HC Deb 26 June 1974 vol 875 cc1680-6
Mr. Millan

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 29, line 26, leave out from 'may' to 'make' in line 28 and insert:

  1. (a) as soon as practicable after they receive notification under section 19(3)(b) of this Act, or
  2. (b) if after the expiry of the period of 28 days mentioned in section 19(3) of this Act they have received no notification from the Secretary of State'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We may take at the same time Amendment No. 16. in page 29, line 26, leave out from 'may' to 'make' in line 33 and insert: 'after being notified that the Secretary of State does not propose that the draft resolution he rescinded'. That amendment stands in the name of the hon. Member for Glasgow. Cathcart (Mr. Taylor).

Mr. Millan

Amendment No. 16 has an intention similar to that of Amendment No. 15. Amendment No. 15 is an important amendment. Again it takes up a point raised in Committee by hon. Members on both sides, which related to the question of the dating of a control of occupation order which would have the effect of imposing controls on the letting and re-letting of houses in a housing action area which were to be the subject of demolition or of integration.

The reason for a control of occupation order is to prevent abuse—to prevent local authorities from being faced with rehousing problems which they should not have to face, to prevent abuse by tenants, and, particularly in this case, to prevent abuse by unscrupulous landlords. It was represented to the Government that the wording in the Bill, which provided for the making of a control of occupation order as from the date of the final resolution, was not adequate and that we should specify it as being basically from the date of the draft resolution or from the date at which it was clear that the draft resolution was being allowed to stand by the Secretary of State.

The purpose of Amendment No. 15 is to meet the latter point, so that a control of occupation order can date from the time at which it is clear that the draft resolution by the local authority has been approved or at least that there has been no direction by the Secretary of State to rescind it. That seems to be the appropriate time to make a control of occupation order.

Up to that point, of course, the local authority should not have given any publicity, at least in a general sense, to the draft resolution. In any case, the notice which will go out about the control of occupation order can, under this procedure, go out at the same time as the notice to the tenants and everyone involved whom we have been talking about on an earlier amendment. Administratively and logically it is convenient to do it in this way. We lose nothing by doing so as compared with specifying the date of the draft resolution, which might cause a good deal of confusion and produce no particular benefit.

By the amendment we have met the undertaking that we gave in Committee that we should be meeting the real difficulty that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee felt would exist during the awkward period before the final resolution, which could lead to the abuse of the area and particular houses in it, We have put that right by the amendment. In view of our previous discussions in Committee I believe that the amendment will be welcomed by both sides of the House.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Ancram

Having moved a similar amendment in Committee, I welcome this amendment. It meets an important point. As the Minister has told us, it allows the councils to have some control over occupation and to prevent housing action areas acting as a magnet for unscrupulous landlords.

I feel that this is one of the most important amendments that has been tabled. I have one small question to put to the Minister relating to the decision that he took not to accept a suggestion which was made in Committee that the amendment should not date from the time of the draft resolution but from a later date after the Secretary of State had been operative in deciding whether the draft resolution was right.

The point of choosing the later date is so that the situation does not arise in which a draft resolution is passed and then rescinded and an occupation order is passed unnecessarily. Paragraph (b) of the amendment would allow precisely that to happen. As I understand it, if after 28 days the Secretary of State decides under this clause that he needs more time in which to make a decision, the council, nevertheless, can go ahead and pass its control of occupation order. It could happen that a week after the council passed its control of occupation order notification could come from the Secretary of State under paragraph (c) which would mean that the council would have to withdraw its order.

Would it not be simpler just to accept the spirit of Amendment No. 16 which is to make control of occupation orders applicable only after the Secretary of State has notified the authority that he does not propose to rescind the draft resolution?

Mr. Millan

I considered that point as the hon. Gentleman has been speaking. It is covered in the amendment because we mention notification from the Secretary of State. If the Secretary of State were to require time he would have to give notification. Therefore, I think that the hon. Gentleman's point is probably covered. This is rather a technical matter and I give the assurance that I shall consider it and any other point that is put to me. I want to ensure that we get this matter absolutely right.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

We are grateful to the Minister for tabling this amendment following an amendment which was tabled in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Ancram). My hon. Friend has mentioned an important point and if the Minister looks at the wording he will see that there could be doubt about the difference between something that is covered under paragraph (b) or (c). The amendment fully meets the principle that we put forward in Committee, and I am grateful to the Minister.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Millan

I beg to move Amendment No. 17, in page 29, line 30, leave out 'that section as read with'.

Mr. Speaker

With this amendment it will be convenient to discuss Government Amendment No. 19.

Mr. Millan

Amendment No. 17 is a drafting amendment that follows Amendment No. 15.

I am not sure that we have Amendment No. 19 absolutely right. We shall have to look again at the wording before the Bill goes to another place. That would be a convenient time to consider the point made by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Ancram) on the previous amendment.

