HC Deb 24 May 1968 vol 765 cc1157-65


Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 29, after 'contract, insert 'he does act'.

Mr. Speaker

With this we are to take Amendment No. 5, in line 35, leave out from beginning to end of line 39.

Sir C. Black

The purpose of these Amendments is largely self-evident. We are here dealing with an offence which, with the Bill in its present form, would involve a fine of up to £100 on the first occasion and £500, with a possible six months' imprisonment, on a second or subsequent occasion. We want to be quite clear what it is that a person can be fined these heavy amounts and sent to prison for doing. I am particularly concerned about the words: … withholds services or facilities reasonably required … A man may own a caravan park and wish, for perfectly good reasons, to terminate the use of his land for that purpose. He may give the necessary notices and be left with one caravan on the site occupied by one family either unable or unwilling to move.

If he is compelled to provide services which may be economic if there are 50 or 100 caravans, he might be involved in an enormous loss if he has to continue to provide them for only one caravan. That is to impose an obligation to provide services at what may be a heavy loss virtually in perpetuity, because the Bill contains power for the courts to renew the tenant's occupancy annually time after time. The imposition of such an obligation and these penalties for failure to meet it is serious, and it is a state of affairs which the House ought not to support.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. Gentleman's Amendment says that any act which is done with an intent to cause the occupier to abandon occupation of the caravan, or to remove it from the site, shall be an offence. The phraseology which the hon. Gentleman proposes to leave out limits the kinds of acts for which a landlord would commit an offence. The Amendments have the very opposite effect from the hon. Gentleman's intention. He would make it more difficult for the person in the position which he has described ever to obtain possession, because the owner of the site would not even be able to seek to persuade the occupant to leave, because that would be an act with intent to cause the occupier to abandon occupation of the caravan.

2.45 p.m.

Now that I have explained what the import of the Amendments would be, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press them. To help him further, may I say that the phraseology of lines 35 to 39, which he seeks to leave out, is exactly the same as that of Section 30(3) of the Rent Act, 1965? As he may know if he has read the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings of the Standing Committee, the Bill is closely modelled on the provisions for protection from eviction in the Rent Acts, and it is best to keep words which the courts have experience of interpreting rather than to make the subsection as wide as it would be if the Amendment were accepted.

Mr. Doughty

I am worried about the Clause and about the Amendments. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) keeps referring to the Rent Acts and saying that the phraseology of the two Measures is the same. Unfortunately, the subjects which we are here discussing and those covered by the Rent Acts are different. Apart from demolition orders and things of that sort, nobody suggests that houses and flats can be thinned out to one or two on a site. Nobody suggests that a house can be put on wheels and towed away by a car and treated as a trailer. We are therefore dealing with different subjects.

I have no wish to prevent the hon. Gentleman from getting a Third Reading for his Bill, but his constant references to the similarities between the Bill and the Rent Acts demonstrate a fundamental flaw. If the Rent Acts dealt with mobile houses or mobile flats, he would be able to say that, as we were dealing with exactly the same sort of thing, the phraseology of the two Measures should be the same, but houses and flats are not mobile. No landlord can say that almost every flat on his land has not only been emptied, but removed, and that he is is now left with only one or two tenants for whom he has to provide full services. Such a provision is unnecessarily harsh on any landlord. I hope that the hon. Member for Orpington will realise that and will deal with these two separate matters separately and will not treat a mobile caravan in the same way as an immobile house or flat.

Sir Knox Cunningham

I seek assistance from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It seems dangerous to take certain provision from an Act which deals with permanent houses and permanent flats and apply them in a different context. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Orpington said, but I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House whether the hon. Gentleman is correct, or whether it would be found that the Amendment was helpful because caravans are movable property.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wimble- don (Sir C. Black). Throughout the Committee stage, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) was at pains to point out the similarity between these ephemeral homes and bricks and mortar, which can stand for 100 or 200 years. I take issue with the hon. Member for Orpington on this matter and I hope that the House will accept not only the Amendment, but the other Amendments, in the general realisation throughout the Bill that—

Mr. Speaker

We are dealing only with this Amendment at the moment.

