HC Deb 26 June 1969 vol 785 cc1822-32
Mr. Allason

I beg to move Amendment No. 77, in page 29, line 11, leave out from 'Act' to first 'the' in line 13.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment, it will be convenient to discuss Amendment No. 78, in line 15, leave out from 'until' to end of line 34 and insert 'the expiration of six months from the commencement of this Act', and Amendment No. 169, to leave out lines 19 to 28 and insert 'while there is a certificate under section (Restriction on Powers of Court under section 56) in effect and currently valid that the means of the tenant are within the limits for rate relief the date applicable to the dwelling is 1st July, 1970'.

Mr. Allason

Amendment No. 77 paves the way for Amendment No. 78 and leaving out the three dates on which there will be delays in cases where the property is already in a proper state of repair at the passing of the Act. These are the cases where there is to be the longest delay before we move from control to regulated fair rents. There are three different periods of delay laid down corresponding to different rateable values.

The Government have never adequately justified these periods of delay except to say, first, that they are extremely magnanimous in allowing any sort of rent increase where the property is already in a good state of repair and, second, that they must have these periods of delay because the rent officers will be so busy.

They do not seem to know how busy they will be. They do not know how fast improvements cases will come forward. I suspect that they will come forward fairly slowly because, after the Bill becomes law, there will be a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing before getting decisions on whether grants will be made, and it may be that the rent officers will not be all that busy in the early stages. Nevertheless, we have these very long periods of delay with the effect of putting off any rise in rents until as late as January, 1972. I draw attention to the fact that in the earlier stages it is January, 1971, which has an electoral bearing. That is probably the reason, very near the statutory end of this Parliament, that these dates are put in.

9.15 p.m.

Amendments Nos. 77 and 78 propose that there should be a period of delay of only six months applicable to all categories. After that there will still be the gradual increase of rent under Schedule 3. But let us get started on the process of encouraging landlords who have improved their property in the past but find they still only receive controlled rents—rents twice the 1939 value, rents fixed in 1957 and not increased in the 12 years since. These are the people that the Minister deliberately intends to put off until after the end of this Parliament before there should be any significant increase in rent.

If it is argued that the rent officers will be too busy to cope with our increased speed here, they will have to behave as they did under the Rent Act and take cases in their turn. There may be a queue, but the fear that some rent officers may be rather overburdened is no reason to arbitrarily put off for a tremendously long time the cases where a rent increase is justified.

Alternatively, there is Amendment No. 169, which deals with a problem which the Government have not attempted to tackle. I refer to those who are almost by definition now too poor to be able to afford to pay their full rates. If they are too poor to pay their full rates, are they not equally too poor to afford rent increases? Is there not a case for differentiating between those who are in full employment earning substantial wages and able to pay a reasonable rent and those who have already been insulated and are known to be the hard cases? The Government, as usual, decide that the way to tackle the problem is to make provision for everybody and this will take care of the hard cases. Surely it is better to deal with the hard cases as a special issue and to treat them in a different way.

Amendment No. 169 provides for postponement in those cases only until July 1970. No doubt the Minister will say that they should not be asked to pay. But we must remember that the rent increase is phased over a period of five years after that. There will be a much more beneficial Government during those five years and their difficulties will be taken care of in a different way. I am not worried about that. But I am worried about the attitude of this Government in trying to ensure that nobody gets hurt. In doing so, they forget what damage has already been done to the whole system of rented housing because of inadequate rents.

The Government have gently grasped the nettle; they have lightly touched it. They must be much firmer. I hope, therefore, they will accept Amendments Nos. 77 and 78 and will then accept the principle of Amendment No. 169, that those are the people who need special help.

Mr. Lubbock rose

Mr. Maddan rose

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Mr. Lubbock.

Mr. Lubbock

The inadequacy of the statistics available on the number of controlled tenancies, and the numbers to which this Clause will apply, is becoming quite a scandal. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary and I have corresponded about this matter for a number of years, indeed, since before the Rent Act of 1965 was considered in Committee. There has been a gradual improvement in the situation, but it has been at such a slow rate that we do not know where we are when we come to discuss matters such as are contained in the Amendment.

