HC Deb 20 February 1976 vol 905 cc1666-762

Order for Second Reading read.

11.8 a.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

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

The purpose of the Bill is more homes and fewer homeless, and I hope that the House will help me to achieve that. It is a modest Bill, with limited scope and limited objectives, and I am sure that there is no need for it to detain the House anything like the whole of the day. I know that hon. Members wish to spend time discussing other Bills on the Order Paper.

I shall introduce the Bill as briefly as I can, consistent with giving the House a proper explanation. To help shorten the debate I shall try to anticipate a few of the criticisms and questions that may be raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) hopes to answer hon. Members' questions later.

Having come third in the Ballot I faced the temptation to strike a blow in the campaign for less legislation by not bringing in a Bill at all. Having resisted that temptation, I want to thank people all over the country who have written to me with helpful suggestions. For more direct help and patience I should like to thank the Minister for Housing and Construction who I am glad to see is in the Chamber, as well as the Under-Secretary and officials with whom I have had discussions. I also wish to thank the voluntary organisations, professional bodies and local authority associations that I have consulted, and colleagues, in all parties, particularly the co-sponsors of the Bill. I am sorry not to see the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) in his place. I understand that he has been ill and will not be able to be with us.

I believe that there is no part of public policy more vital for the well-being of our society than housing. Most of us in the Chamber are lucky enough to be reasonably well housed, but that puts all the more obligation upon us to keep housing among the highest priorities of Parliament. Through the Bill I want to do something practical that will bring help to as many thousands of people as possible. I know that this is difficult territory, and I ask the indulgence of hon. Members from both sides of the House who are more expert in these matters than myself.

My starting point was the plight of the homeless and the excellent work that has been done, including preparation of a draft Bill, by a number of four-letter organisations which are campaigning for the homeless—namely, CHAR, CPAG, PHAS, SHAC, Shelter and CHAS. Several hon. Members from all the main parties are working in close touch with those organisations under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) who alas is temporarily silenced as he is now a Whip. Having talked to those organisations and to the Government, I felt that the best contribution I could make would be to take some definite step to offer relief and encouragement to the homeless and to couple that with action to get more homes on the market to assist those who are homeless or poorly housed.

I stress that I have tried all along to avoid political controversy in the framing of the Bill. My co-sponsors include Liberal as well as Conservative colleagues. There is no Labour co-sponsor, but I quite understand that, because the Labour Members with whom I spoke were nervous about the precise changes that I would propose in the rented accommodation sector until they saw the Bill. I believe that there is a wide measure of support within the three main parties for most, if not all, the measures in the Bill.

To avoid misunderstanding or misrepresentation, I shall make clear what the Bill is not. It is not a shark's charter for unscrupulous landlords. It is not a coach and horses driving through the rent control and security of tenure structure. It is not an encouragement to squatters, and it is not an invitation to people to declare themselves homeless so as to jump the housing queue. The Bill is a package of practical proposals which together will bring more accommodation into use, will help a substantial number of single people and families, and will get more sense into the housing scene.

If I or other hon. Members try to turn this occasion into a debate on the whole housing scene I have no doubt that we shall be ruled out of order. However, I underline the need for maximum variety in housing. It is important to increase home ownership, but it is also important to cater for those who are not able or anxious to be home-owners. In addition to local authority housing, I believe that as many other forms of tenancy as possible should be made available.

Part I of the Bill deals with rented accommodation. I shall explain the main features, which will not be immediately apparent to those who pick up the Bill for the first time, in detail in a moment.

The House will remember that last November at a local government conference the Secretary of State for the Environment described the Rent Acts as an impenetrable jungle which can daunt the responsible as well as the irresponsible land-lord. I welcome very much the review of the Rent Acts which he then announced. The first of two important questions that I pose this morning concerns the time scale of the review. I understand that the review is already in progress. From what the Under-Secretary of State said last week on the "You and Yours" programme, he hopes to complete it around the middle of 1977. If that is so, I reckon that the earliest any amending legislation can come before the House will be during the 1977–78 Session. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm that, or bring my estimate up to date.

In the same speech the Secretary of State said that he wanted to ease the passing of the private rented sector. Much thought has been given to the sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea recently published a pamphlet covering that and a number of other interesting housing matters. My own Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensilngton (Sir B. Rhys Williams) has given much thought to these matters. My own feeling, based on my Cambridge constituency as well as elsewhere, is that in increasing security of tenure, which in itself is desirable, we have reached the point of diminishing availability. Deterrents to small landlords, including incidentally capital gains tax, are now formidable. This point was made recently in a booklet on homelessness produced by the National Youth Bureau. The point is made in resolutions that will be debated at the annual general meeting of the Women's Institutes.

In the past week or two I have had a sheaf of letters on this subject, and I have brought a selection. Some of them tell the most harrowing stories. It is no wonder that small landlords are more and more hesitant to let their accommodation. I shall quote from a letter from a widow in Hampstead, who in her time had four children, all of whom have long since left home. She writes: I own my flat…a lower maisonette of seven rooms. Now… I live alone and have rented some of the rooms…retaining two rooms with kitchen and bath for myself. I am 86 years old and suffer the usual ailments of old age plus a few special ones which completely incapacitate me periodically…when I get ill I have to go into hospital to get attention. It would be infinitely better if I could have that care in my own home. If I could regain the use of two rooms I could get that care either from a member of the family or some domestic help. My solicitor says that I cannot get rid of the two single men who occupy the two rooms I need… If I could have those rooms either my widowed daughter and grand-daughter could come to live with me or I could employ domestic help living in. This is a vital problem for me. At 86 I have not all that long to look forward, and the remaining years can be made less lonely and I can give up hospitals and have the essential care in my own home…". With the best intentions we seem to have pushed provisions for security of tenure to an excessive degree. It was estimated in the "You and Yours" programme on Wednesday of last week, in which the Under-Secretary of State took part, that about 600,000 homes are now off the market because of hesitancy by small landlords.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

The hon. Gentleman has given an example which is difficult to understand. Presumably in the example of the resident landlord unable to recover possession the tenancy was granted before the Labour Government's Rent Act 1974, because a resident landlord's tenancy granted after that Act would not have been secure. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that that is so and that the changes made by the Government have increased the opportunity of ladies in the situation he has described? Further, can he explain why the lady has not been able to obtain possession under the provisions of the Rent Act which, in certain circumstances, enable people to recover possession even against unfurnished tenants in the sort of situation which he has described?

Mr. Lane

I am grateful for the chance to clarify the matter. I have not had the opportunity of obtaining more details. It could work both ways under the 1974 Act. It might be that after the first fixed term tenancy the lady granted a second fixed-term tenancy which attracted full security. My Bill will deal with that situation. Perhaps we can consider the matter in more detail later.

We have the absurd position in which some landlords are fearful of offering accommodation, although thousands of tenants are desperate for accommodation, and too often the twain never meet. Therefore, the aim should be, if not to reverse the decline in rented accommodation, at least to arrest it. Clearly it would be unrealistic to attempt to make major changes in the rent legislation ahead of the Government's review, but it would be feeble to do nothing in the meantime. Therefore, after talking to the Minister and his advisers, I have tried to put together in Part I of the Bill a package of minor amendments of the Rent Acts which will ensure better use of the housing stock without undermining the general structure of rent control and security of tenure.

Broadly speaking, in consequence of the Rent Act 1974, the applicability of the full security of tenure provisions depends no longer on whether the property is furnished or unfurnished but on whether it is shared between landlord and tenant. It was recognised in that Act that full security of tenure was not appropriate for shared accommodation. During the Second Reading debate on the Rent Bill, the Minister for Housing and Construction said that providing full security could only aggravate the problem of under-occupation already prevalent in owner-occupied dwellings and dwellings let on protected vacancies."—[Official Report, 8th July 1974; Vol. 876. c. 1026–7.] However, experience has shown that this is not sufficient encouragement to resident landlords to let their spare accommodation. Therefore, Clause 1 aims to increase that encouragement and, as it is closely akin to Clause 2, which deals with business premises, I hope that the House will allow me to illustrate it by the situation of two imaginary Cambridge constituents, Mr. Gog and his cousin, Mr. Magog.

Mr. Gog lives in a medium-sized house, and he has a vacant top floor flat which he would like to let. At present it is let for a fixed-period tenancy—say, a year—with no provision for the extension of security, which is in accordance with the Act, but any subsequent fixed-period letting to the same tenant would attract full security. Mr. Gog, however well he is getting on with his present tenant, may very likely get rid of him, evict him, at the end of the year, because he cannot be sure of what would happen after that.

The purpose of Clause I is to ensure that any subsequent fixed-period tenancies will be on exactly the same basis as the first fixed-period tenancy—I am talking here of shared accommodation—without attracting full security of tenure. This will increase the occupancy rate of the flat over as many years as Mr. Gog wishes to let it.

Clause 2, dealing with business premises, is particularly directed at the problem of flats over shops. This week I had a letter from someone in Streatham who wrote: Out of 12 shops in our local parade, four have accommodation in their upper parts which is left empty. Returning to Cambridge, the cousin, Mr. Magog, owns and runs a shop round the corner and the flat above is not needed at present either for him or for any of his employees but it may be needed in a year or two. Mr. Magog is afraid to let it because the tenant would get full security under the present law, and therefore the flat remains empty and wasted.

The intention of Clause 2 is to add that situation to the other special circumstances in which the 1974 Act allowed lettings without full security. In future, therefore, Mr. Magog, provided he gives notice at the time of letting that he may want the flat back, can let it for periods without fear of being unable to regain possession.

Clause 3 has to do with student lettings, which are a serious problem in many towns and cities. My example concerns Mr. and Mrs. Grantchester to whom a relative recently left a small house in Cambridge. They do not need it themselves for the moment and would prefer to let it furnished to students for whom it would be ideal accommodation, but they have decided not to do so because of the risk that a student might seek to remain indefinitely, with the statutory protection that he has. By Clause 3 I would encourage Mr. and Mrs. Grantchester to go ahead and let because if their house were to be entered on an approved register of student accommodation provided for under the Bill, students would no longer enjoy full security, just as they do not enjoy it if they are living in a college or hall of residence.

The Government proposed to take action on this matter, but they have had second thoughts. I realise that there are differences of view about it. Some people feel that any gain in making available more accommodation for students would be more than outweighed by the consequent drying up of accommodation for other people in similar or even greater need. But—and this is why I have included the provision in the Bill—it is right that the House should review the student situation, because it is nearly two years since we debated the 1974 legislation. If I am persuaded that on balance this would be an unwise provision, I shall be willing to withdraw it in Committee.

Clause 4 has to do with letting via local authorities as intermediaries. I illustrate the point by the case of Miss Trumpington, a middle-aged lady pursuing a career but who has had to give up work and move to Essex to live with and look after her invalid parents. Meantime, she has a flat in Cambridge. She would like to let it until she is able to occupy it again, and she has heard of a short-term letting scheme which has been successful elsewhere, particularly in North Wiltshire, under which the landlord or landlady lets to a local authority which, in turn, sublets to a tenant, possibly someone on the local authority's housing list. Normally the landlord has no fear of being unable to get the flat back when he needs it.

Hon. Members may have seen the letter published in The Times on 9th February from the Chairman of the North Wiltshire District Council pointing out the advantages of the scheme in terms not only of public funds but of human happiness compared with, for example, bed and breakfast accommodation. The scheme has the support of the Association of District Councils and of Shelter. I believe that the Government are well disposed to it, subject to the review being carried out by Sir Dennis Pilcher.

Miss Trumpington, however, has heard of a possible snag which is making her hesitate, namely, that if for any reason the local authority drops out before the end of the tenancy the landlady may find herself with a tenant in a direct relationship with her who is fully protected. There may be doubt about the interpretation of the legislation, but that is my understanding of it. Clause 4 would remove this possible snag so that Mrs. Trumpington could let her flat without worry instead of leaving it empty.

Clause 5 is intended to encourage council tenants who wish to sublet rooms. My constituents Mr. and Mrs. Chesterton, who can be paralleled in the constituencies of nearly every hon. Member, live in a sizeable council house, their children have left home and they have rooms to spare. The Government encourage this sort of subletting, but some councils frown on it. Clause 5 provides that the consent of a council should not be unreasonably withheld in these circumstances. This would help to increase the supply of rooms, particularly for single working people.

These are the five ingredients I have chosen for my package with the aim of increasing rented accommodation. I look forward to discussing the details in Committee. If the Government are doubtful whether any or all of them will work out as I expect, let us at least give them a try. Before the Government review is finalised, we shall be able to judge the effect of these minor changes and, if necessary, they can be amended in later legislation.

Part II of the Bill deals more directly with homelessness. All hon. Members are aware of this heart-rending feature of the contemporary scene and many will have read the fine speech by Lord Soper in another place in June last year.

Homelessness is a problem in Cambridge as in most other cities. Last year nearly 50,000 homeless families applied for help to local authorities in England and Wales, and in an Adjournment debate just before Christmas, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea reckoned there might be 100,000 single homeless people all over the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and other hon. Members have urged that a Select Committee should be set up to investigate the plight of single homeless people.

At least half our homeless people are in London. I hope that we can all join in paying tribute to those who help to tackle this problem, whether local authorities, voluntary bodies or individuals. However, further action is now overdue. The Conservative Government published its circular on homelessness in February 1974. It was fathered by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who I am glad to see here today. The present Government produced a consultative document in April last year and the Minister made a policy statement in the middle of December.

A patchy picture has emerged. The intention of both Governments was that the primary responsibility for helping the homeless should rest with housing authorities and not with social service authorities. It has been evident that a number of these authorities have not been fully carrying out their responsibilities as the Government intended. There have been too many cases of the buck being passed from one to another. In order to clear up the confusion, the Government have decided that wide-ranging legislation is necessary, and consultations are to take place.

Can the Minister spell out plainly this Government commitment? Is there to be a Bill, as I would hope, this Session? If not, could it at least be ready as a priority measure at the start of the next Session? How early in 1977—and this is the crucial point—do the Government hope to get the Bill into force?

It is not practical for me as a private Member to attempt such wide-ranging legislation as the Government have in mind In my talks with voluntary bodies, local authorities and the Government. I sought agreed grounds for immediate action as the beginning of a legislative charter for the homeless. The result is Part II of the Bill which follows very closely the recommendations of the circular and the consultative document issued by successive Governments.

Under Clause 6, primary responsibility for the accommodation of homeless people is put on housing authorities where these are different from social service authorities. We must put that responsibility firmly on these authorities and give them no chance of dodging it so that homeless people will no longer suffer their current frustrations. However, the duty must not be so broad that the door is open to large numbers of non-genuine homeless. We must be fair to the many people on council waiting lists. We must also see that the legislation will work fairly between different local authorities.

The wording of this clause will need particularly careful study in Committee. We have to bear in mind the problems of those local authorities whose areas include airports and railway termini and the authorities covering holiday resorts. Judging from the reactions of voluntary bodies and one or two local authority associations, it is possible that the use of the word "assist" in the clause may not be ideal, and that will have to be considered in Committee.

Clause 7 sets out the preference for certain groups of homeless people and follows closely the 1974 circular but adds young people to the categories of those especially vulnerable. There must be a balance between young people, families and others who are homeless, but single people often find the greatest difficulty in getting accommodation. I intend that this new statutory duty, giving priority to these groups should be as strong as the circular intended. If the wording does not secure that objective, we can look at it in Committee, together with the precise rôle of the Secretary of State or whether he needs to have a rôle at all.

Clause 8 deals with the co-operative use of local government services. I have tried to base it on the documents of successive Governments and to put into the Bill their concept of a combined operation by local government on behalf of the homeless. I do not know whether the balance between housing authorities and social service authorities is right and to seek collaboration is not necessarily to find it. There is also a problem of ensuring the fullest co-operation from other housing authorities. These are all important Committee points.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Member again, but this is an important point. He has not included any default powers in his Bill. As this was one of the criticisms of the Bill made by the voluntary organisations to which he has referred, why did he not include these powers and would he be prepared to accept their inclusion in Committee?

Mr. Lane

I would not necessarily accept them in Committee. I have deliberately left them out because the issue needs more thought than I have been able to give it. The sheer declaratory effect of what is put in the Bill will be helpful, but we can discuss this matter in Committee.

Clause 9 re-emphasises what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) is particularly concerned to ensure—that single homeless people are included in this legislative charter.

I realise that these declaratory provisions are only a small step, but it is necessary to give some help and encouragement to the homeless now. The Government may think the Bill is pointless at the present time. If so, I shall be perfectly happy if it is absorbed or amended into the eventual Government Bill.

I am not wedded to all the details of my Bill. I am open to persuasion and to amendment of the Bill in Committee and to the addition of other ingredients to the package. I hope that the Government will not take a negative, stick-in-the-mud attitude. I have the greatest personal respect for the Under-Secretary of State. From my meetings and correspondence with Ministers I realise that they have a distaste for piecemeal legislation. They have fears that what I am proposing may prejudge or prejudice the Government's two major exercises. I have, however, met most of their misgivings; I have confined the Bill to a few practical steps; and I have largely kept off controversial ground. There is also a positive advantage to them in letting the Bill go through to Committee, because the discussions in Committee will help the Government in their review of the Rent Acts and in constructing their own Bill on the homeless. If we were not to get the Bill in Committee that would mean that Members of Parliament would be excluded from the two major exercises which would then go on in the secrecy of Whitehall.

I remind the Under-Secretary of State of some wise words spoken by his colleague the Solicitor-General when, exactly two weeks ago, he was giving the Government's blessing to the Congenital Disabilities (Civil Liability) Bill, which is surely more controversial than mine. He said: This is a modest Bill… It is of limited application and is possibly for a limited period. But it is by such pragmatic steps that Parliament and the courts have sought always to ensure that our legal system best serves the needs of the public."—[Official Report, 6th February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 1468.] Surely, what is true of the legal system should be equally true of our housing policy.

From the public angle it is wrong for Parliament to do nothing now and to be frozen into total inactivity just because the Government have promised action in due course. What will our constituents think if the House cannot nerve itself to take even these few small steps? By choosing this subject for my Bill I have provided an opportunity for Parliament and Government to join in practical action now that will improve the housing situation. Let us grasp this opportunity. Let us move even this limited distance forward, and give new hope to thousands of people who are desperate for homes.

