HC Deb 25 March 1969 vol 780 cc1426-43

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

This is not the first time I have used the ancient and traditional right of an hon. Member to raise the grievances of his constituents before he votes money. On each occasion when I have done so it has been on a question of housing problems, which greviously affect the people who live in Willesden. I remember, back in 1961, with my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Padding-ton, North (Mr. Parkin) raising housing problems in our part of the world, which at that time had the name of Rach-manism. In 1961 very little attention was paid to us, but in 1963, in a similar debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, we made almost the same points and then found that the climate had changed and that the world was listening. As a result, many changes were made in housing. The House owes a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Padding-ton, North for his efforts then.

Those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have housing problems in their constituencies know that they are some of the most intractable and difficult problems with which a Member of Parliament has to deal. It is the inalienable right of every family to have a home—a roof over its head—where, in tranquillity and without too much anxiety, parents can bring up their children. The fact remains that in 1969 the situation still exists as a result of which the heartbreaks, problems and anxieties of our constituents are brought to us every Friday evening or Saturday morning in our constituency surgeries.

These are human stories—stories of youngsters who have married with a great deal of hope, only to find, for a number of reasons, that hope dying merely because of inadequate space. They go into lodgings; they start a family; no children are permitted in their lodgings, and from that time onwards the marriage starts to go on the rocks. Alternatively, they go to stay with the wife's mother or the husband's mother, and shortly afterwards problems arise, as a result of which they go to their Member of Parliament. We realise that because of a shortage of space we are witnessing the break-up of a family. If only they had had a home many of their problems would be solved. Then there are old people in my constituency who, having lived upstairs for many years, have a coronary thrombosis and are told by the medical officer of health that they must live downstairs. As a result one seeks desperately to find a way, in an area of acute housing shortage, or prolonging an old person's life by bringing them from upstairs to downstairs.

Then there are the problems of those of my constituents who live in multi-occupied dwellings. One out of every two families in my area share a roof with another family. There are all the problems that arise from one family sharing a lavatory with another family, from one family sharing a bath with another family, and often the problems that arise from two women, both mothers, having to use the back yard for drying clothes and having to get the coal through one kitchen to another to keep the place warm and healthy.

Those are the human problems. That is the way in which these problems present themselves to hon. Members on both sides. As regards my constituency I can put it in statistical terms which are perhaps a little more arid but which are just as dominant and forceful. There was a review of the housing waiting list in my area last year, so my figures are up-to-date. At the end of February, 1969, there were 6,943 on the waiting list in my area. Some of them have been on the list for 15 years. Apart from that, we have slum clearance schemes, because much of my area was built up in the time of Queen Victoria. In Stonebridge, Lower Place and the remainder of South Kilburn there are clearance schemes which have been going on for the last few years, which call for 1,574 families to be rehoused. In the Church End re-development there are 1,299 families to be rehoused.

One tries to achieve a fair allocation of housing and to meet all the pressures that are in human terms. Out of those waiting families 1,604 families have medical disability. In other words, in the points scheme that my borough operates points are awarded because of ill-health. The startling number of 988 are statutorily overcrowded—they are illegally in a situation where they are occupying premises where they should have more room. As my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knows, to be statutorily overcrowded is quite something, because a family can still be very overcrowded without its being statutorily wrong.

Then there is the heartache of broken families. We have 236 families on the waiting list because they have no accommodation, and the father is in one hostel, the mother is in another, and perhaps the children are out in care.

I put this as the background to the grievances I am seeking to raise tonight. It is against that background that I am appalled at the changes in policy which are going on at the moment in the London Borough of Brent and by the actions of the Conservative majority in the Town Hall, where for the first time for very many years my local authority is under the control of the Conservative Party and not under the control of the Labour Party.

