HC Deb 30 July 1974 vol 878 cc557-64

(1) After section 80 of the Rent Act 1968 there shall be inserted the following section:— Power of country court, in action for possession, to reduce period of notice to quit.

80A. In any case where—

  1. (a) a notice to quit a dwelling which is the subject of a Part VI contract has been served, and
  2. (b) the period at the end of which the notice to quit takes effect is for the time being extended by virtue of section 77 or section 78 above, and
  3. (c) at some time during that period the lessor institutes proceedings in the county court for the recovery of possession of the dwelling, and
  4. (d) in those proceedings the county court is satisfied that any of paragraphs (a) to (d) of section 80(2) above applies, the court may direct that the period referred to in paragraph (b) above shall be reduced so as to end at a date specified in the direction."

(2) At the end of subsection (3) of section 106 of that Act (rules as to procedure) there shall be added the words "and section 80A."

(3) After section 95 of the Rent (Scotland) Act 1971 there shall be inserted the following section:— Power of sheriff, in action for possession to reduce period of notice to quit.

95A. In any case where—

  1. (a) a notice to quit a dwelling-house which is the subject of a Part VII contract has been served, and
  2. (b) the period at the end of which the notice to quit takes effect is for the time being extended by virtue of section 92 or section 93 above, and
  3. (c) at some time during that period the lessor institutes proceedings before the sheriff for possession of the dwelling-house, and
  4. (d)in those proceedings thesheriff is satisfied that any of paragraphs (a) to (d) of section 95(2) above applies, the sheriff may direct that the period referred to in paragraph (b) above shall be reduced so as to end at a date specified in the direction".—[Mr. Freeson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.50 p.m.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this we are to discuss new Clause 8—Action for possession during reference under Rent ActA reference to a rent officer, a rent assessment committee or a rent tribunal shall not preclude an action for possession of the premises to which the reference relates upon such grounds as the Rent Act permits nor the making by the court of an order for possession subject to the terms (if any) of the decision upon that reference.

Mr. Freeson

The clause, which was tabled by the Opposition in Committee, provides that no reference to a rent officer, rent assessment committee or rent tribunal shall preclude an action for possession on such grounds as the Rent Acts may permit or the court's making an order on such a ground.

It is difficult to understand what the clause might mean. No reference to a rent officer or rent assessment committee can have any effect on an action for possession, because such references are concerned solely with rent and not with security of tenure.

In so far as the clause is concerned with references to a rent tribunal, it would appear that the intention is to allow a lessor under a Part VI contract to apply for an order for possession on any Rent Act grounds, notwithstanding that the operation of the notice to quit had been suspended by a Rent Act tribunal. However, it is not clear what is the force of subject to the terms, if any in that context.

We have tabled the Government amendment to deal with some of the questions that were discussed in Committee. The clause incorporates in the Bill a provision enabling lessors under Part VI contracts—predominantly resident landlords after commencement of the Act—to obtain possession in the courts, even though their notice to quit has been suspended under Part VI, where a lessee is failing to pay rent or in some other way to observe his contract, causing nuisance to the landlord or other people in the house, causing the condition of the dwelling to deteriorate, or misusing the furniture; in other words, behaving in such a way that if he were a protected tenant the landlord would have a ground for possessing under Case 1, 2, 3 or 3A of the main Rent Act 1968.

At present, the landlord under a Part VI contract must, if he needs to get rid of a bad tenant who exercises his right to apply to the rent tribunal, go through two tribunals: first, the rent tribunal—twice, if the tenant, having obtained a suspension of notice to quit, continues misbehaving and the landlord seeks a reduction in the suspension under Section 80—and then at the county court. This may take months, during which the landlord may suffer heavy financial loss and/or distress.

The clause inserts a new section in Part VI of the Rent Act following Section 80. This new provision establishes the powers of the court in any case where application is made for possession by a landlord whose notice to quit has been suspended under Section 77 or 78. It should be noted here that there is nothing at present to prevent a landlord's making such an application, but that if he did so the court, as matters stand, would not be able to grant an order for possession because the letting contract, having been extended by the suspension of the notice to quit, would still be in existence. The new provision would, in effect, alter this by enabling the court to bring the suspension of the notice to quit to an immediate end and thus to terminate the artificially extended contract. Once this has been done the court can, in the course of the same proceedings, make an order for possession.

The new section will therefore provide, in subsection (1) that where, first, a notice to quit has been served; secondly, its operation has been extended by virtue of Section 77 or 78; thirdly, during the period in which the suspended notice is in operation the lessor seeks possession in the court, and, fourthly, the court is satisfied that any of the circumstances specified in Section 80(a) to (d) obtains, the court may direct that the notice shall expire on a date determined by itself. If a court does this it will be able to exercise its existing power to grant an order for possession. The court will be empowered—not required—to terminate the notice to quit and make the order, so that the judge will not be bound to grant possession if the allegations against the tenant, though true, are of a trivial nature.

Subsection (2) extends Section 106 of the Rent Act, which empowers the Lord Chancellor to make rules for courts in their discharge of the provisions of the Act, to enable him to make rules for the discharge of this new power.

In Committee I undertook to try to meet such a situation, which bears particularly harshly on the small landlord who perhaps owns only one or two properties—a landlord who has lettings in his own owner-occupied premises. When I first gave the undertaking I had doubts whether we would be able to draft an appropriate clause in time for Report, but I am glad to have been able, with the help of my officials, to fulfil the undertaking I gave in Committee.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

New Clause 8 appears on the Notice Paper to preserve in some form the position arrived at in Committee when, after some discussion in the early hours of the morning, the Minister conceded that the Opposition had made out a valid case and that there was a need to amend the law.