In this spirit I commend my Bill to the House.

11.42 a.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) is well intentioned in the legislation he desires to promote, and I congratulate him on the manner in which he presented the Bill. In my view, however, it is based upon a false premise. As a good Socialist I believe in the freedom of the individual untrammelled as far as possible by the State, but that freedom, if it conflicts with the best interests of the majority, must necessarily be limited in its application.

The hon. Gentleman several times protested that the Bill was a modest one which made only small alterations. That reminds me of the maid who, after giving birth to an illegitimate child, protested that it was only a small one. The false premise upon which the Bill is based is that the more there is a free market in the provision of housing, the better will be the position.

At the beginning of the 1914 war, because of economic conditions and the need to protect tenants and their tenancies, it was recognised that severe limits must be put upon the free market and that housing control must be imposed by statute. The Liberal Government enacted the first Rent Act which established control and security of tenure and limited the amount by which rents could be increased beyond the so-called "standard rent". In the years that followed, every Government—Liberal, Coalition, Conservative and Labour—recognised that fact and enacted Rent Acts imposing and varying control and the right to possession but always recognising the need for control. Over the years there has grown up the labyrinth of Rent Acts, complex in their provisions and difficult for the layman, the lawyer and the courts to construe, resulting sometimes in contradictory decisions.

I remember when I was a young barrister how the county court lists were full of causes under the various Rent Acts. I appeared for landlords who claimed possession or the payment of increased rents and for tenants resisting such claims. Confusion prevailed. Perhaps—here I agree with the hon. Gentleman—the most sensible reform that the Government could bring about would be as soon as possible to put the provisions of all these Acts into one Rent Act which could be more readily comprehensible to ordinary men and easier for lawyers to construe and the courts to pronounce upon. Loopholes could be closed.

Indeed, loopholes have already arisen under the latest 1974 Act. Landlords are still able to charge exorbitant rents. Bogus "bed and breakfast" accommodation and so-called "holiday lettings" are arranged. A veritable jungle of legislation urgently awaits replacement by a clear enactment. This Bill does not—it could not—seek to do that. One has only to look at the wording of the various clauses referring to the Rent Acts of 1968 and 1974 to see how it adds to the confusion. If enacted, the Bill would only add to the already existing confusion.

However much the hon. Gentleman may protest that the Bill is a modest one, it is an endeavour to remove some of the present controls and try to restore to some extent a free market. The Conservative Government endeavoured to do that by the Act of 1957 which removed a measure of control. It had disastrous results. It was an iniquitous Act which caused a great deal of distress. It permitted disgraceful acts by landlords—so-called Rachmanism—and led to people being driven out of the rented sector. Its provisions had to be rescinded. It proved that the idea that the removel of control and return to the free market would assist the housing problem was fallacious, and that in conditions of scarcity in housing and economic hardship it was fatal to embark upon such a policy.

There is no evidence that the Rent Acts dried up the market. Indeed, the contrary is true. The hon. Gentleman referred to letters which he had received. There may be individual cases of hardship on the part of landlords but one has to take the general picture. Owner-occupation has increased and there has been increased provision of rented property by local authorities and housing associations. In 1975, 200,000 new units were provided by new building and conversion.

The hon. Gentleman said that the 1974 Act had given security of tenure to occupiers of furnished tenancies. The Report of the Shelter Housing Aid Centre for 1974–75 said that it was a welcome reform which had brought a measure of security to a group of citizens who were previously denied that right. The Report went on to say that Shelter was strongly opposed to any attempt to reduce or withdraw security of tenure in the interests of stimulating letting in the private sector.

The first four clauses of the Bill, however modestly they are put, seek to remove security in certain cases in the hope that such lettings will be stimulated. In so far as they seek to remove such protection, they would result in injustice. A particularly petty example is provided in Clause 3, which seeks to deny to students the protection of the 1974 Act, yet there is no evidence that such lettings are the cause of any housing shortage.

Clause 5 is quite extraordinary because it seeks to confer on the tenant of a local authority the right to sublet even though it is forbidden by that local authority. It specifies that permission must not be withheld by the authority "unreasonably". What does that mean? How is the court to interpret what is reasonable? If it is the policy of a council not to allow subletting, can a court pronounce that that is unreasonable? Does it mean that a local authority with a heavy housing list might well be precluded from dealing with persons on that list on a points system, or in a manner it has adopted as just, and that persons who have become subtenants can jump the queue? And, of course, such people would hold their sub-tenancies not from the local authority but from the tenant as a landlord. So much for Part I of the Bill.

Part II is headed Responsibility of Local Authorities for Accommodation of the Homeless. There is already a responsibility on local authorities, under the National Assistance Act, to provide accommodation for homeless people. We all recognise the tremendous problems raised by the homeless and the need for urgent action. But what does Part II do? It declares a duty on the part of local authorities to assist the homeless in securing accommodation. We would all like that to be done, but how is it to be done? Merely to assert that there should be such a duty does not seem to me to help. Moreover, the doubtful duty would be put upon local authorities to assist such persons whether or not those persons are ordinarily resident in the area of that authority. Clause 6 begins with the words Where persons have lost their homes…". What does that mean? There is no definition of "homes". How does one determine whether persons are likely to lose their homes in the next 30 days? Is it restricted to where they do so as the result of a court order? On the face of it, the clause is far too vague and might well be difficult to construe.

The truth is that the urgent problem of assisting the homeless is not one to be dealt with in a Private Member's Bill but one that must be tackled by the Government. As I understand it, the Government have undertaken to legislate after consultation with the local authorities and the voluntary bodies concerned. By all means let there be a statutory responsibility on local authorities for the accommodation of homeless people, but it will be effected not by a declamatory statement, as in the Bill, but by consultation followed by legislation which would enact the practical steps to be taken to achieve that purpose.

I understand that such consultations have already been arranged. I hope that they will be concluded satisfactorily and will result in the necessary legislation in the near future. This Bill means well, but, as I have said, it is based on a false premise. I cannot support it, but I pay tribute to the hon. Member for enabling the House to express its views on the urgent and often tragic problem of the homeless.

11.55 a.m.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

I take a different view from that of the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on producing a modest Bill but one which I believe would improve rather than make worse the housing situation. The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is wrong in saying that the Bill is based upon a false premise. The aim is to make provision for more homes for letting, in a modest way, and to define the responsibilities of local authorities for providing accommodation for homeless people. I would have thought that there was a great deal of common ground between both sides of the House on that issue.

Surely we would all agree that much the worst housing problem and the most difficult is trying to help the homeless to get accommodation. We all know the long-term answer—indeed, that there is none short of building more housing, improving more inadequate houses, and enabling more houses and flats which are now standing empty to come on to the market. There is no other long-term way in which to help the homeless.

It is an appalling paradox that, at a time when the population of London is falling, the number of homeless is still disgracefully high. At a time when not only is the population falling but the birth rate is slowing down, the number of homeless in our big cities is increasing. This, I believe, is caused largely by the fact that people leave home earlier and live longer, with the result that we now have far more single-person family units, either of young people at the beginning of their adult life or of older people now on their own. Thus, the increase in the requirement for single-person accommodation in the big cities is a large factor and is one of the causes of the increased homelessness which has come about despite the increased number of houses and flats provided by successive Governments over the years.

Another major reason for increased homelessness is the decline in the rented market in the private sector. This decline has been going on over the past 60 years in a most dramatic way. The future of the private rented sector is of acute controversy between the Conservative and Labour parties. As I understand it, the Government take the view that the days of the private landlord are numbered, but even so the Secretary of State for the Environment believes that one should ease the process in the meantime. On the whole, I believe, as others on this side of the House believe, that we could achieve the arrest of the decline of the private rented sector, although not necessarily a reversal.

I believe that the greatest single factor in arresting the decline in the private rented sector would be if some measure of common ground could be found between the two parties as to future action. That may or not prove possible—I suspect that it will not, because housing arouses acute controversy and there are different emphases of political view between us. But if it could be done, if we could achieve some long-term agreement about the future of the rented sector, it would be the biggest single factor for good in the private rented sector. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that he is carrying out a wide-ranging review of the rent Acts. This is extremely important, and I strongly support him in doing so.

I believe that we should continue in the future—this should be common ground—to try to achieve in the private rented sector a reasonable rent for the landlord and security for the tenant. That should be the basis on which the overwhelming majority of the private sector should be governed.

At the moment many small landlords believe that the scale is weighted most strongly against them. The rate of return is ludicrously low, as hon. Members know. It is also true—I have had many cases brought to my attention—that, even when small landlords are within their rights and legally entitled to get tenants out on the grounds listed in the Rent Acts, they find it extremely difficult to do so. It is very time wasting and expensive.

Stories of this kind lead to the drying up of the rented sector. I have no figures of the decline in that sector and can only give the Minister—my successor—my subjective view about my own constituency, in an area in which there has traditionally been a great deal of private letting and renting. There is no doubt that the situation in that area has become much more difficult in the past 18 months, since the passage of the Govern-men's measure. The Minister may argue that that is not necessarily cause and effect, but certainly the people who come to see me think it is, and in my own constituency I have met many small landlords who have taken their decision, rightly or wrongly, as a result of the Government's Rent Act.

As a member of the last Conservative Government, my view was that there was very great danger in extending security of tenure to the furnished sector in the way that this Government have done it. But I accept—this again should be a basis for agreement—that once security has been given, one cannot remove it. Now that it has happened I do not advocate change.

The Bill seeks to make a modest start in unfreezing the rented market with a limited section of new tenancies. I believe that the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington was wrong in saying that the Bill is based on a false premise. It does nothing whatever to hurt or remove security of tenure from anyone with a tenancy at the present time. It would merely allow, in a modest way, in the specific fields described—and without endangering anyone's existing rights—a small, modest category of people in new tenancies to be exempted from the Rent Acts.

I should not have thought it would prejudice the major review of the Rent Act which is proceeding at the present time. Anything that can decrease the number of flats remaining empty at the present time ought to be welcome to both sides of the House.

On Part II of the Bill, I strongly support the view that the responsibility for accommodation of the homeless should rest with local authorities. At the same time, there is no point in imposing extra burdens and duties on local authorities which already have serious housing problems with which they cannot effectively cope. That would be quite unrealistic.

The purpose of the circular of February 1974—to which reference has been made and in which I had some hand—was to try to use the combined resources of local authorities and increase the rôle of housing authorities in tackling the problem of the homeless. There was some misunderstanding about the statutory position resulting from the change in law in 1972. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi)—who I am glad to see on the Front Bench—cleared up that position at the time, I think, and a direction was made by the Secretary of State for Social Services leaving the duty on local authorities to carry out their housing responsibilities for the homeless as before. It has been recognised by the present Secretary of State for Social Services that it made no difference to the statutory responsibilities of local authorities.

I well remember giving an undertaking at that time, when there was a lot of misunderstanding, to review the matter if any difficulties had been caused. In the light of the consultation document sent out by the present Government, and the reactions to it, I believe it is now right to place a new duty on local authorities in this respect. I do not agree with default powers. In certain cases it would be quite impossible for local authorities to carry out their duties if a default order were served on them.

In practice, even outside the big towns—I can quote the case of my own constituency—homelessness is still a very serious matter. In Essex, in the past year or so, unfortunately, there has been a very sharp increase in homelessness, and I expect that the same is true of many other parts of the country. More than in the past, this is due. I understand, to default on mortgages, among other causes.

I am sure that we all agree that it is essential for local authorities to work together in tackling the problem of homelessness. In my own constituency recently a scandalous situation arose—not, I believe, as a result of malice—in which one local authority in Essex sent several homeless families into bed-and-breakfast accommodation in my constituency, in disgracefully poor conditions. One family was living in a garage, and others also living in disgraceful conditions. These families were living in my constituency in this way without the knowledge of my own local authority and without the premises having been inspected first by those who sent the families there.

There needs to be far more co-ordination between local authorities. If bed-and-breakfast accommodation is to be used—I agree with the Government's view that it should be the last resort—it is essential that it should be inspected by the authority sending people to that accommodation. I hope that in the Government's review of homelessness—and if there is to be a wider Bill—that point will be taken on board. I also hope that there will be some agreement between local authorities, not only on a county basis—agreement has been achieved in Essex—but on a national basis. on how to deal with homeless people, on what is to be done about residential qualifications, and on whose responsibility it is to house homeless people. Very difficult circumstances can arise. The immediate need is for the authority in whose area the people are at the time to take immediate action to stop people being on the streets that night. Nevertheless, the prime responsibility for some homeless people may well lie with another local authority. The problem can be solved only by the local authorities themselves, acting together.

I believe also that further good could come from an even greater expansion of either local authority or other housing advisory centres, which, in happier times—when there were not the same economic difficulties as we have today—frequently helped to solve some of the housing problems of people using such centres. I believe it is right that there should be this statutory duty, and that it is also right that these modest steps should be taken, as outlined in the Bill. They will hurt no one who is a tenant at the present time, and this will provide for some modest unfreezing of the very difficult private rented situation.

I appreciate the temptations of Ministers who are engaged in reviews and who have legislation in mind for the future. I have been in that position myself. The easy way out is always to try to block anything when one's own magnificent Bill is coming along in two or three years' time. That is very understandable and tempting. I hope, nevertheless, that the Government will not take that view today. I do not believe that the Bill would hurt their later efforts. It would be a modest but real step forward in helping homeless people.

I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, so that these detailed, complicated and difficult issues can be argued fully in Committee and we can take a modest and useful step in tackling this very difficult problem.

12.9 p.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

It is a pleasure to speak following the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). As a Member with one of the largest housing problems, I recall with a good deal of gratitude the fact that when the hon. Member for Southend, West was with the Ministry my representations were always met with a good deal of understanding and courtesy.

I shall have to express a number of differences with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), but at least I want to start in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.

The hon. Member for Southend, West has peculiar problems in his constituency. It is a fine seaside resort for many Londoners. In terms of short-term tenancies, the hon. Gentleman has problems other than those sought to be dealt with in the Bill. However, in his contribution he made it clear that he was not confusing the issues involved.

I might say, incidentally, that, not unusually, I find that many of the matters in the hon. Gentleman's speech which I should like to pick up are already contained in what I have in mind to say later in my own remarks. However, let me draw attention to two of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. The first is the need for more co-ordination between neighbouring local authorities with regard to the homeless. I hope to make a few more comments about that, because it is a matter of extreme importance.

Secondly, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's commendation of the more extended use of housing aid centres for advice. This Bill covers only a small section of the housing problem. Often, the facilities of a local authority are stretched to the limit in dealing with housing problems such as letting, the security of tenure, and homelessness. A single department of the local authority cannot cope with them all, but in most cases the advice of a housing aid centre can cover the lot. I am proud to say that in my own constituency we are served by a housing aid centre, at Robert Owen House, which is able to do a great deal to solve many security of tenure and other problems. In many cases the solution for young families may be to move out of my area altogether, possibly to a new town.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge—and I assure him that I do so without any personal envy, despite the fact that my own name has been in the hat for motions and Bills on about 200 occasions and I have not managed to get one in 16 years. In view of my recent proximity to the Front Bench in another incarnation, I hope that I shall be able to exert a little "fluence" in the future, in accordance with techniques which are outlined in a book called "Supernature", to see that my name comes out of the hat.

The House is aware that on this rather tricky and difficult problem of the landlord and tenant relationship, no Opposition Member would be more likely to introduce a measure with such a large degree of compassion and humanity than the hon. Member for Cambridge. I say that because when he served in the Home Office hon. Members who had occasion to take their problems to him found him always sympathetic and understanding. Therefore, if I criticise his Bill, I want to make it clear that I am criticising its content, though I congratulate the hon. Member on his choice of subject and the way in which he presented it to the House. He does not claim that his Bill deals with all the problems. He is more concerned to present a logical case covering quite a narrow area.

I liked the hon. Gentleman's comment that this was not a shark's charter. When I first came to this House, the sharks were nibbling. "Jaws" at that time was associated with Rachman. As successive housing legislation passes through the House, what may be a good intention and what may have no desire to be a shark's charter is found to contain loop-holes which enable some very big fish to make a killing. When I first came to this House, together with the late Ben Parkin, who was the Member for Paddington at the time, I made speech after speech about the evils of Rachmanism, only to find that no one listened. Willesden and Paddington are neighbours. Two years later, because of a change in the political climate, when we made precisely the same speeches we were listened to, and at last some action was taken.

Although I accept that this is not a sharks' charter, inevitably we must approach those provisions in the Bill which are designed to help the small landlord in terms of how it will help the large landlord. Time after time in this House I have heard a logical argument based upon what we on the Government side call the "widows and orphans". There is always a case to be made for the small person, but legislation can catch different people whom it has no intention of catching. It may be that when we seek to remove an anomaly, although we start off with a small landlord, behind him comes the property company. The result is that the hole in the dyke—the hole that we have made to solve the anomaly—often allows in a flood of others. I examine the Bill with that in mind.

Earlier this morning the hon. Member for Cambridge referred to Gog and Magog. I am rather agog at some of the provisions in the Bill. To illustrate that, perhaps I may refer to some of my own housing problems. I look immediately at Clause 2 of the Bill and at the tied cottage situation, which was so well described by the examples given by the hon. Member for Cambridge of the way in which that situation can be affected by the clause.

My own constituency is highly industrialised, but one feature that has emerged is that it is quite possible to take a number of very sharp profitable actions by having an employee in a flat above a factory or a shop. By first putting in a tenant as an employee, and then sacking him and getting him out, quite a profit can be made, in terms of changes in rents. This is a much wider problem than Clause 2 covers, of course, but it is a situation that concerns me very much, and I shall listen with interest to what is said from both Front Benches about it.

If the Bill reaches the Committee stage, I hope that the clause will be extended to enable some of the lovely houses at present used for business premises, in areas like Westminster, to be returned for use as residential accommodation. Within a quarter of a mile of the Palace of Westminster it is possible to see many former residential premises which are now used as offices, and this at a time when we hear of huge office blocks with thousands of square feet of empty accommodation. If the Bill goes to Committee, I look forward to an amendment or at the very least to a discussion of Clause 2, with a view to beginning the restoration of residential houses which in the past 25 or 30 years have been turned into offices.