For some years after the passing of the London Government Act we had the over-riding problems which arose from two very large boroughs—Wembley and Willesden—becoming married. In the early days after the coming into operation of the Act every effort was made so that these two boroughs should become one and act as one. I pay tribute to the early mayors in that period who, in trying to achieve unity, did a marvellous job of work. In particular, John Hockley who became mayor at a time when there was a feeling of there being two separate entities. At the end of his term of office the borough was united and we felt that we had finished with the rivalry between the two different areas in North-West London. The kind of atmosphere built up meant that the following two mayors were both Wembley people, Alderman George Marshall and Alderman Trevor Davies, and still there was this feeling of entity. But this has broken down. At present the North Circular Road is like the great divide. When it comes to housing problems we face two different areas, as different as chalk from cheese. One is a commuters', residential, prosperous area and the other an old industrialised area with all the social problems, including housing, at their most acute.

Before the last local election, when there was a Labour-controlled council, the councillors lived and worked in Willesden and were aware of the social problems of the housing problems there. They could not get away from them, because their constituents, like mine, knocked on their doors to tell them. Now we can no longer make a real impact on the Wembley half of the problems of Willesden.

Last May the new council inherited a massive programme of housing development which had gone on since 1964. It had been a period of proud achievement. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Public Building and Works, who was then in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who made a special venture into the London boroughs to try to crack the massive Greater London housing problem.

I also pay tribute to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), who, before he came here, was leader of the council and an alderman, and whose vision and foresight contributed to a massive housing programme having been set in being by 1964. Since then we have had a dramatic expansion of housing development. Previously, 400 to 500 units of accommodation were provided a year. Now we are running at the rate of nearly 2,000 a year to meet the tremendous problem that I have outlined.

One of the boldest and most imaginative schemes was one which started a few years ago, known as the Chalkhill Redevelopment Area. We were land-starved in Willesden. We had no land except that which we were able to realise by pulling down old houses. When it came to the marriage, we found space the other side of the North Circular Road, and this opportunity was used. The Minister accepted the scheme, which provided for a total of 1,649 homes. Stage 1, which will be completed between July and December of this year, has a total of 1,281 units. This was an integral part of planning, because if one is to clear slums to create a new development area in places like Stonebridge, Lower Place and South Kilburn one must syphon off the people. One must have a place to put them. Therefore, the whole scheme was an integral part of a very wide and well thought out planning scheme.

We were very proud of this. Then, on 8th January this year, the council suddenly came forward with a proposal that instead of its being used to meet the housing problems of the borough it should be sold off to a housing association or consortium of housing associations. This would take away what was more or less the keystone of our whole scheme.

The small Labour group left on the council naturally fought this very hard, and it was supported by a number of Conservative councillors, who could see the problems involved if this large chunk of our housing was eliminated. The Brent Chronicle and the Kilburn Times were both extremely forceful in their advocacy of the continuation of the scheme, and I pay tribute to the editorial policy of these two newspapers in the support they gave then. My hon. Friend and I made representations and called on the Minister. As a result of the representations made, on 29th January my right hon. Friend's Ministry replied to the Brent Council. To anyone reading the letter, there is clear indication that there would be no Government assent for the disposal of this important block of homes. In spite of that, the council has persisted. In the letter, Mr. Milefanti of the Ministry closed with these words: In these circumstances I am afraid that the kind of transaction suggested does not seem to present such housing advantage as to warrant the Minister being advised to agree. Of course, this is Ministry jargon for putting the thing politely. We know that it means that it would be a waste of time of the borough council to persist. But, despite this, since then there have been interviews and discussions and a decision was to be taken at a special meeting which, strangely enough, has been held tonight and may still be going on.

The result of this exercise has been that servants of the council—the housing department officers and the town clerk—have been involved in an exercise which has been a waste of their time and a waste of public money. To those of my constituents on the housing list, who know that their area is scheduled for redevelopment and know that, under the fair points scheme, they have enough points to be rehoused, it has meant that they have had to be told by the housing manager, "I cannot let you know yet because we do not know until the council has made up its mind about what is to happen to the Chalkhill scheme. The sooner the point can be made clear to the borough council that its plan is not "on", if it has not already decided tonight not to proceed with it, the sooner my constituents' acute anxiety can be relieved.

