HC Deb 22 May 1969 vol 784 cc789-816

(1) On an application under section 56(2) of this Act with respect to any dwelling the court shall not make an order empowering the landlord to enter and carry out any works if, not earlier than six months before the hearing, the rating authority for the area in which the dwelling is situated have certified that the tenant's income is within the limits for rate relief.

(2) The rating authority shall, on the application of the tenant, certify that his means are within the limits for rate relief if—

  1. (a) he has been granted a rate rebate under section 49 of the General Rate Act 1967 for the rebate period in which his application for the certificate is made; or
  2. (b) he would, on an application duly made, be entitled to such a rebate for that period or would be so entitled but for section 16(2) of the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966; or
  3. (c) his reckonable rates for that period do not exceed £3 15s. 0d. and his reckonable income docs not exceed the appropriate limit;
and for the purposes of this subsection a person's reckonable rates for any period and the question whether his reckonable income exceeds the appropriate limit shall be determined as on an application for a rate rebate.

(3) An application for a certificate under this section must state the name and address of the landlord; and if on such an application the rating authority issue a certificate they shall send a copy of it to the person named in the application in pursuance of this subsection.

(4) For the purposes of any proceedings under section 56(2) of this Act any document purporting to be a certificate issued by a rating authority under this section and to be signed by the clerk to that authority shall be deemed to be such a certificate unless the contrary is proved.

(5) Any person who, for the purpose of obtaining such a certificate—

  1. (a) furnishes any information which he knows to be false in a material particular; or
  2. (b) withholds any material information; shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £20—[Mr. Greenwood.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Greenwood

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With new Clause 4 I have suggested that we discuss new Clause 8—Exemptions of low income tenants from compulsory order: Section 56 of this Act shall have effect subject to the following provision: A tenant whose earnings are less than £16 per week, according to income tax returns, or, if he has dependants, less than £16 per week plus 30s. a week for each dependant, shall be exempted from such an order.

Mr. Greenwood

Under Clause 56 the court, in considering whether to make an Order empowering a landlord to carry out improvements for a tenant who is unwilling to have them, must have regard, among other things, to the tenant's means in relation to the increase in rent that would result and the stages in which that increase should become recoverable under the phasing provisions. This is one of the many safeguards for the tenant that we have introduced to meet criticisms that have been made since the White Paper was published. In Committee we promised to look into this question of means. I have given a good deal of thought to how low income tenants could be excluded from the compulsory provisions in Clause 56. I considered the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun), but felt bound to reject them, and no doubt my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with this when my hon. Friend has moved his new Clause.

Another possibility which I considered was whether eligibility for rent rebate provided a practicable basis for exemption, but rent rebate schemes vary as between different authorities and some—admittedly a minority—have no schemes. In addition, to try to apply even the Ministry's model scheme would pose great difficulty as it has no statutory basis.

10.15 p.m.

The new Clause provides an exemption based on eligibility under the rate rebate scheme. I believe that this is the most practicable way of excluding low income tenants because the rate rebate scheme has a statutory basis in the General Rate Act of 1967 and can be simply applied. Basically, persons qualify for full rate rebate if their income is up to £9 a week if they are single, and £11 if they are married, plus in either case £2 a week for each dependent child. The income taken into account is everything received by way of earnings, family allowance, interest, and so on, before any deduction for tax, but excluding any payments by lodgers in the six months before the period for which rebate is claimed.

Where the income exceeds those limits, a reduced rebate is payable on a tapering scale depending on the level of income and the amount of the rates. Even in certain cases where the income is higher than that to which I have referred the rate rebate is payable. The new Clause would provide exemption from Clause 56 where the tenant was entitled to any rate rebate no matter how small, and I ask the House to remember that I can vary the rate rebate limits by Order as and when required.

I should add that in the case of tenants who are outside the operation of the new Clause, that is to say, whose income is above the limit for which a certificate of rate rebate may be issued, Clause 56(4) will apply. That provides that in determining whether to make an order the court is to have regard, amongst other matters, to the tenant's means in relation to the increase of rent that would result if the works were carried out. This is another of the many safeguards for the tenant that we have provided in the Bill.

There was some discussion in Committee about the definition of the word "means". I understand that the word "means" is used in the county court rules relating to judgment summonses and committal proceedings. It is a well understood term. When considering a person's means to pay the court as a matter of course takes into consideration all the relevant facts, for example, the number and age of his children and his general household expenses. If a tenant giving evidence were to say that he had not the means to pay a fair rent, but was not able to say more, then the court would, by questioning, draw the facts from him so as to enable the court to reach a decision.

Subsection (1) of new Clause provides that the court may not make an order under Clause 56 if, within the six months preceding the hearing, the rating authority has certified that the tenant's income is within the limit for rate relief. Application for a certificate is to be made by the tenant, and under subsection (2) a certificate will be issued if any of the three conditions which are stated therein are satisfied.

Subsection (3) provides for the tenant to state in his application to the rating authority for a certificate the name and address of the landlord and for the authority to send to the landlord a copy of any certificate issued. The landlord will then know that there is no point in his proceeding further under Clause 56.

We believe that this is a helpful new Clause which will give further protection to tenants, particularly those with low incomes.

Mr. Allason

As we are discussing new Clause 8 with new Clause 4, I had been waiting for the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) to get up and describe his new Clause. As matters stand I shall have to describe it, because I want to refer to it and I am not allowed to speak twice.

