HC Deb 12 July 1977 vol 935 cc381-9

Order for Second Reading read.

11.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Law Officers' Department (Mr. Arthur Davidson) rose

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On such occasions it is not normally the practice to call for the attendance of the Scottish Law Officers, but on this occasion there is a difficult legal problem arising since the Bill, had it been validated by the vote tonight, made legal certain operations that have been taking place since May 1977.

The fact that the Bill has not been passed and made into an Act means that operations that have been taking place since May are no longer legal. Thus. my demand for the presence of the Scottish Law Officers because some people who have innocently—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. All these are matters which can be pursued at some other time, but they are not matters for me. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that, whatever the Scottish Law Officers may do, I have no control over their activities.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has just totally denied the Minister's statement that my hon. Friend has said that there would not be a vote. When a Minister says that an Opposition Front Bench spokesman has made a statement and the Front Bench spokesman denies it, should not the Minister totally withdraw his accusation?

Mr. Harry Ewing

On a point of order. I understood that the point which the hon. Member for Cathcart rose to deny was my statement that hundreds of jobs would be at stake in Scotland—

Mr. Teddy Taylor


Mr. Ewing

Very well. If the hon. Member now accepts that hundreds of jobs will be at stake in Scotland and the point that he wishes to deny is that a commitment was given that there would be no official vote—

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

No official Whip.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I did not give that commitment.

Mr. Ewing

The hon. Member for Cathcart is now wriggling. This is an important issue. He is now saying that he did not give—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Unless we can hear what is being said, we are not spending our time to good effect.

Mr. Ewing

The hon. Member for Cathcart is saying that he did not give that commitment. I am saying, on the authority of one of my senior Whips, that a commitment was given that there would be no official vote on this Bill tonight.

Mr. Teddy Taylor rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Anything that happens through the usual or unusual channels in this House is not a matter for me. This business has been disposed of and I have called Mr. Arthur Davidson to move the next business.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I thank the Minister for at least accepting that I gave no commitment? On behalf of my hon. Friends I would say that no one in our party, I am assured, gave any assurance about an official vote—and in fact there was not an official vote.

Mr. Harry Ewing rose

Hon. Members

Out, out!

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is not a matter that we can pursue to any purpose—

Hon. Members

They cheated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is not a matter which we can pursue to any purpose at this time. We have moved to the next business. Mr. Arthur Davidson.

Mr. Arthur Davidson rose

Mr. Harry Ewing

No, no. On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With respect to you, if this issue is in dispute, it will be resolved through the usual channels. But the House should be perfectly clear that the understanding which I have been given is that an undertaking was given that there would be no official vote on this Bill tonight. Whatever the hon. Member for Cathcart says does not alter that fact. He is now saying that there was no official vote.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Whatever undertakings have been given or not been given are not matters for the Chair, and they will not be ventilated to any purpose any further. Mr. Arthur Davidson.

Mr. Arthur Davidson rose

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you just rule, simply and clearly, whether there is in this House such a thing as an official or an unofficial vote? My understanding is that there are only votes and that there is no such thing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. None of these matters is a matter for the Chair. Mr. Davidson.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

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

Interesting and important as this consolidation measure is, I hardly thought that it would come before such a large audience, which is now rapdily dwindling.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister tell us whether he is proceeding on the understanding that there will or will not be a vote?

Mr. Davidson

I am proceeding on the understanding that the House will welcome the Bill, which consolidates the 1968 Rent Act, which was itself a consolidation measure, and several subsequent enactments.

All those who have practised at the Bar or as solicitors will understand how complicated the Rent Acts are. They are exceedingly technical and complex, and for that reason alone this measure will be welcomed.

The Bill has involved the Law Commission in a great deal of work, and I pay tribute to it, and also to the draftsman. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

11.52 p.m.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

I was a member of the Joint Committee that considered the Rent Bill, and I had the honour to be chairman of one sitting. In view of the great importance of this legislation to millions of our citizens, I wish to add a few words.

I agree entirely that the House will welcome the Bill. It consolidates what are generally called the Rent Acts. It does not incorporate the Protection from Eviction Bill or the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. It consolidates a vast amount of rent legislation—the Rent Act 1968, the Housing Act 1969, the Housing Finance Act 1972, the Counter Inflation Act 1973 the Housing Act 1974, the Rent Act 1974, and the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975.

The Bill is an immense achievement by the draftsman, Mr. Caldwell. He has been able to consolidate all this legislation into one Bill, and all those who practise in the law owe him a great debt of gratitude. He has worked on this Bill for more than a year, and I pay tribute to him.

The Committee considered a whole series of recommendations from the Law Commission which drafted a detailed report on the Bill. The Committee considered all 16 recommendations and decided to adopt each one. None involves any substantial change in the law.

The work of the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills receives little attention from the general public or the House. Its work is laboured and technical, but it is of immense benefit to practitioners of the law and their clients. My main feeling after working on the Bill was that the whole rent legislation is unbelievable and intolerably complicated. I hope that one day Parliament will make it more comprehensive to a.11 those who are affected, either as landlords or as tenants.

