HC Deb 03 April 1974 vol 871 cc1406-16

10.31 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

My purpose in this debate is to draw attention to three aspects of the residential property situation in areas of housing stress, notably in inner London.

First, despite the chronic shortage of housing in these areas, there are many flats and parts of houses vacant because the owners are gradually getting the tenants out so that they can sell whole properties with vacant possession.

Secondly, to assist in that process, owners and their agents do their utmost, by means which are just within and sometimes not within the law, to get tenants out. This is the latterday Rachmanism that we call "winkling".

Thirdly, there are many highly respectable—or I should say highly respected—individuals, companies and other organisations who are to some extent lending their assistance to these practices. I shall suggest some remedies for these three grievances.

First, on the simple point of the number of dwellings standing empty; I believe that the whole country would be astounded with the results, if a sample survey were conducted, to see just how many such places there are. I do not believe that there is any street in my constituency that would not reveal a number of vacancies. I do not mean vacancies caused by a normal transfer of occupation; I mean those arising from the intentional holding of empty property so that a whole house or block of flats can be sold off. I want the Department of the Environment to conduct such a sample survey—preferably in my constituency.

The previous Minister for Housing and Construction announced that local authorities should initiate compulsory purchase orders in respect of property left empty for speculative purposes. I want this Labour Government to go further and to say that where parts of a block of flats or parts of a multi-occupied house are being left empty, the local authority should make a CPO. I want the Minister clearly to indicate to all concerned, especially to his own inspectors who conduct CPO hearings, that this practice will be taken by him as sufficient ground for confirming CPOs. I also want him to speed up the procedures for getting these CPOs through. At the moment it takes a year or more to complete the process.

I come now to the odious practice of the winkler. What are the devices used to get tenants out despite legal security?

First, we should bear in mind that the courts, faced with requests by landlords for possession, take some regrettable decisions. In Clerkenwell County Court in 1972 I heard with amazement a judge indicate that he would agree to the last tenant in a large house being legally forced out, partly, as he put it, because it was unsocial for the house otherwise to stand empty. There was no need for it to be empty at all. The owners could have let the vacent flats at any time at fair rents and could have had generous grants to improve the places. What they preferred to do was get the tenants out so that an even greater profit could be made by selling with vacant possession. The courts can be used by the property companies to further their aims, but when that does not help, what are the devices used to get tenants out? I quote a trivial and amusing example, just as an appetiser. I have seen a letter from Mr. Colin Spotswood, a chartered surveyor, of Richmond, addressed to one of his leaseholders. He said My clients do not want socialist election posters to be displayed in your flat If at any time in the future you change your politics I expect that permission would be given for Tory posters if a proper application was made. More seriously, however, the activities of the winklers begin with neglect of repairs. Landlords often do not do repairs to their premises. They ignore notices under the Public Health Acts and when finally compelled to do them they do them badly. Local authorities now have the powers to force the repairs to be done, but the procedures are very long, and often a tenant leaves because of the bad state of the place before it is put into a fit condition. That, of course, is exactly what the owner hopes and works for.

I want the Minister to urge local authorities to use their repairs powers more robustly and speedily, and I also want the local authorities to be able to charge negligent owners for the administrative costs of going through the compulsion process. Owners and their agents also mislead tenants about their rights and they indulge in constant pestering in the hope that the tenants will give up and go for the sake of peace.

I want the Government to encourage the drawing up of a code of landlord-tenant practice which respectable companies, estate agents and solicitors would be prepared to hold to and I should like the public to boycott those firms which refused to subscribe to the code. Such a code would prescribe, first, that when tenants are served with a legal notice—for example, a notice to quit—they should always be told what their rights are in relation to that legal step. Secondly, if tenants are offered alternative accommodation, or money to get out, the offer should always be in writing, so that the tenants, who often do not know their rights, can take it away and seek advice on it. Thirdly, estate agents should insist that they are free to get repairs done as soon as the need for them is brought to their attention. Finally, any estate agent taking on the management of a property should insist that he and he alone should deal with tenants. This is to stop the practice of using an estate agent to collect the rents and a freelance winkler to pester tenants to get them out. A winkler does the job less scrupulously because he does not have a shop front and a local reputation to lose.

