|Schedule 6 to the Act of 1971 (applications for registration of rents unsupported by certificate of fair rent) shall have effect as if after paragraph 3 there were inserted the following paragraph:—|
|'3A. Where the rent officer, in carrying out his functions under this Part of this Schedule, inspects a dwelling-house, he shall explain to the tenant or to his spouse, if either is present at the inspection, the procedure upon an application for the registration of a rent under this Part of this Schedule.'.—[Mr. Younger.]|
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)
I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)
I think that it would be convenient to discuss at the same time Amendments (a), in line 2, after 'if', insert:(a) in paragraphs 1 and 2 for the words 'seven days' there were substituted the words '14 days'.(c), in line 3, leave out '14 days' and insert '21 days'.
(b) in line 7, at end add(2) Schedule 12 to the Act of 1971 (applications for registration of rents supported by certificate of fair rent) shall have effect as if in paragraph 7 for the words '7 days' there were substituted the words '14 days'.and (d).in line 4, leave out '14 days' and insert '21 days'.
and No. 107, in page 38, line 26, leave out Clause 48.
§ Mr. Younger
I should first say something about the present procedure whereby notices are served on tenants whose landlord has applied for a determination of a fair rent. Under Schedule 6 to the Rent (Scotland) Act, 1971, when the rent officer receives an application from a landlord for the registration of a rent he serves on the tenant a notice informing him of the application and specifying a period of not less than seven days during which representations in writing may be made against the registration.
Where representations are made or the rent officer is not satisfied that the rent specified in the application is a fair rent, he serves on both the landlord and the tenant a notice informing them that he proposes to consider in consultation with them what rent should be registered.
276 After determining a rent, the rent officer notifies the landlord and the tenant and informs them that if, within 28 days, either party objects in writing, the matter will be referred to a rent assessment committee.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor), who has a particular interest in this aspect of the workings of the Rent Acts, raised the question of the way in which the notice is served upon a tenant. He persuaded the Committee to write into the Bill Clause 48, which laid a duty upon the rent officer personally to call upon the tenant as the first intimation that the tenant has that the landlord has asked for determination of a fair rent.
Fully appreciating the importance of my hon. Friend's suggestion, I undertook at that time carefully to consider what improvements could be made to the method of serving notices on tenants, and in particular the proceedings which he had had written into the Bill as Clause 48. The principle of what my hon. Friend is trying to do there is one which I warmly endorse and support—that is, to try to devise the best possible means of seeing not only that the tenant gets the information in a form which he can understand and which enables him to know his rights, but also that someone in authority who understands the law is able to speak personally to that tenant as soon as possible after this news has reached him so as to advise him and give him the fullest information about his rights.
I have carefully considered whether Clause 48 would be practicable and I am very sorry to say that I must advise the House that, desirable though it may be, it would not be practicable to lay an absolute statutory duty on the rent officers that the first notification which any tenant will get is a personal visit upon this point. I will try to explain why.
277 First, there would be a considerable number of houses and tenants involved—about 30,000 in the first year and a similar number in the second and third years. This would obviously put a considerable amount of work on the shoulders of the rent officers, who, it is common ground between us, are a very hard-working and dedicated body of men and women.
But if the House reflects it will realise that if the duty of the rent officer was to give the first notice by a personal visit this would multiply the work very many times. It does not follow that if a rent officer decides to visit a particular tenant at a particular time the tenant will be in. According to Clause 48, in that case the notice would not have been served.
So the first objection is the sheer impracticability of a rent officer—however many we have, and we intend to increase their number to deal with this work—being able to make sufficient visits to achieve the serving of one notice.
§ Dr. Dickson Mabon
How does the rent officer legally get access to a house for such an inspection if the tenant or his spouse is not present?
§ Mr. Younger
That indeed is the problem. That is why I say that it is not practicable for the first notice to be the personal delivery by a rent officer. I will come later to whether it is entirely desirable, but it is not practicable.
Second, Clause 48 applies in terms only to controlled tenants, but it is arguable that their circumstances, though special, are not so different from those of regulated tenants, who first receive a notification of a registration of a fair rent, as to justify applying any new procedure to them alone. Thus, if Clause 48 were, as a matter of equity, extended to regulated tenants the administrative burden would be that much greater.
Third, where the house is occupied by husband and wife, the husband is usually the tenant and he will not normally be available during working hours. Further, since the tenant would, by the nature of this requirement, not be given notice of the visit, it would probably be necessary to make repeated visits to achieve the result.
Last, while it is no doubt desirable that all such news should be personally delivered, I do not believe that this is a 278 principle that Governments of any complexion have previously felt able to accept as a statutory requirement for the passing of a notice or a particular piece of information to a tenant or in any other system.
It is for those reasons that, although I appreciate and fully support the idea behind this provision, I suggest that, with the best will in the world, it would not be practicable to carry it out in this way.
We now return to new Clause 3, which I hope is a considerable improvement and goes some way, together with the measures that we shall take with it, to meet the matters about which my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart has expressed concern. I am grateful to my hon. Friend not merely for the matters he raised in Committee but for the great amount of consultation and advice he has given to us in the last few weeks on this important matter.
The new Clause is an alternative to Clause 48, and I believe that it will be practicable. It accepts the importance of a verbal explanation of procedures. It lays an obligation upon the rent officer when he inspects the premises, as he does now and will do, to explain the procedure and the right of appeal to the tenant or his wife, if either is present.
It may be argued that the tenant would be left too long in a state of suspense because of the interval between the receipt of the initial letter informing him of the landlord's application and the date of the inspection. I accept that this could be so. To avoid that, we propose to ensure that the visit by the rent officer to inspect the premises and explain the procedures and appeal provisions to the tenant will take place within a week or so of the tenant's receipt of the letter from the rent officer informing him that the landlord has applied for the registration of a rent.