In the meantime, in the hope that the amendments are right, I commend them to the House. If they are not right, we can put them right later.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Millan

I beg to move Amendment No. 18, in page 30, line 10, leave out from ' conviction ' to end of line 12 and insert: (a) to a fine not exceeding £400, and in the case of a second or subsequent conviction in respect of any house to a fine not exceeding £400 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to both such fine and such imprisonment; and (b) in the case of a continuing offence to a further fine of £5 for every day or part of a day which he occupies the house, or permits it to be occupied, after conviction'. In Committee the feeling was expressed that, although we had increased the penalties for breach of a control of occupation order from £20 to £200, it might be possible for a determined and unscrupulous landlord to decide cold-bloodedly that he could get enough extra rent over a sufficient long period before being caught out to make even a fine of £200 worth paying. I was asked to consider increasing the fine beyond £200, and £400 was suggested in an amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and supported by both sides of the Committee.

In answering that debate in Committee I said that I would look at the point and would also consider imprisonment for the worst offences—a point which was not put to me in Committee. I have since considered both the level of the fines and the question of imprisonment, and the result is the amendment that is before the House.

The amendment increases the maximum fine from £200 to £400 and, where there is a second or subsequent conviction—and here by definition one is dealing with a determined individual who breaks the law in a way which he finds profitable—there is an alternative penalty of imprisonment for up to three months either along with or in substitution for a fine. That is a substantial penalty for breach of a control of occupation order.

I hope that these penalties will never have to be imposed, because I hope that there will not be breaches of the order, certainly not deliberately. There may be occasional inadvertent or negligent breaches and, no doubt, those who are inadvertent or negligent should, if necessary, pay the penalty. But the maximum penalties which we lay down here are designed only for the most determined breaches of the law and as a deterrent. I hope that they will bring home to any individual who may be so disposed that to breach a control of occupation order is a serious offence and that anyone who breaches an order will be subject to serious penalties.

Mr. Baxter

Will the Minister tell me whether the clause will impair the operations of the local authority? In the days of the old closing orders it was sometimes beneficial to a local authority to switch people from one condemned house to another to permit the proper development of an area. I do not object to severe penalties being imposed for a flagrant breach of regulations, but it is sometimes desirable that a local authority should be permitted to move a person from one place to another, and I hope that the amendment will not prevent this.

Mr. Rifkind

I welcome the amendment, and I particularly welcome the introduction of the possibility of imprisonment for this type or offence The Minister will doubtless recall that the possibility of imprisonment was mentioned in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Hutchison). Until that time only a fine had been considered.

The amendment is important. However, I am pleased that the Minister has restricted the posible term of imprisonment to three months. A great deal of the concern expressed about this matter in Committee was not of a general nature. It related to an individual landlord in Edinburgh who has repeatedly flouted the law and incurred the only possible maximum penalty of a £20 fine on each occasion. That man is exceptional. It would be unfortunate if some of the Draconian punishments suggested or implied in Committee, because of that individual's flagrant disregard of the law, were introduced into the Bill and could be imposed, if the sheriff desired, on many people. Imprisonment should be an exceptional form of punishment. For the individual concerned and anybody else who might feel inclined to repeat this type of activity, however, imprisonment should prove a sufficient deterrent. I welcome the amendment.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

I should like to assure my hon. Friend the Minister that the amendment will receive a warm welcome in Edinburgh.

The matter was discussed in Committee as a result of an amendment that I introduced because of experience in Edinburgh with a particularly incorrigible landlord and the frustration felt by the local authority when faced with a man who laughed at the law because the fine was too small to deter him from a practice which he still found profitable. I am pleased that the amendment goes beyond my original amendment and includes imprisonment, which will strengthen the penalty clauses.

The amendment also provides increased penalties for the repetition of an offence rather than a continuance of the same offence, in respect of which the only increased penalty is provided in existing law.

It gives me great satisfaction, which I am sure is shared by other hon. Members, that whatever else the Bill will achieve it will put an end to the evil business of John Dorward and save possible future victims falling into his hands. I do not think it will be necessary to enforce the penalties. I am convinced that when John Dorward reads the papers tomorrow and learns about the penalty clauses he will take immediate steps to wind up his business.

Mr. Millan

Nothing that is done here will affect the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Baxter). I am not happy about the idea of local authorities moving people from one condemned house to another. There is provision in Clause 27 for a local authority to maintain a house subject to demolition for temporary occupation. It is not a generally desirable practice but it is sometimes necessary. It will not be affected by the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 19, in page 30, line 26, at end insert: (aa) on the date of the passing of a final resolution under section 20 of this Act identifying a house in accordance with that section as read with section 18(4)(b) of this Act; (aaa) on the date of the rescinding of a draft resolution under the said section 20 '.—[Mr. Millan.]

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