The Opposition do not have the advantage of the services of the parliamentary draftsmen. The new clause was tabled merely to preserve the position and so that there was a form of words on the Notice Paper to ensure that the matter would be discussed fully on Report.

I am very grateful to the Minister for the attitude he has taken despite all the difficulties of pressure of work on the lawyers in his Department and on the parliamentary draftsmen who have been able to produce a new clause which meets the case we made in Committee.

Following many representations received, we were concerned about the great feeling of injustice that existed throughout the country when landlords had a had tenant in their accommodation who was not paying rent for a considerable period, or was causing damage to the premises or the furniture, or was acting in a thoroughly anti-social manner and harassing other tenants and, sometimes, the landlord if he happened to live in the same house.

7 p.m.

That was a totally undesirable situation because, inevitably, it meant that magistrates' courts were troubled by cases and complaints of assault and battery when conditions became intolerable. The position was aggravated because it was possible for a tenant to go to a rent tribunal. Automatically he sensed that the landlord was seeking to apply to a county court for a possession order, and by going to the rent tribunal he could obtain security of tenure, in the first instance, of up to six months, which could theoretically be renewed indefinitely for further periods of six months.

That led to a great feeling of injustice, and the Opposition felt it only right that where a genuine grievance existed on the matters I have mentioned the landlord should have a right to go immediately to the county court, and, if the issue between him and the tenant were of nonpayment of rent, anti-social behaviour or damaged property be dealt with there and then without the artificial and unnecessary delays of a rent tribunal procedure.

I am grateful to the Minister for having acceded to this request. Under the clause landlords faced with bad tenants can go straight to the county court and have the judge decide the issue on its merits. If the landlord succeeds in persuading the judge that the tenant is bad he will obtain his possession order without undue delay.

I am grateful that the Minister has indicated in subsection (2) that the Lord Chancellor will be able to make representations about county court procedure, and it is hoped that he will bring forward a means of expediting legal procedure in the county court so that the issue can be tried without a great deal of delay as to procedure and pleadings between the parties. We look forward to seeing what regulations are produced for this expedited procedure, possibly equivalent to Order 14 proceedings in the High Court.

There is one point on which the Minister might help me. It is a minor point but it should be put straight for the record. In subsection (1)(d) there is a reference to paragraphs (a) to (d) of Section 80 of the 1968 Rent Act. Section 80 contains only paragraphs (a) (b) and (c). Para. (d) must have been put in by subsequent legislation—possibly by this Bill. I have been unable to put my finger on the precise reference and I should be grateful if the Minister would explain so that everyone knows exactly where to find paragraph (d) in the future.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

I congratulate the Minister on the new clause. There are instances where landlords have experienced great difficulty in getting possession of a property from a bad tenant. No landlord would want to get rid of a good tenant, because the whole basis of his operation is to accommodate the best tenants possible. I have had incidents brought to my attention by people living in London in which there was a month's delay in a rent tribunal hearing an application by a bad tenant. The rent tribunal first gave six months' security of tenure to the tenant, the second security of tenure was for another six months and on the third occasions the tribunal gave security of tenure for two months. The tenant finally left about 24 hours before expiry of this last period, owing two months' rent and having turned the flat into a complete shambles.

In accepting the need for the clause the Government have accepted that this sort of thing can happen and that not all tenants are good and not all landlords are bad, or vice versa. There is a certain amount of good and bad in both, and while the Bill is inclined to give most of the benefits to the tenant, the clause goes some way to rectifying the deficiency in the situation concerning the bad tenant so that the facts can be proved more rapidly and possession obtained reasonably quickly.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

On a number of occasions I have pressed the need for changes of this kind on behalf of my constituents. In Bournemouth there are a mass of what we have come to call small private landlords, and because of that this issue has become a considerable problem. In a way this is partly due to the holiday nature of the town and people have been in the habit of coming into Bournemouth for a comparatively short stay. I am not clear whether the clause meets the case of the short-term winter letting where the tenant agrees to stay for so long but subsequently decides to protract his stay and remains on into the summer, when the owner could have been committed to letting the property at a much higher rate to someone else.

If the tenant in these circumstances is able to overstay, even by a comparatively short period, the time to which he had originally contracted, it would cause considerable hardship and loss of earnings to the landlord. The incident could affect subsequent lettings even into the following year, because the landlord would have suffered loss of good will through not being able to honour the summer holiday letting.

Mr. Emery

May I suggest that my right hon. Friend does not use the word "landlord" in these circumstances? In my constituency I have experienced much the same problem. These landlords are running businesses for holiday lettings, and in order to assist the housing situation they are willing to go in for winter letting which would not normally be allowed if they could not get vacant possession. These are not landlords in the normal sense. They are running a business, but they are willing to help out during the winter by making their businesses available.

Sir J. Eden

I was using the term "landlord" for shorthand purposes, but my hon. Friend is correct. There are many instances where the owner of this type of premises lets rooms in the summer holiday period and helps out for families with short-term requirements for the winter months. It is regrettable—in some cases for perfectly understandable reasons on the part of the individuals concerned—if subsequently this arrangement is abused. I hope the clause will end that abuse. I was seeking to ask the Minister for information on that point, and if he can confirm my hopes I welcome the clause. It is certainly a long overdue provision which is especially valuable for landlords confronted with the circumstances my hon. Friend has described so that they can turn directly to the county courts. I am sure it is right that this is so and I express my appreciation of the Minister. I express my thanks to my hon. Friends who pressed the case so effectively in Committee.

Mr. Freeson

Paragraph (d) was introduced by Amendment No. 13 in Committee.

The amendment has no relevance to winter lettings, which are covered by Case 10(b) in the main Act. I do not think that it is appropriate or necessary for me to go into detail about that. The point the right hon. Gentleman has just made is covered by Case 10(b) as a ground for possession on application to the county court.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

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