We do not know how many controlled tenancies are likely to be affected by the Amendment, the number of houses which are capable of improvement, or which have already been improved, and how much hardship there may be, either on the side of the landlords or the side of the tenants. Until one has the answers to those questions, it is difficult to ask the House to evaluate a suggestion such as has been made by the hon. Gentleman.

But one thing that we can say from the figures available is that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in claiming that the attitude of Governments has any effect on the number of privately-rented houses, whether they are controlled or regulated. If one looks at the figures since 1957—and I happen to have them here—one sees that in mid-1957 there were 3.89 million controlled tenancies. In mid-1960 that figure was down to 2.93 million. By the end of 1964 it was 1.87 million, and by the end of 1967—this is a provisional figure—it was 1.55 million.

If one looks at the rate of the decline of these controlled tenancies, and also at the total of privately-rented dwellings in England, one sees that it has been slightly less under the Labour Government since 1964 than it was in the four years of Tory Government immediately prior to that. I am not making any political point but merely drawing the attention of the House to a fact. I happen to believe that the private landlord is a dying race, and whether we are speaking of controlled tenancies as in the Amendment, or of privately-rented dwellings as a whole, there is not much scope any more, simply because of the arithmetic which makes it impossible for a private house to be let at a rent which is anything like comparable with that applicable to a local authority dwelling.

Although these are palliatives and we can ensure by such means as are provided in the Clause transfer from control to regulation over a period of years that some people remain in the privately-rented market who would disappear as soon as they got vacant possession and sell for owner occupation, I think the hon. Gentleman and the Tory Party should realise that all we can do is marginally to arrest the rate of decline and the transfer of these properties from rental into owner occupation. But the Government are seriously to blame in not having taken steps to provide the House with figures so that we could evaluate suggestions like this in a sensible manner instead of having to discuss the hon. Gentleman's proposals and many others completely in the dark.

Mr. Maddan

Mr. Speaker, you will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) into the whole policy of housing provision, except to say that the reason why privately-rented accommodation is disappearing is that over many decades, and indeed generations, there has been a failure to provide the landlord with a decent return. It is no good following a policy which will result in every privately-tenanted accommodation becoming owner-occupied. Many people want and have to live in such accommodation. We are dealing with properties for which the landlord, without the Bill's help, has done everything to bring it up to the standard which the Bill envisages. Therefore, we are dispensing a kind of looking-glass justice. The better the landlord the worse his treatment. This will not encourage landlords, so the remarks of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) are relevant, although not in the way that he envisaged.

It is a topsy-turvy world in which we are presented with a Clause which prevents the good landlord who has done the work at his own expense, or much more than his own expense, getting the benefit of increased rent which will be applied earlier to landlords who have not done that and who subsequently take advantage of the Bill.

This sort of anomaly is not appreciated by the tenants. There are tenants who feel uncomfortable about the results of present legislation. A letter which I received earlier this year from 13 tenants on the National Coal Board estate in Worksop ends: Let us have everybody paying the same rents, not one half paying twice as much as the other for the same thing. It is exactly this which tenants feel uncomfortable about and which the right hon. Gentleman will perpetuate in this Clause. Therefore, despite electoral considerations, which I think are misplaced, I hope that he will accept the Amendments.

Mr. Greenwood

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I must ask the House to reject this mischievous Amendment. It relates, of course, to the houses which are in the required state. We have introduced a staging of the move from control to regulation to do three things—first, to avoid clogging of the machine, so that the work of the rent officers came to a standstill; second, to enable more planned and economic use of the highly qualified manpower which is required; and, third, to protect the tenants.

I am a little surprised that hon. Gentlemen opposite are now suggesting that conversion into rent regulation in the already qualified cases will be postponed for only six months from the commencement of the Bill, instead of to 1971 or 1972. That would be harsh on the tenants, it would be unrealistic and it would damage the Bill's main purpose.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) mentioned the lack or adequacy of the available statistics. I have a copy of the Answer which my hon. Friend gave him on 7th February. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow him into this complicated subject, which does not affect the Amendment all that much. But it ill became the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) to rebuke us with not knowing how busy the rent officers will be.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, who made our blood run cold in Committee by describing the lack of activity of the rent officers, discovered that he had been dealing with the decisions of rent committees and had assumed that they were the decisions of rent officers. I had hoped that, after that unfortunate misadventure, the hon. Gentleman would have learned something of the work that rent officers are doing.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Allason

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I spoke on the basis of Answers that I had received to a series of Questions. What I said was not denied through two hours of debate. It was only when the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) suggested that the figures seemed strange and after I had tabled further elucidating Questions that the facts were made clear. Thus, the error was on both sides.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Committee debate is over.

