HC Deb 23 May 1973 vol 857 cc490-3

4.35 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. No one who reads the property pages of our national newspapers or magazines can have failed to notice the enormous profits which are to be made out of the conversion of old houses in inner London into self-contained units or very expensive furnished flats. Nor can he have failed to notice that vacant possession at least doubles the value of the property prior to conversion. The process of emptying these properties prior to conversion is becoming known as "winkling" and the people who carry out the practice are known as "winklers".

That there is ample incentive for these men to indulge in this business is shown by these typical advertisements. One taken from a recent issue of the Kensington News and Post says: £500 reward Dead or Alive (i.e. occupied or empty). This reward will be paid for information leading to purchase of a House that is not advertised and is suitable for conversion to flats. Then it gives the name and address of the agent. Then there is this advertisement taken from the Financial Times: How to make £100,000. Get into property. You don't need tremendous capital, but you do need the know-how. I am told that if advice is taken from the experts one buys property fully occupied as cheaply as possible and then begins to winkle out the sitting tenants. If anyone still thinks that Rachman is dead, let him visit my advice service any Friday evening and listen to the heartbreaking stories of what these unscrupulous men are prepared to do, almost always to elderly people, in order to get vacant possession. I could give scores of examples: not the kind of stuff that makes national headlines, but the kind of thing that ought to concern every decent citizen. Let me mention a few cases by way of example.

Take the case of the tenant whose backyard was dug up and a trench about 2 ft. deep made which exposed all the drains leading from her back door to the door of her outside lavatory. This was done under the guise of necessary repairs. A plank was placed from her back door, over the trench, to her lavatory, and it was left like that for weeks. This lady, none too steady on her legs, had literally to walk the plank to get to her loo, or use a bucket in the kitchen.

Then there was the old lady who was the last controlled tenant left alone in a great big house; during the night the winklers would enter it and march about the stairs and landings, making a tremendous din, while the old lady sat in her flat or lay in her bed absolutely petrified until they had gone. When they went they invariably left the front door open.

I will give one more example to show the kind of thing that concerns me. This time it is the story of a woman of 69 years of age who had spent years cultivating a little garden outside her controlled accommodation. The property changed hands, and this is the lady's own story of what happened. She said that: during the summer of 1971, her landlords had thrown pieces of wood across her plants and placed her clothes line on the lawn; cut down shrubs and trees, and then invited friends in to eat the fruit from the loganberry and blackberry bushes; thrown her stone bird bath into the fishpond; burnt her bird table, a fence, three clothes props, some sticks and poles and a ladder; and placed a wire down the middle of the garden and put up a notice forbidding her to use half of the garden. There is not a London representative on any local council, in inner London certainly, or in this House who could not add to that long list. If time permitted I could spend a long time reciting stories of dreadful harassment in the inner London area. For instance, I heard just before I entered the Chamber this afternoon of a landlord who has removed the inner staircase from a house which is still occupied. At the other end of the scale, we are all familiar with stories of young couples who are being asked to give an undertaking that the wife will stay on the pill for at least five years before they can qualify for a mortgage. This is amazing harassment. Yet that part of the 1965 Rent Act which deals with protection against harassment is the most difficult to enforce.

When a complaint is received and the local authority considers the complaint to be genuine, the question of evidence to comply with Section 30(2) must be considered. The most difficult problems usually centre around the words in the Act: does acts calculated to interfere with the peace or comfort". This, together with the word "persistently", causes the most difficulties and will be redefined in my Bill.

The Bill will seek to shift some of the burden of proof from the prosecution and thus ease the burden of local authorities, which are trying to deal with this problem. I will seek in this Bill to reduce the difficulties encountered by local authorities in stress areas in protecting tenants from exploitation and harassment, and enable them to carry out some of the recommendations contained in the Francis Committee's Report of 1971.

It is true that the Criminal Justice Act 1972 includes penalties for harassment. But in two recent cases in my borough the learned justices have chosen to impose very low penalties. In one case there was a fine of £10 with £10 costs. In the other case, which was a case of unlawful eviction, the defendant was given a conditional discharge.

In the neighbouring borough of Islington, of nine successful prosecutions, recently brought by the council for harassment or unlawful eviction, one case resulted in an absolute discharge, four cases in fines of between £2 and £3, two in fines of £20, and two in fines of £40. No costs at all were awarded in two of those cases.

I believe that the time has come to think in terms of minimum penalties, and my Bill will seek to introduce such penalties, including very heavy gaol sentences.

The Bill will not solve the housing problem. But, by strengthening the hands of those local authorities which are trying to deal with this evil practice of winkling, it will help to curb those greedy, ruthless men who are concerned only to make enormous profits out of the misery, unhappiness, hardship and desperation of usually the most vulnerable, the weakest and, in many cases, the oldest of our citizens whose only fault is that their continued presence in their accommodation interferes with the selfish plans of property developers and individual speculators. This is really the most brutal face of capitalism, and I intend to expose it at every available opportunity.

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.