This is important not only from the point of view of relieving homelessness but for the mix of an area. We have the classic case of the City of London, in which there is very little residential accommodation. It is all offices. We all know of various city centres which are inhabited only by cats and caretakers after 6 o'clock at night. Under the provisions of Clause 2, I hope that we shall be able to look at this problem from the point of view both of a good mix in a community and of the most effective use of space. If it is possible to let accommodation to families for residential purposes and shift offices to places geared for office accommodation, obviously it is a good move.

In my view Clause 3, in spite of the protestations of the hon. Member for Cambridge, is totally bad. Halls of residence in universities are already covered. The clause as drafted opens wide the possibility of exploitation by private land-lords. A property may be owned by a property company or a landlord but if, for example, there were a student register and the administration were greedy, there could be a good deal of exploitation. Moreover, even if the administration were benevolent the matter might still need to be looked at again. Indeed, even if the administration were benevolent the whole question of fairness as between the student applicant with housing need and other applicants would become relevant. I should like to see a wider approach and I am inclined to reject this clause completely.

The House will know I am a Co-operative Member. I am keen on housing co-operatives as a means of making some impact upon the problems with which the Bill seeks to deal. I believe that the provisions of Clause 3, which concerns in particular, single persons and students might be replaced by provisions which encourage housing co-operatives. If that is so, in Committee we might try to make some changes to secure that end. I have an interest in this connection, because in my constituency there is a need for residences to let for single persons and students. However, there is an eyesore on the North Circular Road. It has existed for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament. The eyesore is called the Twyford Tip and for decades has been the dumping ground for refuse disposal. Obviously, because of the North Circular Road and the adjacent railway, that area is unsuitable for general family residential development. However, there is a great deal of scope for a student co-operative or a single persons' co-operative. I am delighted that my local borough, the London borough of Brent, has now put forward a proposition along those lines to its development committee. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend in the Ministry has taken a keen interest in this matter. I hope that such proposals will be implemented.

I am anxious that we should take all single persons into consideration and not only students. In this connection, my local authority is ensuring that with all new developments and improvement schemes there is an adequate mix between old and young, and families and single people. Therefore, it is ensuring that there will be a proportionate amount of accommodation reserved for single people.

All hon. Members have had their concern sharpened by the "Cathy come Home" incidents over the past half a dozen years, as well as other problems of homelessness. All hon. Members have been in touch with and needed to work with their local authorities about these matters.

Clause 6 concerns homelessness. I agree that we must clarify where the responsibility rests. The London borough of Brent deals between 600 and 700 homeless families a year. Until recently it was spending £250,000 per year on bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It has now been able to abandon that expenditure. It has now between five and 10 families on bed and breakfast whereas previously it had as many as 100 families per week. It is possible to use short-life property awaiting development to assist in solving the problem, and this is what my borough is doing.

I presume that the part of the Bill which deals with homelessness will be considerably strengthened in Committee. I hope we shall consider the legal provisions which may be needed to facilitate the way in which local authorities are able to use existing properties to deal with homelessness. Hon. Members who represent London constituencies have real problems in this regard.

The observations of the hon. Member for Southend, West were mainly relevant to London. In London there are 32 authorities and a Greater London Council Housing Authority. We must establish where the buck stops in the case of homeless families. We must decide the boundaries in which a homeless family is to find accommodation. My own borough is extremely compassionate. It has a fine record. I have already said that we had between 600 and 700 families a year whom we looked after on bed-and-breakfast terms. However, because we had such a policy for a short period of time we became a magnet.

I pay tribute to the London Boroughs Association, which has reached agreements which work out admirably the responsibility and the practical arrangements between one borough and another concerning the homeless. It has now achieved a modus vivendi between housing administrations which avoids awkward families being dumped by one borough into another. I also pay tribute to the Greater London Council Housing Authority, which has now taken a major share of the responsibility for homeless people. Moreover, it has been able to reach some measure of accord with the local authorities, which has had very practical results.

The hon. Member for Southend, West was right to point out that although we have been able to secure a measure of agreement within the area of the GLC, we must remember that it is even more important for the liaison between local authorities throughout the country to be improved. People coming from Glasgow arrive in Euston and immediately come within the precincts of London. What is commonly assumed to be good in London should be extended not only to Essex but to Scotland and elsewhere. In that way we shall have common ground for all local housing authorities. Those are the type of arrangements which we should seek to promote in the Bill. The problem should be dealt with on a more universal basis. We cannot afford to have some good and compassionate areas and others that could not care less about the homeless people in their midst.

I should like to draw hon. Members' attention to the special problem of homelessness in London as it affects people from overseas. I pay a tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Home Office, who has recently had consultations with housing authorities and has specifically discussed the problem with the leader of the London borough of Brent Council, Alderman P. Hartley. I do not know whether this matter can be dealt with in this Bill, but it must be approached on a wider basis.

The problem arises when relatives from overseas arrive in this country and settle with families already firmly established. With this further intake the property becomes overcrowded. After a few days the problem of homelessness becomes the responsibility of the local authority within whose boundaries the house is situated. It becomes its responsibility merely because, in the first instance, the relatives happened to settle in that area. I believe that this problem should not be regarded as a local one but should be approached on a national basis. It may be that in Committee we can put forward some proposals to co-ordinate the position and to highlight the problem, in the hope of securing a national solution from the Government.

The major social problem in my constituency is housing. The second major problem is housing. The third major problem is housing. Many of the other problems, concerning education, social service provision, health, and delinquency, which leads to some of my constituents being accommodated in the neighbouring penitentiary of Wormwood Scrubs, would be solved if I could solve my main problem of housing.

The House is grateful for the opportunity of being able to discuss this problem, which, in spite of the best endeavours of Supply Days and Government legislation, we often do not get enough time to examine.

I believe that the hon. Member for Southend, West was not right in his view of the amount of time that has elapsed since the 1974 Act became law. These matters may well need a little more digestion before a fresh Act goes on to the statute book. The problems that the Act is seeking to deal with certainly need to be resolved, and if the Act is unsuccessful in reaching its final stages perhaps there will be a very solid response from the Department of the Environment. I must urge, however, that as a matter of prime importance tenants should retain their protection.

I hope that the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) will manage to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, because I have a personal interest in his constituency. My daughter, like most nurses after they qualify, shares a flat with others, and she lives in the hon.

Member's constituency. A recent eviction notice served by the landlord is ineffective as the law stands, but if the Bill had been law it might have taken effect. The girls have retained their security of tenure. I believe that if the provisions in Part I of the Bill were law they might have lost that security therefore watch with great interest what is happening. The security of the tenant must be of importance even if that creates anomalies for landlords. The family and the tenant are, in the last resort our first responsibility.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Including the Front Bench speakers, 16 hon. Members wish to speak in the remaining three and a half hours. They will not all be able to do so unless those who are called bear that fact in mind.

12.33 p.m.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) has steered a careful course in presenting his Homes Bill to the House. I congratulate him on the skill with which the Bill has been drafted and on the modesty and clarity with which he spoke this morning. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) said that we perhaps needed rather more time for digestion of the Rent Act 1974. But surely it has become clear that that Act has caused a great deal of indigestion. This modest Bill seeks to clear up only a few of the anomalies which have arisen.

It is a bitter paradox that although the Government entered office determined to do so much in housing matters, council house waiting lists have become longer than ever, empty houses remain empty and unimproved, and fewer and fewer private landlords are putting property on the market to let. The Government have forgotten that there are two sides to a bargain—the tenant and the landlord—and that both must feel that they are getting a fair deal. The small private landlord no longer does so, not only because the rents he receives, adjudicated by the rent tribunals or the rent officers, often do not provide a reasonable rate of return but even more because protected tenancies are now being created in circumstances in which the landlord simply does not dare to have a protected tenancy.

Possession, it used to be said, was nine-tenths of the law. It has become ten-tenths of the law. If the tenant has possession he stays. If the landlord obtains repossession, he sells. Estate agents in my constituency and around me in Sussex have estimated that about half the privately rented accommodation has been withdrawn from the market in the last few years. One added, We are advising clients not to let rooms or flats as it is just too risky. This major source of accommodation, suitable for the young, those setting up home for the first time, the single and the elderly, has gone off the market as a result of the conscious act of this Government.

Yet the Government—and this emphasises the paradox—have recognised the need for more small households. They did so in a Department of the Environment circular issued on 25th March last year where they stated in paragraph 28: With the fall in the average family size, much local authority housing is necessarily under-occupied… Authorities should nevertheless also make sure they are placing no obstacles in the way of tenants taking in logders if they wish to do so; indeed they should encourage this as an important means of helping small households without a home of their own, or workers needing temporary lodging. If this means a change in longstanding housing management policies, authorities should accept and welcome it. What is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, and what is fair and reasonable in the public sector should be so in the private sector. Yet, as we all know, it just has not worked out. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge is seeking in the Bill to clear away a few of the existing obstacles that are forcing so much privately rented accommodation off the market.

A large part of the trouble stems from the confusion which surrounds the 1974 Rent Act. It is very badly drafted and it is unclear to the layman in what circumstances, with a resident landlord, the protected tenancy is or is not granted. In Clause 1 my hon. Friend is seeking to clear up one of the causes of confusion, indeed of obscurity. In this connection I refer to a lecture given by Mr. Cooklin in the College of Law Lectures 1975 on the subject of the security of tenure. In referring to subsection 5)(b) of section (5)(A) of Schedule 2, the subsection which my hon. Friend wishes to delete from the 1974 Act, Mr. Cooklin says as follows: The landlord is safe enough if he grants one fixed term before the tenant sets foot in the house, but to do this at any other time could be fatal.… The exception is intended to deter the practice—previously adopted by many landlords of furnished dwellings—of granting a series of fixed terms. My personal impression of subsection (5)(b)"—

the subsection which my hon. Friend seeks to remove— is that the cure is far worse than the cold. A hideous trap has been laid, not for the professionals who invented the practice (they've gone anyway), but for an army of amateurs, the resident landlords". It is to deal with this problem that Clause 1 has been put in the Bill.

There is a further point very much in favour of Clause 1 concerning elderly people who let rooms but wish to retain control of two rooms or the flats in their own house. They would prefer to have the same tenants with them for a series of fixed-term periods. They like to get to know their tenant so that, while retaining control of their house, they can share their lives with their tenant if they find him or her an agreeable companion. Clause 1 is precisely designed to enable that continuity of tenure to be offered.

I find two reasons in support of Clause 2 which are strikingly obvious in the villages and towns in Sussex. Many flats over shops are empty, and this clause will help the landlords to find tenants for them. If such flats are occupied there will be less risk of burglary of the shops and a more peaceful and secure atmosphere in the streets in which so many of these flats lie empty.

I was particularly pleased with Clause 4 which places responsibility on the housing authority to look after the homeless. Both sides of the House have been aware of the problem for some years. It has frequently been discussed. We have been told that the subject is complicated, but I congratulate my hon. Friend upon the declaratory intention of the Bill to place the responsibility where it should lie—with the housing authority.

In West Sussex there is a typical example of confusion. Three or four housing authorities have declined to take over responsibility for the homeless from the county council. Crawley's reasons are understandable. The town is near a big airport. It is frightened that if there were further trouble in Africa, it might be faced with a flood of immigrants and would have to deal quickly with many homeless people for whom it does not have sufficient capacity. It was for that reason that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said that he understood that in Committee we might have to consider exceptions for housing authorities near ports or airports.

But my district council, which has taken responsibility for the homeless from the county council, is at the moment able to do so only on a temporary or agency basis. The county council is unable on a permanent basis to hand over its facilities for dealing with the homeless. Therefore, the district council is unable to take as long and planned a view of how to deal with the problem as it would wish.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the Bill, as drafted, does not remove the statutory obligation which now rests with social service authorities and that, concerning some of the homeless, the result would be that housing authorities would be obliged to assist and that social service authorities would have an obligation, too?

Mr. Renton

That is a point of interpretation which can be discussed in Committee. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. Matters of detail like that will have to be considered in Committee.

I am pleased that single persons are included in the preference classes in Clause 7. The reason is the poor position that they often occupy on council house waiting lists.

I should like to make two particular points about the preference list, both of which can be taken up in Committee. The first concerns the degree of a person's disablement. That should be clarified. I suggest that to qualify a person should be so disabled as to meet the criteria necessary for registration as a disabled person.

Secondly, I think that we might consider for inclusion in the preference classes persons in tied accommodation who do not have protection under the Rent Acts. That suggestion was made to me by the housing department of my own district council. The suggestion is that tied tenants who have held employment for a minimum of five years and therefore do not qualify under paragraphs (a) or (b) should be included as one of the preference classes.

It is abundantly plain that the Bill, as drafted and presented by my hon. Friend, is right. It should not be regarded as the thin end of the wedge. It is an attempt to put right some of the mistakes, errors and omissions of the 1974 Rent Act. I trust that the Government will support Second Reading in the same helpful manner as that in which it was moved by my hon. Friend.

12.44 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) concluded his remarks by suggesting that the Bill should not be regarded as the thin end of the wedge. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) suggested that perhaps it was the thin end of the wedge as it would open certain avenues to the small landlord, but that eventually the sharks or some kindred fish would swim in.

I am a hard liner on the question of housing in both the private and public sectors. I recognise the good intentions of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) in introducing the Bill. However, I cannot commend the House to accept it for the simple reason that I see no possibility—not even a small possibility—of it improving the situation bedevilling the whole housing scene.

The question of sharing council accommodation has been mentioned. I have had fair exeperience in local government. I found that there were problems connected not merely with the sharing, but with the letting of council property as certain tenants were incompatible with their neighbours. We must accept that there is a social problem here. We would have lettings not controlled by the council, but in which the council would eventually have to intervene if there were any discord between two families living in the same house. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) also suggested that it would be a matter of jumping the gun regarding the council house waiting list.

I said that I was a hard liner in the matter of housing. I have had fair experience in local government, starting at a very early age, particularly as a member of what was then the Stepney Borough Council. A great part of my time was spent chasing up absentee landlords. Finally, I would end up with agents who shielded them from any possible help they might give to their tenants by way of repairs, and so on. That caused me to take the view that we were right to attempt to end private landlordism.

I agree that the Bill deals with a small sector of the housing scene. However, I repeat that this is the thin end of the wedge and that it should not be encouraged in any way.

It has been said that the Bill will provide a fair amount of housing for the homeless who, at the moment, are prevented from obtaining accommodation because landlords are discouraged from letting by virtue of the various Housing Acts. It is suggested that the Housing Acts, particularly the 1974 Act, have been the cause of this problem. However, there does not seem to be much evidence of that.

I repeat what was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, that the main period in which housing for rent seemed to freeze up followed the passing of the Housing Act 1957. Most hon. Members are aware of the effects of that legislation. At that time, I was a member of the Ilford Council. Many elderly people came to see me because, having lived in their houses for many years and spent a great deal of money and effort on them, they were required to move as a result of the 1975 Act. We saw not that these houses were necessarily let again but that in most cases they were sold at prices which at that time were escalating, with the result that many of these private lettings went out of the market. I do not want to dwell on the evils of Rachmanism. These have been referred to already, and we are all well aware of them.

The private sector in rented property has been in decline for a long time, and I am convinced that there is no desire to resuscitate it. I look forward to the time when the Government implement their policy—which is also the policy of the Labour Party—to municipalise private lettings. I hope that the letting sector of housing can be taken over by municipalities and by housing associations.

Looking at the Bill as a whole, I see very little in it that will solve the more-than-urgent problems before us. I look forward to the measures that will be taken by the Government to deal with homelessness in an effective way and not in this piecemeal way proposed by the Bill so that we can in the near future find a solution to the problem.

Reference was made to the housing of single people. I am with the hon. Member for Cambridge in this respect, and I hope that when the Government deal with this issue some emphasis will be put on the necessity for local authorities to pay much greater regard than is paid at present to the needs of single people.

12.52 p.m.

Mr. David Knox (Leek)

I join in the congratulations that have been expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on selecting housing as the subject of his Bill and also on the way in which he presented his measure to the House this morning. I was pleased when my hon. Friend asked me to be one of the sponsors of the Bill, and I am even more pleased to be able to speak in support of it today.

I do not want to speak in any partisan way, because I believe that a bipartisan housing policy, or at least a wider degree of agreement between the parties on housing policy, is long overdue. For too long the major political parties in this country have had diametrically opposed housing policies, and at each change of Government there has been a violent lurch, first one way and then the other. The main losers in this absurd party political charade have been the homeless and those in housing need. The time has come when the Conservative and Labour Parties should make a real attempt to come closer together on housing policy, each making compromises, each making concessions to enable that greater degree of continuity of housing policy without which we shall never be able to get near to solving our housing problem.

We have seen the advantages in recent years of such a compromise over investment grants and investment allowances. More recently, we have seen the advantages of such a compromise over pensions. I believe that even greater advantages would accrue from some compromise in housing.

I feel that my hon. Friend's Bill would be a step in that direction. Indeed, his speech today, both in the manner of its delivery and in his attitude to possible amendments, indicated that that was one of his aims, and I hope that the Government, in the same spirit of give and take shown by my hon. Friend, will not oppose the Bill today and will allow it to go to Committee for further consideration.

My hon. Friend went through the provisions of the Bill with his usual clarity, and the whole House was grateful to him for that. I should like to concentrate my remarks, in what will be a short speech, on one aspect of Part I of the Bill and one aspect of Part II.

The aspect of Part I which particularly appeals to me relates to lettings to students. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) touched on this at some length. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind, but I do not completely agree with him. Since the passing of the 1974 Rent Act there has been a drying up of privately rented accommodation for students at institutions of higher education. In many—though, to be fair, not in all—university towns a crisis situation exists, and I do not use the word "crisis" loosely.

Before the 1974 Act there was available a supply of furnished accommodation for rent for students. Admittedly, some of it—sometimes quite a lot of it—often left a great deal to be desired, but it was there, and most students were able to obtain accommodation of a kind. But since the passing of the 1974 Act there has been a dramatic shrinkage in the supply of accommodation for students in some university towns.

Whatever the 1974 Act sought to achieve, I am sure that it did not seek to give students long-term security of tenure. Its purpose was to give others long-term security of tenure—and I will readily concede that there is a strong argument for providing long-term security of tenure for many people—but students neither need it nor desire it. The effect of giving such security to those who have tenancies has undoubtedly been to dry up the supply of new tenancies as landlords are not prepared to take the risk of offering for rent accommodation which becomes vacant even though the risk of the tenancy being a long one is small, as of course it is with students. Students have therefore gained nothing of value under the 1974 Act, and they have lost a great deal.

