HC Deb 10 March 1971 vol 813 cc422-32
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Julian Amery)

With permission, I should like to make a statement.

As the House knows, the Report of the Committee under Mr. Hugh Francis, Q.C., was published last week. The terms of reference of the Committee were to report on the operation of rent regulation under the Rent Act, 1965, especially in large centres of population where accommodation is scarce, and to review the relationship between the codes governing furnished and unfurnished dwellings.

My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and I wish first of all to pay tribute to the Chairman and all members of the Committee. They were appointed by the previous Government in October 1969 and have since discharged a very important task with impressive expedition.

The Francis Report will be of great help to the Government in considering the next steps to take in what is an extremely complex and controversial subject. The Committee was not unanimous on all points, and the House will want to study both the majority report and Miss Evans' dissenting views with great care.

The Government's aim is to foster conditions which are fair to both landlords and tenants, and it is encouraging to learn from the Committee that, by and large, the system of rent regulations introduced by the last Government is working well. I pay tribute to them for it. The Committee has made many recommendations for improving the system. Some of them would require legislation, and the Government are giving them the most careful consideration. I will not attempt to comment on them in detail today. We would rather have the benefit of the discussions to which the report is bound to give rise before tabling firm proposals.

There is evidence, however, that harassment and illegal evictions still occur in certain areas, notably in areas of stress. We accept the Committee's view that the penalties for these offences are inadequate and need to he strengthened.

I turn to the question of security for tenants of furnished accommodation. The Government have studied carefully both the majority report and Miss Evans' views on this question. The whole Committee, including Miss Evans, agrees that full security should not be extended to the large number of smaller premises shared with landlords. The problem, therefore, is confined to a part only of furnished tenancies, possibly two-thirds of the whole. Here we have been impressed by the solemn warning given by Mr. Francis and three of his colleagues that to extend full security could well cause the supply of furnished accommodation to dry up. This would clearly be to the grave disadvantage of those now needing such accommodation and, of course, of future potential tenants. The Government have accordingly decided not to extend "permanent" or "unfurnished" security to furnished tenancies.

I have thought it right to make this announcement today since any uncertainty could well have an unsettling effect on the rental market, and even lead to the renewal of leases being refused. I also want to do all that I can to encourage the many thousands of householders in Greater London who have rooms to spare to consider letting them to others in need.

The report recommends, Miss Evans dissenting, that the rateable value ceilings for the protection of tenancies should be lowered to £300 in Greater London and £150 elsewhere. We do not think that the balance of argument favours making such a reduction, and we intend in present circumstances to leave the ceilings unchanged.

There are other recommendations in the report to which effect could be given without legislation. I welcome particularly the Committee's recommendations regarding the appointment of tenancy relations officers in the stress areas. Much can be done in these areas by local authorities under existing powers if they will act with vigour and determination. Accordingly, I have written today inviting the Inner London borough councils—the area of greatest housing stress—to meet me to discuss what action can be taken now in the light of the Francis Report so that no time should be lost in improving conditions for both tenants and landlords in those areas where the shortage of housing is worst. I will keep the House informed of the progress of these talks.

Mr. Marsh

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the lack of security for tenants in unfurnished accommodation is the largest single cause of homelessness and a problem which is growing rapidly? Does not the Report confirm that people who have to pay the highest rents for the worst accommodation are not only denied basic security of tenure but, unlike council house tenants and owner-occupiers, are denied any form of financial help? In view of that, is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that to many people both inside and outside this House the Report is a major disappointment, since, for all those in private and furnished accommodation, the lack of security under the law as it now stands is one of the biggest problems that we have to face?

Obviously we are all grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he wants to hear the discussion on parts of the report, and I hope that we shall have time for a debate on these issues. But is not he aware that the most contentious argument in the report, by which I mean half the minority report, deals with security of tenure for people in furnished accommodation? The right hon. Gentleman informs us that he will allow time for a discussion of parts of the report and that he wants to hear the views of other people. However, it is clear that he has made up his mind on the most serious aspect of the whole argument. Will he accept that there are occasions when, in all humility, the Opposition are entitled not to ask but to demand the right at least to have an opportunity to discuss this subject?

Mr. Amery

… an indefinite security of tenure, or too long a security of tenure, would have a disastrous effect upon the provision of furnished lodgings. That is what Mr. Aneurin Bevan said in 1946, when the housing stress was even more serious than it is today, serious though it is now.

The reason why I felt bound to make a statement at once was that had I not done so there was a real danger that a number of landlords might have begun proceedings at once.

Mr. Longden

Will an opportunity be taken at last last to correct a grave injustice under which certain people have laboured all these years? I refer to about 400,000 people, most of them elderly and impecunious, who have chosen to invest their savings in bricks and mortar rather than anything else who have been restricted to receiving rents which not only bring in no income but prevent their keeping their properties in proper repair.

Mr. Amery

Certainly I will give my hon. Friend's views very careful and sympathetic consideration. As we move towards fair rents, it will be easier to keep properties in good repair. But some of the changes for which he asks call for legislation.