Mr. Wells

I was hoping to avoid having to speak again in the same context. The spirit of the Amendment, and it may be of other matters, is that a caravan is a dwelling for only a limited number of years and should not be given such security and such background to security as is suitable for a permanent home.

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

I am very ready to accede to the request of the hon. and learned Gentleman so far as I can be of any assistance to the House, though those hon. Members who served on the Committee will know that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) was able there to deal with these points himself.

I think that where the House may have misled itself is this. The reason why the Clause of the Bill is parallel to the Section in the Rent Act is not the reason of the dwelling itself. That is not the parallel. The parallel is the illegal action which it is attempting to stop. The Clause deals with three types of offences, what will, under the Bill, become unlawful actions, trying to evict a caravan dweller from a site or caravan on which an agreement is still current; similar actions to evict him after any such agreement has come to an end but without proper legal proceedings; and, to achieve the same end, the bringing of all sorts of pressures I think the House regards, whether applied to caravan dwellers or anybody else, as repugnant.

Of course, there may be every right to obtain possession, but that is provided for by Statute elsewhere. This is a limited Bill, and I assure the House that it is only a holding Bill in relation to this type of case. It is because this type of offence is similar to the type of offence contemplated in the Rent Act that the wording is the same. These are actions which, I hope, will become illegal through the passing of the Bill, but they are certainly repugnant.

Amendment negatived.

Sir C. Black

I beg to move, Amendment No. 7, in page 3, line 9, to leave out '£100' and to insert '£50'.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment we take also Amendment No. 8 in page 3, line 10, leave out '£500' and insert '£100'; and Amendment No. 9, in line 10, leave out 'or to both'.

Sir C. Black

The purpose of the three Amendments is to reduce the penalties which can be imposed for the offences under this part of the Bill. I am aware of the fact that these are penalties which are to be found in the rent restriction Acts and I think the reason why these penalties are imposed was given in the argument which the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) developed just now. These penalties appear to me to be very savage in the circumstances. I think they are far heavier than they ought to be. I do not accept the view that we have got to accept for this Bill the provisions of the rent restriction Acts. Circumstances affecting the licensing of an occupied caravan may be entirely different from the. circumstances of the permanent tenancy of a permanent residence. Therefore, it is not enough to say that we should accept these penalties because they are similar to the penalties prescribed in the rent restriction Acts.

Mr. Lubbock

I hope I am not going to annoy the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) if I have to repeat once again in what I have said before, that these provisions are parallel to those in the Rent Act. That is the very reason why I put them in. To have a different penalty for an offence committed under Clause 3 of the Bill, for what would be exactly the same offence as that defined in the Rent Act, 1965, would, in my view, be highly undesirable. I am afraid it is a questior. of philosophy, on which we may have to disagree, because I think the offences set out in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) are equally to be deplored whether they affect occupiers of caravans or occupiers of permanent dwellings.

I have always taken that view, ever since the Protection from Eviction Bill, 1964. I have spoken on it many times in this House and I do not want to repeat all the arguments I advanced at the time of that Bill or at the time of the Rent Bill, but the point is that people who live in caravans ought to be treated on exactly the same basis as those who live in permanent houses, particularly in being protected from harassment and fear. It is a matter of philosophy. Hon. Members may agree or disagree with it, but once we accept this principle then we could not possibly provide that there should be different penalties for offences under this Clause. I am very sorry to have to say this to the hon. Gentleman, but I could not possibly accept his Amendment.

Mr. Maddan

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) has put his finger on the whole point. He said it depends on the philosophy we adopt and from which we start. If we accept his philosophy, then we can go the whole road with him, but there is very good reason not to accept that philosophy.