In Clause 3, my hon. Friend attempts to deal with that point. As I understand it, his scheme would be voluntary on both sides—voluntary to the landlord, and voluntary to the student—and it would apply to future tenancies, and would not affect those already in being. It may be that the Government are not satisfied with the way in which the clause is drafted but that can, after all, be changed in Committee, and I hope that the Government will not stop short today what I believe will be a helpful step forward for students.

The aspect in Part II of the Bill on which I should like to touch concerns the young single homeless. I should be the first to say to my hon. Friend that the Bill does not go nearly far enough in dealing with the young single homeless—of course it does not—but it is a step in the right direction. More young people are leaving home than ever before. There are a number of reasons for this. It is partly due to the breakdown of family relations, partly to the fact that regional employment imbalance leads young people to seek work away from their families, partly to the desire to show independence and partly to the fact that some young people seek the bright lights of the large cities. Alas, all too often, they find that there are no bright lights. Too often they find themselves in a desperate plight over housing. The problem of the young single homeless is one of the greatest social problems facing us today, especially in London and the large cities, although not exclusively there. We have dodged the issue for too long. The Bill, although it leaves a lot to be desired, begins to face up to it.

In Clauses 6 and 7 a responsibility is placed on local housing authorities to rehouse the homeless and to give preference, amongst others, to young single homeless. It is a start and no more, but nevertheless it is welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has introduced a Bill of considerable merit. As he said, it is designed to make a modest contribution to increasing the supply of rented accommodation and to clarify the responsibility of local authorities for helping the homeless. We have been told that the Rent Acts are being reviewed by the Government and that there is an interdepartmental committee on the young homeless. That indicates that the Government are concerned about the present situation. But I understand that both reviews will take some time to complete. New Government legislation will not come forward this Session and may not be introduced next Session, although both issues are urgent.

I hope that the Government will facilitate the passing of the Bill, even if it is to act only as an interim measure until more permanent Government legislation is introduced. The present situation is serious and we cannot afford to delay even a partial remedy to that situation.

1.2 p.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) for his clear exposition of some of the clauses of the Bill and I agree with most of what he said. His analysis of the Bill was first-rate. He pointed out that there are some defects, because the Bill does not meet some of the problems that exist today.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), because he has invaded a hotch-potch territory of legislation. He tried to introduce some alternatives to the way in which previous Acts have functioned. He did that in a charming manner, his purpose being to alleviate some of the misery and hardship caused by housing problems. I do not go all the way with him on the Bill because in inner London we experience the heavy end of the stick. People come from almost all over the country to the borough of Wandsworth, which is in my constituency. They assert that they are homeless, and they have to be housed by Wandsworth Council in half-way houses or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is costing over £500,000 a year. The London boroughs are faced with the difficulty that if they house the homeless they cannot rehouse in their own borough people who are living in overcrowded accommodation. The hon. Member for Cambridge calculated that there were 100,000 homeless people in the country and that 50,000 of them were in London.

Mr. Lane

The figure of 100,000 was the estimate for the single homeless throughout the country.

Mr. Perry

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Obviously the number must be greater if one includes married couples who are traipsing the streets looking for somewhere to stay.

I do not want to be thought parochial and provincial about the matter, but in London the problem is exacerbated by the million tourists who need accommodation. They cannot all stay at the Park Lane Hotel. Many tourists go to suburban houses that have been turned into hotels. Small hotels providing bed and breakfast are springing up all over my constituency. All the London boroughs, be they as varied as Wandsworth, Westminster or Bromley, face the same problem. We should welcome the Bill if it will do anything to solve the problem of the homeless in London. But I have my doubts whether it will.

Another problem is the number of students who come to London seeking accommodation. The enormous number of immigrant workers who need accommodation in the big cities also create problems, particularly for London.

Trying to amend the present housing Acts is like trying to put a blunt knife through a plate of steel. The legislation is like a jungle. I recall the 1957 Rent Act and the confusion and trouble that it caused, with the loss of security if rateable value was more than £40. That was a low figure, considerig that rateable values are now about £400 in London. The Labour Government's legislation was not perfect. I was an Opposition Whip dealing with the 1972 Housing Finance Act. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) played an admirable part in pushing the Bill through the Committee stage and the House. He was a fountain of strength and knowledge, and I pay tribute to him for the way in which he tried to solve the problem of housing legislation. We now realise that the 1973 Act did not solve the problem, and we face further legislation in the near future.

I wonder whether it is best to toy with legislation which has piecemeal objectives and goes some way to helping the situation, but which introduces further anomalies. I can give an example of an anomaly in the 1974 legislation. I have a friend in my constituency who wants to live in Richmond and Twickenham and who saw an advertisement in the Richmond and Twickenham Times a few weeks ago. This is the advertisement: Richmond Hill"— no lass is mentioned— Two-bedroomed furnished attic flat with views over rooftops, exceedingly romantic and cosy; loung, kitchen and bathroom; 24 gns. per week—The Furnished Specialists, Richard Meacock & Co. The phone number is included.

My constituent rang the agents. The first thing they asked him was whether he was a limited company. He could not understand the terms of the question. It seems that if a flat is let to a limited company those involved in the transaction are not bound by the Rent Acts. Therefore, they can let a flat to anyone and get rid of anyone at any time they wish.

My constituent happens to be an architect with the GLC. He was greatly perturbed to discover that if he had been a company the agents would have been only too glad to let the flat to him, but that they were not prepared to do so because he was a private individual. The agents would not let the flat to him, as they were prepared to let only to companies.

That is one way of getting round the intentions of several Governments as embodied in rent and housing legislation. That is the sort of thing that has happened to our own legislation. I suggest that before embarking on any piecemeal attempt to remedy difficulties in the present housing situation we should ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again.

Everyone has been paying tribute to someone, and I wish to pay tribute to a number of people. First, I pay tribute to owner-occupiers in London who still let part of their houses. Many owner-occupiers in my constituency still let to students and young couples. The majority of owner-occupiers in my constituency are helping to solve the housing situation by being prepared to forgo part of their house by letting it to someone who is in severe need. They collect a fair rent, but that rent is taxable. However, I should be reluctant to suggest to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we should allow those who help the housing situation to receive extra relief. I merely say that owner-occupiers contribute a welcome asset to the housing stock.

In the past fortnight I was invited to visit a converted house, the conversion having been carried out by the Thames Housing Association. I visited No. 174 Bedford Way, in a neighbouring constituency. The association had purchased a nice double-fronted house at the top of Tooting Bec Common. It had paid £22,000 for the property and had spent £23,000 on conversion. There was one beautiful two-bedroomed flat with lounge and everything else, and four single-bedroomed flats, all the flats having gardens. The total cost was £45,000. There are five first-class units of accommodation.

I should like to see that sort of work extended by housing associations. They are converting old properties into first-class flats and making them available to all and sundry. I saw the quality of the work at No. 174 Bedford Way. It is clear that the Thames Housing Association is doing a first-class job. The association is to be congratulated.

The London borough of Wandsworth has been severely chided in the past few months for its attitude towards purchasing private houses, and especially for buying a property owned by a member of another place. I saw that property. I understand that it was bought by the borough for £21,000. I consider it to be a first-class buy. If I could afford another £21,000 house I should certainly go in for that one. It is a beautiful house and well worth the money that the council paid for it. I am sure that the council made a useful investment, not only from a financial point of view but from a housing point of view.

In London generally, and especially in inner London, if a house is put up for sale and the owner-occupier who is selling it wants to get a fair price, he will find plenty of would-be purchasers. However, as soon as they go to the building societies they find that the loan offered on the house is extremely low. That often means that a would-be purchaser has to find nearly 50 per cent. of the cost of the house as a deposit. That is often happening in inner London. The result is that in many streets in my borough one can find half a dozen empty houses. The council is buying some of those houses as it would rather buy them than see them going derelict.

I commend the London borough of Wandsworth for buying houses that are offered to it by owner-occupiers. I feel that that is the right policy. I know that the borough has been slow in its conversion of such houses into flats. I want to see the Government provide more money for the conversion of older houses and flats, so that we can look after some of the single people, some of the homeless and some of those who are suffering from overcrowding.

I believe that the Bill is a necessary measure, but it does not tackle the problem in its entirety. I should have supported the Bill in the Lobby this afternoon if I had not been assured that the Government will shortly introduce legislation along similar lines.

I am pleased to see that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) has returned to the Chamber. I am sure that we are all glad to see him back in the House after his serious operation. My hon. and learned Friend referred to the Rent Act that was introduced shortly after the First World War. I suppose he is one of the few hon. Members, if not the only one, who served in that war. He has told me that when he was a young barrister he would go into the courts to defend a landlord against a tenant, and would do so in no uncertain manner. In the next case he might well be defending a tenant against a landlord. That is the nature of the legal profession. Those are the people we have to be careful about when contemplating housing legislation.

1.17 p.m.

Mr. A.P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I think we can all agree that there is a shortage of rented accommodation. We can also assume from what we hear from Labour Members that most landlords are rogues. Many Labour Members want to abolish landlords. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) said that he wanted to see the time of the private landlord abolished. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman will say to the private landlords who happen to be trade union members, because a number of trade union pension funds invest in property. It is quite right that they should do so.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) referred to his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman). I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming back his hon. and learned Friend.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the Rent Act that was introduced shortly after the First World War. At that time I was a young schoolboy. I remember in Bootle, with my old father, in 1919, going round the very first council house scheme ever built in this country. It was a scheme that was built by the Bootle Corporation to provide homes for heroes. It was intended that they should stay in a council house for a few months, or perhaps a year, while other accommodation was being built That is how council housing began.

Very few people realise that that was the first objective of council housing. That original concept has now been removed, and council housing has become long-term housing. It would not be the only housing to be considered as long-term if it were not for various controls against the private landlord

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on introducing this modest Bill. When I first read it, I wondered why it was so modest. When we listen to the arguments of hon. Members opposite, we realise that my hon. Friend's only hope of getting it through was to make it modest. The hon Member for Battersea, South said that he would not support the Bill because the Government would introduce legislation to deal with the housing problem. If he believes that, he will believe anything. Any hon. Member who talks out the Bill—and I shall make my speech short to try to prevent that—or who votes against it will do harm to people he wishes to help.

In 1936, when there was a slump in the building industry similar to that which we have to day, a company of which I was managing director, with my brother, decided that the only thing that could be done to help solve the unemployment problem in the industry was to build the largest block of flats in Europe. The primary purpose was to employ men, and the second idea was to provide flats. The fact that there are over 50 Members of Parliament living in those flats today is immaterial.

It would be wonderful if we could encourage people to build houses and flats to let. At the time to which I have just referred, I had reached the "ripe old age" of 26, and I thought I knew all the answers. My brother and I thought that the need for the Rent Acts would last for only a few years. We thought that as housing accommodation became more readily available there would be no need for the Rent Acts.

What commodity which is not in plentiful supply, other than rented accommodation, is subject to controls? Is it a coincidence that controls are stopping the building and renting of the accommodation that is needed so badly? This modest Bill possibly will help to reverse the trend. Because of the restrictions on rented accommodation, my company year after year made losses on the block of flats to which I have referred because it could not increase the rent. We would have continued to build flats, but we were forced to build office blocks, not because we wished to do so but because the controls did not apply to them.

The houses of a number of people in my constituency, particularly of elderly widows, are too big for them, but they wish to keep them for their children when they have grown up. They therefore want to let them and time after time they have said to me, "How can I let the house until I want it for my son?" I have sent two cases to the Department of the Environment on this subject. One concerns a lady whose son is in the Army. She wishes to let the house but wants to retain possession of it for the time when her son returns from the Army. The son is 45 years of age now, and the house will be wanted for him and the grandchildren, who are in Germany. I have asked the Minister to tell me what advice I should give the lady about the letting of the house while retaining possession of it. If the son owned the house and wanted it for retirement, it would be possible to make provision for that, but the lady in question wants to keep it.

It seems that all legislation is designed to make it more difficult to let houses and more difficult for private landlords. The hon. Member for Ilford, South says that he wishes to abolish private landlordism. If hon Members opposite want to do that, they should say to their constituents who cannot get houses, "I am sorry, you canot get a house because we are so prejudiced against private landlordism that we have made certain that there will never be any more private landlords".

We should make more accommodation available to let, and I believe that the Bill is a first step in that direction. I defy any hon. Member who honestly wishes to help to solve the housing problem to vote against it.

1.26 p.m.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)

I wish to join in the congratulations which have been given to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on introducing a Bill which gives us the opportunity to debate a major social problem. Part of the Bill concentrates on the question of homelessness, which is the sharpest part of that social problem. It is appropriate that we should be debating an issue of such great social concern which, in its broader aspect, is remedial only through public expenditure, on the day after the publication of the White Paper on public expenditure, with its significant implications for the extent to which resources can be devoted to resolving the problems dealt with in the Bill.

I lay no claim to specific expertise in housing matters. I am only too well aware that several hon. Members yet to speak have much stronger claims to such expertise than I have. Therefore, I shall not delay the House long. However, like all hon. Members, I have genuine concern about this social problem and a certain expertise borne out of our weekly surgeries where homelessness and the concern about housing are always major aspects of representations made to us.

Despite the good intentions which, I am sure, underlie the Bill, certain aspects of it are unacceptable. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) rightly identified what he saw as a significant thrust in the Bill to increase the rôle of the private landlord in meeting the housing needs. Such a thrust is doomed to failure and is not to be commended. It is doomed to failure because hon. Members who argue along such lines underestimate the deep reasons why private landlordism has been in decline since 1914. That has been the point of reference for today's debate and that date will do as well as any other. It is an unstoppable decline, as is shown by any figures which we look at for the period between 1957 and 1965. Far-reaching attempts were made in the Rent Act 1957 to provide conditions in which private landlords could flourish. Even between 1957 and 1965 the steady decline of the contribution of the private landlord towards solving the housing problem continued.

Therefore, it would be a great mistake to believe that the Bill would make a significant impact on the decline in the rented property market—the hon. Member for Cambridge, with his usual modesty, did not make such a claim for it—or provide more accommodation. As the hon. Member for a London constituency I am all too conscious of the need for rented accommodation and of the fact that 50 per cent. of the people defined as homeless are in the capital city. The Bill would attempt to meet this need by reducing security of tenure in certain areas, thereby providing an incentive to private landlords. However, it would leave the situation wide open for one evil to be exchanged for a greater evil.

Mr. Costain

Is the hon. Member seriously suggesting that trade union pension funds can be regarded as wicked landlords?

Mr. Davies

We cannot draw that inference from one illustration, but the proposition that an increase in the number of private landlords with an increased insecurity of tenure would represent a social evil is clearly identified by all the present insecure tenants.

It is a misunderstanding of the problems of providing housing to suggest that the relationship between landlord and tenant can be forged upon a meaningful bargain. Housing is not the same as other commodities in the market. I maintain that the social need for housing defines it as a category of need which does not fit into the private market in these terms. This is another reason why the private market cannot meet the needs of these people identified as possible beneficiaries of the Bill.

One does not need to be a rigorous economist to recognise that in whole areas of housing, whether for the relatively more prosperous group of owner-occupiers or the groups catered for by council housing an element of subsidy exists over a whole range of categories. We have, of necessity, kept down the cost of housing. The Opposition support that situation in every election. In the last election, they emphasised the necessity for subsidy, yet when we talk about the homeless and those in desperate need, they suggest that the problem can be resolved by a straight bargain in the market place. Historical evidence proves that that is not the case.

The hon. Member for Cambridge is as qualified as any hon. Member to speak about the problems of student accommodation, but these problems are acute in many parts of the country and cannot be resolved within the framework of his Bill. In the last decade, higher education has not expanded in the old university towns as much as in some of our major conurbations. The development of polytechnics has been a major contribution to the expansion of higher education, and many of them are situated in large centres of population. It is inevitable that students at polytechnics are put in a competitive position with other people for rented accommodation.

One could accurately argue that a great weakness in the development of higher education in recent years has been the failure to recognise that accommodation is a crucial factor in providing for student needs. Such needs have not been adequately identified in the past and the accommodation problem is clearly acute.

The suggestion that a section should have been added to the Rent Act to deal with students appealed to me as a way of solving the problem. One of the most rapidly growing polytechnics in the country is situated in my constituency. There is no hostel accommodation, so the students are in direct competition with other people for housing and there is an acute accommodation crisis at crucial times of the year.

However, the position adopted by the National Union of Students, whose deliberations do not always win automatic approval from all hon. Members, on the housing problem was thoroughly principled and accurate and in direct conflict to the Bill. The union said that it did not wish students' problems, acute as they were, to be resolved through the mechanism of a special definition under the Rent Act, first, because a weakening of the Act would be a general social loss and, secondly, because while students problems were acute, society would not consider that they should be put in a privileged category for accommodation. I would want the Bill's provisions in regard to student accommodation to be deleted in Committee.

We need a more constructive approach to the provision of accommodation for students and some local authorities have been less than helpful in regard to short-life accommodation. Student bodies have good credentials for being able to occupy and administer this property successfully for a period, without loss to the rest of the community. Unfortunately, some local authorities, such as my own in Enfield, have adopted an extremely negative position and their first response to the proposition that students should occupy short-life accommodation which is under planning blight is to deny that such property exists—even though the students might have identified it in surveys. We need a much more constructive approach.

Clause 6 rightly focuses on the problems of the homeless. The clause puts forward general principles to which most of us would subscribe, but it needs a much sharper definiiton in order to be effective, and we must tackle the problem of who has responsibility for the homeless. We are all aware of the shunting that goes on between one authority and another and of the extent to which some local authorities have more homeless people in their area than have others. That problem is tackled too superficially by Clause 6, which indicates concern but does not provide a solution.

One-parent families come rather low in the housing priorities. They have been the subject of widespread concern in the House in recent debates. I am aware of the difficulties which face families which have disqualified themselves by not being a unit which is recognisable by the local authority as the norm. Recommendation 149 of the Finer Report referred to a points system being used in the allocation of housing for the lone parent which would give that parent equal status with a married couple with a comparable family. That answer seems to be on the right lines.