I want to draw attention to new Clause 8 because it is quite something, even for the hon. Member. A tenant whose earnings are less than £16 a week, according to his income tax returns, or, if he has dependants, less than £16 a week, plus 30s. a week for each dependant, shall be exempt from an order of the court under Clause 56 of the Bill, whereby the court has power to order that repairs and improvements shall be carried out even if the tenant does not wish them to be carried out. This is provided that the court is satisfied that the work ought to be carried out, having taken account of the means of the tenant.

The hon. Member, which with his great enthusiasm for ensuring that rents should never rise at all, has taken a half measure in this direction by picking on the figure of £16 a week, below which a tenant shall have the right to opt out of carrying out improvements. It must be remembered that the object of the Bill is to improve houses. We have the safeguard in Clause 56 that if there is to be hardship to the tenant, the court can take steps to prevent it. The hon. Member is suggesting that anyone with an income below £16 a week can opt out.

In Committee, I described a very pleasant flat in South Kensington, with two rooms, kitchen and bathroom separate, which is let for 27s. a week, to a single man. According to new Clause 8, this man would be entitled to object to his rent rising above 27s. a week in return for the flat being brought up to full amenities. This is really nonsense, considering what rents are in the West End. I suggest that the hon. Member's humanity has run away with his common sense.

The hon. Member is only fighting a semi-losing battle because the Minister has come more than half way to meet him, since he has set the limit for a single man at around £9 a week. It appears that a single man with an income of £9 a week is qualified, under new Clause 4, to opt out. Here we are getting much nearer to practical common sense and reason. At £9 a week almost any rent rebate scheme of a local authority would start to operate.

Is this Clause at all necessary? We already have Clause 56, which states that one of the matters to be taken into account by the court is the means of the tenant in relation to the increase in rent. That is much better. The increase in rent may be quite small, but here the Minister is trying to fetter the court by saying that in certain circumstances the rent must not go up by even 1s. a week.

This is ridiculous. If the rent were to rise by £5 per week for someone whose income was only £9 a week, there would be a difficulty which has to be resolved, but if it is to go up by 1s. a week this Clause is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is not right to put a fetter on the discretion of the court. It is much better to leave the court to use its common sense, measuring income against increase in rent.

We now have a new definition of the statutory poor. I use a "shorthand" term in mentioning £9 a week. There are complicated calculations in deciding whether rate relief is allowed or not. There are many anomalies as a result of the Rating Act and provisions for relief, as any municipal treasurer will tell us. It is very difficult to decide on borderline cases and this is not a particularly good test of indigence. We have the example of a married couple on retirement pension with a son living with them and earning £30 a week. They may qualify for rate relief even though the income coming to that household is very substantial.

I understand that where supplementary benefit is claimed this, also, will come under the terms of the Clause. If someone is not receiving rate relief, because he is receiving supplementary benefit, he will be entitled to object to improvement leading to an increase in rent. Is this desirable? People on supplementary benefit will have the benefit increased if the rent increases. All we are doing is to give them the right to ensure that their property is not improved.

Many hon. Members may say that that is all right because, naturally, people want their property improved, but that does not always follow. We could all quote from experience instances of individuals who do not want improvements made. They like living in the way they have always lived and want to continue like that. Yet the object of the Bill is to get houses improved.

This Clause will be an open invitation to those who will not be affected by the cost to themselves to avoid having improvements made to their homes. I agree that there is a very difficult problem here, which the Government must face up to, that there are those, even above supplementary benefit level, who cannot afford modern rents, fair rents as the Government visualise them.

Is it really right that the landlord should continue to subsidise such people by being required by law to accept a rent far lower than the fair rent, remembering that the fair rent is not the market rent? A fair rent is what one would think landlords are entitled to, yet many of them have for many years been required to subsidise tenants by ensuring that they will remain on the old controlled rents.

The new Clause is an encouragement to them to make sure that many more houses will not be improved. It would be far better to leave matters as they are under Clause 56, giving discretion to the court, rather than to fetter it.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Although I have deep and indeed bitter feelings on this issue, I shall be brief because of the hour and the other matters we have to discuss.

The object of new Clause 8, which I and my hon. Friends have tabled, is to protect at least tenants with very low incomes from the effects of the Bill. Tenants have not yet realised what will hit them. The proposal in this part of the Bill is to take their dwellings out of their present rent control, whether they have a bathroom, lavatory and hot water put in in future, or even—and this is the monstrosity of it—whether they already have a bathroom and the landlord does not need to spend another penny.

Mr. Clegg

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is something wrong with a landlord who has provided a bathroom already?

Mr. Allaun

The answer is that that landlord has been receiving a controlled rent for his house. These provisions will be no incentive to him to put a bathroom in, because there is no need. The tenant will merely have his rent trebled for no advantage whatever.

If hon. Members opposite think that that is a good policy, I do not, and nor do the tenants. It means, on the admission of the Minister, an average increase in controlled rents of 2.6 times; in London, Southampton and Birmingham about three times; in certain cases four times; and if a bathroom is to be added to the house its value will obviously increase, so that it may mean even a fivefold increase in certain rents.

Under the Clause with which we are dealing, if the tenant protests, as he certainly will, the landlord will be able to take the tenant to the county court and say, "You must have a bathroom and even if it will treble or quadruple your rent". If the tenant objects he will be subject to eviction. I can see thousands of evictions arising from this.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity produced a White Paper entitled, "In Place of Strife". It seems that another area of strife is to be created in housing. This will defeat the purpose of the Bill, which is to get improvements made. I warn the House that the Bill will bring the improvement of old houses to a halt, because tenants, while being agreeable to paying 8s. or 10s. a week for a bathroom, will not be prepared to have their rent trebled or quadrupled.