The council has also, despite these difficult circumstances, come to a decision to cut back on the programme for the future. It has decided to cut out a number of sites which were scheduled for development—for houses, flats, apartments and maisonettes. The sites are: St. Raphaels Way, which was scheduled for 210 units of accommodation but could, according to my estimate, take 350; Crawford Avenue—62 units; Pilgrims Way—104; Harrow Road—15; and South Way—240. This would make a total of 631 houses, which were planned and in the pipeline but which are now to be eliminated from the future housing development of the area.

The decision to cut these sites out is callous in the extreme. It lacks all heart and sympathy and understanding of the real problems of Willesden. Let us take St. Raphaels Way as an example. I have been involved with that project since soon after coming here. As far back as 1960 I made representations to British Railways. Sir Brian Robertson was then the chairman and I made my representations to him.

The present council has decided to cut out this site because it contends that the cost of the land is excessive and that therefore the building of houses on it would be uneconomic. But eight years ago in my area, for the Shoot Up Hill development scheme, we were having to pay £75,000 an acre and for the Chalkhill scheme up to £80,000 an acre. I am certain that the land in St. Raphaels Way is nearer one-third to one-half of these costs and I am convinced also that, if it were used for residential purposes, a determined council would be able to get figures which would make the scheme viable.

I want to put a number of questions. What is the lowest price British Railways would accept? What would be the effect of the Government's high site cost subsidy? Why do not the Government refer this matter to the Lands Tribunal? Why not initiate two-way negotiations with the two Ministries concerned—Housing and Transport? What would be the effect of a compulsory purchase order on this land, which has been derelict for nearly ten years? Even now I hope that something will be done to rescue this site, so that these 350 families, who can see little hope of a home of their own, will have the opportunity of being housed soon, either by the Brent Council or the G.L.C. or even by making a housing co-operative, so that the land can be used for homes.

Crawford Avenue would have provided at least 40 to 50 maisonettes and there has been a lot of time and effort spent by the officers of my local borough to produce plans and to get them accepted by the Minister. After much negotiation, arising out of the density required and the need for the scheme to be wider—just as all these difficulties had been cleared away and the scheme could have got off the ground—the council decided to sell the site. Will that site be offered in the open market? Will it go for housing or some other development? If it is not sold for housing development it may well be sold at a loss to the ratepayers.

Another great problem, because this is a built-up area, is that of finding land in Willesden. We have a lot of non-conforming industry scattered about in what should be residential areas. In Willesden Green there are 103 factories, in Harles-den 45, in Stonebridge 33, in Kensal Rise and Kensal Green 26 and Church End 45, a total of 252 small factories. Recently I had occasion to raise in the House another problem affecting my constituent—the closing of factories and resultant redundancies. Some 37 factories have closed since 1965, making a total of 5,817 of my constituents redundant. The factories that have closed have been mainly on factory areas, such as Park Royal or the North Circular Road, the Alperton Estate, which is a purely industrial zone.

When the factories close they are usually used by someone else and this does not alter my housing problem one bit. Whether a factory is used to produce one product or a different one, it still means that there are too many people chasing too few houses. Is it not possible to give greater assistance in shifting these non-conforming factories into industrial zones, thus allowing thousands of square feet to be cleared for housing purposes? I turn to the problem of aid for homeless families. There is an urgent need for more accommodation. We have about 60 families in council hostels and there is a great need to improve one of the most important, at Dartmouth Road.

I welcomed the announcement by the Home Secretary of the policy contained in the urban aid grants. I want to see the Minister then in charge of this, now translated to another Ministry, about the way in which this money for urban development could help with the kind of problems that I am discussing. As a result of that scheme, £80,000 has been allocated to my borough to help with the problem. The council is not taking advantage of it. It has decided to have two houses, which will help as hostels for these families, one in Willesden Lane and the other in Copland Avenue. But instead of this being additional to what they had, they are tending to use places which the council already has for other purposes. Therefore, instead of this £80,000 providing extra help, all it is doing is helping ratepayers, by absorbing properties already owned by the borough. It would appear that my council is adopting a go-slow policy and is not seeking to acquire new properties but is designating properties which have already been acquired.

