph Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Hobson, Rt. Hn. Sir John Murton, Oscar
Dean, Paul (Somerset N.) Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin Nabarro, Sir Gerald
Nicholls, Sir Harmar Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Onslow, Cranley Royle, Anthony Walker, Peter (Worcester)
Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth) Russell, Sir Ronald Walter, Dennis
Page, Graham (Crosby) Scott, Nicholas Weatherill, Bernard
Page, John (Harrow, W.) Sharples, Richard Webster, David
Pardoe, John Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby) Wells, John (Maidstone)
Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe) Smith, John Whitelaw, William
Percival, Ian Steel, David (Roxburgh) Willis, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Pike, Miss Mervyn Stodart, Anthony Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Pink, R. Bonner Summers, Sir Spencer Winstanley, Dr. M. P.
Pounder, Rafton Talbot, John E. Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Prior, J. M. L, Taylor, Edward M.(G'gow, Cathcart) Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard
Pym, Francis Taylor, Frank (Moss Side) Wylie, N. R.
Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James Temple, John M.
Ridley, Hn. Nicholas Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Ridsdale, Julian Thorpe, Jeremy Mr. David Mitchell and
Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks) Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H. Mr. George Younger.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.