Our new Clause No. 8 is very modest. Its intention is to protect only the lowest paid people. It provides that Section 56 of this Act shall have effect subject to the following provision: A tenant whose earnings are less than £16 per week, according to income tax returns, or, if he has dependants, less than £16 per week plus 30s. a week for each dependant, shall be exempted from such an order. The average wage of the industrial worker is £23 a week.

Let me take the case of a £16 a week worker. He probably has stoppages of £2 a week. He takes home £14. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of such workers. Say that his rent for a house in London goes up from 25s. controlled to £4 5s. without a bath. When he has paid for his rates and heating, he will pay £6 a week out of his take-home pay merely for his housing. That leaves him with £8 a week. I wonder whether there are any Cabinet Ministers or hon. Members opposite who would be prepared to live on such a wage, or to have six-fourteenths of their income taken from them merely to cover their housing. Is £16 a week an unreasonable figure? Everybody knows that it is a very modest figure.

After banging the table in the presence of the Minister, we managed to get this "safeguard" inserted. It sounds wonderful; but it is not. The original Clause was very vague. It merely provided that the court had to take into account the means of the tenant. Knowing many of the legal gentry who have dealt with rent cases, this means that the tenant will get a very poor deal.

Mr. Clegg


Mr. Allaun

Examine the results of the rent assessment committee in London. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was set up by the Government".] And I condemn them for doing it.

The Government's new Clause is very unsatisfactory. It fixes some security of tenure within the limits of rate relief—a single man earning £9 a week, and a married man earning £11 a week. There are very few working men getting wages like that. Few people will benefit except those on supplementary benefit. In fact, they are already covered, because they get supplementary benefit to cover their rent. This "safeguard" will not be much of a safeguard. There will be not merely thousands of rent increases, but thousands of evictions because the low-paid workers will no longer be able to pay the rent demanded when the Bill becomes law.

I expect that my right hon. Friend's objection will be the technical one that income tax returns are a year out of date. Not so. The P.A.Y.E. tax returns are contemporary. That argument falls, therefore. I am bitterly opposed to this aspect of the Bill. I regard the Bill as a Conservative Measure in this respect. No wonder hon. Members opposite are rejoicing. This is a landlord's charter, but if new Clause 8 were accepted at least the lowest paid of our constituents would be protected.

Mr. Clegg

I cannot recognise myself in the description of the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) of hon. Members on this side falling over backwards in support of the Bill. Some important points of principle have arisen in the debate. The first was developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and was touched upon by the hon. Member for Salford, East and, in an interjection, by the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr), who has now left the Chamber.

This principle is involved in the proposition, as I see it which substitutes for the discretion of the county court judge a set of rules limiting his discretion in part. This sort of development has been going on ever since I came to this House in various Measures brought in by the Government. The Government seem to mistrust the courts to do justice. What they want to do—and I am sure the hon. Member for Salford, East is quite clear about it—is to substitute a very defined and restrictive judgment of this House for the broad discretion given to a judge.

This is dangerous, because it leads us into a law which has a rigid pattern which is a bad one. As a lawyer, I like to see a law where there is a broad discretion because, on the whole, one gets better justice that way. A judge can fit the circumstances to the case, whereas, if Parliament lays down a rigid path that he must follow, injustice can result.

I turn now to the question of rent assessment committees. Since the results began to come in, the hon. Member for Salford, East has not disguised his disgust for them. But to impugn the men who sit on these committees is wrong. To suggest that they were appointed by Tory councils and, therefore, fix unfair rents is a disgusting allegation which should be withdrawn. These men are doing a job and doing it well. Their terms of reference were laid down by the Government. They are doing their best to enforce them.

My expectations were different from the hon. Gentleman's. I did not think the system would work. I believe, however, that it is working. I thought at the beginning that it would be wrong not to have professional men to act as judges in these cases but men with general knowledge. I was wrong. The selection of men to serve as rent officers or on assessment committees has exceeded my expectations. They have brought a great deal of common sense to the job. Anyone who has taken part in an informal conference with a rent officer knows that it is not like going before a court where, unless one is legally represented or has advice, one is overwhelmed. This is a very friendly operation, and the rent officer usually leans over backwards to ensure that the tenant has a fair deal.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I said nothing about rent assessment officers. I was referring to the members of the rent assessment committees, particularly in the three areas I mentioned, two of the three members in each case being chartered surveyors and lawyers. The hon. Gentleman cannot deny that the facts show that rents fixed in London are three or four times the rents of identical houses in other parts of the country. This means that the shortage factor is not being ignored, as the Act laid down. It is the rent assessment committees that I blame.

Mr. Clegg

The facts show nothing of the kind. If the rent assessment committees are not following the lines laid down in the Act, if they are putting the law at defiance as the hon. Gentleman suggests, there are legal remedies which he should pursue. Chartered surveyors are members of rent assessment committees. I have always felt that the tenant should have professional advice when appearing before a committee, and I hope that he does.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will help me. I am not sure where this discussion is leading us. It seems to be leading us away from the new Clause.

Mr. Clegg

I hope not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was pursuing a point raised by the hon. Member for Salford, East.

We are talking here about a tribunal, the county court, which is having its discretion fettered by the new Clause, and, in speaking of discretion, I am by analogy referring to rent assessment committees and rent officers. I have finished that part of my deliberations, but I felt that somebody should defend these people. It is too easy in this House to attack professional men. It is always happening, and I am getting sick and tired of it.