In a field fraught with anxiety, there is a new uncertainty for my constituents about the renewal of the Prices and Incomes Act on rent increases. I have raised with the G.L.C., British Railways, the Ministry and the rent officer of my borough the problem in one area, Harley Road, Harlesden, which is an area of railway cottages where the tenants have service tenancies. This area has recently been sold to the G.L.C. I am getting very agitated representations by the people who have lived there all their lives and have brought up their families in these places. They do not know what their future is. The immediate financial anxiety is the increase in rents. As the Act stands, there can be no greater rise this year than 10s. and normally the rise would be spread over three years. But this Act is due to expire. Does this mean that the following two years' increases might be slapped on on 1st January, 1970, if there is no renewal of the Act before then?

The problem of furnished lettings is a hardy annual. I have raised it on similar occasions to this one over the last ten years. Unfortunately, in spite of the excellent work done by the rents tribunal in North-West London, the position is still very far from satisfactory. I should like to know why, despite the fact that somebody appeals to the tribunal because his rent is too high and gets a decision in his favour, or even when he does not get a decision in his favour, never or very rarely is there more than three months security of tenure given when six months could be given should the tribunal decide that that would be right.

In spite of the tribunal's best efforts, exploitation in this field is rife. I do not want to weary the House with the old problems of houses only partly furnished and the way in which the rents can escalate when all one has to do is to put in a few wooden chairs and a bit of linoleum and it is up to the tenant to prove that the accommodation is inadequately furnished within the terms of the Act.

I hope that my Government will introduce a further Measure on this matter which will do for furnished accommodation what the Rent Act, 1965, has done for unfurnished accommodation. In the Milner Holland Report of 1965, in most of the housing problems, my borough of Willesden came top of the league. Certainly it came top of the league of abuses of tenants by landlords. In Willesden, in three months, there were 84 such cases. The borough with the next highest number, Wandsworth, had only 62. The whole question of the way in which the tenants are safeguarded needs to be looked at by the Government with a view to improving the situation.

In connection with rents in unfurnished tenancies, the rent officer in Willesden, Mr. R. Winter, has done, and is doing, a tremendous job, and I pay tribute to his work. But the fact remains that the majority of people for whom the Act could be of value do not even know of its existence. Far too few who could be helped by it do not come forward merely because they are not aware of it. Would my hon. Friend consider giving further publicity to the Act? I know that the Ministry has issued a number of leaflets and that it has used its resources to try to get the provisions of the Act known, especially by advertising in the national Press when it came into operation. Cannot there be a little more television publicity about the rights of tenants and how they can use the rent officer to save their being charged exorbitant rents?

Would the Minister look again at the way the rent assessment committee is working out in practice after the three years it has been in operation? The rent assessment committee consists of a solicitor, a surveyor and a lay person. When the rent officer's recommendation is being adjudicated the landlord is able to appear and another surveyor can speak on his behalf. The result is that one gets the impression of three professional people, two on the committee and one appearing on behalf of the landlord, talking in the same terms and language and that the scales are rather weighted against the poor tenant.

Harassment has been dealt with under the Act, and since 1965 I have had many fewer cases of harassment than I had in 1961 and 1963, a time of tremendous difficulty for those with controlled tenancies. The classic case at Willesden was that of the tenant harassed so that vacant possession could be achieved.

At the time of the Milner Holland Report the average price of a single room was £4 10s. and of two, three or four roomed accommodation, four years ago, was at the rate of £3 12s. per room. Bringing up a family with that kind of rent with all the other problems cannot be easy in Willesden. I have time and again advised constituents to get a job away in a new town where there is not so much acute housing pressure, but those with the greatest housing need do not always have the trained skill needed. The new towns are more easily available for those with skills who can fit into the industrial complex of the new towns.

We like the provisions of "New Homes for Old Houses" and the consequent Bill, which is one of the most helpful measures to meet this problem in Willesden. One of the greatest problems is of two families sharing one lavatory, two families sharing one bathroom, and often sharing many other amenities of the house.

