HC Deb 16 February 1977 vol 926 cc469-74
1. Mr. Michael Morris

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment why he has announced another review of housing, this time on private rented accommodation.

7. Mr. Durant

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he is satisfied with the working of the Rent Acts.

23. Mr. Onslow

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to draw the Consultation Paper "Review of the Rent Acts" to the attention of home owners in the Armed Services.

24. Mr. John Hunt

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what specific steps he is taking to obtain the views of students, nurses, teachers and other single and newly-married young people currently suffering from the effects of the shortage of rented accommodation in central London and other cities, on the contents of his consultation paper "Review of the Rent Acts."

25. Mr. Luce

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from landlords of privately rented property in the current year in connection with the operation of the Rent Act 1974.

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

The intention to review the Rent Acts was announced by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment, the present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, on 20th November 1975, following an undertaking that I gave to do so in July 1974 when we were debating the Rent Act 1974. We have always made it clear, as we have in the consultation paper, that the Rent Act review would be related to, but separate from, the main housing policy review. In the review I am ready to examine suggestions for changes in the Rent Acts and associated legislation, subject to the major proviso that the general principle of security of tenure for the tenant in his home is to be maintained. The consultation paper has been circulated to individuals and organisations within and outside Government and I shall gladly send copies on request to those who wish to contribute and who have not already received the paper.

Mr. Morris

Does the Minister now accept that in London thousands of empty houses and flats are being kept off the market by his Rent Act? Can the House have an undertaking that the legislation mentioned in the consultation document will be presented to the House in good time for it to become law within this Session?

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Rent Act, but there are several Rent Acts, to which both parties have been committed at one stage or another. As to thousands of properties being empty, the only figures that we have, upon which to base a broad assessment, are those provided by the 1971 Census, which preceded the 1974 Act. In London it was estimated that about 90,000 dwellings—that is, less than 4 per cent. of the total housing stock—were empty on the night of the Census, and that is probably roughly the figure to date.

Mr. Durant

Does the Minister realise the effect that the 1974 Act has had on accommodation for single persons in growing towns, such as Reading, where such accommodation is essential to the university? Is he aware that 18 students who started at the university last year were sleeping on camp beds because they could not find suitable accommodation?

Mr. Freeson

For many years past there have been students in such situations in universities all over the country at the start of term. As to the effect of the Rent Act 1974 on housing for single people in Reading, I should be glad to receive more than generalisations and to have information sent to me by the hon. Gentleman. I should welcome that.

Mr. Hunt

Does the Minister realise that the young people to whom I refer in my Question have strong views on the Rent Acts because those Acts have virtually dried up the supply of rented accommodation upon which they previously depended? Although the Government are now showing stirrings of concern, does the Minister recall how, monthly, he stood at the Dispatch Box and airily dismissed warnings from the Opposition Benches as party propaganda? Does he not feel shame and guilt at his past inaction and complacency?

Mr. Freeson

Taking one Act at a time, the 1968 Act—which dealt with unfurnished accommodation, and which was a revision and consolidation of the 1965 Act—was not only maintained under the previous Administration; at the appropriate election times, public declarations were made by the Conservative Party that it did not intend to revoke that Act. So all sides must be responsible for the Rent Acts.

On the substance of the point, I still do not accept that the problem of the shortage of rented accommodation has arisen since 1974. It is nonsense to suggest that it has. It has been a problem of varying patterns, and for many years past there has been an annual loss of about 100,000 rented dwellings from the market. The biggest rise in that figure occurred after the passage of the 1957 Rent Act, which decontrolled properties.

Mr. George Rodgers

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decline in the number of properties to let in the private sector has nothing to do with the security of tenure provided by the 1974 Act? Is it not true that the removal of similar protection in the 1957 Act did nothing to increase the number of properties available for letting at that time, and has not the decline continued for the greater part of this century?

Mr. Freeson

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I urge hon. Members to remember that in examining these matters we require a good deal more than generalisations and slogans. We need to analyse what is happening in the housing market. There is no doubt, for example, that a major contributory factor has been the welcome growth in owner-occupation. In some years, 40 per cent. of the movement into owner-occupation has come from people who were previously in rented properties. This is not a consistent figure, but it is a factor that must be taken seriously into account.

Mr. Rossi

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that although there is no direct statistical evidence, there has been a worsening of the situation since July 1974, and that there is evidence of a withdrawal of letting accommodation, or a shift by landlords to holiday lettings, bed and breakfast, or lettings simply to foreigners and not British people, because of the effect of the 1974 Act? Will he therefore consider some of the propositions put forward by the Opposition to encourage landlords to let empty property, including fixed-term lettings or short holdings, because the need is to provide homes for people and to encourage rather than discourage letting?

Mr. Freeson

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will prepare a full statement on behalf of his party or himself and other interested people in regard to proposals for changes in the Rent Act. They will be seriously considered. On the first part of his question, I repeat that generalisations are not good enough. I always recognised, even before we introduced the 1974 Act, that there would be some disincentive to some landlords when conditions were imposed on lettings. This is a natural part of life. However, I said then, and I maintain, that the 1974 Act together with the Acts of 1965 and 1968 have saved far more dwellings from going out of the rented market than they have lost to that sector. The Acts have stopped a lot of compulsory movement out of rented accommodation which would then have been lost to the rented market.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will my hon. Friend give more attention to the needs of tenants and less attention to the pressure from the landlords' lobby opposite? In particular, will he note some of the exorbitant rents now being fixed by rent assessment committees, which are raising rents almost automatically every three years? Will he continue rent control for those who live in houses without amenities and continue, as he says in his document, to provide security of tenure for tenants?

Mr. Freeson

On my hon. Friend's last point, I have given that assurance at the Dispatch Box and in the consultative document. We stand by the principle of security of tenure. As for proposals for changing or maintaining the status quo of the detailed operation of the Rent Acts, we shall be considering this as part of the consultative process and the review. There is a need to simplify the Rent Acts and to do a number of other things. We have to take account of the point that my hon. Friend has raised about the criteria on which rents are being fixed by rent officers. My hon. Friend has quoted some extreme examples, and there is no doubt that they exist. On the other hand, there are some properties that are not being properly maintained, and we have to look at means of getting an adequate flow of resources to ensure that these properties are maintained and modernised.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has just come into the Chamber. As his Question is being answered with Question No. 1, I shall call him to put a supplementary question. Mr. Onslow.

Mr. Onslow

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not being here when the Minister made his original reply, but I have only just received notice that my Question was being taken with Question No. 1. Is the Minister aware that the Rent Act is having a very damaging effect for Service men? Is he aware that those who own their own homes are being put in a position of not daring to rent them, while those who wish to buy their own homes and finance them by renting are actively discouraged from that prudent course?

Mr. Freeson

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition. If people are in ignorance of the workings of the Rent Act, things can go wrong, but let me make it clear again that a home owner—a Service man or anyone else—who lets his home has an absolute right to repossession when he or a member of his family needs to occupy it, provided he has warned the tenant in the due form set out in the Act before the letting began. This matter was examined closely in Committee and the position was made clear then. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman advises anyone who comes to him with such a problem to act accordingly. I shall be glad to supply him with the appropriate information.

Mr. Onslow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.