HC Deb 26 October 1966 vol 734 cc1209-15
Mr. Clegg

I beg to move Amendment No. 22, in page 13, line 18 at the end to insert: (6) Notwithstanding the establishment of the Commission by statute and notwithstanding the compulsory acquisition of land by the Commission a tenant of land in which there is for the time being an interest belonging to the Commission shall have the same rights and liabilities in respect of his tenancy and of the land subject thereto as if the Commission were a person not established by statute; and in addition the Commission shall ensure that suitable alternative accommodation shall be provided for any lawful occupier of such land who may be displaced by the exercise of the functions of the Commission in the acquisition, management or disposal of such land. Whilst on the last few Amendments all has been sweetness and light on both sides of the Border, I doubt whether that situation will last much longer. However, I must confess that in Committee there were some murmurings of sympathy from the right hon. Gentleman and, indeed, from the Parliamentary Secretary. The Parliamentary Secretary said that he would look at this matter again.

This subsection which we seek to insert is designed to protect the rights of tenants where land is purchased by the Commission. We think this is very necessary. Indeed, in Committee we moved a somewhat similar Amendment to give tenants the right to have alternative accommodation provided for them by the Commission.

We had in mind three types of tenants, and I should like to discuss them separately. The first type, and possibly those most affected, would be residential tenants. In Committee the Parliamentary Secretary said that residential tenants would have some protection under the Rent Act. But I am afraid that the only protection that I can see they have under that Act is that the Crown must, as all other landlords must, go to court to obtain an order for possession. The Crown cannot take direct action. However, I think that is as far as it goes. As I understand the position, a residential tenant protected by the Rent Act would not be able to raise the same defences against the Crown, and therefore against the Commission, that he could raise against a. private landlord. Therefore, there has been a derogation from the position of the tenant once the Commission becomes his landlord.

This is very important. Indeed, the Parliamentary Secretary went on to say that in these cases the Commission would always rehouse the tenants. I have no doubt that he genuinely meant that. But the Commission will be a body the like of which we have never seen before It is quite different from a local authority which has the duty of rehousing. This is a Commission, albeit with local offices, but which will sit in Newcastle-on-Tyne. It may well have difficulty in organising alternative accommodation for tenants. If the Parliamentary Secretary argues that the Commission would rehouse, I can see no objection to giving the tenants that right by Statute. If that is to be the intention of the Commission, why not record it and give the tenants a right under the Statute?

The Minister may argue that the Commission, being a public body, will look after things in a responsible fashion. But I do not accept that public bodies are always that responsible. In my maiden speech in this House, I said that it was time we had a tenants' charter for council house tenants, and councils are democratically elected. We on this side feel that the rights of tenants should be protected in the Bill so that they have a right of recourse to the courts should the Commission not provide them with alternative accommodation and so that they should suffer no derogation.

The other class is the business tenants, whose interests the Minister said would be protected by Part II of the 1954 Act. But it seems that there would be some derogation from that by virtue of the Commission being a Crown body. I quote from Halsbury's Laws of England, Volume 23, paragraph 1735, dealing with modification on grounds of public interest. Where the interest of the landlord or any superior landlord in the property comprised in any tenancy belongs to or is held for the purposes of a government department or is held by a local authority, statutory undertakers or a development corporation, to the Minister or board in charge of any Government Department may certify that it is requisite for the purposes of such landlord that the use or occupation of the property, or part of it, be changed by a particular date. This seems a right which the tenant would lose by virtue of the landlord being the Land Commission. Then there is the question of agricultural tenants, and while the Agricultural Holdings Act applies to the Crown, there is here a derogation, although it may be only slight. Halsbury, Volume 1, on page 333, says: The Agricultural Holdings Act, 1948, applies to land belonging to Her Majesty in right of the Crown and of the Duchy of Lancaster, and to land belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall, and also to land the interest of the landlord or tenant of which is held on behalf of Her Majesty for the purposes of any Government department, subject to such modifications as may be prescribed. Again we have a whittling away of the rights of tenants once the Crown, through the Commission, comes to hold the land.

There is another question, a sort of proposition in futuro. The Government are proposing to bring in a leasehold reform Measure enabling tenants to buy in their leases. How will it be affected when the Land Commission is the leaseholder? Will the tenant be able to purchase the interest from the Commission as from a private landlord? It is such questions as this that make us believe that tenants should be fully protected. Indeed, I am not alone in believing that this should be so because, in Standing Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland (Mr. L. Alldritt) said: I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister if he will look at this problem, particularly the first point in relation to the occupiers of residential property. It is all very well to say that the Rent Act protects them, but I have seen this sort of scheme in operation, where a local authority desires a certain property for the development of some scheme; it goes to its Committee, it takes a decision to serve the notice to acquire the premises, it is decided that the legal department should proceed from there, and at the same time an offer of alternative accommodation will be made. I have frequently known cases where the local authority has not been able to produce the kind of property which should be offered to that person, and quite often no offer has been made by the time the legal department has gone to court for the order. At the end of six weeks the sheriff's officer has appeared and no offer has been made. The same thing can happen here unless it is made explicit."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 12th July, 1966; c. 391.] Thus, these sentiments come from both sides. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will give expression to his intention, for he has said that he intends that the Commission should be a fair landlord. We ask that the rights of the tenant should be enshrined in the Bill and not left to the discretion of the Commission.

