HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc361-4

'Section 19(6) of the Housing Finance Act 1972 shall be amended by leaving out the words "let to him by the Crown Estate Commissioners", so that it reads "A person is also a private tenant if he occupies a dwelling and his tenancy would be a protected tenancy but for section 4 of the Rent Act 1968"'.—[Mr. Douglas-Mann.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

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

The object of this clause is to make rent allowances payable to tenants of the Crown and Government Departments. When I moved a similar new clause in Committee I did so under the mistaken impression that the provisions in the Housing Finance Act made rent allowances payable as of right to tenants of county councils, housing corporations, housing associations and housing trusts as well as tenants of private landlords, and that the omission of tenants of the Crown and Government Departments was an oversight.

My attention was drawn by the Minister to the fact that the then Minister of Housing Construction—in the early hours of the morning, I expect—had informed the Committee that the leaving out of tenants of the Crown and Government Departments was intentional. He said that assurances had been received from the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall that if a tenant could not afford the rent it would be appropriately adjusted. A similar assurance had been given on behalf of the Queen in relation to tenants on her private estates.

The Committee may reasonably have assumed, in the light of that assurance, that the Minister was intending to convey a similar assurance that the tenants of Government Departments would similarly receive the appropriate allowances. That did not happen or, if it did, it happened in such a complicated, slow and inefficient way that the great majority of tenants of Government Departments, even though they would be eligible for substantial rent allowances, did not receive them.

11.45 p.m.

To be fair, since my hon. Friend came into office the situation has substantially improved. Since our proceedings in Committee, I have had a letter from the Director of Housing of the London Borough of Merton, dated 7th January, saying: You will no doubt be interested to know that the South Eastern Road Construction Unit of the Department of the Environment have now come to life on the question of the rents that their tenants are paying and a supply of application forms has been sent to them to be used by their tenants for them to submit so that we can establish the level of abated rents appropriate to their tenancies. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that matter.

In Committee we got an assurance that from the end of the freeze a more satisfactory and effective scheme would be introduced to make sure that the tenants of Government Departments got their rent allowances. I still think that the rent allowances should be a statutory right and that the machinery to be used should be the same for private tenants as for other tenants covered by Section 19(5) of the 1972 Act so that there is not a considerable loss. We know that a number of private tenants, the tenants of housing associations, and so on, entitled to the allowances, did not get them because they got lost on the way. If we have a wholly separate machinery for the tenants of Government Departments, then even more will be lost.

I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that a scheme which will operate in the same way for the tenants of Government Departments will be introduced, not an ad hoc or voluntary scheme. The voluntary scheme is working better than was hoped, but it should operate in the same way as the statutory scheme. I hope that we shall have that assurance from the Minister.

Mr. Freeson

As this is such a nice debate and hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to be congratulating my hon. Friend and I on every speech, may I take this opportunity of congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) on raising this matter so that action may be taken as promptly as possible.

We have gone somewhat further than was suggested by my hon. Friend in his speech. Certainly matters have been improved and tightened up in the meantime. However, in pursuit of the general undertaking that I gave in Committee, the Civil Service Department is now taking action to implement that assurance and will introduce from the beginning of April a system of rent rebates for the tenants of Government Departments identical with that of the local authority for the area concerned. This will be achieved by asking the local authorities to process rebate application forms, and the Departments concerned will then reduce the rents by the amounts of the rebates so assessed. The cost of this processing will be reimbursed to the local authorities.

I hope that, after I have stated the position clearly and simply, my hon. Friend will accept that we are acting as he would wish us to act. It is true that, technically and legally, we are acting on a voluntary basis and not as required by law, but the effect for the tenants will be the same. I will make sure that tenants in this type of situation are fully informed about their rights under this voluntary arrangement as would be the situation were they tenants of local authority properties and, sadly I suppose, somewhat more effectively than if they were the tenants of private landlords and having to depend on general publicity material as distinct from the individual approach which a local authority can and does make and which the Civil Service Department will now be making from 1st April. In the meantime we shall do our best to ensure that, although things are done on an ad hoc basis, everyone who is entitled will benefit from the arrangements that we are making now, which will be finalised from 1st April.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I am delighted with that assurance, particularly the word "identical". In the light of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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