If I may move to the second and probably more important part of the argument, I will preface my remarks by saying that the hon. Member for Salford, East has for many years shown great interest and concern in housing and for those of his constituents who live in poor housing conditions. He is not the only hon. Member on both sides of the House to show this concern. We on this side have the same concern. My argument is not with what he wants to achieve. He wants to achieve decent housing conditions for his people; we on this side want to achieve the same; but our methods are different.

By new Clause 8 the hon. Gentleman seeks to ensure that a tenant with a low income will not be forced into paying a higher rent. The amount of the rent bulks large in the hon. Gentleman's argument. He has always maintained, and made no secret of it, that housing is a social service, and that the rent is of secondary importance, except that it should be well within the means of the tenant. How wide that attitude is I am by no means certain.

When landlords, be they local authority or private, are denied the means to maintain a house in a proper condition the result is housing decay and twilight areas. This frightens me, and the result of the new Clause will be that houses which should be put right for future tenants will not be put right because the means of the landlord are not sufficient to enable him to do so.

I accept, as the hon. Gentleman says, that there is little to spare at the end of the week for the housewife whose breadwinner is earning only £16 a week, with costs rising all the time. Only today we have seen the biggest increase in a month for a long time in the cost-of-living index.

But is it right to do it by denying the landlord a proper return? Is it right to deprive the landlord of the means of keeping his house in good repair? We must think of the future. Is the proper way of dealing with the problem to attach a subsidy of sorts to the premises? If a person cannot afford to pay the sort of rent which will provide proper housing accommodation, he should be helped as a person.

If we accept the Government's Amendment, or the hon. Gentleman's Amendment, we shall make the situation worse, and, the further we go away from it, the more difficult is the remedy. While I appreciate the desire of everyone to get good housing, we have to face the facts. Unless money is put into housing which is obtained from the people who are living in the houses, we shall not get the houses that we want, and we shall not solve the housing problem.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I feel that there should be one voice from this side of the House which does not wholly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun).

In these matters, we have a very difficult balance to hold. On the one hand, we want to protect individual tenants from the harsh effects of severe increases in rents. On the other, we want desperately to carry out the improvement of the properties involved, and unless there is some provision for that in the Bill it will not be done.

Everyone concerned with these matters knows that the provisions of the Bill are necessary to carry out the improvements to properties that we want to see. In those circumstances, how can we ensure that there is not unfair hardship on the tenants? I am afraid that my hon. Friend's proposals could have the opposite effect from that which he wishes to see. In some cases, it could be that properties that should be improved would not be.

Then there is the anxiety about the position of those who are in receipt of supplementary allowances. I assume that it will be possible for them to obtain increased allowances to meet any agreed rent increases imposed by an independent body. In cases where there is hardship, would it not be possible for the local authority itself to acquire the properties involved by compulsory purchase, and provide for rent rebates in cases where it is desirable and suitable to meet the real difficulties of low incomes? Is that not an alternative means of meeting such difficulties?

There is a balance to be kept, and I believe that it is vital that we do not destroy the purpose of the Bill by removing too many properties from the improvements which we all know desperately need carrying out.

Mr. Maddan

It becomes increasingly clear that it would make good social and economic sense to prevent old houses from deteriorating. The idea of continuing to live year after year without basic amenities which can often be provided at no great expense is totally unacceptable today. Clause 56 has been included so that the court will have full power to give consideration to the tenant's circumstances and not allow something which will be a disadvantage rather than a benefit to him or which he cannot afford.

I will now tell hon. Members that I was paraphrasing some words which the right hon. Gentleman used during the Second Reading of the Bill. The proposed new Clause is an utter retreat from the principles he then enunciated. The hon. Member for Salford, East referred to the whole thing as "a landlords' charter", but, to use slightly stronger words than the hon. Gentleman, I would say it is not a landlords' charter but a charter for the perpetuation of squalor. Do hon. Members not know that what will happen is that many of the houses which it is quite improper for us to continue to tolerate will, in practice, have their slum conditions extended in time quite unnecessarily?

We must not forget Clause 56, for that gives the widest powers to the courts. I agree with the hon. Member for Salford, East in that I can imagine people in the most difficult circumstances such as he described. I do not think that the courts would fail to take account of the circumstances, and I say that in view of the provisions of subsection (4) of Clause 56. That enjoins the courts to have regard to all the circumstances, and any disadvantages which the tenant might be expected to suffer the accommodation available to him, and the increased rent which would result, and the way in which the increase would become recoverable.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Then if he was a county court judge, what would he assess as the standard below which a tenant should not have to go before his rent was trebled?

Mr. Maddan

I have been assured by the Treasury Bench that there would not be the slightest dilemma about this, and I have, naturally, accepted that advice. I think that I am right in continuing to accept it.

Another point which has been raised in this debate was that, during the Second Reading of the Bill, the Minister said—and I do not want to quote selectively, because I think that he saw the circumstances in which his new Clause would result: Older people may have got used to a settled way of life, and in many cases it would be wrong to disturb them, but we should do everything we can to see that children and young people are brought up in better than 'sub-standard' conditions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1969; Vol. 777, c. 965.] The Minister was referring to old people who are getting used to this way of life. A few "bob" more might bring them those little pleasures. If we have to have a new Clause, could it not be confined to old-age pensioners only, or people so long used to these sort of conditions? As it stands, the new Clause will drive a coach and horses through the purpose of the Bill in just those areas where we want improvements to be made.

11.0 p.m.