Mr. Greenwood

I appreciate the ample apology of the hon. Gentleman.

The estimated number of cases which come within the required state category would be about 200,000, and it is utterly unrealistic to suggest that they should come in one batch to the rent officers at the end of six months, following the commencement of the Bill.

Mr. Lubbock

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to an estimated 200,000 cases. On what basis is that figure arrived at, considering that the most recent figures in his Department for the whole of the controlled sector relate to December, 1967? He does not have the figures for December, 1968, although I was promised them some time ago.

Mr. Greenwood

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not prolong the debate by going into that issue. We are working to a quite tight time-table. Perhaps at some stage we could have a personal discussion about it.

Assuming that the figure is 200,000—that estimate is based on the best advice available to us—it is unrealistic to suppose that they could all go to the rent officers at the same time. The basic consideration in all this is that the main purpose of the Bill is to secure that further improvements shall be made. That must be the prime aim of the Bill. We are trying to ensure that the new improvement work is not held up because the rents officer machinery is clogged as a result of the required state cases going straight to them six months after the Bill becomes law, so holding up their work at a critical moment.

The House must decide whether it is best to get the service expanding under a gradual increase of work, and then have bunches of cases, or let all the cases come in within a few months of the start. We believe that the first course is the better. The Oppositon believe that the second course is preferable. The House must decide.

We do not want an unplanned expansion of the rent officer service. It is characteristic of hon. Gentlemen opposite that at one moment they urge us to cut down the number of bureaucrats and, at the next moment, urge us to increase the number of public servants. They cannot have it both ways and I do not believe that the House would want to do that.

Mr. Peter Walker

As a positive suggestion, following the right hon. Gentleman's comments about bureaucrats, the Government might get rid of the Land Commission and appoint more rent officers.

The right hon. Gentleman used the word "mischievous" in describing the Amendment. His attitude to the problem we are discussing is curious. He appreciates that a problem exists, but he does not have the guts to tackle it swiftly. He is saying, "We are only interested in getting improvements done, but landlords who have acted properly and have maintained their properties, in spite of appallingly low rents, shall receive no benefit.

This is a very irresponsible attitude for the Minister to take, because, on his own figures, the likelihood is that some of these houses which have been maintained in good repair will fall into disrepair in coming years as there will be a long period of delay under this legislation.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the figures he gave when describing the landlords. He said that between 61 per cent.

and 78 per cent. of all landlords owned only one house and between 39 per cent. and 63 per cent. of those are old-age pensioners. The Minister estimates a figure of 200,000 houses, so about 60,000 homes belonging to old-age pensioners owning only one house will be restricted in this way and they will not receive their proper fair rent for a considerably delayed period.

This is a purely irresponsible attitude and one which will result in a decline in housing standards. The suggestions in this Amendment are reasonable and sensible. The Government have at last accepted that fair rents should be paid. They are saying that for a further period, in some cases up to seven years, a fair rent should not be paid to landlords and that those landlords shall be expected to subsidise their tenants irrespective of the means of those tenants. The Minister is saying that 60,000 old-age pensioners shall continue to subsidise tenants, who probably have far greater incomes than those landlords have to wait, some up to a period of seven years.

This is a thoroughly irresponsible policy and I shall urge my hon. and right hon. Friends to divide the House.

Mr. Greenwood

Before we have the Division, I should say that I wish I could have a royalty every time the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) quotes my Second Reading speech. I did not say in my remarks tonight that our only aim was to improve the houses. I said the prime purpose of the Bill was to secure that aim. What I meant was that it was not a prime purpose to alter the rent structure. We are doing something for a comparatively small section of people for whom the party opposite never—to use the hon. Member's words—had the guts or courage to do something during their period of office. At least they know now that, although there is some delay, there is something firm for them at the end of the period specified in the Bill.

Question put, That that Amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 96, Noes 142.