This is a matter for administration and not for writing into Statute, for reasons I outlined earlier. This is an adoption of a procedure now followed in many areas. The initial letter to the tenant is not issued until about seven days before inspection, regardless of the date of the application by the landlord. In this way only a week separates the receipt of the letter by the tenant and the inspection by the rent officer, when the tenant will be 279 able to have his questions answered by the rent officer, who is qualified to give advice.
§ Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)
I presume that the notification to the tenant will be by registered letter.
§ Mr. Younger
I understand that it is not normally by registered letter. However, if the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Baxter) feels that that is important, I am prepared to look into using either a registered letter or recorded delivery. Without commitment, I will be glad to look into that possibility.
§ Mr. Baxter
There could be considerable argument whether a letter was received. While I agree with the Clause, I think that notification should be sent by a registered or recorded delivery.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Younger
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion, which I will consider as sympathetically as I can.
§ Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)
Would the Under-Secretary kindly remove one small doubt in my mind? If the rent officer calling to inspect a dwelling house finds neither the tenant nor his spouse present but a small child, is he empowered to inspect the premises? If he is so empowered, how would he make the necessary explanations to the tenant or his spouse?
§ Mr. Younger
This is a matter which is normally dealt with administratively. It is the normal practice of rent officers when they call to inspect a house not to do so unless the tenant, his spouse, or some other responsible person is there to discuss the matter.
The Clause proposes that if the tenant or spouse is present the rent officer will be obliged to explain the provisions, give any advice, or answer any questions. I assure the House that it will be the intention in operating this procedure that the rent officers will make every effort to ensure that somebody is present who can ask questions or receive advice.
It would not be possible or practicable to insist that this must always happen. There are numerous occasions when it would not be possible. We must accept that it would be possible for a tenant 280 to ensure that he was never in. The procedure could be flouted in that way
§ Dr. Dickson Mabon
I revert to what was said about recorded delivery and the argument about seven, 14, 21 days and so on, which takes in the matter raised by the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur). It is against the law of trespass, as I understand it, for a rent officer to enter a house without the consent of the tenant, spouse, or some responsible person acting for the tenant. If that is true, the hon. Gentleman's concern is valid and ties up with the other difficulties about notice The tenant should know that his house is being inspected. If he knows that, he is able to take advantage of the administrative provisions and have matters explained to him.
I ask the Under-Secretary to confirm that no rent officer can inspect a house without having the direct consent of the tenant or his spouse.
§ Mr. Younger
To inspect the interior of a house, one has to be admitted to the house. A rent officer would not accept admission by a small child who was not empowered to permit entry. Of course, none of us would approve of leaving a small child alone in a house.
The tenant is informed by the terms of the original letter that his landlord has applied for registration of a fair rent He is informed that the rent officer proposes to call on a particular date and he is invited to state if that is not convenient.
Recently I have done a lot of work trying to improve the form of the letter, and I should be happy to discuss this further if hon. Members wish. A tenant is told at what time the rent officer proposes to call. He is given an opportunity to say whether it is not convenient. He may get in touch with the rent officer, whose address and telephone number are on the letter. In the last resort—I know that this is not what the hon. Gentleman is referring to particularly—there are instances when nobody can be found in, however long one tries. This may or may not be deliberate, but in those circumstances the rent officer has to inspect the premises externally and make his best determination of a fair rent. The normal appeal procedures can no doubt permit the tenant to make representations 281 if for good reasons he has not been able to be present.
Although I emphasise that that sort of situation is on the whole the exception rather than the rule, one has to allow for it administratively. I am sure that in most cases after these changes in the administration are put into effect the procedure will be that the tenant will receive a letter stating that a fair rent is being applied for, and that a rent officer will call, specifying that date and giving the tenant an opportunity to say that it is not convenient. The rent officer will then call, and he will be obliged, assuming the tenant or spouse is present, to answer questions and give any advice he reasonably can about the procedure and so on. Therefore, the normal custom with which we are all familiar under the Rent Acts will continue.
I hope that with that general explanation hon. Members will agree that the Clause goes a considerable part of the way to meeting the intention behind Clause 48, which was passed in Committee, but which, for the reasons I have given, I cannot advise the House to retain.
§ Mr. Baxter
I am glad that the Under-secretary has proposed the new Clause. Without it, there would be considerable cost to the great mass of the taxpayers, as an individual would have had to inspect all the houses involved, or deliver a letter in the first instance if not admitted to inspect the house. It was bad judgment to have Clause 48 in this form, and I am glad that the Under-Secretary has reconsidered the matter.
There is a need to indicate the issue clearly by registered or recorded delivery to the tenant. But there is also a responsibility upon the tenant to see that the rent officer gets the opportunity to examine the house internally. Surely it is in the tenant's interest that the rent officer should be able to call to assess a fair and reasonable value of the property.
It would be impossible to give a fair and reasonable valuation of the property for rent purposes looking only at the external fabric. There is much about the building which could not be seen from the outside, such as dampness. It is surely in the best interests of the tenant, who may suffer a considerable rent increase, to welcome the rent officer into 282 his house. I am glad that the Under-secretary has introduced this new Clause.
We are not sufficiently mindful of the great mass of people we employ, sometimes needlessly in my opinion, doing work that other people are being paid to do. The delivery of letters or notifications to tenants of a possible rent increase is not the duty of a highly-paid rent officer. I am glad that some regard is had to the ordinary taxpayer who at the end of the day will have to pay for a considerable number of rent officers. This is one of the great problems with new legislation; it adds to the bureaucracy that is almost overwhelming and swamping this country. This is a little step towards rectifying that particular wrong.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)
I am sorry that the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Baxter) should have said some unkind things about Clause 48 after the kind things the Under-Secretary said. I know that the hon. Gentleman will have studied the OFFICIAL REPORT of our Committee in detail—
§ Mr. Baxter
I have not, because it would be a sheer waste of time studying the reports of some of the Scottish Grand Committees.
