HC Deb 06 April 1970 vol 799 cc205-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Moyle (Lewisham, North)

In seeking to raise on the Adjournment the matter I have in mind, I should be able to tell a story which is one of the most distressing examples of bureaucratic, red-tape rigidity and petty-mindedness I have come across since representing the Borough of Lewisham in the House.

I hope that when I have told my tale my hon. Friend will undertake on behalf of the Government to use the full powers available to his Department to try to achieve a solution which is in conformity with the principles of humanitarian behaviour which we would all like to see applied by the Government.

The case concerns the Rickward family which, until 29th October, 1969, lived in my constituency, at Boone Street, in property owned by the Lewisham Borough Council. The husband was then a self-employed motor mechanic. He has a wife, and two children—a girl aged 10 and a boy of 6. For various reasons the family desired to live in the West Country, and on 29th October, 1969, it seemed that a new life of happiness in an area of their choice was about to begin for them, for by then they had persuaded the borough council and the Plymouth Corporation to let them exchange their council property in Boone Street for 118, Bodmin Road, Plymouth and, in return, a Plymouth family was accommodated in the Rickward house in Boone Street.

It was a condition precedent of the exchange, and made by the Plymouth Corporation, that Mr. Rickward should obtain a job in the Plymouth area. This he had already done by the time the transfer became effective. It was with this job that the troubles of the Rickward family began.

Far from being the type of job that Mr. Rickward expected when he took it, it was not by any means a bed of roses. It was an outdoor job. There is, perhaps, nothing remarkable in that fact, but the job involved working in the depth of winter in very inclement conditions with very little protection, with the result that which he was drenched every day. It also involved his working in cement plaster, and what he found worst of all was the continuous frustration in that he was unable to obtain the implements with which to carry out his job, and the spare parts for the tasks he was charged to perform.

After about a week, Mr. Rickward decided to seek other employment in the area, and gave in his notice. Perhaps some will say that he did not stick at the job long enough, but I wonder how many of those who would pass that moral judgment would work in the conditions experienced by Mr. Rickward? A fortnight followed during which he scoured the Plymouth area for work, and it was a race against time. As I have pointed out, Mr. Rickward was self-employed when he was resident in Lewisham and, in consequence, he was not entitled to unemployment pay and his savings were beginning to run out. After 14 days the money had gone and the family was threatened with having no resources on which to maintain its standard of living.

Those who will pass moral judgment on Mr. Rickward for not sticking at his job a little longer will be relieved to note that there was no great disposition on his part to live on supplementary benefits, because, confident of his ability to find work in London, he headed back to Lewisham and in a short time was employed again. But what was the point of the family living in Plymouth if the breadwinner had to live in London? And so the pressure was on for the family to return to London.

Obviously, they had no right to a house in Lewisham, because they had surrendered their accommodation there to effect an exchange in Plymouth, but they could obtain a house in Lewisham if they could find a Lewisham family who would move to Plymouth and take their house there. This was the position of the Borough of Lewisham, which, carrying on the bipartisan policies which it inherited from its Labour predecessor, has a much more sensible policy in these matters, I find, than the Plymouth Corporation.

The Rickwards were fortunate enough to find such a family. A woman resident in Grove Park, Lewisham, is willing to let the Rickwards take her house if she can have their Plymouth house, and the Lewisham Borough Council is quite prepared to allow this operation to proceed. There is, therefore, no problem, or so one would think. On the contrary, however, the Plymouth Corporation has a rule that a family must live in its house for a year before the corporation will contemplate an exchange. That may be a useful rule in the circumstances of Plymouth if applied with consideration for individual cases and with humanity, but Plymouth seems to adopt the attitude that housing exists to support the pristine and unmarred beauty of its rules rather than that rules exist to make the housing of people easier.

I do not know in what fire of local crisis in Plymouth was forged the rule of one year's residence before exchange. It must have been a crisis and a fire, because throughout the remainder of the story the attitude of the Plymouth Corporation, which is typical, I find, of Conservative councils in local housing matters, as been rigid and unbending. The Rickwards must live and work—or starve—in Plymouth until 29th October, 1970, before an exchange will be permitted them. This rule, it seems, will be broken over the dead bodies of the Plymouth councillors, even if its enforcement is over the dead bodies—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Member, but what he has said so far seems to be a matter concerning two councils. He must come to Ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Moyle

I am proceeding to the question of Ministerial responsibility in a few minutes, Mr. Speaker, but, with due respect, I must set out the facts first.

Plymouth has resisted every blandishment which so far can be brought to bear upon it. I have asked my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) to use his good offices to move the city fathers. He failed, like the Lewisham Borough Council. Indeed, many people have failed in this matter.

There was a report of the case in The Guardian on 24th January this year and there, of course, the case of the Plymouth Corporation was set out in a nutshell. The administrative work "— said the official who was quoted in the report— involved in tenancy exchanges is both costly and time consuming and because it is given free of charge, the council, in its wisdom, imposed a 12-month restriction. To protect the cost and administrative convenience of the Plymouth Corporation, considerable hardship has been inflicted on the Rickward family. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear this very much in mind in the circumstances in which the Rickward family now find themselves in giving his reply.