May we have some estimate of the number of properties which the Government expect to be affected by the Clause? Estimates have been given of the number which will be affected by the Bill, but how many will be taken out, as it were, by the Clause? If it is necessary to take out some for the sort of reason mentioned by the Minister on Second Reading, we could and should limit the number in that way.

I am not unsympathetic to the view that there are instances when exceptions must be made, but I rely on the court. It may be worth considering whether a limited and defined exception, such as old-age pensioners, should be provided, but I have grave apprehensions about a Clause as wide as this.

Mr. MacColl

I am anxious to help the House to reach a decision on the Clause. I remind hon. Members of its comparatively narrow range. We are not talking about taking houses out of the Rent Act, or out of the improvement provisions, but dealing with the comparatively narrow problem of the landlord who cannot make the repairs without entering the house and who is refused the tenant's permission to go into the house, so that he has to obtain the court's permission to enter.

The different views were clearly deployed in Committee. When we presented the Bill to the House, our view was that the direction to the court—and it is a direction and not a pious hope—that it must consider the means of the tenant in relation to the increase in rent was a fairly firm protection and sufficient in itself to cover instances where hardship would be caused.

However, in Committee different views were forcefully advanced by my hon. Friends the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) and the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman), who said that the court might not be clear about modern standards of the costs of living. It is arguable that the judge might think in terms of his youth when £16 a week meant that he was a rich man when he first earned that amount at the Bar. A judge has to be brought into the 20th century and we should ensure that he understands existing levels of income and expenditure.

We promised to look at ways in which we could convey that to the court. That we have done, and we found difficulty in defining a provision sufficiently specific to have some meaning, but not so peremptory as to become a direction to the court about what it must do in minute detail. We came to the conclusion that we should use a gate through rate rebates, so that if there were a rebate, the landlord would be unable to get a compulsory order. It has been suggested that the number of people affected by rate rebates is very small. In fact, about 50,000 private tenants are affected, apart from a number of owner-occupiers. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) that people on supplementary benefits would receive assistance. These would be the people who would be protected.

Let us compare the two proposals. My hon. Friend's tariff is higher than ours and, except for large families or where there are very heavy rates, people would be caught by his criterion who would not be caught by ours. Secondly, he proposes to put into the Bill a firm figure. If levels of money incomes rise, £16 a week may well become trivial as a proportion of income, and it may be very complicated to alter the figure in the Bill. The rate rebate figure, on the other hand, is in my right hon. Friend's hands, and he can make an order to vary it. He has already altered it once, which shows that he takes the responsibility seriously. Clearly, it is a more flexible instrument.

My hon. Friend mentioned the problem of eviction. My hon. Friend knows, and I will not imply that he does not know, that the people concerned will remain under the Rent Act and will have the security of the Rent Act. They will have both the basic and the detailed protection given to tenants under rent control. It would not be possible for a landlord without a court order to evict someone who had failed to pay his rent. The landlord would have to go to court and to justify his request. It is highly unlikely that a county court judge would make a peremptory eviction order if it were clear that the rent was beyond the tenant's means.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I do not want to detain the House unduly, but this is a most important point. Let us consider the circumstances in which the tenant is taken to court by the landlord and his rent is trebled. He says, "I cannot afford to pay that rent and I will not pay it". He is then taken to court for an eviction order. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the landlord will not get an eviction order? Of course he will, because the court has instructed that the improvement should take place and that the rent should be trebled.

Mr. MacColl

It would not be part of the same operation. There would be an order for entry and then, if there were rent arrears, there would have to be a request for another order. I will not speculate on what a judge would do, but I think that in most cases a judge would take a very sympathetic view of the situation and would make an order for the payment of arrears by very small amounts. I do not think that judges lightly order evictions.

May I inform my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that under the law the local authorities can acquire property compulsorily for improvement. This is a difficult problem of holding the balance between the different views we have heard tonight, the views of the people who say that the improvement of the property is so essential that we must put that first, and the view of my hon. Friend that this could be a most dangerous instrument.

What we have done by this provision is to give a direction to the court to have regard to the means of the tenant in relation to the increase in rent. We are adding a complete shut-out of anybody who is getting a rate rebate who cannot be considered at all under the order.

Mr. Peter Walker

I do not like the Government's new Clause, and even less do I like the new Clause moved by the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun).

I cannot understand why the hon. Member for Salford, East and those who support his views are so proud of their achievements over the years in maintaining rent control at the artificially low levels at which it has been maintained. They are all aware of the derelict, badly repaired houses that stand as a monument to the absurdity of rent control as practised by Governments past and present in this country. To be proud of that system, to wish it to continue, and to look upon it as a system in the interests of the tenants is a remarkable blind spot of the hon. Member for Salford, East.

The hon. Member wishes the House to accept a new Clause which will allow tenants living in badly repaired houses, without proper facilities, to opt out of having their houses properly repaired, with proper facilities. All he will achieve, if he is successful, will be that many houses will continue to provide appalling conditions for the men, women and children who live in them. If that is what he calls Socialism and social reform, I think very badly of it indeed.

I would remind the hon. Member, and the Minister because his new Clause has some adverse effects on the situation, that on the Second Reading of the Bill the Minister, now accused by the hon. Member for Salford, East of producing a landlords' charter, said: Let me remind hon. Members what controlled rents are: they are basically twice the 1939 letting value of the house. They have not moved at all since 1957, while costs in general and repair costs in particular have been steadily moving up. Indeed, during this time the average male earnings have nearly doubled, and the cost of repairs has increased by over two-thirds. There seems little doubt that these 1957 rent levels have meant in many cases that repairs have been neglected."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February 1969; Vol. 777; c. 972.] Those are the words of a Socialist Minister of Housing on the Second Reading of the Bill. It is staggering that hon. Members on either side of the House should dispute those views of the Minister.

