HC Deb 26 March 1968 vol 761 cc1467-73

7.57 a.m.

Mr. A. H. Macdonald (Chislehurst)

After the significant speech which we have just heard I hope that it is not too disagreeable if I come back to domestic affairs. I should like to address some remarks to the operation of the rate rebate scheme.

This scheme has been well received and I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who can testify that constituents have found it of material assistance to them in the conduct of their financial affairs. In some respects the publicity for the scheme has been deficient. Not everybody who qualifies for a rebate is aware of the facilities. The scheme has been quite well advertised, but I am a little sceptical about the merits of advertising in this kind of situation. Advertisements are effective when the audiences are prepared beforehand to realise that the advertisements refer to them and can mean direct benefit to them. I am not sure that the people who have read the advertisements realise that the scheme applies to them and that it was something for which they could apply.

In the case of owner-occupiers I am satisfied that there has been no difficulty. A leaflet was circulated with the rate demand on the first occasion after the introduction of the scheme. At the time a rate demand is received the desire of the ratepayer to reduce the rate demand is at its height and therefore the impact of the leaflet is very great. There was a little initial difficulty in getting across to council tenants that they too may qualify for the rate rebate because they pay an inclusive rent. I believe that most local authorities have taken satisfactory steps to make their tenants aware of the facilities available, but I should like to know if the Ministry has satisfied itself that local authorities have done the necessary work in this connection.

In the main, I am satisfied that people in those two categories who might qualify know about the position. I assume that there will be further publicity, because we are about to extend the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 16th January: … we intend to raise the income limits for the Rate Rebate Scheme in the coming autumn. The qualifying limit for the full rebate will be raised for single persons from £8 per week to £9 per week, and from £10 to £11 for married couples;…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th January, 1968; Vol. 756, c. 1586.] Because there are new limits, new people will be included, and therefore new publicity is desirable.

The third category of people who may qualify for the scheme are private tenants. I am not satisfied that all who may qualify for rate rebate facilities know that they may do so. How can they know? By the very nature of their circumstances they receive no rate demand. Therefore, I suggest that information about the operation of the scheme be included in the rent book that private tenants must have. I am advised that no legislation is necessary, because powers exist to make regulations in this connection. The Government already by regulation insist that certain information must appear in the rent books of tenants, and I presume that what has been done in one connection may be done in another.

I take it for granted that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is very familiar with what appears in a rent book. I am not quite so familiar with it, and therefore I have refreshed my memory. In the sample form of rent book I have here I was interested to see that in addition to information about the rent there is a section to display the owner's name and address, a section summarising extracts from the Housing Act, 1957, and a section setting out regulations applying to a regulated tenancy. In the book that I have here there is also a little section with something about pigeons, but I take it that that is a requirement of the particular landlord and is nothing statutory. If there may be all those things in the tenant's rent book, surely it should be possible to include a little section dealing with the rate rebate scheme?

I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend from time to time over a considerable period. In a letter to me dated 30th May, 1967, he said: … it is one thing to require landlords in their rent books to provide information about tenants' rights in relation to their tenancies and another thing to compel them to give information about tenants' rights in relation to the local authority. I take that point, but on the front of the specimen rent book to which I have already referred, not tucked away inside, and incidentally in heavy type, there is this: Attention is called to the fact that as the Landlord acts as Collector of Rates, which the Tenant would otherwise have to pay direct to the Rates Office, any increase in the rates may involve an increase in the Rent ". Therefore, I say that there is already reference to rates in the information which appears on the rent book.

In September last year, I returned to the charge and again entered into correspondence with my hon. Friend. In a letter dated 16th October, he said: Most rent books last for a long period and unless it could be got over to the landlords that there had been a change in the statutory requirements and the landlords could be persuaded to bring current rent books up to date we should not begin to reach our goal. My hon. Friend has been helpful and courteous, but I felt disconsolate when I read that reply, because if that argument were followed it would be equally valid against tie proposal to put anything at all in the tenant's rent book. But we have insisted that some things should appear and I do not see why this argument should be an argument against putting anything in about the rate rebate scheme. I beg him to think again about this. In the first place, we are about to increase the limits of the scheme and it is necessary to consider how publicity can best be obtained.

Secondly, there can be a need to inquire whether landlords generally are complying with existing law about the information which must appear in the rent book. I have already referred to the fact that that information, for example, about the rent officer, must appear in tenant's rent books. We have made regulations to this effect and in the model rent book from which I have quoted this information appears. I should like to know whether it appears in all rent books, and what action my hon. Friend can usefully take to see that existing statutory requirements are fulfilled.