The Rent Bill, which will receive its Second Reading tonight, has 156 clauses, 25 schedules, and contains more than 200 pages. These facts alone testify to the diligence of the draftsman and the artificial complication of this important subject. Having said that, I welcome the measure and hope that it receives a Second Reading.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I also wish to congratulate the draftsman on condensing volumes of legislation into one Bill. I am sorry it does not incorporate the measures included in the protection from eviction legislation, because it would have been preferable to have all the legislation in one measure, but I have no doubt that there are valid technical reasons for not including that Act. Perhaps when we debate the Criminal Law Bill tomorrow we shall discuss further provisions related to protection from eviction.

I welcome the Bill so far as it is a consolidation measure, but there is one point that I wish to raise since it appears to me that the Bill is substantively changing the law. Admittedly, it is doing so in accordance with the Law Commission's recommendations, but it changes the law in a manner that the House may wish to consider before approving the change.

I refer to Section 55(1)(a), under which rent can be increased not only in respect of a rental period but part of a rental period. The words in the section are or part of a statutory period". That wording appears to correspond with provisions in Section 7 of the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975. I understand the reason that the Law Commission recommended that the law should be changed in this way followed the Avenue Properties case. I do not wish to go into the technicalities of the matter in depth, but I am anxious to draw the Minister's attention and that of those who advise him to the point at issue.

The effect of the new wording in the Bill is that where a new rent is registered in the middle of a rental period notice can be served requiring increase in rent to take effect immediately. This could cause considerable inconvenience. I submit that the provisions of the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act, which restricted rent increases to the first rental period after the rent had been registered, are preferable in terms of convenience and in informing the tenant to make his arrangements to meet the additional financial commitment.

The Housing Rents and Subsidies Act was passed in the belief that under the Rent Act 1968 it was not possible to serve notice for an increase to take effect immediately and that those concerned would have to wait until the next rental period began. But in the light of the Avenue Properties case, the courts decided that it was possible to have such an increase. However, for these purposes that is immaterial. The point at issue is that the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act said that the notice of increase could have effect only when the next rental period began. We are now changing the situation so that the notice of increase in rent can take effect immediately.

This is an undesirable change, particularly in a period when there is some degree of income control. I believe that it would be preferable to leave the matter as it was—that is to say, that the notice of increase can take effect only at the beginning of the next rental period. It causes substantial inconvenience to increase rent in the middle of the rental period, since it involves calculations of apportionment and possible hardship to a tenant, who will have a shorter period in which to prepare for an increase.

It is not desirable in a consolidation measure to change the law in this way without some degree of consideration of the issues involved. I hope that it can be further considered in Committee whether it is desirable to include these words. However, I must emphasise that I sincerely welcome the Bill.

12 midnight.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I do not wish to oppose the Second Reading but I do not think that the occasion should pass without a strong protest about the fact that the Bill does not include another consolidation Bill now before the House. The whole object of consolidation is to enable practitioners and the general public to go to one source for their law.

We have before the House this very night two consolidating measures—this Bill and the Protection from Eviction Bill —dealing with the same subject. It may well be that some clauses in the smaller Bill, particularly Part II, will go unnoticed by those who read this Bill. What one might describe as standard provisions with regard to notices to quit do not appear in the Rent Bill, which, despite its name, itself deals with tenancies and conditions under which tenancies are held and determined. There are parts of the Rent Bill referring specifically to notices to quit under certain circumstances, yet there is no reference to the provisions of the other Bill.

When the Joint Committee considered these two consolidating measures it was assured that it so happened that the Protection from Eviction Bill had become ready first, and therefore it had to consider what had been done. Because of the time factor, it was not then possible for the Committee to incorporate the provisions of that Bill in the Rent Bill. But now we are purporting to pass one consolidating measure on a particular branch of the law and are asked to have it in two forms. That is not consolidation but is making the House something of a rubber stamp for the Law Commission.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) tonight is one that he has raised with my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, and I have written to my hon. Friend about it today. As he says, the Bill merely enacts a recommendation of the Law Commission, which took the view that there was a defect in the law as a result of the Avenue Properties case, a defect that should be corrected. Those advising me consider that the Law Commission's interpretation is correct, that there is a defect, and that the correct way to cure it is in the manner the Law Commission suggests. That view was approved by the Joint Consolidation Committee. It was certainly the view of the lawyers in the Department of Environment, those advising me in the Law Officers' Department and those in the Lord Chancellor's office. That is a fairly formidable array of legal opinion. However, as my hon. Friend said, the point is one more suited to debate in Commit tee. Knowing his pertinacity and persistence, I am sure that he will pursue the matter then, and I shall be happy to debate it with him.

I am sorry about the disappointment of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) that the Acts on protection from eviction were not consolidated in this Bill. He rightly said that immediately after the Bill now before us has been given its Second Reading we shall deal with the Protection from Eviction Bill, itself a consolidation measure. I am sure that he will agree that the Rent Bill is a massive consolidation measure in itself, containing 156 clauses and many schedules. The law may well be a little simpler if the Acts on protection from eviction are consolidated in a separate measure.

However, I am glad that general welcome for the Bill. I am sure that it will assist those with the laborious job of interpreting what is undoubtedly a most complex sphere of the law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Frank R. White.]

Committee this day.

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