HC Deb 26 June 1969 vol 785 cc1803-13
Mr. Allason

I beg to move Amendment No. 66, in page 25, line 31, at end insert: (2) A local authority may delegate to the rent officer the function of receiving applications for qualification certificates, of considering such certificates, of carrying out the procedure required with regard thereto by this Part of this Act, of making determinations thereon and of issuing or refusing to issue such certificates; and any certificate so issued or any such refusal of a certificate shall be treated for all purposes as a certificate or refusal (as the case may be) made by the local authority. In the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, the Government introduced the idea of delegation of powers by local authorities. This Amendment would make use of that provision. Under Part III of the Bill local authorities have a considerable number of extra duties which they find somewhat unwelcome. They have to become referees between landlord and tenant in a series of disputes about matters which could lead to rent rises. Therefore, there must be a great deal of anxiety as a result, with the possibility of pressure on the local authority, and it is certainly an unwelcome task.

The Association of Municipal Corporations has given me its views on the duties being laid on it. It says: The view put forward on behalf of the Association is that the machinery is a most complicated one and seeks to control the situation in far too great detail. The re quirement of a qualification certificate will be burdensome to local authorities and the need for such a certificate is in any case questioned. Having established a system for settling rents through the medium of the rent officers and rent assessment committees, it would be far better to let this administrative procedure deal with the question of the ascertainment of fair rents. The Association goes on to say that it has a suggestion which would certainly mitigate the burden on local authorities, whereby local authorities need to be involved only where landlord and tenant do not agree on the satisfaction of the qualification conditions. The Association feels that, in the majority of cases where both landlord and tenant will be quite content with the proposition that the dwelling satisfied the qualifying conditions, there is really no need to trouble the local authority. I understand that the Ministry will not accept this view, but thinks that it will create further difficulties. Nevertheless, this is the way in which the minds of local authorities are working.

Our suggestion is that the local authorities should be empowered to delegate to rent officers the duties which are placed on them in the Bill. This has considerable merits, in that rent officers are experienced in the work of deciding reasonable conditions under which a reasonable rent should be paid.

Against this, of course, it is argued that public health inspectors should decide on the conditions which are set out in Clause 46(1), which says that the dwelling should be . . provided with all the standard amenities for the exclusive use of its occupants, that it is in good repair, having regard to its age, character and locality and disregarding internal decorative repair, and that it is in all other respects fit for human habitation. Of course, one can say that this is well within the province of a public health inspector, but it is unnecessary to bring in these officials on every occasion. This is clearly what the A.M.C. feels.

Remembering that the public health inspector is always available as an adviser on the side, why is it necessary, because he is the ultimate judge in this matter, to bring him in at the beginning? Surely it is more satisfactory to bring in someone who is reasonably qualified to do the job, but not a technical expert. Then, if the advice of a technical expert is necessary, he can be called upon. It seems much more sensible to employ the rent officer for this purpose. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will say that rent officers have enough duties already, but I am sure that he would agree that public health inspectors also have enough duties. If it comes to the possibility of employing or recruiting either further rent officers or more public health inspectors, I am certain that he must agree that the former is easier.

The principle of delegation is now established. Local authorities are most unwilling to accept the duties laid on them, except possibly in the way I suggest, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman can accept the Amendment, which is intended to be very helpful.

Mr. Maddan

I support the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason). There is no question that the various provisions of the Bill, to say nothing of other Statutes which we enact with great regularity, are placing a heavier and heavier administrative burden on local authorities. Also, the Parliamentary Secretary would not dispute that local authorities are in a difficulty, both financially and in terms of resources and personnel, in meeting all the demands put upon them as a result of enactments. This flow of enactments shows no sign of abating.

We spent in Committee a most interesting morning or more discussing the duties of the rent officers, the number of rent officers in different regions, the number of cases with which they were dealing and so on. Although a number of no balls were bowled during those discussions—the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made that clear in his reply in Committee—the fact remains that a substantial number of rent officers have spare capacity, first because they may not be overloaded with cases—we must remember that many of them are employed on a part-time basis—and secondly, because a greater proportion of the time that they have available could be devoted to the work we have in mind.