I can best illustrate the need for this by referring to a case that arose in Islington last year. A tenant in a house owned by Mr. P. G. Prebble and Mr. Paul Hilton—who, incidentally, were in breach of the Landlord and Tenant Act by not having their names in the rent book—was bothered by two men who called and made to enter the tenant's private rooms. The tenant had to go for a bread knife to get the men to go. The men did not identify themselves. The estate agents dealing with the property were Messrs. Prebble and Co. They, too, were in breach of the Landlord and Tenant Act. At my request they asked the owners who the men were. It was not a difficult inquiry in this case, since the owners and agents have a common address. They confirmed that the men—or, as they insisted, the man—were from the owners, but when I asked for the names of the men involved this is the reply I got: The owners do not feel disposed to advising me of the name of their representative and I regret, therefore, that I cannot help you further in this respect. I say that respectable agents will not accept management duties if anonymous freelance winklers are used at the same time. If estate agents want to be in a respectable profession, these are the kind of points to which they should be prepared to adhere.

The behaviour which I have described would be condemned by all decent people, but the public would be surprised to learn that a lot of apparently respectable people are, in practice, lending their support to these activities in an indirect but none the less blameworthy way. The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), for example—I have given him notice that I shall be referring to him tonight—is a nice, decent banker. But his hank, Keyser Ullman, owns Sword-heath Properties Limited, and Sword-heath has had three blocks of flats in my area for a considerable time. In all three, repairs were neglected, flats were left vacant for months and years on end, and tenants were told that they could not be moved to a lower floor even when they had medical grounds for such a move.

That has changed now. With me taking an interest and under the spotlight of publicity, Swordheath cannot afford to do that any more. But while it was operating in the dark, the right hon. Gentleman and his company were prepared to make profits by these means.

What about that other highly respected institution, the Crown Agents? That is a Government-appointed body, which invests money for foreign Governments. It has put huge sums of money into property speculation in London. Keyser Ullman has a holding by the Crown Agents. The property empire of John Chalk and Gwyn Jones—exposed in John Plender's excellent articles in The Times —got money from the Crown Agents via First National Finance Corporation.

What about the Church Commissioners, who invest in property to boost the stipends of the Anglican clergy? They have a big investment in the New River Company, which kept empty many flats in my area for speculative purposes. I hope that the Anglican clergy realise that when they receive their monthly cheques they are up to their dog collars in property speculation. We need to get residential property out of the hands of people like this by compulsory purchase orders.

I conclude by describing one case where a CPO will no doubt reach the Minister in time to show the kind of thing to which a CPO is the only answer. The local authority has started the process. Last year a number of my constituents complained to me that they were being bothered by a man pestering them to move out, sometimes offering money. He claimed to represent a company called Anglo-Canadian Real Estate. That company denied that it owned the houses and said that a firm called Host-green was the owner. Hostgreen said that although it was the owner, it had a binding contract to sell to Mr. Alexander Skeaping, a well known property developer in my area. Solicitors for the owner wrote to me saying that Mr. Skeaping was in breach of contract by negotiating with the tenants when the contract specifically forbade him to do so. But Hostgreen was not free of blame, for it was in breach of the Landlord and Tenant Act by not having its name in the rent books—and so were the estate agents in this case, Messrs. Copping Joyce, for the same reason.

When the houses were finally transferred out of Hostgreen ownership, it was announced that they were owned by Rudbray Limited, Mr. Alexander Skeaping and Mr. W. Maxwell Smith now emerged as the directors of Rudbray Limited, Mr. Maxwell Smith having been the chap who was orginally pestering the tenants. It is, I am told, a coincidence that this man is Mr. W. Maxwell Smith and that one of the directors of Host-green was Mr. W. Maxwell McGuire.

One of the tenants in these houses exercised his right under the Landlord and Tenant Act to ask for a list of the directors of the owning company, and he has not had it. That is a criminal offence on the part of the agent and the landlord. Rudbrays have not even filed the names of any directors with Companies House. That is also a criminal offence.