§ Mr. Taylor
If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to study the reports, or if he had heard the proceedings, he would know that, despite the rather nasty things he has said about the Clause, every single one of his colleagues on the Committee gave their full-hearted consent to the Clause by voting for it. My hon. Friend has said that this Clause is not practical but he accepts the spirit of it and that is why he has introduced his own new Clause. I am extremely grateful for all the time and trouble he has taken to look into the problem with which the Clause dealt to deal with the situation which I put to the Committee.
I would be glad to accept my hon. Friend's new Clause, subject to three clear assurances from him. First of all, we must remember in dealing with the kind of tenant who will receive this notice that we are dealing almost exclusively with very elderly people who have been living in the same house for 20, 30 or 40 years. These are the kinds of people who are on controlled rents, very low ones, and there are few cases in Scotland of people 283 who have had a controlled tenancy given to them since the Second World War. It is generally accepted that these people will be over 70 years of age. In other words, they will be the kind of people who get confused by official forms, the kind of people who are not aware of their rights, who are terrified when they get a notice through the post.
I put forward my proposal because some of my constituents, and this is true of other constituencies I am sure, have been receiving notices of decontrol as a result of the 1969 Act. We all know from seeing this Measure in action that it causes many old people a great deal of alarm when they receive the notices. The first assurance I want is that people will be told what is happening. At present a tenant who has been living for 30 years in a house with a rent only marginally adjusted in 1954 can suddenly receive a letter through the post saying two things. First, it will tell him that the landlord has applied for a fair rent, and, secondly, that the tenant has a right of appeal within seven days. Attached to that is a photocopy of a note giving the present rent and the rent for which the landlord has applied.
In my surgery on Saturday—this is one of many examples—a lady called to see me who had received one of these notices. This simply informed her that, after she had lived for 30 years in a house for the very low rent of £22, the landlord had applied for the rent to be increased to £200. This is a substantial increase. This lady had gone through a week of sleepless nights wondering how on earth she would suddenly be able to pay £200 a year after paying £22. This lady was receiving supplementary benefit, and the simple answer which any Member of Parliament or social worker could have given her is that if a person is receiving supplementary benefit it is a 100 to 1 chance that the full amount of the increase in the rent will be paid by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Any hon. Member, lawyer, accountant or social worker could have told the lady this. All she had received was a note saying that the landlord had asked for her rent to be increased from £22 to £200 and that she could make representations within seven days.
284 This is not good enough. Many hundreds of people have been faced with this situation. Unless they can be told their rights at the time when they receive the notice many elderly people will go through misery, alarm and sleepless nights. Something must be done.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that he is implicitly making a criticism of the form in which so many of these notices are written? Would he not agree that if local authorities particularly, and other public authorities, took more time to explain things in simple basic language, rather than legalistic jargon, there would be less worry?
§ Mr. Taylor
I absolutely agree. The hon. Gentleman is spot on, and that is the point I want to make. My hon. Friend has said that he cannot send a rent officer to every home to hand in a note or explain what is happening. What I want first is an assurance that there will be a major change in the letter which people get when they first receive notice. At present all they are told is that the landlord has asked for an increase and there are seven days in which to appeal. I would like the letter to tell people five things.
First of all, people should be told that the landlord's proposed figure is not the figure to which the rent will necessarily be raised and that it is the rent officer who decides what the rent will be. The second thing the tenant should be told is that any increase will be phased over a period of years and will not come into effect immediately. Thirdly, people should be told that those who are on supplementary benefit or who may qualify for supplementary benefit will probably, although not certainly, get most or all of the increase paid by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. The fourth thing, which will, I am sure, be done, is that they should be told about the new scheme of rent allowances. The last thing which I hope they will be told, if not in the letter then at least by the rent officer, is that the rent assessment committees can increase the rent officer's figure as well as decrease it.
I know that many of my constituents have been told by the rent officer "Your rent will be £50 or £100; you have a right of appeal". They go along to the rent 285 assessment committee thinking that they will get a reduction, and the rent has been increased. The only experience these people have had is mainly going to a rates committee. When a person appeals against his rates it is most unusual for them to be increased. Usually there is no reduction at all, or a very small one. What alarms many of these people is that they go along to the rent assessment committees saying that £50 is too high and the rent assessment committee says "You will pay £70". I am not saying that the rent assessment committees always increase the figures; sometimes they reduce them, sometimes they increase them.
I think it is clear from my experience although not necessarily from all of Scotland, that the rent assessment committee fixes rents higher than the rent officers. This has been my experience, although I know that some figures produced by the Scottish Office show that this is not necessarily the case. It is my experience. Even if it was not the general case, if it happened in only two or three or four cases, people should be told that if they go to the rent assessment committees on appeal the figures can be increased.
These are the things that people should be told in the first letter. I would like to see my hon. Friend agreeing, before we pass from this new Clause, that instead of a simple note telling them nothing apart from the fact that the rent is going up they should be told what are their rights; they should be told about the phasing of the increase, supplementary benefit and rent allowances.
The second assurance which I hope will be given is that the rent officer will go to the house shortly after the notice is received. I appreciate it may not be possible to say within six, seven or eight days but he should call shortly afterwards. On this matter of giving advice, even if he cannot give full details of supplementary benefit he should at least carry with him when he calls at the house the address of the nearest supplementary benefits office. We know that some people who may not qualify for supplementary benefit at present may, if they have their rent increased by £1 or £2, be entitled to such benefit.
Although it would be wrong to expect the rent officer to be an encyclopædia of social work procedure and supplementary 286 benefits he should be able to tell the person "I think it will be worth while calling round to the local office dealing with supplementary benefit. Here is the telephone number and the address".