The Minister then went on to describe the landlords, the people for whom the hon. Member for Salford, East says the Minister is producing a charter. In view of what the Minister said, landlords are not all that evil a group of people to produce a charter for—

Mr. Frank Allaun

Some of them are.

Mr. Walker

Of course, some of them are, as some tenants are. In any group of people there are bad and good. And I hope that both sides of the House are against bad landlords and tenants.

Mr. Allaun

The point is that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there are thousands of controlled houses which are being well-maintained, which have bathrooms and where the landlords are not losing on them. I do not see why one should give them such a bonus at the tenants' expense.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Walker

I find it incredible that the hon. Member should wish to maintain rents at a level fixed at 1957 levels—and even then they were not properly adjusted on their pre-1939 levels. Of course, there are landlords who have maintained their houses properly because they can afford to do so, and they have lost money, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well. He should look, if he wants a comparison with controlled rents, at the economic cost of council houses. Even with all the subsidies on council houses, their rents are far above those controlled rents.

Let us look at the description of the landlords concerned. This is the description given by the Minister as a result of a study of five surveys. There are some who take a Left-wing view of politics and some who take a Right-wing view, but here is the Minister's analysis: I can perhaps summarise them best by saying that they show a range of individual landlords owning one rented dwelling as being between 61 per cent. and 78 per cent. of all landlords. So the first description of the analysis is that between 61 per cent. and 78 per cent. of all landlords are landlords of only one house.

The analysis goes on to say: And the proportion of individual landlords who are elderly ranges from 39 per cent. to 63 per cent."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1969; Vol. 777, c. 972–3.] The majority of landlords are those owning only one house and between 40 per cent. and 60 per cent. are elderly. These are the people the hon. Gentleman is saying should subsidise low-income tenants. [Interruption.] He cannot deny that.

We have reached an absurd position when the House passes legislation saying that a group of people, most of whom own only one house, probably half of whom are elderly, should bear the brunt of subsidising the accommodation of those on low incomes. To take it a stage further, the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell) should say that those on low incomes should opt out of the position at the expense of the landlord and create a situation where the landlord does not have to keep the houses in repair, or to provide the proper amenities which we should all like to see and, if he is successful, people will continue to live in the most dreadful and deplorable conditions.

It is time that civilised society came to the conclusion that one should not pick on one group of people to subsidise the accommodation of another group. If one has a society where a proportion of people as defined by a Labour Government cannot afford fair rents, it is the duty of society to see that they can afford them, but it is not the duty of Government to say that the landlords should be stopped from obtaining the fair and proper price for that accommodation. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should remain in the position of wishing people to go on living at low rents in appalling conditions.

We advocate that fair rents should be paid. If they cannot be afforded—and in a minority of families, they cannot—it is the duty of society to see that a fair rent is paid one way or another. There are powers under which local authorities can take leases of privately rented accommodation, and under these powers they have to pay the landlord a fair rent and can give the advantage of rent rebate to the tenant. We would like to see more local authorities practise that, where tenants are unable to afford a fair rent for privately rented accommodation.

At present, there is a situation where those who own houses are those affected. It is an absurdity and almost wicked. The hon. Gentleman is not, of course, intentionally wicked—I recognise that he genuinely wishes to improve housing conditions—but the policy he has advocated for decades, and which he still pursues, would mean appalling conditions for tenants.

Mr. Hawkins

I appreciate the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) for the improvement of housing, but his other enthusiasm lies in the direction of not allowing people to have reasonable rents and so be able to do the improvements.

The two enthusiasms conflict. Acceptance of the hon. Member's proposal would mean that the desperate need to improve certain houses would not be met. In an area where an improvement scheme has been carried out, it is bad to have some houses standing out like sore thumbs, and for their next occupiers to find that necessary repairs and improvements can be carried out only at a far greater cost than would have been the case earlier.

Many of us can remember that when electricity and water were laid on in a given area there were always some people who wanted to live as before. We later realised what a mistake it had been not to have insisted on those houses being improved. One needed houses in good condition, but those properties were in bad condition, and their occupiers complained about the lack of water and electricity. If the hon. Member's proposal were accepted, that sort of thing would happen again. I heard what he said about chartered surveyors—I am a chartered surveyor—but I take his remark with a pinch of salt. He had to introduce that note. The rent tribunals and other bodies are doing a good job, and acting as fairly as possible.

There is much in what the hon. Member said about the impossibility of the low income group paying some of the increased rents that may be asked. In the Eastern Counties we have a very low wage pattern, being dependent, as we are, on agriculture. Quite a large number of people will be earning less than £16 a week. There must, therefore, be some way of enabling them to pay less rent, but the way to go about it is not to condemn them to live and bring up families in appalling housing conditions. We must improve the houses, but we must also see to it that such people have enough income to pay increased rent. It should not be beyond the wit of the Government to find some way round the problem other than that suggested by the hon. Member.

The great thing about the Bill, which I have supported from the very beginning is that we shall get improved and brought to modern standards a larger stock of older houses which are sound in themselves. I believe, with many hon. Members on both sides, that bad housing conditions are the greatest breeder of all sorts of crime—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. We cannot have a Second Reading debate on the Bill itself, rather than on the new Clause.