By this and similar legislation we are heaping a burden of administration on local authorities. It is imperative, therefore, that local authorities have the maximum degree of flexibility to perform these tasks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead pointed out, it is probably easier to increase the number of hours that rent officers can put in compared with, for example, public health inspectors. I trust that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will comment on this aspect of the problem.

Local authorities should be able to delegate, as the Amendment suggests, certain functions to their rent officers, even if they are not employees of the town hall or district council. That latter point does not detract from the validity of our case. The Amendment has merit because many of the functions which must be carried out under the Bill will affect the rent officer. The amount of going to and fro between rent officer and local authority will be substantial. Paper multiplies paper and memoranda beget memoranda. At least if this happens within the same office, the bureaucracy will be limited.

This aspect was discussed in Committee when the Government were not particularly sympathetic to our view, although I was not convinced by the reasons they gave for resisting the suggestion which my hon. Friends made to avoid this to-ing and fro-ing. We suggested that there should be one source dealing with more than one aspect of the procedure under the Bill.

8.15 p.m.

As drafted, the Bill lays different duties on local authorities compared with the duties being laid on the rent officer. However, a great deal will depend on "mugging up" the cases that come forward. That work must be done, whether it is the duty of the local authority or the rent officer. As drafted, the Bill insists that the "mugging up" be done by both. We might avoid duplication and at the same time lead to better decisions being made if only one source need attend to these matters.

The Amendment also has merit because of the use of the word "may" when we say that a local authority may delegate responsibility for this work. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will not argue that "may" means "shall". We are not insisting that anything must be done by rent officers or that local authorities must delegate responsibility. Nor are we asking the Minister to judge whether or not it is appropriate for the work to be delegated because, from the fastnesses of Whitehall, that would be a difficult judgment to make.

Local authorities should be permitted to delegate responsibility if they consider that step to be prudent. They know if their rent officers have spare time. They also know the regard in which a rent officer is held in his relationships locally and between himself and the local authority. If this proposal is resisted, the Government will be saying that the judgment of local authorities in what are essentially local matters is wanting.

Nor can the Joint Parliamentary Secretary argue that it is inappropriate for the rent officer to carry out these functions, because in practical terms it is the sort of work that he is already doing. In any event, he can always seek the advice of an expert. For the flexible deployment of local administrative manpower, to avoid duplication, to get the right decisions and to let local authorities decide the best way of handling these issues, as well as to give them scope for decision-making, the Amendment should be accepted.

Mr. MacColl

I assure the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) that I do not rest my case on the staffing problems of rent officers or local authority officials. As the hon. Member said, these can be adjusted. I base my argument entirely on questions of appropriate function.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) is nothing if not a very honest and straightforward man. He began to read the list of jobs which had to be done before a qualification certificate could be issued, but then he stopped in his tracks and said that in fact these are all things that a public health inspector does every day—they are bread-and-butter jobs which he has to do. It is important to note that at the moment certificates of disrepair under the Rent Acts are and have been for many years issued by the local authority. Local authorities are quite used to that. The picture of the public health inspector being embarrassed by getting involved in an argument between landlord and tenant does not touch what I have seen of the good work which public health inspectors do. They have to be called in to decide who should do repairs and so on. Three-quarters of their work is of that kind.

Two things are required. First, someone has to say that a place is up to the standard of improvement necessary, and secondly someone has to say that it is in good repair. The people who issue a grant, assess the proposals for improvement and have a quick look to see which are the houses which can be improved—whether there is likely to be hidden rot or something of that kind—are local authority officials. The people responsible in law for inspecting houses in disrepair and serving orders are local authority officials. So the basic functions are local authority functions, not rent officer functions.

Mr. Allason

I grant that public health inspectors are experts, but the hon. Gentleman is changing inspection into function.

Mr. MacColl

The local authority has a function in which the experts play their part. It is for the local authority to organise the work in such a way that it is all part of the local authority job. The job of the rent officer is different. I have no evidence that there is any very strong resistance to this among the local authority associations. It is true that the A.M.C. suggested that the way to reduce this burden would be to have them coming in only in the event of a dispute between two authorities. The difficulty about that is that it is so easy for it to lead to abuse and to complaints later that there has been a misunderstanding. One of the difficulties in landlord and tenant relations is that the tenant, and in some cases the landlord, may say, "I did not understand what was involved and what the position is." It is far better not to have contracting out. It is better to have these extremely experienced local government officials who know the answers and know very much what is involved to make certain about standards.