Clause 8 contains the general exhortation that there should be greater co-operation between local authorities—to which we all subscribe. Representing a constituency in outer London, I am aware of the dimension of the housing problem which is not resolvable by the operation of the narrow perspective applied by individual borough authorities in London. I look forward to a much greater degree of co-operation between the GLC and the outer London boroughs.

I remember an occasion four or five years ago during a period of considerable housing scarcity when an authority adjacent to mine suggested that not too much money should be spent on housing because its own housing list had been tackled satisfactorily and the authority had therefore made its contribution to London's problem. That is too narrow a perspective, and the exhortation in Clause 8 that co-operation is necessary should be supported.

I am prepared to support the element of criticism of present housing policies represented in the Bill. I instinctively warm to the plea made by the hon. Member for Cambridge that we should at least have a Committee discussion on these issues to give the opportunity for hon. Members to bring their views to bear on the Government, instead of consultations being confined to bodies outside the House. I am not sure that the Committee stage of a Private Member's Bill is the most fruitful way of engaging in consultation, but if it is the only way, let us take it. The issue of consultation and the extent to which hon. Members feel that they play too small a part in formulating legislation as opposed to scrutinising it should exercise our minds on another day.

Although I am prepared to support criticism of present policies and agree that enough is not being and will not be spent on housing in the foreseeable future, I do not accept that a contribution to resolving housing needs can be achieved by the proposals in the Bill to amend the Rent Acts.

1.45 p.m.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I apologise for not having been here this morning. When one has been present at rather dreary debates on subjects in which one is not particularly interested, it is sad not to be present when a matter of serious concern is being discussed. I had a long-standing engagement this morning. It is no secret that, with two hon. Gentlemen, I had to go to prison. I am thankful to have brought them safely back. I see one present, apparently looking well after his visit, which was for educational purposes.

I listened to the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) with great interest. Student accommodation is a difficult problem in my constituency, in which there are about 7,000 students. We have been able to satisfy a very small proportion of the need for using the facilities available through housing associations. I am chairman of two or three housing associations which have provided for students some long-life and some short-life properties. I should like that system to be extended and made easier. As the hon. Member for Enfield, North said, students are conscious of displacing other people in the community in competition for the limited accommodation available.

The landlord and tenant law has kept legislators busy since Roman times. Regulating the relations between owners and occupiers of properties provides a perennial source of profit to lawyers, bailiffs, tribunals and officials. The enduring nature of these problems testifies to the passionate and sometimes unreasoning attachments which people form towards their places of shelter and to the difficulty we experience in defining the rights and responsibilities involved in the ownership and management of housing.

Recent legislation has tended to concentrate on protecting tenants from the unwelcome attentions of unscrupulous landlords. That is a legitimate and necessary objective, but achieving it has had some unintended and in the end harmful consequences in other directions. The tourniquet applied to the activities of the rogue landlord has become a noose which has strangled almost the entire supply of rented accommodation. That is one of the major problems which we have to seek the Government's help in solving. It is a classic case of more law meaning worse law. The interests of the sitting tenant are protected but the chances of the homeless and the badly housed getting a home are diminished.

The Rent Act 1974 has put a tremendous brake on the availability of furnished accommodation throughout the country. I can speak only from the point of view of my constituency, but I am sure that what happens there applies throughout the nation. Not long ago a survey was done through the housing committee which showed that even in a small town such as Cheltenham 700 flats and unfurnished bedsitters were available which would not be let while the Act was in operation. Surely it is reasonable to expect that if people get a totally undesirable and unsocial tenant there should be some simple way of changing that situation.

There are two major sources of housing space which could be speedily available, and both relate to under-occupancy. In the private sector, this consists of households with space to spare for a variety of reasons—because the children have grown up and left home, or there has been separation or divorce, for example. Many people in this situation are naturally unwilling to share their homes with strangers, and under the recent rent legislation they may be further deterred by the difficulties placed in the way of repossession. Even those who would like to let part of their home may be put off by the thought that some extremely bad tenant can protract the manner of his going almost interminably. Whether or not those fears are justified, the effect is the same, and hundreds of thousands of units of accommodation all over the country are left unlet, to the great detriment of the homeless and badly housed.

New legislation of itself cannot force people to make available accommodation which they might wish to let. Unless we are to envisage some sort of war-time billeting, a great deal of persuasion has to be done in this respect.

The other area of under-occupancy is where willingness to let is not the issue but the restricted conditions applied to tenants of local authority housing. This is prevalent throughout the country. Until recently, there was available in our city centres a large and constant supply of accommodation to let to families and single people. Public planning and housing policy has gradually eaten into this part of the housing stock, often through ill-thought-out clearance and demolition schemes. At the same time, the demand for such accommodation has geatly increased with the expansion of higher education, the inflow of students to centres of population, and the increasing willingness of young people to live and work away from the parental home.

As so-called slums have been cleared, the tenants of the houses demolished have been moved to local authority housing of varying quality. All this makes many problems, some of which are not directly relevant to the debate, but one of which is crucial. Many housing authorities have strict rules about the subletting of their properties. They wish to avoid the creation of new substandard housing, which is understandable. But the blanket application of a ban on all subletting by council tenants leads to shameful under-utilisation of scarce resources and to needless difficuties for many homeless and badly-housed people.

Apart from meeting the needs of the homeless, the wider use of subletting could also serve other useful social purposes. Many council estates are unnecessarily deprived of whole sections of the community, including students, working young people and older single people. Many families on them are denied the financial rewards and human involvement that subletting can bring. The aim of Clause 5 is to ensure that local authorities do not unreasonably withhold their consent to the subletting of their properties. They would, of course, need to remain vigilant against the creation of new slums, but their wholehearted co-operation in this matter would be the most important single measure to increase the supply of housing this century.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I cannot understand Clause 5. My area contains mainly local authority properties, and they are mostly let only to people requiring the number of rooms available. Very few younger people want to take in lodgers, and the elderly themselves often ask to be moved into smaller accommodation. They do not want to take in lodgers either. What happens when someone takes in a lodger who makes a nuisance of himself or does something wrong? How does one get him out? Who is responsible for that lodger? The lodger may be two persons, and not one.

Mr. Irving

In the local authorities I know, there is means of getting out a lodger, but there needs to be amendment to the legislation. The hon. Gentleman's area must be unique. We find in my area that there is tremendous under-occupation by people whose families have grown up and left. For example, someone may be on his own in two-bedroom accommodation but there are no small flats available as alternative accommodation.

But a Standing Committee could thrash out these problems, which I accept are difficult and complicated. I accept that there are small families in three-or four-bedroom houses who do not wish to move. There may be a case for considering whether local authorities should not offer greater incentive to under-occupiers of council properties to move into smaller accommodation. In my area, a large number of flats are under-occupied. At the moment, if a tenant is willing to move into a smaller unit of accommodation, the local housing committee allows him £25. That is a derisory payment. It does not pay for the alteration of carpets, curtains, and so on. If that sum were £150 or £200, perhaps, if would be of very much greater value in human and financial terms in persuading someone to take smaller accommodation which is satisfactory, thus vacating larger accommodation which could then take a family with several children off the waiting list.

Mr. Ronald Brown

The hon. Gentleman gives the classic example of the one-bedroom-need family in a two-bedroom house once the children have gone. But many such people like having an extra bedroom so that they can have their families staying with them from time to time—for example, their grandchildren. They do not want to move out. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that they should be made to give up their accommodation? He has characterised that as under-occupation. If it is not under-occupation in his mind, what is?

Mr. Irving

The hon. Gentleman is splitting hairs. I cannot go through all the examples of under-occupancy. I would not suggest that people should be forced to vacate their family home, but there is clearly need for the incentive which I have suggested should be improved.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on being so intelligent as to bring forward such a good platform on which to base further discussion. There are many issues that we could discuss in Committee, which is the place to go into the details. We all see these problems in our own constituencies—women with kids coming to our homes in the middle of the night because they are homeless, families sleeping rough, the appalling situation in London, the distress and horror caused by the "Johnny Come Home" film and all it implied for young people sleeping in dormitories, and all sorts of other misfortunes. Surely we ought not to delay for one week in taking steps to relieve this situation.

I congratulate CHAR, which has done so much work in providing evidence that should concern us all from a human point of view, if nothing else. I am very pleased to be a member of that organisation and a member of the all-party committee.

I strongly urge the House to take the opportunity of supporting the Bill. I had the great privilege of meeting the Minister in my constituency. He is a very kindly man, and I hope that when he replies he will give us an absolute assurance as to the time scale of discussions that he has in mind, in addition to what will happen if the Bill is accepted. We cannot be expected to remain on this hook for ever. We want to know what the Government intend to do and will do, the time scale of it, and how quickly it can be implemented.

2.1 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) will not need me to tell him that I take very seriously indeed the proposals he has made in the Bill and his whole approach to the very serious and very difficult problem of homes. I appreciate very much the close contact that he has had with me and with my Department when considering the provisions of the Bill, and anything I say will certainly not be in a patronising fashion, or anything like that.

I share the hon. Member's concern on this issue, just as I have shared a great number of concerns with him. When I was in the Department of Education and Science he often came to discuss matters in which both of us were very interested. I hope, therefore, that he will recognise that what I have to say today is said in a very serious vein.

At the beginning of the Second World War I was a clerk in the Royal Air Force I remember that we had a new commanding officer who very much appealed to us all in the orderly room because at the end of the day he always claimed that there was nothing left in his pending tray. That certainly does not work in the Department of the Environment, for there are many issues affecting the daily life of our people to which there are no easy overnight solutions.

There have been some very thoughtful and helpful speeches from both sides, and every speaker in the debate has demonstrated that, whatever we may think about the housing problem today—and it is a very serious social problem—it is not a lack of legislation that has contributed to it. Indeed, there has been too much legislation.

Whenever I visit a local authority the first thing I am told is that no more circulars or initiatives are required. But at the end my secretary is always left with at least 15 things that the authority wants the Government to do at once. That is one of the difficulties that we face in dealing with a great social problem to which there is no easy answer.

I thought at one time that education was the key to the good society. Now I know that the lack of a good home—or, indeed, any home—defeats the best of schools, and that we must solve the housing problem if we are to solve the many other social problems confronting our society.

Just after I came to the Department, a well-documented article appeared in a certain weekly. It was a very good article. Four pages were taken up in analysing the problem. I had no quarrel at all with the analysis. The solution put forward in the last sentence was that Ministers must get their heads together and find an imaginative, speedy and equable solution to this great social problem. We have been trying to do that over the years, in all Governments, and today we have a Bill which is a genuine attempt to tidy up and to correct some of the difficulties that confront us in our legislation.

I freely acknowledge the constructive and co-operative approach that the hon. Gentleman has shown in drawing up his proposals and I welcome the debate, because there have been very many practical suggestions which will, I assure the House, be taken on board.

It may be convenient if at this juncture I state the Government's view of the Bill. In so doing perhaps I may treat the two parts separately.

Much has been said today about the declining private rented sector. The fact is that the number of dwellings let privately has fallen fairly consistently since the First World War and even more markedly since the Second World War. Since 1945 the sector has declined at a rate of about 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. per year. Opposition Members have frequently argued as if the Rent Acts that successive Labour Administrations have introduced have been the sole cause of this decline. Indeed, this inference has been made today. The reduction in the amount of accommodation being let has continued throughout the Conservative Government's period in office, and—as some of my hon. Friends have mentioned today—the only Rent Act that noticeably accelerated the rate of decline was the Conservative Act of 1957, which took off the controls on landlords.

It is quite obvious that other factors, such as the increase in owner-occupation and in the amount of accommodation being made available by local authorities and housing associations, have had as much effect as, if not more effect than, any statutory protection of tenants.

Currently, the private rented sector represents about 17 per cent. of housing accommodation in Great Britain, as compared with about 45 per cent. just after the War. Of that 17 per cent., 5 per cent. represents accommodation which goes with the job, so we are talking now about 12 per cent. of housing provision.

My colleagues and I believe that this decline will inevitably continue, and that there is therefore no long-term future for the private rented sector in its present form. But we are firmly of the view that private tenants and landlords need our attention, especially as this sector houses many of our poorest people, and houses them in the worst conditions.

We also accept that the Rent Acts have become far too complex for ordinary people to get to grips with—and many of us would include ourselves in the definition of ordinary people.

These are the factors behind our review of the Rent Acts, to which reference has been made today. We do not see any chance of a long-term revival of the Some hon. Members opposite may disprivate rented sector as we know it agree, but the evidence we have seems to suggest that there will be a continuing steady decline.

The review to which I have referred will look at both the purposes and the administrative framework of rent legislation and will consider the scope for modifying current legislation. It will examine all available evidence on the working of the Rent Acts, including research in hand and further research to be commissioned. The review, by examining all the evidence—and not just the complaints of many hon. Members opposite—will try to discover the real effects of current legislation and to assess the consequences of any changes to it.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern concerning timing. The review is being carried out within the Department of the Environment and is under way now. We hope to have a report to study in the course of next year, and if legislation is considered necessary in the light of their recommendations, it will be introduced as soon as practicable after that.

I cannot be more precise on the review of the Rent Acts than that at this stage, but I assure the House that the review will be a comprehensive exercise and will consider fully all suggestions that we receive, including the very valuable comments we have had today. There is no question of Whitehall secrecy. At all times hon. Gentlemen will be welcome in my Department. They are welcome to see me, and we shall consider all discussion and suggestions. That is what the review is about.

Mr. Lane

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to help us, but could he be a little more precise about the timing of any consequential legislation? He will recall that I asked whether he could commit the Government to legislating in the 1977–78 Session. If he could give that definite assurance, it would help to clarify our minds about the sequence of events over the next year or two. His answer, which was otherwise most helpful, was vague on that crucial point.

Mr. Armstrong

I cannot give any commitment about legislation. We hear from everyone that we have too much legislation. On the other hand, we hear about a number of Bills which hon. Members think are essential and which should be brought in now. It is impossible to give any kind of commitment. It is not for me to do so. I have been as plain as I can be, and I ask the House to accept that.

In my view, this is a subject which needs an in-depth study of conclusions reached on the basis of an overall appraisal I am extremely dubious about the sort of piecemeal changes which are necessarily all that can be achieved in a Private Member's Bill, and which may well not be the changes which a proper review will reveal are the most necessary. In the short time that I have been in my present post, as I have studied rent legislation I have become more and more aware that very often well-meaning legislation to clear up one anomaly has created two or three other anomalies. That is why I appear to be cautious, although I have always been one for making decisions myself wherever possible.

In addition to the review, there is one other exercise I should mention which is relevant because it shows the importance which we place on finding alternatives to private renting as we now know it, rather than trying to reverse the irreversible decline to which I have referred. This is the working group under the chairmanship of Harold Campbell which is following on from his work on housing co-operatives and considering new forms of social ownership and tenure, including shared ownership or half-and-half schemes. We see such new schemes playing an increasingly important part in the future.

Together with our policy of municipalisation, these initiatives—the Rent Act review and the Campbell group—are the basis of the efforts we are making, to which we attach very great importance, to ensure the better use of our existing housing stock. It is against this background that the Government's approach to the rented sector in general, and this Bill in particular, should be seen.

In so far as Part I of the Bill raises the issue, it is not surprising that there has been a good deal of reference to the question of security of tenure. I agree that this is critical. Indeed, when the Government first took office, we found that the housing problem needing our most urgent attention was the lack of security of tenure which was then allowed to tenants in furnished accommodation.

We therefore immediately enacted the Rent Act 1974. It gives full protection to tenants in furnished accommodation with non-resident landlords, and limited protection to tenants with resident landlords—that is, they can normally apply to a rent tribunal for suspension of a notice to quit for periods of up to six months at a time.

I must repeat the Government's view. We do not want to prevent the reasonable repossession of their property by landlords who want to live there, or the reasonable eviction of tenants who are misbehaving. We have always argued that the Rent Acts allow for this, and the figures support our argument. In general, we do not regard security of tenure for tenants primarily as an inconvenient obstacle to more letting but as a right to which tenants are entitled.

We still see as a major problem confronting us the need to get the message across to both tenants and landlords what their rights and obligations are. At the start of this year, we began a campaign to inform private tenants and landlords of their rights, concentrating particularly on areas of housing stress and including publicity in immigrant languages. This we see still as the greatest need, making sure that the legislation we have helps those it was intended to help.

In so far, then, as the hon. Member for Cambridge is proposing to relax, albeit in relatively minor ways, the existing security of tenure position in an attempt to attract more lettings, I would want to approach his proposals with considerable care. There is a strong argument which says that financial consideration, rather than security, are more important deterrents to landlords continuing to let. However that might be, it is certainly not clear that a piecemeal relaxation in security will attract a substantial number of landlords on to the market.

Even if that were the case, we should have to balance that gain against the loss of security which brought it. We think this requires very careful study and we have set up a review of the Rent Acts to do it. So it is in this light that the Government approach this Bill.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman's proposals in more detail. Clauses 1 to 4 of the Bill deal with security, and I will comment on them briefly.

Clause 1 deals with tenancies with resident landlords. The present position is that if a resident landlord grants one fixed-term tenancy to a tenant, no protected tenancy is created, but if he grants a second to the same tenant, he creates a protected tenancy. His alternative is not to grant a fixed-term but a periodic tenancy—for example, weekly or monthly—which goes on until terminated by a valid notice to quit.

The important point here, which was the reason for our inserting the provision in the 1974 Act, is that under a periodic tenancy, on receipt of a notice to quit, a tenant may apply to a rent tribunal for suspension of the notice for up to six months at a time. Under a fixed-term tenancy, however, no notice to quit is required and no suspension is therefore possible.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Although I agree that it would be preferable for fixed-term tenancies to be governed by Part VI, is not the situation so complicated that the resident landlord is not prepared to take the risk? Most resident landlords do not know the intricacies which my hon. Friend has outlined. They merely know that they can get caught. Is not the change which the Bill proposes likely to make the situation more simple and produce more lettings?

Mr. Armstrong

On the face of it, it appears to be a simple solution. I answer a great many letters on this subject. If there were an easy answer, we should have found it long ago. But there is not one. That is why a piecemeal solution is likely to lead to more anomalies, even if it cures the one to which my hon. Friend refers. However, I have noted his point, and I shall keep it in mind.