Mr. Molloy

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this report can only be regarded as a most dismal document, with the possible exception of the minority report? Is he further aware that that part of the report dealing with furnished tenancies concerns 500,000 families, many with children, who will now have no hope for the future? Is not it apparent from the report that much of the evidence examined by the Committee runs quite contrary to its conclusions? Does not the Minister concede that it is right, therefore, to allow this House to discuss this very alarming report in the greatest possible detail?

Mr. Amery

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that the report is disappointing. I think that it is a statesmanlike document which will rank among the very important State papers of our time. Both sides of the House have to try to keep a balance between the rights of tenants and landlords. If I may quote again, Here we are trying to protect people against having to pay exorbitant rentals, there being a shortage of housing accommodation which is being exploited by a minority of people, but we must not introduce protection in such a way as to cause an immediate diminution in the amount of accommodation available."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 22nd January, 1946; Vol. 418, c. 40 and 59.] That again was said by Mr. Aneurin Bevan.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

I join my right hon. Friend in complimenting Mr. Francis and his Committee, the members of which were obviously hand picked by the last Government but have not produced the answer which was expected.

I welcome the decision not to reduce the rateable value figure.

May I ask my right hon. Friend what attention will be given to the other point which is clearly brought out in the report of protecting those landlords who are harassed by tenants?

Mr. Amery

This is a matter to which we shall have to give careful consideration in any proposals which we bring forward for curtailing and cracking down on harassment and illegal eviction.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that taking all houses, even the worst slum houses, out of their present rent control, as the Francis Committee and this Government intend, means multiplying rents two and a half times? Is that not a deliberate increase in the cost of living?

Mr. Amery

There is nothing in the Francis Report which would lead to any increase in rents or in diminution of security. It is true that the transition from controlled to regulated rents, begun by the previous Government and which we have decided to continue, will lead to rises in rents, but to be compensated for the first time in British history by generous allowances in the private as well as in the public sector.

Mr. Allason

Does my right hon. Friend agree that assessment of furnished rents can be done better by rent officers and rent assessment committees? Will my right hon. Friend undertake to introduce these in the very near future?

Mr. Amery

I shall certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion when we come to make legislative proposals.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that over the last five years there has been a considerable increase in the number of furnished lettings in stress areas, particularly in the borough of Hackney? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that an all-party working party set up by the local authority which investigated this problem over a period of six months, when dealing with homelessness generally, came to the unanimous verdict that it was essential that furnished property should be dealt with on the same basis as unfurnished property within the Rent Act? Is the Minister further aware that there is a great deal of uncertainty affecting tenants in furnished accommodation in London particularly as to their legal rights when there is uncertainty whether their property is furnished or unfurnished?

Mr. Amery

The hon. Member has made a valid point about the legal rights of tenants and whether their property is furnished or unfurnished. One thing which we want to crack down on is what might be called bogus furnished accommodation.

On the broader question, it is important to get the problem into perspective. There are about half a million furnished tenancies in the country. All members of the Committee, including Miss Evans, are agreed that it would be wrong to increase security of tenure for those in accommodation shared by landlord and tenant. That comprises about one-third. Therefore, there are less than 300,000 dwellings with which we have to deal all over the country. [Interruption.] They are not by any means all concentrated in the cities and towns. All over the country there is a demand for genuine furnished tenancies for people who want to go to different places for a few months or a few weeks, as the case may be. These count for at least half of the 300,000 tenancies to which I am referring. The fact that we are dealing only with 150,000 houses is no ground for complacency at all. The right way to solve the problem is by getting the local authorities in the areas of stress to build new houses in the council sector and by making land available for private development and development through the medium of the housing associations. This is what we are trying to do.

Mr. Waddington

Does not the Francis Committee also highlight the sad fact that one consequence of rent control has been that over the last few decades no houses have been built by private persons for letting? [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] Will the Minister consider carefully the proposal made by the Francis Committee that houses built in future by private owners should be free of control?

Mr. Amery

I shall certainly look at my hon. Friend's suggestion and the rele- vant recommendation in the report very seriously, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that there could be considerable administrative difficulties.

Mr. David Steel

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, first, to resist the temptation to quote Gladstone in reply to my question?

May I ask, if the Minister has really made up his mind on this issue, which he ought not to have done before a debate in this House, whether he has not a duty to follow up the recommendation of the Francis Committee about furnishing inventories in rent books and the powers of local authorities in stress areas to carry out spot checks?

Mr. Amery

As I said, some of these recommendations will require legislation. Therefore, I shall not bother the House with the details today, because we are not in a position to legislate at once. Some of these matters can be tackled by administrative action. That is why I have asked the Inner London borough leaders to meet me as soon as possible so that we can consider what action to take. I shall report to the House after these talks.

Mr. Tebbit

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on accepting this report in its great mass. However, I should like my right hon. Friend to be more explicit on what immediate action he is expecting of local authorities in the stress areas.

Mr. Amery

Two things could be done, but I do not wish to anticipate too far my talks with the local authorities. One would be the appointment of tenancy relations officers, as has been done in Newcastle with outstanding success, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has reported to me.

