§ 4.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Watkinson (Gloucestershire, West)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide security of tenure for council house tenants; and for connected purposes.The first point that needs to be made is that council house tenants are the most significant group of occupiers in our society who do not have security of tenure. The owner-occupier has always enjoyed a large measure of security. Parliament has extended that security to tenants of furnished and unfurnished accommodation and recently extended it to those living in agricultural tied cottages.
462 It is not as if council house tenants were a small minority in our community. There are more than 6 million tenants in council houses, and many more if one includes their families. As the law stands, these tenants can do little to resist an application from a council for eviction.
I do not think that it is necessary to deploy general arguments to justify the need for security of tenure. It is basic to any civilised society that people should feel secure in their own homes. The drive for home ownership and the struggle in Parliament for the extension of security of tenure bear adequate testimony to the need for security in home occupation. The time is ripe to extend security to council house tenants.
It has been and will be objected that council tenants are not in the same precarious position as tenants in the private sector formerly were. It can be argued that in fact tenants already have security of tenure in so far as councils rarely use their power of eviction unfairly, and if they do so, they run the risk of a blaze of adverse publicity. But such orders are not as rare as some people believe. Last year more than 30,000 such applications for possession of council property were considered in the county courts.
The vast majority of these cases stem from rent arrears. Other causes arise, such as nuisance or under-occupation, but the principal problem is that of rent arrears. I do not wish to belittle this problem. I emphasise that in bringing forward the Bill I am not offering a charter for rent avoiders. Security of tenure would be on the same basis as exists in furnished and unfurnished tenancies, and thus non-payment of rent would be a ground for eviction.
But at the same time I urge on the House the need for a deeper consideration of the whole question of rent arrears. It is as well to remember that in many instances of rent arrears we are dealing with the poorest of the poor. It is a question not only of rent arrears but of failure to take up benefits to which people are entitled.
The basic requirement is to adopt systems which can help to identify the non-payer and take early action before the debt becomes too large and eviction is ordered. Fortunately, we have moved on from the time when an order for 463 possession could be made in the magistrates' court at the drop of a hat. Now county court proceedings have to be taken. But the brute fact is that in law a council can seek an order for possession and, ultimately, the court has no option but to grant it. This situation should be changed.
A measure to extend security to council tenants is timely and warranted for the following reasons. First, it will limit the unfettered power of councils to obtain eviction orders. It will not stop their getting an order if a case can be made out, but it will mean that the tenant can put his case and know that there is a genuine option available to the court. At present courts are largely enforcers in this sphere, and anyone who has seen, as I have, the sausage machine of eviction orders in the county court knows that the present procedures are unsatisfactory.
Secondly, the measure should force the Government and local authorities to reconsider the problems surrounding rent arrears and the issuing of notices to quit. Notice to quit must remain, but it is vital that tenants be given the clearest indication of the consequences of their actions.
Thirdly, extension of security of tenure could lead to a more productive relationship between tenants and councils. It should remove what seems to me to be a nineteenth-century relationship, and I hope that it will produce a more equal partnership between councils and tenants. It should lead to a review of the sometimes bizarre and humiliating conditions that council tenants have to accept and breach of which could technically lead to eviction. Too many of these agreements contain, as Lord Denning has said in the Court of Appeal, paragraph after paragraph of the obligations on council tenants and not a word about the responsibilities of the councils themselves.
464 Fourthly, it will answer a call that is coming increasingly loudly from tenants' associations. Indeed, at a recent meeting in London of the National Tenants' Conference the delegates placed security of tenure as the first of their goals.
Fifthly, by this measure we shall protect people from unfair and unwarranted eviction. I do not claim that councils use their powers in a punitive manner—far from it—but there are instances of unfair eviction, and Parliament has always sought to protect the weak against the strong.
In bringing forward this measure I know that I am knocking at an open door as far as the Government are concerned. It could hardly be otherwise when one considers that this commitment was entered into in the 1974 manifesto. I hope that that commitment will be inserted in the long-awaited housing policy review.
The Bill is a reminder and a goad to the Government to follow through the undertaking given to the electorate in 1974. It has the added attraction that it should not cost a great deal of money.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Watkinson, Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mr. Bruce George, Mr. Peter Hardy, Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth and Mr. Arthur Latham.