HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1397-404
Mr. Ronald Brown

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 84, leave out lines 41 and 42.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, we are to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 3, in page 85, leave out lines 1 to 3.

Amendment No. 4, in page 85, line 6, leave out '(a) to (f)' and insert '(a) to (c)'.

Mr. Brown

I cannot understand why, in Clause 92, we exempt from the service of improvement notices or provisional notices the Housing Corporation, a registered housing association or a housing trust. I hope that the Minister will explain why he believes these people are on the same level as a local authority. They are responsible to no one but themselves. They are self-perpetuating.

Over the years I have looked askance at some of the housing associations which have mushroomed. My hon. Friend the Minister and I have disagreed for many years on this matter. I do not share his enthusiasm for housing associations. In the period 1968–69 I drew his attention to the mushrooming of these associations, the sort of people who were being brought together and the political reasons for some of the appointments.

I should like to give the Minister an example, so that he can, perhaps, answer my point. There is a housing trust in my constituency known as Sutton Dwellings Trust. For many years I have been harassing successive Governments about this trust and its behaviour in my City Road dwellings. I have raised the matter with the local authority and in the House. I am desperately trying to get improvements to these properties. They were built in 1911. Sutton Dwellings finished paying for them in 1971, and they are all profit-earning properties. According to the last account that I had, in 1971 £4,000 profit had been made on them—and they had not been paid for completely by then. The profit from the estate is now, therefore, in excess of that figure.

These properties are not exactly desirable mansions in which hon. Members would like to live. They have baths and toilets in the kitchens, and they are called "habitable rooms". The lights have to be on in the daytime because they are so dark. They are subject to noise, being adjacent to a roundabout, which the council so kindly made, which has made the lives of the residents a misery.

Over the years the residents have had to provide all their own amenities. In this matter the figures are interesting. Whereas Sutton Dwellings could have installed baths at its own expense, the tenants had to pay 1s. 6d. a week for them. They are still paying additional rent of 1s. 6d. a week for having a bath put in. Under the 1954 Act they could have been put in as a statutory amenity. The tenants pay 1s. 6d. a week for a new toilet pan and 1s. 6d. a week for sinks. The tenants had to pay for electric wiring, fireplaces and boilers which were installed in 1950 at a cost of £80. The tenants are still paying 2s. 6d. a week for boilers for which they could have bought 50 boilers since theirs were installed. I could continue with examples of how this trust behaves.

The rents have been "fair rented" by this charity. The rent for these "two habitable room" occupancies has been set by the rent officer at £3.05. Nevertheless, the tenants are prepared to accept that because they believe that they will have to pay more if they do not. They were already paying over £2.50 when the rent officer set the rents.

This great charity, so well known for its charitable works, says in its report of last year that the trustees decided that applications should be made for rent figures to be registered as fair rents for all their dwellings at levels consistent with the criteria laid down but erring on the low side rather than on the high side. Is not that nice? But how does it react? It is now appealing, on every one of the 197 flats, against the rent officer's decision. It is not erring on the low side. It is going for the high side. So much for the charity in its documents.

One of the trust's dwellings was recently overrun by rats. Representatives of the local authority have visited the place a dozen and one times. But the trust was very kind. It took the family out of the place. I was most appreciative of that. Within a week, however, it was offering the flat to someone else. I telephoned the local authority and asked whether the rats had been removed. Of course they had not been removed. Another family was being put into the place while it was known that that family would be coming to see me immediately because of the rats eating away around the boiler, under the floor boards and in the walls. This charity was happy to offer the flat to what were probably a homeless family—coming no doubt from some other hon. Member's constituency; they certainly do not come from mine.

This charity has refused for years to carry out work which ought to have been done. Therefore, why does my hon. Friend the Minister think that it should be exempted? I remind my hon. Friend, incidentally, that this was my first experience of rent assessment committees. It is time he had a look at those, too. One of them sent a mass of documentation to an old lady of 82, expecting her to read it. She was sent documents A, B and C and photostats that were illegible. The rent assessment committee then decided upon the date of the hearing. Because the charity wanted to oppose the rent officer's proposals for a high rent—it wanted an even higher figure—the hearing will take five days.

I asked the committee what my constituents were supposed to do about the hearing, and the committee advised me to tell them to see a lawyer. When I explained that some of them were infirm and could not go to the hearing, it advised them to go to the Citizens' Advice Bureau, but if they go there they are only sent back to see me. I am now faced with having to transport these people in a bus to the hearing, which is to be held in Berners Street in the West End. The committee will not hold the hearing in my constituency.

Mr. George Cunningham

Is not my hon. Friend being unfair to the rent assessment committee? The covering letter sent out by the committee advises the tenant that the best thing to do is to take action at the hearing through a tenants' association. It is difficult to find an institution which goes out of its way to tell tenants that a tenants' association can handle the whole thing for them. In the kind of case mentioned by my hon. Friend—and I have similar cases in my constituency, which used, in part, to be his—the tenants' association is the answer. I have found that they are welcomed by the rent assessment committees.

Mr. Brown

I was aware of that point, but tenants' organisations are not established in five minutes. We are dealing here in the main with elderly people, people who have been in their present homes for 30 or 40 years, perhaps ever since they were built. The result is that they are unable to do the sort of things my hon. Friend suggests. I am, nevertheless, doing my best to organise these things.

Is this what my hon. Friend the Minister expected would happen under this legislation? Did he expect that the Member of Parliament would have to be the welfare officer and to do the work of the rent assessment committee? Does he accept that if people are to make their protest they must go to Berners Street to do so? The excuse given to me for holding the hearing there is that the committee has rooms there, and because of the vast amount of documentation the hearing cannot be held in a place convenient to the tenants.