In answer to a recent Question, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade told me that the company had been listed in the London Gazette as one which would be struck off the list and forbidden to do business. Meanwhile, Mr. Maxwell Smith carries on with his pestering of tenants. This is an absolutely typical case of London residential property speculation. A maze of fly-by-night companies is passing houses from hand to hand. Most of the companies are in breach of the law in various respects. The unfortunate tenants are the raw material for their enormous profits. I hope that my hon. Friend will assure me, when I bring any case like this to his attention, that he will arrange for the companies to be investigated, prosecuted for breaches of law and struck off the Companies Register for failure to comply with the Companies Act. I hope that he will ensure that the individuals involved will all have their tax affairs investigated to see whether they are evading the tax laws by the manipulations.

I am pleased that the action taken to gazette Rudbrays was so swift, but I want something more. I want a Select Committee to investigate the London residential property empires. It is time that we moved these slugs from under their stones into public view.

It is not just the property companies and their agents that we are up against. What about the firm of solicitors which is involved? When a solicitor's client is prosecuted in court no blame should attach to the solicitor, whatever his client has done. But firms of solicitors which, with no point of law and no litigation involved, are prepared to place their names and their respectability behind the kind of activity which I have described must expect some of the justified criticism to rub off on them.

My complaints to Mr. Alexander Skeaping about the case which I have described in Halton Road have been referred to a firm of solicitors. It has seen fit to write to me defending him. No legal point is at issue. It is defending his behaviour in general. The firm in question is Messrs. Lewis Silkin and Partners. It is my view that a firm of such standing, and connected as it is, should be more careful about getting involved with people in companies which have committed the irregularities which I have described. If such firms do not take that care they must not be surprised if, to some extent, they are identified with the actions of those for whom they speak.

I shall say no more on that point, out of what is probably a misplaced sense of delicacy, but I feel very strongly about it. It is just one more manifestation of the readiness of respectable people not to inquire too rigorously into these matters. There are hundreds of thousands of tenants who need solicitors to be on their side rather than against them.

10.48 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) has dealt with matters which I find extremely redolent of my constituency. During the last election some of my constituents were warned that they would be evicted unless they removed my election posters from their windows. Only last Saturday I found that a constituent's landlord was in breach of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 in the way in which my hon. Friend has described.

My hon. Friend has become known as a fearless champion of tenants who are subjected to intimidation or harassment by unscrupulous landlords, as indeed is my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), whom I am glad to see in the Chamber, and who has had so much to say of value to tenants.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury is one of the heroes of the celebrated Stonefield Street episode in his constituency, when an attempt at winkling was defeated by the united action of the tenants, aided by my hon. Friend. As a Member for a constituency which has its fair share of unsatisfactory landlords, and as a representative of a Department which exists, among other objectives, to defend the interests of all tenants as well as other householders, I wish him well in his campaign to protect tenants.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of matters which, as he knows, are relevant to the responsibilities of other Departments. The general question of the control of estate agents is one for the Department of Trade and Consumer Affairs. My hon. Friend will have seen the reply of 19th March from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Affairs to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), and I know that he will understand that from the Department of the Environment I cannot take the matter further. In her reply my right hon. Friend said that she had no immediate plans for legislation. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, bearing in mind the Government's legislative priorities, including one Bill of the very highest priority to which I shall refer presently.

My hon. Friend made several pungent remarks about property companies. Property companies, again, are not the responsibility of my Department. I shall refer my hon. Friend's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Trade and ask him or one of his ministerial colleagues to write to my hon. Friend.

Earlier in my remarks I recalled my hon. Friend's championship of tenants in Stonefield Street. Now—very worthily —he is taking up the cudgels for tenants in another part of his constituency—Halton Road. I applaud him in his efforts to defend the interests of his constituents.

I have seen some correspondence about this case, and I say, quite flatly, that I deplore the practice of winkling, even where the winkler may wear a velvet glove. His constituents should be grateful to my hon. Friend for the actions he is taking on their behalf, and I hope that those involved will pay heed to my hon. Friend's advocacy on behalf of his constituents.

It is important that, with or without legislation from this or any other Government, estate agents should think carefully before sending out letters which, wittingly or unwittingly, may make a particular impression on the recipient, who may not always have the benefit of the advice of someone as dauntless and stubborn as my hon. Friend.

