HC Deb 18 December 1973 vol 866 cc1161-4

4.0 p.m.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law against harassment of occupiers. The Bill is designed to combat the activities of "winkling" and harassment. I am grateful for the obvious interest being shown in this matter by the whole House.

On 23rd May last I introduced a similar Bill, and hon. Members will recall the arguments and examples I deployed then. The Bill was objected to then and on every subsequent Friday until the end of the Session by the Government Chief Whip and it failed to get a Second Reading. It failed in spite of the exposures in the News of the World, The Times, the Sunday Times and many other newspapers and magazines about the continuance and extension of the activities of "winklers".

Let me remind the House of some of those activities. In the News of the World of 30th September a landlord was reported as saying—

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some of us are fascinated by this speech. May we, therefore, have a little shush?

Mr. Stallard

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's interruption. The News of the World article reported a landlord as saying: the problem is getting out the sitting tenants. Some go easily, others need a little help. One of the methods we have been trying lately is bribery. I start at £100 and work up to £500, sometimes even £1,000. I never go above that figure—it's not economical. From then on I use force. I prefer force. In the long run it's much cheaper. He goes on speaking about tenants: If they are old then my lads might burst a water pipe in the middle of the night. Sometimes we take giant rats and hide them in a bed. A rat was once put in a cot. I didn't approve of that, but by God, did it do the trick. The trick, of course, is to obtain vacant possession of the premises. I know, too, from my correspondence of the concern which is growing throughout the country at the increasing number of illegal convictions by landlords and landlords' agents. I could add many examples if time permitted; but in the Second Reading debate which will inevitably follow either this Bill or a similar measure I shall give detailed examples. I know, too, that the practice of "winkling" is becoming so widespread that many hon. Members will have examples from their constituencies.

Some hon. Members may have seen the discussion document published this week by seven independent advice centres in the city of Birmingham. They say that harassment and illegal evictions are more common than is normally supposed by the local authority or the courts in that city. Pressure should be brought on Parliament, they say, to make the law on harassment more effective and to introduce stiffer penalties.

My Bill seeks to do three things. First, it will remove the need to prove "persistency" and will shift some of the burden of proof from the prosecution, thus enabling local authorities to take more cases to court. Hon. Members, particularly those representing areas of housing stress, will be familiar with the considerable problems which arise when gas, water or electricity services are cut off by the landlord. In order for harassment to be proved the cutting off has to be persistent, and unscrupulous landlords know this and act accordingly. The question of intent to force the occupier to leave has to be proven by the occupier, and this is extremely difficult as the law now stands. I shall seek to amend the law accordingly.

Secondly, my Bill will introduce minimum penalties in place of the present maxima. In a recent debate I gave examples of the derisory penalties which were being imposed in spite of the increases provided for in the Criminal Justice Act. Since then I have obtained further figures and if time permitted I would have given a detailed analysis of the statistics. However, suffice it to say that out of 117 successful prosecutions in the London area during the period I examined, only 18 resulted in fines of over £50; 85 resulted in fines of less than £50; and 14 resulted in an absolute discharge.

When the difficulties of getting cases into court are appreciated and when it is realised how many sound cases of blatant harassment cannot even be taken to court because of the difficulties, it may be realised that the level of penalties is a far from satisfactory deterrent, and some London boroughs are on record in support of that view.

Thirdly, my Bill will give the police powers of arrest in cases of unlawful eviction or where services are deliberately cut off. "Winklers" do not work a five-day week, nor have they a ban on overtime. Tenants often have to turn to the overworked, understaffed police for help. At the moment the police are loth to interfere in even the most blatant cases of harassment. The police should receive more thorough training in some aspects of landlord-tenant legislation and should be given powers of arrest in certain circumstances. My Bill will give the police those powers.

I believe that the complacency and complete lack of understanding shown by the Secretary of State to this problem is typical of the Government's attitude which was so vividly illustrated by the Chancellor's utter failure to deal with property speculators in yesterday's Budget. Had the Chancellor taken realistic steps to curb the ruthless exploitation of the weakest members of our society by those who make fortunes out of misery and distress, my Bill would have been irrelevant. There is something sick about a society which allows those in such desperate housing need to be so viciously exploited in the sacred name of profit. The huge profits being made by the voracious sharks is a well-established fact. The total social cost of these activities has yet to be assessed. I ask the House to support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. A. W. Stallard, Mr. Thomas Cox, Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. Neil Kinnock, Mr. David Weitzman, Mr. Julius Silverman, Mr. James Johnson, Mr. Gavin Strang, Mr. Roland Moyle, Mr. James Wellbeloved, Mr. William Price, and Mr. Robert Hughes.