The qualification certificate and ascertainment of a fair rent are different things. One is purely a factual question which involves looking at a building and deciding about its state. The other is a valuation problem on the state of repair for which to fix a fair rent. That essentially is a job for the rent officer, with the right of appeal to the rent assessment committee. These are two different functions. It is a right division to have the qualification certificate and later the application for registration.

The hon. Member asked why we should not have delegation. My objection to that is that the rent officer is not an employee of the local authority and under its direction. He is an independent official. To have a situation in which for certain purposes he would be performing delegated functions for the local authority would be altogether wrong in principle. He is an independent official making assessments entirely on his own responsibility.

Mr. Maddan

Is there a difference between the local authority delegating that power to a rent officer and delegating power to an engineer drawing up a sewerage scheme? I cannot see the difference.

Mr. MacColl

The difference is that the consulting engineer who prepares the sewerage scheme is a professional consultant of the local authority. He might go into the witness box at an inquiry to give evidence on behalf of the local authority. The analogy with what the hon. Member suggests is that if a local authority had power to instruct my right hon. Friend's engineering inspectors they could say, "The nice Mr. Buggins would be able to help us in getting a good scheme", and if Mr. Buggins sat on the inquiry as an inspector the Council on Tribunals would be humming with alarm. Because the rent officer should be removed from the battle between the landlord and tenant and the argument about whether a qualification certificate is good or bad, it is important to keep him away. To have this sort of delegation would amount to an incompatible relationship. What we have here is seen to be good natural justice which gives each official in his own field the job appropriate to his skill.

Mr. Graham Page

The Joint Parliamentary-Secretary is a very efficient debater, but I have never known him split so many hairs in a debate. It is splitting hairs to say that there is a distinction between the functions of saying whether a property is improved and in good repair and valuing the rent for that property.

We are talking about the movement of property from controlled to regulated tenancies. Before a dwellinghouse with all the standard amenities, in good repair and fit for human habitation, can be the subject of a fair rent there must be a certificate on a decision by the rent officer. As the Bill stands these two lengthy procedures have to be gone through. First, a certificate has to be obtained from the local authority merely to say that the improvements have been made and that the house is fit for human habitation. Then the whole thing is duplicated by reference to the rent officer to fix the rent. Clause 48 sets out the elaborate procedure to be followed to get a certificate—the application is sent to the tenant, the local authority hears the representations, and then it must consider issuing the certificate. All this can be done parallel with the fixing of the rent by the rent officer. It is unnecessary for the two processes to take place consecutively. They could take place concurrently.

8.30 p.m.

This is wholly a question of settling rents. As a preliminary to settling the rent, the rent officer would have to look at the premises. He must always look at premises before he can assess the rent of the premises. Are we to say that the rent officer, when he looks at the premises, cannot tell whether there is a bath there, whether there is water supply, whether there is a wash handbasin, whether there is a sink, whether there is a water closet, and cannot tell whether the premises are in good repair and fit for human habitation?

That is what the Parliamentary Secretary is saying. He is saying that the function of fact finding, of discovering whether the property is in good repair, and the function of valuing the property for the purpose of determining the rent are separate. That is why I say he is splitting hairs and trying to divide the function of settling the rent.

That is what the whole of this Part of the Bill is after. Local authorities do not want this duplication, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) said. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary brushed that aside by saying that the A.M.C. has said that it thinks this is not a good idea but does not press for an Amendment. I think that the Association's words were firm and definite, namely, that it does not like the idea of local authorities, and particularly public health inspectors, who are already very overworked, having this extra burden placed on them. There will be unnecessary delay and expense to the ratepayer arising from the necessity to employ more local authority officials, and there will be delay and expense to the property owner.

One would think that somebody had been set the task of thinking out the most difficult way of setting out a procedure to move from controlled to regulated property, of finding the best way to spend

the most money, of wasting the most time, and of finding jobs for idle hands when there are not any idle hands there. The Amendment would be an escape for local authorities from the mass, the maze, and the mess of the procedure as it stands in the Bill.

Question put, That the Amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 101, Noes 140.