In spite of the fact that this has been understood for ten months, very little initiative is being shown in my borough in planning to use the advantages the Goverment offers us. Have the Government power to ginger up a rather tardy council, to get full operation of the grants which would do so much? If there were planning now in the following years there would be considerable alleviation of the housing problem in Willesden.

One of the biggest grievances in my constituency concerns council tenants. Suddenly last year, with little thought, the Conservative majority, having instituted a review of council houses, did not wait, but suddenly put on a 7s. 6d. increase. The trouble was that it was applied to each unit of accommodation, irrespective of what the accommodation was, and possibly to as many as 2,000 sub-standard houses.

I cannot do better than to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East said in one of his submissions on this point: To apply all-round increases of 7s. 6d. on every Council property is wrong and inequitable, because it would not differentiate between (a) many hundreds of slums bought for demolition; (b) many sub-standard post-war prefabs awaiting demolition; (c) several hundred sub-standard houses bought by the Council with poor amenities and other shortcomings; (d) thousands of old-fashioned Council-built homes already cross-subsidising modern and better Council houses; (e) thousands of different sized houses and flats: bed sitting room, one, two, three and four bedrooms; (f) thousands of different quality homes, environmentally as well as internally, houses, flats, maisonettes, high density, low density, crowded streets or pleasant garden estates. It was sheer panic and folly to clap 7s. 6d., irrespective of conditions and circumstances, on each unit of accommodation. Moreover, on the morning when the council agreed to do it the review came out, and it would then have had time to consider it in depth. The council totally ignored the Circular from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. In addition, in spite of that, the tenants of Willesden face the possibility of yet another similar increase in October this year.

I am concerned, too, that the council is proposing to change the rent rebate scheme, the idea being, basically, that instead of one-fifth of income being allowed only one-seventh is likely to be approved in future. Can the council do that without further reference to the Ministry, or must it have permission if it wishes to take action of that kind which will do a good deal of financial damage to many of my council tenant constituents?

If an authority wishes to make changes in its rent rebate scheme, is it permissible to apply a rebate scheme to areas rather than to people, so that there are the "posh" areas where there is no rent rebate scheme and the poorer ones where there is, creating segregation of rich and poor and, in other words, treating council tenants with the old kind of Poor Law approach?

Although immediate starts with council houses are at present sufficient to maintain the flow, there will, with the policy now being pursued, be an inevitable decrease next year and the year after that. We cannot afford to put back the improvement areas programme planned for three difficult parts of my constituency, Stonebridge, Kensal Rise and Willesden Green.

If Tory local authorities throughout the country maintain a similar approach, the Government will not reach the target which they have set of 400,000 houses a year. It is up to the Government, therefore, to take powers to ensure that we are able to continue to house people in need. The basic difference lies in the approach to council tenants. It seems to me that on one side of the fence in my constituency they are looked upon, as in the days of the Board of Guardians, as not quite standard, or rather substandard people. Ought we not to treat them as citizens of equal status with others, as people to whom the ratepayers owe a debt of gratitude? They pay all their lives for houses which remain the asset of the community but which they never own themselves. All municipal housing contains an element of urban renewal; it means that roads, leisure facilities and much else that follows in the train of housing redevelopment is there to enrich the whole community.

I submit that it is totally unjust if the whole burden of that redevelopment has to be met entirely by the council tenants and if their shoulders alone have to carry responsibilities which all citizens in the community should share.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

I remind the House that we are still debating subject No. 5. If hon. Members could make their contributions more briefly, that would give others a better opportunity to discuss the subjects which they wish to raise.

11.33 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt), being fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has taken full advantage of his opportunity to give a thorough and comprehensive review of the problems of Brent and Willesden, his constituency, and he has covered such a wide range of matters, with the deep knowledge and passionate feeling he has on social problems, that he has given me a difficult task in trying to deal with all the points which he raised with the care which they deserve.