The other is the more vigorous and active use of the powers which local authorities have to prosecute where harassment and illegal eviction take place.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his reference to preventing bogus furnished tenancies will be greatly welcomed? Is the Minister also aware that the definition of furnished tenancies recommended in the Francis Report would take out of control thousands of very badly furnished houses which would not at present be treated as furnished?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the recommendation of the Committee, that security should not be granted to tenants in furnished accommodation, if that would lead to a reduction in the supply, was based solely on assertions made by landlords and agents and that the majority of furnished accommodation is not capable of being sold because it is shared accommodation which is not self-contained and not available for mortgages?

Mr. Amery

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's summary reflects the argument of the majority and of Miss Evans' view. We have carefully studied both sides. They have both heard the same evidence and made their own investigations. The majority came to the same conclusion, as, indeed, Mr. Aneurin Bevan came to after the Second World War, that to give greater security of tenure would lead to a real danger of the supply of furnished accommodation drying up.

Mr. Maddan

In addition to the assurance which my right hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) about action on the harassment of landlords, will he give an assurance about speeding up court proceedings initiated by landlords in urgent cases, as recommended in the last three recommendations of the majority report?

Mr. Amery

I shall certainly look into this matter with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. It is really more a matter for him than for me.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is the Minister aware that thousands of tenants in furnished accommodation in Scotland will have had their hopes sadly dashed this afternoon? What action is the Secretary of State for Scotland taking to discuss this matter with local authorities? May I also ask why the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has not even the courtesy to remain in this House whilst the matter is under discussion?

Mr. Amery

My statement was made with the agreement of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was present when I made my statement and during the early part of subsequent questions.

Mr. Marsh

Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the question which I asked at the beginning of the discussion on the statement? By his own admission, the main item which the right hon. Gentleman intends to implement or to decide is one of the most controversial issues within the report. I repeat, I think that the Opposition have a right at least to discuss that question. The whole point is that the right hon. Gentleman has said that he has made up his mind today. I am asking whether the right hon. Gentleman will amend that reply and at least give the Opposition the opportunity of expressing their view? If that is outside the right hon. Gentleman's particular domain, then I ask his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House whether he will extend what is a basic courtesy to this side of the House?

Mr. Amery

No, Sir. I expressed the considered view of the Government, and I expressed it today because I thought it essential, in the interests of tenants, to make it clear what the situation was, since otherwise they would run a risk of quite unnecessary evictions by landlords who might think that we were likely to change the law. I thought it very important to make this position clear at once, and I have done so.

Mr. William Hamilton

On a point of order. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Robert Hughes) asked a question specifically about Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland was here for a few minutes and then departed. This is a gross discourtesy to the House and shows that the Scottish Ministers do not care a damn about the Scottish housing position. I would ask you, Mr. Speaker, with great respect, to see that the rights of back-benchers, particularly Scottish Members, are protected in matters of this kind, and that, in addition to the Minister appearing on the Front Bench in the course of questions, he makes a separate statement on the Scottish problem.

Mr. Speaker

I will do everything possible in my power of course to protect the rights of back-benchers, but that does not go so far as to make the Chair responsible for what hon. Members say or for the movements of Ministers.

Mr. Molloy

On a point of order. The hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit) congratulated the Minister on accepting the report. We understand that he might have accepted parts of that report, and I can understand he could not qualify every letter and every paragraph in the report. Would it not be right for the Minister to say quite clearly that he does not wholly accept that report, or would he not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) that he should consult his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to give those of us who feel that this is a very serious matter, with particular regard to Greater London, some opportunity to air our views in this House on behalf of the many hundreds of thousands who are affected?

Mr. Speaker

However important these matters may be, they are not matters of order for the Chair.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton). One appreciates the difficulties of omnibus Ministries and of statements being introduced with the agreement of more than one Minister, but surely there is a point here for Members from Scotland, who have had no opportunity directly to question the Secretary of State, which should be done. Second, we are quite appalled at the manner in which the Secretary of State for Scotland slunk out of the House, showing the scant attention he pays to these matters.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Further to the point of order. On the particularly Scottish question, I cannot accept these accusations against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I should like to make it clear that the procedure adopted on this occasion for this statement and, indeed, for all other statements of a similar kind is exactly the same as was ever adopted by the previous Government on similar statements. It has always been the case. It is absolutely bogus for Members from Scotland to try to pretend otherwise.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. These may be all very valid points, but they are not points of order. The Chair cannot control these matters and it is most unfair to the Chair to raise these matters in the guise of points of order. These are matters of debate, of criticism and of question and answer: they are not matters of order for the Chair. I must ask hon. Members not to pursue them.

Mr. William Hamilton

Further to the point of order. The Leader of the House is expected to answer for the House as a whole. He knows that the Secretary of State for Scotland should have stayed here until Questions were finished. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have a great respect for the hon. Member and his knowledge of the custom of the House, and he may be on a perfectly valid point of criticism, but it is not a point of order. I must get on with the business of the House according to the rules of order.