The rent assessment committees are supposed to be working for us. We are not working for them. It is a scandal and is not democratic in any sense of the word. The committee suggests seeking help from the surveyors panel. It says that there are surveyors who will do charity work if the constituents are poor enough. Why not get the Department to do that work? The Department has a whole staff to do that sort of job. Why does my hon. Friend the Minister not get them to see people to explain a person's rights and privileges? If the rent assessment committees are to behave like this, the Minister must decide whether they are of any value to us.

All this stems from a charity deciding to oppose the rent officer's rent proposal. These people have not done very well with regard to the maintenance of their property. The tenants are now being set upon. I object most strongly to such trusts being exempted from the Bill's requirements. I note that my hon. Friend is paying close attention to what I am saying.

12.30 a.m.

There is another trust in my constituency, the De Beauvoir Trust, which is composed of a number of young professional men. The usual pattern has been followed—namely, a group of young professionals suddenly moving to the area, which is now being tarted up, and paying large sums for their houses. They move into the area, and having been in it for two or three years they join the Liberal Party and decide that they want to set up a housing trust. A trust is then set up and they let everyone know that the Liberals are doing such great things.

The trust then buys up houses over the heads of tenants who have been living in them for 40 years and more. It then proceeds, one house being empty, to apply for grants from the local authority and from the Government. The trust tarts up that one house and then starts putting pressure on the tenants. It points out to the tenants that they must move because the trust wants to improve the property in which they are living. These trusts are, in effect, winklers when they deal in that way with tenants who have occupied the property for many years. I do not suggest that they behave in any way other than gently, but it is a serious matter when a visit is made to a lady living on her own, who does not have a man of the house to whom she can turn, and when she is told "In the end we can take you to court. We have all the powers."

I want to know why these people are exempted. Who the blazes are they? They are young professional people who have moved in and who have been in the area for only a short time. They will be off again. We have had them all before. They are not new. They are coming in and behaving in the gross fashion which I have described. Maybe it would be better if the lady had the house improved in which she has been living for 40 years, but this is a democratic society. We cannot have Liberals or anyone else moving in, no matter who they are, and acting in the way I have described.

These people are prepared to buy a house over the heads of the tenants living in it, the tenants who were not even offered the property. I cannot think of anything more speculative than that. They then start putting pressure on the people living in the house, albeit in a gentle way. Pressure is applied by suggesting "Would not you like to go there? Come and see it. It is a nice little house. I visited the house where the lady is now living; it is a charming little house." The people involved do not need to move at all, yet they are being pressurised. I cannot understand why my hon. Friend puts that sort of person above the law by the proposals which are within the Bill. I have tried to understand it, but it seems that they are not responsible to the public or to anyone else but themselves. They are self-perpetuating. I trust that my hon. Friend will accept the amendment.

Mr. Rowlands

It is with great trepidation that I rise to reply to the amendment. I know that Welshmen have been exported to various parts of London and to other parts of Britain, but they have not been exported to discuss the particular problems of London. As a Welsh Office Minister I do not feel competent to take part in such a debate.

The general point which I should like to make in dealing with the specific point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) referred and on which he obviously has strong feelings concerns the wider issue of rent assessment panels and the operation of the Rent Act. We are reviewing the Rent Act and the rent assessment procedures in a general way and I am sure that the point that my hon. Friend has made will be taken into account.

In general terms the amendment seeks to delete the exclusion of the four bodies that are mentioned in the provisions for exemption, which my hon. Friend suggested are above the law. The four bodies include the Housing Corporation, which is a Government-sponsored body which will be greatly strengthened by the provisions of Part I. The success of the corporation is crucial to the whole operation of the policy contained in the Bill.

There is also the New Towns Development Corporation, which like the Housing Corporation is appointed by the Secretary of State and is responsible to him. There are the registered housing associations and the charitable housing trusts. These last two are non-profit-making.

Mr. Ronald Brown

They are not actually non-profit-making. It may be that they are non-profit-making overall but they are deliberately setting out to make a profit from my people living in these disgusting properties, so that they can let their properties up in Salford at about half the price.

Mr. Rowlands

I beg to differ in general terms with my hon. Friend. I cannot take up the particular points he raised about a group of flats or houses in his constituency. Generally these organisations are non-profit-making, by legislation.

We are not doing anything especially different here. We are not making any change and suddenly excluding these organisations in any way. The existing provisions are essentially the same as those in Section 41 (2) of the 1964 Housing Act, except in the case of the registered housing association, which is a concept introduced by the Bill. Registration and supervision of the housing groups will help ensure that they meet the requirements and responsibilities they have assumed.

Generally no difficulties over the operation of the provisions of the 1964 Act have come to the notice of the Department to suggest that the list of exempted public bodies in respect of compulsory improvement need to be amended for the purposes of Part VII of the Bill, which effectively replaces Part II of the 1964 Act. I cannot go into detail on the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. I hope he will accept that the provisions here follow the strong precedent of the 1964 Act. We have no reason to change these provisions.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I can only say that I am rather sad after hearing that reply. I raised this matter earlier because I was dissatisfied with the 1964 Act. I was told that when new legislation was introduced that Act would be looked at afresh. The Minister has not offered any argument why I cannot get my local authority to issue a notice on this body in the same way as I can for any other landlord. I should have exactly the same right.

What my hon. Friend is saying now is that these people can go on in the same way as before. A total of 197 families in this block of flats have suffered for many years through the indolence and incompetence of these people. Although I am prepared to withdraw the amendment, I am bound to say that I am terribly dissatisfied and I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity of inviting me to his Department to talk over these matters at an early date. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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