HC Deb 15 March 1977 vol 928 cc233-6

4.11 p.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for the letting of residential properties on fixed terms; and for purposes connected therewith.

I am seeking the leave of the House to reintroduce the Bill which I introduced last Session, to give effect to the concept of shorthold tenancies.

I should like to begin by making it clear that I am not seeking to end security of tenure for any sitting tenant, nor for the majority of new tenancies, but to provide a reasonable legal framework under which people with premises suitable for letting for periods of a year or more, and people looking for houses or flats for a similar period, can reach an agreement that is fair and comprehensible to both parties and can be properly supervised by the appropriate authority. I am not seeking simply to revive the old leasehold concept, but to introduce something new, which will include a series of safeguards for the tenant which I hope will be sufficient to end any possibility of exploitation or abuse. I can give the House a list of these safeguards, and I would certainly be prepared to add to them in the light of constructive suggestions by hon. Members which would improve the Bill.

First, I would insist that a shorthold tenancy must only be created at the fair rent. The subject of fair rents is under discussion as a result of the Government's recent discussion paper; but I am not seeking in any way to enter that controversy. Like its predecessor, this Bill would only permit shorthold tenancies at the fair rent.

I would also insist that the premises must be at least equal to the standard set for discretionary improvement grants. That of course is a better standard than the minimum laid down by the Public Health Acts, and I recognise that it would have the effect of limiting the range of types of property for which shorthold leases could be created; but I think that we need to be certain that we are not going to bring on to the market premises which are not really habitable or of a minimum desirable standard.

I would provide that the sitting short-holder should have the first claim on any extension of the tenancy if the owner decided to offer the premises for letting again when the period of the shorthold came to an end. I would insist that the rent officer should be satisfied that both parties were aware of their rights before they signed. I should also like to provide that the rent officer should publish a list of premises which had been inspected and were considered suitable for shorthold letting: the list should certainly be open to public inspection. I would not object if the rent officer had the right to enter premises during the course of a tenancy in order to ensure that the property was being maintained at a reasonable standard.

I should like to make provision to cover the taking of deposits to make sure that there would be no possibility of exploitation there, or in regard to rent in advance; and also to provide for minimum notice periods. I consider that the shorthold contract should also provide a clear division of responsibility in regard to maintenance and repairs.

Many hon. Members in all quarters of the House and many experts outside have told me that they see merit in a reform on the' lines of my Bill, but I am certainly prepared to improve it or to change it. What I am seeking to do is to give hon. Members the opportunity to discuss the idea in detail and, I hope, in an uncontroversial atmosphere.

I would be happy to add further protection for the shorthold tenant. For instance, I know that it would be in line with the thinking of the Department if one were actually to define the cases in which the owner could resume possession. I have not sought to do so in the Bill, because to my mind such a provision could tend to limit its range of application too much; but I would not hestitate to seek a compromise along these lines and I hope that the Department will be so good as to let me have specific recommendations that might be included in the Bill.

I would also be prepared to consider the possibility that the scheme might be applied only in certain areas where the problems of vacant properties and homelessness live glaringly side by side. This is a particluar problem of Kensington and other parts of inner London, but I think that it applies in other inner urban areas in the country as well and that my Bill could have a useful general application.

I think that it is not denied that we now have a surplus of houses even in the housing stress areas, yet we have an increasing problem of homelessness and the very vexatious problem of squatting. I believe that squatting is often carried out by people who would be willing to enter into a proper form of lease and who could afford to pay at least the fair rent if they had the opportunity to do so.

But landlords are undoubtedly afraid of letting property which would be suitable to provide homes for periods of months or years, or, indeed, for many years. I believe that they would not be so afraid if they could have the confidence that when the time came that they needed to resume possession there would not be too much difficulty in their doing so.

The House has a duty to study this problem in the interests of common sense and also of humanity. I reject the view of hon. Members who feel that, rather than make any infringement at all on the principle of security of tenure, it would be better for people seeking accommodation to remain where they now are. I believe that it would be wrong for the House to take a stand on that ideal, when further research might show that a limited area of reform could bring great benefits.

I cannot calculate whether there might be hundreds of thousands of premises which would be brought on to the market as a result of the passing of a Bill on these lines, or whether it would be only tens of thousands. But even if it were only tens of thousands, it would be right for the House to make progress in that direction. I recognise that there are difficulties, and they will have to be overcome by meticulous study of the facts. Chairman Mao once said that to investigate a problem was to solve it. I think that this is a problem which the House can and ought to solve.

I trust, therefore, that the House will allow me to reintroduce my Bill, and thereby give hon. Members who are interested in housing problems the opportunity to go into the idea more fully. I hope also that the Bill may proceed at least to the Committee stage before this Session ends.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Brandon Rhys Williams, Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. Peter Brooke, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Reginald Eyre, Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg, Mr. David Knox, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. Michael Shersby and Mr. Cyril D. Townsend.