First, my hon. Friend asked about Chalk Hill. Nothing that has happened has caused my right hon. Friend to doubt that the letter sent on his behalf to the town clerk of Brent was a good letter containing sound advice. It is quite true that my hon. Friends indicated to me and to my right hon. Friend their concern about these matters, but perhaps the letter would carry more weight at the town hall if I made it clear that it was an expression or official view based on professional and administrative advice. It was not a document which emanated from Ministers themselves. It has all the weight of being the view held and the advice given to my right hon. Friend. We have not heard from the council again, and, therefore, the matter at the moment is in its hands.

I could not in any way quarrel with what my hon. Friend has said about the housing problems of Brent. Certainly there can be very, few authorities which have more desperate housing difficulties to face, and indeed, few which have striven as manfully to tackle them. Brent has the great problems of overcrowding, of expensive sites, of great financial difficulties, and, as the Milner Holland Report said, of the special needs arising from having inadequate quantities of housing to let.

We have watched with great satisfaction what so far has happened in Brent. I think it is correct to say that in each of the four years the new London Borough of Brent has been in existence it has gone to tender on virtually the same number of houses as the constituent boroughs had done in the whole of the previous four years. It completely overturned the whole rate of its programme; it put a new urgency into it, and a new co-ordinated drive to get sites and really get a move on. I would certainly share my hon. Friend's view that, were it to happen, were there to be a slackening of the pace, it would be a very great tragedy indeed, a tragedy not only for the people in Brent but for the whole of west London, an area which does so need more accommodation. So far we have no official indication that this is likely to happen.

We do all we can to encourage local authorities to buy land, not just for the year, but so as to keep their housing programmes going. We have a very important new weapon; we have had it since the Housing Subsidies Act, 1967: we have power to give advances of expensive site subsidies. So a local authority which has a special difficulty in finding money for very expensive land, instead of having to wait for help till after having incurred a great deal of expense, can get subsidy instead of waiting for months and months. This is one of the things we have discussed with Brent and have been able to arrange with Brent and it has made a substantial difference to Brent's problems.

My hon. Friend raised the question of St. Raphael's Way. We can certainly discuss the valuation issues there with both the G.L.C. and British Rail. Again, as I mentioned just now, we have told the town clerk that we would be prepared to pay expensive site subsidy on whatever may turn out to be the proper cost of the land, and that, combined with the higher rate of subsidy, should, I think, help a good deal to get Brent out of its difficulties.

My hon. Friend raised the question of non-conforming users and the question of whether some of the sites from which industries move could be used for housing. Local authorities have got powers to acquire industrial sites for that purpose. I think quite a number in London, and certainly in other parts of the country, do this, and it is a very important and useful weapon. It is certainly something which the borough could look at, and the Department will try to explore with the local authorities the feasibility of doing this.

I will pass on to the Secretary of State for the Home Department what my hon. Friend said about urban aid. Without knowing the details of his particular problem, I share his feeling that it would be a pity if this money was wasted. It is a very precious thing to have in an area like Brent, and it ought to be used to the maximum advantage because there is no doubt that all the tests of bad conditions which the Milner Holland Report picked out—multiple occupation, heavy overcrowding, inadequate domestic facilities and similar matters—were underlined in Willesden, and therefore there is special need for these powers to be used as effectively as possible.

My hon. Friend asked about the new Improvement Area policy. I see the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) on the Front Bench opposite, and a long time ago we were facing each other in Standing Committee on the Bill and working hard to try to get it through as quickly as we can. This does place on local authorities a duty to survey their area looking for improvement, to survey the condition of existing property, and we are already beginning to talk to the London Boroughs about it and encourage them to make new plans. As my hon. Friend wisely said, as soon as the Bill is passed we can get on with some of the problems that he raises.

My hon. Friend went on to look at one or two small technical points about rents. The question he raised about rents in Harley Road is a very technical question. Exactly which Act they would come under would probably depend on whether or not they were in the Housing Revenue Account, but in general I think he was light to say that normally rent should not be increased more than 10s. in any one year. As he says, how long that power stays depends on what happens and whether the Act expires in the normal way, as it is expected to do.