Sir D. Glover

I support the Amendment, for it is rather important. One of my reasons for so doing is the quotation from the Committee stage which my hon. Friend the Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) has just read. One of the troubles with a local authority in this sort of situation is that it finds it difficult to provide alternative accommodation, and unless there is specific provision, the Commission will be tempted not to do what is necessary. I know that the Commission will have the best intentions in the world, but it is not easy to rehouse ordinary people in homes or businesses in business and it may involve considerable expense.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland (Mr. Alldritt) pointed out, even a city like Liverpool has difficulty finding the sort of accommodation required to carry out its obligations, but it has to do so because of its statutory obligations. The Land Commission will not have facilities like the City of Liverpool and will find it much more difficult to carry out what the Minister intends—and I accept his assurance that it would be the intention to do all this. It will be much safer if the provision is written into the Bill and I am sure that every person affected would feel a much greater sense of assurance if protected by the Statute itself.

I would have thought that this was the one Amendment which the Minister and his advisers would welcome with open arms tonight, because they are in much the same sort of position as the people we are discussing. They are themselves about to be evicted and are looking for alternative accommodation. I am sure that in their hearts they have the sort of feelings which will be shared by those concerned if the Amendment is not accepted. They are now experiencing uncertainty about the future. The intention would not be altered, but much more assurance would be given if the right hon. Gentleman accepted the Amendment.

Mr. Willey

Of course I respond to the invitation to be sympathetic. The hon. Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) anticipated that I would say that the Commission was a responsible body and would act in a responsible way, and he and the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) assumed that I would say that the Commission would make arrangements with the local authority concerned.

But the Amendment would go much further than anything in the Ninth Schedule of the 1957 Housing Act. The difficulty about imposing such a statutory obligation on the Commission is that the Commission is to be a Crown body and any corsideration of placing obligations on a Crown body would have to be undertaken in another way. I do not think that we could deal with that subject only in the context of the Land Commission.

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page

That is a very brief reply to a very important Amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for North Fylde (Mr. Clegg) set out in some detail the difficulties which will arise over tenants if the Commission uses its legal rights, and there is no reason to suppose that the Commission will not use these rights. It may have a responsibility towards them, but it may also feel that it has a responsibility to people other than the tenants of property which it takes over. After all, these tenants are one or two people among perhaps a mass of people for whom the Commission may feel responsible in developing some property and to house them.

This may apply to residential, business and agricultural tenants. My hon. Friend also asked about the position of the leaseholder, who is to have the right to purchase his property, if the right hon. Gentleman's Bill on that subject comes forward. The Parliamentary Secretary has said that the Commission will be a commercial undertaking. It should accept the responsibilities of a normal landlord and not seek to hide behind its Crown privilege. This all arises from the fact that the right hon. Gentleman insisted on making the Commission a Crown body, despite our arguments in Committee.

Now that it is a Crown body, as the Bill stands, its powers over tenants in particular should be restricted and Parliament should not authorise it, as it will do without a Clause of this sort, to use its legal rights to evict its tenants. The local authorities, when they acquire residential property compusorily, are obliged to give an assurance to the Minister that they will be able to find suitable accommodation for those who will be affected by the development which they intend to undertake.

Why should not the Commission be similarly obliged? The right hon. Gentleman has misconceived the position of his own creation. Once he has set up this body, with certain legal rights, it will be the duty of that body to use those rights to the advantage of the greatest number of people that it is serving. If there are one or two tenants, who ought to be found alternative accommodation, but the Commission cannot find it, then it is seriously going to give consideration, unless it is obliged by the Bill to do so, to these tenants? It may well say that this is a most important development which is going to serve 1,000 people and that it cannot pay attention to the tenants in a house, and that they must go, for the benefit of the 1,000 people who are to be housed. It would be perfectly correct to use its legal powers in that way. What we want to do is to prevent it doing that and to force it to take into account the hardship which it may be causing to the one or two tenants.

Mr. Rossi

May I mention one incidental point, regarding the position of sitting tenants in controlled private residential tenancies under the Rent Acts? One has the assurance of the Minister, which one accepts, that if the Land Commission takes over a private property in which there are controlled tenants, it will continue to act as a good landlord and the tenant may have no fear at all.

Has it occurred to the Minister that the tenants will be losing a valuable proprietorial right, which has a definite cash value to them? A sitting tenant in rent-controlled property enjoys something that he can sell to the owner for quite considerable sums of money. There is quite a difference between the value of a house without vacant possession and the value of a house with a sitting tenant. The sitting tenant holds that value. It is a very frequent transaction for the sitting tenant to be paid to go. He receives a capital sum which very often enables him to pay the deposit for his own home. When the Land Commission steps in, immediately, overnight, he loses that cash value.

I would like the Minister to consider this situation to see whether there is a way of compensating sitting tenants under the Rent Act for this cash value of which they will be deprived if the Bill continues in its present form.

Amendment negatived.