The purpose of the existing provision is not to force resident landlords to create protected tenancies but to encourage them to create periodic tenancies which give tenants the right we think they should have. The effect of Clause I would be to allow landlords to create an infinite number of very short fixed-term tenancies which has the effect of denying tenants the right of appeal to the rent tribunal to allow them to stay longer in their accommodation.

I accept that resident landlords may find the current rules very complicated and the possibility exists that they may make a mistake, grant a second fixed-term tenacy and thus create unintentionally a protected tenancy with far-reaching consequencies. But Clause, 1, by taking out the revelant provision altogether, is, I think, going too far in the other direction. We would ideally like to give fixed-term tenants of resident landlords the same right to go to the rent tribunal that periodic tenants have, or we could allow the courts to grant up to six months security to fixed-term tenants, but these are not the sort of changes that can be easily made. They would involve a fundamental revision of Part VI of the 1968 Rent Act and that is a matter which the Rent Act review can more suitably cover. Until then, I feel that it is better to maintain the current position.

Clause 2 adds a new case to the cases where the courts must grant possession orders to landlords, if they are satisfied as to the facts. It involves mixed business and residential premises and would allow owners to evict tenants from the residential part if they wanted it for someone working for the business. I think we accept that a case something like this one might be needed to secure better use of flats above shops or surgeries, and we would like to study this further. The review will be re-examining all the existing cases and looking at the case for extending them.

Clause 3 exempts students from Rent Act protection. As I and my colleagues have told the House on several occasions, neither we nor the National Union of Students feel the need for such a measure. We considered all this very carefully last year and consulted all interested parties. There was no consensus that the 1974 Act added significantly to student housing problems, and students are not anxious to get any sort of preferential treatment. If the hon. Member for Cambridge, or anyone else, has any evidence to show that the position has changed from last year, let him send it on, and the Government will reconsider introducing the legislation which we had prepared then. Until we see such evidence, the Government are not prepared to contemplate the introduction of any scheme to exempt students.

Clause 4 provides that tenants of accommodation leased by a private landlord to a local authority, and sublet should not become protected tenants at the end of the owner's agreement with the authority. This concerns the scheme which has been pioneered by North Wiltshire District Council, whereby the authority takes short-term tenancies of privately-owned houses and sublets them to people on its waiting list, undertaking to re-house them at the end of the tenancy. About 40 district councils are operating this scheme and the Government are encouraging them strongly.

It is early days yet, but we do not get the general impression that owners are being deterred from letting to authorities by the fear that the authority will not keep its side of the bargain and re-house the sub-tenants at the end of the agreed period. But this clause is intended to remove the need for such a fear.

The Government view is that this sort of scheme is definitely worth encouraging, and to that end we have asked Sir Dennis Pilcher and Mr. Derek Wood to make a special study of the scope for extending its use. They will examine any legislative drawbacks to the scheme and will recommend any alterations they feel are necessary. We should prefer to await the results of their work before seeing any amendments to legislation which affect this scheme.

Finally, on Part I, Clause 5 sets out to encourage subletting of rooms in council houses. We are all in favour of this and have said so in our circular to local authorities on homelessness. I am not sure how much more help this clause would be, but the Government certainly share the hon. Gentleman's objectives. But the Government are always anxious to ensure that local authorities have the last word on the management of their housing stock and would not want to interfere in the way the hon. Gentleman is proposing.

I turn to Part II of the Bill. The hon. Member, in Clauses 6, 7 and 8, seeks to give statutory force to three of the main recommendations in the joint circular on homelessness, which was issued jointly, in 1974, by my Department, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Welsh Office. This circular was sent out in the last days of the previous Conservative administration. It has been commended by present Ministers. I think it is widely regarder by both local authorities and voluntary bodies as a constructive statement of how homelessness should be tackled.

The broad endorsement of the circular by the local authority associations and the voluntary world is a welcome feature. It was based on consultations with them. We believe that it is on consultations that worthwhile legislation can be based.

My main concern today is, first, to listen to the words of the hon. Member for Cambridge, who has shown a consistent interest in these great problems, and then to discuss the matter with the local authorities and voluntary bodies so that we can finally get legislation that will meet the need. In the Government's view it will be better for Ministers, their Departments and parliamentary counsel to devote their attention to the comprehensive measure on homelessness which the Government have announced their intention to introduce. The Government announced that intention before the Ballot for Private Members' Bills was held. The full statement by the Minister for Housing and Construction on 15th December on the way the Ministers concerned proposed to proceed came before the hon. Member's Homes Bill. I shall also want to take account of the various points on homelessness expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I come to Clauses 6, 7 and 8 which seek to deal with homelessness. Clause 6 would place a duty on local housing authorities to assist persons, who have lost their home or in the opinion of the relevant authority are likely to lose their home within the next 30 days, to secure accommodation, whether or not those persons are ordinarily resident in the area of that authority.

Clause 7 would require a local housing authority to take account of guidance concerning priorities issued by the Secretary of State and, subject to that, would permit the authority to give preference to persons in either of two groups. The first group is those with dependent children living with them or in the care of a local authority. The second group is adult families, or those living alone, who either lose their homes as a result of an emergency or are vulnerable because of youth, old age, disability, pregnancy or other special reason.

Clause 8 would require a local housing authority to seek the collaboration of other local authorities, with a view to securing the most effective use of all available local government services.

Taken by themselves, each of these clauses sounds eminently reasonable. They are, after all, an attempt to build into the statutes some of the points in the advisory homelessness circular. I do not intend to take drafting points on these clauses, though they are far from adequate. Something of the good intentions in them—particularly in Clause 7—I would want to see in Government legislation. But only after consultations and considered drafting enable us to get them right.

In the light of the Government's announced intentions, my conclusion and advice to the House——

Mr. Lane

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before he finishes his speech would he kindly answer the second question which I asked him about the timing of the review and whether there is hope of introducing legislation this Session on homelessness? Moreover, how early in 1977 do the Government hope that the effects of that legislation can be brought into force?

Mr. Armstrong

I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety and I shall certainly deal with that matter.

In the light of the Government's announced intentions, my conclusion and advice to the House must be that an interim measure would do more harm than good. It would not make Government legislation unnecessary. It would have to be replaced by Government legislation. It does not deal with the implications for social service legislation of placing a duty in respect of accommodation for homeless people on housing authorities. It does not clarify the related responsibilities of the social services. It would thus only add to the confusion about the duties and powers of housing and social services authorities.

I think, also, that it would complicate the formal change-over to housing authorities in ways which would not help the prospects of homeless people. It would be a sort of halfway house. Finally, I think it is clear that Part II of the Bill is not needed to spur the Government into action.

I have no reason to suppose that the local authority associations—and it is local authoritiles to whom the House primarily looks to deal with homelessness—would prefer the hon. Member's Bill to the Government's proposals. I understand also that a number of volntary organisations have made it quite clear that they do not support this Bill.

I understand the desire of the hon. Members for Cambridge and other hon. Members that Parliament should be seen to be doing something for the homeless now. I recognise that the House will want to be assured of the Government's intention that we shall introduce worthwhile, effective and comprehensive legislation, with accompanying guidance that we shall do so in ways more suitable than trying to improve on the present Bill, and that we shall not be long about it.

As the House will know, it is not open to me, or to any Minister, at this stage in the present Session to give a categorical assurance that Government legislation will be introduced next Session. But short of such an assurance I point out that the Government have announced their intention to legislate, so as to put the responsibility for accommodation for homeless people statutorily on housing authorities and to clarify the related responsibilities of social services authorities. The Government have made it clear that they will do so in consultation with the local authority associations, and with voluntary bodies concerned with housing and social services.

It is our intention to introduce legislation, and to develop the advice and guidance which has to accompany it, as soon as practicable. It is my hope and belief that we shall be able to do so early—would hope very early—in the next Session.

I am taking the chair at two meetings, next Tuesday and Wednesday, with the local authority associations and voluntary bodies, respectively. I shall be accompanied at each meeting by my hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Services and representation from the Welsh Office. I point out to the hon. Member that we would have liked to hold these meetings earlier.

Indeed, there is a sense—I do not want to make anything of this—in which the hon. Gentleman's Bill has already distracted us from our timetable. I do not want to make too much of this. It is only a matter of days. The hon. Gentleman well understands what is involved. However, as a House of Commons man like my colleagues I thought it right to defer our meetings so that we could take account of the view taken by the House on the Bill and of points made by hon. Members. I have been much encouraged by the debate.

We want these meetings to be followed up by more detailed discussions, at official level, on the main subject areas. I have indicated these to those we are consulting, and would like—to show the House that we mean business—to say now what they are.

The first main subject is the form and extent of the statutory responsibility on housing authorities. The second is the clarification of the related responsibilities of social services authorities. The third is the content of guidance which would build on and replace the joint circular of February 1974. We attach particular importance to developing this guidance in parallel with the preparation of legislation. The fourth is the implementation of the legislation and of guidance. The fifth is the resources—both finance and staff—and powers.

It is against this background that I have to say to the House that the Government—and my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security and the Welsh Office fully join me in this—are bound to regard Part II as a distraction from the real detailed, work which needs to be done, and to recommend to the House that the Bill should not proceed.

I hope that the House will welcome, as I do, the opportunity which Part II has provided, of enabling hon. Members to express their views on homelessness and to put the Government's position on the record. It is on that basis that I suggest to the hon. Member that it would not in practice be helpful to the causes I know he has at heart for his Bill, however well-intentioned, to proceed: that I ask him to withdraw it; and that I would ask the House, if he does not withdraw it not to allow it to proceed further.

2.31 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I add my personal congratulations to those of other hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on the presentation of this very important measure and on the thoughtful and measured way in which he introduced it. Underlying all that is the undoubted compassion he has for homeless people and for those suffering because of dire housing stress.

I am therefore very disappointed at the Minister's reply. My hon. Friend quite clearly was not seeking any form of confrontation with the Labour Party on a matter which still obviously holds acute political differences between us. My hon. Friend was seeking to pinpoint certain areas in which, under the existing legislation, there are extreme difficulties, and in which the problems are greatly diminishing the availability of accommodation by acting as a deterrent to small landlords.

The Government view is that nothing can be done to save the small private landlord and that he will disappear over a period of time. That is the more euphemistic way of putting the proposition. In their speeches, Labour Back Benchers, however, have clearly denoted the deep antipathy that exists towards anyone who bears the label of private landlord, however good he may be. I do not know why it should be regarded as something to be deplored when someone is prepared to make his property available to provide homes for other people. All he requires is a reasonable return on the capital he has invested.

I do not think there is any disagreement in the House on security of tenure. Provided the landlord has a fair return and a reasonable tenant he will not play games with eviction. He wants only his return and a good tenant, and we must create the climate in which they can exist. They cannot exist if Parliament perpetually passes laws which put on the landlord too great an onus—an onus that he regards as unfair, when he cannot get his property back if he reasonably requires it for his own use; and when, if he is confronted with a bad tenant, he is subjected to enormous expenditure and delays at law. In that kind of situation he will not let. Since Parliament made laws creating that situation it bears a heavy degree of responsibility for the lack of homes which now exists and for the people who are looking for accommodation that is denied them because landlords are not prepared to let under the existing law.

That is the real reason for the decline in rented accommodation. The Minister can refer back in history, to what happened after the First World War, but it is incontrovertible that the Rent Act 1974 had a disastrous effect upon the supply of rented accommodation. The Minister perpetually asks for evidence. I ask him to come down from the 17th floor of his ivory tower in Marsham Street and talk to ordinary mortals on the ground. He will find both landlords and tenants who say that the Rent Act has dried up the supply of rented accommodation. I have visited towns and cities from Southampton to Carlisle, and from Bristol to Norwich, and I have heard the same story everywhere. The evidence is there for the Minister to find if he wants it, but he does not want it. He wants to follow the great ideal of the Socialist Party, of bringing rented property into public ownership. That is all that matters to him.

My hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and Leek (Mr. Knox) asked why there could not be a bipartisan policy on housing. They wanted to know why we could not find a measure of agreement through which we could reach a solution to the housing problem. I have said repeatedly that housing has become a political football between the parties, and the only losers are the people who are seeking accommodation. For as long as the Labour Party is wedded to the dictum that all landlords are villains and should not be allowed to exist, and that all rented property should be brought into public ownership, it is difficult to see any possible common ground.

Perhaps Labour Members, however, will begin to realise that the public sector by itself cannot solve the housing problem within our lifetime. The housing cuts announced only yesterday in the Chancellor's White Paper—they involve subsidies of about £650 million—indicate beyond doubt that we do not and will not have the resources, through municipalisation, council house building and public sector subsidies, to provide the accommodation that is immediately needed. That accommodation lies vacant in the private sector, unlet and unused, because the landlords are afraid of the existing law.

We must recognise these facts of life. Councils cannot find the answers to the problem. The money just is not there and it will not be. Therefore, we must work in both the public and private sectors to provide homes for the people. As long as Labour Members are blinded by their bias that only public ownership is good, a solution will never be found. We must seek common ground, subject only to the propositions that I have put. We must recognise the facts of life as they exist and work together to provide the homes for our people. I wish that we could find common ground, but at the moment it seems impossible, although I never give up hope. No doubt the facts of life will ultimately convince even Labour Members of what is required.

There are areas of difficulty in which emergency action is needed, not a wait for a study taking over a year and then delay before further legislation.

Immediate steps need to be taken to have an instant beneficial effect. My hon. Friend's first proposition relates to fixed-term lettings. Labour Members were saying that the moment the Government start this sort of amendment to the legislation the property investors and the public companies will benefit. However, they should understand that Clause 1 restricts this provision to the residential landlord.

The law as it stands is a trap to the residential landlord. If he gives a first fixed-term letting, at the end of that term he can get back possession without difficulty. The county court is obliged to make an order, and the rent tribunal has no jurisdiction. If he extends that term for another fixed term of, say, six months, or a year, the tenant immediately becomes fully protected, as though the landlord were non-resident. The landlord has no chance of getting him to go if that is what he wants.

What is the consequence? The consequence is that the landlord who obtains proper advice will, at the end of the first fixed term, get rid of his tenant, even though he would like to keep him, and will bring in another tenant on another first fixed term. It is nonsense that a tenant should be forced to leave his home because we have made the law as it is.

The ill-advised landlord is in a desperate trap. I should like to extend this comment to the landlord who is temporarily away from his residence, because he is sent abroad—for example, a civil servant working in the Foreign Office who may have a furnished house that he wants to let. First, the building society will say "No, we will not give you permission." That is standard practice. Although Case 10 of Schedule 3 of the Rent Act 1968 gives a temporarily absent owner-occupier the right to get back his property under a mandatory order by the county court, the wording is not perfect, and difficulties can and do arise. Building societies, wishing to protect their investments on behalf of people who have lent them money, will say to a landlord who is going abroad temporarily "You do not have our permission to let. The law is too difficult and uncertain"——

Mr. George Cunningham

They should not say that.

Mr. Rossi

So the property is left empty. The protection of Case 10 does not apply to a civil servant who is sent abroad, rents his property, and then finds he is returned to a different part of the United Kingdom from that in which his house is situated. He will not be able to repossess his house in order to sell it and use the proceeds to buy a house in another part of the country. There being no rented accommodation available, he will have to buy a second house and have the burden of two mortgages. That is why the Foreign Office has had to send out a circular to its people overseas pointing out that if they let in these circumstances public funds will be made available for them to remain in hotel accommodation and to pay legal fees until such time as they are able to repossess their own properties. It is nonsense, in these times of economic stress, to have to subsidise civil servants in this way until they are able to get back their own homes. Obviously my hon. Friend was right to pinpoint this first fixed-term letting anomaly as requiring immediate correction.

Mr. George Cunningham

How often has that happened?

Mr. Rossi

A sufficient number of times for the Foreign Office to feel that it was necessary to send out that circular.

I turn now to the small shopkeeper with empty accommodation. If the Minister will come down from his ivory tower and walk round the suburbs of London, he will see terrace after terrace of small shops above which are dirty, flyblown windows with tatty lace curtains having behind them no more than a couple of empty cardboard boxes. Why? Because the small shopkeeper, looking forward ultimately to his retirement, knows well that he will stand a better chance of selling his business if he can offer it to a young couple who are looking not only for an income but for accommodation. Therefore, he deliberately keeps empty the accommodation above his shop, against the day of his retirement. If he were to let that accommodation, under the terms of our existing legislation he would stand no chance of getting it back and his prospects of retirement on reasonable terms would be denied him. Not only that; access to the living accommodation is often through the shop itself.

Mr. George Cunningham

Why do they not live there?

Mr. Rossi

The shopkeeper will wish to be sure that any tenant is highly responsible before he allows him through his business premises at all times of the day and night. He wants to be sure that if he finds a tenant who is not responsible and wants him out, he can get him out with the minimum of trouble and disturbance. If he cannot do that, he will prefer to keep the premises empty. Empty premises mean the denial of available homes to people who are in desperate need. That is a situation to which hon. Gentlemen opposite deliberately close their eyes because they do not want to know about it. They are concerned, basically, not with providing homes for people but with social ownership first and foremost. Anything which stands in the way of bringing property into public ownership is apparently to be disregarded and discounted.

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

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that over a year ago I had discussions with the Property Owners' Federation on, among a number of matters, precisely that point. I asked for case material. I am still waiting for it and I look forward to receiving it. In the meantime, I should welcome the hon. Gentleman giving me documentary evidence of the cases to which he referred, of streets and terraces of empty properties.

Mr. Rossi

The hon. Gentleman should do what I do. He should come down from his ivory tower and walk round and see for himself. Throughout the country, every time I say that the Minister for Housing and Construction has not got evidence that his legislation has diminished the supply of rented property, I get the biggest laugh I could ever wish for.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

Come back, Paul.

Mr. Rossi

I know that hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches do not like what I am saying. It is penetrating too deeply. However, it must be said and I shall keep saying it.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Shouting from a sedentary position is not consonant with the rules of order in this place.

Mr. Rossi

The position of students has been mentioned. The Minister may like to know that I have caused a letter to be written to the various universities and polytechnics and that I now have a file of replies. The replies are mixed. The evidence varies. Some universities, which have a substantial supply of halls of residence, have no problems. In certain areas the problem is less acute than in others. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the Rent Act 1974 is causing substantial difficulties in a number of university areas. I shall quote from one of them. The writer of this letter says: I should be grateful if the University's identity could be kept confidential in any use made of the figures. Obviously vice-chancellors of universities become subject to unfortunate political pressure from some more extreme elements within the universities. Therefore, I shall respect his request.