The next assurance I want is about the Amendment I have tabled to the new Clause, namely, to change the seven-day appeal figure to 14 days. This is not desperately important, because those of us who have dealt with cases like this know that if someone fails to appeal within seven days the rent officers will usually accept late appeals. I am sure that hon. Gentlemen who have written on behalf of tenants have been told that the rent officers will accept a late appeal. Some people may have missed the seven days because they were on holiday or staying with relatives and will think that it is not worth their while appealing late so not do so. This is not desperately important because even if they do not appeal the rent officer will assess the rent and they will not lose their rights. However, 14 days is a more reasonable figure if we are to have a figure at all.
Could the Government accept the enormous expense of giving everyone who gets one of these notices an addressed and prepaid envelope to send in their appeal if they so wish? We are dealing with many elderly people and we know that they may not go to the post office except for one occasion a week. It is quite a job to get an envelope and a stamp. Why not make it a little bit easier to send this appeal to the rent officer?
I thank my hon. Friend sincerely for the care and trouble he has taken in accepting the spirit of the Clause, but I do not think that the spirit can be said to have been truly accepted if people are still to receive this same letter, even if it is one or two days before the rent officer calls.
If the first notice tenants receive after living for 30 or 40 years on a low rent is the kind of letter which has been sent out since the 1969 Act it will be no good. I am sure that this was done with the best of intentions but the letter is not adequate. I do not want people to receive a form in official language telling them nothing about their rights, just saying "Your rent is going up". I want a proper letter telling people in simple and easily understood language that an application has been made to 287 increase their rent, that it will not necessarily go up to the figure stated, that the rent officer decides, and that even if he decides in favour of an increase a person can obtain rent allowances and supplementary benefit. Otherwise the misery which many people have suffered since we introduced this kind of decontrol or rent regulation will continue.
I am not arguing against the principle; there is plenty of provision for those in need. The rent allowance scheme is excellent, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission helps people in need. But the tenants need to be told all these things at the time, and I hope that myhon. Friend will agree with me.
§ Dr. Dickson Mabon
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) has said. But he omitted one important point from the list of things for which he asked the Government. This is that the tenant should also be told on receipt of the notice that there is no question of his being evicted. It is this aspect which also causes alarm to so many tenants. They get a lawyer's letter—still a famous phrase in Scotland. Some of the landlords even employ old-fashioned eviction notices, accompanied by another letter saying "Please disregard this formal letter and come and see me at such and such a time". The panic which this palaver throws many tenants into is quite something.
The reaction when tenants are told in addition that they only have seven days to sort all these things out raises the question whether the 1969 Act was wise in specifying a seven-day period. I shall not go into the variations of how the seven days are employed. If the argument applies to one party, in all equity it should apply to all. I shall not go into all the permutations of how the landlord, the rent officer and the tenant are affected. I will stick to the simple argument whether seven days is a fair period for all concerned. In my opinion, in the light of experience of the working of the Act, the period is not long enough.
In my two Amendments (c) and (d) I suggest either 14 days or 21 days. During the Committee stage of the 1969 Act I defended the proposition of a seven-day period as being sensible. The then 288 Opposition—I do not recall whether the hon. Member for Cathcart was one of them—suggested 21 days but withdrew that proposition on my assurance. I feel it only right that I should now seek to restore the balance and argue for a 21-day period myself. I am the first to admit that a 14-day period might be the preference but I am certainly sure that seven days is not long enough. We are discussing this in a non-partisan atmosphere. We are really arguing administrative procedure, and I hope, therefore, that the Government will admit that seven days is too short a period. They may favour a 14-day period but I would like to see a 21-day period.
We must think of all the tenant has to do. First, of course, he has to sort out his initial reaction to the notice. I hope that the Government will take seriously the criticisms made by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Cathcart. I have no doubt there are also a large number of letters in the Scottish Office pointing out ways to improve the mechanism. Hon. Members may regard the lengthening of the period as merely a palliative, and, of course, that is all it is. But it still remains a palliative. I hope that we shall take into account the impact of what is being done. It is important that tenants should be aware that the rent proposed is not necessarily the rent which will be agreed. That is not often understood. Tenants often believe that if the landlord claims a certain rent, that will be the rent. It must be made clear at the very beginning that the claim of the landlord or, indeed, of the rent officer will not necessarily be considered valid.
I agree also about phasing. I hope we shall hear more about this from the Under-Secretary of State. I do not think that people are quite so sure that phasing will be as keenly kept to as it was before. I have no reason in statute to doubt this, but is the Under-Secretary of State fully aware of what people are concerned about in phasing? Supplementary benefit and rent allowances speak for themselves.
The hon. Member for Cathcart seemed to imply that in all cases—and in this he is supported by some of my hon. Friends—rent assessment committees put rents up wherever there is an appeal either by the tenant or by the rent officer 289 I do not agree. The last breakdown I saw was for 1969. This showed that about one-third of the rents went up on appeal, one-third went down and the remaining one-third remained the same. That survey was done throughout Scotland and may not necessarily apply, for example, to Paisley, where the opposite of that analysis may be true, with most of the rents going up. I do not deny that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson) may be right in that. In Greenock a marginal majority went up. In Glasgow it is suggested that if anything more rents went down than went up. I am, of course, talking about areas with high concentrations of low-rated tenements and so on. It is difficult to be precise.
There is no doubt that public confidence in rent assessment committees is in jeopardy, and it is right that the Government should be looking at the situation. As we have argued in Committee upstairs, and will continue to argue, there should be a fourth member of the rent assessment committee representing the local authority, the community interest. Some may say that we should dismiss one of the valuer members or one of the lawyer members of the three-man committee, and there is a lot of sense in arguing for that. But whether it be the dismissal of one of the present members and his replacement by a local authority representative, or whether we add a local authority representative to the present three, we have to do one or the other. Either way, I am certain that people would more readily accept the appeals system to rent assessment committees than is at present the case.