If caravan dwellers were on all fours with tenants of houses and flats, then if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will think back to the early years of the beginning of this century, when rent legislation was first introduced, and when, after all, we had had caravans for a long time already, that legislation would have included caravans. The fact is that the rent legislation of the First World War, the rent legislation in the Second World War, and the rent legislation in the years since the Second World War has not embodied the philosophy that caravans are the same as houses or flats and has not embodied the philosophy that caravan dwellers are in the same position as dwellers in houses or flats.

So I think that the hon. Member for Orpington has very carefully constructed an entirely false philosophy with which to beguile us. It sounds so easy, but it is an entirely false philosophy. Having endeavoured to get the House to swallow the Bill at Second Reading, he thinks we have now got to swallow all this without protest, but merely because this Bill was given a Second Reading in no way implied acceptance of this philosophy. It implied the acceptance of provisions relating to residential occupiers, and that they should have some protection, but it did not imply that they should have identical protection with that accorded to dwellers in houses or flats. That is how I think the hon. Gentleman has been misled—by the difficulty of constructing penalties suitable as protection for caravan dwellers. He has been misled by that difficulty and beguiled by it into merely lifting in toto Sections from Acts which were devised for entirely other purposes. I am sorry to have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think if he had been more painstaking from the beginning to get his philosophy right then he would not have got us into these difficulties now.

Mr. John Wells

Of this group of Amendments the one I am keenest about, and the one on which I hope we may have a vote, is Amendment No. 9, and for this reason, that I think it is deplorable, against the background of the nation today, that people should be sent to prison for any offence of this sort, and still more deplorable that, as in this particular case, they should be not only sent to prison but should suffer a very substantial fine as well. Therefore, the removal of the words "or to both" is the most important phraseology. An attempt was made in Committee to remove the prison sentence, which failed, so any new Amendments to that effect would probably not have been selected.

The concept of prison on top of a substantial fine alarms me. No sentence imposed would probably ever be carried out, since, if they were first offenders, these people would receive suspended sentences which would be totally inoperative. Therefore, this is unnecessary verbiage. I hope that, if the hon. Gentleman will not accept the Amendment, my hon. Friends will vote for it.

Mr. Speaker

I should inform the House that I am prepared to allow a Division on one of these Amendments. Whether it should be the third is a matter for those who support them.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Doughty

I support the Amendments, particularly No. 9. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) referred again to following the Rent Act penalties. But he must have overlooked the fact that those Acts deal with something different, with the lease, which includes occupation of the dwellings. For caravans, only the site and not the caravan itself is leased. The caravan is the property of the occupier.

If the occupier won a Premium Bond or backed the Derby winner and bought a new caravan, would that also be protected? In an offence of harassment, it is turning someone not out of a caravan but off the site which is important. That is one of the fundamental differences between the Landlord and Tenant Acts and the Rent Acts, and the hon. Gentleman must realise it.

When an offence attracts a possible penalty of six months, the accused is entitled to trial at quarter sessions. I must declare an interest, in that I might have to try such cases. His legal advisers might tell the man that the court may consider his a bad case and that he should go for trial by jury, as he would be able to do, and the sessions courts would be cluttered up with dealing with these cases, some of which would take a considerable time.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can have realised that, but, now that he does, I ask him to consider Amendment No. 9 with greater care. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) said that sentences in these cases would be suspended. But this would be true only for first offences. If the accused had committed a previous offence, even of a different nature, for which he had been sentenced to six months or less—

Mr. John Wells

I meant a suspended prison sentence for a first offence.

Mr. Doughty

Yes, people may have had a previous sentence for a different offence, which would make them liable to imprisonment for this offence. Penalties of this kind go further than the promoter intended. I ask him to consider this penalty Clause to see whether he cannot accept, particularly, Amendment No. 9.

Mr. Lubbock

In view of what has been said, Mr. Speaker, I am prepared to accept Amendment No. 9.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the House will be grateful to the hon. Member.

Sir C. Black

I ask leave to withdraw Amendment No. 7, Mr. Speaker.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 9, in page 3, line 10, leave out ' or to both '.—[Sir C. Black.]

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