At the same time, I cannot go along with what my hon. Friend says about the rôle of solicitors, whether in the firm he mentioned or in any other. Even the basest of rogues or criminals must have access to legal advice and representation. This goes for the powerful and unscrupulous as well as for the weak and defenceless. They must have the right of recourse to such advice, otherwise justice will not be done. Nor, in my view, is it fair to tar a solicitor with the brush of an accusation made against his client —otherwise, for example, no solicitor would ever act for someone accused of murder.

Mr. Cunningham

I hope that my hon. Friend is aware of the distinction which, in a hurried speech, I tried to draw between a solicitor who acts in litigation, to whom no blame attaches, and a solicitor who writes letters which the principal, if he chose, could write himself and where the solicitor is offering his respectability for the furtherance of the ends of the principal.

Mr. Kaufman

My hon. Friend and are neither of us lawyers, and I think the more highly of both of us for that. Therefore, we start from the same base point, and I am unable to argue legal matters with any greater authority than is my hon. Friend. From time to time, for better or for worse, I have had to apply to solicitors for advice. One does not always apply to them for advice on action in the courts. One applies to them for advice on many other matters.

I do not believe that one could get a system of justice if one were to tar a solicitor with the brush of the accusation made against his client. Otherwise, no solicitor would ever act for someone accused of murder. In my hon. Friend's justifiable and admirable anxiety to defend his constituents, which I totally applaud, I advise him not to lose sight of that aspect. My concern is to ensure that my Department does everything possible to eliminate possibilities of harassment, a situation which my hon. Friend has so vividly and eloquently denounced tonight.

My hon. Friend has suggested the speeding up of compulsory purchase orders and their added use as one way of tackling the problem. He will not expect me to comment in advance on specific cases, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is prepared to confirm orders where a case has been made in terms of what I may call numerative or qualitative housing action. I hope that will go some way to meet my hon. Friend's point.

My hon. Friend will realise the great difficulty in speeding up confirmation of opposed CPOs. This is a carefully balanced procedure, where the interests of all must be safeguarded, including objectors. An objector may not be a winkler but a householder with an honest and valid case.

Additional inspectors are being recruited and waiting time for inquiries will soon be cut down. Administrative staffs have been strengthened and reorganised, and higher priority is being given to CPOs. But delays take place not only in the Department but in local authorities.

On this particular case I must tell my hon. Friend that in Halton Road no order has yet been made, although a resolution to make such an order was passed by Islington Council on 18th December 1973. Therefore, the ball is very much in the local authority's court on this matter. As I have said, we in the Department wish to provide every possible safeguard against winkling and other forms of harassment.

I remind my hon. Friend that tenants have the protection of the harassment provisions of Part III of the Rent Act 1965 and penalties now available under the Criminal Justice Act 1972. These fines are pretty severe, though my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North may not agree. They amount to an unlimited fine and two years' imprisonment for a first offence when a case is tried on indictment. The definition of "harassment" in Section 30 of the Rent Act 1965 is wide enough, if applied, to include much of what is known as winkling. The section says that: If any person with intent to cause the residential occupier of any premises to give up the occupation of the premises or any part thereof … does acts calculated to interfere with the peace or comfort of the residential occupier or members of his household … he shall be guilty of an offence. We in the Department would like to see maximum use made of these provisions both by local authorities in bringing prosecutions and by courts in making use of penalties available when sentencing those found guilty of this absolutely monstrous behaviour. In addition, we shall be providing further protection, through impending legislation, to provide security of tenure for furnished tenants, which is especially important in London. We believe this will be of major assistance to tenants who live in this sort of accommodation, with only such limited security as the furnished rent tribunal can give them.

The legislation will give security of tenure for furnished as well as unfurnished tenants. But my hon. Friend—and also my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North—has been involved in defence of tenants long enough to know that no legislation, however, strong, will defend a weak or gullible tenant against a landlord sufficiently unscrupulous or wily. Such abuses will continue as long as private landlordism continues.

That is why the surest defence of tenants subjected to winkling, as well as all other tenants suffering neglect or exploitation by private landlordism, is the phasing out of the whole sorry system of landlordism by the municipalisation policy to which this Government are committed.

Transcendental policies of this kind may take us a long way from the homely problems of Halton Road. But my hon. Friend, with his great experience of these matters, will know that in the end such policies are the surest answer to the problems that he encounters in his daily constituency work.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.