I have deployed my argument in favour of my two Amendments and I have also supported in a mild way Amendment (a), standing in the name of the hon. Member for Cathcart and myname. I want now to comment on new Clause 3 and also on Clause 48. The Government seek to delete Clause 48. They wish to deny us our victory in Committee on Clause 48. They have rejected new Clause 4, standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). Having done that, they are now attempting to deny us the only other victory we had in Committee—the insertion of Clause 48. 290 It is bad in principle that the Government, having lost two battles in Committee, should seek to reverse the decisions on Report when not all that much is at stake.
§ Mr. Younger
The hon. Gentleman would not wish to be unfair, least of all to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown), who moved an Amendment which was accepted in Committee.
§ Dr. Mabon
That was an obvious and good Amendment which any sensible Minister would have accepted without a debate. I regard that not as a victory but as an inevitable consequence of discussion in Committee. But the two matters we are discussing today were resisted in Committee and the Government tried to command a majority to support them until they found that they did not have a majority. That is why we are having these two debates. New Clause 3 is less good than Clause 48, which was our victory and that of the hon. Member for Cathcart. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not kill his "child" at this early stage by deserting Clause 48 in favour of new Clause 3.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor
Will the hon. Gentleman stop trying to kid around? The important thing is to get something done for the tenants whom he left unprotected in his 1969 Act. Everything I have been trying to do is to put right omissions from the 1969 Act. The most sensible thing he could do would be to agree with me and try to persuade the Government not just to have new Clause 3 but in addition to give the assurances I am asking for.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Dr. Mabon
Of course. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so excited, because I am hoping to carry him with me into the Lobby. At present it looks as if I shall literally have to carry him into the Lobby. In a non-partisan way, I am trying to persuade him not to be tricked, if that is not too serious an allegation, by the Under-Secretary of State, who is very good at using honeyed words and at trying to skip round propositions and get away with things.
There are two serious defects in new Clause 3 compared with Clause 48, which 291 is the hon. Member for Cathcart's own. In the first place, new Clause 3 says:Where the rent officer, in carrying out his functions…inspects a dwellinghouse…".It follows that he does not have to inspect every dwelling house. That wording means "where he inspects a house", and not that he will inspect every house. Clause 48, on the contrary, says:As from the date of commencement of Part V of this Act, any notices issued by the rent officer to tenants of dwelling-houses, the tenancies of which are controlled…shall require to be delivered personally to the tenant by the rent officer, or by a suitably qualified person appointed by him….There is no getting away from that. The rent officer or someone appointed by him has to go to every dwelling house.
I submit that under new Clause 3 one can get away from that situation. The rent officer does not have to appear in every case. Surely that defeats the whole point of the hon. Gentleman's proposition, which was that he wanted a personal visit by the rent officer for every tenant. He made very good speeches about it in Committee and persuaded us and one of his hon. Friends to follow him. The result was that the Committee carried his Amendment. Having won the day, why should we now give it away? Clause 48 in the first place is better because it ensures that in every case a visit will be paid. New Clause 3 does not specify that. I do not have to ask a lawyer, let alone a Philadelphia lawyer, to explain the meaning of new Clause 3. It allows of certain circumstances where houses are not inspected.
Secondly, under Clause 48 there is no doubt that the tenant has to be interviewed. It is as tight as that. The tenant must be interviewed. I accept the Under-secretary of State's criticism that there are some tenants who would avoid the attempt to interview them, but this is like receiving a summons or a subpœna or any of these things which one wants to avoid if one is a Micawberlike rascal not wanting to face the consequences of incredibility. But that is a highly unusual circumstance and can easily be dealt with by administrative methods. We cannot legislate for the tiny minority. We have to legislate for the vast majority who need the protection embodied in Clause 48. Clause 48 makes no bones about it—everyone is to be interviewed.
292 I appeal to the hon. Member for Cathcart, whom I want on my side here. New Clause 3 leaves the situation open as to whether or not the tenant or his spouse is ever seen, is ever acquainted with the nature of the inspection and over what happens when the rent officer arrives. I do not like the idea of the rent officer trying to make a judgment from the outside of the house. If, under the provisions of the Act, repairs or improvements have been done by the tenant, that will be disallowed in the rent officer's assessment of the rent in such cases. How does he know who has installed things such as a new sink or has made repairs or improvements without the tenant or the spouse being present?
Clause 48 was a well-deserved victory of the tenants, and it should not be given away now in exchange for a ragbag like new Clause 3. I have presented two serious defects in new Clause 3, and unless the Under-Secretary of State is able to promise that he will redraft new Clause 3 and improve it we should be wiser to leave Clause 48 as it is.
§ Mr. MacArthur
The whole House will be very grateful to myhon. Friend the Under-Secretary for meeting so well the spirit of the Clause which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) in Committee. I must say that I am very glad indeed on consideration that this new Clause has been introduced. I appreciate what my hon. Friend said this afternoon, that it would have been impracticable to operate the other Clause as it stands. I think that all of us will be greatly influenced by the generous way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart accepted the way in which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in the new proposal before us now, has met the spirit of the existing Clause.
I have only one major regret so far, and that is to learn from the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Baxter) that he has not read the debate in Committee. I do urge him, if I may with the greatest respect, to spend—well, it will take some weeks—the next weeks reading through these two slim-volumes, because if he does that he will learn very much more about the Bill and will be able to put out of his mind the vicious propaganda which has been poured into it by his hon. Friends. One of my great regrets throughout the 293 proceedings was at the way the Bill was distorted for party ends in the municipal elections campaign in Scotland. If the hon. Member would read the excellent arguments put forward by my hon. Friend who was in charge of the Bill and managed it so well for the Government he would see things in better perspective and would understand the purpose of the Bill very much more clearly.