By now, the Rickward family have struggled back to London. For four months they have moved from pillar to post, taking such accommodation with such friends and acquaintances as will have them. Mrs. Rickward's health is suffering from the worry. At times the husband and wife have had to live apart because of the need to obtain a roof over their heads. Because of the continual movement, neither of the children has been to school since Christmas, and when I last spoke to the family they were all living and sleeping in one room.

I will not attempt to argue the case that the Rickwards are Lewisham's most prudent citizens. They would not argue that themselves. They frankly admit that they made mistakes. But if any family in the land intend to depart from the highest standards of prudence and foresight I earnestly beg them not to involve Plymouth Corporation in their errors, because to Plymouth human fallibility does not exist, and if it does, it must be ruthlessly punished. Yet this family have committed no crime, not even a civil wrong.

The other source of redress, apart from the Minister, which the Rickward family may have would be Lewisham Borough Council, and certainly Lewisham has been standing on its rights, but I have more sympathy with Lewisham council than with Plymouth. If Lewisham bends before Plymouth's heartless rigidity it will be one house down on its pool, and with a waiting list of 10,000 families, 2,000 of them urgent, this is something Lewisham can ill afford. And when we speak of urgent housing cases in Lewisham we really mean it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must come to some Ministerial responsibility. So far, he has spoken of Lewisham Borough Council and Plymouth Corporation.

Mr. Moyle

Yes. I am very grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

The point I am coming to is that Plymouth is totally unwilling to handle the problem, Lewisham Borough Council would prefer Plymouth Corporation to handle the problem, and the corporation is taking no action, and I feel that if the Minister exercised his Ministerial responsibility to give advice and guidance to the two councils on matters of transfers, as the Ministry of Housing and Local Government often does, then perhaps the two councils would take action and resolve the matter satisfactorily.

If Plymouth accepts a further exchange, to which Lewisham is quite agreeable, everyone will be all square, but being all square is not enough for Plymouth Corporation. It must be all square on Ply- mouth's terms, and now the corporation is moving to take 118, Bodmin Road, Whitleigh, away from the Rickwards, so that they will have no official home and nothing to bargain with, and Plymouth will have made a housing gain. My only comment can be, congratulations to Plymouth Corporation! It must be very proud of itself.

I would say to my hon. Friend, in conclusion, first, that this case illustrates once again the point I have made before in this House, that the obstacles placed in the way of council tenants who wish to move from one house to another are one of the biggest restrictions on human liberty in this country today, particularly when administered by heartless local authorities like Plymouth Corporation, dominated by the party opposite, dominated by people very few of whom have any experience at all of living conditions on council estates.

Secondly, I would say that the crime which the Rickwards have committed is to cause, or threaten to cause, administrative inconvenience to Plymouth Corporation. If that is a crime and they have committed it, they have been punished to the full. They have indeed.

Is there nothing that my hon. Friend can do by way of issuing advice to local authorities to be more flexible in these matters? Is there nothing that my hon. Friend can do to persuade local authorities to be more flexible in their approach to matters of council transfers? If he can give this advice tonight, I think that it may well go a long way to solving the unfortunate case of this family, now in very desperate straits indeed.

12.34 a.m.

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

We have, in the Department, through our regional officers, checked on the facts of this case, and they are basically as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle) has described them. The Rickward family were Lewisham council tenants in Boone Street until October last year, when, because of the breadwinner's work, they exchanged tenancies with a Plymouth family in a Plymouth council house in Bodmin Road in that city.

Mr. Rickward very quickly, as my hon. Friend has said, found that he did not like his new employment in Plymouth, and the family, deciding to return to Lewisham, sought a council tenancy in that London borough and to exchange the house they had. Lewisham Borough Council gave permission. Plymouth Corporation did not, because the length of tenancy was not long enough to qualify for an exchange under Plymouth's rules.

Lewisham Council wrote to Plymouth to try to persuade them to change their mind. In reply, Plymouth said that Mr. Rickward had worked with the Portland Cement Company, but had stayed there only three weeks. The council, which made inquiries with the local employment exchange about Mr. Rickward, thought that he had not given his job a reasonable try and, in any event, there were other employment opportunities in Plymouth.

The council's rule required one year's occupation as the minimum qualification for an exchange of tenancy. This was waived only in the most exceptional circumstances. The Department was informed that the Housing Tenancies Sub-Committee decided against relaxing the rule in Mr. Rickward's case, since in its view his difficulties were of his own making. The sub-committee also authorised court proceedings to recover possession of the house from Mr. Rickward, although I understand that he has kept up payment of rent after moving back to Lewisham.

Notice to quit had been served previously, and subsequently expired on 16th March. As my hon. Friend has said, the Lewisham Borough Council has accepted a housing application from Mr. and Mrs. Rickward, but they will need to be on the list for at least a year under Lewisham conditions and circumstances before they can be considered for a tenancy, apart from the question of the exchange which they have sought.