I quote again from his letter of 16th October: Let me say at once that our essential problem I believe, relates only to the small landlord, who may own only one or two properties, or may even only let off part of his house. He or she may well be no better informed about the law than the tenant. The bigger landlords who are well-informed about the law … are already co-operating with us… Precisely. This is the exact point I want to make. I am satisfied that local authorities and large landlords are co-operating and making tenants properly aware of the facilities available to them. But I am anxious about the tenants of small landlords who, I suspect, are not so happily placed. My hon. Friend can hardly have it both ways. If we can now require by regulation that certain information should appear in rent books, I should like to be fully satisfied that this requirement is enforced. If it can be enforced, I see no objection to further information being included. If there be practical difficulties, how comes it that we already require certain information to appear, if we are not in a position to see that that requirement is carried out?

I hope that my hon. Friend will give careful thought to the need to ensure that everyone knows about this excellent scheme. I have considered all the other methods of publicity which might be available. I thought of the Ministry of Social Security, which, in my constituency at any rate, is very helpful to people who consult it, and if they apply for supplementary benefit the officials consider whether it might not be more advantageous to them to apply under the rate rebate scheme instead. But those who qualify for supplementary benefit are not necessarily the same as those who qualify for rate rebate, so the Ministry of Social Security cannot be the only answer. It is obviously no good relying entirely upon the good will of landlords, because there is nothing in it for them and, therefore, although many of them are helpful, we cannot be sure they all will be.

I do not believe it practical to rely entirely on the local authorities. They may suspect the extent of the problem in their areas but I do not see how they can know the particular people who will qualify. Nor am I satisfied that advertisements reach the people, particularly the elderly, who would be most likely to benefit. I conclude that the suggestion of including this information in the rent book is the most practical method of getting the details of the scheme across.

8.11 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I start by agreeing with what my hon. Friend has said. I think that the rate rebate scheme has been remarkably successful. It has proved a great benefit to those who know about it and I agree with my hon. Friend when he says that it is a worry that more tenants, whether private or council, do not take advantage of it.

From the numbers of people who claim the rebate, it is clear that many people are still not getting it who should get it. I share my hon. Friend's scepticism about the merits of advertising. It is one of our concerns to know how best to get this information across to those who most need it. My hon. Friend put his finger on one of the difficulties when he said that people do not think that this means them. But that would apply also to information in the rent book, because many people with rent books do not qualify for rate rebates and if the information was merely stuck in among other particulars there would be the danger that it would be simply part of routine information which the holders of rent books would not think particularly concerned them. I am sceptical about whether this is the best solution.

Of course we have not been indifferent to the problem. A year ago, we prepared a leaflet which was distributed through Post Offices to all holders of family allowance and pension books. These are people who are not necessarily on supplementary benefit—it is not the people on supplementary benefit we want to reach—and are the sort of people who might be helped in this way.

We have had advertisements in the national Press this year which have emphasised in particular the eligibility of tenants. My right hon. Friend issued a personal message, about which a Press notice was released, in which he drew attention to the position of tenants under the scheme. In my humble way, whenever I make a Ministerial or political speech, I try to get round to the point about tenants and rub in to local authorities and members of the Labour Party and other public spirited people the great importance of seeing that the tenants know what can be done.

Since then we have also been trying to get directly to the tenants by getting rent officers to inform those who go to see them. The officers are able to tell them about the scheme and so this is another channel of help. We have sent a special note to the voluntary, social and welfare organisations, like the councils of social service, old people's welfare councils and community councils, so that they know about the scheme and can explain it. I agree with all my hon. Friend said about rating authorities playing an active part. We recently sent out a questionnaire asking about the effect of what had happened in the last financial year over rebates. That included a question about the methods used locally to bring this scheme to the notice of potential beneficiaries.

That will not only be a jolt to the authorities, but it will also help us to see the most effective ways of getting results. New limits will be coming into force in October and we shall have to launch another publicity campaign. We have explored other ways of doing this which are effective.

To deal with the point of the rent book. I make no point about not having the legal power to do this. My hon. Friend was probably right that it could be done under the Rent Act, 1962. It is of course open for someone to challenge the legality of an order of this sort, because it is not dealing specifically with a tenancy, but is a matter of local government finance. I am only thinking aloud here, because difficulties may arise.

It is a continual battle to get rent books kept up to date with adequate information and it is most important that local authorities should enforce the very strong provisions about what should go in rent books. In 1966 my right hon. Friend the then Minister sent out a special circular asking local authorities to consider what additional steps they could conveniently take to bring the Act to the attention of the public, because there might have been some reluctance to institute proceedings in the past. There is no risk of the landlord taking action against the tenant. The tenant's position is now strengthened as a result of the previous Rent Act.

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about rate rebates, and rent books being kept up to date. It is important to keep them up to date in the limited period for which we have the regulations. It is important to have them conforming to the law and this is a matter upon which I entirely share the views of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Macdonald

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend referring to this circular asking particular questions. Have replies been received, containing suggestions, or if not what replies are expected?

Mr. MacColl

The information about the current financial year was revised and will be coming in towards the end of the year. I will certainly be very interested to see what results we get. Whatever he may think, I can assure my hon. Friend that my heart is in the right place. I am anxious to see some development in the use of rate rebates and firm control over what goes into the rent book.

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