§ Mr. Baxter
Do I understand that the hon. Member is putting up an argument against what I said in favour of the new Clause? I was supporting—I thought I made it abundantly clear—the new Clause which the Under-Secretary was suggesting, and I was not in favour of this great victory achieved in Committee. As to the hon. Member's argument that I would add to my understanding of the Bill if I were to read the OFFICIAL REPORT in these two enlarged volumes, I think that that would rather add to my understanding of the long-windedness of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, although I really do not have to read these reports to learn about that.
§ Mr. MacArthur
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention because it most effectively underlines the point I was making, and if he were to read the speeches made by my hon. Friend in Committee he would be able to help us in our attempt to present this Bill properly to the people of Scotland and not in the distorted way encouraged by the propaganda poured out by the hon. Member's hon. Friends in Committee on the Bill.
I was concerned to hear the doubts raised by the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) just now. Certainly Clause 48 provides that there should be a call on every single householder affected in this way, and the hon. Member has raised doubt now whether that would be the effect of the new Clause presented by the Government. Unfortunately I do not have the 1971 Act beside me, as I should have, but my recollection is that it is the present procedure that every house is called upon. I hope that my hon. Friend will indicate whether or not that is so, but if it is I think that the whole of the argument of the hon. Member for Greenock falls, and I hope that he will join with me in applauding both my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart and my 294 hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in removing a grave defect in the Act of 1969 passed by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. and right hon. Friends.
§ Dr. Dickson Mabon
I do not want to be unfair to the hon. Member, but he is trying to dismiss an argument of mine by reference to a Section in the Housing Act, 1969, although he does not have the Act with him. This is not really fair. He must direct my attention to that Section which says that the rent officer will in every case inspect the property internally and externally. May I have the reference?
§ Mr. MacArthur
The Minister will be replying to the debate in a moment and he will reply to the hon. Gentleman. I am simply making the comment that my recollection, for what it is worth, is that it is present procedure and that the hon. Gentleman's argument is a false one.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor
Will my hon. Friend accept from me that I know of no case in Glasgow of a controlled tenancy decontrolled under the Act in which the house has not been inspected by the rent officer. It would be very interesting to hear from the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon), with his vast experience, if he could quote one instance of one house decontrolled under his Act not inspected by a rent officer.
§ Mr. MacArthur
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming that my recollection is correct and that the hon. Gentleman's argument is wrong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart asked for certain assurances about the words which there would be in the letter to be delivered to a tenant affected in this way. He reminded us, quite rightly, that the majority of these tenants are likely to be elderly people. It is not only the content of the letter which concerns me but the way in which a letter is expressed—the words which are used, the way the letter looks. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to blaze a new trail in his composition of the letter, because I am very concerned sometimes about the nature of official communications which are addressed to elderly people.
I do not want to stray too far from this matter but I recall a form which was specifically designed for people over 70 295 affected by selective employment tax repayments. This was specifically directed to people over 70, and it informed them of their rights under the Act; but it was one of the most frightening pieces of official paper which anyone over 70 could look at, and it ended with a line of heavy-face type of words of warning that any false declaration would render them liable to fine or imprisonment or both. This, to my knowledge, frightened one elderly lady away from seeking her rights to which she was entitled under that Act. There have been other communications I have seen in the last two weeks addressed to people who are in a state of some worry.
I hope that my hon. Friend will give most sympathetic consideration to the way in which the letter will be worded, bearing in mind that the very delivery of a recorded delivery letter to an elderly person is itself a quite jolting experience, and that if the information in the letter is that there is likely to be an increase in the rent that will be something which will cause very great worry indeed. I hope my hon. Friend will consider the content of the letter and the words which it uses, and give the most sympathetic consideration to the way in which it is expressed and to the general appearance of the letter, which otherwise will cause profound shock to those receiving it.
§ Mr. John Robertson
There are two aspects which seem to have been missed. When the Under-Secretary was addressing the Committee he seemed to indicate that one of the functions of the rent officer is to make an assessment whether or not the rent asked for by the landlord was correct or incorrect. Surely, this would demand inspection; surely it presupposes inspection; the rent officer cannot make a judgment except he makes an inspection. I think that this is fundamental. It means that in every case there has to be a visit by the rent officer to the house, or by someone from the rent officer's office.
The argument is whether or not the rent officer in visiting should hand the notice to the tenant or whether he should visit the tenant following giving the notice. To me that does not seem important—not all that important—if the notice is a reasonable one and can be understood. If the notice should not operate till the rent officer has visited to make 296 his inspection, then whether the time were seven days following that or 14 days really would not matter. That would solve the difficulty with which neither Clause 48 nor the proposed new Clause deals.
Perhaps there could be included on the form words saying "I intend to appeal" or "I do not intend to appeal" so that the recipient could strike out what is not applicable. This would save a lot of administrative trouble.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) said that information was not available from the Scottish Office, a lot can be obtained if one is persistent. I have a list of 50 cases which were referred to rent assessment tribunals. In three of the 50 the rent assessment committee agreed with the rent officer, but in only one case was there a reduction. In every other there was an increase, and in most cases the increase was substantial.
Consider what happened in Paisley in this context. For 12 houses in one street the rent assessment officer suggested a rent of £100. The rent assessment committee fixed the rent at £210. Even more amusing is what happened. For No. 6 South Park Road, comprising ground floor, three rooms and kitchen, the rent assessment committee fixed the rent at £210. For the same type of house but modernised, by the tenant, with new kitchen sink, new fireplace, rewired and many other improvements, the rent assessment committee fixed the rent at £210, simply because the Chairman of the Paisley and District Factors Association asked for £210 and refused to take less.
All this talk about fair rent tribunals is a lot of nonsense. The system must be changed, and it must be made obvious to people who receive notices precisely how they are affected. I accept what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) said about the importance of people not being placed in fear and trembling because they cannot understand what is happening.