Division No. 297.] AYES [8.32 p.m.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Percival, Ian
Amery, Rt. Hn. Julian Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. Pike, Miss Mervyn
Astor, John Gurden, Harold Prior, J. M. L.
Awdry, Daniel Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Pym, Francis
Barber, Rt. Hn. Anthony Heseltine, Michael Quennell, Miss J. M.
Batsford, Brian Higgins, Terence L. Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Hill, J. E. B. Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Bell, Ronald Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin Ridsdale, Julian
Black, Sir Cyril Holland, Philip Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Body, Richard Hordern, Peter Russell, Sir Ronald
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Hunt, John St. John-Stevas, Norman
Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Scott, Nicholas
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead) Sharples, Richard
Bullus, Sir Eric Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.) Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Burden, F. A. Jopling, Michael Silvester, Frederick
Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.) Kaberry, Sir Donald Sinclair, Sir George
Carlisle, Mark Kimball, Marcus Smith, Dudley (W'wick & L'mington)
Chataway, Christopher King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Smith, John (London & W'minster)
Clark, Henry Kitson, Timothy Speed, Keith
Clegg, Walter Knight, Mrs. Jill Stainton, Keith
Cooke, Robert Lane, David Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Langford-Holt, Sir John Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Crowder, F. P. Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Lubbock, Eric van Straubenzee, W. R.
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) McNair-Wilson, Michael Waddington, David
Doughty, Charles McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest) Walker, Peter (Worcester)
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Maddan, Martin Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Montgomery, Fergus Walters, Dennis
Eyre, Reginald More, Jasper Wiggin, A. W.
Fortescue, Tim Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh) Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Worsley, Marcus
Goodhart, Philip Murton, Oscar
Goodhew, Victor Nabarro, Sir Gerald TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Grant, Anthony Page, Graham (Crosby) Mr. Bernard Weatherill and
Gresham Cooke, R. Page, John (Harrow, W.) Mr. Humphrey Atkins.
Anderson, Donald Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside)
Archer, Peter Davies, Rt. Hn. Harold (Leek) Hamilton, William (Fife, W.)
Armstrong, Ernest Davies, Ifor (Gower) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Dobson, Ray Hattersley, Roy
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Dunn, James A. Hazell, Bert
Beaney, Alan Dunnett, Jack Hilton, W. S.
Bidwell, Sydney Edelman, Maurice Hooley, Frank
Bishop, E. S. Edwards, William (Merioneth) Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Ellis, John Hunter, Adam
Booth, Albert English, Michael Irvine, Sir Arthur (Edge Hill)
Brooks, Edwin Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Jackson, Peter M. (High Peak)
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W.) Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley) Janner, Sir Barnett
Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & F'bury) Fernyhough, E. Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)
Cant, R. B. Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.)
Carmichael, Neil Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.)
Chapman, Donald Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West)
Coleman, Donald Foley, Maurice Judd, Frank
Concannon, J. D. Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) Kelley, Richard
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Forrester, John Kenyon, Clifford
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Fraser, John (Norwood) Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham)
Crawshaw, Richard Gardner, Tony Kerr, Russell (Feltham)
Dalyell, Tam Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony Lawson, George
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Gregory, Arnold Leadbitter, Ted
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Lee, John (Reading)
Lestor, Miss Joan Murray, Albert Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N. E.)
Luard, Evan Newens, Stan Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip Skeffington, Arthur
McBride, Neil Oram, Albert E. Slater, Joseph
McCann, John Orbach, Maurice Small, William
MacColl, James Orme, Stanley Symonds, J. B.
MacDermot, Niall Oswald, Thomas Tinn, James
Macdonald, A. H. Page, Derek (King's Lynn) Urwin, T. W.
McGuire, Michael Paget, R. T. Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
McKay, Mrs. Margaret Palmer, Arthur Wallace, George
Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen) Parker, John (Dagenham) Weitzman, David
Maclennan, Robert Parkyn, Brian (Bedford) Wellbeloved, James
McNamara, J. Kevin Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Pentland, Norman Whitaker, Ben
Mahon, Simon (Bootle) Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.) Whitlock, William
Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.) Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.) Wilkins, W. A.
Marks, Kenneth Price, William (Rugby) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Rees, Merlyn Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Mitchell, R. C. (S'th'pton, Test) Roebuck, Roy Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Moonman, Eric Rogers, George (Kensington, N.) Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Rowlands, E.
Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Ryan, John TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.) Mr. Joseph Harper and
Morris, John (Aberavon) Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney) Mr. Charles Grey.
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