Division No. 298.] AYES [9.37 p.m.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Awdry, Daniel Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton
Astor, John Barber, Rt. Hn. Anthony Bell, Ronald
Atkins, Humphrey (M't'n & M'd'n) Batsford, Brian Black, Sir Cyril
Body, Richard Holland, Philip Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Hunt, John Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Ridsdale, Julian
Brewis, John Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.) Royle, Anthony
Bullus, Sir Eric Jopling, Michael Russell, Sir Ronald
Burden, F. A. Kaberry, Sir Donald Scott, Nicholas
Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.) Kimball, Marcus Sharples, Richard
Carlisle, Mark King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Chataway, Christopher Kitson, Timothy Silvester, Frederick
Clark, Henry Knight, Mrs. Jill Sinclair, Sir George
Clegg, Walter Lane, David Smith, Dudley (W'wick & L'mington)
Cooke, Robert Langford-Holt, Sir John Smith, John (London & W'minster)
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Speed, Keith
Crowder, F. P. McNair-Wilson, Michael Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest) Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Doughty, Charles Maddan, Martin Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Montgomery, Fergus van Straubenzee, W. R.
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh) Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John
Errington, Sir Eric Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Waddington, David
Eyre, Reginald Murton, Oscar Walker, Peter (Worcester)
Fortescue, Tim Nabarro, Sir Gerald Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Page, Graham (Crosby) Walters, Dennis
Goodhew, Victor Page, John (Harrow, W.) Wiggin, A. W.
Grant, Anthony Peel, John Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Gresham Cooke, R. Percival, Ian Worsley, Marcus
Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Pike, Miss Mervyn
Gurden, Harold Prior, J. M. L. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Heseltine, Michael Pym, Francis Mr. Jasper More and
Higgins, Terence L. Quennell, Miss J. M. Mr. Bernard Weatherill.
Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin
Anderson, Donald Harper, Joseph Oram, Albert E.
Archer, Peter Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Orbach, Maurice
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Hattersley, Roy Orme, Stanley
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hazell, Bert Oswald, Thomas
Beaney, Alan Hilton, W. S. Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Bidwell, Sydney Hooley, Frank Paget, R. T.
Bishop, E. S. Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Palmer, Arthur
Blenkinsop, Arthur Hunter, Adam Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles
Booth, Albert Irvine, Sir Arthur (Edge Hill) Park, Trevor
Brooks, Edwin Jackson, Peter M. (High Peak) Parker, John (Dagenham)
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-unon-Tyne, W.) Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)
Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & F'bury) Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.) Pavitt, Laurence
Cant, R. B. Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.) Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred
Carmichael, Neil Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West) Pentland, Norman
Chapman, Donald Judd, Frank Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)
Coleman, Donald Kelley, Richard Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
Concannon, J. D. Kenyon, Clifford Price, William (Rugby)
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham) Rees, Merlyn
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Roebuck, Roy
Crawshaw, Richard Lawson, George Rogers, George (Kensington, N.)
Dalyell, Tam Leadbitter, Ted Rowlands, E.
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Lee, John (Reading) Ryan, John
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Lestor, Miss Joan Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.)
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Luard, Evan Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney)
Davies, Rt. Hn. Harold (Leek) Lubbock, Eric Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N. E.)
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Dobson, Ray McBride, Neil Skeffington, Arthur
Dunn, James A. MacColl, James Slater, Joseph
Dunnett, Jack MacDermot, Niall Small, William
Edelman, Maurice Macdonald, A. H. Symonds, J. B.
Edwards, William (Merioneth) McGuire, Michael Tinn, James
Ellis, John McKay, Mrs. Margaret Urwin, T. W.
English, Michael Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Maclennan, Robert Wallace, George
Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley) McNamara, J. Kevin Weitzman, David
Faulds, Andrew Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Wellbeloved, James
Fernyhough, E. Mahon, Simon (Bootle) Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.) Whitaker, Ben
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Marks, Kenneth Whitlock, William
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Wilkins, W. A.
Foley, Maurice Mitchell, R. C. (S'th'pton, Test) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Forrester, John Moonman, Eric Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Gardner, Tony Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Gregory, Arnold Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Grey, Charles (Durham) Morris, John (Aberavon) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Murray, Albert Mr. John McCann and
Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Newens, Stan Mr. Ernest Armstrong.
Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip
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