The whole matter could be settled without difficulty. A visit by the rent officer should be virtually obligatory. If the notice required under the previous legislation had been operative only from the date of the visit of the officer, that would have 297 met the whole position. That is the case today, and it is obvious that what the Government propose could be achieved administratively on the basis of an instruction from the Scottish Office and without the need for legislation.
§ Mr. Younger
Hon. Members on both sides will agree that on this highly controversial Bill we have succeeded this afternoon in having an interesting, useful and helpful debate on the topic under discussion.
§ Mr. Younger
If the hon. Gentleman had been in his place throughout the debate he would agree with me.
This is a highly serious subject which can affect people greatly, and it is right that we should discuss all these issues. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) for outlining the main problems which face any person whose landlord asks for the determination of a fair rent. There then arises the whole question whether that request is justified.
It is essential that we have the closest discussion and examination of how these matters affect the people concerned and what it means when they receive a piece of paper saying that certain things have been requested and certain procedures are being followed. This debate has been valuable for these reasons.
The whole procedure which we are discussing has been with us in its essentials for six or seven years. This is, therefore, an appropriate time to look at it again; and I was grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) for frankly saying that there were ways in which he felt that the legislation for which he had been in part responsible needed modification.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart made a number of extremely constructive suggestions about the form of the letter. The hon. Member for Greenock also made some important proposals. I think I can give my hon. Friend the assurances he seeks on most of the points which he thinks should be made clear in the letter. He asked for it to be made clear that the landlord's figure would not necessarily be the rent 298 that the tenant would eventually have to pay. It is my intention that the new letter which the rent officers will send out will contain that information.
My hon. Friend then asked that it should be made clear that any increase would be phased. I will consider that suggestion sympathetically, and I see no reason why that should not be stated in the letter. He next asked that it should be clearly stated that the recipient, the tenant, may be liable to help through supplementary benefit and that if he or she is in receipt of supplementary benefit, that benefit may be increased to cope with the increased rent. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that that, too, I intend definitely to include in the new letter which tenants will receive.
My hon. Friend then asked that we should make it clear in the letter that the rent allowance scheme is available to those with incomes which make it difficult for them to afford the rent. I can give him that assurance also; that information will be in the letter.
My hon. Friend next suggested that we make it clear in the letter that the rent assessment committee would, after the determination of the fair rent, decide, if it was the wish of the tenant, whether the rent was right.
§ Mr. John Robertson
Will it also be made clear in the letter that if the landlord does not accept what the rent officer says, the tenant can appeal? More often than not it is the landlord who appeals.
§ Mr. Younger
It is my intention that the letter should make it clear to all concerned precisely what are the functions of the rent assessment committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart suggested that it should be normal practice for the notice to be accompanied by a stamped addressed envelope to enable tenants to reply. The hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson) thought it would be useful to build in a form of words for replying to whether one objected to the rent. I will consider these points, but hon. Member will appreciate my desire not to have the letter too long, which would make it difficult to understand, especially for old people.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston
Perhaps as important as the actual contents of the letter is the language in which it is couched. 299 We must find some way of conveying the intent of our law in simple basic English that ordinary people can understand.
§ Mr. Younger
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that I shall not irritate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray) when I say that I will try to see that the new letter is couched not in legalistic language but in plain English which people can understand.
I hope I have said enough to show that many of the suggestions which hon. Members have made will be implemented and contained in the new letter. I will look at the other suggestions to see whether they can be included, and I will do my best to ensure that it is couched in ordinary English. If we can achieve all these things, then today's debate will have proved useful because it will be of help to those who receive these notices.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor
When my hon. Friend has completed the drafting of the proposed letter—and I am grateful for what he has said about its simple language—would he be willing to send copies of it to several Scottish Members?
§ Mr. Younger
I should certainly be glad to send a copy to any hon. Member who would like to see one. [HON. MEMBERS: "All Members."] I should be delighted to send copies to all hon. Members—without the necessary spaces filled in, because I am sure that hon. Members would not wish to have their rents increased unless they have to.
My hon. Friend also asked for two other assurances. He asked, first, whether I could assure him that the rent officer will call shortly after the letter is received. I give him the assurance that I intend it to be arranged from now on, administratively, that the letter will be sent out in such a way that it is planned, when it is sent, that the rent officer's visit will be within seven days. This is the practice in many areas now, and I intend to see that, so far as is administratively possible, it is always done in future.
My hon. Friend asked, secondly, whether it could be made quite clear that the rent officer, when making his call, would have such information as the 300 address of the supplementary benefits officer for the area or the Supplementary Benefits Commission's offices in the area so that he could—although obviously he could not give detailed advice about supplementary benefit, which is not his particular task—be armed with the necessary information to enable him to advise people as to where to go to obtain that advice.
Finally, my hon. Friend asked about his Amendments, which we are now discussing, which suggest that we should increase the period of time that the tenant gets to register his objection to the rent from seven days to 14 days. The hon. Member for Greenock referred to his Amendment, which would have increased this period to 21 days. I was very interested in the comment of the hon. Member for Greenock that he had originally felt that seven days was a reasonable amount of time and that he had resisted a suggestion to raise it to 21 days, but that though he now felt that 14 days would be reasonable he had tabled an Amendment for 21 days.
I was very impressed with the argument put forward by the hon. Member and by my hon. Friend for increasing this period. I would, therefore, suggest that the House, if it thinks fit, should agree with my hon. Friend's Amendment to increase the period from seven days to 14 days.
I should make it clear that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, if a tenant does not object to the rent suggested—whether within seven, 14 or 21 days—it does not mean that his fair rent will turn out any different at the end of the day. He does not have to object in order to get the landlord's suggested rent discarded by the rent officer. Whether or not the tenant objects, the rent officer is obliged to assess the fair rent to the best of his ability.