Mr. Speaker

Order. So far, this seems to concern Plymouth and Lewisham. The Minister must come to his own responsibility.

Mr. Freeson

With respect, this is all information which we have within our own responsibility sought from the two authorities to establish the facts. That is a potted history of what has transpired which we obtained from the authorities concerned.

I come now to the general background position of the authorities and the position of the Ministry on matters like this. It must be said straight away that the running of local authority housing estates rests firmly with the councils who own them, but the Ministry has given clear advice on transfers and exchanges of tenancies, as well as other management matters. This has been done by a number of reports from the Minister's Central Housing Advisory Committee and Ministerial circulars sent out to all housing authorities over the years.

A 1949 report dealt with transfers and exchanges in the context of under-occupation, that is, transferring tenants to small houses within the local authority's own housing stock, or making exchange arrangements with private landlords, in order to make the fullest use of the council's houses. Circular 8/52 asked local authorities to facilitate exchanges of tenancies between people who were moving on change of employment from one area to another, which is just the kind of case we are discussing.

A Central Housing Advisory Committee report, "Transfers, Exchanges and Rents", published in 1953, examined the reasons for which some authorities imposed restrictions on exchanges of tenancies. It condemned restrictions such as residential qualifications and the limitation of exchanges to certain types of property as irrelevant, and recommended local authorities to withdraw them, saying that they should simply satisfy themselves that the families concerned would be reliable tenants and that there were genuine housing reasons on both sides for the exchange.

The Ministry has reminded all housing authorities of these recommendations as recently as 1967, in the context of the need to encourage redeployment of labour in the national interest. In the circular we said that exchange schemes contributed to greater mobility, and asked authorities which did not already operate exchange arrangements to do so. In particular, the Minister hoped that no local authority would continue to impose any barrier to exchanges between tenants, provided that the accommodation was suitable for the families involved.

The subject was considered again by the Central Housing Advisory Sub-Committee which, under the chairmanship of Professor J. B. Cullingworth, was asked to review the practices of local authorities in allocating tenancies. The report was circulated and commended by my right hon. Friend to local authorities in the latter part of last year. The upshot of this further examination is that, although in the past much of the debate on exchanges and transfers has been concerned with under-occupation, this is no longer so relevant.

An active policy of facilitating and encouraging exchanges and transfers is still desirable and necessary on other policy grounds. Councils should aim at a good balance of house types within a locality. Their objectives should be to provide the space standards to which tenants aspire, allow the maximum freedom of choice, and to facilitate mobility. That is a short summary of some of the main objectives recommended as policy by the Central Housing Advisory Sub-Committee.

The report said that emphasis should be placed on giving priority to the wishes and aspirations of tenants and prospective tenants, with maximum opportunity for movement. The Institute of Housing Managers pointed out to the Culling-worth Committee that exchanges were a most valuable way to help tenants to greater housing satisfaction without any disadvantage to other housing work. The Committee discussed the possibility of establishing a national exchange bureau. Previously, this has been thought impracticable and has attracted considerable scepticism from local authorities, but we intend to discuss this and the many recommendations in the Cullingworth Report with the local authority associations in the not too distant future.

To sum up, Parliament has vested the general management, regulation and control of council houses in the local authority which owns them. It is for each authority to decide its management policy for itself. Tenancy exchange arrangements necessarily imply willingness on the part of the authorities concerned to co-operate. We do not intervene on the way in which they exercise their discretion in these matters. But it is our plain view that no barriers should be placed on exchanges between council tenants, provided that the accommodation is suitable in both cases. These views have been conveyed to Plymouth as to other authorities. It is fair to say that increasingly authorities throughout the country are moving in the direction which I have briefly outlined. We want to see a greater movement in this direction, and we will continue to advise authorities to take this course.

That is the approach which we advocate in all cases. Having heard the circumstances as described by my hon. Friend and had the matter probed by my officials, I must confess that I have considerable sympathy with the Rickward family. Perhaps they did decide very quickly that they did not want to stay in Plymouth. But this is a free society and people are at liberty to move about the country as they wish. It is not for a local authority to sit in judgment on an individual's choice of work and his employment practices in operating its housing estates on behalf of its local community and the nation. This is 1970, not the 1930s, nor the 19th century, and such intervention by a local authority, unless it is on behalf of a person needing help, can rightly be considered an impertinence.

It is, of course, perfectly right that a local authority should have rules and be seen to be acting within those rules and to be operating fairly and that the rules should not be too rigid or outdated. Rules need to be operated flexibly and to serve, not obstruct, policy. I hope that note will be taken of what has been said here tonight and that more note will be taken of the general advice which is circulated to local authorities and that a sensible and humane way will be found out of the present impasse in this case not only for the sake of Mr. and Mrs. Rickward and their family, but for the many other cases which may not reach the Floor of the House.

I hope that I have clearly indicated our position. We do not intervene in detailed management matters, but we have views about them. We have expressed those views generally and specifically. I hope that I have reflected the humane and fair approach that is needed by the local authorities and others concerned when such difficulties arise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to One o'clock.