My hon. Friend came on to furnished lettings—

Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point about rents, the problem which was outlined by my hon. Friend in Willesden is similar in Islington and Hackney, which are unfortunately under Conservative control. As far as rents are concerned, what about the Greater London Council now that they have put forward this appalling proposal to put up rents in Willesden and in Islington and Hackney? Does my hon. Friend propose to take action against the G.L.C., whose proposals will only put more burdens on the people in those areas when there are no grounds whatsoever for these increases which they propose?

Mr. MacColl

As my hon. Friend well knows, my right hon. Friend is in a position of purdah both as regards the G.L.C., and indeed in regard to Brent rents, because there are applications before him at the moment to deal with these matters. He is in a position where he certainly cannot hear outside representations about them until he has come to a conclusion, and certainly I cannot give any indication of what line he is likely to take about them. It would be quite improper to do that in the course of the debate here until my right hon. Friend has made his decision. However, these matters are before him.

The problems of furnished lettings are extremely worrying. It is not fair to say that all that is required is a statutory piece of linoleum to enable premises to be described as furnished. Recent decisions in the courts indicate that a substantial amount of furnishing is required. There has been some controversy about a number of recent decisions, but they do not alter the general principle that the property has to be properly furnished before coming outside the unfurnished machinery.

I am not in a position to assist my hon. Friend with information about the length of suspension which a furnished rent tribunal will give to tenants. I am trying to get more information about what is happening. He will be aware that we doubled the period in the 1965 Act, and it can be renewed.

I do not know whether we have the answer right yet. The dilemma in dealing with furnished property is that, if the same strict control of the rent office and the rent assessment committee is applied to furnished accommodation, the risk is that it will disappear from the market because people will not be prepared to let it. It was the considered view of Aneurin Bevan, who was the architect of this Act, that it would not be wise. It is a very specialised problem. It is possible to draw a line round certain areas of the country, such as London and the large conurbations, where it is a problem. In other parts of the country, it is not. But we should be considering whether the position can be improved.

When my hon. Friend asked about further publicity, I shook my head sadly. We have pulled out every stop to publicise the Rent Act. We have tried posters, and every kind of T.V. intersetting within programmes that we can get. We have tried Press advertising, more importantly in local papers. It does not require advertising all over the country. It is needed in places like Willesden and Islington, where there are big problems. We concentrated on those sorts of areas, and got an immediate improvement in the figures. It is too early to say whether it will last, however.

My hon. Friend asked about the weighting of the rent assessment committees against tenants because of the employment of surveyors by landlords. I answered a Question about this today, referring to the Report of the Surveyors' Aid. The Chartered Land Societies did a very good and public-spirited job in starting a pilot scheme to see how this could be worked. One of the difficulties again has been that it has not been used very much. Surveyors are delighted to offer their services, but they are disappointed to find comparatively few tenants and landlords using them. It is a point that we are watching. We hope that it will meet some of these difficulties.

My hon. Friend asked about rent rebates and how it was that a local authority could vary the terms, having got approval for rent increases. The answer is that it cannot without my right hon. Friend's approval as long as the Prices and Incomes Act is in force. Otherwise, it has complete control over them.

At the end of his extremely interesting speech, my hon. Friend raised some profound issues about the nature of the rent policy and whether more communal benefits should not be taken from the tenant and placed either on the taxpayer or the ratepayer.

It is difficult to give a clear answer, but the National Board for Prices and Incomes has said that there are circumstances in which it could be done although it did not think that, as a general rule, it would be accepted. I do not know that I share that view. We do not know the full answer. We are examining the report of the National Board for Prices and Incomes on this subject. We are discussing it with the local authority associations, and out of this we hope to produce some constructive ideas about what can be done to make the position better.

I have done my best to answer my hon. Friend's points. I fully recognise the difficulties. In some of the financial adjustments and subsidies that we have been able to make we have managed to reduce the rates by about fourpence. We want to do all that we can to help. However, as my hon. Friend has clearly indicated, the real responsibility rests with the local authority, which must take the initiative. If we are approached for advice, we will give all the help that we can.