Finally, we had much discussion about the question whether the rent officer must always visit the house, how he gets there, whether he has to inspect the interior of the house, and in what circumstances he should gain access to it. As far as my information goes, it is virtually always the case that where a fair rent is being assessed an inspection takes place. I cannot say that it takes place absolutely always, because there 301 is always the possibility of its being impossible in a very small number of cases. But the hon. Member for Greenock will, perhaps, accept that if there were a statutory requirement that nothing could happen until an inspection took place it would then be very easy for anyone to prevent anything ever happening, and then to prevent his rent ever being increased.
§ Mr. Younger
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) would think that this was an admirable provision, but the House as a whole would not consider it right.
Clearly, we must expect an inspection to occur in every case except that very small number where for some extraordinary reason it is not possible. But it is not practicable to write in an absolute statutory requirement because it would then be possible to avoid these provisions by the tenant refusing anyone access to the house to inspect it. I hope that the House will accept that our intentions are that there should always be an inspection.
The hon. Member for Paisley and my hon. Friend asked about rent assessment committees and what their practice has been. The hon. Member for Paisley, with his experience in mind, believes that such committees always raise rents. I would not quarrel with his detailed points, because we should have to go into them one by one. But there are many cases where rent assessment committees, and, indeed, rent officers, have fixed rents very much lower than those asked for by the landlord, and lower than they have been previously. I shall not detain the House with it, but I have a list of examples equally as long as that which the hon. Member was brandishing a few minutes ago, examples where rents have been reduced as well as increased.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mr. John Robertson
Why does not the Secretary of State publish the lists, or a sample of Scottish cases, to let us know so that we may compare them with those in other parts of the country? That would be an easy, simple thing to do.
§ Mr. Younger
I am certain that it would not be the wish of anyone that 302 we should publish details of individuals' rents. [Interruption.] With respect, no one, particularly tenants, would like that; but there is no secret about general figures and about their trends. If it is of any interest—and these are only figures which I have been able to obtain during the time of this debate—the figures in 1971 were that in 25 per cent. of the cases there was no alteration by the rent assessment committee of the rent fixed by the rent officer. In 34 per cent. of cases the decisions of the rent assessment committee increased the rent suggested by the rent officer. That is the case which the hon. Member for Paisley has been outlining. In 41 per cent. of cases the rent was reduced by the rent assessment committee. So it is not true that the rent assessment committee can only raise rents, although I appreciate that to those who find it happening to them it must seem to be so. But a slight majority, nevertheless a majority, of rent assessment committees reduce rents rather than increase them.
§ Mr. Edward Taylor
Would my hon. Friend accept that many tenants who receive the notice and get the rent officer's figure are not even aware of the fact that the rent assesment committee can increase that figure, whether in 34 per cent. or 10 per cent. of cases? Will he ensure that rent officers make it clear during the visit that the rent assessment committee can increase the figure as well as reduce it?
§ Mr. Younger
Yes, I have noted that point. It is one of the things which I shall consider very carefully in the instructions we give to rent officers.
The hon. Member for Greenock referred several times to the question of inspection. I ought to put him right about one thing, because there was some discussion across the Floor of the House about it. It is correct that the implication in new Clause 3 is that the rent officer does not have to inspect the house. But there is no statutory duty to do so at present under the 1971 consolidation Act. Nor was there under the 1965 Act any statutory duty that a rent officer must inspect the house. But, as I have said, the practice is that rent officers do inspect every house, and this has been judicially approved in legal actions of one sort or another.
303 I hope that with those comments, which I have made as briefly as possible although at greater length than I had intended, the House will accept that new Clause 3 is desirable and is a Clause to which the House ought to agree. I hope that the House will also accept my hon. Friend's Amendments to increase from seven days to 14 days the period in which objections can be made.
§ Mr. Ross
The Under-Secretary has been very fair about this matter, and that justifies the debate and the decision we took in Committee. To that extent I disagree with the hon. Gentleman and with the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur). After all, the speech that he made was a fairly poor showing, bearing in mind that he voted against putting what is now Clause 48 into the Bill. It was right that the Government should do it. When they did it we said to the Under-Secretary, in pressing this upon him, that if he did not like the wording he could change it.
The Under-Secretary has fulfilled his pledge but he must go further. I am glad that he changed the seven days to 14. The hon. Gentleman could have got away with reading what the Bill says, which isnot less than seven days".Under Section 46 of the 1971 Act he has the power of regulation in relation to all these procedures. The hon. Gentleman could have assured us that he would use those regulations and much of the debate would have been unnecessary.
The Under-Secretary says that the first letter that goes out will suggest that a visit should take place within seven days. Obviously a person will wait until the first representation is made. Unless that is changed from seven to 14 days, because the person has waited, having taken the advice of the House, he may be ruled out.
We keep on talking about objections being made within seven days. This is only the first representation to the rent officer. After that, the rent officer must decide what the rent is to be. When he does that, he informs the tenant and the landlord. There are 28 days in which to appeal. I hope we have not confused people as to the state of the law because of the way we have argued it.
This is one of the difficulties which arises when we truncate our arguments. 304 We have many matters to discuss although we do not have time to discuss them in full. We shall have to forgo voting on things simply because it takes about a quarter of an hour to vote and that cuts down the time for discussion.
The Under-Secretary was right to say that there is no statutory obligation, but he could make it a statutory obligation by regulation. If he would tell us that at some future time he will do that, we should be happy about it. I advise my hon. Friends that, with the assurances which have been given by the Undersecretary and his acceptance of the new wording, the Clause should be accepted.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time.
Amendments to the proposed Clause made: (a), in line 2, after 'if', insert:
(a) in paragraphs 1 and 2 for the words 'seven days' there were substituted the words '14 days'.
(b), in line 7, at end add:
(2) Schedule 12 to the Act of 1971 (applications for registration of rents supported by certificate of fair rent) shall have effect as if in paragraph 7 for the words '7 days' there were substituted the words '14 days'.—[Mr. Edward Taylor.]
§ Clause, as amended, added to the Bill.