The writer continues: I am safe in stating that at least 25‱30 properties have been withdrawn as a direct result of the 1974 Act. This represents accommodation for between 60 and 100 single students or could represent a large proportion of the accommodation required for married students with families. He goes to to say: Houses and flats occupied by students prior to the Rent Act and withdrawn when students vacated number about 20, again representing places for between 60 and 80 students. In that area the Rent Act 1974 certainly had an adverse effect.

That is supported by a body which has no political affiliation—the Association of University Accommodation Officers, which is responsible for finding accommodation for students throughout the country. The officers of the Association are convinced that a registration scheme of the kind referred to by my hon. Friend is necessary to enable them to find desperately-needed accommodation.

I know that the National Union of Students has expressed a contrary view, but its view is set forth in two contradictory propositions. The first part of its resolution says that students are ordinary members of society anad ought not to receive preferential treatment, and then it says that this legislation would reduce students' rights and discriminate against them. The NUS cannot have it both ways, but apparently it thinks it can, and this is not unconnected in some people's minds with the fact that some of the leaders of the NUS take a stance that is more political than in the interests of their members

If Government Members want a quotation from the students themselves, let me quote from the Oxford Times of 13th February, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge will forgive me for mentioning the other place. The article is written by Mr. Gareth Daniel, Chairman of the Accommodation Committee of the Oxford Students' Union. He says: Much private rented accommodation seems to have been withdrawn from the market with the result that the cost of the remaining rooms, flats and houses has been bid up by competitive pressures. And all this against a background of students being forced, like other young people, to accept places which are not only expensive but also, in many cases, overcrowded, poorly equipped and remote from the city centre. If there were a proper registration system the university would vet the accommodation to make sure that it was suitable and proper for student needs and register it on its books. There would be no means of evading the Act in the sense that the mere registration could be used as a loophole; because a student would have to be the tenant before any exception to the operation of the Act was made available to the landlord.

Thus we have clear evidence of the situation from the accommodation officers and from a student, though it is not accepted by the national student body and its officers. But that is another matter. I ask the Minister to note that, because about a year ago I received a written undertaking that the Government would introduce legislation to except student accommodation from the operation of the 1974 Act. But the pressures of the NUS on the Government are such that they have backed down from that undertaking, and that is the shameful position today. The reinforcement of the North Wiltshire scheme which my hon. Friend has introduced would be welcome because it would remove some of the hesitation and doubt that landlords have about what their position might be if the local authorities dropped out.

If the Bill gets to Committee, as I hope it will, I trust that the Minister will consider another matter. Some landlords are concerned because they feel that at the end of the tenancy the local authority still confronted with a housing problem in its area may seek to use its compulsory purchase powers. Therefore some landlords would rather not identify the property to the local authority because of that fear. Perhaps the Bill could be strengthened by putting in a clause that would prevent local authorities from doing that.

The extension of shortholds is not mentioned in the Bill, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) is here and perhaps he will be able to speak on that as a valuable extension to the Bill.

I have detained the House for over long. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I expected that from hon. Gentlemen opposite and that is why I made the comment. I hope that the House will accept the Bill for what it is—a non-controversial measure not intended as a confrontation with the Labour Party. I have replied to certain political statements made today, and I have tried to indicate to my hon. Friends why, regrettably, we are unable to reach common ground with the Labour Party over this desperate housing problem. We are always ready to do so when Government Members are prepared to face the facts of life, abandon blind dogma and help the people of this country.

2.56 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has made it clear that the only common ground is that on his side of the House. He has made my position very much more difficult. I would have risen to speak in favour of the Bill with the exception of Clause 3, but having heard his cheap party political speech—I know that he is capable of very much better things—I am a little less certain about the attitude that I shall take.

I was disappointed at the speech of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, because in effect he said that legislation is too important for Parliament and is solely the job of the Government. Notwithstanding the speech of the hon. Member for Hornsey, I ask my hon. Friends to consider and, I trust, support the measure on the understanding that we shall take out Clause 3 in Committee, because what has been demonstrated is that there is a need for certain changes in the Rent Acts. Minor changes are needed to the Acts, but I do not want to see a fundamental review of the Acts of the kind to which my hon. Friend referred. The effect of saying that there will be such a review will merely defeat the strategy of the Rent Acts.

I do not think that any of my hon. Friends will accuse me of being opposed to the Rent Act 1974. I can claim to have been one of those principally pressing for it, and I was responsible for proposing a motion at the 1969 Labour Party Conference which led to the Labour Party being committed to extend security of tenure to furnished tenants. But there are minor anomalies in the Act, and the hon. Member for Hornsey has rightly pointed out one with which Clause I deals.

I know from my experience that resident landlords, even though they may be properly advised, are apprehensive when they give a tenancy and then allow it to continue thereafter, simply because of the confusion of the legislation. The legislation has constituted a disincentive to letting. Long before the Bill was discussed I made representations to my hon. Friend the Minister that it would be desirable to legislate to put right the point with which Clause 1 deals. I would prefer the clause to make clear that Part VI of the Rent Act would apply to such tenancies. Amendments could well be introduced to ensure that at the end of a fixed-term tenancy Part VI protection comes into effect. Notwithstanding what my hon. Friends have said. I think that that could be dealt with simply in Committee. It is a job for a Committee, and does not require a fundamental review of the Rent Act.

When one says that there will be a fundamental review of the Rent Act, one destroys the strategy. Landlords prefer to let without security if they can, and if there is likely to be a change in the situation they hold property off the market. They did that before the 1974 General Election in case the Conservatives returned, but the property is now coming back on to the market

The Rent Act coincided with a fall in property values for other reasons. People tried to sell the property but, having found that they could not, are now letting again. If we talk about a fundamental review of the Rent Act landlords will wait until the review has taken place before letting. That means delaying for a year or more the time at which property comes back on to the market. I urge my hon. Friends to bear in mind this essential ingredient of the strategy of the Act, that landlords will let because there is no other use for the property. As soon as one holds out the carrot that there may be some other use, they will not let again, and so a fundamental review of the Act could be disastrous.

Let us deal with the anomalies we know about by sending the Bill to a Committee where they can be ironed out. They are relatively small. The Committee procedure to deal with them is appropriate.

Clause 2 makes a small but desirable improvement. I am glad to assure my hon. Friends that it will not deal with the case which the hon. Member for Hornsey advanced, that of a shopkeeper who wants to sell his shop. It deals merely with the shopkeeper who owns shops with a flat over it, who has a vacancy for the time being, and who wants to be able to ensure that he can regain possession of the flat if he wants it for accommodation for a manager. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary accepts this general principle, we should legislate for it. It is desirable that we should legislate for those matters that we already know about.

I come to Clause 3. I accept that the kind of accommodation that students want is not readily available, but Sussex University, for example, cannot fill the halls of residence because students want flats. I am not prepared to be a party to legislation making it easier for students to obtain a flat and more difficult for a family to do so, which would be the effect of the clause. I am obliged to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) for making it clear that he is prepared to withdraw the clause, for I should certainly oppose it.

Mr. Lane

I hope that I made clear in my opening speech that I should like in Committee a discussion in greater depth than we have been able to have today on the whole student situation. If I am persuaded in Committee that the provision is wrong, I shall of course withdraw it.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. I am pretty sure that we can convince him that it is wrong.

The purpose of Clause 4 is to facilitate the North Wiltshire scheme. It is generally acknowledged that lettings by a landlord to a local authority which can itself let are desirable, and to ensure that this happens we should have the small change introduced by the Bill, making it clear that if the local authority hands back the property complete with tenant the landlord will be able to get the tenant out. In practice, authorities operating the North Wiltshire scheme undertake to do that, but the clause will clear up the anxiety which some people may feel about the operation of such a scheme.

I think that we need Clause 5 Sub-letting by tenants of local authorities". I do not think that it is desirable that council tenants should have any pressure put upon them to vacate their homes when their children leave home. They should be entitled to remain, and if they wish to take in a lodger it is unreasonable for a local authority to refuse permission, because that reduces the availability of accommodation.

I believe that Part I, with the major exception of Clause 3, is desirable. Part II is more difficult. I accept that there is a case for a fundamental review of homelessness and for the consultations to which my hon. Friend referred. The voluntary organisations have written to those hon. Members who have shown an interest in the subject saying that they are not happy with the Bill, because it does not go as far as they wish, but the Government are not happy with the Bill because they believe that it goes too far. It imposes a duty, and I understand that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are not sure that the local authorities are willing to accept it.

If the Bill goes into Committee, we as Back Benchers will have an opportunity to take part in the review. I was interested in the reference to the opportunity that is to be given to Back Benchers to take part in the review——

Mr. George Cunningham

Hear, hear.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

—as that was the first we had heard of it. I suppose that the most effective means of ensuring that Back Benchers have the opportunity to take part in it is to get the Bill into Committee.

It may well be that the wording in Part II is not ideal, but we can deal with that in Committee. We have not concluded our deliberations, and by giving the Bill a Second Reading we would not be accepting legislation but referring a Bill to Committee. The effect of giving a Bill a Second Reading—I trust that we shall do so—is to allow discussion to take place in Committee. There are two matters that we shall have to discuss—namely, the minor amendments to the Rent Act and the form in which the review should take place.

Notwithstanding the party political speech of the hon. Member for Hornsey, which very nearly turned me away from the course on which I had decided, I ask my hon. Friends to support the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will reconsider their decision.

3.7 p.m.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

In the two years that I have been in the House this is only the third Friday debate that I have attended. Normally I am in my constituency on a Friday but it seemed that the Bill was of such importance and enjoyed such common ground that it warranted my attendance and a small contribution.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) made some valid points in his brief speech. He raised some matters that I hope the Government will take on board, not least a holding off by landlords in the light of a prospective review which I understand is unlikely to see the light of day until 1979. That is a depressing thought for all hon. Members.

I support the Bill because of its limited nature. Clause 1 can make a useful contribution by effecting relatively minor changes in the law. I believe there are about 2¼ million to 2½ million privately rented properties still available. I believe that only 750,000 of those properties are furnished. I do not know how many of them have resident landlords. The noble Baroness Birk has suggested that the total is about 170,000. Most of us who have an interest in these matters would venture to suggest that that is a considerable under-estimate. Indeed, categorical evidence that has become available would suggest that the total is nearer 250,000, and possibly as high as 500,000.

I think it will be generally recognised that the 1974 Act, and especially the unfortunate printing dispute that took place immediately after its enactment, caused a degree of confusion in the market. It is true that there was a fair degree of panic which, on reflection, proved unnecessary. Equally, we must recognise that the Francis Committee considered furnished lettings in some detail. It issued the warnings that if there were legislation there would be a decline. I happen to believe, although some of my hon. Friends may not agree with me, that we shall continue to see a decline in furnished accommodation and accommodation to let in general, and that it will reach a point, not at which it disappears, but runs off to a plateau.

However, there is increasing evidence of the availability of resident landlords' property for letting. London Members should raise their sights beyond London. Two hon. Members opposite know an area of London better than I do now—but I knew it, too—in which there is accommodation which should be brought back into the market. The landlords have the accommodation and, on the whole, are willing to let it provided they can find tenants with whom they are satisfied.

That is why we should consider the evidence. The Minister continually suggests that nobody sends him evidence. He knows full well that I sent him some fairly detailed evidence from Northampton early in 1975. I am sure that he is well aware of the survey of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, published this week, which covered a sample of 50 estate agents throughout the country who had a fair amount of letting business. The survey showed that since the 1974 Act there had been a 10 per cent. fall in the number of furnished properties, and the general feeling of the estate agents was that that rate of decline was faster than they would have expected. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the survey was that in the inner urban areas, particularly London, the fall had been 20 per cent., which, by any yardstick, was much faster than people would have expected, given the normal decline in the market.

Secondly, and conversely, the survey showed that the number of applicants for furnished accommodation in the past 18 months had increased and the average age of the applicants had fallen. Therefore, young people, and young married couples in particular, are not able to find the sort of accommodation in which I suspect most of us, including myself, started life—two furnished rooms. Thirdly, the survey showed that properties which became vacant were being sold on the open market.

I asked a member of my staff to speak to three of the leading accommodation agents in London to ascertain the furnished lettings situation. We spoke to Furnished Letting Services Limited and the Burlington Bureau, both of which are large accommodation agencies in London, and a small but respected agency, the Susan Harris Company. The consensus of all three was that there was a much greater drying up of furnished accommodation than there had been immediately following the Rent Act but that there had been a pick-up recently, although it was far below what one would have expected had not the Rent Act been introduced.

Secondly—and this is the worrying aspect—lettings of accommodation which is coming back on the market are being restricted to foreigners who prove that they have a passport, to holiday lets—the extension of holiday lets for tourists in London has been mentioned, so the question is as relevant to London as it is to coastal regions—and to serviced accommodation, in other words, where the supply of food is involved.

With such pick-up as there is, the accommodation is not going to the people who need it. The comment which we received from the staff of the Burlington Bureau was that the Rent Act had had a disastrous effect on the availability of accommodation, particularly for married couples, and it is married couples about whom we are most concerned. It is becoming virtually impossible to accommodate young English couples.

That is a genuine comment, and if there is a relatively simple solution, we ought to consider it. Certainly something should be done before 1979. The Susan Harris Agency said there had been such a severe shortage of furnished accommodation that it could no longer survive on the revenue from furnished lettings. The column inches in the classified advertisement pages of the Evening Standard and Evening News in London are a fair guide to what is coming on the market, and the figures have dipped significantly since the Act was passed. Reports from the housing committees of a number of London boroughs confirm that there has been a faster decline since the 1974 Act than would otherwise have been expected.

The wording of Clause 1 of the Bill may be technically deficient—I suspect that every Private Member's Bill is—but we should take into Committee and look at it in depth.

There have been a number of examples in the debate of misconceptions about the rights of landlords and tenants. We must find a way through the problems. If the Minister does not want to try out the provisions of Clause 1 in central London because of the historic problems of some inner London boroughs, it ought to be possible to find an area in which to undertake a test exercise, if necessary outside the major conurbations. I invite him and his officials to visit Northampton where, on the whole, there is no great problem with letting and the people of the town wonder why the Rent Act was necessary. The same situation exists in many towns, and it should be possible at least to test the Bill on a trial basis in a town in the United Kingdom.

Anybody who has been involved in housing understands the Government's desire for a thorough review. There is a terrible mish-mash of legislation going back over many years, but an opportunity is before us now and it would be criminal to ignore it and to say that we are not even prepared to consider it until the review has taken place.

The same comment applies to Clause 2, which affects fewer lettings but could be helpful to shopkeepers. I was told at Leicester Polytechnic last week by students attending a meeting on housing that they did not share the views of the National Union of Students and that they and a number of other polytechnics and universities were leaving the NUS because of policy disagreements. Clause 3 provides another area that should be looked at, and once again we may not need a pan-United Kingdom policy. It should be possible to devise a regional policy geared to particular areas.

I remind hon. Members that it is 10 years since we saw "Cathy Come Home" on television. We must not allow another 10 years to pass before such problems are resolved. If hon. Members with practical experience of housing see opportunities of dealing with the problems, it is right to take action, whether or not it cuts across the major review rightly being undertaken by the Government. If we can act successfully, we should do so in the interests of giving people their own homes.

If the Government saw sufficient merit in the West Midlands County Council Bill to recommend that it should be given a Second Reading, they should see enough merit in this Bill to recommend a Second Reading. The Bill is not nearly as controversial as was the West Midlands County Council Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has bent over backwards to confine the Bill to two aspects. I wish that he had confined himself only to Part I. The two aspects to which the Bill is confined should be non-contentious and they are aspects on which hon. Members on both sides of the House feel that we should be able to make progress. The ideal way of doing that is to allow the Bill to go into Committee, the Committee being composed of hon. Members who have practical experience, so that they may be able to provide short-term answers. I hope that the Government will respond in that way and not in the negative way of claiming to know all the answers so that it will be 1979 before anything is done.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Before calling the next hon. Member, I remind the House that it is customary in debating a Private Member's Bill for one of the mover's hon. Friends to wind up the debate on his behalf.

3.21 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I agree with the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) that the solution to every defect in the law is not necessarily to be found in a review by Government spanning a period of time. I am especially suspicious of long-term reviews. When they are fundamental, long-term reviews my suspicion matures into hostility. We do better by piecemeal legislation than by long-term reviews that go so deep under the surface that they never come up again.

I shall deal first with Part I of the Bill. The case has been made that furnished accommodation has been restricted as a result of the 1974 Act. We all recognise that there is some furnished accommodation which would have been available on the market but for the 1974 Act. No one can contest that. But there is other furnished accommodation available which would not have been available but for that Act, because the tenants would have been got out and the property would have been sold with vacant possession. Which of those two factors, operating in opposite directions, predominates will vary from area to area.

In my sort of area in a city the second, beneficial factor has been predominant, but in other areas, mainly of low housing stress, the first factor may predominate. If that is the balance, it is right to go for legislation that tends to operate on "beneficial" areas where the housing stress is greatest.

I come to Part II of the Bill. There is enormous confusion, not least among local authority elected representatives, about what is the obligation of local authorities to house the homeless. Four aspects arise in considering the obligation that should lie. First, should there be a legal obligation? I prefer "legal" to "statutory". Secondly, if so, what is the best definition of the category of beneficiaries under that obligation? Should it include single people as well as married couples with children? Thirdly, how watertight should be the obligation and the definition of the beneficiaries? To what extent should discretion be left in the hands of local authorities to deal flexibly with the situation? To what extent do we want to limit that discretion for fear that local authorities will not do what we want them to do? Fourthly, should the obligation rest with local authorities that have housing responsibilities or with local authorities that have social services responsibilities, where the two are different?

Many local councillors do not understand that they have an obligation. That obligation is not a vague one but a statutory, legal one. Under Section 195 of the Local Government Act 1972 the Secretary of State for Social Services is empowered to issue directions to local authorities in this regard. The then Secretary of State did so at the tail end of the Conservative Government in 1974.