Mr. Hawkins

The Bill will help to improve housing conditions, but the hon. Member's proposal would be bad for the country and its stock of housing by allowing people to opt out of having their housing conditions improved. There are many people living on low incomes who must be helped, but I do not believe that this is the right way to do it.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I should think that Clause 56, as it stood, was sufficient to cover this problem. I am sorry that the Minister—no doubt in response to representations that have been made to him—has felt it right or necessary to bring in new Clause 4. I think that it is wrong in principle and likely to be unworkable in detail.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins), I represent a constituency with a large number of houses in small villages, many of which were put up in the early part of the Industrial Revolution and are now in deplorably bad condition. In those houses live elderly retired farm workers and the widows of farm workers, people whose incomes are tiny, whose savings are nil, and who really are the rural poor.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite frequently speak of the poor in the great conurbations of the country—in my youth I saw much of those poor—but I hope that they will accept that there is a category of people in our land, the rural poor, who are frequently very poor indeed and whose housing conditions are extremely bad.

I support the main principles of the Bill and of those Acts that have gone before, because they enable improvements to tens of thousands of houses—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going very wide of the two new Clauses that we are discussing at the moment.

Mr. Griffiths

I was establishing my broad firmament in order to converge on the two new Clauses, to which I am about to come. I was simply establishing that my reason for speaking on the new Clauses is because I represent an area that has many rural poor living in small cottages that are badly in need of repair.

Parliament has willed that these properties shall be improved so that the squalor shall be reduced. If either of the new Clauses is accepted by the House, we shall find that one group, and one group only, of our fellow citizens would effectively be contracted out of the process that Parliament has willed.

Landlords may not opt out. They are required by law in many cases to make the necessary improvements. The vast majority of our fellow citizens, who are unfortunate enough to live in poor houses, may not opt out. But if either of these new Clauses is passed, one group alone will contract out. Under new Clause 4 those contracting out will be people on rate relief. Under new Clause 8 those contracting out will be those with an income of £16 10s. a week or less. The idea of both new Clauses is that these people—happily, a minority—should go on living in squalor.

On behalf of those in my constituency who are living in squalor, I protest at the very suggestion that they should continue to live in the decrepit cottages in which they now live.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Trebling their rents.

Mr. Griffiths

I did not hear about that. That is for the court to decide, in accordance with the Minister's new Clause. It gives the court ample scope to consider their means and their circumstances, and I refuse to believe that a court confronted with the Minister's Clause would in any circumstances treble their rents, unless their rents happen to be so low that trebling them would not materially affect their circumstances. The hon. Gentleman knows that, and so does the Minister.

My point arises principally from my experience, and I should like to give a precise example to illustrate how difficult it may be for the Minister's Clause to work in practice. I refer the Minister to the small village of Long Thurlow, not far from Bury St. Edmunds. Only last week I was approached by a constituent, an elderly lady of 71, who lives in a small former agricultural cottage in a road of houses which are perhaps 100 years old.

Until recently none of these houses had running water or adequate sanitation. The rent is 11s. 6d. a week, and of that sum the rates consume about 5s., so the landlord receives 6s. 6d. a week for each cottage. Due to the generosity of the State, the landlord, a small man, has been able to obtain the standard grant and the discretionary grant up to a certain figure, and one by one he is improving these cottages in the terrace. So far he has improved six out of the 10. The seventh cottage along the road is occupied by the elderly lady to whom I have referred.

The landlord is now seeking power to improve her cottage. She wrote to me asking me to visit her because, she said, "I will not move. I will not move out to have the improvements carried out", even though the landlord, who is in receipt of what no one can describe as a princely sum, has offered her an identical home alongside her own which he has improved within the last three months. She will not move from her home to an identical house next door, except that it now has a bathroom and other facilities, thus making it impossible for the will of Parliament to be carried out.

It must be wrong for such a situation to be allowed to continue if the will of Parliament is to mean anything at all. I believe that if Clause 56 had been left alone there would have been no difficulty. The landlord would have been able to obtain a county court order, the lady would have moved without much difficulty into the empty premises next door, and the job would have been done. My fear is that if the Minister's Clause is enacted this lady will not move, and she will not have to move because the rates on her property fall below the limit which the Minister has put forward. As a result of his Clause the Minister will make abortive what he is seeking to achieve, and what we all give him credit for seeking to achieve.

I would ask him to consider very carefully whether his new Clause will achieve the purpose he is seeking. It may be that the example I have given is an exceptional one, but I do not think that it is very rare in West Suffolk. I hope he will consider carefully, between now and the final passage of the Bill whether he cannot make some change that will cover the sort of cases that I have put to him.

I must comment on some of the details of the new Clause 8, moved so eloquently by the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun). I am bound to tell him that £16 a week in West Suffolk and much of East Anglia would be regarded as a very good income indeed among our farm workers. I say that to illustrate that it is impossible to establish across the whole of a very diverse country such as ours one single figure. What £16 a week means in West Suffolk and what it means in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are two very different things.

The hon. Gentleman would be importing into legislation a notion that would involve Parliament, almost every year, in coming back and changing the arbitrary figure that he is asking us to accept. There is a vast difference between what £16 a week means in one part of the country and another. It would be very ill-advised to confine us to that figure. There is a good deal of difference between £16 in 1969 and £16 in 1974 or even in 1964. If the change in the value of money continues at its present rate then the figure would need to be revised again and again.

Mr. Frank Allaun

indicated assent.

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman nods. Clearly, when framing his new Clause, he had this in mind and wanted the principle to be debated, and that, at least, he has achieved.

I will give a positive example. I have in my constituency a man who has 13 children, and one, as he puts it, "in the oven". On the basis of the new Clause 8, where each dependant would have an additional 30s. per week, this particular and prolific gentleman would have to have £16 per week plus 13 separate 30s. I make his income to be not less than £36 under the hon. Gentleman's new Clause. He may well need it, indeed his expenses are high, but it will be clearly understood that with an income of that kind, and possibly with efforts of that kind required as well he has no time to go out to work—perhaps he works at different times of the day from Members of Parliament.

I point to this exceptional example to demonstrate the dangers of laying down in legislation these kinds of precise figures. The hon. Gentleman's new Clause would mean, in the case of this gentleman, an income of £36 a week, which is a very different thing from what the hon. Member intends. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) is evidently feeling the strain of being here so long. He is much more active on the question of Vietnam than he is on matters pertaining to my constituents. My concern is more with the village of Long Thurlow.

I have made the two main points I wished to make on new Clauses 4 and 8. But I do not believe that it is sufficient for anyone to oppose what the Minister and the hon. Gentleman hope to do unless he can say how he would do it himself. Clause 56 would suffice to cover the problems they have raised. The Government have got themselves into a jam, and under pressure from the hon. Gentle- man and his friends they have sought to meet his argument. The difficulty is that since his argument is bad any concessions the Government make to meet him are bound to be bad.

What is wrong with both the Clauses is that they are based on the assumption that a minority of people, mainly the elderly and poor, shall be permitted and indeed encouraged to live in conditions which the rest of us regard as wholly unacceptable. If social welfare in the eyes of hon. Members opposite means that a number of people shall live in slums, I do not recognise the idealism that many of them have sought to stand for.

By far the better approach would be to tie the help in our housing programmes not to the bricks and mortar, but to the human being. Hon. Members may contend that this involves a means test, but how can the hon. Gentleman's new Clause be described as anything else? He is establishing his means test at £16 a week. The Minister has established his at a rateable value of £3 10s. every six months. What an extraordinary approach this is!

Of the two Clauses we are discussing, I am sure that the Minister's is the better. That tabled by the hon. Gentleman, whose sincerity and compassion we all appreciate, is misconceived and should be thrown out right away. The Minister's has a number of holes in it. Its philosophy is wrong and its approach is mistaken, but if the Minister succeeds in getting it I hope that he will look at the detail that I have put before him in respect of the rural poor.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Murton

The debate is very interesting, but in many respects it is rather strange, because the Minister must admit by now that it was probably folly of him to let his heart over-rule his head to the extent of producing new Clause 4. It can be well understood that it is a compromise between Clause 56, which was carefully and tightly drafted, and the rather more radical approach of the hon. Member for Salford. East (Mr. Frank Allaun) and his friends. Like many other compromises, it fails to meet the case.

The difficulty is that it produces rigidity. Although I am not a professional man, I think that it is always wrong that rigidity should be introduced into a court of law. A county court judge who is called upon to deliberate on this Clause will find his hands tied. This is a wrong principle, because the judges are perfectly able to consider all the facts. It is wrong that they should be debarred by a Statute passed in this manner. The Minister must admit that his party is a party of rigidity. This is the cause of much of the trouble which has dogged right hon. and hon. Members opposite. [An HON. MEMBER: "Rigor mortis."] That may be slightly unkind, but it is perfectly true.

What worries me particularly about new Clause 4 is that those people to be protected by it inevitably will live on in the house in its present condition. Two inevitable facts will arise should it not be possible for the local authority to re-house them. First, they will continue to live in extreme discomfort. The elderly are probably better acclimatised to living in something they have always known as extremely uncomfortable. They will be condemned to doing this by the Clause. This is inhuman because they will never have the opportunity to know anything better.

Secondly, if they are condemned to live on in their house in its present condition until the end of their days, it is conceivable that by the time they have unfortunately passed on the house will be so badly out of date and out of repair that it will be lost to the housing stock. The Minister for Planning and Land, who, I am pleased to see, is listening to me, talked about the possibility of a crude surplus of houses by the 1970s. I fear that houses of this type will be some of the more crude ones. They will mitigate the effect of obtaining a surplus. This is much more serious than people realise. There must be many houses which will fall within this new Clause. The Minister must be wondering whether it was wise to compromise.

I understand the views of the hon. Member for Salford, East on housing. In many ways, he is quite a character—he will not mind my saying that—in housing matters. He would, no doubt, talk about the wicked landlords and the other things which delight his heart. But I know that behind that facade there is a warm heart. I understand the way he feels—and I have told him that many times. In my youth—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) laughs. I was young once. In comparison with his, my youth may be blooming; I do not know.

The hon. Gentleman must not laugh at me when I say that I have known and lived amongst slums and squalor, because I have, just as anyone else who was born and brought up and has worked on Tyneside has. For that reason, I sympathise with the hon. Member for Salford, East. In attempting to express my sympathy with him, all I get is unjustified sarcasm. I can only put it down to the lateness of the hour and I shall, therefore, forgive the hon. Member for Penistone on this occasion.

Having said that, however, I realise why the right hon. Gentleman has refused new Clause 8. I saw him move out of his seat to explain his reasons personally, I think, to the hon. Member for Salford, East. Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's view, the important issue here, cogently put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) is the whole question of subsidy to the individual. I am certain that, when we return to office, we will so alter and organise affairs that we do not have the type of compromise which I fear is going into the Bill now.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

Further consideration of the Bill, as amended, adjourned.—[Mr. Greenwood.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee) to be further considered Tomorrow.