These directions are contained in the Department of Health and Social Security's Circular 13 of 1974. I find that all local councillors interested in this point are familiar with the Department of the Environment's Circular 18 of 1974—the one which does not contain law at all—but are not familiar with the DHSS circular, which is the one that contains these statutory obligations. The obligation under the DHSS circular, issued under statute, is to provide residential accommodation for persons who are ordinarily resident in the area of the Council or for other persons who are in urgent need thereof and who by reason of age, infirmity or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them". That is the first group of beneficiaries. The second obligation is to provide temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need thereof, being need arising in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen or in such circumstances as the authority may in any particular case determine". The statutory obligation that matters most is to offer temporary accommodation to people in need whose need arises in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen". That, of course, is the definition that has been the law of the land since 1948. T think that that obligation, leaving aside for the moment the question whether it should rest on the social services or housing authorities, is just about right.

I regret the bullying and cajoling language, which I think has in some respects been taken seriously, contained in the Department of the Environment's Circular 18 of 1974. I refer, for example, to paragraph 13, which states, as if it were a proposition of the law, that The prevention and relief of homelessness is a function of local government as a whole and not of either housing authorities or social services authorities alone. I think that many people would misunderstand that to mean that there is a legal obligation to do something for any homeless person, or at least any homeless family. Paragraph 11 of the circular says that For these Priority Groups, the issue is not whether, but by what means, local authorities should provide accommodation themselves or help those concerned to obtain accommodation themselves or help those concerned to obtain accommodation in the private sector. But perhaps the most serious statement is in paragraph 33: and in the last resort if homelessness becomes a real prospect, even if it does seem to have been self-inflicted, Councils should give the degree of help necessary to secure that people are not left without shelter. There is one big fact of life that we all have to take into account in considering this emotive question. Local authorities in England and Wales have approximately one-third of the dwellings in their hands. If they have only one-third of the dwellings, one cannot give them an unqualified obligation to house any family or any person who is homeless in their areas. It might work in some parts of the country, but it is certainly not going to work in London. A large number of people drift to London. They do not always drift to London to do a job of a kind that they had before they came here; sometimes they drift to London to try to find a job. Sometimes they are not successful in finding a job. Sometimes they drift to London with no intention whatever of looking for a job.

If a local authority, situated right on the edge of one of the railway termini, is to have an obligation to house any homeless family that finds itself in that area, we shall never be able to provide for the 13,000 families now on the waiting list of the borough of Islington.

At the moment my borough council, which adopts a very humane attitude to this problem—more humane, I confess, than my attitude—does its best to house any such family, but if the obligation is made categorical and legally enforceable, we shall not be able to do much, for a very prolonged period, for the many people who have been waiting for a long time.

The Explanatory Memorandum makes a curious claim, in respect of Part II, that Clause 6 clarifies the duty of housing authorities towards homeless persons. I can see that some hon. Members might welcome what the Bill does in respect of that obligation, but one thing it certainly does not do is to clarify the obligation. If the Bill became the law of the land, the first thing every local authority would have to do would be to run to the best lawyer it could find—preferably half a dozen lawyers, but then there would probably be half a dozen answers—in order to discover what obligation the Bill imposed upon it.

The obligation is expressed as being a duty to assist in the securing of accommodation for the persons defined. There are two ends of the spectrum, and it could mean anything in between. It could mean supplying a list of people who have telephoned the town hall saying that they have an empty room. It could mean supplying a list of estate agents in the area. At the other end, it could be taken to mean supplying whatever assistance was required in order to get a roof over a person's head or a family's head. It would, I think, be taken to mean the less ambitious of those two things, or something close to that less ambitious end.

There would also then be—as I said in an intervention earlier in the debate—a double obligation resting upon different local authorities. The Bill would not remove the statutory obligation resting upon social service authorities, to which I referred earlier, but at the same time—and paralleled with it and jumbled up with it—there would be a much lighter obligation to assist in housing these families.

Even if that obligation were kept in those terms—an obligation merely to assist—in an area such as mine it would be an unreasonable burden to put upon the local authority. It would mean, for example, that if a son of a family, previously living with the family in Glasgow, left home, came to London and presented himself to Islington Borough Council, that council would have an obligation to do something for him. It would have to do something in order to comply with the Bill.

I do not think it is right or reasonable—given the intense difficulties that inner city areas experience in doing something for those in enormous need, having lived for years in damp, rat-infested basements—to impose upon a council an additional obligation in respect of categories of people who are in a far lower order of priority.

I recognise that the tone and content of my remarks will be held to be unfeeling by many of my colleagues, but we have to face the fact that in the inner city areas, especially in London, if we increase the obligations of local authorities to people who come from outside the area, they can discharge them only at the expense of their obligations to people living in those areas who have been waiting for many long years.

One result in London would be that instead of having a sense of community, through being able to house the children of people who had been living in the area, we should lose all sense of community, because there would be an even munity, because there would be an even faster turnover of the population than there is at the moment. London is too large for people to identify with it. They do not identify with London. Possibly they identify with a borough. In the case of my own borough, many people identify with Finsbury, as the hon. Member for Northampton, South, who was leader of the council, knows. It is highly desirable, socially, that that identification with bits of London should continue and at least not be undermined. It will be undermined if we create too strong an obligation to house people who do not have that kind of connection.

3.36 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

In opening these concluding remarks in the de-debate, may I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) on his success in the Ballot and on producing such a useful stab at legislation in this extremely difficult area of activity? I am sorry that I had to leave for a short while in the middle of the debate and did not hear every speech, but I have spoken to my hon. Friend about those which occurred in my absence, and I hope to comment on each of them in the course of my remarks.

Sometimes the reaction of Government supporters did not reflect it, but it is worth remembering that my hon. Friend having been successful in the Ballot and having with his long interest in housing matters decided to tackle this subject, did not seek to introduce a Bill which was in any way politically contentious on any sort of party basis. He could, for example, have produced a Bill to enforce the sale of council houses, with which many of us would have agreed but which would have been considered highly controversial. Instead, he undertook a series of consultations to produce a measure which would not only be useful but would get a broad degree of acceptance in this House and elsewhere. He is to be congratulated on having taken that attitude and having set out to produce this modest and moderate measure to help people suffering from some of the anomalies which flow from our present system of rent control and people who are suffering homelessness.

I felt a real sense of disappointment at the reaction of Government supporters during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi). I felt that they were trying to hide from reality behind hilarity. My hon. Friend put the case and began to adduce the evidence in a way which clearly was not very palatable to Ministers. I hope that they will forgive me if at times in my remarks I appear a little combative.

It was the Under-Secretary, normally a charming man, who threw down the gauntlet by saying that the Government intended to oppose this measure in the Division Lobby. Someone once said, "This animal is dangerous. If attacked, he bites." If Ministers are prepared to recommend to the House that it should turn down this eminently sensible and reasonable measure, they must expect those of us who believe in it to fight for our cause.

The Bill is about two areas and is in two distinct parts—first, the privately rented sector, and, second, the area of homelessness. No one will deny that in both areas there are immense problems at which, in the words of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), this Bill does no more than begin to nibble.

In the privately rented sphere we have a varying set of attitudes across the political spectrum. Like the Minister, there are those who believe that all rented accommodation should eventually come into social ownership. There are those in my own party who believe that it is possible in some way to revive the privately rented sector and to expand its frontiers again. They do not want simply to arrest the decline which has taken place. They want to reverse it.

I do not believe that that is possible. I believe that the economics of a large-scale expansion of private renting are totally unfeasible. The main reason why we shall find it impossible to attract institutional money in the provision of housing to rent will be the political threat which the Labour Party has always held over private renting as a whole. In those circumstances I do not think anyone would be likely to invest their money in the provision of housing to rent. For those reasons I believe that any expansion of the privately rented section is unlikely.

For the moment we should ensure that the privately rented section is sustained and that we maximise the use made of our present stocks of privately rented accommodation. I accept the observations of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury about the need to retain the character of the villages of London and their communities.

However, London is a reality. It is a city, and in my view the greatest city in the world. London, like any great city, is fuelled by young people who move to it to take up their first job and to embark on the adventure of life in the city. If we eventually have a situation in which there is only monopoly local authority rented accommodation and owner-occupation involving a financial commitment or a commitment to stay in one place for an average of about eight years, with local authorities insisting on residential qualifications for housing, we must consider where the young people who come to London will be housed. What provisions will be made for them?

At present it is the privately rented sector which caters for their needs. The voluntary housing movements may be able to do something to assist but generally the privately rented sector is the most important means of providing young people with accommodation. If we allow that sector to decline too quickly and if we do not arrest the decline that is taking place at present, the prospects of the future of London society becoming ossified are very grave indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey spoke of the 1974 Act and its effects. He began to adduce evidence, which I believe Ministers are beginning to understand, of the effects of that Act. All but the most blinkered members of the Labour Party recognise that the 1974 Act, whatever its other merits, has caused a grave shrinkage in the supply of rented accommodation, certainly in London and certainly in my constituency, whch provides a great deal of rented accommodation.

I should like the Government to look at all sorts of ways of maximising the present stocks of housing for private renting. Perhaps there could be tax incentives encouraging people to let accommodation in their own homes. We could abolish the disincentive of the capital gains tax element which affects houses which have been used for letting. In various ways like that we could encourage people to bring forward accommodation for private renting.

The provisions of the Bill do at least take a step in the right direction, and that is the theme which I shall carry through my remarks. Whatever the merits of a fundamental review of the Rent Acts or of homelessness, what is most important in this area, as in so many others, is always to be taking steps in the right direction.

I shall certainly want to consider in detail in Committee the provisions of Clause 3 which deals with student accommodation. However, with that reservation I believe that Part I of the Bill would be a real step in the right direction, as I believe that Clause 2 on homelessness would be, too. We know that it is a growing problem and that single homelessness has been increasing at a fast rate.

Involved as I am in the charity Crisis at Christmas, which concentrates simply on emergency provision at Christmas time and in raising money for the voluntary agencies which deal with single homelessness, I have constantly borne in on me how large is the problem and how fast it is growing. The agencies providing in this sphere are under immense pressure from inflation. Their costs are going up tremendously and the level of donations is being squeezed constantly. They are caught in the pincers of inflation in a particularly awkward way. I hope that in this respect we shall not forget voluntary efforts and that we shall do our utmost to encourage the growth of the agencies.

I agree with many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury about the problems of London and of those areas which are close to ports, airports and railway termini. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge made it clear that there would have to be exceptions and exemptions in these areas for boroughs which experience these problems. Quite where the boundaries are drawn and which exemptions are permitted are precisely the points that we should be discussing in Committee once the Bill has had a Second Reading. We can then shape the sort of priorities and exemptions that we need, but the basic virtue of having a declaratory measure like this is good in itself.

The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) treated us to a general exposition of his Socialist philosophy and its compatibility or otherwise with freedom. I do not doubt that leading members of the Labour Party genuinely believe that it is possible to combine freedom with the march of Socialism, but history is against them. Socialism has in every area led to less freedom and less choice for the individual citizen. That is the fundamental reason why I am not a Socialist. It is not possible to combine the inexorable march of Socialism with the preservation of personal freedom. In housing, as in medicine and education, Socialism is about the denial of choice, not the maximising of human life chances, which is what government, should be about.

The hon. and learned Member referred to what he called the false premise underlying this legislation—that the more free market, the better. In abstract I might be tempted to agree to that, although I do not subscribe to the Centre for Policy Studies. I do not believe that it is possible to envisage any remote possibility in my lifetime of returning to a free market in rented accommodation in London, whatever may be the situation elsewhere.

I therefore want to see an emphasis on policy to encourage owner-occupation. It is fair for Labour Members to point out that it was the aftermath of the Rent Act 1957, which was designed to revive the privately-rented market, which led to the greatest haemorrhage out of the privately-rented sector. Therefore I do not believe that these steps will lead to the revival of the private rented market. There will be a controlled or regulated market in rented accommodation, and our jobs as legislators is to make sure that it operates as flexibly as possible and in the interests of the broadest section of the community. The financial mess, the aesthetic mistakes and the social problems which have arisen from the concentration on what the Minister calls social ownership are great and are being perceived more and more widely.

I believe that the tenor of speeches by my hon. Friends indicates the seeking of a common ground for housing policy to enable the parties to come together and to attempt to provide people with a better opportunity and sight at least of light at the end of the tunnel. However, as long as the reaction evinced by hon. Gentlemen opposite whilst my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey was speaking continues, they look in vain for that light.

The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said that the best that he wanted was turning out to be the enemy of the good. That point was reflected in many speeches by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

This is a good Bill. Hon. Gentlemen opposite want to wait and to rely eventually on what they see as the best coming out of these reviews which have been mentioned and therefore they want to postpone a decision on two important areas of activity covered by the Bill.

I could not understand the difficulty about Clause 5. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the courts would find difficulty in interpreting "not unreasonably withhold". I rejoice in saying that I am not a lawyer. However, almost every lease I have signed has included an expression about consent not being unreasonably withheld if one wants to assign the lease. In my innocence, I imagined that the courts would understand the meaning of that phrase and would find no difficulty in interpreting it.

I should certainly like local authorities to be encouraged by the Government to take in lodgers. Indeed, such action is encouraged by the Government by circular. However, I want it to be on a statutory basis. It would give a boost to the process of local authorities changing their traditional attitudes. There will be no opportunity now for the Minister to reply. But I should be interested to know how many local authorities have formally changed their position on the taking in of lodgers and whether it is becoming a real trend in the attitude of local authorities.

The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington went on to Clause 6 and criticised the Bill for its rather vague wording. In fact, the wording was taken from the Department of the Environment's consultation paper on homelessness of April 1975: persons in their area, whether normally resident there or not, who have lost their home or are in imminent danger of becoming homeless. The Bill envisages that, in executing these duties, the local authorities would be guided by Ministers by circular. Indeed, that is specific to the Bill. The wording may be slightly different, but it is drawn from Government sources. In any case, it is seen as a general duty placed on local authorities to be interpreted under the guidance of Ministers by circular.

The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), from his tremendous experience, talked about housing in London. The hon. Gentleman made one point which is not directly relevant to the Bill but which I mention in passing. The idea that it is possible to restore into homes accommodation which has been built as offices is unrealistic. Hon. Members may recall a building called Telstar House, which was of some notoriety. When I was the Member for Paddington, South I tried hard with various schemes to have that office building converted to residential use. The cost of converting an office building into flats and residential accommodation is greater than building the residential accommodation ab initio. I imagined that the Co-operative movement, which owns one-third of Centre Point, might have made that point while that building remained empty for so many years had it been possible to convert it to residential accommodation at an economic level.

The hon. Gentleman attacked the provision regarding students. This is a matter which we can seek to improve in Committee. I know that my hon. Friend would not wish the Bill to fall simply because it was impossible to get general agreement on how to deal with the admittedly serious problem regarding students. There is a problem, and clearly the money will not be available in the immediate future for any great extension of the provision of halls of residence. We have, one way or another, to give a great deal of thought to and to find constructive solutions for the problems which students are increasingly facing.

When dealing with the second part of the Bill the hon. Gentleman said that these were steps which we would want to take to tackle the problem. I may have got the odd word wrong, but that was the tenor of his closing remarks. I am sure that, in those circumstances, he would wish us to give the Bill a Second Reading today so that it could move over to the Committee stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) made it clear, and reinforced the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge in opening the debate, that the Bill is not taking away or endangering existing rights. It is seeking in terms of future provision to make sure those anomalies and unfairnesses in the existing legislation are minimised. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, from his vast experience, accepted the benefits that the Bill would bring to the homeless.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) wanted to extend the priority groups referred to in Clause 7. I agree that that again is something that we ought to tackle in Committee. The disabled and other groups are deserving of consideration for inclusion in any list that we put into the Bill.

Time is catching up on me. I agree very much with the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) who said that residential landlords should be given encouragement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to let rooms in their houses. That would be an extremely important move forward.

I was disappointed with the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies). He and I have managed to work in harmony on both football and cricket pitches, and I was disappointed at his being so critical of our attempt to help the homeless. One is surprised when one comes into conflict inside the House with someone with whom one works well outside it. The hon. Gentleman believes that the decline of private landlordism and its rôle is inevitable and unstoppable, but that goes against the attitude of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, which is that we should make sure that the existing stock of private housing is used to the greatest possible degree to cope with the problems of homelessness and other housing problems that we face.

From the Minister we got tea and some sympathy but no hope that he could encourage his hon. Friends to give the Bill a Second Reading. I beseech them even at this late stage to think again about that. In giving the Bill a Second

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 31 (Majority for Closure).

Reading there is, after all, no commitment to pass it into law, and a Committee stage would at least give us a chance to debate these many problems in a constructive way and to contribute to the ultimate solution which the Government may, in time—although I am not very hopeful—be able to produce to these problems.

The main criticism of the Bill is of its piecemeal nature. I believe that the important point in this area, as in many others, is to make sure that we begin to take the right steps—small steps perhaps—in the right direction rather than wait months before we do anything.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)


Mr. Speaker

Mr. Ted Graham.

Mr. Lane

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 42, Noes 22.

Division No. 67.[...] AYES [4.0 p.m.
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Bell, Ronald Madel, David Sainsbury, Tim
Bottomley, Peter Moate, Roger Scott, Nicholas
Carlisle, Mark Moore, John (Croydon C) Silvester, Fred
Channon, Paul Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Sims, Roger
Costain, A. P. Neubert, Michael Sinclair, Sir George
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Newton, Tony Stanbrook, Ivor
Finsberg, Geoffrey Nott, John Stonehouse, Rt Hon John
Hayhoe, Barney Onslow, Cranley Weatherill, Bernard
Hordern, Peter Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Prior, Rt Hon James Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Hunt, John Rees-Davies, W. R.
Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Knox, David Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex) Mr. Ivor Lawrence and
Lamont, Norman Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Mr. Stephen Ross.
Lane, David
Armstrong, Ernest Freeson, Reginald Richardson, Miss Jo
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Ginsburg, David Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Buchan, Norman Graham, Ted Strang, Gavin
Carmichael, Neil Jeger, Mrs Lena Tuck, Raphael
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Corbett, Robin Maynard, Miss Joan TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Mikardo, Ian Mr. A. W. Stallard and
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Perry, Ernest Mr. Thomas Cox.
English, Michael Price, C. (Lewisham W)

It being after Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.